Wednesday, 9 March 2011
Western Australia VI: Thing! THINGTHINGTHING! Thud.
HALF way back to Perth, between two distant towns a day's drive apart, is a lonely junction. Taking you away from the north-south coastal highway, the adjoining road heads west for a few hours into a landscape of red earth, hypersaline shimmering waters, sweeping bays and hundreds of acres of thriving biodiversity. This is the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, the area encompassing two north-westerly projecting, long and narrow peninsulas, creating two immense coves that harbour all manner of surprises: salt mines; sand bars; more tiger sharks than anywhere else in the world; beaches made of billions of only one kind of tiny shell; shell quarries; 4,000 km2 of sea grass; dolphins, turtles and 10,000 dugongs and, in a far recess of one of the bays, a population of living fossils — the towers of stromatolites, ancient microbe populations responsible for our oxygen-rich atmosphere. On land the earth is coated in low-lying shrub vegetation, hiding among it threatened species covering the diverse animal kingdom. Signs warn drivers of the ground-dwelling Mallee fowl, for example, a vulnerable species that builds giant self-insulating nests, coated in sand layers of up to 1 metre in depth and heated by organic decay, in which they bury their eggs.
Shark Bay is a rugged, remote and rather splendid place worth cherishing. Very few live here – most occupying the town of Denham on the central peninsula, separated from the mainland by the isthmus of Eagle Bluff. This is where we stayed, parking on a precarious perch in the campsite and caravan park, our van Ben teetering on the edge of a lookout over Denham Sound. Denham played host to a number of anecdotes, not least a dreadful restaurant that forgot our food, an horrific exhibition on the Sandakan prisoner of war camp in Borneo, a stock car parade and race, and a puddle that took Rachel entirely by surprise, but for us it was mostly a base for our whistle-stop visit. Indeed, our first full day there (after Rachel had dried off from the puddle) was in fact spent on the other side of the Peron Peninsula at the delightful sounding Monkey Mia. Though Monkey Mia has an airport, is in every guide book and is on every sign for hundreds of miles, it is in fact not a town but a car park, with a hotel and a jetty where every morning some tame dolphins come to say hello. We spent the day at sea, looking for dugongs and dolphins, but wet weather in the preceding days had worked against us: the dugongs had left.
Our rental company, Ben’s parents, had handed over his keys to us on two conditions, the same two conditions we would later break with our scarlet rental Hyundai Getz — our good friend Philippa — in Tasmania: do not drive on unsealed roads, and do not drive at night. The rules are sensible. Wildlife in Australia tends to come out at night and tends to be quite big: collide with a kangaroo and, chances are, you will come off worst. The rules were particularly pertinent for us in WA, with wide open spaces and a vehicle that, lovely though he was, wasn’t adept at stopping quickly or handling well on gravel tracks. Just two days before we had escorted a lone traveller between Exmouth and Carnarvon after a kangaroo had crossed her path in broad daylight, smashing the bonnet, crushing the bumper and exposing the radiator of her blue saloon. Fearing that hidden damage would prevent the car from reaching a garage for repairs I drove ahead, keeping the lady in our mirrors, on standby should her car give up. Carnarvon, the nearest town, was at least four hours away. With this and with days of driving for hundreds of miles through the desert behind us, we were highly cautious. We had not the slightest desire of driving down unsealed tracks or driving at night, no matter how tempting particular remote landmarks might be.
However, that night in Monkey Mia there was a public seminar on sharks. Sharks are cool.
We arrived at dusk, watching the sun go down over the bay. We then found the seminar room and took our seats. There were eight people in the room, including the speakers and one very excited little boy.
The talk was largely a screening of a decade-old National Geographic film following a research team who have been creating a census of the tiger shark population in the bay. Meticulously they have caught these aggressive beasts, recording vital information and tagging each before quickly unhooking and releasing it into the bay. Sharks suffocate if kept still for too long, so the time between placing the bait and recording an individual must be quick – the film showed some remarkable footage of the lead researcher diving in to resuscitate unconscious sharks, caught on the hook for too long. Tiger sharks, I should point out, have been known to eat humans.
After the video there was a chance to question the researchers before us.
