Karen and I left Carnarvon under a cloudless sky. It did not take us long to realise that the promised light and variable winds were actually solid south-easterlies which would make the riding difficult. The sky stayed blue all day, the headwind remained constant, and the terrain was unchanging as well - flat, red-dirt scrub that stretched from horizon to horizon.
After two and a half hours we took a break for morning tea in scrub by the side of the road. I took a photo of two flowers struggling for existence in the dry, red soil, and hoped they were the heralds of greater displays of wild-flowers further south. Karen is more into plants than I am, and she informed me that the flowers were Everlastings.
Two more hours brought us to our lunch spot at the Edaggee rest area, seventy seven kilometres south of Carnarvon. We found the water left for us by Bill and Betty immediately, but never did locate the eight litres that Peter and Mihkala were supposed to drop. Perhaps it had been found and taken by someone else like a road clean-up gang or a litter-conscious fellow traveller. Perhaps it is still sitting there, and we would have found it if we had searched more thoroughly. We had plenty anyhow, and would have looked a lot harder if the water had been essential for our survival.
In almost fourteen thousand kilometres of riding spread over two years, Karen and I had only experienced one crash. Karen had bitten the dust when her front wheel had slid out from under her on a bad gravel road near Mackay a long, long time ago, but so far I had remained upright. My perfect record was about to change. Shortly after lunch I clipped Karen's back wheel.
I had always expected that Karen would be the person I would crash into. Everyone else came and went in the blink of an eye, but Karen was constantly close by. When I was in the lead, Karen would often ride a couple of bike lengths or more behind me. Usually more. But when Karen was in the lead, I was always only half a wheel back, sitting in her slipstream. While this made my riding easier and conversation between the two of us less difficult, it significantly reduced my view of the road immediately ahead. Karen would often call out warnings like 'rock' or 'glass' and point to one side or the other as she passed the offending obstacle, but on countless occasions I hit pot-holes, or the red cat-eye markers on the side of the road, or anything else that littered the highway. And at least once a day, without fail, my attention would wander and I would run off the road, an eye-ball popping adventure usually accompanied by the crunch of tyres on gravel and the utterance of a single-syllabled expletive. It was almost inevitable that one day I would run into Karen, and today was the day.
My front wheel had moved up beside Karen's back wheel until they were overlapping slightly. I must have been moving to the left when the two wheels touched because I found myself overbalancing in that direction. When riders overbalance on pushbikes, they normally turn in the direction of the lean and automatically straighten up. Unfortunately, I could not turn my front wheel to the left because Karen's back wheel was in the way, so the lean quickly became more severe.
I use solid, metal toe-clips to keep my foot in contact with the pedal to provide power through the entire pedalling stroke, but I have removed the binding strap to aid extraction of my foot in an emergency. Suddenly realising I was actually having an emergency, I ripped my left foot from the pedal and tried to push the bike and myself upright. However, at almost twenty kilometres per hour the road is rushing past at five and a half metres per second, which did not allow my foot to remain in contact with the ground for very long. I hopped along the highway.
The angle of the lean increased despite my efforts. I was carrying a week's worth of food for the long side-trip to Monkey Mia, plus the recently acquired four kilograms of water, so Elle was fully laden and very heavy. I would have had difficulty holding her up if I had been standing still, let alone careering along the road at what I hoped was less than breakneck speed.
My efforts managed to slow the bike down though, and my front wheel lost contact with Karen's back wheel. She was barely aware that anything untoward was happening, a slight loss of speed, a bit of a bump, and the sound of the tyres rubbing together the only clues that something was amiss. I had often touched tyres in the past, so Karen was unconcerned, but I had never done it to this degree before.
When the tyres parted company my bike was heeled over at about forty five degrees with the front wheel angled to the left. As a result, I made a sharp left hand turn and ran off the road and onto the gravel shoulder. Still at an angle, the front wheel slid out and the bike went down, stopping abruptly. I was still moving at speed however, and I pitched forward.
At this point Karen turned around to see what was happening, and watched me fly through the air, duck my head and execute a perfect shoulder roll, the momentum of the tumble bringing me back up to my feet. I stood there for a second, waiting for the pain to start and the broken bones to begin grinding together, but nothing happened. Apart from a tiny graze on the back of one of my fingers, I was totally unscathed.
I picked Elle up and inspected her for damage. Surprisingly, the bike, the panniers and their contents were all okay, a couple of scratches the only scars of the crash. I felt exactly the same as I had after I had performed a similar manoeuvre when I was a kid. Riding down an embankment of long grass, my bike had hit a hidden boulder and I had flown over the handlebars, somersaulting into a forward roll my physical education teacher would have been proud of, and springing to my feet immediately. Then, I had felt exhilarated by the crash, and had almost wanted to do it all over again. Now, I felt just as exhilarated, but a wiser head had no desire to repeat the experience. I climbed back aboard Elle, and Karen and I carried on as if nothing had happened.
