The minibus slams to a sudden halt. The driver’s door snaps open. Kylie, our tour guide, leaps out in a flash, and sprints through a cloud of red dust quickly spreading in the vehicle’s wake. The band of freshly awoken backpackers stare out of the rear window in excited anxiety. Has Kylie hit an animal? Or perhaps seen one injured by the roadside? Or maybe simply had enough of us and decided now is a good time to make her escape?
As the dust settles and we emerge from the bus expecting the worst, Kylie approaches, cradling something in her hands. “This,” she says, “is a thorny devil.”
The lizard is in perfect shape, if a little miffed about being plucked from its place in the road. As the name suggests, the reptile is a mass of cute but vicious thorns. It is officially the world’s coolest lizard – the Sid Vicious of the reptile kingdom.
Emergency stops are something we got used to as our guide, like a proud parent, wanted to show off every inch of what Western Australia has to offer. And it has a lot.
Aaaaaaaayt, west side
Australia‘s left chunk is roughly the size of India, with around one per cent of its population, meaning there’s plenty of driving to be done. Yet the scenery is often captivating and the toil only makes the trophies more worthwhile.
On paper, the drive is an unforgettable collection of spectacular sunsets over beautiful beachesand intriguing, unique landscapes, plus the odd adrenalin activity, but it’s the little unannounced meetings with spikey, furry and feathered locals that really made the trip so memorable.
Just as I sink back into dreamland – how come sitting down looking out of the window is so knackering? – we’re stopping again. But this time it’s no surprise. We’ve reached the Nambung National Park, 245km north of Perth, home of the Pinnacles Desert. The limestone luminaries are eerie and alluring. Shaped over thousands of years by the wind and lime seeping through the soil that used to be above, they number some 150,000 in total. The enigmatic stones resemble an army, and indeed, legend has it would-be explorers sailing by were dissuaded from landing by the sight.
After lunch and a couple of hours drive it’s time for some sandboarding. The dune looks intimidating and the wind is stirring up trouble. Nevertheless we whoop and shriek as we bomb down the hill, some sitting, some standing, some rolling and sliding and getting mouthfuls of sand.
The next morning we take a peek at the rusty redness of the princely Murchison River Gorge through Nature’s Window in Kalbarri National Park. Then it’s a 150m descent into the neighbouring Z-Bend Gorge, where we meet someone called Quentin, who is encouraging people to walk off a cliff. Luckily he’s put helmets on their heads and attached a rope to them first, but when you’re abseiling headfirst down a sheer cliff it takes some convincing to “just let go of the rope and run.” Directly against your basic instincts. But truly exhilarating when you do.
The long drive northwards is full of surprises. Pausing to stock-up on booze, we’re ushered out the back of the bottle shop to meet George, possibly the world’s cutest and tamest joey, rescued when his mother was hit by a vehicle. He revels in the attention as cameras click while he chomps on broccoli and suckles on a milk bottle.
After a night at Shark Bay we’re going to meet the famously friendly dolphins of Monkey Mia. A couple of hundred people wait expectantly, from around 7.30am until nearly 10am, when, finally, a mother and calf saunter casually in. Some 10 yards from the beach, they glide teasingly up and down for 10 minutes and then slowly come closer until they’re just a couple of strides away. Intuitively, they turn on their side to get a full view of their wide-eyed worshippers as they slowly patrol the captivated, cooing throng. A few lucky sods are chosen to hand feed the finned ones. It’s incredible to be so close to these wild animals.
Sadly it’s soon time to hit the road again and a few hours later we stop off to see the stromatolites. They’re not much to look at – a bit like large burnt mushrooms – but at 3.5 billion years old, the living rocks were the first organisms to breathe oxygen and a lot of things wouldn’t be around today if it wasn’t for them. Like us, for example.
A few sleep-punctuated hours later we’re on the 750,000 hectare Warroora Sheep Station. The evening and next morning are archetypal Aussie. Beef stew is followed by delicious damper, or “bush bread” – which included banana and beer amongst the ingredients – both cooked in the camp fire. Then toasted marshmallows, beer and bad jokes around the flames. Those up early to see the sun’s morning stretch witness a couple of young kangaroos hopping adventurously through camp.
Oh, I do like to be…
Coral Bay is the most beautiful piece of seaside you’ve never seen. The sea was motionless – a bright, clear, turquoise – while the sun bounced joyously off the curvaceous dunes. Better still, there was no one about, not one David Hasselhoff wannabe to ruin the view. Oh, and did I mention Ningaloo Reef? Superior in this writer’s view to its more famous east coast cousin, the reef starts just yards from the beach. This heavenly piece of seaside is a place that God chap made but inexplicably forgot to take back upstairs with him, an oversight he has been very cross about ever since – hence bad weather, diseases and Jamiroquai.