“Do sharks eat people?” asked the little boy.
“They have been known to,” one researcher replied, “but it isn’t normal behaviour.”
“What else do they eat?” he added.
“They eat all sorts of fish and crustaceans, even birds.”
“Do they eat turtles?”
“They can do.”
A pause. The boy’s hand rose into the air once more.
“What about dolphins?”
“Sometimes. Do you want to know anything other than what sharks eat?”
The boy thought carefully.
“Who would win in a fight, a shark or a dinosaur?”
“Have you ever seen a great white shark?”
Relief. A question about their surveys.
“Just once. We approached one of our buoys and quickly realised we had caught something a bit bigger than usual. We’ve seen several species of shark in the bay, but it’s the tiger sharks we are interested in. We let the great white go and got well away.”
“How big was it?”
“How many teeth did it have?”
I tried to imagine the scenario – the world’s most feared shark angrily snared on a hook on a research buoy. I’m glad I wasn’t the one to cut it loose.
“Does anybody else have any questions?”
A pause. The boy’s hand was still firmly in the air. The researchers desperately searched the room for anybody else to ask a question, hoping to raise the intellectual tone. But nobody had anything to ask, there was just one very excited little boy in a room full of people who knew stuff about sharks. Eventually, they relented.
“Can a shark eat a car?”
The 26 kilometre journey back to Denham was horrific. I drove slowly in the middle of the empty road, eyes darting to evaluate every direction, fully expecting something to run, walk or – this being Australia – hop across the road in front of us. Rachel, as co-pilot, was doing the same.
We didn’t see anything for a long time and my confidence rose: with it my speed rose also. This was a mistake.
Rachel was the first to see it.
I began to brake.
“Thing! ... Thing!”
I did not dare to brake any harder, but I was still going too fast.
The rabbit population of Shark Bay had been reduced by one. This was not such a bad thing, in fact, as conservationists have been attempting to eradicate rabbits and other introduced pests from the region for years. But it put us on additional guard. I slowed to almost a crawl. Every now and then the reflection of our headlights in the eyes of some kind of creature would evoke fear in our hearts. We had been lucky that it had only been a rabbit. Animals would be waiting on the side of the road, peering curiously at us as we approached. We drove in constant fear that they would decide to cross in front of us just as we reached them. One wallaby left it to the very last second to decide to head in the opposite direction, probably sniggering to himself at having put us through such an ordeal. This was his world, one that we should not have been sharing.
We parked up in the campsite, teetering on the edge of our escarpment, plugged Ben in for the night and counted our blessings. Nothing endangered had been harmed.
We would not break the rules again.
And so our adventures continued. We drove for 2,000 miles. We saw features remarkable to the field of geology. We visited a seahorse sanctuary and ate fish and chips at the world’s strangest barbecue restaurant, home to a very cute cat who only loved you if you gave him prawns. We saw six dead cows, two dead foxes, four dead sheep, one dead emu and one hundred and ten dead kangaroos in one direction along the coast. And, in one campsite, we had our table and chairs stolen, only to find them later arranged with two additional baby chairs placed on the other side, making a happy chair family. When the perpetrators weren’t looking, we stole them back.
We thanked the stromatolites for making our atmosphere. We walked the length of Perth’s Kings Park, the largest inner city park in the world, but came home annoyed at Bill Bryson for suggesting we might see an echidna there. We marvelled at a megamouth shark and were saddened by tales of untold extinctions of magnificent marsupials at the Western Australian Museum. In West Leederville, the friendliest cat in the world was waiting for us, just where we had left her before our road trip.
Our return to the UK after days on the road with no other people and no other vehicles to the horizon was a shock. Two years later, the number of cars on our road continues to horrify me. Civilization still sits a little uncomfortably with me. The wilderness has firmly set itself in my heart.
So too, you might have guessed, has Australia. But, for fear of sounding like a broken record, it is time to end these stories. Stories from our stay in Sydney will have to wait - some of them are highly personal: one of them belongs only in my wedding speech. I will have other stories to tell from other parts of the world and, though I have no doubt that we will return to Australia before too long, it is time to explore somewhere else. Whether that is closer to home or a far flung destination remains to be seen, but move on I shall.