As we passed the one hundred kilometre mark, Karen and I began looking for potential bush campsites. Four kilometres later we found one, and quickly darted into the bush and out of sight while the road was clear. The one hundred and four kilometres for the day had taken us six and a half hours, the headwind reducing our average speed to sixteen kilometres per hour. It had also taken our total kilometres since Darwin past four thousand, but we were in no position to celebrate. We were sitting in the middle of nowhere, with Carnarvon a hundred kilometres to the north, a roadhouse about twenty kilometres south of us, and our turn-off to Monkey Mia at the Overlander Roadhouse almost eighty kilometres beyond that. Being in the middle of nowhere, however, did have one distinct advantage. There was nobody around to hassle us, so we enjoyed a relatively undisturbed night less than fifty metres from the highway.
We christened the site 'Skull Camp' after finding a perfectly preserved goat skull nearby. I took a photograph of the bones in the highly directional light of early morning, and the effect worked perfectly, the starkness of the bleached skull and its shadows against the dry, red, desert sand echoing the starkness of the countryside.
The Goat Skull
With a cross-breeze from the east blowing when we left Skull Camp, the headwinds of the previous day were quickly forgotten. We made good time to the Wooramel Roadhouse, returning to our usual twenty kilometres per hour average speed. While Karen went to fill our water-bottles in the roadhouse, I visited the Men's where I was greeted by a sign which stated 'For use of roadhouse and caravan park patrons only'. Another notice said we should try to conserve the water, so I didn't flush. Karen had similar problems when she asked for water - she was given three litres (four of our water-bottles), but very grudgingly. This was the first time we had found difficulty in obtaining water from a roadhouse, despite having travelled three thousand kilometres through the dead heart of Australia and four thousand kilometres across the Dry Season deserts of the north west.
After the roadhouse the countryside started getting a bit more scenic, with hills and mesas dotting the flatlands which disappeared into a large body of water near the western horizon. A quick check of the map told us it was Hamelin Pool, the south-easterly extension of Shark Bay. Monkey Mia was a mere sixty kilometres away, as the crow flies. By road, it was over two hundred and thirty kilometres away! Sometimes it would be nice to be a crow.
At forty two kilometres we took a detour up to a lookout over the view just described. Once on top we discovered we were sharing the mesa top with about thirty, leather-clad Harley Davidson riders. 'Oh my God,' I thought. 'We are about to die!' Karen did not share my fear. With me looking on in complete disbelief, she walked right up to the bunch of guys and asked them if she could take a photograph of the whole group. After they had agreed, she then told them all where to stand so the picture would come out better. Sometimes, I think my wife has balls.
Once we passed the hills, the road flattened out into a series of long undulations. We lunched amid a smattering of wildflowers after seventy two kilometres, while red-capped robins and white-winged trillers frolicked in the bushes around us. The wind swung around to the north-east after lunch, but then weakened, not giving us too much help. We reached the Overlander Roadhouse in mid afternoon after a ninety five kilometre day.
Officially leaving "Remote Area" north of Overlander Roadhouse
The difficulties we had encountered at Wooramel were even worse at Overlander. A sign on the amenities block announced that the water inside was bore water of dubious quality, and therefore should not be drunk. A sign on the roadhouse said "Please do not ask for water as refusal might offend." Karen, however, is not easily offended, so she walked into the roadhouse to ask the woman behind the counter for water.
"My husband and I are travelling on pushbikes," Karen explained. "Could we please have some water?"
"Didn't you see the sign?"
"Yes, I did, but it takes us so long to get from one town to the next that there is no way we could possibly carry all the water we need."
"Our drinking water is made by a desalinator, which is very expensive to run. We can't just give water away to anybody who wants it," the woman rationalised.
"Well what about the bore water?" Karen asked. "Is it okay to drink?"
"What about if we boiled it first?"
"It would probably be okay if you boiled it," the woman conceded, "but even then we could not guarantee your health if you drank it. Of course," she went on, "you could always buy some of our bottled water if you are desperate..."
Karen looked at the woman in complete disbelief.
"I am sorry," the woman volunteered. "But this is how it is in remote areas and you will just have to get used to it. Things will be a lot worse further north you know."
"We've just come from up north," Karen said, "and this is the first place we've been refused."
Karen walked away in disgust. Daniel and Marcus, the two cyclists from Switzerland we had met at Warmun, had warned us about the problems we would face at the Overlander Roadhouse, but we had thought they were mistaken or had been misunderstood. We realised, however, that the bad reputation of the roadhouse was well deserved. We filled up a four litre wine cask bladder and four of our water-bottles with the bore water. I even tried some to see how it tasted, and it seemed perfect. Karen and I had drunk some pretty bad water in our time, and operated with the belief of "What Does Not Kill You, Makes You Stronger", so we had no real qualms about the Overlander bore water.
The Swiss cyclists had also warned us about the camping area at the Overlander, really only a rest area behind the road train diesel pumps and adjacent to the roadhouse generator. It took us about five seconds to decide to camp somewhere else. During the last part of the day's riding I had scanned the roadside for potential camping spots, just in case, so Karen and I rode back up the road for about a kilometre to a site I had earmarked on the way in. When the road was deserted we pushed through the wildflowers to the campsite where we were completely hidden by the scrub.
