Thursday, November 30, 2006

Blog 20 - Pics 13 - Sydney

Blog 19 - Sydney Surprise

Coming to Sydney was the next logical step. I’d seen the outback and some amazing sights on land and water in WA. So I was itchy to see my long lost relatives in Sydney and keep moving on. Australia isn’t the cheapest place to live and I was keen not to blow my bankroll on merely subsisting. I didn’t want to be in Oz just for the sake of being here. Its possible to camp, but not in the cities. So if you want to hang out where its at (man) you have to do the backpacker thing or stay in cheap hotels, which actually aren’t cheap.

Lucky for me the expatriate branch of the family are extremely hospitable and welcoming. I’ve been in Sydney the best part of a month now and have always been able to doss with a cousin or a niece. I thank you all. I hadn’t actually intended to linger this long. I’m always conscious of outstaying my welcome. By now I would have been in New Zealand. But as fate would have it, I had a call the other week to offer me a place in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race! Not just out of the blue like. I’d applied a while back for a crew place but hadn’t heard anything, so assumed it was a no go. The deal involved two weeks in the run up to Christmas in a Sydney apartment with the crew (the race starts on Boxing Day). Sailing every day in practice and preparation; entry to the Rolex Trophy Inshore Races, a sea survival course, an overnight sail, the race itself over five days, New Year partying in Hobart then sail back to Sydney for about the 8th Jan.

It’s the sort of thing I have only been able to dream of. It’s a really big deal race, up-there with the Fastnet. One of the top world sailing events. You are in competition with some of the best ocean racers on the planet. One of the few occasions where ordinary Joe Public like me can rub shoulders with the cream of the crop. I had a taster once before of this phenomenon with the New York City Marathon two years ago. I was in the same race, over the same course as World and Olympic champions. Paula Radcliffe was in the same race. It didn’t matter that she had finished and flown back to London before I saw the lights of Central Park. I was there and that was all that mattered. So I know what a big deal it is to be part of something with such a high profile on the world stage.

The only trouble was haveing to part with about three months salary to be in. I had to sleep on it… When I conceived the idea of having a year out and travelling the world, part of me didn’t want to just travel. I wanted to do stuff that I’d remember for the rest of my natural. Things you can tell your grandkids about. The cost of participating was more or less what I hope to have left when I get home to ease me back into normal life and not be in complete penury and dependent on loved ones for food and shelter. Fuck it. Its only money. If I survive and am still in one piece and of relatively sound mind, I can work, get a job (heaven forbid) and pick myself up again. It may mean the party ends prematurely, but what a party it will have been. If I’m home and beanless in the spring instead of the autumn then so be it. There may never be a future when time, money, place and opportunity come together to allow me to do this. In the end there was no decision to make.

I always find that agonising over big decisions is a waste of nervous energy. You have a gut feeling that can guide you. Its better to send a question to your belly rather than your head. Your guts do a fine job of sifting out what is nutritious and necessary for you from the caddle shovelled into it. Your digestive organs can do the same when it comes to coalescing a morass of confusing possibilities into a well defined answer that is good for you and only you. It’s a natural thing.

It also helps if you have been patient enough to allow the forces of circumstance to pile up against you until the point is reached where resistance is useless and there can only be one outcome. You then just have to go with the flow and allow nature to sweep you off your feet. You know when something is right because it all happens easily. There is no struggle.

So it was with the decision to enter the race and spend the money. In the end it was a no brainer… ha ha an accusation I’ve heard before… and ignored. It’s amazing how people react. I told my Aussie rellies and they were really happy for me. But the first thing you hear is… ‘Streuth, you know 11 people died in that race the other year, don’t you’. What is it about human nature. People just can’t wait to give you the bad news. Even if it is true.

The Sydney Hobart is a dangerous race, no question. The Bass Straight between the mainland and Tasmania is renowned as a wild and fickle place. Calm one minute and stormy the next. (I know a few women like that). One of the reasons people have died in the past is because its not in the Aussie nature to back down. The harder it blows the more they want to be out there. It’s a kind of national male chauvinism. The elements have a habit of having the last word in such situations. I’ll be in a mixed Aussie/Pom crew so prudence may prevail if it comes to taking it easy (she’s the cook).

