I don’t know which was worse. That my life just flashed before my eyes, or that it it was such a short and miserable flashback? Born. Learnt to ride bike. Fell off bike. Grew first moustache. Found virginity (God knows how it got there!). Met Johnny Ball. Lied outrageously on CV. Got this job. Died jumping out of plane in shellsuit.
I’m sitting on the edge of an aeroplane with my legs dangling out of the door, some 12,000ft above York (around 100km inland from Perth). I can see the glittering Western Australia capital, the lush Avon Valley and way, way beyond, out to Rottnest Island.
But I couldn’t care less about the superlative scenery. As I stare into the epic, inescapable nothingness below, my mouth is as dry as burnt toast. My stomach, with a hitherto unannounced genius, is doing all sorts of pioneering balletic moves. And my head is saying, quite unmistakably, “no, Damian. Move backwards, this is really f*cking stupid.” I really don’t want to be here…
With its remoteness, ancient landscapes, intriguing rock formations, friendly wildlife, deserted beaches, unique sunsets, extraordinary wild flowers, all its bountiful barren beauty and perhaps best of all, a blissful lack of people, WA is like a holiday wet dream. But enough of all that.
Rather than soak up the sun on postcard-perfect beaches, I’ve been sent here to get scared shitless through an array of hair-whitening adrenalin activities (yeah, thanks boss). It’s something that’s already been achieved with an A+ grade. So can I go home now please?
Oh… With a horribly inappropriate cheeriness the bloke attached to me says, “smile at the camera”. I do the opposite. And then, just like that, we’re gone…
Down, down, down…
We’re plummeting, like two sacks of spuds. It feels like when you stick your head out of the window going down the motorway. Times ten. And I realise I’m screaming. Not in panic or fear, but in sheer nadulterated… I don’t know what…
ecstasy? Or something. Screaming whatever’s in my head:
”ACCCEEIINNNTHEHHOLLLE…… HHOOOLLLYYYF**CKIIINNNNGGSSSSHHHHIITTTTT……. IIICCCAAANNFFLLLYY…… IIIIMMM AAABIRRRRDDDDDD… WOOOOHOOOO!”
It’s a last-minute winner against your local rivals, it’s the best part of your favourite song played live by your favourite band, it’s when the prettiest girl in the pub laughs at your joke and says you’re cute. It’s better than great sex. And mental drugs. And great sex on mental drugs. It’s all of those and maybe more. And much like my sexual prowess, some 40 seconds later, it’s all over. As the parachute explodes open, it feels like being shot back upwards, out of a cannon.
And then peace reigns, as we drift for another four glorious minutes towards the boring safety of terra firma – the buzz lasts for days.
Next up, surfing. Surfing looks easy and is an institution in Australia. Which of course means it’s “how-the-f*ck do they make it look so easy?” difficult, and turns me instantly into a Chaplin-esque fool. Catching a wave is easy enough, but then you have to try and stand up. Quickly. On the right place on the board. In the right body position. And still look cool. It’s tricky. But after about half an hour I manage it. For nearly a whole second. I gradually became better and understood why so many Australians live to ride the waves.
Margaret River is WA’s most famous surf spot, at least for those wanting to learn. Rottnest Island is a favourite with locals, but if you’re a serious wave nut, Jakes Point near Kalbarri and Gnaraloo (two hours from Carnarvon) have some of the sickest surf this side of a tsunami. (Treat the water with respect in these spots and the locals will treat you with respect.)
After the best part of a day travelling north of Perth, the tour bus stops by an intimidating dune, with the wind stirring up trouble. There’s not a lot to be said about sandboarding really – it’s exactly as you probably imagine it. Kinda like snowboarding, without the bruises.
We whoop and shriek as we bomb down the hill, some sitting, some standing, some rolling and sliding and some (okay, me) getting mouthfuls of sand as they end up boardless on their bellies. Woo-hoo! After four or five goes I’m so super-fly I can even stay on the board until nearly halfway down.
The next morning we take a peek at the rusty redness of Kalbarri National Park. In the Z-Bend Gorge we meet someone called Quentin, who is cheerfully encouraging people to walk off a cliff. Luckily he’s attached helmets and ropes to them first. Abseiling headfirst down a sheer cliff goes directly against your most basic instincts. Especially when you’re casually instructed to “just let go of the rope and run.” However, after some timid forward movements, I give in to gravity… I feel a rush and shout something like “yeeaaaaoooowwwiikkkeeesssIwantmymuuuuum” as I plummet, my legs flailing in mid-air.
A few quixotic sunsets over painfully beautiful beaches later, we reach Coral Bay. It is the most beautiful slice of seaside you’ve never seen. The sea is a perfect, glowing turquoise and the beach has characterful curves and delightful dunes. It was quite obviously made by that God chap, who inexplicably forgot to take it back up there with him – he’s been quite cross ever since (hence bad weather, diseases and Jamiroquai). And did I mention the Ningaloo reef – thought by many, including yours truly, to be superior to its more famous east coast cousin -is a short walk out from shore?
I hop eagerly onto a boat and go hunting for manta rays. A giant shadow is spotted and, snorkelled up, we swim breathlessly and like Duracell bunnies, following a Volvo-sized ray – like a giant Batman symbol – across the bay. The day is made indelible with a couple of close snorkelling encounters with reef sharks.
A day north of Exmouth the tour group relax with some postnosh beers round the campfire, near Karaijini National Park. Our guide, Melissa, asked everyone to gather round. “People have died on the Miracle Mile,” she said, “it’s not to be undertaken lightly.” She went on to detail the route and some of the names, like “the journey to the centre of the earth”.
The VB-for-breakfast Spaniard is told he will not be allowed on “the mile” if he drinks beforehand. He looks genuinely cheesed off. We’re not allowed to take cameras or anything we don’t want getting wet. The Mile used to be used as a character building test for Perth public school boys and FHM hail it as “one of the 40 things a man must do before he dies.”
There are no signs marking the mile as national park staff try to deter attempts.
Anxiety is as unavoidable in Karijini as we descend a rustic red, antique-feeling, gorge. The start is easy enough, then there’s the spiderwalk – one foot on each side of the narrow canyon – and the point of no return, where four of our group decide The Mile’s not for them.
The next three hours are best described as a buttock-clenching, nail-breaking, hearthalting climb, crawl, slide, cling and swim as we slowly edge our way through leech-inhabited rock pools, along tiny ledges, with deadly drops, and up-and-down rock faces. There are several nervy moments, usually involving narrow ledges, but we make it through unscarred, but not without a few cuts and bruises.
In a climate of life-jacket-to-the-loo ultra-safe tourism, it’s a satisfyingly risky journey. One of great beauty and pump-action adrenalin. Much like any journey through Western Australia.
What do you mean I have to come back now? No. Shant. Gah.
The experience: Kalbarri Abseil, Ph: (08) 9937 1618; Sandboarding with Travelabout Outback Adventures, Ph: (08) 9244 1200; Adventure Tours Australia, Ph: 1300 654 604 or ; Coral Bay Ecotours, Ph: (08) 9942 5885; Skydive Express, Freephone: 1800 355 833