We returned to eastern Australia to find that it was fall (or autumn as they say). For the most part, these weeks were about catching up with family and friends: Jim and Liza in Sydney, Gez and Dave in the suburbs of Melbourne, meeting up with niece Bryony and her boyfriend, plus a couple rounds of “crazy golf” with Johanna in the city. From Melbourne we were flying to Perth, to start our first ever exploration of Western Australia.
I have been an immigrant, or trying to emigrate, my whole adult life, which makes the subject of great interest to me. It was fascinating to see how perspectives of “white Australia” had changed over the centuries. Further, how does an “immigrant nation” reconcile its self-image with its indigenous inhabitants, until recently treated as a race doomed to extinction?
It was also interesting to see statistics on who immigrants are, since here, as in other countries, we are very unpopular with some people.
|In 1967(!) there was a referendum to recognize Aboriginal people as citizens of Australia. To their credit, other Australians, who could vote, said Yes overwhelmingly.|
Another fact I learned at the Immigration Museum is that visitors to Australia, many British and American, who overstay their visas outnumber asylum seekers by 10 to 1. In other words, people seeking refuge—a legitimate act by international agreement—are only small in number compared with illegal immigrants who happen to “blend in.” Here as in other countries I can think of, if people object to illegal immigration, they need to stop being hypocritical about who is staying and working illegally.
Anyway, it was time to move on. We were flying to Perth and picking up a camper van. Perth is the capital of Western Australia, and prides itself on being the most remote capital on earth. If you look at a globe, you can see it is not near to anything. As we were to discover driving north, the west coast of Australia is pretty remote too.
This was our first rental, as opposed to relocation, of a camper van in Australia, and I have to say it didn’t compare favorably with our New Zealand experience. While the other companies we’ve dealt with in Australia, Britz and Maui, provided us with great service, the Apollo place in Perth seemed inefficient right off. It took us forever to get served, and once our guy realized he wasn’t going to be able to “upsell” a bunch of stuff that we didn’t need, his entire demeanor changed. The van itself has been running just fine (fingers crossed) but, compared with our Tui van in New Zealand that was much older, the interior leaves much to be desired. Fortunately, the weather is so much warmer and drier here that we haven’t spent as much time in the interior.
Not to belabor design flaws, but how in the world is this same size of Hi-Top vehicle designed as a four-berth? If four people were traveling in this there would be no room at all for two people’s stuff (there’s barely room for ours). The presence of two extra seats, with the bed in the middle, means the bed is too short (we are 5’8” and 5’9”), and the kitchen being in the rear means in the middle of the night we have to climb out through the back. Not the easiest thing to do, even for backpackers more limber than we are. There is also far less gear in the kitchen than the Tui camper managed to fit. I don’t want to be a prima donna so I won’t moan about missing my cafetière, but a wastewater tank/hose would have been nice. “It just goes on the ground,” according to the Apollo guy. I’ve been using the bucket for this purpose, but really. Dishwater on the ground is not good enough for responsible camping purposes.
Despite all this, we rented a camping table and chairs (useful every day in dry Western Australia! Yay!) and set off boldly up the highway. Well, we tried to. Unlike in New Zealand where we were given a road atlas (a duplicate of one I had already bought), the Apollo people “don’t have maps anymore,” so we had only a map from a gas station. Which would have been fine, except we had no idea where we were in Perth or how to get out of it! The gas station woman could tell us where a grocery store was, so that was a start. At the post office next door, my luck changed. The whole staff stopped what they were doing and tried to give me directions out of town. One drew me a map while another said, “Oh, so-and-so goes to Cervantes all the time; let me ask her” and wrote down directions. The business of the post office, and the line of customers behind me, ground to a halt while everyone tried to help.
Nonetheless, we still had to stop at another gas station for confirmation that, somehow, we were going the wrong way. I asked again about State Highway 60 but “We don’t use numbers much around here,” the guy told me.
“Yes, I’ve noticed that.”