After signing on the dotted line and jumping up and down with excitement (again), I was brought back to earth with a thump when I visited the local ships chandler to see about the list of gear that I would need. Yachties are a bit like plumbers. I pointed at a waterproof jacket in the shop, the only one they had, and asked how much.

‘What do you want it for’ was the reply. You have to get used to this sort of directness in Oz.

‘Sydney Hobart’, says I (aye Jim Lad)

Big intake of breath through pursed lips from Johnny Shopkeeper.

‘You don’t want that mate’. He looks me sternly in the eye (aye aye).. ‘You’re going to be cold and you’re going to be wet for five days’. I’m now beginning to think I should have saved my money for a spot of gentle rambling in New Zealand.

He then proceeded to give me a long list of all the ‘proper’ gear I would need to keep body and soul together on my journey to watery hell and back. A good grand’s worth (sterling). He let the air out of my spinnaker good and proper. Now I’m thinking I may as well go straight home after the race as I’m not going to have enough left to buy a hawaian shirt let alone visit the place.

But not to worry. Good old fate lent a hand again. A friend of the family kindly offered me the use of his gear. Which was all the best top of the range stuff recommended by my salty dog friend in the chandlers. There is no excuse now for snivelling, Ellen MacArthur like, as the Southern Ocean waves break over me in the middle of the night, while hanging my ballast over the rail.

That left a few odds and sods to find. My trainers (ex marathon) are just about to give up the ghost. I’ve gaffer taped over the holes in them but the black soles will no doubt be frowned upon by the capn. Defacing the deck with black streaks, ten lashes. They may need to be formally buried at sea with full honours. I could probably get locked up for chucking them off the Harbour Bridge. The odds of knocking out a ferry passenger would be quite slim (and not from the smell). So have picked up some cheap canvass deck shoes. Apart from thermals, woolly jumpers and hats 2 – warm and waterproof and wide and sun proof, the other bits are all boy scout stuff. I treated myself to a head torch. I found from the episode under the bus in the Outback night, that a light strapped to your head is way better than a handheld. I’ll need two hands to hold on. The best thing is a four inch knife with a glow in the dark handle. You just never know when you might be overcome with the urge to whittle in the middle of the night. I’ll just have to try and not disturb the rest of the crew!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Blog 18 - Vertigo Tour

Having just spent ten days on a steamy bus charging through the nether regions of Western Australia, you would have thought I'd have had enough. But no, not John Parker, bring it on, lets have some more. I like to do these things with a ripping off a sticking plaster attitude - fast and all in one go. When you are as hairy as me its definitely the best way.

So after a night on Ellie's sofa it was up at the crack of dawn (a nice girl) again. With a freshly laundered hanky to tie up all my possessions, I set off for the bus stop. I'd managed to get all the dust and sweat caked gear into the wash the night before. Most of it was dry but the red earth of the outback was still stubbornly ingrained in most of my modest wardrobe. I had followed the Lonely Planet packing guide to the letter and possessed a meager one tea shirt, one long sleeved top, one shirt with collar and long sleeves (doubles as passable evening garb in case the local greasy spoon has a dress code), two pairs pants with zip off legs, a frugal ration of undercrackers, one pair sandals, one pair of trainers (shortly destined for the great sneaker sanctuary in the sky). Oh and a toothbrush. If that was all I had I could probably get away with a Tesco bag to hump it around. Its the assortment of books, notepads, binocs, pen knife, accumulated pebbles and stones, copies of documents (halt, papers! - must be said in a Hollywood German accent) and heaviest of all, the assorted converters and battery chargers required to keep alive even the most modest of electrical necessities. At least I don't need a hair drier. Even with all the miscellaneous bits my pack is still a pretty manageable fifteen kilo's or so. Some of the others on the trips had massive bags. Fifteen kg wouldn't have covered the toilet bags of some of them. Its usually the young girls that are the worst. They have to have an outfit or three for every possible eventuality. On the last trip, as one of the few boys and the only one over six foot, I usually copped for passing bags up to and from the roof of the bus. So I have excellent first hand knowledge of the benefits of traveling light.

