Perth to the Pilbara

Before I get into it this week, I’d like to take a moment and do something I’ve never done before.

Over the years, this blog has collected a small following that, in places, even extends beyond my own circle of family and friends. Some of you leave comments from time to time, others drop in silently every few months, and a couple read the posts as they go up.

I rarely acknowledge that anyone is actually reading this thing, mainly because it feels a bit arrogant and presumptuous to do so. But that’s my problem, not yours, and it doesn’t mean I’m not grateful to the handful of you who do spend time on this corner of the internet. Thank you very, very much for reading.

I felt I should mention this because our time in Perth, where the last post left off, coincided with possibly the nicest thing yet to happen to this blog. A friend of a friend, who I have yet to meet, started reading a couple of years back to follow the cycling adventures of my much-loved mate Robbie. When he left for Mexico, her parting gift to him was a length of tough green polyester material that she had knitted into a “scrubbie.” We used this thing to wash our dishes for months, and every time Robbie took it out, it made him think of her.

She still follows this blog every now and then, and was kind enough to send me a whole bunch of new homemade scrubbies, of varying colours and textures, care of a post office in Fremantle. Robbie told me he has “scrubbie envy.” Carmel, you’re a bloody legend. Thanks again!

So while we’re doing things for the first time, let me ask you something: what would you like to read about on this blog? What brings you back? What bores you? Mum has told me she wants “less rants,” for example. I’m working on that. I was flattered and surprised to hear lots of good feedback for the recent post about our crossing of the Nullarbor – what was it about that post that you liked? Whatever it was, I’d like to do it more often. I know these posts can be long and take some time to read, so I want this little webpage to be worth your while. Just let me know in the comments, or via email at quintencdol(at)gmail.com. Oh, and thanks again for hanging out.

Back to our Feature Presentation

It wasn’t just the scrubbies that made us like Perth. The place is a bustling mid-sized metropolis, with a vibrancy you wouldn’t expect from the most isolated capital city in the world. Kings Park is the largest central park in the country, and it feels distinctly Australian in a way that the big parks of Sydney and Melbourne do not. Those were planted by homesick Englishmen who felt threatened by the unfamiliar flora down here, and so they are full of big shady oaks and dark pines. Those parks are nice, yes, but it feels like you could be just about anywhere.

The CBD on the Swan River

Kings Park, on the other hand, feels like a chunk of bushland plonked in the centre of the city. There are banksias, big ghost gums, stunted acacias and plenty of native flowers about. The Botanic Gardens group together various plants that you will find in specific regions of Western Australia. It’s almost like going for a real bushwalk in the middle of the city.

The centrepiece of Kings Park is, inevitably, a war memorial. Which brings me to…

The Last Rant

…but the most important. No country I’ve been to – not even the United States – goes on and on about its wars more than we do in Australia. In the absence of any historically defining period of revolution or reform, Australians have latched onto the First and Second World Wars as our nation’s “baptism of fire.” Where the United States fought a revolution and a civil war, Latin American republics rebelled against imperial Spain and France overthrew a monarchy, Australia has its minor role in the 1915 battle for the Gallipoli peninsula.

The context of this battle – a failed British invasion of the Ottoman Empire – is rarely discussed in our national conversation. Instead, we are supposed to consider the sacrifice, the mateship and the ingenuity of the diggers who “did us proud” as they “represented our country,” as if World War One was the Olympic Games or the World Cup.

There is no question of Australia’s outsized participation in those conflicts. A full 60 per cent of Australian troops were killed or wounded in the First World War, the highest casualty rate by nationality. The ubiquitous war memorials across the country commemorate the deaths of staggering numbers of country boys. Melrose, in South Australia, had a population of just 347 in 2016. Yet their war memorial names nine men and boys, ranging between the ages of 19 and 35, who were killed in Europe between 1914 and 1918.

Like all Australian children, I grew up going to services and learning about the brave ANZACs in social studies year after year. But I’ve been away for a while, and now that I’ve come back, this awkward use of the ANZACs as a sort of historical tool to fabricate a national identity has become extremely transparent.

We must remember our war dead. Of course we should. But should we really let senseless sacrifice in foreign wars define us as a nation? “Lest we forget,” intone the memorials, but I fear the relentless remembrance of these conflicts clouds all else, blurring our understanding of more complex, more important parts of our history.

Take an obvious example: Do you know the name of the Aboriginal nation that once inhabited the land you live on? Do you know any of their creation stories, or what techniques they used to shape the landscape? Do you know any words from their language? What happened to them – to that specific group of people – when Europeans colonised the area? Where are they now? And isn’t their experience at least as important as that of Simpson and his donkey?

