I’d like to share a little secret. One of my favourite encounters occurred in water that didn’t even reach my knees. Let me explain. I was on holiday last year at Lissenung Island, a speck of paradise to the north of mainland Papua New Guinea. Every day we’d hop on a boat and head to dive sites, speeding through mangrove lined shallows to get to coral walls that dropped off into deep water. Now don’t get me wrong, these sites were amazing. Fish swarm the walls in constant, colourful motion. Turning around you’re faced with an expanse of deep blue ocean. Also alive, with schools of large silver trevally that shimmer past. Occasionally a turtle lazily flapped by. Hanging in mid water staring into the abyss you could watch a reef shark curiously circle above divers staring obliviously at the coral wall.
Between dives at sites like this the crew would take us to sheltered spots for the dive interval. This gives us an hour topside to let the nitrogen levels in our blood drop so we could stay down longer on the next dive. On one of these breaks the boys took us to a sandbar. I munched on fresh coconut and soaked up the tropical sun while staring absently at the green mangroves. Someone brought me back to reality saying, “I think there’s a clownfish next to the boat”. The dive snacks were forgotten. We donned our masks and slipped over the side to float in the shallows. The ocean was as warm as bath water, like those shallow rockpools you come across that have been soaking in all the sun’s heat. Beneath the surface seagrasses waved lazily. Small coral patches and anemones littered the sand.
In every crevice there was something alive, a crab darted into a crack in the coral. Small yellow fish schooled amongst the seagrass. But the clownfish were amazing. In such shallow water we saw three different types. My favourite was the Clown Anemonefish (Amphiprion percula). It was my first time seeing these cuties, shaped like a typical Disney Nemo but with more black colouring. A cool thing about these clownfish, the amount of black pigmentation changes depending on which species of anemone they live with. You see, anemones are happy to host lots of different anemonefish species. Clown Anemonefish are picky, they’re only happy to call three anemone species home. If a Clown Anemonefish doesn’t find a magnificent, gigantic or leathery sea anemone to live in it will perish quickly. This relationship is called a symbiosis. The fish are protected from predators by the anemone’s stinging tentacles (like living in a jellyfish). In return the fish bring snacks to bed, dropping food offerings into their anemone host in return for this safe haven.
“Come look at this!” Robert, one of the crew called us into even shallower water. He pointed at a brownish blob well camouflaged in the sand. “Devil scorpionfish, very dangerous, don’t step on him” Robert warned. We all peered at the scraggily brown blob that blended perfectly with its sandy surroundings. This ambush predator waits for a meal to come to it. While seemingly lazy, they speedily lunge and inhale smaller fish when they swim too close. When feeling threatened Devil Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis diabolus) lifts the venomous spines along their back, revealing why it is one of the world’s most venomous fish. If you step on a scorpionfish you can be in severe pain for up to 12 hours. Luckily it can be treated with hot water, which can be found even in the most remote locations. Naturally my dive buddy and macro enthusiast boyfriend, Mitch, had to get a shot. We all laughed at him lying in the shallows.
With so much to see the dive interval was over before we knew it. The dive crew grinned as we suggested we do the next dive at the sand bar. A little reluctantly we all hopped back on the boat to go to the next ‘real’ dive site. With so much to see in shallow water, I’d learnt to check out any puddle, rockpool or barely flowing river I came across from then on. Let me be the first to tell you, you don’t need much water to have a cool aquatic encounter!
We were back on the road together at last, heading south along the West Australia coastline. There’s no better feeling then eight days of exploring ahead of you! Mitch’s flight arrived around 3pm so it was our goal to go for a snorkel at Coral Bay (about an hour and a half southwest of Exmouth) then sleep at Carnarvon, a bit further down the road. Along the way there were a few spits of rain, and small perenties (goannas) on the road. They were an orange-brown to match the desert sand. More and more termite mounds were popping up in the low scrub as we travelled south. At Coral Bay there was a lot of cloud, the first I’d seen in weeks. It was super humid so we walked down to the bay to see what the water looked like. A legless lizard in the centre of the sandy path gave me a fright, reminding me of the snake the night before. The tide was very low so we decided to give it a miss and keep going to Carnarvon. Two and a half hours later, we arrived just as it was getting dark.
