BootsnAll Travel Network

All According to Plan II

Lora and I arrived safely in Broome yesterday, after a harrowing day of driving that took us over 900km in one day. We began our journey up the West Coast of Australia from Perth to Darwin 8 days ago in our nice rental car stocked full of our gear, food and emergency water stores. The drive from Perth to Darwin is approximately 4400 km and can technically be driven in three days. However, we were going to “take our time” and travel for about 3 weeks through Western Oz, seeing all the sights along the way. Due to our lack of planning and research, we landed smack in the middle of school holidays, and our route was one that would be taken by thousands of families in campers and cars pulling trailers and boats up and down the coastal highway. Our route would be Western Australia’s equivalent to going to the Grand Canyon on 4th of July weekend, and as much as we tried to catch up, we never got ahead of the game.

Our first day started off as an easy one, leaving Perth in the late morning of Easter Monday. We were fresh and energized, ready to start the trip we had been talking about for months, and we piled into our Nissan Pulsar and headed off onto the highway for a small town called Cervantes, about 400km north of Perth. This leisurely drive turned intoa white-knuckle day, as the one lane road heading in was packed with cars heading towards Perth after their long weekend. Huge road trains, or big trucks with multiple trailers, where interlaced with tons of SUV’s pulling campers and boats, and psychopathic drivers in a hurry attempted to pass them at ever turn. More than once, we had to slow down or stop altogether, or else we’d be playing chicken with an oncoming car who ran out of passing room on the other side. It was a nightmare and completely stressful way to start off our trip.

After pulling off the main highway to a smaller road towards Cervantes, we were stopped at a police checkpoint, and I was given a mandatory breathalyzer, something I was familiar with after seeing them in New Zealand after the wine festival. Lora, however, was stunned and looked like she was about to protest our civil liberties, until she realized I had no problem with it. Laws are different everywhere, and here, checkpoints and breathalyzers are the norm on busy holidays and party nights. Luckily, Lora and I had sworn off drinking for a while after our Margaret River wine tour, and I blew a nice 0.0. Other people weren’t so smart, and we saw two cars pulled over and given further tests. We continued on the small road through the Namburg National Park, until we reached our destination.

The main reason, or only one actually, for going to Cervantes was to stop and see The Pinnacles, a tourist sight in the middle of sand dunes along the coast. While we had seen picture of the Pinnacles before, neither one of us really knew what to expect once we got there. We checked into our hostel in early afternoon, lucky that we thought of calling ahead for a room as it was fully booked, the only backpacker place in town. The best time to see The Pinnacles is at sunset, and since we had been in the car for hours already, we set off early to go for a walk and get some exercise first. The setting for The Pinnacles is in a National Park, and just a short drive from the town of Cervantes. We arrived at the park, and after paying our $9 fee, drove slowly through the gate. We immediately saw what the fuss was all about, as pointed rock formations started to appear through spots in the trees and bushes. As we rounded the corner to the parking spots, the formations got bigger and bigger, looming over our car and the narrowest of driving lanes. There were literally thousands of them pushing their way through the surface of the sand, like an old and forgotten cemetary. Both Lora and I were speechless really, as not much really wows us anymore, and many “must-see sights” have been overrated for the most part. But this was unexpected, as the headstones continued after rise and over dunes of sand, as literally far as the eye could see. We hung around for about an hour, waiting for the sun to set over the Indian Ocean, and the sand and rocks turned a glowing orange, and long shadows stretched far longer than their parent stones. With the sun going down, the wind picked up, and we were decidedly chilly in our tank tops and khakis, and we made our way back to the car, driving slowly through huge boulders on the sand. We settled in for an early night, as we had a long drive ahead of us the next day.

In the morning, we made a quick stop to see the stromatolites surrounding a lake in the National Park. These colonies of sediment-trapping algae are the direct descendants of the earth’s earliest life forms, dating back over 3 billion years. Their ancestors oxygenated the earth’s atmosphere, and these 3000 year old examples found here are one of only a few places on Earth they can be viewed. Unfortunately, as interesting and profound as that should be, they really look like big gray rocks, and we took the obligatory picture and got on the road towards Kalbarri National Park.

