About eight hours later, having decided to take what looked on our map to be the scenic route along the wonderfully named Wannaroo Road we were less than a quarter of the way there in a small seaside town called Lancelin. We had stopped there for refreshments and decided to have a little look around. It was as though the place was in a time warp, everything there, the architecture, the cars, the layout, the toys laying in peoples white picket fenced front gardens looked as though it had come straight out of small town America in the 1950’s.
When we returned from our little stroll it became apparent that the battery needed changing in the van. I knew this for two reasons. The first was that the engine wouldn’t so much as turn over, no matter start and the second was that when I lifted up the seat to see the engine, there was acid visibly leaking out of the battery. Luckily batteries are not hard to source and we were back on the road in half an hour.
As it happened Lancelin was the end of the road we had taken. In our naivety we had thought it would make for a more pleasant trip if we followed the coast all the way rather than cutting inland through the desert interior on the misleadingly named North Western Coastal Highway. Having grown up in England where all roads lead to Rome and therefore most roads eventually lead to most other roads we had expected to be able to do this with reasonable ease. As it eventually turned out though, we were forced to turn around and go back on ourselves, rejoining the highway at Gingin and adding a not insignificant 200 km onto our trip.
One thing that did go our way was that fourth gear finally settled its differences with first second and third and decided to move back into the gearbox, massively improving our fuel consumption and finally allowing us to hold a conversation in the front of the van without having to bellow over the cacophony of the engine straining to cruise at eighty in third gear.
Driving along the North Western Coastal Highway we got our first taste of the Australia that you see in photographs. The vast, empty, red-sand desert that whether you are a professional photographer or a humble tourist pointing and clicking, your pictures will be instantly recognisable. Iconic even. This is nothing to do with the eye of the photographer, nor the rapid advancement in photographic technology in recent years. It is a testament to the landscape. The prehistoric vistas that show so little and yet give so much. Unchanged, untouched and undisturbed by nothing except the elements for literally millions of years. Nothing can be seen that cannot be attributed to the work of some natural force, more powerful and more permanent than anything that man could ever create or indeed destroy. You get the impression that the great deserted interior of Australia is timeless. Unchanged, and to a large extent unchangeable, and therein lies the power that it holds over so many people. The reason why people keep going there, and the reason why people keep coming back.
The highway itself has a similar effect, stretching endlessly into the distance until it becomes one with the landscape and the sky. Traffic is almost non-existent. You feel completely alone. In fact you pretty much are completely alone.
As our journey continued and the sun began to set, the size of the country began to dawn on us. We had been driving all day and we were still not even half way to Monkey Mia. At this point we decided to stop at Geraldton, another small town that appeared to have opted to remain in the 50’s with Lancelin. So at midnight we trundled into town, parked up on a campsite called Bel Air Gardens and went to sleep.
In the morning we took a walk into town where we discovered that the town is famous for its nearby shipwreck the Batavia and the stunning wild flowers that grow in the surrounding countryside. And that Heath Ledger was born there. The story of the Batavia is one that is worth taking a little time to recount.
On 29 October 1628, the Dutch East India Company’s ship the Batavia set off for the Dutch East Indies on her maiden voyage under the command of opperkoopman or senior merchant François Pelsaert and Captain Adriaen Jacobsz. Onderkoopman or junior merchant Jeronimus Corneliz, who was fleeing the Netherlands to avoid arrest for heresy, was also on board.
Whilst on board, Jacobsz and Cornelisz hatched a plan to hijack the ship and steal the gold and silver on board. During the voyage Jacobsz deliberately steered the ship away from its convoy. Jacobsz and Cornelisz had already assembled a group of men and arranged to attack a young female passenger on the ship in order to provoke Pelsaert into disciplining the crew. They hoped that they could recruit more crewmembers to their cause by persuading them that his discipline was too harsh and ultimately spark a mutiny. However, Pelsaert did nothing.
On 4th June, 1629 the ship ran aground on a reef near Beacon Island off the coast of Western Australia. Of the three hundred and forty one on board, most were transferred to nearby islands but 40 drowned. They found no fresh water and no reliable source of food on the islands and so leaving 268 people behind, a group including the captain, senior officers, a few crewmembers, and some passengers, left the islands in the ships longboat in search of fresh water. Having no luck on the mainland, they headed north to the city of Batavia, now Jakarta. Their journey is now considered to be one of the greatest navigation feats of the age, taking thirty-three days without a single casualty. Pelsaert was then sent back to rescue the other survivors. He arrived two months later only to discover that a mutiny had taken place.