We’d already spent a week seeing the sights along this stretch of coast so had planned a 10-hour driving day to cover some ground. This would get us south of Perth so we could spend our time exploring the south west part of WA. The bush changed along the way, with shrubs getting taller then disappearing to salt flats then turning into trees, finally trees! A few dead roos at the start had wedge tailed eagles feeding on them, surrounded by loitering crows. The eagles are such big birds, with wings spread they are bigger than the roos they’re feeding on. Goats were everywhere in pairs or small groups, some with kids alongside. They came in browns, blacks and whites with multicoloured splotches, small upturned fluffy tails and huge backwards curving horns on their head. The kids were cute to see even though they are a pest. Onwards we drove, podcasts and music helping us concentrate as the hours passed. The goats dropped off, the trees continued getting taller. We left the straight, flat road behind and wound our way towards Perth.
After spending the night at our new base in Rockingham, about an hour south of Perth, we were up early. With snacks and water packed we set off to explore Yalgorup National Park, on the coast about an hour’s drive south. Named the Place of Lakes in the local Indigenous dialect, Yalgorup has 10 lakes in the area. We visited Preston Lake first, the enticing photo showed hundreds of black swans serenely sitting on the water. From October to March the swans arrive here in high numbers to feed on the musk grasses. The sign dashed our hopes of a swim (the lakes are just for birds) but we could still do the 5km walk. It wound through bushland, with 10-metre-tall Tuart trees shading the track. This is a species of eucalypt found only along the coast from here to Jurien Bay (just north of Perth).
We walked along the sandy management track for a long time, not seeing much. At last we came to a 300-metre detour to the bird hide, finally a glimpse of the lake! Disappointingly there were no birds on the water, or in the air, or even near the bird hide for that matter. On the shore over 200 metres away some plovers were running around but not a single swan was present, I guess they decided not to visit this year. Back on the trail we saw wrens flitting around in the bush. We froze, they grew brave enough to land on the path 10 metres away. I took a photo and zoomed in. They were blue all over, splendid fairy wrens! You can’t imagine how excited I was to see a new wren species!!! The male’s entire bodies are a bright, fluorescent blue yet when they flit into the bush they can disappear from sight in seconds.
Walking on we found a shingleback sunbaking in the leaflitter on the side of the path. Cicadas hummed in the trees around us while large, orange butterflies floated serenely over our heads. Their wings were backlit by the sun and seemed to glow against the cloudless blue sky. Back at the car we sat at a picnic table surround by bush with only the noise of cicadas and the odd ute leaving the nearby camping spot. It was a really peaceful place for a snack.
A short drive took us the next walk. We went out on a very small boardwalk to view the thrombolites. These were growing in the freshwater of Lake Clifton and looked very similar to the stromatolites we saw at Hamelin Pool on our previous trip. Except these were rounder, almost perfectly circular rocks about 30-50 cm high in shallow water. An interpretive sign showed the internal structures were different, thrombolites existed first and have clumps of photosynthetic cells. Stromatolites evolved later and had a layered structure, like an onion. Thrombolites produce their own food because they host photosynthetic algae which converts sunlight into food energy, similar to a coral. They aren’t much to look at though, so we didn’t spend much time in full sun watching the rocks.
We did the Lakeside Loop walk which promised an easy 5km return stroll through scrub where you could spot long-necked turtles in the lake. It turned out to be a 7 kilometre walk mostly in full sun. It was at this point we started to wonder about some of the guidance material. We were walking along a dirt path, not quite wide enough for two people with long grass and spiky bush on either side. Over the path were the webs and bright yellow patterned bodies of small spiders. They were everywhere, Mitch had to keep ducking so he didn’t end up with a spider on his hat. While they were small, around the size of a five cent piece they were numerous. I stopped and counted 36 in one web complex on a tree on the side of the path. Some webs also contained golden orb spiders. These were much bigger and ran very fast if you leaned near one for a look, making you jump back quickly. An interpretive sign on the side of the track identified the little brightly coloured arachnids as Christmas spiders. Their hardened carapaces allow them rest to in the centre of webs in direct sunlight, while tolerating the withering heat. Worryingly, there was no information on whether or not they were venomous.
