Thursday, August 27, 2009

Markets, more scary fish and twin birthdays

We went to the local markets in Exmouth where the kids all bought crystals and precious stones. Maybe they thought we needed some good luck?! Afterwards we headed into the national park, specifically to get to the snorkelling at Turquoise Bay on the Ningaloo Reef. I think perhaps we’ve been a bit spoilt at our last few snorkelling spots, as we were all a bit disappointed with this one.

Jess got spooked almost immediately by a school of dart. I’m not sure she’ll be back in the water if there’s fish around again! Daniel got cold so got out almost immediately, and Trucky dipped his toe in and declined to swim at all. Alex and I snorkelled for quite a distance, and saw a few fish and bits of coral, but nothing to compare to with places we’d been previously.

We didn’t stay long, and headed out of town for Learmonth Jetty. It was a beautiful place for the boys to wake up on their birthday. The sunrise over the water was gorgeous, but more importantly the sand, rocks and jetty surface made for great terrain to take out their birthday presents: remote control 4WD monster trucks! They also got books, Pokemon cards and some money. Daniel received a soft toy goat from Jess too; another animal to join the menagerie we have on the bus.

A few liquid dramas

After leaving Coral Bay we headed to Exmouth. Coughing, spluttering and a loss of power in the engine gave us an unscheduled stop by the side of the road about 120km from our destination. A quick dip of the fuel tank revealed it was bone dry. (We have no fuel gauge in the bus, so dipping a long stake of wood into the tank reveals the fuel level. It’s a bit crude but it works.) We’re still not quite sure how we came to run out. We keep a tally of the distance we’ve travelled, and after about 800 - 1000km we start to look for a road house, knowing we can usually get about 1500km from a full tank. This time around we’d only travelled about 850km, so why consumption was so high is still a mystery. Anyway, kids and I stayed in the bus while Trucky took the jerry can and the Terios into Exmouth. He returned a few hours later and we headed off again, with just enough diesel to get to Exmouth. $515 to fill the tank!!

The drama continued the next morning when we stopped at Exmouth Visitors Centre to fill up with water. They are very well set up with a huge car park, and two taps of potable water for filling up camper water tanks. We pulled up at the tap and connected up. I started the water and immediately I could see it coming out onto the ground. Knowing we couldn’t be already full, I turned the water off and Trucky crawled under the bus. Inspection showed a split hose coming off the water tank. He cut a new piece to size, fitted it and then we were able to successfully fill up with water.

This all sounds all like just a bit of an inconvenience, but imagine having your water cut off at home, and no way of getting any for showering, doing dishes, even washing your hands. (We always carry 50L of emergency drinking water.) We both thought we had a hole in the water tank initially, and the idea was fairly traumatic, especially being Sunday in a small town where nothing’s open to get a replacement. The hose repair was reasonably uneventful, so that was a relief. I always feel better once we’ve filled the water tanks, knowing we’ve got the basics covered again for at least the next few days.

In which Jess gets spooked by big fish, and too many tourists

Rather reluctantly we left Point Quobba and headed for Coral Bay. We arrived in town (one main street) mid-afternoon to find it absolutely chock-a-block with people, caravans, motor homes and other vehicles. So far this trip we’ve managed to be fairly secluded (even places which had lots of vehicles parked where pretty deserted) but this place was diabolical. We found somewhere to park, then wandered down to the beach. Although jam-packed, it was quite pretty, and even had a kangaroo with joey hanging out on the sand. We walked along the sand for about 2km around to the boat ramp. Trucky checked out the fishing potential (virtually nil from the beach) and then we walked back into town.

The next morning we headed back to the beach for a snorkel. While the colours where not as impressive as we found at Quobba, there were lots of bigger fish around. Particularly impressive was a school of about 20 two-foot long spangled emperor that Jess accidentally swam into. She was “lots freaked out” and declined to go back into the water after that!! Trucky and I watched them for ages though. They came right into the shore where a man was feeding them. The emperor were fighting like seagulls over the fish, and they even tried to take bites out of a camera someone dropped into the water! There were also schools of sand whiting and some zebra-striped fish, as well as a few other fish too.

Happy Birthday to Trucky, and Jess impresses the locals

The next day was Trucky’s birthday, and he was pleased to wake up right next to the ocean. We took Terry the turquoise Terios out for a spin up north to try to find a good fishing spot. There’s heaps of big game fish right off the cliffs, but it’s very dangerous area. All along the coastline are plaques for people who have been swept off the rocks by king waves. One fisherman – known to the guys at the campsite - lost his life only last month.

We stopped at Quobba Station to get bait. This is a remote sheep station, and I found it very strange to see sheep wandering as they pleased amongst the dunes. I was quite relieved when Trucky decided there was nowhere that he deemed suitable for fishing from, and we headed back to camp. We were lucky enough on this outing to see another whale very close to shore. This one was much more frisky than yesterday’s group, doing backflips out of the water and flicking it’s tail around.

