The next destination on our roadtrip around Australia was Carnarvon, a town whose name we still can’t pronounce properly. There wasn’t too much happening in Carnarvon that afternoon, possibly because the townspeople had been snuffed out by a deadly militia of fuchsia wildflowers. We saw evidence of the invasion along the highway to Carnarvon but the town was obviously ground zero, with clumps of this pink pestilence covering most surfaces, from roadside banks to farming and fishing machinery.
After inspecting the derelict steam engines, we came to the mile long jetty that was used in Carnarvon’s heyday as a deep sea port. It looked picturesque but we didn’t want to pay $10 to walk along the thing (a fee obviously introduced by the new wildflower overlords, what sane person would charge that much for a stroll on a rickety old jetty?) We decided to spent our dollarydoos on more important things, like beer, and went to the one open pub in town. Gaz gave the middle finger to the whole ‘eat local’ thing and ordered BBQ ribs, but Shelley stuck to her sanctimony and had beer-battered pink snapper, which was delicious in her mouth hole. Now we understand why the dolphins at Monkey Mia sometimes ignore the fishy offerings from the rangers in favour of chasing the pink snapper that live under the jetty.
On the recommendation of a friend we drove further up the coast to visit Quobba. In addition to checking out its spectacular cliffs and blow holes, she wanted us to see if the denim dress she left in the caravan park in 2013 was still there. It wasn’t.
Passing the iconic King Waves Kill sign, we clambered over the razor sharp rocks to the blow holes and were promptly soaked by their salty expulsions. As you can probably guess, the blow holes were formed over many years as the sea crashes against the coastline. Caves and crevices continue to erode, so when a big wave crashes into the coast, it bursts through the tunnel like an upside-down Alice in Wonderland, sending a huge column of sea water into the sky. The water rushing through the blow holes at Quobba reaches nearly 20 meters on a big wave.
We’d planned on camping at Quobba station which has a farm-stay type vibe, but then we heard rumours of Red Bluff, a more remote spot on the property about 60km north, where the Ningaloo Reef begins. Well why take the single Tim Tam when there’s a double coat on offer, right? Locals said the road was rough but passable for a 2wd. Time for an adventure!
Red Bluff Western Australia – a surfer’s wet dream
Juddering along aggressive corrugations for 60 kms was pretty uncomfortable, and as we made it closer to the water the road became very sand duney. Shelley gave up driving at this point because she HATES getting bogged. Gareth at the wheel, we kept up a firm but steady pace, which ensured that when the wheels span, the van kept moving and made it to the next point of traction. As we finally made it to the campground the road became pitted so we had to straddle the engrained tyre tracks to avoid bottoming out. All of this teeth gritting and anus clenching became worth it when we rounded a bend and caught the view. It. Was. Beautiful. Sheltered on three sides by cliffs, the campsites were dotted along the escarpment with rabbit trails down to the beach. Big surf pounded the shore and once we tore our eyes from the intensely blue water we noticed thatched huts blended into the dunes, with wetsuits and towels strung over the rustic framework. This was clearly a splice of surfer heaven.
Once we had oriented the van to maximise the epic views, we skipped down to explore the beach, high on our good fortune and that special elation that comes with sublime natural beauty. We paddled as we watched the sunset over the water and counted the kangaroos as they hopped along the cliff tops above.
Did we mention the scenic toilet? A little wooden box, perched on a hill and wrapped in gauze, it was designed to let you see out but not in. It used sawdust too, so it actually smelt good. Why don’t more eco toilet people do this?
We woke the following morning to the sound of big waves crashing on the beach, pulled back the curtains and looked out our rear view window to see a lone surfer cresting the swell. The surf shack behind us opened their shutters so we ordered banana smoothies, watching the water while we waited. All of a sudden a huge humpback whale breached the water, rising high and crashing down to unleash a wall of white water all around it. We watched him for several minutes, our trance-like state finally broken by the arrival of our smoothies and the awkward realisation that we didn’t have enough cash to pay for them. $9 for a smoothie! How do the backpackers, grey nomads and surfers who frequent Red Bluff afford that?!
White vans can’t jump, General Lee speaking…
After a lengthy and embarrassing apology we left. We weren’t looking forward to getting back on the corrugated road. For those that haven’t pushed the limits of their suspension and mental equilibrium in this way, image a cattle grid, and stretch that bump and grind feeling for 60kms. At times the corrugations grew so large that we were forced to slow for fear of shaking the fillings from our teeth.