We didn’t have any of the revolutions or national struggles against oppression by which other countries define themselves. Our involvement in the wars of the 20th century are important, sure, but they don’t count as a “birth of a nation” myth.

And that’s okay! Australia’s biggest achievement – building a society that is prosperous, diverse and, above all, egalitarian – has always been an ongoing work-in-progress. That makes it harder to celebrate than a handful of old battlefields on the other side of the world. But this strange manipulation of our history in the pursuit of a “baptism of fire” myth dumbs down our national discourse, and sells us all short. We’re smarter than this. Enough with the war memorials already.

And We’re Back

Aside from collecting the scrubbies, we spent our days in Perth riding bikes around the Swan River, drinking beers at the Little Creatures brewery, and generally taking in the luxuries of a city one last time. It will be a while before we see one again.

We followed the coastal road north out of Perth, and our surroundings dried out very quickly. Nambung National Park was a vast, trackless wilderness broken only by the occasional sand dune, marching across the hills. Out at sea, mountains of water became visible as they foamed across offshore reefs. Jurien Bay, Cervantes, Leeman and Illawong were prettily-named dots on the map that disappeared all too quickly at 90 kilometres per hour.

The Pinnacles

I found waves to surf and even friendly locals to share them with at a reef outside the port at Dongara. They were large and gave long, speedy rides towards the break wall or back towards the barrier reef (the waves, not the locals). I traded them off with just two other surfers, local tradesmen on an extended lunch break, who actually seemed happy to share with a blow-in like me.

Crazy Dutchmen

Dutch explorers had found the mysterious southern continent long before James Cook claimed it for Britain. After crossing the Indian Ocean, Dutch ships regularly bumped into the west coast on their way to their bases in present-day Indonesia. This part of the world held little of value for the Dutch trading network, and aside from a few exploratory expeditions, they mostly ignored it. The sight of an arid, rocky coastline told a Dutch captain he was too far south, and a left turn would point him back towards the East Indies.

Sea cliffs south of Kalbarri

In 1629 the Batavia sailed from Amsterdam for a port that was also named Batavia (now known as Jakarta) under the command of Commander Francisco Pelsaert. Jeronimus Cornelisz was also aboard, a slightly unhinged fellow who saw the voyage as a chance to escape Europe and create a new life, possibly even his own kingdom. Cornelisz deliberately steered the ship away from its convoy after leaving the coast of South Africa, and on the morning of June 4th, 1629, the Batavia struck the Morning Reef in the Abrolhos Islands, off the coast of Western Australia. The island on which 220 men, women and children were marooned was little more than a sand bar with no fresh water, and little hope of rescue.

After some thought, Pelsaert gathered a group of trusted men and struck out in a lifeboat, intending to row the thousands of kilometres to Batavia and send help. Pelsaert and his men actually did make it to Batavia in a row boat, a feat that is probably boggling your mind right now.

But there’s more. Back on the sandbar, Cornelisz saw his chance and pounced. He and a band of henchmen mutinied and took over control from the man Pelsaert had left in command. Believing that there wasn’t enough food and water for all 220 islanders, Cornelisz and his cronies embarked on a brutal campaign of violence to cull the population down to a sustainable size. They were was way too enthusiastic about it, and 125 men, women and children were murdered in all. Very gruesome stuff. A band of survivors, lead by the soldier Wiebbe Hayes, escaped to a neighbouring island, and a sort of war began between the two.

On September 17, Cornelisz launched a final attack that would put an end to Hayes’ resistance. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, up sailed Pelsaert in a new ship, right in the middle of the battle! Cornelisz raced to tell Pelsaert his version of events first, but Hayes beat him to it. The mutineers were tried in a makeshift court, and most were executed on the spot.

But two of the youngest mutineers, boys named Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom, were spared death and even imprisonment. Pelsaert found that their age and limited involvement in the mutiny obliged a lesser sentence, and so he simply left them on the mainland. Historians believe the exact point where they were dropped off would have been near Wittecarra Creek, a dusty patch of beach just south of Kalbarri.

These lonely Dutchmen are almost certainly the first European settlers to take up residence in Australia. There are definitely worse places to be marooned. Just north of Wittecarra Creek, the ample Murchison River reaches the ocean. It flows year-round and Aboriginal people had permanent settlements along its banks. Later European arrivals noted that some locals had lighter skin than others, and some among the local Amangu people have a blood type specific to the area around Leyden, in the Netherlends.

Shark Bay

When someone says they went to Shark Bay, they’re referring to a region of peninsulas and islands sticking north-west out of the mainland, forming a series of bays and harbours – one of which is called Shark Bay. The land is (predictably) dry and featureless, a rolling plain of low bushes growing in sandy earth.

