Western Australian bush

Day 1

Got to Perth last night. It is the most beautiful place on earth, although probably too small and quiet to live here. It’s where I want to live once I’ve decided that the rat race is not for me. The sun does that thing that the sun in California does – the blinding light, making everything stand out in clean lines and curves.  The Swan river looked beautiful, the water clear and bouncing along with some force. If there has been a drought here, it is not evident. In fact, the itinerary for the trip inland has been changed because of flooding. It is being done in reverse, so that we have more time to get to the northern coastal areas, where the roads are currently closed.

The tour group is actually quite good. A few headcases no doubt, but it will be entertaining. There is a rather elegant looking older Swiss man, a very good looking younger Swiss woman, a rather neurotic Italian girl, a middle aged Austrian couple wearing hideous neon cycling tops, a single guy who is probably English but might not be, two more young Swiss girls, and an English couple. Well, I think they’re English since they’re called Nigel and Gemma.

The tour guid is called Tammy and seems really nice. She’s doing a degree in something environmental. She is quite keen on telling us about the plants. Some sort of species of cactus that makes glue, and a “Christmas tree” , and the drive to replace all the pine trees in Western Australia with a blue gum tree native to another part of Australia. The water restrictions now are so severe that people are supposed to use the runoff from the washing machine to put on the garden. We are now on Highway 1, “The Great Northern Highway“. They’re creative about their names. She also told us about the dreamtime, a lovely reminder of childhood for me, and of course the story of the Rainbow Serpent. I still love that story.

On this trip, we will cover a round trip distance of 3,000 kilometres, so I’ll be writing a great deal on the bus, and most of it will be rather bored and therefore probably boring.

12. 55 pm

I thought thebeautiful Swiss girl might have good taste in music, so I trusted her with the music selection on the ipod when the tour guide passed it back for us all to put a  playlist together. Turns out she’s an Elton John fan. Yeah, because I always thought Candle in the Wind made perfect driving music for the desert in Australia.

2 pm – Things improved, briefly, before lapsing into Eros Ramazotti. In between, we had Michael Jackson (Black or white, yada yada), Kylie, even Kings of Leon. I don’t know what else, since I flipped my ipod on. I did hear a bit of Rod Stewart going on, and pretended it wasn’t happening.

Johnny Cash, now there’s a guy. I will live and die an insignificant life. Johnny Cash and Marilyn Monroe are immortal nearly all over the world, forever that sad, sad voice making people happy, and that sad face that says nothing at all.

5.30

Over our lunch of burgers cooked at some roadhouse barbecue, I was talking about where I was from. All those people who have mostly moved to Australia on working holiday visas, and are trying to get themselves sponsored to stay, seemed almost to resent me, as if I wasn’t Australian enough to have a passport. Still, the Australians seem to that I count enough. Don’t know what it matters to me at all what they think, for some reason it upset me.

Christmas Day 2010

I think until I have kids, this is how I’d quite like to spend christmas. Had a campfire last night – the Swiss didn’t seem to understand that the fire was purely for decoration and atmosphere rather than warmth, and promptly started breaking out their jumpers at the mention of firewood, and asking whether it got cold in the desert at night. They soon discovered that it didn’t. We were given a a safety briefing that seemed to freak everyone out. The guides were instructing us to wear socks and shoes at all times, due to the presence of a snake called a death adder – “you can guess what that one does” – and mentioned in passing that there was no anti-venom available.

I was chatting to one of the guides about the time they shut the toilets at my primary school because someone found a redback, and Tammy said that in fact they are not that poisonous, “but if you get bitten by a Sydney Funnelweb, you’re gonna die”. This completely freaked everyone out, and  an indignant silence followed, as if the tour guides should be able to prevent poisonous animals.

We made the in hindsight rather stupid deicsion to take all the beds out of the horrifically hot corrugated iron sheds that were of course “historic” sheep shearing sheds. It is always amusing that people pay a fortune to go and stay in a place that only exists because there were once people poor enough to want a job on a cattle station in rural Australia. The irony did not go unremarked by the Swiss either, who made a few comments about how much money the tour company was making. It is quite true that they seem to have bought very cheap food. And for £95 a night, I don’t really want to share my shower with a few thousand insects. Still, it’s much the same as how I remember campsites from Guides and every other time we’ve been camping. I must admit I could not face venturing in to the shower, and went for the well established baby wipe routine instead.