We quickly discovered that the ground was covered with masses of thorns. They were as big and as mean as the woman at the Overlander who refused us water. I grabbed a piece of bush and used it as a broom to sweep the thorns away from our intended tent site, checking the cleared area thoroughly for any strays. I did not want our Thermarest mats to become pin cushions. While I set up the tent, Karen cooked dinner, ably assisted by hordes of friendly flies which disappeared when the sun went down.
The night sky was the best and only show in town, so Karen and I scanned the stars and tested our memories and knowledge for about twenty minutes before going to bed. When we were comfortably settled, I switched on our radio, hoping for a weather forecast for tomorrow. Instead, the ABC were broadcasting a show on astronomy, with their resident expert talking about all the things we had just seen in the night sky. The astronomer even mentioned that the Hale-Bopp comet had now become a binocular object. I agreed.
In the morning both the tyres on Karen's bike were flat, probably as a result of the thorn carpet around our campsite. I pumped up the tyres and we rode back to the Overlander to dump our rubbish in their bins, then took the turn-off west.
The thirty five kilometres to Hamelin Pool were magical. The sky was blue and clear, the air was perfectly still, the good, flat road was lined with a carpet of yellow flowers, and only the singing of birds disturbed the silence. White-winged trillers and fairy wrens were everywhere, but it was the two species of songlarks - the rufous and the brown - and an occasional chiming wedgebill which contributed the bulk of the birdsong.
We arrived at the Hamelin Pool historic telegraph station before eleven, and found an excellent camping area with sheltered tables and grassed sites. Despite the earliness of the hour and the brevity of the ride, the area had so much to offer that we decided to stay for a night.
After lunch we walked up a small hill behind the camping ground to an antiquated flagpole which had been used as a signal tower in the old days. The warm and shallow waters of Hamelin Pool spread out before us, sparkling with reflected sunlight all the way to the northern horizon. A short walk took us down towards the shore, where we found a small but very interesting quarry from which the bricks of the telegraph station and many district buildings had been excavated. The bricks, however, were not made of stone, but of shells. Countless billions had collected over time, compacting together to form a layer many metres thick. Thousands of blocks had been cut from this layer, leaving steps and walls scattered over an area the size of a couple of football fields and making the quarry look more like a brilliant, white, ancient Greek ruin.
We walked through the quarry and out to the water where a boardwalk led out over a mass of dark, rock-like lumps embedded in the sand at the edge of the shore. A series of information boards told us about the lumps, actually called stromatolites. They are built up by cyanobacteria, one of the most primitive life forms on the planet. The seagrass which feeds the dugongs found around Monkey Mia also acts as a barrier to the passage of water in and out of Hamelin Pool, so there is very little tidal flushing. Combined with the high evaporation and low rainfall rates which occur in the pool, this produces exceptionally high salinity of the water - perfect conditions for the cyanobacteria to produce the stromatolites. They first appeared between three and four billion years ago, and they were the dominant life form on Earth for two billion years!
Signs constantly reminded the tourists to stay on the boardwalk to avoid damaging the formations. A family group in front of us completely ignored the signs, with one of the kids walking around and over the stromatolites. Karen saw red, and abused the kid for his thoughtlessness, right in front of his father. I was again impressed by the strength of her convictions, and embarrassed by her aggressiveness at the same time, but I was not nearly as embarrassed as the poor boy's dad.
We returned to the tent for an afternoon of reading and tyre repair. Karen's rear tyre was okay, but I had had to pump up her front tyre again during the ride to Hamelin Pool. I found a small puncture and applied a glueless patch. We had found that they worked fine on normal tubes, but simply would not adhere to the thicker thorn-proof tubes. I pumped up the front tyre again and hoped the tyre would stay up.
The astronomy show we had chanced upon the previous night had mentioned that Mercury was clearly visible just below Venus in the western sky early in the evening, so Karen and I walked up the hill to the flag pole shortly after sunset to try to locate it. Neither of us had knowingly seen Mercury before, so it was a pretty exciting time for the both of us. Apart from the Earth there are only eight other planets, and the three farthest from the sun cannot be seen with the naked eye. To look upon an entirely different planet for the first time is a special event, even if what we see is only a small pin-point of light in the sky. We quickly found Venus and used it to locate Mercury. We also spotted Mars, which was near Spica, the main star of Virgo, the star-sign of both of us. Jupiter too, was present in the evening sky, rising in the east. If we had stayed up for another hour we would have also watched Saturn rise, and thus seen all the visible planets in one evening, but it was not to be - we retired to the tent shortly after dinner.
The following morning we took our time packing up, drying the tent, groundsheet and our overnight washing before a 9:20am exit. We would usually make late starts on days we knew would be short, and with Nanga less than sixty kilometres away we were in no hurry to leave. I used the time to continue the repairs on Karen's front tube after finding the tyre flat again in the morning. Surprisingly, when I checked the glueless patch in the campground sink it was okay, but tell-tale strings of bubbles came from two more little holes close to the patch. The thorns near the Overlander had worked overtime!
The first fifteen kilometres for the day were flat and westerly but then the road swung more to the north-west into the breeze and dipped through a series of large undulations after one particularly long climb. The riding was tough so we spent a lot of time over morning tea by the side of the road after thirty kilometres. I oiled both chains during the break, and zip tied two supports on Karen's front rack to stop an annoying noise. After fifty seven kilometres we arrived at Nanga, which consists solely of one resort.