Cornelisz knew that if he reached Batavia, Pelsaert would report the impending mutiny and Jakobsz would put the blame on him and so he planned to hijack the rescue ship and escape. He then, somewhat optimistically, planned to start a new kingdom. For this, he needed to eliminate any opposition. Although Cornelisz never killed anybody himself, he persuaded his followers to murder a total of 125 men, women, and children, having sent a group of soldiers to a nearby island under false pretences.
Pelsaert arrived just as Cornelisz’s men were trying to eliminate the remaining group, and after a short battle overpowered them. He decided to try the mutineers before returning to Batavia and so the worst offenders were taken to Seal Island and executed. Cornelisz had both hands chopped off and was then hanged along with several others. Two minor offenders were marooned on the mainland. The remainders were tried in Batavia, where most were executed after being flogged, keelhauled and dropped from the yard arm. Cornelisz’s second in command was broken on the wheel, a horrific affair involving being lashed to a wagon wheel and having each limb repeated broken before being woven between the spokes of the wheel. Then, sometimes with the accused still living, the wheel would be hoisted into the air for birds to eat the twisted remains. Despite being tortured, Jakobsz did not confess to his part in planning the mutiny, and thereby escaped execution through lack of evidence. It is thought that he died in prison in Batavia. Pelsaert was held partly responsible for what happened because of lack of authority. Of the 341 on board the Batavia, only 68 finally made it to port.
And so Geraldton has not always been the peaceful postwar oasis that it is today although little more than a small museum and a handful of street names remain to remind us of its gruesome history.
We left town on the 15th September and carried on heading north towards Monkey Mia, stopping off on the outskirts to take a look at the sea of lilac-tinted wild flowers that carpeted the landscape surrounding the town. This time we knew how far we were going to have to travel and which road we had to travel on which put us in a confident frame of mind. En route I was adamant that we must stop at a place called Hamelin Pool, home to what are reliably thought to be the oldest creatures on earth. Sure their appearance is not so much as notable, no matter spectacular, but as is often the case their appeal lies not in their aesthetics but in the story they have to tell. And theirs is the oldest story in the world.
You see the rocks in Hamelin Pool aren’t quite what they appear to be. They are in fact so very important that they were a major contributing factor to the inscription of Shark Bay as a world heritage site in 1991. In fact they are not really rocks at all. They are Stromatolites, the oldest living organisms on the planet. The water of Hamelin Bay is twice as saline as usual sea water due to a sand bar across the Bay’s entrance and rapid evaporation from the shallow water. Most living animals, which feed on the bacteria and algae which make up the stromatolites cannot survive in such conditions. As a result stromatolites can grow here undisturbed at the almost incomprehensibly slow pace of between 0.05mm and 0.3mm a year. Some of them are up to a metre high making them thousands of years old. They have played what is likely to be the most important role in the history of the planet. You see the organisms which construct stromatolites are photosynthetic. They absorb carbon dioxide and water to produce carbohydrates, and as a fortuitous by-product of this, oxygen is released into the atmosphere.
When stromatolites first appeared on earth an astounding 3.5 billion years ago there was virtually no oxygen in the atmosphere. It was through the excruciatingly slow release of oxygen into the atmosphere by the stromatolites that almost all other life on earth was able to develop. In the words of Dr Phillip Playford, a man who has dedicated a huge amount of time to the study of stromatolites;
“It’s a humbling thought that all life on this planet could have started from something so simple as the blue-green algae which created these rocks millions of years ago.”
Sadly there are very few sites like this left, partly due to other creatures who consume the bacteria and algae which allow the stromatolites to form, and partly because they are so fragile. This fragility is illustrated by the tracks of a horse drawn wagon which passed over the area over a hundred years ago which are still as visible today as they were when they were first made. Because of this a jetty has now been constructed to allow the stromatolites to be viewed without doing them any further damage.