We had been told the best way to deal with these corrugations was to stay at around 60 kph, and then fang it as soon as the road levels out. It was during one of these smooth intervals that the road fell away from us, as an unseen ditch about half a metre deep revealed itself. There was no time to stop or swerve so we hit it at about 80kmh. Moby the campervan flew up, with all four wheels suspended in the air, then smashed back down to the ground, where we squealed to a halt. We had gone full Dukes of Hazzard.
Most dodgy parts of this accursed road were signposted with traffic cones, but this one had been overlooked. As we got out to inspect the damage to the van, we noticed that the bush around the area was filled with broken glass and torn bits of hatchback. Clearly, this wasn’t the first time this mega crater had caused an accident.
Everything stored in the back of our campervan had been thrown to the front, including the mattress. Neither of us were hurt, except for an inexplicable cut on Shelley’s ankle. Even the van seemed okay, which was a miracle given the strength of the impact. We drove off tentatively and had to laugh when not 2 km on, a grader appeared, making his way down the road filling on holes as he went.
Arriving back in Carnarvon, and feeling a little more safety conscious than before, we took Moby to the tyre centre and replaced the one that had been looking a bit iffy, as penance to the travel gods.
We kept travelling north that day, keen to put the incident very far behind us. We hit the Tropic of Capricorn and took the obligatory photo. It was a sign of the times that there were two backpacker couples on opposite sides of the road taking selfies rather than speaking to each other and taking in turns to photograph each other.
Meeting the manta rays of Coral Bay
That afternoon we arrived in Coral Bay, a town that only seems to exist to accommodate tourists, with the two massive caravan sites taking up most of the real estate. The beach was beautiful, and apparently great for snorkelling, as you could walk straight in and find coral reef after a few metres. We tested this the following day and were surprised to find that the clear aqua water was absolutely freezing. We had borrowed short-sleeve wetsuits from the dive shop, but still only managed to stay in for about twenty minutes. This was enough time for Shelley to severely burn the back of her legs. The sun couldn’t resist scorching those milk-white mothers.
The next day it was time to swim with the manta rays, a unique attraction that Coral Bay is famous for. The tour started with a snorkel on the southern part of the Ningaloo Reef. We saw a cow ray and lots of reef fish including damsels, surgeon fish, puffers, box fish, butterflies, angel fish and tangs. Then while the spotter plane chased manta ray shadows from above, we patrolled from the deck. We came across another dugong, with Gaz getting the tip off from a big floating poo. We also found a couple of sea turtles, a hawksbill and a loggerhead, and some white-tipped reef sharks. We continued to cruise around as the plane made a number of loops in the pursuit of manta rays. Suddenly the chase was on as we sped towards a potential sighting, racing against a couple of other tour boats. We hurried downstairs, slithered into our wetsuits and waited for the thumbs up to jump in. Once confirmed, we slipped into the water and looked directly down. A manta ray was gracefully gliding along below us. It was an incredible thing to see up close. It cut through the water easily with little flicks from the corners of its four-metre wing span. You knew it was fast because you had to swim pretty hard to keep up with it, but it looked like it was moving in slow motion.
At one point, the manta became curious about the tour photographer, who was duck-driving around it, so it turned its body up towards the surface to get a better look. Looking at the unique spots on its underbelly, and noting its very chill vibe, the crew were fairly confident that this ray was a very relaxed manta lady that they had met before. Snorkelling with mantas almost every day in the season, the crew has seen some amazing things, like a manta ray chain, where in breeding season, several males get in line behind a female and follow her around as she simultaneously tries to shake them. These mantas have also been known to breach the surface, flying above the waves for an instant before dropping below. Another great manta trick is the ‘loop-the-loop’ which they perform when they find a big batch of phytoplankton, repeatedly passing through the thick soup to catch the noms.
We said goodbye to our manta and began to head to shore. On the way back we saw a group of humpback whales swimming off out into the deep; our first excursion into Ningaloo Reef was definitely the producing goods. We felt like we were in the first scenes of of an IMAX film “NINGALOO vs. GREAT BARRIER REEF – who will be the winner in the fight for marine supremacy?”
Highs: Ningaloo Reef turning it up to Attenborough
Lows: Sunburn on the backs of the knees, why is this always so hurty?