I hop eagerly onto a boat. Snorkelled up, we swim speedily to follow a massive manta ray across the bay, then spy dolphins from the upper deck and lastly settle by the reef for some leisurely underwater exploring. The fish are numerous and diverse and the day is made indelible with a couple of close encounters with reef sharks.
That night we chased the setting sun into Exmouth and the next day, hit the reef again. Just yards from shore we had an immensely rewarding snorkel with an array of impossibly colourful and improbably shaped fish. Naturally, that was after another unannounced stop, to feed a family of wild emus.
The creatures are massive up close, and quite hungry. Breaking `off small bits of a bun isn’t satisfying demand and I soon find myself handing over the whole thing to an angry-looking parent, who scampers off into the bush with family in tow.
We continue north as the earth gets redder and redder, with the dust all consuming, like we’re travelling on another planet. We swig beer by campfires, and sleep in swag bags under the stars – it feels like living in a postcard. Out here you really do see stars; millions of them, twinkling and winking at you before shooting off to another galaxy, far, far away…
The next day we visit the remote and stunning Karijini National Park where we prepare to face the Miracle Mile. Rather than a line of magicians pulling white rabbits out of top hats, “the Mile” is a dangerous journey through gorges and pools, originally used as a character building trial for Perth public school boys and hailed by FHM as “one of the 40 things a man must do before he dies.” The trail isn’t signposted and park wardens discourage it.
Those of us who hadn’t turned back at the ominous Point Of No Return, endure a cliff-clinging, climb-crawl-walk-swim through gorges and pools of great beauty and very real peril. In a tourism climate that’s sometimes claustraphobically safe, the Miracle Mile is satisfyingly risky and truly thrilling. For the same reason don’t expect it to be around for too much longer.
That afternoon we soothed our muscles and nerves with a dip in some seductive rock pools. There was even a seat under a small waterfall where you could sit and get the equivalent of an expensive massage. That is, if you didn’t burn the back of your ears the day before.
There were more stunning sunsets on superlative beaches and more dips in nature’s finest swimming pools as we made our way to the irresistible lethargy that is Broome and “Broometime”.
After witnessing the iconic Cable Beach sunset, camels et al, I repaired to Tokyo Joe’s nightclub to get well and truly plastered and dance like a frog in a blender until the small hours of the morning.
The experience: Travelabout Outback Adventures, Ph: (08) 9244 1200; Kalbarri Abseil, Ph: (08) 9937 1618; Adventure Tours Australia, Ph: 1300 654 604; Coral Bay Ecotours, Ph: (08) 9942 5885.
The accommodation: Governor Robinsons Backpackers Hostel, Perth, Ph: (08) 9328 3200; Kimberley Klub Backpackers, Ph: (08) 9192 3233.
WA’s sexy south-west
If great wine, dolphins, lush greenery, giant trees, postcard-perfect coastlines and aqua seas are at all appealing (nah, sounds boring to us, too), the south-west might just tickle your fancy.
The Margaret River area is WA’s most popular holiday region. That’ll be something to do with the world-renowned surf and all those equally world-renowned wineries then. South-east of there is Tall Timber Country, one of the world’s last few temperate old-growth forests (because some twats keep cutting them down elsewhere). Gawp at their wonder while you still can.
Bunbury offers bottlenose dolphins. A slightly less reliable meet and greet than the more famous Monkey Mia, but the experience can be more rewarding as you’re allowed to snorkel in the water with them. Further on, Busselton is worth a stop-off for a look at the ridiculously long jetty.
Dunsborough is a great place to halt and discover the northern part of the Cape. The town boasts more wineries, great beaches and you can take a short drive out to the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, and there is a great walk – brilliant at sunset, as the sun reflects off the craggy rocks and paperbark trees that line the coast. The surf here is pretty good too.
Ngilgi Caves near Yallingup is also worth a peek, offering a vast array of stalactites, stalagmites, helictites and shawls – a beautiful curtain-like formation which takes shape when droplets slide down an angled ceiling rather than falling straight to the floor. If you make it down to Cape Leeuwin you can watch the Southern and Indian Oceans meet, and whale watching (May-Sept). How d’ya like them apples?
Around the big south-west knob (not official name) of this great land mass, Australia, you’ll find Albany, a quaint seaside town that offers the opportunity to snorkel with seals (not Heidi Klum’s hubby). Nearby the Stirling Ranges and Porongurups (rumoured to be the oldest hills in the world) offer quality bushwalking. And just down the road the town of Denmark is a surprise for it’s hippy-arts-crafts style town. As usual with these kinda towns you’ll find a great assortment of cafes with fresh and rich ingredients.
And about 60km from Denmark is another spot worth visiting while you’re on your sunday drive, Walpole and it’s Valley of the Giants. Take the Tree Top Walk high amongst the forest’s canopy to see this beautiful old growth forest from a new angle, and spot some of the birds in Treebeard’s bush… oh behave!