We didn’t head out of Perth until around 1.30pm. Two girls, one severely jet lagged (a day after flying in from the UK) and the other just fairly useless when it comes to practicalities; filling up and trying to work out what we could cook on a camping stove from Woolworths takes a fair old while it turns out (supernoodles and mashed eggs was as far as our imaginations reached). Finally, we set out north along the first of many incredibly long, heart-sinkingly straight roads; you crest a hill hoping for a bend but in WA’s flat landscape all you see is the black road etched straight, further than your eyes can see. In fact, the road often disappears into a heat mirage of blue, green and black swirls so you have no idea what you’re really looking at, just hoping it might conceal a bend!
We overshot our first stop, the Pinnacles Desert National Park by 45 minutes, turning the supposed 2-hour journey into 3 and almost missing the last entry for the park! The Pinnacles were pretty sick though; tall, sudden spears of rock stabbing out from the molten gold sands of the desert. They’re made of the skeletons of ancient marine creatures from when the land here used to be sea bed and trust me, you would not want to accidentally sky dive into the area! We drove our 4×4 round the rough stone track for an hour or so, and although the strange rocks are certainly beautiful, once you’ve seen a few, you’ve seen them all. If we’d arrived with more time to spare before sunset, there is a walk you can take through the park to stretch your legs, but we settled on the view point from which you can see the high coastal dunes, a barricade to the sea, and the Pinnacles erect before you, saluting your presence.
On a positive note, we’d out-run Perth’s relentless downpour (or so we thought), but were nowhere near the closest Wiki Camps free camp spot. This was a bit of a downer as, on the advice of the Cervantes roadhouse attendant, we had pulled up in the Cervantes Information Bay, hauled our worldly belongings into the front seat of the car and settled down for the night, only to have a horn beeped at us and a lady shout angrily that we’d earn ourselves a $1000 fine if we didn’t move on. Having put the fear of God into Livi about driving at night, (making me the cool, dangerous, older sister who sometimes rebelled and did it anyway) she wasn’t keen to drive the hour into the pitch black night, to the deserted campsite through the now steady rain (you’ve seen the film). But we had no choice. Trundling off at 50kmph, with headlights that barely lit the road edges, we finally found the roadside clearing complete with the whines, howls and hoots of the wilderness; a 72 hour, self-contained rest area where we locked ourselves into Sweet Pea, drew her curtains and hoped to make it through to daylight! With Fargo and Wolf Creek running through my mind, I was at least glad that the gap-toothed, straggly bearded, barely literate roadhouse attendant no longer knew where we were; perhaps total isolation was preferable, even with no emergency signal to send an ‘I love you, goodbye’ message to mum or dad.
I’m here to tell the tale, so clearly we survived. We woke up with no bloody handprints on the windows, no weirdo neighbours (some company would have been nice really) and – most important of all – no spider invasion. Being British, most of our camping gas went on boiling the kettle, so we boiled up some tea to steel us for our first full day on the road – Yorkshire for me Lady Grey for Livi; tea bags, tampons and gin being the luxuries I requested Livi brought over with her!
The rain doggedly followed us north, so we hurried through Jurien Bay and on to the Leusure National Park which was bathed in sunlight, beyond the line of threatening clouds. Half an hour out of town, then 10 minutes on a gravel track later, we came upon a pulled over blue sedan and 4 men barricading the road, just 10 minutes from the park turn off! As we approached they made no sign of letting us through. Besides night driving, I’d been warned off stopping for anyone who looked remotely dodgey on my way up the west coast, with stories of people being beaten up and the assailant driving off, leaving them for dead. Luckily Livi was driving, as I’m awful in a time of crisis and would probably have ended up running them down in my confusion of whether to stop, speed up or turn around. We’d not yet worked out the old style hand-break (Pea was a 1994 model Toyota truck) so the 180° turn we threw wasn’t as impressive as some I’ve seen (on the small screen), but essentially we turned tail and fled in a cloud of dust, locking all our doors in the process. As they disappeared in the review view mirror, guilt began to niggle that maybe they’d just innocently broken down, so once we found signal I called the police to check it out; that way either salvation or justice would reach them.