Having spent an hour or so being made to feel irrevocably insignificant by nothing more than a collection of rocks we hopped back into the van and headed on towards Monkey Mia. About twenty five kilometres before you arrive at Monkey Mia, you come to a tiny town called Denham. We stopped there to fill up with petrol but were so taken with its charm that we decided to stay for a couple of nights. We sought out a campsite, settling for the beautiful seclusion of Shark Bay Caravan Park, parking the van up about twenty feet from the tide line. The beach was a sensational white sanded, tropical paradise like you see in the brochures for Caribbean holidays only at a very reasonable cost of $11 a night. The white sands stretched endlessly left and right as far as the eye could see, the shallow blue sea of Shark Bay lapping softly against the shining sands. It seemed inexplicable that such a place could have such a limited tourist industry with such an abundance of natural beauty. On the other hand, if too many visitors were to come then everything that makes it worth visiting could easily be lost forever and so a degree of restraint is required when exploiting the potential of such a place.
The name Shark Bay conjures up all sorts of images of buccaneers following faded maps to uncover buried treasures. In reality it doesn’t disappoint. Shark Bay was named in 1699 by the famous pirate and occasional privateer William Dampier. In 1699 Dampier was given command of HMS Roebuck with a commission to explore Australia and New Guinea.
Setting out in January 1699 by July he had reached the mouth of Shark Bay. In need of fresh water he followed the coast northeast, reaching the Dampier Archipelago and then Roebuck Bay, but finding none he bore north towards Timor. Then heading east he charted the Dampier Strait. On the return voyage to England, the Roebuck foundered near Ascension Island, a windswept and barren volcanic island in the middle of the South Atlantic 1000 miles off the coast of East Africa and famous in the modern day as the home of Wideawake airfield which was used as the platform for the launch of the first bombing raid on Port Stanley during the Falklands war. On 21 February 1701 they were marooned there for five weeks before being picked up by an East India Trading Company Ship and returned home in August 1701.Despite this shipwreck, Dampier was able to save many new charts of coastlines, trade winds and currents in the seas around Australia and New Guinea.
Dampier had a reputation as a cruel and ruthless man and has been remembered as such in many history books but his real legacy lies in his maps and charts. Dampier was a prolific and gifted cartographer. Any visit to the north western coast of Australia will reveal countless places bearing clues that Dampier passed through at some point.
Once we had closed our mouths and managed to drag our eyes away from the phenomenal view it was time to head down to the shop to get some bait and embark on our first fishing trip. Faye made it clear that although less than impressed by the frozen squid I had procured to use as bait, she would still join me on the jetty for a spot of fishing. However she did warn me that her reaction in the unlikely event that I actually caught a fish would be unpredictable at best.
This pessimistic attitude towards the outcome of my fishing trip had its roots in the fact that when I’d bought the bait, the shopkeeper had told me in no uncertain terms that it was the wrong time of day to go fishing and that I would be as likely to catch a fish in one of the many coconut palms which lined the border between bush and beach as the sea.
Momentarily considering saving myself the walk to the jetty and instead casting my line into a nearby tree, I decided to persevere with my original plan, purposefully pulled on my big leather hat and carried on along the seafront.
As I went on I was accosted by a further three people who inexplicably felt that I was interested in hearing their opinions on where and when I should go fishing and in no particular order told me that it was too cold, too windy and too early to catch a fish. By this point I had had enough of this. An hour before I planned to eat dinner seemed to me to be by far the best time to go fishing as then if I was lucky enough to catch anything then it would be as fresh as it possibly could be when I came to eat it. With this in mind, I took Faye by the hand, pulled the brim of my hat down so that no more of the local Rex Hunts could catch my eye and attempt to advise me on where, when and under what conditions I should go fishing.
In the end I needn’t have worried about the naysayers on the seafront as within twenty minutes of casting my line into the water I had caught my first antipodean fish. It was a shining silver Trevalli. I knew this because in spite of my disdain for the man I had watched my fair share of Rex Hunt fishing programmes in the past and as a result of this I also knew that he was one of the tastier fish in the ocean. He was admittedly a little bit on the small side but just the right size for a meal for one if combined with a few boiled vegetables so naturally I was ecstatic.
This lasted all of ten seconds until as I was removing the hook from its top lip I looked up to see Faye doing what appeared to be some sort of tribal rain dance. She was hopping from foot to foot, holding her head in her hands shouting unintelligibly at me. As we had yet to encounter any aborigines I was naturally curious as to where she had learnt such a dance so I put him down for a minute and asked her what on earth she was doing. Pointing at me accusingly she shouted;
“Are you going to eat that?!”
To which I replied that of course I was going to eat it as that had been the whole point of going fishing in the first place.
“You knew that was what I was going to do!” I exclaimed defensively.
“But I didn’t think you were actually going to catch anything!” she replied, becoming increasingly agitated. “Are you going to kill it? Oh God! You can’t kill it.”