Conversations were as usual an odd mix of general interesting, and finding out about each other while trying to avoid intrusive questions – not that some people mind asking me them, like the German lady whose indignance at the cirumstances of my peripatetic upbringing made me very sad. She seemed to think that it was incredibly inconsiderate to uproot one’s family and take them all the way from Australia back to Germany when the children are 13. She said it must have been very hard, adjusting to a new country with new friends. I suppose I never though the making friends bit was difficult – it was the whole atmosphere of Australia I missed, the light, the plants, the beach, the heat. Those are the things I will always miss, and while these trips back here on holiday are nice, they make me quite sad. I start to remember so much more than I thought – the school camp at Somers (at which I was admittedly completely miserable, but the fond memories of campfires on hot nights in the bush remain); the white-barked trees, the jacaranda, the lizards.

Anyway, back to the trip: it was another very long day in the bus, after the lovely night around the campfire. I did think though that Nallan Station (i.e. Day 1) was basically a tourist trap – I don’t know how they can possibly find it acceptable to provide a bed covered in a blood stained bedsheet, and placed in a leaking shed that obviously has damp ground from recent rain, and therefore stinks of mould and mildew. It’s completely unacceptable. It is not hard  to a) install some mosquito nets, b) change dirty sheets, c) fix the roof.

I am writing this in a small shelf of sandstone at the bottom of a gorge, overlooking the waterhole. If Michael doesn’t shut up and let me enjoy the beautiful silence that reverberates around the walls, I will get really irritated. He has of course launched into everyone’s favourite topic, the age old debate about Swiss German versus German German – which the Austrians will no doubt join in on soon. Is it a different language, or a dialect? Since I can barely understand it, I think the former.

Perhaps some more details about “the cast”  are in order. There is an absolutely beautiful Swiss paediatric nurse, two Swiss school leavers, an Austrian couple who are here on a language tour, a single Bavarian electrician (the one I thought might be English), an older Swiss man who owns a pharmacy, and Gemma and Nigel, who turned out to be Irish.

Day 4

I am sitting in thebranches of a large eucalyptus tree over a billabong, which is surrounded by a shallow gorge of striated red rock. A gentle waterfall slides down the narrow inlet at the top of the gorge, and the Swiss girls are playing around sliding down the wet moss covering the rocks. I think this might be called Hamersley Gorge – really must get better at writing down all the details. I slept well in the open air last night, after stupidly opting to sleep in the back seat of the bus the night before.

I am so happy with this particular moment. When I’m sitting in the bus, driving along, I get a bit morose, thinking about all the other car journeys we made down the East Coast, or across to Adelaide as children. I don’t really know why the past should hold me in such thrall, but it does. I’m just happy, in a rather Pollyanna way, that the world is full of positive, trusting people with simple desires and pleasures – not irresistible, tortured souls whom I will love until the day I die. The people I am travelling with are not stupidly focussed on meaningless markers of achievement, like the incrediby greedy people I work with, who seem to think that life is measured by the size of your mortgage.  I suppose you could say that these Peter Pan-like people who want to explore forever are in some cases naive, but at least they want to fill their lives with more than just another new car. The thing they all have in common is that they have no children- you can’t do this ultimately rather selfish trekking around the world if your children are at school – although you could send them to boarding school when they’re 13, so that’s only 7 years you can’t travel for, if you take them everywhere at preschool age. I wonder how long I can physically sustain this type of holiday comfortably. I have found it quite demanding in places, but there are plenty of people on it that are in their 50s or early 60s, but after all those years of sitting in dingy bars getting drunk with my dingy boyfriend (and soulmate), and acquiring a waxy pallor, I feel like I do want to extract as much life as possible out of the tail-end of youth. Still, since everyone seems to think I am ten years younger, maybe I do physically have a few more years left.

1st January 2011

Exmouth was lovely. We arrived I think after lunch sometime, although to be honest the events of the last 2 days are merging into one. Yes, I think we arrived around 4. It was a fantastically nice evening. We were staying in a caravan park for two days, which doesn’t sound particularly nice, but it had lovely clean beach shacks, a great barbecue area and a small pool. As I walked past the line of couples sitting in the back of cosy-looking camper vans, I did start to wonder what the point of working so hard in London actually is. It’s all pretty expensive when you think about it, even if it looks very hippy, and as people never tire of telling me, money gives you opportunities. Without money your whole world shrinks to the sort of distances you can talk, and if you’re in a low-paid job you need to work so many hours that you can’t enjoy the supposed freedom of a slacker lifestyle. And there would be nothing to write about, because I think any creative impetus you might get from working in the Exmouth minimarket would wear off after a very short time. It is quite incredible how many different nationalities come all the way out here.