We spent the afternoon on the beach, where Jess caught an enormous whiting. She’s not interested in fishing at all, but thought she’d have a go throwing Alex’s line into the water. She only cast a few feet into the waves, and wandered up and down in the water, singing, dancing, and dragging the rod around with her. After only a couple of minutes, she reeled back in to find a 28cm whiting - bigger than we had ever seen! The locals were very impressed, saying it was much larger than most whiting coming out of the bay. Maybe it was disinterest that brought good luck, as no one else caught anything much that night.

Trucky didn’t want to leave his fishing spot (not good for the ego to be out-fished by a ten year old girl!) so we brought dinner down to the water, eating on a blanket under the stars. It was a lovely end to another great day.

Food, surging water and whales

Leaving the Shark Bay Heritage Area we drove to Carnarvon to grocery shop. Some of the mundane things of home-life we still have to do on the road! It is interesting though, to see the different tastes catered for in different parts of the country, and the extremes of prices too. That night we stayed in the dunes by the Gascoyne River. We left early the next morning – well, early by our standards anyway. (We’ve all discovered the joys of sleeping in, so often breakfast is about 9am, and the day doesn’t really start until about 10:30am by the time we’ve eaten, dressed, cleaned up and generally mooched around for a bit.)

Carnarvon is colloquially known as the “Fruit Basket of the West” as most of the fruit and vegetables for the region are grown on the plantations there. We called into Morell’s and stocked up on fresh local vegetables. This plantation has a great little shop out the front, staffed by one of the owners. She was very friendly and recommended a few other growers to visit. In addition to capsicums, tomatoes, etc, the kids also had some chocolate coated homemade ice cream – Jess had strawberry and boys each had mango that were almost pure frozen fruit! Delicious. We also bought a black sapote, known as chocolate pudding fruit, to try. It was a very strange experience – soft texture almost like mousse, with a taste a bit like chocolate but not sweet at all. I don’t think any of us are real fans, but it was interesting to give it a go.

From Morell’s we went to Bumbak’s, where we were lucky enough to have a tour over the plantation. Robyn, giving the tour, was extremely knowledgeable, and it was interesting to hear about the water issues Carnarvon faces, as well as about the crops themselves. Her plantation grows seedless watermelon and table grapes commercially, and bananas, mangoes and vegetables for their own use, as well as for their preserves business. The kids were allowed to run riot through the banana trees which they particularly enjoyed. From their shop we bought some mango and passionfruit jam that was superb (especially on fresh pikelets Alex and I made the next day).

Our next stop was the Blow Holes. This amazing piece of coastline just past Lake Macleod is an old coral reef. The biggest blow hole was huge, and that combined with the big waves crashing over the cliffs kept Daniel enthralled for ages. I was fascinated by the smaller holes that look like natural versions of the little fountains that spring up in walkways around tourist attractions.

As if this wasn’t amazing enough, right close to shore were whales! There was four together, rising in a staggered formation out of the ocean like a synchronised swimming display, before diving back into the water, and repeating it over an over again. There were two other whales – a mother and her calf – also just offshore. It was hard to know where to look, as there was so much to see!

We decided to have a quick look at Point Quobba, about a kilometre from the Blow Holes, so we pulled up and went for a quick swim to cool off. That became a few hours in the water with our snorkels, as it was the most amazing coral reef, right there! There were dozens of brightly coloured fish only a couple of metres from shore, and shallow enough you were almost right on top of the coral. I have never seen anywhere as full of fish – and so few people – as this. It was like swimming in an aquarium!!

Point Quobba has a ranger-run campground right on the beach. It was primitive but very friendly (and cheap!). The place was full of other motor-homers and caravanners, many of whom stay for months at a time. Trucky went fishing from the beach (the snorkelling area is protected from fishing, thank goodness) and caught a big dart that we had for dinner that night.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Stromatolites, dolphins and a multi-cultural atmosphere

We arrived at the Hamelin Pool Caravan Park quite late in the evening of 8 August. The next morning, Trucky, Alex and I walked over the hill and through the old stone quarry to see the stromatolites. They were both pretty under whelmed by these ancient living marine organisms (they look like rocks!) but I thought they were interesting – for what they are, anyway.

We packed the car and headed for a day at Shark Bay, Denham and Monkey Mia. After a petrol stop in Denham we drove up to Monkey Mia, to be told the dolphins were all over for the day. That was a bit disappointing, but while we were having a look around the visitors centre, we also checked out the caravan park. To our surprise, they were able to squeeze us in, so we drove the 150km back to Hamelin Pool and picked up the bus.

The Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort was a fantastic caravan park. The kids spent a lot of time in the pool, and Trucky and I in the hot tub. We hired a four-peddle paddle boat that had an extra seat, so we all took to the water in that. The wind was quite strong, so even peddling furiously we didn’t get very far, but it was great fun, especially with waves breaking over the bow. We had dinner in the pub and listened to some live music – a local blues guitarist named Ivan Zar, while the kids did cartwheels on the grass with some of the local children.