Continuing along Highway 1, we reached Kalbarri National Park, where the Murchison river flows into the Indian ocean, and is surrounded by gorges of red rock. We planned on getting some exercise here, and doing some big hikes through the gorges and around the river. However, this is where our lack of research began to rear it’s ugly head. We aren’t allowed to drive our rental car on unpaved roads, and the main road to the big and famous walk was 27km on an unsealed road. We had been chancing it when we had to, for one or two kilometers, but 27 was too far, and there was no other way to reach this walking trail except on a tour for $60. We were stumped, and began to get frustrated due to our lack of awareness about just how many sites and destinations would be on unsealed roads. We settled for a short walk around two of the gorges and lookouts, but didn’t make it to the more famous track. A bit of luck did help out our day, as we saw an echidna in the wild. LIke a big hedgehog, this is one of only two monotremes along with the platypus, and of course, can only be found in Australia. It stuck it’s little pig nose under rocks searching for bugs, and I managed to get some good photos of him. THe following day, we decided to do some coastal walks along the ocean, and walked around something called Mushroom rock, where the erosion from the sea had formed big valleys in the rocks surrounding the beaches. It was starting to get hotter and hotter as we made our way further north, and the heat quickly took over our enjoyment of the hike. We settled for a few hours on the neighboring beach. After we headed back to the hostel, we settled in for some dinner and TV, and I was delighted to find the mid-season recap of the new Survivor season, so I got to see all the important stuff of what happened. It made me feel like I knew slightly what was going on, which was kind of fun.

The following morning, we had another long drive up to Exmouth. Most people stop at a small town called Monkey Mia, to see some dolphins come into the harbour every day. Since it was a fair big off the main highway, and the fact that they feed these “wild” dolphins to get them to come in everyday, we skipped that tourist attraction, and continued to Exmouth.  The only thing of interest along this huge stretch of road was the sightings of enormous termite mounds along the way. There are many different kinds of termites and they make different shaped mounds depending on what they are feeding off of. The ones we saw were called Spinifex termites because they ate the spinifex plant, and were huge red, dome shaped mounds, some so big they were taller than me, and wide and squat like a little hobbit house or something. But other than that, the ride up to Exmouth was a boring, uneventful trip, which is really becoming the norm unfortunately. After an almost day long drive, we arrived at the Exmouth, the home base to explore the Ningaloo reef.

The Ningaloo Reef lines the peninsula of Cape Range, and some say the reef is the Great Barrier reef without all the barriers. Our main reason for heading to Exmouth, some 200 km off the highway, was to take a tour to swim with the whale sharks. These gentle giants of the ocean are biologically sharks, but harmless to humans as they are gill-feeders, straining millions of gallons of water through their mouths to strain out small organisms, much like the baleen whales do. They can grow up to 12meters, and at the right time of year, can be seen swimming around the Ningaloo Reef. We were chagrined, and frankly stunned, to hear the prices for these tours, where they take you out for a day on a boat, aided by a spotter plane, for about 15 minutes in the water with one of these sharks, which the chances are not always good. Since our main reason for going to Exmouth was to do this “once in a lifetime” thing, we shelled out the dough. These once in a lifetime activities are setting me up for a once in a lifetime of bankruptcy.