Anyway, I’ll finish the account of the last few days, and then fill in all my rather obvious thoughts and observations. I never tire of observing how people (including me) interact, how they succeed or fail to integrate into groups. When we arrived in Exmouth, we went to the pool and went for some shopping, it was a beautiful place, a caravan park set just off the beach. Exmouth itself is basically a bottle shop, a pub and a supermarket.

We had a lovely chicken stirfry, sat around drinking for some time afterwards. Tammy told a few little stories from other trips, other groups at Karijini. She briefly mentioned that someone  died. “A Chinese guy”, was all she could be drawn to say about it. It didn’t really surprise anyone, as there are multiple ways to die there, if you don’t intend to live. Everyone was still kind of glowing from the whole Karijini experience – or may I’m as usual transferring my own perception. I can’t imagine how anyone could not have found it completely exhilarating. I increasingly want to do these things that make me feel alive. On day 5 we were packing up and leaving, so we got up very early (or rather the sun got us up very early , being high and bright in the sky at 5 am), packed the swags away, and got ready for the “big swim”, as it was announced to us the night before. It was a swim all the way down one of the gorges, and was not that far at all, maybe 300 metres. It might have been called Joffrey Gorge. The water was clean, but strongly pigmented from the iron ore. I swam along slightly ahead of the others, enjoying that feeling of peace you always get from swimming in still water. Swimming in the sea is never peaceful, but gives me a sense of wholeness that is of course hard to describe. I never think about anything at all when I swim in the sea. it is one of the few times when I succeed in just existing in a moment in time, whitout thinking about why i’m doing this, what else I want to do, or how I’m going to organise all the things I have to do. Most of the time it’s a constant chatter in my head; to-do lists, wishlists, nostalgia, sadness, frustration, calorie counting, money and what I’ve spent, fear of losing my job.

Swimming in the sea removes all of that, except perhaps the fear, but it’s a more specific fear of being eaten by sharks, which is much more manageable. Anyway, so we swam to the end of the gorge and as we approached the bank, Sarah (the other guide) swam towards us.  She is irritatingly athletic, in a way I really, really envy. I absolutley love being outdoors, and that is their life. Maybe I should get my rich friends to invest in a start-up tour company specialising in German speaking tours, with a side business importing German food to Perth that we could use to supply the tours. They’d be slightly more upmarket version of what Western Exposure does. So as Sarah was swimming towards us, and I was envying her smooth swimming technique (hardly seeming to ripple the surface), she said, “Just so you guys know, there’s a snake lying in the reeds where you get out”. I did sort of freeze a bit, because I could tell from the look on her face that she was not sure what type of snake it was. She said she thought it was a python, but that she had not been able to see its head. The unspoken meaning was that she could not be sure it was not a Pilbara Death adder, which apparently is one of the most poisonous snakes on earth, and which you will die of almost instantly (although when I looked it up at the airport bookshop, it didn’t sound quite so bad).

They had said in the safety briefing that there was no antivenom, but I think what they meant would that most people would die so fast that it would not make any difference. I love to think I’m physically storng enough to withstand deadly snakes and spiders – like I’m such a superwoman nothing could kill me as fast as it kills the average person, but in fact I’m pretty much the average person.

My reaction to my initial fear about the snake was to swim towards it as fast as possible.  I should obviously try out for some horror movies. I wanted to know what would happen, I suppose. As I appraoched it I decided it might be better not to disturb the water too much, and potentially frighten it. I slowly got to my feeet, in the shallows, and could clearly see it hiding in the reeds immediately to my right. It made no movement at all, and I relaxed, realising I could just walk slowly on and it would most likely keep still.