There is a curious sort of anxiety that sets in while waiting for your tour bus to turn up. There is usually a motley crew of bleary eyed backpackers of every shape, size, colour, nationality and smell, assembled by the bus stop. There will be four or five tours to different places all leaving from the same place at roughly the same time. You can comfortably while away twenty minutes or so weighing up who you think is likely to be a new traveling companion. Secretly weeding out the weirdo's. Its a psychoanalysts beanfeast. You learn a lot about your own prejudices on these occasions. They reckon you can weigh someone up in seconds and be more than 95% correct in your assumptions, without even speaking to them. Its really interesting to put this theory to the test. So I've surrepticiously edged out anyone over twenty stone and sweating, all men with pony tails (especially ones with dreadlocks), guys with Eric Morecambe shorts and calf length white socks with sandal's, any boy or boys under twenty clutching a slab of beer. I'd better leave it there or I'll be getting into libel land. Just as an amusing aside while I'm on the subject. This will appeal to at least one reader who shall be nameless (Trumper). When flying on to Sydney a very pretty girl sits next to me and starts chatting away, real friendly like. I'm thinking this is going to be a pleasant four hours. Everything was normal until I asked her what she did, to which the answer was, 'studying the bible'. Its one of life's 'oh shit' moments. God in his ironic wisdom had sent me a Jehovas witness to whiten my tarnished soul. Fortunately salvation appeared in the form of an angel pushing the dinner trolley. It gave me a moment to get the headphones on and face the front - the flying equivalent to slamming the front door. It just goes to show you cant judge a book by its cover. Also thankfully, not every pretty girl is a religious fundamentalist (unless the beard gives it away).

Anyway...... The new fellow excursionists turned out to be an excellent bunch, with a good proportion from my mental A list. This was going to be a three day trip down to the far south, in a loop through Albany, Pemberton, Margaret River and back to Perth. The country this time was very different to up north. Lots of forest, wheat farms, rolling green hills. You could be in Shropshire until a kangaroo hops out across the road. They are buggers for jaywalking. Especially at dusk. They stupidly stand and stare at the approaching headlights, transfixed like a 150 pound rabbit. If they do move its invariably back into your path. They get no change from the road trains. To these 200 ton multi trailered monsters that barrel along at 110kph and take over a mile to stop, its just like a fly hitting the bumper. But to a bus or saloon car it can mean being totaled.

Although I hated the thought of getting back on the bus, I was really excited about seeing the worlds second tallest trees... sorry but there has to be a nerdy corner in every story. There are two types of giant trees in this neck of the woods. The Tingle trees grow only in this area of Oz. To get the best view of the titans they have built a tree walk. This is a metal walkway suspended 40m above the forest floor and very shaky, as were my knees halfway along it.

We had four guys with us in their late 20's early thirties but still being properly juvenile as all lads on tour should be. They thought it would add greatly to the experience if they shook the walkway until you had to cling on like Indiana Jones crossing a bottomless chasm on a fraying rope bridge. Well done lads! You will all be pleased to know that tempted as I was to scream like a girl, I managed to maintain a modicum of self composure as you can see below -

For the cissy's there was also a ground level walk. They really are amazing close up. There used to be a big fella you could park your car in until it gave in to its age. It must have been a sapling around the time of the Spanish Inquisition - a fact I hadn't expected!

Just to get in the mood for all this high level action. We stopped on the way to Albany to have a walk up Castle rock and get a great view of the surrounding wineries and the distant Flinders Ranges. I liked this idea. After being cooped up on the bus an excuse to stretch your legs and have an hours walk was most welcome. Unfortunately it was another vertigo trip at the top. With steep sided rocks, enclosed ladders and a very rusted, not to be trusted summit.

All this was just a warm up though for the BIG ONE. There are a network of fire watch trees in the Southern Forests. They are not used so much now. Planes are a better option. I knew it was coming and had been psyching myself up on the bus all morning. The Bicentennial tree is a 74m Karri. With a viewing platform on the top which is reached by climbing metal spikes hammered into the trunk in an upward spiral. No safety net, no climbing harness. You need the nerves of a trapeze artist to get up, and down this thing. Some of us made it to the top but I considered it enough just to get to the first platform some 30m up. The ascent wasn't too bad. I just looked at the spike in front of me. But coming down I had to step out backwards off the platform and look down to check where my feet where going. When I got to the bottom my legs had turned to jelly.

