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Monkey Mia

22 Mar

We’re playing pearl diving. A heavily suntanned, retired couple bob around in the warm turquoise sea, talking about investments and stock prices. On the fine yellow sand some toddlers are building a sandcastle and three bikini clad backpackers lie on their towels reading fat novels. A little way out, there are small fishing boats, rods dangling hopefully over the side. A group of young men throw a ball noisily in the shallows. You could be on any beach anywhere in the world, except for maybe in North Yorkshire, where hypothermia would have set in by now. You could, if it wasn’t for the five dolphins swimming up and down the shore, playfully chasing minnows and weaving curiously around the delighted humans.

Monkey Mia is an unusual place. No more than a holiday resort really, in Shark Bay, one of only twenty-odd places in the world that meet all four World Heritage criteria for places of natural importance. One of the area’s biggest drawcards is the stromatolites, the living descendents of the earth’s earliest producers of oxygen. They’re not much to look at, rock-like creatures that bubble occasionally, but ex-geologist husbands find them very exciting. Scientists aside, most people come to Shark Bay for the stunning wildlife, dugongs, rays, turtles, sea snakes and the famous dolphins. In the 1960’s, a small caravan park was established at the end of a dirt track in a place called Monkey Mia. People would come to fish and the local dolphins soon worked out that if they hung around in the bay they’d get a free feed. Before long, people were coming to Monkey Mia just to feed the dolphins and their images graced postcards all over Australia.

I have to say that I was in two minds about visiting a place to feed dolphins, it sounded a bit cheesy and commercial, like a glorified aquarium. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. After it was discovered that unregulated feeding was altering the dolphins’ behaviour and causing serious problems to the population, the Department for Environment and Conservation turned the area into a reserve and took control of the feeding programme. There are now very strict no touching rules, areas which are for dolphin swimming only and continuous research into their behaviour. Only five mature females are ever fed and they’re only given a small snack, never enough fish to stop them hunting for themselves. Despite this, many more dolphins come into the beach every day. They know they’re not going to be given fish, they just like interacting with humans. The dolphins who come into the beach today are the children and grandchildren of the first animals to be fed. Dolphins spend a third of their day socialising, and these particular dolphin families have chosen to include humans in their coffee morning.

We continue our game of pearl diving, stopping now and then to watch as the beautiful creatures race past in pursuit of a long tom. The long tom lives to see another day but the dolphins don’t seem to mind. And nor do we.

Poste Restante

21 Mar

Since we’ve been away we’ve made full use of the modern technology available to us to keep in touch with family and friends.  Email’s good, so are Facebook and Skype and FaceTime’s lovely.  But really nothing beats a proper old fashioned letter or card.

I was kind of surprised that poste restante still existed in this modern age, but it does.  You just ask people to send you stuff care of your chosen post office, then turn up with your passport for ID and receive a pile of letters and birthday cards in return.

There’s something about seeing a person’s handwriting, knowing that they’ve taken your letter to the post office themselves, that they’ve actually touched it, that makes it a completely different experience to an email.  You can’t fold an email up and tuck it inside a book to look at later in a quiet moment.

I hope people never stop writing me letters.

Who needs TV?

19 Mar

How does one entertain oneself in a very small cabin with only a musical birthday card to help?  Here’s how.  Well it made us laugh…

Are we nearly there yet?

17 Mar

I have talked a lot about the unimaginable vastness of Western Australia.  It all sounds so romantic doesn’t it?  What I haven’t talked about is my passengers on this epic journey.  Children aren’t exactly renowned for their love of being trapped in confined spaces for hours at a time, so what do we get up to entertain ourselves?  When we’re not marvelling at the views, obviously.

Top of the pops is listening to music.  The esteemed husband takes his deejaying very seriously and we have an eclectic diet of Mozart, Pet Shop Boys (Go West of course), Flight of the Conchords and the Sound of Music.  We are, as he says, putting the camp into camping.