I set up the tent on a surface of sand and shells in a site shaded by a single tree. After lunch in the shade of the tree we walked down to the beach. Shark Bay is divided into two by the Peron Peninsula, with Hamelin Pool to the east and the Freycinet Estuary to the west, the latter named after the same French navigator who had also explored the east coast of Tasmania and after whom the Freycinet National Park had been named. During the morning's ride we had crossed over the peninsula to the Freycinet Estuary side. Its water was warm enough for a swim, but the cool breeze convinced us to stay dry.
The resort is frequented mostly by fisherman who use it as base from which to explore the prolific waters of Shark Bay and the ocean off Steep Point. On the beach we spoke at length to a fisherman who was cleaning his catch. Every fisherman we ever spoke to complained that the fishing was not as good as it was in years gone by, but the two schnapper he was gutting and scaling, each about two and a half feet long, helped to make his argument less than convincing.
A few spots of rain hit the tent in the early hours of the morning, getting progressively heavier. At daybreak Karen and I were doing our morning exercises to the sound of constant rain on the roof. We got out of the tent during a short break in the weather, Karen getting breakfast ready while I packed up the sleeping gear. The rain began soon began again, so we donned our rain jackets, ate our breakfast in the shelter of a large tree in the middle of the camping ground, and waited for a sunny patch to arrive and dry out the tent. It arrived right on schedule, and fifteen minutes later the fabric of the tent fly had almost dried. I packed it quickly, just before another squall hit.
We rode in our rain jackets as the showers rolled in, one after the other. The terrain was similar to the day before - large, rolling hills through acacia scrub and red soil. A bedraggled pigeon atop a small bush was later identified as a Laughing Turtledove, which gave us yet another new bird.
Just as the rain finally eased, an approaching car flashed its lights and slowed to a stop in front of us. It was Bill and Betty, heading south after spending a couple of nights at Monkey Mia. We told them that the water drop they had done for us had been perfect, wished them luck on their journey back to Victoria and bade them goodbye.
Shortly after morning tea at thirty kilometres, and with the weather continuing to improve, we were riding down a long decline when I heard a strange sound. At first I thought my front tyre must have been flat, and rubbing on the brakes, but a quick, rolling inspection revealed nothing untoward. The sound increased in volume and appeared to be coming from a fence that stretched out on both sides of the road. As we drew nearer the sound resolved itself into the barking of dogs! A small sign nearby was headed "Project Eden" and we looked into the project when we reached the Tourist Bureau at Denham after another fifty seven kilometre day.
Project Eden involves the fencing off of the entire northern section of the Peron Peninsula to provide a safe haven for the re-introduction of animals which have disappeared from the mainland of Australia but which can still be found on some of the offshore islands. After the fence was erected and before the new animals were introduced, feral animals like cats and foxes were eradicated from the peninsula by a massive campaign of shooting and poisoning. To discourage the re-entry of these pests from south to north through the opening in the fence through which the road passes, loud speakers broadcasting the barking of dogs have been set up, the entire system powered by solar panels. It was really weird, but apparently effective.
The Seaside Caravan Park was full, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, but Karen convinced the manager to try to find us a spot. After a bit of trouble we were granted one small site right on the beach, but only for one night. We walked into town to investigate a number of potential future paths, including the other caravan park in town, the availability of accommodation at Monkey Mia, and the cost of the bus back to the Overlander - twenty five dollars each with bikes no extra charge. We also looked at the local cruises to Steep Point and compared them with the different options at Monkey Mia, then sat down on a bench on the waterfront to read all of the information and try to make some decisions.
After deciding to ride to Monkey Mia tomorrow, and take a dugong cruise in the afternoon which entitled us to a free sunset cruise as well, we returned to the tourist bureau to book the cruises. We picked up a cask of lambrusco on the way back to the caravan park, and later shared a cup of wine on the beach at sunset. While the last bit might sound romantic, it was anything but. All we could see in front of us was a large ridge of sand deposited by a channel dredging operation.
At 6pm we walked into town again. After picking up a bottle of Peter Lehmann Riesling from a bottle shop across the road, we went to dinner at the Old Pearler Restaurant. We spent lots of money, but justified the expense by saying we were celebrating four thousand kilometres since Darwin and reaching the most westerly town in Australia. Our garlic and herb bread, steak and vegetables and dessert was enhanced by some live music from an Irish entertainer named Mike Blake whose "stage" was a small, open space right next to our table. He played guitar and sang, Irish songs mostly like "Cockles and Mussels". We spoke with Mike every time he took a break, loving his accent, and we also spoke to a Kiwi couple now living in Fremantle named Debbie and Ewan. The only other patrons of the restaurant were a group of people from one of the Monkey Mia tour boats. A fine time was had by all.
Prior to leaving Denham in the morning, Karen went to a supermarket across the road from the caravan park to buy groceries for the next few days. Ten minutes later she came running back empty handed, explaining that her MasterCard had been unable to trigger the swipe machine. I had to go over and use mine. We eventually left at 8:45am.