So reluctantly I resigned myself to the fact that unless I could get rid of Faye for a few hours while I went fishing, the freshest fish I was going to be eating would be from the fishmongers and would cost me a lot more than the bag of semi rotten squid I had bought earlier for bait.
“O.K. I’ll put him back.” I said. “But at least take a picture of my first fish in Australia.”
“Alright.” She replied, “But be quick or he might suffocate. I’m sorry. I just couldn’t watch you eating something that I had already seen alive.”
And so the curse of the vegetarian girlfriend struck again and the luckiest fish in Australia returned to the sea for some more fortunate fisherman to catch again one day.
As we walked empty handed back to the van, one of the local Rex Hunts happened to be walking the other way. I forget now whether it was ‘too windy’, ‘too early’ or ‘too cold’ but whichever one it was, he looked at me with a smug smile and said,
“I told you, you won’t catch anything now mate.”
I just gave him my best ‘clueless tourist in a ridiculous hat’ smile and carried on.
In the end our evening repast was rather disappointingly vegetarian pasta bolognese. (It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t trevalli.) It was however livened up a great deal by the discovery of a white-tailed spider amongst our cooking equipment.
White-tailed Spider bites can cause initial burning pain followed by swelling and itchiness at the bitten area. Occasionally, weals, blistering or local ulceration have been reported – conditions known medically as necrotising arachnidism. As well as the spider’s venom, minor bacterial infection of the wound may be a contributory factor in such cases.
Obviously this doesn’t sound particularly exciting, more worrying, to the less well travelled reader but for us it was our first close encounter with one of the hordes of nasties for which Australia is so renowned. In truth I was a lot more interested than Faye, who has often wondered about my inexplicable and sometimes dangerous urges to get as close as I possibly can to any creature that I know can hurt or kill me. You will be better introduced to this sometimes dangerous behavioural idiosyncrasy later on.
After dinner we decided to find some alcohol somewhere. A short walk along the seafront took us to the brilliantly named ‘Swordfish Bar’ where we had a few beers and watched a still as yet unfathomable aussie rules football game. The décor was all wood panelling and huge stuffed fish with things like, ‘caught by Okker Steve, July 1974’ on engraved brass plaques below them. I half expected Richard Dreyfuss to burst in and tell everybody to stay out of the water because there was a shark problem. But then in a place called Shark Bay I’d be disappointed if there wasn’t a shark problem.
At half time a local bloke named Taylor or Noah or Trent or something equally as bohemian invited me to come and play pool with him before proceeding to unceremoniously hustle me to within an inch of the shirt on my back. I should really have known better having been hustled before in a strikingly similar bar in Canada but as ever if there is a chance to waste some money I will grab it with both hands. Just ask the taxi drivers in Hong Kong.
The following day little of note happened aside from my second encounter with something inherently dangerous. This time the critter in question was the famously deadly blue-ringed octopus. We were walking along the beach looking for a decent spot from which to fish when I came across it. Unfortunately for this narrative though the octopus had been washed up on the shore and although still alive was slowly dying in the hot sun. Being a thoughtful soul I would usually have returned it to the sea but I had nothing on my person to move it with besides my razor sharp filleting knife and although fascinated by obtaining close encounters with things that might reasonably kill me I usually draw the line at actually picking them up so instead I took a picture of it for my album of deadly creatures and went on my way.
After a few days spent in Denham enjoying the warm weather, beautiful beaches and excellent fishing, not to mention the contagiously slow pace of life, the time came for us to finally drive the final few kilometres to Monkey Mia where we had originally planned to go straight from Perth.
Monkey Mia was originally used as a base by pearl divers and fishermen in the nineteenth century. To this day the reason why it is so-called remains something of an enigma. It can be asserted that ‘Mia’ is the local aboriginal word for home or shelter. That much is clear. However there are several theories as to where the ‘Monkey’ part originated. Some say that it was named for a Schooner called ‘Monkey’ which was known to have been in the area in 1834 and quite possibly made port there. Others suggest that it is not the name of this ship that it bears but that of one of the pearl ships which sailed out from there in the latter part of the nineteenth century. None too conclusively the Nomenclature Advisory Committee of the Department of Lands and Survey believes that the most likely candidates for the name are the pet monkeys owned by early Malay pearl divers who were based there, the afore mentioned schooner or rather oddly that it is in fact a colloquialism for sheep.