Leusure was substituted with Stockyard Gully National Park and our first attempt at off-roading. As a rule, Livi and I never plan or research anything (unless it’s sharks, snakes or spiders – then Livi’s all over it!) and 4WDing was no exception. We hit the sand track and Livi wanted to engage 4WD, but I confidently ploughed on saying there would be a sign to tell us when we needed to change over… maybe that’s the case down in populated Margaret River, but it definitely wasn’t up here! So we were already pretty deep in sand by the time I relented and risked getting stuck if we stopped. As we found out later, in our very useful post adventure research, it was extreme 4WD conditions, so we didn’t really have much choice but to risk stopping, flick the tyres and switch over. Pea did us well though and got us to the gorgeous Eden of the gully; thick, flourishing greenery lining the shady walls of the shallow gully and a tunnel of cool air flow, a delicious respite from the desert heat and shrubs above. We followed the dry river bed (this would become a theme, countless rivers where even during winter there’s not a drop of water in sight) past the creamy trunks blotched with papery, brown peeling bark and the honey combs of bees nests thrumming with the monotone buzz of a busy hive.
The gully culminated in the gaping mouth of a cave whose walls, from even just a few meters inside, were barely touched by the sun’s rays, and plunged you into complete darkness. Ever unprepared, neither of us had a torch, however an older man who had come in behind us, offered to guide us through using his light. I know what you’re thinking; we didn’t stop for the guys with the broken down car, but we will follow an old man into a cave in the middle of nowhere… if push came to shove, I reckon together we could have taken him down. We can have only been walking a couple of hundred meters before sunlight reappeared and the green oasis continued beyond the rocky frame and no daggers or choroform had been produced.
We didn’t emerge where we thought we would and with no signal for maps, we wouldn’t have made it back to the cars through the maze of the bush with pretty much only animal tracks as paths without the help of this guy. English countryside and national trust woodland really doesn’t prepare you for the Australian bush! It turned out he was heading back the way we’d both entered, but we wanted to keep heading north to save time, on a track which only showed up on one of our maps (and was a dotted line at that), so whether it ever actually joined the main road was debatable. He left us with the parting advice, if you get stuck just let the tyres down, ‘yep yep, of course’ and we drove off.
The road deteriorated quickly, littered with jagged rocks, some of which were hidden in the sand, but we still felt them rip at Pea! At this point we questioned what he meant by “let the tyres down” and wished we’d asked him to explain, but we weren’t yet stuck and ploughed on. An hour later, and almost in tears we reached the road, the only damage done was a rip to our spare tyre from scraping over a rock that was just a bit too high (if you do the same, please take my advice and get this fixed before heading onwards!). Lake Indoon (the most luxurious free campsite of our trip; BBQ’s, toilets, showers and a beautiful site) was just around the corner and boy were we relieved to make it!
Two days later, we arrived in Kalbari after an eventful passing through Geraldton, where we were warned Pea was about to fall to pieces by a car parts salesman who never once lifted his eyes from my boobs. We were strongly advised not to head any further north before she had visited a mechanic. We found an old man who liked tinkering with cars; he drove her round and proclaimed her sound for our trip so we carried on regardless (a good thing as we would have wasted two days in tacky Geraldton waiting for a garage to open!). Rural Australian’s are life savers when you’ve got car trouble; most fix up their own cars and are more than happy to help a road tripper out. We had help with everything from engine bits, to how to keep our eski cold, to yanking the stubborn folding seats down.
I’ve still not got my head round a National Park being anything other than a forest, but the arid, sparsely folliaged landscape of Kalbari is inspiringly beautiful (get yourself a $46 month pass for all WA National Parks). Vast gorges, whose rivers have gnawed and rasped at the red rock for thousands of years to scar the land with plateaus, bends and valleys that will be seared into your memory. Wandering the ledges above them, the rock seems as if a child with rainbow poster paint clad hands has run along grazing the rock with their fingers leaving imperfect streaks of blues, yellows, reds and oranges.
Follow the hungry river down to the sea and the coastal cliffs are equally impressive. Here the palate of colour runs into the deep blue violence of the Indian Ocean. In-land walks will take you to Nature’s Window, which gives a soft frame to the harsh landscape and the Z bend where you can walk all the way down to the river at the gorge base. A coastal path takes you past a land bridge and spikes of headland which cause the sea to snarl at their intrusion. The recommended time for these walks is always exaggerated, I’m not a fast walker but I usually do them in half the time, but make sure you take plenty of water, northern WA is very hot and very dry.
Our last stop on week 1 was to be Monkey Mia and we found two treasures before the split from the mainland onto the spit that contains Shark Bay and Monkey Mia. Port Gregory boasts Hutt Lagoon, a huge pink lake that lies below sea level and is prevented from escaping into the ocean by a barricade of sand dunes. Neither of us had heard of the pink lakes so we had to stop and explore! The vibrant unnatural pink is caused by halobacteria (Dunaliella salina) which thrive off the super salty water trapped in the lake so you’d float pretty nicely if you went for a dip, but the receding water line left a treacherous bog around the lake edge, preventing us getting too close.