I used to love climbing trees when I was a kid. Okay, not this big, but the vertigo thing kinda crept in while I wasn't looking. I must admit, I felt better for having done it. They say the best way to conquer your fears is to face them head on. There must be some truth in that. We visited the Gloucester Tree a little further on. It was getting dark so we couldn't climb, but I felt I could have done this one. Especially as at 60m it was just a tiddler ;-)

The far south of WA is a really beautiful place. The beaches are magnificent. Long white sands, big grey granite boulders and masses of wild flowers. The Southern Ocean is a deep blue. It was a bit too nippy to swim, it is full of icebergs after all. I must be getting soft, it's still got to be warmer than Angelsey in the summer. I ticked it off my ocean list. Have swum in the Atlantic and Indian, dipped a toe in the Southern, just the Pacific to go.

The last day was a bit of an anticlimax with lots of short stops to the small towns along the coast back to Perth. I just wanted to stop the bus and get off now. The thought of a single room and a hot shower kept me going though.

Taking tours is a great way to see the country. You don't have all the hassle of finding your own way, places to see, shopping to buy, accommodation to find. Its all laid on a plate for you. Plus the guides have heaps of local knowledge (like the best bakeries and cheapest bottle shops). You get to meet loads of new people and make new friends, even if some of them do have pony tails and dreadlocks.....

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Blog 17 - Outback Days Part 2

From Exmouth the trail went inland through the mining town of Tom Price to the Karijini National Park. It was another long day on the bus. Its a fact of life here. Distances are so huge that traveling for hours on end along dead straight roads that disappear into a pinpoint in the haze, is just something you have to put up with. You would think that this would be a good opportunity to get to know people and chat. Quite often after a pee stop or lunch break, people would be quite animated. But then the battle would commence to maintain concentration. If you could find any sort of comfortable position then you could sleep. But usually your entire concentration is dedicated to not be bothered by being too cold from the ac or too hot when the ac struggled to cope or ignoring the aching legs and bum. So that eventually its just too much trouble to talk. You try to read but the book dances so much because of the movement of the bus that your eyes can't keep up with it. So most people descend into a zombie like state until the next chance to stretch your legs. When we came to a roadhouse to stop for fuel and the loo, I would always get out and have a walk around even if I didn't need anything.

The days developed a bit of a routine. We all mucked in at meal times and spread the jobs around. Some people were good at food prep others would carry boxes and some would wash up. Everybody found their own level after a bit of initial awkward shyness and reticence. Bags had to be loaded and unloaded onto the roof of the bus. When we camped, the swags and tents had to be rolled and stacked onto the trailer. Toby, our guide and driver had us all well drilled after a couple of days. He was a good guy, always cheerful and helpful. Able to get everything done without winding anyone up. Its a tough job. You are away for two weeks at a time with 20 or so people to look after in some really wild territory. Your average person usually has enough common sense to keep themselves out of trouble but something unlikely is always around the corner.

If something was going to happen then Karijini was the place. Everything had been pretty smooth so far. But on our way down into the gorge to see Circular Pool it began to thunder. Pretty soon the wind was up then the rain followed. Big flashes of lightning and thunder echoing round the gorge walls. Water was running everywhere. The frogs had started to croak. Toby was starting to hurry us along and was looking agitated. The pool was stunning but we only had a few minutes and had to leave. Flash floods in the gorges are a big problem. People have been killed, trapped by a 4m wall of water. So he was understandably nervous and couldn't wait to get us out of there.

Our first night camping in the park was the real deal at last. Gathering wood for a fire then rolling out swags to sleep in. Only the brave slept in the open. The rest went in tents. The chances of a spider or snake wanting to share your swag are pretty slim and you have to put that out of your mind and revel in the freedom of sleeping under the stars. To be honest it was also a bit of a relief to see the sun coming up ;-)