As we went out on the boat, we had some time to snorkel around the reef as well, and at least the part we were in, I would say was not as nice as the Great Barrier. But it was definitely less damaged and we were out there completely on our own, which was a nice change. Our skipper got the word that the plane had spotted a whale shark, so we got on the boat and headed towards the spot it was sighted. We were joined by at least 5 other boats with similar intentions, and since we were only allowed 10 people at a time in the water swimming with the shark, it was sort of mass chaos, at least to us. Our boat of 20 was divided in two, and at the whistle, when it our turn in line, we jumped in the water and started frantically swimming after our guide. We were lucky in our first time in the water, to see a huge 8meter shark. They can grow up to 12 meters, so this was a good size and it was in shallow water and moving slowly, so it gave us plenty of time to swim with it and take pictures. It was kind of freaky, as they are huge fish, but it was definitely a great experience. We are allowed only 5 minutes in the water, and then the next group had a turn. We then had to get back in line after the other boats, but managed to get in the water again and see the shark again, before it headed for deeper ocean. The spotter plane kept signaling sightings, but try as we might, we never managed to see one again, as they prefer to swim deep down and would head down sometimes when they saw us coming. After the third time in the water, I began to feel sharp little stings in various places of my body, and kept looking around the water to see if I was imagining things. It was only after I got back on the boat, as I realized that there were stingers, or jellyfish, in the water. Good thing these weren’t the deadly ones found on the East coast, but they still hurt, and after the fifth time in the water, I started to get small welts on spots of the stings. Since we hadn’t had any luck spotting another whale shark, we headed back to shore about 5pm, and went back to our hostel. It was a great experience, and something I’m sure I’ll never have another chance to do, so I’m glad to decided to spend the money, as much as it hurt handing over that credit card.

The following day was a planning day for us, as we needed to book accomodation and tours in the Kirijini National Park, our planned next stop. It was very frustrating, as there were only two places to stay in the whole park, and they were all booked up. since we didn’t have camping gear, we couldn’t just head out and camp, and it was a long drive to make without having a place to stay. The other issue was that all the tours had a minimum of 4 people, and as of that day, we were the only ones trying to book on. It was bewildering, since the park was full up of holiday-makers, but apparently everyone had their own 4WD and could drive around the park themselves, unlike us, who couldn’t drive on these rough roads ourselves. It was very disappointing, and Lora in particular was really bummed out, as she really wanted to spend some time in Kirijini. But there wasn’t anything we could do, and we gave up and decided to continue to head north instead of crossing inland through the park. Following those frustrating hours of calling loads of places, we headed to the beach around Exmouth for some much needed relaxation. We first tried the closest beach, but the smell of rotten fish put us off, and decided to drive further and found ourselves at a clothing optional, aka nude, beach.

The water was crystal clear however, and the white sand beached was almost completely deserted, except for an older couple and two other people fishing. We quickly settled in for some much needed sun, and decided to join the locals, and took our tops off to get rid of some tan lines. There is something very liberating about going swimming in the ocean naked, and since there was practically no one around, we didn’t really care since it was just us. As we got out the water, we saw that two other single men had arrived and set up on the beach, but we didn’t think much of it. Until the one guy just kept obviously staring at us, which is partially to be expected, but also super annoying, and it was just really starting to get on our nerves. Suddenly, this big sort of fat guy actually started walking towards us, and while Lora quickly covered up, I just sort of sat there looking at him, thinking, is he actually coming over here to talk to us? Oh yes, he was, and it was fairly ridiculous. This man, fully clothed, mind you, said, ” I hope I’m not making you guys uncomfortable, it’s just that where I come from, we don’t have naked beaches, and I just can’t help looking.” First of all, if you think you are making us uncomfortable, then don’t come over and make it worse. Second, why are you on a nude beach if you don’t know how to behave on one, and aren’t planning on getting nude yourself? Of course this guy was American, making it almost funny if it weren’t so creepy and irritating. We shrugged him off and said it was fine, and I just felt like saying, “At least put on some sunglasses, make it a little less obvious.” But of course I didn’t, and we determined later that he came over to get a closer look more so than anything else.

Our day on the beach continued on, and as I stared out at the water, I could have sworn I saw a black dorsal fin rise slowly out of the water. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me in the bright sun, but when I pointed to the spot to Lora, it showed up again, only a few meters from where we had been swimming. We wished upon anything we could think of that it was a dolphin, but since they usually are in pods, we knew it must have been a shark. We decided to not go back in the water, and as it was a really hot day, we decided we’d had enough of the sun and creepy guys, and went back to our hostel. After discussing the sighting with a guy at the internet cafe, we came to the conclusion it must have been a tiger shark, one of the meanest ones around, and were thoroughly freaked out after that.