Once that little panic was over, I waited on the shore until everyone arrived, and we all carried on scrambling over rocks for another 30 minutes or so. Then we got to a much steeper gorge, which had several diving points. The highest point was 20 metres, but none of the guys tried that. Still, they were all jumping from a good 15 metres, I think. Michael was of course game for this, as he has been for every other slightly dangerous activity. I eventually found out why he seemed so keen on taking crazy risks, pushing the envelope at every opportunity. At the time I thought he was a bit of a young fool. I feel so bad for it now. In hindsight it seems obvious why someone should take such childish delight in everything, in choosing highly risky bouldering manouevres, jumping into every pool and off every jump, and trying for nearly 30 minutes to climb a crack in the wall. He went on for the rest of the day about how annoyed he was that he couldn’t do it. So after the girls had watched all the boys jump. We headed back, packed up the campsite and drove all the way to Exmouth.

The next day, we were up early as usual, went to pick up the snorkelling equipment, and headed out to the bay for some snorkelling. I think it was called Turquoise Bay, and it’s pretty obviousy why. The usual beautiful white sand, and oyster clear water, with a reef that came straight off the beach. I’m not sure whether it was the same reef as Ningaloo, but at any rate it was very beautiful and we spent quite a long time doing it. I got over my fear of snorkelling, and really enjoyed it, it’s really nothing like that horrible dive I did in Egypt, which I’m still slightly traumatised by. I got slightly burnt. Then we went back to the “resort”, and spent ages helping Tam do the shopping, which was quite dull, but I found some rather exciting vanilla bean paste, which cost $11, but still a lot cheaper than getting it anywhere else – a suspension of vanilla seeds, so I can make lovely custard more quickly. We had fish for dinner, and sat out drinking again. Swallowed quite a few mouthfuls of seawater, so drank several litres of water.

The next day was a pretty short trip around to Coral Bay, where we picked up more snorkelling equipment to head out on a different excursion, this time out on a boat for a day swimming with manta rays. Only it turned out that when they sighted the first few manta rays, they were actually tiger sharks. The main diver was very coy about it, giving no reason why we weren’t going out straight away. We had to wait on the boat for some time. We had already been on a first snorkel to look at the coral, and watch the reef sharks. The company that ran the boat put on a very professional show – very nices cakes and sandwiches, good briefing, really good guiding in the water. So they worked with one of the rival company’s boats to distract the sharks, and an overhead plane to monitor their location, while one group got in the water.

We eventually got to go in, and while the manta rays are indeed impressively big, they’re also extremely fast. I love having fins, for the speed it gives me, but even with them it was difficult to keep up. I enjoyed watching the turtles swim much more. Spent the afternoon on deck talking to the crew – one extremely tall and good looking guy was from South Australia, but literally from the middle of nowhere near Nullabor. He was only a trianee guide, but had that enviable easy-going confidence. The other diver was less good looking, but much more attractice – seemed to take an intense interest in me, which I suppose is always flattering. He moved from South Africa to London to start a real career (although he didn’t mention what it was – maybe he wanted to study), but met an Australian girl there, and followed her back to Perth. Spent nine years with her, they broke up and he’s now basically stuck in Australia as a dive instructor. Great job, but I wonder what they do when they get older.  He seemed to be wondering the same thing. Wish I could have given him my name or something. I told him I was English, because it’s easier, and said how nice life in Australia seemed. So of course since he seems to think I’m about 25, he said I should come to Australia on a working holiday.

It’ll be 10 years this September that I started working full time – strange to think I’ve probably got to work another 40 years to have a pension, or maybe 30 years, that would almost get me there. Wasting  the best years of your life saving for a pension that you may never need, not taking risks and opportunities to try things all for some money pot you might never live to enjoy, seems so pointless. I would rather live while I am young enough to participate.

After the manta rays, we came back to the hostel, hung out at the pool bar, had a great burger and some drinks. The main snorkelling guide was Italian, and he turned up at the bar at about 10, since it seems to be the only place you can hang out, ,and swaggered up in that typical Italian way, and said “what’s happening”. I always think Italians seem uncomfortable outside Italy – their mannerisms and idioms just seem stylised and silly. He told me I was a very fast swimmer, which I was pathetically flattered by. He was obviously just trying to find something to compliment me on, and he could hardly say anything nice about my figure and keep a straight face, since I looked like a blancmange in a corset.