The next night camping was at a proper campsite rather than just at the side of the road. By proper campsite I mean they had loos (no showers) checking under the seat for the use of. In the bush they obviously don't have a lot of water so all the toilets are of the composting variety. Everything disappears silently into a black hole (and comes out in Birmingham!). Very good though, no smell.
One of the girls had been feeling a bit poorly and made a dash into the bush to throw up. As she turned to go back to camp a dingo appeared from nowhere and promptly ate the pavement pizza. Nature doesn't waste a thing. Just when I was getting cocky about sleeping in the open I now have to add dingo's to the list of nocturnal nightmare scenarios. They were howling nearby in the night. Not your traditional wolf like howl or the rendition afforded by a friendly mongrel on hearing the Dr Who music. More a sort of flat tuneless (spine chilling), morose sort of howl. Anyway, it was enough to have me peering intently into the gloom for a good while. It was an uncomfortable night. Not helped by the smell of piss coming from the top right hand corner of my swag. Either a dingo had decided to express its distain of pommie campers while I was nodding or a previous occupant had refused to venture more than a foot into the bush for a spot of nocturnal micturition. Next morning the park ranger had said the dingo's had made off with someone's boot from one camp and a pack of butter from another. Fortunately our donation to dingo nutrition had been confined to someone's second hand lunch.

We had all been having a brilliant time exploring the fabulous gorges and swimming in deep pools surrounded by ancient canyon walls 100m high, watching giant orb spider webs enticing the myriad of dragon flies in for dinner. Our last visit was to Hammersley gorge. Things had started to go amiss when one of the rear windows of the bus shattered. They take a lot of stick from the unmade roads. We were able to fill it in with some cardboard and tape. I'd wrapped some gaffer tape around a marker pen before I left Blighty as a sort of boy scoutish precaution against some unknown eventuality. You only need two things in your toolbox. If its broken.. gaffer tape. If its stuck...wd40. I'll concede that a Swiss Army penknife can be jolly handy too. There are always those times when you just have to whittle!

It was getting late in the day and as the road into the gorge was steep, Toby left the trailer with all the camping gear, food and water at a campground about 3k from the gorge. Hammersley was different again, with loads of weird rock formations and inky red water from the recent rains. We had only just got under way to go back when the bus stalled on a hill and wouldn't start. Everyone got off while Toby poked around with no luck. We must have been a good hour or more's drive from the nearest help and it was going dark and starting to thunder again. Big spots of rain began to fall and people were beginning to wonder what next? To add to the drama, one of the girls sat on what she thought was a clump of grass but was the Spinifex plant. A nasty ubiqitous derset dweller that not to be outdone by the animal kingdom, will leave its razor sharp spines in anybodies backsite who cares to sit on it. I thought it was a sort of girly ritual at first when confronted by a bunch of girls peering at another girls bum bt torchlight armed with tweezers.

The company provide the drivers with a satellite phone for just this eventuality and Toby was able to speak to a mechanic who gave him some ideas. While this was going on another vehicle appeared out of the gloom and stopped. The guy was heading for the toilet at the top of the gorge! He agreed to put his needs on hold and ferried half the folk back to the trailer to make camp and get some food on. He brought back a jerry can of diesel and one of water. We had worked out that the fuel wasn't getting through. We could bleed the line but it meant getting under the bus and priming the pump manually with a spring loaded valve. Toby and I took turns in pumping it until eventually it got through to the engine and it fired-up. There was much joy on our return to camp. Its only a small crisis but it certainly added a bit of spice to the trip.

That night was one of the best nights I ever had. It was still threatening rain and everyone had gone in tents. Bar me. I set up my swag near the fire and sat out for ages on my own, listening to the night sounds, watching the fire glow, sipping a beer. One of life's champagne moments.

Next day the group split up. I was heading back to Perth with three others and the rest were going on to Broome and some to Darwin. It was a tediously long two day drive back. The highlight of which was staying at Nallan sheep station on the way. This time the toilet block was full of frogs. A bit disconcerting having all those pairs of eyes watching you do what you have to do. There was even one in the toilet bowl! He enjoyed a nice log flume ride to the septic tank ;-) The shearers kitchen was an arachnophobic's worst nightmare. Its not used very often and was furnished in a 40's corrugated iron sort of look with a healthy sprinkling of spider webs on every plate and utensil. One of those places where you don't want to pick anything up for fear of enraging a local hairy occupant (not the shearers!). We hadn't paid the extra few dollars to stay indoors so I was glad to be back outdoors in the swag (not the pissy one this time). It wasn't until next morning that I noticed the close proximity of snake tracks in the sand. Just as well I didn't see them before turning in. There was loads of them. Mark, the new driver casually remarked that they were probably a few days old. Not really any comfort.