The resort was packed to the rafters, and over half of the guests seemed to be Dutch or German tourists. I found this interesting because so far everyone we’ve met on our travels has been fellow Aussies. Our kids played with lots of other kids, often without a common language, but handstand competitions in the pool and on land don’t require a lot of talking – laughter suffices!

We were in two minds whether to go to Monkey Mia at all. It’s a well known tourist destination, but lots of people have down-played it, saying it’s too far off the beaten track, too expensive and not that good anyway. I know all five of us would dispute that without reservation, having had a ball. It was certainly no more expensive than anywhere else we’ve been, the location and facilities were fantastic, the staff friendly and helpful (especially Michael the boat-rental guy) but the point of the destination is the dolphins, which again, we kept being told weren’t that good.

The first morning we got up early and were down in the water by 7:30am. Over the next half hour we, and about 60 other people, were joined by nine dolphins who swam right in to shore to say hello and show off. About 20 people were picked out of the crowd to feed some of these sleek creatures. It was captivating to have these beautiful wild animals swim up so close.

The next day Trucky and Daniel decided to have a sleep in, so Alex, Jess and I strolled down to the beach just before 8am. There were eight dolphins this time, but they seemed to have had red cordial for breakfast. They were playing and frolicking, rolling over and jumping up like mad things! Yesterday was great but today was just amazing to watch their antics. And all three of us were picked out of the crowd to feed the dolphins. Jess fed ‘Surprise’, who snatched the fish from her hand. Alex and I both fed ‘Piccolo’, who likes to play with her food before eating it. Very funny to watch!

This is another place that is sad to leave. And we didn’t get to see the many other attractions (Francois Peron National Park, Little Lagoon and Shell Beach just to name a few). Six months is really, really, really not long enough – and we’re only trying to do half of Australia!

A new windscreen, friendly folk and a giant Spider

The plan was simple enough: to leave Greenough about 11am, park up in Geraldton and have lunch with Col before we left for Kalbarri. Everything was going swimmingly, with the packing up attended to, the kids had done their homework and we’d had one last chat to Bird Guy. Then from the driver’s seat we heard “Oh, no” (really, no swearing!) In trying to attach the mount for the GPS back onto the windscreen, the glass had completely shattered.

Another quick chat to Bird Guy revealed a Novus windscreen outlet in Geraldton, so we headed there, parked up on the verge as there was no way we’d fit into their driveway, and one of their repairmen came straight out to measure up. Luckily, in previous years, all the windows in the bus had been replaced with flat glass rather the original curved panels, so it was simply a matter for the windscreen guys to cut a pane to fit and install it. Two hours later and $500 lighter, we were on our way again. Col still came out to meet us at the windscreen place and we had our bbq lunch there, in the middle of the industrial estate. It’s called, making the best of all situations!

We arrived in Kalbarri and parked up by the jetty. Again, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people we encountered. We met a lot of locals who dropped by to say hello to “the people in the big bus”, including one family who are very keen to do this kind of trip with their children and came and asked lots of logistical questions. (Hello Amyleigh and Teagan – I hope it all comes together and we see you on the road soon!!)

We spent a few days hanging out with a couple of nutty sisters, Oksana on holidays from England, Daka an ex-pat living in Perth and Daka’s 12 year old son Slade. They’d run into us at Greenough, and then again on the jetty at Kalbarri. I had a glass of wine or several with the sisters while Slade enjoyed spending time fishing with Trucky and the boys (I think spending lots of time with his mum and aunt was cramping his style a bit!!), we headed out in boats on the river together, fishing and cruising, the four kids played on the playground while the adults drank coffee and chatted. They were great fun people, and we plan to catch up with them in Perth on our return.

Kalbarri has an awesome seahorse sanctuary, where we spent an hour watching thousands of seahorses, from tiny babies, through the ones in primary school (yes, there is a seahorse school!) to those in the retirement village. One good thing about travelling outside of school holidays and weekends, means we can go to these places when they’re basically empty, so we had the marine biologist to ourselves, answering our questions and facilitating our learning about these interesting fish.

Another tourist attraction in Kalbarri that was immensely entertaining was the Pirate Amusement Park. There was mini golf (not to brag but… guess who won!!), trampolines that the kids had great fun on and Alex has now mastered landing a front flip, arcade games and the giant Spider. It’s basically a big cage full of elastic bands, and the kids climbed up to the top and then let themselves fall through the seven layers back down to the bottom. It looked like heaps of fun (and the kids concurred) but unfortunately height restrictions meant Trucky and I couldn’t have a go. He did beat me at air hockey that made up somewhat for beating him at golf! We had the place to ourselves so the kind lady in charge let the kids have a long turn on everything. It was a fun way to spend a few hours.

We left Kalbarri rather reluctantly, but there’s still so much to see! We stopped at Hawks Head and Ross Graham, two of the gorges in the Kalbarri National Park, on the Murchison River. The scenery was spectacular, with so much wildlife! I was surprised to see wild goats grazing away on the banks of the river, but there were also many wallabies, bright green birds and even dragonflies playing. At Ross Graham we were able to walk down though, so into the river. The water was lovely and refreshing as we sat and cooled our feet.