The aptly-named Shelly Beach

By contrast, the waters surrounding this desolation are full of life. Dugongs feed on the meadows of seagrass, turtles, rays and sharks patrol the waterways and dolphins come to shore at Monkey Mia. At Eagle Point Hailee and I plonked ourselves on a hilltop overlooking the ocean for a picnic, binoculars in hand to look for sea critters. Within ten minutes I spotted the unmistakeable shape of a shark, silhouetted against the white sand below. I’d never seen one before in the wild and as far as shark sightings go, this was definitely the way to do it. Much better than seeing one from your surfboard.

Eagle Point

We plunged Steve into his natural habitat again in Francois Peron National Park, bumping our way along sandy tracks to the very tip of Cape Peron. We camped on the beach, went for a snorkel on the reefs, and bumped our way back again.

Found this little guy on a track in Francois Peron National Park

And, of course, we went to see the dolphins at Monkey Mia. It’s all very controlled nowadays, so the dolphins don’t become dependent on handouts from humans.

And aside from all the large, interesting marine life, we saw some very small, very boring, but no less important marine life as well. At Hamelin Pool it is possible to see stromatolites, weird black clumps of rock created by microscopic metropolises of single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria. The stromatolites sit around all day doing nothing, growing at a supremely dull rate and releasing the odd bubble of oxygen every once and a while.

Sounds riveting, right? But these stromatolites’ ancient ancestors, who looked exactly the same as the ones in Hamelin Pool, were the first living beings on Earth, first appearing 3.5 billion years ago. They were also the only living things on Earth for about a billion years, slowly filling the atmosphere with enough oxygen to allow the evolution of other, more interesting life. They are the common ancestor for the global family that includes you, me, the snails in your garden, the flowers they’re chewing on, the cow on your fork, the tapeworm in your belly and all other life on Earth. Shark Bay is one of three known sites in the world where they still live. Pretty cool, huh? Worth hopping out of the car on a hot day, if only just to say “Thanks.”

Fascinating!

On the Ningaloo

This theme of barrenness on shore and abundance in the ocean continued at Exmouth, over a day’s drive further north.

I’ve already mentioned how expensive travel in Australia is, and because of this Hailee and I generally limit our spending to food, fuel and the occasional campground. However, we made an exception at Exmouth – our first of the trip. We went swimming with whale sharks.

Once someone on the boat had spotted the grey patch of a whale shark in the water, and perhaps the tip of their tail peeking above the surface, a guide hopped in to find it. She would indicate the direction that the creature was moving in, and we tourists would tumble into the deep and arrange ourselves into two lines, creating a corridor through which the biggest fish in the world would swim. The first was about four metres long, and a fast swimmer. We lost him within minutes each time. But the last whale shark we found was humungous – eight metres from mouth to tail.

The guides told us not to splash too much, as apparently the whale shark can mistake the bubbles for food. And on the last swim with the big fellow, somebody splashed. We poked our masks underwater to find the wide face of the whale shark coming right towards us.

“Get out of the way!” yelled the guide. Hailee swam right. Everybody else swam left. The whale shark followed Hailee for a moment, and she scrambled to get out of the way. When it’s that big, even a benign creature with a big, toothless grin will get your heart pumping if it swims straight at you.

I’ve already written about swimming with whale sharks on another post of this blog, so I’ve tried to sum up the experience in a little photo essay I took:

The Ningaloo Reef lies just offshore, and there are numerous white-sand beaches from which you can swim and find yourself surrounded by enough corals and fish to fill a text book. On our last morning in town we drove out to a beach where I had found surf a few days earlier. A small swell had sent fun waves down a shallow reef, but the ocean was flat this day. We sat on the sand, contemplating our next move, when we spotted a turtle close to shore, lifting its old man’s head above the surface to breathe. Two of them were floating around in the shallows, just hanging out. Then Hailee spotted a splash on the horizon – humpback whales were breaching offshore, performing back flops in the deep. We watched them through binoculars.

Snorkelling on the reef.

That’s a large ray on the sand.

After a while I grabbed my snorkel and swam out over the reef. I found the usual kaleidoscope of fish, nibbling at the corals and inspecting me with as much curiosity as I had for them. I swam over a hole in the rock and shrieked through the snorkel at the sight of a green turtle resting at the bottom, its booty wedged in the sand. At first I thought she was dead, but fish nibbled at her face and she blinked her eyes in slow motion. I swam on to give her some space, keeping one eye on her hollow. Slowly, she rose to take a breath from the surface. We circled one another once or twice, and then I followed for a few minutes as she swam lazily out to sea.

Oh, and here are a couple of photos for our mums:

A bold visitor at Red Bluff.

I get to look at this every day.

Next week: off to the Kimberley!

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