Coming back the country gradually changed from the open bush to mining country then into the wheat belt then wineries in the Swan Valley closer to Perth. It was a real let down coming back into the city. I used to feel the same way as a kid when returning to Liverpool after a couple of weeks with my Dad's folks in the Scottish countryside. Everything was crowded and busy. The outback may be wild and harsh but its definitely the place to get away from the rat race.

Blog 16 - Outback Days Part 1

Whenever I used to think of Australia it was never Neighbours or Rolf Harris that sprang to mind but miles and miles of wild empty country, searing heat, nasty animals, aboriginals and big sweaty, dusty blokes with stained string vests and cowboy hats, drinking beer in a tin shed in the middle of nowhere. Well touring up the west coast of Australia was all of that.

I was inspired recently by reading Albert Facey's book, 'A Fortunate Life'. This was early 20th century Oz. When people were trying to make farms from the wild bush, build railways, driving cattle 1000 miles. We get 'western', cowboy movies about the US ad nauseam. Somehow Australia got overlooked but the stories were just the same. My dad used to love his 'cowies' so I was kind of brought up on the romanticism of the wild west. Perhaps its that corner of me that will be forever a country boy, but I just fell in love with the wild open spaces of Australia. When you come back to the city it feels claustrophobic, noisy and dirty in comparison. You don't notice these things when you are surrounded by them every day. Its the contrast of the big skies, clean air and peace and quiet of the open country which brings it home.

My intention originally was to arrive in Darwin then trek over to Cairns and work my way down the east coast to Sydney. In Bangkok, I realised that Darwin would be just as hot and sticky as Thailand. Ellie moving down to Perth at that time helped me decide to change direction and go west instead. It was a good choice. Western Australia is so natural and unspoilt compared with the touristy and backpacker infested east coast. When our bus left Geraldton the tour guide remarked that we had just passed the last traffic light for the next 4000km. I knew then it was going to be a good trip.

There were so many good things on this journey I could write a book on it. Its not just the things you see and the places you visit. Its the people you meet, new friends. New stuff to learn about the country and yourself. Writing this now a few weeks later in Sydney; I've been out twice in the last few days with people I met on that trip. In a foreign place where you don't know anyone, its a great thing to be able to spend time with others you instantly have something in common with.

When I was thinking about what excursion to try, it was the visit to the Stromatolites that sold me. This is the nerdy corner, so bear with me. I'd read about these things - colonies of microscopic blue-green algae that live in very salty, shallow water. They build rocky pillars by sticking small bits of sand to themselves and grow slowly, like coral, over thousands of years. The big deal about them is that over 3.5 billion years ago when the world had an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, these things, the first serious life form, single handedly converted that CO2 over the next 2 billion years into the oxygen we have today. Without that no other life on the planet would have been able to evolve. So geeky boy here was jumping up and down with excitement when we rolled up to Shark Bay (what is the difference between a geek and a nerd, still haven't worked that one out). But they are strikingly unimpressive to the uninitiated. So there was massed communal shoulder shrugging from the assembled bus party. To be honest it does just look like another beach with a few rocks. It was this fact and its general remoteness that meant this particular colony wasn't discovered until the early 1960's. But I enjoyed it. You kinda have to let your imagination fill in the gaps when confronted with this sort of stuff. Something the dumbed down, media spoonfed global population is not used to doing these days. Wow, its not very often you get to be nerdy and a grumpy old man in the same paragraph. Two of my favourite pastimes.

I'll just interrupt the flow here to say the weather in Sydney today is most British. Cold, grey, windy and pissing down. Its great. The sun is okay but you can have too much of a good thing. Anglo Saxon blood requires a bit of eclecticism when it comes to the weather. Its quite pleasant to be indoors with a cosy cup of tea and choccy biscuit, listening to the rain battering on the windows. I'm off to visit my Australian cousins tonight and will no doubt be slated for bringing all this pommie weather, in the true aussie tradition of sledging the opposition.

The Shark Bay area was pretty cool. Seeing the dolphins being fed at Monkey Mia was good to be so close to them. But it was the one thing on the trip which felt a bit false. Much better, in the same place, was a guided walk from Capes, a local aboriginal guy. Again this appealed to all that Bush Tucker Man, Crocodile Dundee, Ray Mears stuff I love. He was a great guy. He explained all the things you could eat, not eat or use for medicines from the local flora. Then looking at animal tracks. You could tell if a kangaroo was large or small, what direction it was headed, how old the tracks were, whether it was going fast or slow... brilliant stuff. He talked about respect for the country, even as far as introducing himself to the country as he passed, with his name and where he came from. He explained how they get their names, from the season or time of year they were born, their totem (animal or plant they had special responsibility for)and their skin - a tribal id which they used to avoid intermarriage.