Having never seen Perth except for its suburban outskirts, we eventually got on Highway 60 going towards Cervantes. (This is pronounced with a short a, but nevertheless reminds me of my old friend Fritz—Quixote—who used to call me Cervantes.) The road which nobody calls 60 is called Indian Ocean Drive on signs. This is a rather grand name. It seemed to be hours before we caught a glimpse of the ocean, but that was probably just because it had taken us so long to pick up the camper van and finally leave Perth. Cervantes isn’t very far north and I hadn’t expected we’d get there at sunset. The last time we saw the sun set over the Indian Ocean, we were in Mauritius!
|Giant sand dune at sundown|
The area is filled with giant white sand dunes, and I heard, rather than saw, interesting bird life throughout. Our campground was within view of the beach, which rather made up for the “coastal drive” which had not, largely, been coastal. The biggest attraction near Cervantes, though, a few kilometers south, is Nambung National Park and its most famous feature, the Pinnacles.
These are thousands of limestone formations that appear suddenly out of the white sand dunes within view of the Indian Ocean. Only a matter of public record since 1934, the Pinnacles really are mysterious. We didn't read any Aboriginal history relating to them, and there doesn’t seem to be a definitive scientific explanation for exactly how they formed. Something about the wind and sand in this part of the world.
We drove through the Pinnacles on a packed sand road and then did the walk. Here I began to notice a distinct characteristic of Western Australia. The “trail” was just periodic markers; you had to keep your eye out for the next one or you could be lost in the desert. Yet no one appeared to have trampled the sand or driven where they weren’t supposed to. It seems that here is a place where adults are trusted to explore while taking responsibility for our own safety.
The other characteristic I’d already noticed was an exceptional friendliness. Take Margaret Stewart, the woman at the Pinnacles who told us all about the national parks pass, which for four weeks entitles us to visit all of WA’s national parks for less than the price of four days, without ever hard selling (it didn’t matter to her if we bought it or not). It was also from Ms. Stewart that I learned that Exmouth, our ultimate destination, is pronounced Ex Mouth, which sounds like a remembered kiss from a past relationship.
We went away and considered, then came back to buy the pass. She glanced up and said “Yes, sir?” before realizing I was the same woman she’d been talking to moments before: “Oh, I’m sorry—I just saw the hat!” Don’t worry, Ms. Stewart; it happens all the time. We then instantly became “girls.” She was right about the parks pass, though. Even if we didn’t visit four of the parks in the course of our trip, and it seems likely we will, we will definitely spend at least four days in them.
Because, aside from the national parks and other designated scenic spots, it is a pretty bleak road trip. T. keeps saying that the highway paralleling the west coast of Australia is much more like she expected the Stuart Highway up the middle to be. Whereas it was hotter in central Australia in March, it did not appear to be the red dust desert of our imagination. In WA, on the other hand, once the ocean is out of view (and it almost always is, except for turnoffs to those specific places), you might as well be a thousand miles inland. Nothing but desert and acres of “station” (ranch) as far as the eye can see.
Of course this is why we travel: to see these places for ourselves and get our own impressions. T. has been on a roll with her observations lately. “Yeah, I’m never sure about being happy as a clam,” she said one day; “are clams really all that happy?” Or in the grocery store, when I suggested a jar of pasta sauce; it transpired that she had never made pasta before without homemade sauce. “What do you do with it? Just heat it up?!” It rather made up for the day when she “couldn’t find hamburgers” and I had to suggest, rather gently, that we buy some ground beef and just form our own patties…
The campground at Cervantes was very friendly too, and this established a pattern that would be repeated throughout WA. The strains of a guitar playing Pink Floyd, and the chit chat with German-accented people at the next campsite, were soothing sounds. Just as well because it was at this first campground that I discovered another of Apollo’s many sins: The water hose didn't screw into the spigot. I learned this at the expense of soaking my clothes. The prospect of not being able to refill the tank was not good, even if we weren’t planning to camp in remote sites.
“Remote” being relative. At the risk of repeating myself, this coast is not near anywhere else. I wouldn't say it’s hard to get to—the highway is paved these days, and there are airports—but it isn’t on the way to, or from, Australia’s more famous destinations. You have to want to come here. Unlike eastern Australia, WA is thin on the ground when it comes to rest areas or even recycling bins (they’re pretty good with aluminum cans, but we knew about them forty years ago). And the only “photo op” I saw for days was the Leaning Tree, which I didn’t photograph, because every tree we could see was bent from the wind in that same direction.
Western Australia gives the impression of being behind on environmental awareness. Maybe it’s that for so long the state’s economy has been focused on mining, but the sight of cans and bottles flung onto the side of the highway is depressingly consistent. Ironic, too, because if you persist, as we have, you can be rewarded by some of the environmental wonders of the world.