We saw filtered glimpses of the lake to our left, about 30 metres away, but never got any closer. After walking for 4 kms we looked at the track notes again and found we’d made a wrong turn. Heading back we quickly found the fork and took the path to the right. It looped us back to the carpark, Mitch still ducking and weaving amongst the hundreds of spiders. I’m not sure where these mysterious turtles were hidden! We saw two young emus and their dad ahead of us on the path. They put their heads down and ran quickly in the opposite direction along the path, bodies shaking like giant feather dusters. I felt sorry for scaring them in the heat. Back at the car we stopped to eat a sandwich. A black spider crawled onto my leg from the picnic table, making lunch after that a hasty affair.
Our second day in Rockingham was spent at Penguin Island, only 700 metres offshore. A ferry putted us across in five minutes. It was a perfectly flat, calm day with not a cloud in the sky. This island is home to the largest population of little penguins in WA. Being daytime though it was highly unlikely we would see one because they would be out fishing. They return to the island at dusk, long after the last ferry leaves for the day. The waters surrounding Penguin Island are part of the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park so we’d packed our snorkelling gear. Penguin Island is tiny, only 12.5 hectares with a boardwalk that loops around the island. You can walk this in about 20 minutes if you don’t stop to look at anything, but there were so many distractions!
At the first beach we saw an odd shape resting in the shallows. We headed off the boardwalk and onto the sand to investigate. A male sea lion had hauled out to rest in the sheltered bay. He had his eyes closed, nose pointed up and was enjoying the sunshine. Soon children were walking in front of me, asking their mum if they could get close. Her advice to the kids showed she was clearly no expert in marine mammals, “oh you can go closer, if you get too close he’ll just do a little growl at you”. Out they waded towards the 100+ kilogram wild animal. We decided to leave them to it (natural selection and all that) and headed back to the boardwalk.
We passed caves in the rocky headland sprawled along the beach. There were limestone arches and an unnaturally squared door frame. An interpretive sign filled us in (we like signs), Paul Seaforth McKenzie squatted on Penguin Island from 1914, living in one of the caves. In 1918 the island was gazetted a reserve, and McKenzie was given a lease on the island. He acted as island caretaker and host, establishing a food store and rooms in the caves and rudimentary houses before welcoming tourists until his lease ended in 1926. We wondered what drove him to this remote place, possible escaping the war (or the wife and five children he’d left behind in New Zealand).
Onwards up the path, you can’t help but notice the bridled terns. These birds are everywhere, wheeling above us in the sky, heading out to sea, sitting sedately on the boardwalk stairs and not caring as you walk past. These birds are smaller than your average magpie, white with grey wings and a black cap that connects to a black band running through each eye. The island has that seabird smell, a mix of guano and fish, but this isn’t overwhelming and most of the time you don’t even notice it. The sound of the terns is fantastic, males were trying to impress females with squeaks and contorted bodies, wings lifted out sideways, neck extended, yellow beak pointing towards the ground. Others were calling their chicks, small grey fluffballs hidden beneath bushes or under the boardwalk.
At the lookout we could see the pelican colony. Pelicans come here to breed but we couldn’t get close because a pair had decided to nest next to the higher lookout point, closing off the path. We had to appreciate them through our telephoto lenses instead. About 500 pelicans breed on the island, they all seemed to enjoy sitting together in the sun. Occasionally one will glide back in after fishing, throat pouch swollen with food. On the west side of the island we discovered the crested terns returning to feed their chicks. The chicks were scattered over the shore, some sitting in the seaweed, others falling asleep near the water’s edge.
Each tern flying in with a fish in its beak made a repetitive cry to summon its chick. Watching them for a while it became apparent this was not a peaceful place to be a seabird. Other half-grown terns surrounded younger chicks, trying to steal food from the incoming parent. This caused the chicks to run and hide, so when the parent flew in to where it had last been there was no chick there. Multiple fly-bys ensued, sometimes with other terns chasing the parent to steal its fish. Eventually when the parent on the ground kept the teenage birds at bay, the chick was seen by the incoming parent and finally had a meal stuffed into its beak, bird parenting teamwork at its best.