The next day was New Year’s Eve, and a long drive to Denham. When we got there, Tam went off to find a nurse to look at Michael’s foot first, and the rest of us went to buy some rum for New Year’s Eve. I meant to buy some of that Bundaberg stuff to take home, but got warned about the stupid transit liquid restrictions in Singapore. I bumped into Michael in the pharmacy completley by chance, he was getting his prescription of two different types of antibiotics. He seemed so frustrated. on the way out of the chemist’s, he told me that he had finished chemo two months ago. So all his showing off, trying to take every possible risk, was a rather childish reaction to what he presumably sees as life that might be taken away at any moment, and must therefore be pushed to the limit. All that stuff about having travelled too far not to do all the dangerous activities available. And all that stuff about how he might never get to do it again. His way of dealing with the fear of death was clearly going out of his way to ensure that if he did die, it would be on his terms.

New Year’s Eve was my perfect party with strangers – so much better than last year standing around i a freezing cold garden somewhere in Gloucestershire watching some stupid Chinese lantern floating off into the grimy darkness.

Denham has some of the classiest locals on the West Coast. The pub (sorry, “Resort Hotel”) had decided to make it a fancy dress night, so all the bar staff were dressed as red Indians, with surprisingly nice feather headdresses. The locals seemed to have smeared a bit of white zinc across their cheeks in a vague attempt at looking exotic. Or maybe it was just left over from the beach. There was a pretty blonde girl with thick plaits, wearing a classy black dress. This level of grooming stuck out in the overall melee of cheap-looking flower prints, and of course she turned out to be a German tourist.

Their skins were nearly all weather-beaten and leathery, girls with young-looking bodies and mismatched middle-aged faces, the blue eyes staring oddly out of the darkly tanned skin. The men wore shorts, printed T-shirts and flip-flops and were mostly fat. Jack Daniels seemed to be the most popular print. A lot of them had goatees. One of them – thin and tall, but also with the hicksville beard – kept prowinlg up and down the bar, shouting at random and walking right up to people and staring them in the face, sometimes stopping to shake his beer bottle and deliveberately spray it at red-faced, heavy-set men. He could not have made his wish for a good punch-up more plain.

Then the band started up. I can’t describe how amusing they were – a classic 80s metal/rock band: long haired blonde singer with raspy thrated voice and spray-on jeans, surrounded by obese men playing electric guitars very badly, and the drummer headbanging along with the not-quite-dreadlocked mane of greasy hair. I danced around a bit, toasted the New Year with Smirnoff ice, said Happy New Year to my posse of semi-strangers, and staggered home along the beach. It was still about 30 degrees, (but very windy), and I was completely happy. I should do more two week holidays, one week does not get you away from it all.

1st January 2011

We went from Denham to Monkey Mia early in the morning, in order to see the dolphins being fed. It was not particularly interesting. Then sat around under a tree writing the diary for quite a while. Michael came along to talk to me about his foot, and how worried he was. The antibiotics had apparently not done anything, and his entire foot had started to look pink and shiny. I thought perhaps he just needed to take more of them. I felt guilty for not having stopped him walking back to the pub after we’d all left at 1 am – he had decided to join the fray again until 3 in the morning. That night we stayed in Kalbarri,  whic was disappointing, although featured a nice sunset.  On the way there, we stopped at a fun-looking roadhouse called Billabong, which (in case it wasn’t obvious from the name) was also a tourist attractcion. Still, it was nicely done. The last day (2nd Jan) was to go sandboarding and see something that’s apparently famous – The Pinnacles, which I’ve never heard of. It was  ery dull, another of those tourist attractions in the desert that made me feel as if we shouldn’t be here. It often feels like that in particular spots of isolation and wilderness I supppose. The sea is just a giant food chain, with no opinion about your presence, but in my vaguely superstitious way it often seems as if stone and earth is actively working with you or against you. We saw some sort of hole in a piece of rock that I think is called the Window of nature or something cheesy like that, and it definitely felt as it the landscape resented intruders. We drove on into Perth and got there at about 7.30 pm – we got dropped straight at the airport. I sat and ate a not  particularly nice meat pie with Sophie, and then went to the Virgin Blue terminal to wait for my flight to Melbourne via Sydney. It’s the stupidest itinerary I have created for quite some time:

23:55 Perth – Sydney 2nd Jan

07.30 Sydney – Melbourne 3rd Jan

18:55 Melbourne – Singapore 3rd Jan

00:10 Singapore – Dubai 4th Jan

09:40 Dubai – London 4th Jan (minus the lost day)

So I’ve spent 2 hours hanging around in Singapore, a whole day hanging around in Melbourne, two consecutive night flights, and five hours in Dubai.

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