We soon passed a sign pointing towards Little Lagoon. It looked really pretty, and we hoped to explore it more fully when we returned to Denham. The road to Monkey Mia was hilly, made more difficult by a slight headwind. Why is it that the short days are often the hardest? Still, we only had to ride twenty six kilometres, so we could not complain too much. When we reached Monkey Mia, we paid the national park entry fee at the gate, then paid for two night's camping at the resort as well.
Most of the information we had heard from our fellow travellers about Monkey Mia had been fairly negative. Karen and I had grown sick of hearing that "it is not as good as it used to be" from people who had been there twenty years before, so it came as quite a surprise to find out the opposite. The camping area was excellent, with a great campers kitchen which included free gas, tables, chairs, a roof and plenty of lights. For the quality of the facilities, the cost of camping was cheap - only six dollars per person per night. As we pushed our bikes into the camping area, we met Mike Blake again. He had been booked to do a few gigs at the Resort, including the afternoon Dugong Cruise which we were also doing.
After lunch we donned tracky pants and long shirts for sun protection and walked across to the jetty. The cruise vessel was a catamaran named Shotover. It was sixty feet long, thirty one feet wide and its mast stood seventy feet tall. In a former life it had held all sorts of speed records for ocean racing, under the name of Eyewitness News, but it was unlikely to set any new ones under the conditions which prevailed. The slight breeze which had made our morning ride difficult barely ruffled the surface of the water now. Even so, after everyone had taken off their shoes and clambered aboard and the boat had motored away from the jetty, it moved briskly once the mainsail was set.
Karen and a fellow passenger helping with the winching
As we moved out to the seagrass beds which supported the dugongs, the captain regaled us with stories about the boat, the occasional dolphins we spotted, the dugongs we hoped to see and the birds which wheeled overhead and fished in the waters beside us. One story about shags was particularly interesting for a couple of birdwatchers like Karen and myself. Shags, also known as cormorants, are found all over the world. They are easily recognised by their habit of spreading their wings to dry after they have been diving for fish. The captain, however, offered a different explanation for why they spread their wings. He pointed out that shag metabolism is rapid, colourfully describing the journey of a fish through the intestinal tract of the bird, and stating that the entire process, from the moment the fish is caught until its emergence from the rear end of the bird as shag guano, only takes about four hours. He suggested that the internal temperature of the bird is so great that when it is out of the water, rather than spreading its wings to dry, it actually spreads its wings to provide an efficient cooling mechanism. Of course, the entire story might just be Boat Captain Dreaming, but it does seem to have the ring of truth.
Our arrival at the seagrass beds coincided with the disappearance of the sun. The bright, clear day darkened with the approach of squalls from the west. The cloud increased, and rain showers were visible over the land, but no rain came anywhere near the boat. In fact, it was absolutely beautiful on the water. After a few distant sightings of dugongs by the captain and the crew, but none of the paying guests, a dugong surfaced nearby but disappeared before I could snap a photograph of it.
For about ten minutes the Shotover tacked back and forth, but most of the close sightings were on the starboard side of the boat, and Karen and I were to port. After a frustrating run of glimpses, I asked Karen what she thought the chances were of having a dugong in the water right in front of us at any time on the cruise. Ten seconds later there was a dugong in exactly the right place for a really good look and a pretty good picture. I was stoked.
We had a few more distant looks, and a few turtles raised their ugly heads, but not much more looked like happening so the captain turned the boat for home. Mike Blake set himself up on a couple of emergency flotation mats in the middle of the boat and earned his passage by singing for the passengers on the way back to shore. By the time the Shotover reached the jetty, it was time for her to go out again for the sunset cruise, but one boat trip was enough for one day so we postponed our sunset cruise for the following evening and returned to camp for a cuppa with Mike.
The Monkey Mia resort is really just a glorified caravan park and hotel for tourists, but it also houses the Dolphin Information Centre. Karen and I watched a presentation on the dolphins of Monkey Mia given by a National Parks Ranger, and booked a morning tour with the resort's resident naturalist for the following morning. Both of these services were provided free of charge. On our way back to the camping area we passed by one of the resort bars, where Mike was once again performing. We hit the tent early, setting our alarms for six to get us to the seven o'clock walk on time.
A fresh, cold wind whipped in around midnight and was still going strong in the morning, luckily unaccompanied by rain. Naturalist Roger Syme led us through the scrub in the hills behind the resort where we checked out his sixteen drop traps for wildlife. We found spiders, insects, earwigs, and lizards, and saw some fox and rabbit skeletons, but the wind was too strong for good birdwatching. We finished the tour a little after eight. It had been excellent, but the cold wind had been a real pest.
One of the lizards found on the tour
We had been at Monkey Mia for almost twenty four hours when we decided to wander down to the beach for a look at the dolphins. They do not keep a strict timetable however, and none were about, so Karen and I found a sunny spot out of wind to thaw out. After a while we visited the cruise office to arrange our tickets for the sunset tour, but quickly returned to the sun until mid morning. We took advantage of another video which was being shown at the Information Centre. Half an hour into the presentation a ranger interrupted the show to say that a couple of dolphins had shown up on the beach, so we bolted down to the water, took off shoes, grabbed our cameras and waded knee deep into the water to take our place in the line.