We spotted a sooty oystercatcher, running around on the rock platform feeding. Pigeons flew past, making a strange addition to an island covered in seabirds. This brought the total to six bird species. Young seagulls looked similar to the tern chicks with brown-flecked grey wings and white tummies. The black crests of half-grown terns were blowing up in the breeze, making them look comical. One flew in with a small fish, as if proud to show the other adolescents it’s catch.
After many photos and over an hour of bird watching we made it up to the lookout which had 360 degree views. Looking to shore we could see the city of Rockingham, behind us the Indian Ocean stretched into the distance. The water was dark blue, closer to the island it changed to green with patches of seaweed and seagrass beds just below the surface. We set off back to the west side to explore underwater. Walking past the grassy, shaded picnic area we saw a buff banded rail. This small, brown quail like bird was splashing around in a shallow water dish.
We came full circle back to where the sea lion had been resting in the bay, he’d wisely vacated his spot, giving the beach back to the tourists. It was a sheltered spot and looked like the perfect place for a snorkel. There were some rocks jutting out of the water with more birds on them so we headed in that direction. The tide was low leaving less than 30 cm of water between us and the seagrass we were floating over. Small brown fish swam in schools, terns and pelican flew overhead. Reaching the rock, we found two types of cormorants basking in the sun, wings outstretched to dry them. This brought our total up to 10 bird species that we’d seen in one day. There is a discovery centre where orphaned penguins are kept and fed in shows for tourists, we didn’t feel like seeing that after exploring the island ourselves and seeing so much wild bird behaviour. Back on the ferry, the ride home flashed by, we piled off, happy with our day exploring Penguin Island.
We started our last morning in Rockingham with a walk at Cape Peron. Even though it was an overcast day and a bit windy it was nice to be out somewhere new. We started by walking around the headland and down onto the beach. Big brown, jelly like lumps were strewn along the tideline. These were as big as half a cushion. Looking closer we could see small antennae-like pieces poking out near one end. These must be sea hares! The parts sticking out would be the rhinophores. Looking in the rockpools at the end of the beach we saw three more brown sea hares and two small yellow ones that would fit into your palm. Thankfully these were alive, not rolling in the wash on the edge of shore.
Further on we walked through coastal scrub winding into small offshoot paths to look over headlands and out to a funny mushroom shaped rock that seemed to hang over the ocean. Larger rockpools dotted the shore below the cliff we were standing on and we could see the shallower rock platform spreading offshore. It looked like a good snorkelling spot. Walking further around we found old gun emplacements and a lookout with signs that talked about barricades in the water, the remains of which could still be seen today. At the last bunker it started raining so we scurried back to the car. Time to leave Rockingham and see what we could find further south.
The next day was free to explore Kalbarri National Park. The park is huge, it took us a half hour drive from town to reach the first walk called Nature’s Window. Yellow tailed black cockatoos were eating banksia seeds in the trees on the side of the road. When we tried to approach closer on foot they flew off, making their melancholy echoing call. We were one of the first cars in the carpark, it was only 7am but we were here early to beat the heat. Heading downhill the concrete path soon turned to rock as we followed the rim of a gorge. To our left you could see over the cliffs to the u-shaped bend of the Murchison River. The river far below us traced its way along the bottom of the gorge. Tiny black dots moved around on the sand. Putting my camera to my eye and zooming my telephoto as far as it could go, I found they were goats drinking at the water’s edge.
Following the path around a rock wall, using natural stepping stones carved out of it by wind and water we came to Nature’s Window. The window itself is a sedimentary arch with a hole in the middle of it through which you can see the gorge and the river. There is a small platform of rock on one side where other tourists were standing taking photos of each other. We walked around them and continued down the rock and along the path. We were on the track for the Murchison Gorge loop walk which takes 3-4 hours and loops down into the gorge, along the river and back up. As we are walking along the gorge rim, we have to be mindful of where we step, to either side is an incredible view but also a long drop. We reach a sign that tells us if we haven’t made it to this point before 7.30am do not attempt the Loop walk. We had no plans to spend that long out in the heat, already carrying 2 litres of water each for our short stroll. In the gorge it can be 10 degrees hotter than on the rim, where it was already climbing towards 40 degrees by 9am.