Coral bay was the next destination, a bit further up the coast. I use bit here in the aussie sense, which means about 400km and half a days drive. The distances here are truly mega. You look at a map and think that's not far but in reality it turns out to be like driving from Liverpool to Glasgow. They have a map over here which shows the whole of the UK, Japan and Germany superimposed over Western Australia, with just as much space to spare. Its unreal and very hard for a small islander to take in.

Our stop over for the night was a sheep station on the Tropic of Capricorn called Warroora, where we were to stay in the shearers quarters. We arrived at dusk and this was out first real excursion from civilisation as we know it. We had stayed in hostels so far, where the closest thing to wildlife was the odd cockroach or twenty. It didn't take long for the first scream to rent the still air. A large hairy Huntsman spider had decided it preferred the comfort of one of the girls rooms. Aussie John helped it back into natures quarters. Another scream. This time from the shower block. Same story different spider. Everyone is getting a bit edgy now. I must admit I double checked under the bed before turning in. It was a great place though. I walked out from the buildings a short way and in the darkness you could see distant lightning strikes. Looking up the sky was a mass of stars. The milky way was really clear and evry few minutes a shooting star would blaze across the blackness.

Later, we got a fire going and a couple of young aussie lads came and joined us. They were students up from Perth to help with the shearing due to start the next week. Their job was to muster the sheep on motorbikes (the boys, not the sheep). The Station was 250,000 acres with 14,000 sheep. They had to shear 1000 a day for two weeks solid. This would give the lads enough money to go off snowboarding in Canada. What a great life.

Coral Bay gave us the chance to swim with Manta Rays. Well actually you could choose an activity for the morning at your own expense from glass bottom boat to Kayaking/snorkeling to the Manta Ray trip. Its not everyday you get that kind of an opportunity so it was a no brainer really.

About half a dozen of us set out in a motor boat with Ben and Macca our surf dude guides. To be honest just being out on a boat on the Ningaloo Reef did it for me, the rest was a bonus. They send up a spotter plane to find the rays and direct the boat. When they find one you have to be over the side all together and follow Macca as he tracks the ray. This thing was amazing. About 3m across, just gliding effortlessly along. It even turned over at one point to reveal a silver underside with an assortment of attached fish getting a free feed. The guys were really impressed as they don't do that very often. When we were back in the boat he let it slip that the plane was also there to look out for other things, like a 4m long Tiger Shark that had recently been patrolling the area. Tiger Sharks like turtle (more than scouser I hope) and we were off to see turtles next. How much better could it get. Then to finish the morning they moored up over the reef and let us snorkel for an hour. They feed the fish a little from the boat, so they all come round as soon as the boat stops. Its like jumping into a huge fish tank. All different shapes and sizes of Snappers and other types too numerous to mention, gather round you curiously, on the off chance you have a handful of ants eggs (or whatever they give them).

Exmouth was the next stop or Ex Mouth as the locals pronounce it. This was a base for a couple of days to explore the beaches further north along the Ningaloo. At Drift Beach you could go into the clear turquoise water and just let the current drift you over the reef. The water was warm enough not to need a wet suit. Just your snorkeling gear. I nearly bricked it when a reef shark meandered underneath me. When I regained my composure I was tempted to follow it until I remembered Capes's advice about snakes and other dangerous creatures - 'they go one way, we go other way'.

Sandy Bay, another tribute to the aussie naming convention, was just paradise. I've never seen such a perfect beach. White curving sand, pale crystal water, nobody there. I could have stayed there forever. But in true tour bus tradition you reverie is broken by the cry of 'Back on the bus guys.....'

Blog 15 - Pics 12 - My last week in Perth

Blog 14 - Pics 11 - WA South

Blog 13 - Pics 10 - WA North Days 6-10

Blog 12 - Pics 9 - WA North Day 4-5

Blog 11 - Pics 8 - WA North Day 3

Blog 10 - Pics 7 - WA North Day 2

Blog 9 - Pics 6 - WA North Day 1