Dolphin watching at Monkey Mia
About twenty people preferred to stay on the beach, with a similar number in the water. We were lined up parallel to the shore, and a ranger walked up and down to keep us all in line. Two dolphins were present - Surprise and her daughter Shock - each only a few metres away. Surprise lolled about near a second ranger, turning on her side and regarding us curious tourists with an equally curious stare. Shock was acting like the restless youngster she was, swimming about in small, tight circles before careering away, only to return again a short time later. The scene was rather contrived, and swimming with the dolphins was impossible, but given the number of tourists and the potential for harm to the stars of the show, it was probably the best way to present the dolphins to the public.
Although the ranger insisted that the dolphins do not come in simply because they are fed, a bucket of fish was soon produced and people from the line were selected to feed one to Surprise. One of the two female rangers looked right at me.
"Would you like to feed the dolphin?" she asked.
"No," I replied. "But my wife would!"
Karen feeding the dolphin
I pushed Karen forward before the ranger could select somebody else, and while Karen went forward shyly I readied my camera for the event. Karen's favourite animal is the dolphin. If Karen ever gets reincarnated, she will come back as a dolphin. She had been hoping to swim with the dolphins or at least to pat a dolphin, but everyone in the line had been warned against both activities. Karen offered the fish, the dolphin took it, I snapped the shot, Karen walked back into line. It was all a bit anti-climactic, but at least Karen can now boast that she fed the dolphins at Monkey Mia.
I took a few more shots of the dolphins before they moved off. Karen and I moved off too, picking up our shoes and heading off to the resort carpark to look for birds. While we were drying our feet and putting on our shoes, we saw a new bird playing in the garden - the southern scrub robin. A short time later we spotted another new species when six thick-billed grass wrens suddenly appeared between the resort access road and the sand dunes beyond. Feeding a dolphin and adding two new birds to our list was a pretty good morning, and hard to top, so Karen and I went back to our tent for lunch. We shared a table with Mike and talked to him about citizenship, republics and the Irish problem. He added to the reputation of the Irish as a generous people when he gave us a long handled spoon to replace the one I left at the caravan park at Karratha.
Everybody was being nice to us. A lady named Cath gave us some food that had been left to her by some departing caravanners. That extra food would probably allow us to stay at Monkey Mia for an extra day. After lunch we watched another video, this time about the social life of dolphins in Monkey Mia and overseas. Some of the juvenile males can be downright nasty. We then walked down to the jetty and were told that sunset cruise was postponed due to repairs to the boat, so we went for a late afternoon walk up the beach for about a kilometre then returned to the resort via the dunes behind the beach and the main road.
The caravan park full of four wheel drivers, all on a tag-along tour which started and finished in Alice Springs. With space at a premium, Karen and I grabbed a spare spot at a table, talked to a couple from Newcastle, and had a quiet drink. We were trying to decide how to cook dinner and save our seats at the same time, when the tour leader asked if anyone wanted any more dinner. Karen, of course, raised her hand, and the tour leader laughed and said okay. Suddenly we both had ham steaks and pineapple, loads of vegetables, and a dessert of pears and custard.
Mike rolled up, so Karen and I squeezed over to make some room for him. He accepted our offer of a glass of lambrusco, then out came his guitar and we had an excellent sing-along in the campers kitchen for two hours with a dozen tag-alongers. At around ten o'clock Mike, Karen and I went in search of a supposed beach bonfire party, but found nothing so we all hit the hay.
Karen and I awoke to another windy day and a blue sky free of clouds. We sat around the campers kitchen talking to Cath and later to Mike until about 9:30am when Mike left for Perth. He thought he might then head for Cairns, to do some busking, or singing for his supper, or whatever took his fancy. It must be wonderful to have a talent that is always in demand.
We had explored the dunes to the west of the resort, and the coast to the north, so Karen and I went for walk through the scrub to the south-easterly limit of the Monkey Mia recreational area. To be truthful, there was not much to see, just sand and dunes and low scrub and an occasional low, red cliff. I took a photo of the scene anyway, then we walked back along the beach, soon spotting a new bird - the fairy tern. When we reached the resort at midday there were four dolphins in - Surprise and Shock, Nicky and Hollikins. Hollikins is apparently a grandchild of the famous Holy Fin, one of the first dolphins to make regular visits to the Monkey Mia beach.
After relaxing all afternoon, we walked down to the jetty to find that the sunset cruise had again been cancelled, this time because there was too much wind. Back at the campers kitchen, Mark and John from the tag-alongers twisted our arms and offered us some soup - a couple of cups each. Then they dumped a pot of leftover stew on our table and said help yourself. So we did, and it was good.
Just as we finished dinner a huge bus-load of tourists rolled up. I bolted to get a shower before the sudden influx occupied everything and used all the hot water, and later came back to a scene of absolute mayhem. I had thought the camping area was crowded after the arrival of the tag-along people, but now it was wall-to-wall tents, with scarcely enough room between them to walk. We could almost crawl out of our tent straight into the doorway of another. The tag-alongers stood around in a stunned stupor, making feeble jokes about the floor show as the new arrivals slotted even more tents into every available space. Karen was incensed by the invasion of what she saw as her personal space, and it was all I could do to talk her out of going down to the resort office to complain. What would it have accomplished?