A little further up the road, we found the Lynton Homestead, an old convict depot at the end of a road lined with trees bent horizontal by the incessant easterly winds rolling in off the ocean. An old barn houses farming relics including jars of preserved snakes and lizards and cowboy style hats you wouldn’t want to try on for the spiderwebs encasing them. Stroll up the hill for a view from the old land owner’s house; its higher vantage point gives a beautiful view out over the tall dunes and onto the restless ocean, a small consolation in what must have been a very lonely life!
Hamlin Pools marked the turn off from the main land and is home to the most primitive life on earth (and no, it’s not the aussies!) – stromatolites. The colonial era style settlement was nothing more than three ancient buildings and a caravan park; I thought we’d walked into a living history museum and half expected a handsome cab to roll up behind a team of horses! You reach the stromatolites by a walk through the dunes, past two lonely graves marked with wild flowers defying the strong winds and onto a board walk (we must not mingle with our less evolved relatives). The stromatolites appear to be bubbles of rock erupting like a disease from the shallow sea bed, but they’re actually formed from layers and layers of these single celled organisms. To my eye they held little interest, but the view out over the ocean is always peaceful and calming and the creamy white of the sands behind us was lovely to walk on, the millions of little shells which give it its colour, crunching satisfyingly beneath our feet.
Monkey Mia wasn’t the town we had expected. Nobody actually lives there, but the tourists and those who accommodate their needs. Having just joined the RAC (a compromise to getting Pea checked by a mechanic) we stayed at a discount rate in the RAC caravan park and spent the evening drinking with two other backpackers in their camp kitchen; Livi’s first taste of goon, and it didn’t sit too well either!
The place is famous for its inquisitive dolphins who come in to the shallows each morning, so despite hangovers, we were on the beach at 7.30am waiting for them to appear. Unfortunately, so we’re about 50 other people. Although it’s not the most individual experience, apparently they can get up to 300 people packed into the small section of beach, it was fascinating to see the dolphins so close up, gliding up and down the line of humans, a beady eye out of the water checking us out. Only the females are fed, and only certain females at that, and of those, only two had shown up the morning we arrived, so I didn’t expect to be lucky enough to be picked to feed them. Just watching them mess around like young children was more than enough.
By this point any vague plans we had bothered to make had been left by the wayside. It had taken us a week to make 850km, a leisurely pace that would ensure we never made it to Broome before Livi’s flight back to the UK. The essence of a road trip is to enter the unknown and have the freedom to explore whatever you feel like; even if it meant we only drove for 3 hours a day we stopped at every view point or interesting spot that took our fancy. We weren’t bothered about the end goal, we just wanted to enjoy ourselves. The wildness of WA lends itself to such unplanned adventure, with hours between towns and so much natural beauty to distract you, it’s easy to stray off course. To steal a quote from Christopher McCandles ‘there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.’ It doesn’t matter if that horizon is the one you had planned to make the day before, or one you found by getting hopelessly lost. Don’t waste time fretting about plans and schedules; just get out there and get moving; see things you never expected to see and I promise you will have one of the most incredible travel experiences possible.
(Part 2 up in a fortnight)
Times aren’t relative to the distance we covered, it can be done much faster but we tend to stop at every possible view point or site of interest!
Day 1: Perth to Cervantes, 4hrs (Pinnacles Desert). Stayed at Tuarts Reserve, self contained, free.
Day 2: Cervantes to Lake Indoon, 5.5hrs (Jurian Bay, Leusure National Park, Molar Hill Lookout, Stockyard Gully). Stayed at Lake Indoon, free with toilets, showers (cold) and BBQ.
Day 3: Lake Indoon to Geraldton, 7hrs (Wildflower Caravan Walk, Green Heads Dynamite Bay, Dongara, Greenough). Stayed in Geraldton Esplanade Carpark, 24 hour stop, no tents, toilets near by, free.
Day 4: Geraldton to Kalbari, 4hrs (Port Gregory pink lake, Lynton Homestead). Stayed at Murchison Caravan Park, £38 for an unpowered site.
Day 5: Kalbari to Monkey Mia, 9hrs (shark Bay, Hamlin Pools, Shell Beach). Stayed at RAC dolphin Resort £38 without RAC membership, £28 with for two people on an unpowered spot.