Second only to music are audiobooks.  The dulcet tones of David Tennant reading about dragons have whiled away many an hour and when we tire of him we can have Mr Gum, The Famous Five, Killer Cat or Roald Dahl.  They have an undeniable power to keep the children quiet, which is obviously a good thing.

Of course there’s plenty of arguing, what would a family car journey be without it?  Normally this would be primarily between the two adults in the family, but as there’s pretty much only one straight road for 2,000 kilometres, the driver and the navigator don’t have much ammunition.  When the “He touched me!” reaches a fever pitch, we crack open the Sesame Street and Hanna Barbera cartoons on the children’s iPods.  Peace is then restored until we disagree on who gets to hold said iPods or what to watch.

We listen to Percy Parker’s times tables.  It’s educational, innit.

We eat Lifesavers.  The fizzy fruit ones are my favourite.  Sometimes we eat something else instead, but it’s never as popular.

One thing we don’t do is stop, bladders permitting, unless we’re in a place with airconditioning, which only happens every 200 kilometres or so.   Stopping at the side of the road means stepping into a shadeless desert and being attacked by a plague of pestilential flies.  Not nearly as appealing as the frequent grassy, shady parks in New Zealand with excellent playgrounds.  But I guess emus don’t have much use for zip slides.

Speaking of flies, we spend a good part of each trip randomly opening and closing windows whilst waving our arms in the air in an attempt to rid the car of these pesky creatures.  One or two always manage to evade us and buzz annoyingly around my legs for the entire journey.

Sometimes, the stars align and the gods shine upon us and all being in the car together is actually pretty good.  We have far ranging discussions about spinifex and termites and who would win in a fight between a big white (sic) and a saltie, and no one hits anyone else for at least three minutes.  At times like these it feels like we doing exactly the right thing.

If we’re very lucky, they fall asleep.

Incredible

12 Mar

Great Northern Highway

It’s incredible.  Truly incredible.  It’s hard to believe that somewhere like this exists anywhere on earth.  This Martian landscape­ was formed so long ago, that the only life on earth was small blobby creatures and rock spewing volcanoes.  The rocks are still here, just as the volcanoes left them.  Huge mountains of rust red boulders that look for all the world like an oversized digger dumped them here yesterday.  It’s cyclone season, and unusual amounts of rain have been dumped on this dry country, covering the rock mountains in a fuzzy bum-fluff of pale green spinifex grass.  The orange sandy ground is covered in bright green teletubby hummocks, their velvety appearance belying their hedgehog spikiness.  If you know where to look, and clamber up the boulders in the scorching sun, you can find pre-historic rock art, a man with a boomerang, emus, a kangaroo, children’s hand prints.  This landscape is so ancient and so forbidding that it’s hard to comprehend.

What is even harder to comprehend is the vastness.  For two days we drive.  Hour after hour, and then some more.  This incredible landscape stretches in all directions, under a blue bedspread of sky, giant cotton wool clouds floating above the rock piles, the narrow tarmac road the only evidence of man’s existence.  The towns are hundreds of kilometres apart, with very little in between.  A roadhouse every three hundred kilometres, a couple of dead cows, an emu, a few tracks leading off to cattle stations, one mine, vehicles, perhaps one every five kilometres or so.

Driving out here is awe inspiring, but it’s also dangerous.  The heat when you step out of the car is overwhelming, we get through litres of water but are still thirsty.  The flies are like a Biblical plague, feasting on the remains of roadkill and buzzing around our eyes and mouth, searching for moisture.  There is no mobile phone coverage, no handy phone boxes, we are utterly alone.  The frequent sight of exploded tires a sobering reminder that breaking down happens all too often.  In many places the road is flooded.  Sometimes a couple of centimetres of water, on one occasion, so deep that the car struggles to make it through and my heart pounds scarily in my chest.  Despite the straight, empty roads, there’s no temptation to speed.

So far we’ve driven just over a thousand kilometres, visited three towns and stopped in both roadhouses.  Can you imagine that?  It truly is an incredible place.

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