In the 1960s, when returning from their excursions, a local fisherman and his wife began feeding the bottlenose dolphins that are fairly common to the area. Over time word spread that there were tame dolphins regularly coming inshore at Monkey Mia and a trickle of visitors began coming to see them. In the 1980s, an information centre was built, shortly followed by asphalt roads leading there, a campsite, restaurant and other facilities. No longer just a local point of interest, Monkey Mia became a tourist destination.
We parked up at the resort around midday and decided to take a look around. A quick walk around revealed little of interest bar an over priced restaurant, a swimming pool and a tennis court. Naturally, we decided that all of these things could wait (in particular the restaurant which is still waiting) and headed down to the beach to see the dolphins. On the beach there was a small crowd of people, all knee-deep in the sea and so we naturally assumed that the dolphins must be nearby. We were not disappointed. There in the shallows, rolling and diving, were three bottlenose dolphins.
We had hoped to swim with the dolphins but we were told that this practice had recently all but stopped as there was a risk that the calves which had recently arrived, much to the relief of the tourist operators who were worried that if the colony did not breed their livelihoods may be at risk, may follow the swimmers into the shallows and inadvertently beach themselves. Being ecologically minded as we are we decided not to risk it and settled for paddling with them instead.
Amongst the tourists was a very bronzed young lady whose name now escapes me, although that would be assuming that I ever knew it in the first place. She was telling the crowd gathered there about the success story that is Shark Bay and its associated conservation projects, the story behind the dolphins and about a little known creature called the dugong.
The dugong is a very special creature indeed. One of the last two remaining species of ‘sea cow’ (the other being the manatee of the Florida Keys), so called because they graze on beds of oceanic kelp, the dugong can be found along much of the West and North coasts of Australia. Sadly however, the species has been stumbling along the precipice of extinction for a number of years, partly due to the impact of increased commercial fishing, aboriginal hunting and a worrying (if you happen to be a dugong) propensity to be attacked by sharks.
Even in this ecologically enlightened age commercial fishing remains a law unto itself with some countries, in particular Spain and more relevantly in the case of Australian waters Japan almost completely disregarding the entire legislative framework put in place in order to regulate the industry and protect the environment. This leads to over fishing and depleted fish stocks all over the world, rendering the entire industry unsustainable simply as a result of its own greed. This situation is rather disappointingly mirrored in hundreds, if not thousands of industries the world over
This situation is not helped by ridiculous legislation regarding fish sizes. All fishing enterprises are given a quota in tons which they are allowed to take. In addition to this, all commercially caught fish must be above a certain size in order to be sold. This varies between species and is based on the breeding size of the fish. The thinking naturally goes that if only fish larger than they need to be in order to breed are sold then the fishing industry will remain sustainable. In theory this is sensible but in practice, as is often the case it most certainly is not.
As you probably already know, large scale commercial fishing uses huge nets to trawl the ocean. This means, although effective, is entirely indiscriminate of size, species etc. and so a great deal of fish are caught which are unsaleable and simply thrown back into the sea, by which time they are usually already dead. This means that the younger, undersized fish which are caught do not count towards the quota and so ultimately a great deal more immature fish are killed than would be if there was no regulation of size at all.
Often other species such as the dugong are caught in these nets as well and sadly the same fate befalls many of them as the immature fish which never reach market.
Aboriginal hunters traditionally speared dugongs from small canoes. Large animals with a high density of muscle and fat they are a coveted prize for any hunter gatherer. Unsustainable hunting and fishing is never practiced by aboriginal people and in fact as a race the aborigines are some of natures greatest ecologists but unfortunately the outside influence of commercial fishing has meant that even a small number of dugongs, when deliberately targeted will make a significant dent in a dwindling population.
The cloud of uncertainty which looms over the dugongs does increasingly have its proverbial silver lining though as efforts to increase their numbers have so far been very successful.
We stayed for two nights in Monkey Mia, relaxing in the pool and playing a few games of tennis with rented racquets. I have always found tennis to be a particularly frustrating game to play because as a rule I am pretty good at almost any sport I try my hand at. However most rules tend to have their exceptions and so rather than making any real effort to win the game I was forced to focus my endeavours entirely on making sure I didn’t hit too many balls over the fence, over the restaurant, over the beach and some distance out to sea, a task that I seemed able to perform intuitively and with the consummate flair that comes with any natural ability. The dent that my wayward tennis balls may have left in the fragile dugong population does not even bear thinking about.