We awoke to the sounds of the tag-alongers packing up in time for their 8:30am brekkie. It was actually 7am, but they were all still on Central Australian time. Another cloudless but windy day greeted us when we extricated ourselves from the maze of tents around us. The tag-alongers left, and we were sad to see them go, especially Karen who had become quite accustomed to having them supply our dinners.
We planned to leave Monkey Mia later in the day, so we went down to the beach to say goodbye to the dolphins. The crowds were amazing! This was our first 8am viewing, and we could not believe the number of people who had arrived to see the show. We had usually wandered down to the beach in mid morning, and had assumed that there was always only about twenty or thirty people present. We had not realised that all of the tour bus leaders chose the early viewing time in order to leave the resort as soon as possible to hurry on to their next destination. The car park looked like a bus depot, and there were people everywhere. The line in the water was two or three people deep, with double that number behind them on the beach, and even more lined up on the jetty.
Unfortunately for most of them, the wind was rippling the water and making viewing difficult. In addition, the wind chill factor was high. The people in the water were very cold, but for many it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and they were not going to miss it for quids. Not for the first time did Karen and I appreciate the touring lifestyle which allowed us to take our time at places like Monkey Mia and experience it to the full when it was at its best. It would have been tragic to have come all this way, only to have a brief and unsatisfactory glimpse of the dolphins and then be whisked away to another tourist place. We had had such a good time at Monkey Mia, that we were not even bothered to be missing out on the free sunset cruise which had never eventuated.
By 10:45am we were back in Denham, the strong wind helping us cover the twenty six kilometres from Monkey Mia in a little over an hour. We avoided the Seaside Caravan Park and booked into the Blue Dolphin caravan park instead. It had better facilities, better sites, and plenty of uncrowded space, and while it was not right on the beach, it was still only one hundred metres away.
After morning tea Karen shopped for lunch. She splurged on peanut butter and strawberry jam. We did not usually carry two types of spread because of our self-imposed weight restrictions, but Karen's tummy rules her life. She felt like having two spreads, so two spreads is what we had.
In the afternoon we did a walking tour of the town, visiting the shell block church, the pioneer park, the wharf and the sandalwood shop. None of it was particularly exciting, we had seen similar things a thousand times before. Perhaps we were becoming a bit blasť about the entire touring experience. Every town offers everything it has to the tourists, but for some towns, everything it has is not very much at all.
We booked the bus back out to the highway for Thursday night, two days hence. We wanted to spend one day on a walk to the north to investigate Little Lagoon which had looked very interesting when we had ridden past a few days before. We were also interested in a tour to Steep Point, the most westerly point on the Australian mainland, either by car or boat, and wanted to give ourselves time to make the trip.
Our campsite was situated next to a huge, spreading, bushy tree which was ringing with the sound of birds when we woke the next morning. Singing Honeyeaters were gathered in a group about half way up the tree, making screeches more like a Noisy Miner than their normal staccato song. Karen and I did not think anything of it, and soon headed off towards Little Lagoon, to the north west of the town. On the way we saw some fascinating dung beetles, a blue tongued lizard, a good lookout, some mangroves, and some good birds, but no new ones. We soon came to a winding stream, the lagoon outlet, and we tracked along beside it until we arrived at the birrida (flooded claypan) of Little Lagoon. We picnicked on a lunch of packed sandwiches by the beautiful aqua water of the sand-lined lake before returning to the caravan park.
We noticed that the singing honeyeaters were still behaving like miners in the tree above us. Karen and I attempted to do a cryptic crossword, but the constant noise of the birds really pissed me off so I climbed about two thirds of the way up the tree and shook the branches in an attempt to get them to fly away. It worked, the honeyeaters flew away, but so did a southern boobook owl which must have been roosting there since the morning! What great birdwatchers Karen and I were! A pack of birds going out of their tiny minds about the presence of a predator in their midst, and we had not twigged! It was a valuable lesson learned.
Our enquiries about trips to Steep Point were unsatisfactory. Some packaged land tours went there, but they were either too expensive or too long to consider. The boat tours were also expensive, and Karen and I were not too confident that our sea legs would prevent us from throwing our hearts up. We had to content ourselves with a distant view across the Freycinet Estuary to Useless Loop and tell ourselves that while Steep Point was only a little bit further on, it was probably not worth visiting anyhow.
On the morning of our last day in Denham, Karen and I wandered down to the caravan park office to ask if it was okay to leave our packed bikes chained together in a vacant area of the park until the bus picked us up at 6:15pm. The manager ummed and ahhed, and wanted to charge us an extra day's site fee. Please forget everything I wrote about how good his caravan park is. After a good deal of bickering he eventually said okay. Big of him, we thought. We packed up and squared away Elle and Mel in a corner of the picnic area - not even occupying a site in a caravan park that was empty anyhow - and headed down the beach.