We walked a little further and found a shaded spot to eat our snack. Wrens teased us from nearby pushes with their high-pitched squeaks but we couldn’t spot them. A kestrel soared gracefully overhead, landing on a nearby rock outcrop. From its landing spot it could sit in the shade and look out over the entire gorge.
I wonder what it thinks of the view? Probably couldn’t care less as it sees it every day! We were impressed though, the river below was a deep green, contrasting with the yellow sand of the riverbed and the orange rocks that form the sides of the gorge. Low green scrub was dotted through the sand, as were the tracks of animals that come in for a drink. From our height we could only make out the three toed emu prints.
The bushes continue to grow in the rocky gorge country but don’t give much shade giving an empty feeling to the place. We were getting very hot and head back to the car, on our way into the carpark we pass by the ‘intrepid adventurers’ heading to natures window for a photo. Hats and other sun protection seemed like an optional afterthought for most of this group, most carried only their phones for that precious selfie, but no water. Same it was now 48 degrees in the shade. Their driver was finishing off a quick cigarette then hurried after them, presumably to round them up and drive on to the next photo opportunity.
We had a quiet afternoon to ourselves, checking out a few more lookouts but it was too hot to brave anymore walks. We thought we’d check out a snorkelling spot but after driving back to town realised a strong wind had picked up. Ever hopeful we headed to the beach to find it was so exposed the wind howling even stronger, and it was low tide so the rockpool snorkelling site the tourist information board recommended had barely any water covering the sharp rocks. Oh well, back in the air conditioning we rested and packed to continue our journey.
As we drove away from Kalbarri early the next day falcons and eagles hovered above the road as if to wish us farewell. Our next stop was a place called shell beach. As a shell lover I was very excited to see a beach completely made of shells. On the drive we’d had glimpses of turquoise blue ocean and were looking forward to a mid-morning swim to cool down. We couldn’t have been more disappointed! As we parked the car the intrepid bus drove off, they were finally ahead of us, a worrying sign. The first interpretive sign stated the water was hypersaline so if you went swimming you would come out with a layer of salt on your skin. No thanks. At least there was still a beach full of shells, I thought to myself. Reaching the beach, I first thought we’d come to the wrong place. It was super windy and the ground was white, the surface was piled into waves from the wind so heading towards the ocean meant walking up and down small slopes. Bending down I found we were in the right place; the shells were there. But they were tiny! The pipi shaped Fragum Cockle shells were the size of my fingernail if I was lucky to find a large looking one. Well that’s not what I imagined! After a few photos we headed back to the carpark, the wind blowing us back the whole way and whipping dust across our legs.
Driving on along the unchanging road we reached our next stop, the Hamelin Pool stromatolites. The stromatolites may be the oldest living organism but boy they aren’t much to look at! After walking down the beach we could see an exposed area from the low tide which looked like a field of rocks. We struck unlucky again, learning you couldn’t swim near the stromatolites, there was just a short boardwalk that took you on a loop out to see them. Even on the furthest point seaward the stromatolites below us were barely in ankle deep water. And oh the flies! We still spent the best part of an hour having a look and appreciating the ancient structures below us. Small fish swam from the shade of one stromatolite to another then stopped still. Under the boardwalk swallows flew when we walked over top, moving to another area in the shade. The area looked empty as all signs of life (apart from the stromatolites) sought shelter from the harsh midday sun.
Our stop that night was at Carnarvon, after arriving late we cooked up pasta and made an impressive salad, we’d been missing vegies on this roadtrip! When it was time for bed I became fascinated with the bedside lamps which turned on and off if you lightly tapped the base with a fingertip. Maybe I’d spent too long in the sun.
The next day we were very excited to reach Coral Bay and spend some time in the water. We’d read about a nursery area for reef sharks at skeleton beach so headed there first. To get there you have to park the car then walk for thirty minutes along the beach. Trudging in the sand, the sun beating down and heading against the wind our spirits were still up to see sharks. We reached the point we’d aimed for and headed into the water to find…nothing. The odd bit of algae covered coral, barely a fish and definitely no sharks. We investigated thoroughly, but found nothing. There was hardly any coral to speak of so we couldn’t work out why this place had been called Coral Bay either. Defeated we stopped by the bakery for a snack and to re-plan.
