Saturday, February 20, 2016

West Australia

Out in WA I finally got to see Australia beyond the cities.  Yes, I started in a city, Perth, the one major city in WA (and major in the way that Providence RI is a big city, but the biggest city in an area almost the size of the continental US west of Texas). Most tourists visiting Australia never make it out to WA, though it's about half the country and there are many beautiful natural places to see.  
After a couple of days in Perth getting the lay of the land, we headed off north on a long drive through open country with not a lot besides scrub bushes and cows and arid land all around.  The thing about the cows is that they aren't fenced in, they roam around, which means they are a road hazard.  But mostly I saw tons of dead kangaroos on the side of the road, because much like the deer in the Northeastern US, kangaroos are a big road hazard here (which is why, like deer, people don't feel bad about shooting or eating them). So that was the scenery driving for the first couple of days into the heart of the country. Cyclones had come through a few days earlier, so there was some water, but fortunately all the roads were open (sometimes they get flooded).

All of this driving up through the middle of nowhere was with the destination of Karijini National Park, the second largest park in WA, akin to the Grand Canyon in its vast expanse of natural gorges, waterfalls, and rock formations.  All of the rock bears the red tint of iron ore, which absolutely clings to your skin, clothes, and shoes. But as you climb down into steep canyons and find cool pools to swim through, you tend not to mind.  We started with Circular pool, Fortescue Falls, and Fern Pool, the last of which reminded me of the hidden lagoon and waterfall that Kate and Sawyer discover in the first season of Lost (minus the dead bodies at the bottom...I think). Instead, there were trees full of large sleeping bats (or Flying Foxes as a fellow traveler told me).  
Later in the afternoon we visited Joffre gorge, down a steep Grade 5 rock climb, and this small pool and waterfall was my favorite to swim in and climb up, despite any Game of Thrones references that made me inclined to dislike it. 
While here, we camped out in tents, not a pleasant experience when the daytime high is around 107degrees and the nighttime only somewhat cools down, while flys and mosquitos swarm. I will admit that being surrounded by flies much of my travels through WA was irritating, and I came close a few times to buying one of those incredibly flattering beekeeper masks. But whining about the bugs while off in beautiful places seems a bit petty. (Also please note the large formation in the center below which is a termite mound, plentiful all over WA). 

The next day we explored a few more spots, like Handrail Pool (which I renamed Spider Cavern, as they were all over the place), and another steep and tricky climb down into Weano Gorge, where we encountered some wildlife other than flies, a kangaroo and a couple of snakes.  This was the first living kangaroo I saw outside of a zoo, so that was exciting. 

After the wonders of Karijini, we got back onto the road out to the coast for a little ocean side relaxation at Coral Bay.  This is a tiny and beautiful coastal town, with warm clear water inside the barrier of a large reef, the Ningaloo. After a long hot drive, the water felt amazing. Another pleasant surprise was that the Backpackers hostel we stayed at had air conditioning, quite a perk after camping. 
Naturally a main attraction out there is snorkeling the reef, which we did, a full day boat tour out to swim with the Manta Rays (at other times of year you can swim with whale sharks, but we were out of season for that). The water is a lovely blue green akin to the Caribbean, and  full of colorful coral and all kinds of fish.  I was surprised that unlike in the Caribbean, you snorkel in a wetsuit (I'm told in case of jelly fish, some of the least avoidable of the things in Oz trying to kill you). 
The rays are the main attraction, but we also encountered sea turtles and reef sharks (they are pretty small and have no interest in people if you don't try to bother them, like bees). I was happy to have along my GoPro for some underwater shots (though now I really want a red filter to equalize the colors underwater- it's always something!).

The crew aboard the ship were all wonderful as well, really knowledgable and clearly loving their jobs, while caring about keeping the wildlife safe, as well as the tourists (weaker swimmers were given pool noodles to help keep them afloat). 
In addition to the attractions of the reef, the small town (it's all down one street that ends at the water, so genuinely small) boasts a really great cocktail bar as part of their one resort. The Mojito I had there was the best I've tasted outside of Central America. There is also Bill's Bar for live music, pool and darts, an entertaining hangout, and the bar at the Backpackers itself. 
We next spent a night in Exmouth just up the coast after that,  also offering reef attractions, a larger town, and several nice beaches, as well as families of emu crossing the road wherever they feel like it. It turns out that though this is high summer, it is actually the off season in these areas, because of the extreme heat.  We found at the beach we were only comfortable in the water or in the shade (crowded underneath a dock for lack of umbrellas). Not great weather for lying out with a book working on a tan (though given the UV risk down here, best not to do too much of that anyway). 
We went up to the lighthouse in the evening to catch a spectacular sunset. 
And then off to one of the restaurants that is open on a weeknight in the off season, 5 Kennedy St, where the owner, Dexter, waited on us himself and was very attentive, serving us the most delicious homemade butter with our bread and his own selection of wine and beer. I've been making a point to drink Aussie wines while I'm here, and some ciders as well (the pear ones are awfully tasty). 
From there a shorter hop down to Monkey Mia, totally inaccurately named as there are no monkeys, but tons of emu (emus? Not sure), and it's known for the Dolphins that swim up and down the coast, which they invite by each morning for a feeding. As it happened, we didn't need the crowded feeding time, since while swimming in the afternoon, a few went right by us, up the beach and back (I was caught off guard and have no pictures of them, but here's a family of emu in the parking lot and the view from the room at the Backpackers). 
One word of warning, the restaurant in Monkey Mia (and I do mean The restaurant) suffers from lack of competition (I would love to see what Chef Gordon Ramsay would do to their so called crab cakes), you would do better to take the short drive over to Shark's Bay. 
Though I have completed the whole of my WA leg of this trip, I'm going to save the second half for another post. These are some of the most stunning places I've been on this trip, and WA was a really amazing chapter for me, so why not draw it out a bit. 
Cheers for now! 

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