Friday, March 7, 2014

First Road Trip

I finally put the vehicle to good use, and made a 4-day trip up the West Coast to Shark Bay.

I'm thinking of naming it "Princess."
Shark bay was a major motivator for this trip. It's got abundant wildlife, beautiful scenery, and the few living examples of stromatolites, the very earliest life-forms on earth. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed overall.

I expected to drive long distances to get places in Australia; the guidebooks give you ample warning, and the scale is easy to grasp when you realize that the country is about the size of the continental United States. What I didn’t expect was that when I got to a place, everything in that place would still be ridiculously far apart. Shark bay is nearly 200 km long. With a 100km/hr speed limit, that means two hours from top to bottom. With one major tourist site on the south end, and the other all the way at the north, and the only fuel and food about halfway in between, not to mention well-spaced campsites, you can easily eat up three or four hours a day just getting from place to place. And the scenery in between stops isn’t much to look at. 

The only time the view changes is when new bugs hit the windshield.
The moment I ever stepped out of the vehicle for a roadhouse break, I was immediately assaulted by two things: the overwhelming heat, and truly maddening swarms of flies. The flies here are legendary, and as unavoidable as the weather. There are so many surrounding you at once that the buzz swells into an overwhelming chord. The locals don't even bother waving them away anymore, though they'll take a chomp if you let them settle on you for long. Also, the sun was brutal, especially for my February-pale skin. It takes me almost as long to prepare to go out in the sun here as it does to prepare to go out in the blowing snow on the ski slopes of Vermont.

I did get lucky with my campsites. They were right on the coast, and buffeted by constant, powerful winds. While the wind made camping a bit difficult (and was so strong that it made my photos come out blurry), it was preferable to heat and flies. The permits were one night only, but when I requested another for a second night, the woman at the office waved it off and said, “Well, I’m not supposed to…”

The first night, I was on a small, isolated cove.

The second was an unbelievable wide-open beach, with a long lagoon behind a high sandbar made of billions of tiny white shells. I waded in the warm lagoon (careful to keep my toe-shoes on, as the guidebooks warn of poisonous stonefish), accompanied by sting rays and some kind of shark or skate with salmon-pink fins. When I went to explore a shady area of green shrubbery, I startled a big red kangaroo, who bounded away. There were several hopping about, especially early in the morning.

Spot Princess at the center, far off. The beach was about a mile long, and deserted.

You can kinda see the sharks here. The water was crystal-clear.

Wobbly sunset over the Indian Ocean
 That's the good part. The bad parts involved getting there, getting food, getting fuel, and seeing the stromatolites. Stromatolites are intellectually interesting, but really, they look like blobs of crap.

Thanks for oxygenating the atmosphere, blobs of crap!
The bay where they live is a hellhole of searing heat, with blizzards of flies. I got out of the van, walked down the boardwalk, took a photo (blurry in my frantic fly-waving), and got right back in my car and left.

Another okay part was Shell Beach, which is just what it sounds like: a beach made entirely of tiny white shells. While it wasn't swarmed with flies, it was nonetheless deserted, and not particularly welcoming. It turned out that the beach at my second campsite was also all shells. Nowhere did they ever tell you where all of these frikking shells come from, which seems like the obvious question.

All shells. No sand.

The other disappointment was Monkey Mia, the resort at the tip of Shark Bay, which was supposed to be a wildlife mecca. When I arrived, I was dismayed that it really was just a resort, rather than a national park or nature reserve. There were cabins and shoddy restaurants and tourist posters everywhere, all accompanied by more choking heat and infuriating flies. The only entertaining thing about the place was that they have pest emus.
Do you know why they call it Monkey Mia? Oh. Me neither.

So after a quick lunch, I high-tailed it back to my nice campsites. So Shark Bay amounted to hours and hours of driving, followed by two nice campsites, and that was it.

My other major disappointment was that I had yet to swim in the wonderfully warm Indian Ocean. Most of the waters in Shark Bay are so dramatically shallow that you can wade out until you get bored and still not reach bathtub depth. The water also supports miles of sea-grass beds, which are excellent for sea life but kind of squicky to swim in. The one really beautiful aquamarine ocean, at Monkey Mia, is a protected “Dolphin experience” area where you’re not supposed to go in over your knees.

Right now, I'm back south in Fremantle, Perth's cool coastal suburb, and I'm happy to say I solved my final problem. Even though South Beach in Fremantle is considered "Not worth a special trip" by local internet reviewers, it is by far the best beach I've ever been to. Today I spent a few hours happily bobbing in its calm, crystal-clear, aquamarine, cool-shower-temperature waters. Heaven.

Second Impressions of Australia:
  • A lot of people swim in hats. Considering that the average Australian looks like an Irish person who's been squinting for his entire life, they justifiably take the sun seriously.
  • They really know their refreshing beverages: anything with lemon, lime, or ginger is top-notch. They can’t seem to fathom iced coffee, though. The only iced-coffee beverages I’ve found were actually more like coffee-flavored milk—whole milk. And lord knows, when you’re hot and parched, there’s nothing you want more than a half-litre of thick, creamy, sweet whole milk!  
  • Speaking of coffee: The coffee in Australia is universally excellent. It isn’t surprising that you can get really good coffee here—you can find really good coffee in any Western country. What’s surprising is that you can’t get bad coffee here. There simply is no diner dishwater, no scorched 7-11 swill, no Dunkin’. You can walk into the most unlikely tourist restaurant in the most depopulated resort town and receive a coffee that’s as fresh and expertly prepared as the snootiest barista-haven in Cambridge. Honestly, though, I’d accept a small drop in quality for a bit of an increase in quantity; the roadhouses are often bereft.
  • They’ve opted out of the highway-driving-as-blood-sport. Australians on the freeway are like,
    “I enjoy going the speed limit!”
    “You don’t say—I enjoy going the speed limit, too!”
    “How about we each take our own lane, and we’ll go the speed limit together!”
  • Australians are extraordinarily friendly. This is different from “polite” or “professional.” They assume an easy, dirty-language familiarity right away. Introducing the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign would devastate the Australian economy.  
  • The aesthetic here is very healthy, very blonde, very mainstream, for lack of a better word. I went outside one evening with my glasses on and realized I was the only person wearing dark-rimmed hipster frames. Over tea, I chatted with the Perth AirBnB owner about a recent New York Times article declaring Perth the latest “hipster” capital, mostly due to its bar scene and locavore restaurants. “It said we’re the new Brooklyn. Is that true?” he asked. Well, I had to inform him, you'd never see people in Perth riding those old-timey bicycles with the big giant front wheel and the little tiny back wheel, so no. It isn't a "hipster" town in the way I'm used to thinking of. There’s very little of an “alternative” or  “ironic” culture here. That’s somewhat uncomfortable for me, because for most of my life I've aimed for an edgy or counter-mainstream aesthetic, so I feel like I stand out a bit.  It’s also a relief, because everything is sincere and straight-up, with no undercurrent of sarcasm or arch self-awareness. 
  • The crows here look just like American crows, but they sound just like "the goat that yells like a man."
  • People here lock up their bikes with cable locks. And they lock just the frame. What. Boston, you know what I'm talking about.


  1. What, the brochures didn't mention FLIES? And with so much driving (shades of California) I hope the ride is comfortable. What do the local radio stations play?

  2. I've never had bad coffee anywhere outside the U.S.A. Good to know we can add Australia to the list. No iced coffee is bizarre, though... seems it would be a perfect match.

  3. An inauspicious start, perhaps, but things will probably get better.