The other snorkelling spot was the bay itself (Bill’s bay) so we headed there, covered in a new layer of sunscreen. The bay was protected from the wind and very still. An arc of white sand curved around to meet the turquoise water, below it we could see dark shapes. Diving in we found the reef at last! As far as you could see, then once you’d swum there and looked even further – was coral. It covered the ocean floor like a carpet, you couldn’t see any sandy patches. It was like a layered garden with branching coral growing over horizontal plate corals and around large boulder like Porites coral that grow only a centimetre or less per year and would be hundreds of years old. Now we understood why this place got its name. There was about half a metre of water between us and the coral carpet below. It was mostly brown in colour with the occasional fluoro blue staghorn coral breaking up the single colour palette. There were very few reef fish living among the coral, the odd school of blue green Chromis here and there and a wrasse occasionally. We soon had our fill of looking at coral and headed on to our final destination – Exmouth.
First impressions of Exmouth were typical of every town we’d recently been in. Very hot, one main street and barely any trees with only low bushes on the roadside. Similar to most other places the first two options we tried for dinner were closed, which isn’t surprising as this is the quiet season when no whalesharks and their accompanying tourists are around. Up early on our second last day we heard short beaked corellas calling as we drove towards Cape Range National Park. A dingo slunk along the side of the road.
Over 40 kilometres in we came to our first stop, Mandu Mandu gorge walk. The trail loops along the top of a gorge with views to the ocean, then cuts back through the dry creek bed. We saw our first black-flanked rock wallaby, a bit mummified, and dead in the middle of the path in the baking sun. All was going well heading uphill but as a grade four walk it was so incredibly steep going downhill I was terrified. I ended up scooting on my bum for most of it, which was made even more embarrassing when a pair of French girls with no water or backpacks came from the opposite direction.
“How is the trail?” They asked,
“A bit steep and slippery in places” Mitch replied.
They were off on their way again. We didn’t tell them about the decomposing wallaby, best save that as a surprise.
My legs were shaking and I was swearing off ever doing this walk again by the time we’d reached halfway. Hitting the creek bed the heat washed over us but luckily the breeze returned occasionally. Walking over the large white pebbles was tough, every second step the whole ground would move beneath your foot. Halfway along the creek bed Mitch pointed up at the cliffs towering above us. In the shade, on a ledge less than a metre wide sat a black-flanked rock wallaby. There was no clear way for it to get up there but in the only cool place it sat, sleeping. It blinked blearily at us once as we passed fifteen metres below it then went back to its slumber. Further on we made like the wallaby and found a shady overhang to eat our snacks.
Next stop, Ningaloo Reef. Turquoise Bay drift snorkel was where we ended up. Stepping over hot sand full of coral pieces we made our way up the beach. Into the water where there was…nothing. Just sand for the first twenty metres or so. It was quite stirred up so you had the feeling of needing to clean your glasses the entire time. Unlike coral bay there was no mass of coral, it was dotted everywhere in patches and small bommies. There were many more reef fish though which prompted me to buy a book and work out what they were at the visitor centre later that day. We disturbed a stingray feeding on the bottom, Mitch spotted another octopus tucked into a coral head. I still have no idea how he sees something so camouflaged.
Getting out we made a few stops on the long drive back, we had to slow down for emus and completely stop for Bustards along the road. The visitors centre was full of skulls, taxidermy specimen’s sea urchin tests and birds’ nests complete with eggs. It did give me a strong idea of how many animal species were in the area, you definitely couldn’t tell if there was much alive by being outside! We ended up back at the Potshot Hotel restaurant for dinner, just in time for cheap parmy night. We didn’t make the same mistake as last night in sitting outside with the flies, instead choosing a table in the dark, cool of inside.
Our last day together was slow, we had a long breakfast at a vegetarian & vegan café that seemed to attract everyone with a child under three. Dropping Mitch off and finally walking out of the airport I crumbled a little inside, this was our first time apart in over a year and a half. Would I survive in Exmouth on my own? Who would open jars for me? And more importantly could I even do this?