A walk of four or five kilometres took us to a large red coastal cliff. From the top we took photos to the south and over towards Steep Point, which we kidded ourselves we could almost see. I tried fishing for whiting in the shallows of the beach on our return journey, but had no luck. Perhaps the whiting were not impressed with the little bits of apple I was using for bait.
At the caravan park again, Karen and I spoke to a guy from Port Lincoln who was leaving for Kalbarri the next day, a potential water dropper if ever we saw one. We tried to find him after lunch, but found his wife instead. Lucille said that she and John would be happy to drop the water for us. The drop was arranged for the Nerren Nerren rest area. Our final activity for the day was the inevitable shopping we always did prior to hitting the road again after a break. On the way back we stopped in at Australia's most westerly pub to have a beer and record the event on film. We have now sampled a brew at three extreme Australian pubs - the most westerly at Denham, the most northerly on Thursday Island, and the most southerly at Dover in Tasmania. Can't understand how I could have missed the most easterly?!
The most westerly pub in Australia
After a fast dinner of fish and chips, Karen and I wheeled the bikes over to the caravan park office to await the arrival of the bus. When it arrived we were somewhat surprised to find that it was not a bus at all, but a taxi! And no ordinary taxi either, but a ute with a metal cover over the rear tray and roof racks on top of that. Mel went into the tray of the ute, propped against mail bags, my panniers and the tent. Elle was strapped onto the roof, supported across the frame by a spare tyre from the taxi.
We had been expecting a guy named John Sallinger, but when Karen and I piled into the front seat with the driver, he introduced himself as Dirk, John's son. He explained that his dad not only drove the taxi around town, he was also contracted for the mail run from Monkey Mia to the highway at the Overlander, much like our friend Gary with his mail run from Exmouth to Minilya. Like Gary, John also transported paying passengers, using the taxi for one or two people and a larger vehicle when necessary. Dirk further explained that John had been contracted to cut sandalwood near Nanga, and that he would take over the driving from there, with Dirk taking John's other car back home. If we had booked the taxi to take us back to the highway, we would have been charged about one hundred and fifty dollars, but because we had booked the bus, and the bus company had chosen to transport us in the taxi, our cost was the normal bus fare of twenty five dollars.
The rolling hills of the Peron Peninsula seemed to have shrunk during the past week, passing almost unnoticed under the wheels and engine of the big ute. The darkness, too, made evaluation of the terrain difficult, but Karen and I were content to just sit back and enjoy the ride. The trip back to the Overlander was uneventful, apart from one thrill-seeking rabbit which raced onto the road about fifty metres in front of us, stopped, turned directly towards us, sat up and waited for the car to run over it. We were on top of it in seconds, all three of us listening for the kathunkathunk of contact, but none came. He was a very lucky little bunny rabbit! I wondered whether he had simply been startled when crossing the road, or whether it was a little game he played with the tourists. It all seemed so rehearsed - as if he had done it a million times. Perhaps that was his way of having some fun. Even for the wildlife, there is not much to do for kicks in the country.
At the roadhouse we unloaded the bikes in front of an admiring group of about twenty tourists who were waiting for the Greyhounds to arrive from north and south. Karen and I repacked our gear onto the bikes and pushed them towards the rest area next to the roadhouse. It was too dark and too late to go looking for a bush camp, especially with the thorns which would greet us. A familiar face soon greeted us when Cath came over to chat. She had caught a tourist bus to the highway from Monkey Mia for the same price as us, but had been waiting at the roadhouse for a couple of hours. She would be waiting for the Perth bus for a little while longer.
In the rest area we found a small alcove in the bushes where we hoped we would not get run over during the night. It was in full view of the roadhouse, the road and the rest area, but in the dark it was the best we could do. I discovered I really could erect the tent with my eyes closed - the night was pitch black and the moon would not be rising for another couple of hours.
Karen and I were soon snug in the tent, listening to the frequent crunch of car tyres on the rest area gravel above the noise of road traffic and the roadhouse generator. At 9pm the moon rose, not too long past full, and the Willie Wagtails started calling. We hoped it was a good omen, a sign that we would have an undisturbed night, but unfortunately, it wasn't. At 1:30am a car roared through the rest area and braked firmly in the gravel about twenty or thirty metres away from our tent. Karen and I were wide awake instantly, hearing the sound of opening and closing doors - two of them - and muffled voices. I thought I heard someone say "baked beans". We listened to a quiet conversation, just below the level of comprehension, and the sound of metal on metal.
After initially fearing an attack, I had assumed they must be changing a tyre, but why wouldn't they do it in the lights of the roadhouse? Eventually I realised that the intruders had stopped to eat a meal of baked beans, at 1:30am, almost on top of our tent. Why us? After they drove off, loudly, a few girls from the roadhouse who were waiting for the bus decided that they were the new Spice Girls and went for a walk down the highway, past the parking bay, singing and laughing at the top of their lungs. They were not a real worry, but we knew that sooner or later they would have to return and that we would stay awake until they did. They walked back past us again about half an hour later, but by then we had already lost an hour of sleep.
Such things happen when society directs our lives. By taking a bus which arrived at the highway after dark, Karen and I had been forced to camp near the roadhouse and put up with all of the annoyance which followed. It would be good to get back on the bikes and be the masters of our own destiny again.