Our next stop along our northern route towards Darwin was Broome, but since it was over 1300km away, we had to stop in a small town called Karratha, of which nothing of note happens, and we couldn’t find one reason to stop there except it was almost half-way between Exmouth and Broome. It was an uneventful drive to Karratha, where we got lucky with a decent radio station coming in for a few hours of the drive. We had decided to spurge and buy some CD’s for our car ride, but everything was closed when we were in Perth for Easter Monday. At a quick lunch stop in a town called Geraldton a few days before, we broke down and bought some overpriced CD’s, Missy Phillips, Dave Matthews Crash, and a double Johnny Cash greatest hits album. That, along with two compilation CD’s we had picked up at a discount store, had to last us without driving us crazy, for 5000 km. The following morning, we got on the road early and made good time, only making stops at the roadhouses along the way for fuel, where we spent an eye-opening $1.73 on fuel at one place, and $1.65 at another. Since these were the only fuel stops, or signs of civilization for that matter, along the 800km stretch of road, we had no choice.

The endless, monotonous, blindingly dull drive from Karratha to Broome cannot be desribed accurately, though our guide books tried to warn us. It was the Kansas of Australia, straight roads as far as we could see, with the heat giving off a mirage of water on the pavement. We passed nary a soul, except a few huge road trains pulling 4 tankers full of highly flammable fuel and a few slower vehicles. It was torture, and it took all my willpower not to drive over the 110km speed limit, as neither one of us could afford a speeding ticket. The last 100km, which should have taken 45 minutes, ended up taking over 1 1/2 hours, due to an oversized load in front of us. Two huge tractors, big enough to knock down the John Hancock building, were being towed to Broome. They took up both lanes of traffic, and it was virtually impossible to pass them. I tried once, as the warning car flashed it’s lights at me, and waved me past them, as they signaled to the warning car in front of the tractors. As I approached 140km an hour, I ran out of paved shoulder, and it quickly turned to soft rocks and gravel. I slowed down, not having made it past the first tractor, and fell behind the warning car. This continued on for a while, as approaching cars from the other direction had to literally stop and pull of the road to let them pass. This was until a huge road behind me, decided he’d had enough, and not only passed me, but the road train carrying fuel in front of me, and the two tractors. He literally ran the other road train off the road, and red cloud of dust blew up around me as he was driving on the shoulder. I still can’t believe he made it past four vehicles, a road train and those two tractors safely. We debated if he was able to radio ahead and find out if he could pass safely ,but are unsure if they could radio like that to the warning cars. It was totally insane. Luckly, they turned off about 30km outside of Broome, and we cruised into town finally around 4:30, after 9 1/2 hours on the road.

Sleep won us over last night, but today we are going out for a well deserved drink and to help celebrate Anzac Day.This national day of rememberance is for the Australian and New Zealand servicemen who lost their lives during WWI, when fighing in Gallipoli in Turkey. It is a big holiday here, and as similar to the US, a big drinking day as well, and we’re heading out in Broome to some pubs around here. Broome is what they call an “up and coming” town, becoming more and more popular, not only as a place to live but for tourists as well. The great weather and beaches and sights, along with the relaxed vibe of “Broometime” make it a great place to spend a few days. Our last ten days will be spent trying to get up to Darwin, but late season floodings, cyclones and all around crap seem to be getting in our way of seeing anything of importance. We have a tour planned for tomorrow to get into the Kimberly, Australia’s last frontier. But past that, we can’t make plans due to unknown weather and road conditions. Time is not on our side, as we have to get to Darwin by May 6th to meet Paul and tour Kakadu National Park. It’ll be a race to the finish.

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One response to “All According to Plan II”

  1. Your Mommy says:

    Hi Kirsten, this is my third try at E-mailing you. I am even in an internet cafe and nobody can help me get into my own E-mail address. Today is April 28 and tomorrow we are off to Tuscany by bus. Kendra read me all my E-mails. I started reading this blog and, as always, it is totally fascinating and exciting. Since I am on a coin-operated timer, I will finish reading this at home. Hope all turns out as planned and that the weather does not interfere with any of your plans. We´ll be thinking of you all the way. Miss you and take good care of yourself. Love, Mommy and Daddy.

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