The next leg of our Australian odyssey was to take us out of South Australia, across the Nullabor Plain, and into Western Australia. Throughout this pandemic it seems that Australia has been a front runner in keeping the number of cases and deaths low, with one of the reasons being strict international border controls. Within Australia, where individual States have been concerned, WA has been a front runner by imposing hard border closures at the mere mention of the virus. With only one community transmission in the last 12 months they have been very successful. However, this has come at a cost. There have only been a few windows of opportunity for visitors to enter and, some might say, harsh quarantine regulations for residents on their return. It has become known as an ‘Island within an island’. At the moment, the doors are open in certain circumstances, so armed with our ‘Good 2 Go’ border pass we headed west!
We have driven across the lonely Nullabor once before, almost exactly a year ago, in the opposite direction. Back then it was our first long distance, remote drive in Australia so we were very much novices. Now, with over 25,000 miles and with several of the more remote sealed roads covered, we are almost veterans and found ourselves giving advice regularly to other travellers we meet. A couple of days on the Nullabor is childs play!
We made our first night stop at The Bunda Cliffs, which are part of the longest continual stretch of sea cliffs in the World which run along The Great Australian Bight. There are some great spots to get a view of the cliffs and we took advantage of the photo opportunities. We found a really unusual place to camp, however, we didn’t have the best nights sleep as it was very exposed to the wind coming off the Southern Ocean and we were quite close to the edge!
After a few hundred miles along the Nullabor we arrived at the Western Australia border, with its Police and Agriculture check point. Firstly, we were questioned by Police regarding our movements in the previous 21 days and our intended plans in WA. They wanted proof of our account and it was all very serious. Luckily we were expecting the inquisition and have an App that tracks our route where we add date stamped photos. This coupled with receipts that Sarah had kept for such circumstances was enough for us to get our virtual passport stamped and enter the ‘country’ of Western Australia. Secondly, we were boarded by an official from the Agricultural Department who was after our forbidden food. Sarah, however, was one step ahead having researched what we could and couldn’t bring with us so we had used most of the banned food the night before. So half a pepper and an old potato already in a bag was all the official left with. We have crossed many, many international borders in our time and have had less interrogation at most of them than we had here!
Once through the border we put our foot down, cranked the music up, got the quizzes out, and before long we hit the end of the road (over a thousand miles later) and made our first turning in two days into the small town of Norseman. Located at the very end of the Nullabor, and other than a place to spend the night, Norseman has very little to offer. In fact, in our opinion, it has nothing to offer so moving on, out of town, was our first activity the following day.
We then headed South to the coastal town of Esperance and then back East a short way to Cape Le Grand National Park. Having been travelling around Australia for over a year now, one of the questions people ask us (and we are sure when we get home people will ask the same question) is, “What is your favourite part?”. We do think about it often and compare different places, but to pick one place would be impossible. We could probably put together a top 10, most definitely Norseman would not make it, but for sure, Cape Le Grand would be one of the first to be on the list.
The place is unbelievably beautiful. Turquoise waters, crescent shaped, brilliant white sand bays, thick green vegetation as a back drop and plenty of wildlife to spot. The weather along this part of the South coast can be a bit hit and miss especially at this time of year, but we spent five days here and were generally pretty lucky. We visited four of the beaches with our favourites being Hellfire Bay and Wharton Beach and mixed our time on the sand with walks in the bush. Probably the highlight for Steve was a morning on Wharton Beach. We were up and away early from our camping area and pitched up above the bay in prime spot for breakfast. Halfway through our second coffee Sarah spotted some dolphins swimming down in the clear water. As we watched we counted about 15 of them swimming around. The beach was deserted and they swam pretty close to shore and although we were about a hundred metres away, the water was so clear we had a great view of them. Then they started to jump out of the water, then they were doing backflips, then somersaults. It was amazing, like having our own personal show. After about half an hour and with the dolphins still swimming around, Steve put on his swim trunks and goggles and ventured down to the waters edge, he slowly swam out roughly in the direction of the dolphins to see what would happen. Almost immediately a couple of them swam by him just a few metres away. Steve hung around in the area as they continued swimming around, he then dove down underwater and 4 of the dolphins swam up to within an arms length of him. With the water absolutely crystal clear he had a fabulous view of them and it was an amazing experience, one he will never forget.
So why wasn’t Sarah swimming with dolphins? Now there is a story!! A couple of evenings before we had been preparing dinner in the campervan, chopping vegetables, boiling pasta etc. With the chicken and vegetables almost cooked and the pasta ready, Sarah started to clear our small sink so Steve could drain the pasta. She picked up the chopping board on which the knife was still balancing! It slipped off and instinctively Steve went to catch it, grabbing at the six inch blade as it fell. Luckily, he realised and as he opened his hand he saw he only had a small cut on the end of his finger as the knife had sliced it as it fell. He looked at Sarah with a look of, “I was lucky there” on his face, only to see a mixture of horror and shock on hers! The knife had continued to fall, blade first, and landed straight into her foot and a thick, red stream of blood was running across the floor of the van. Luckily, the knife had not stuck in her foot and pinned her to the ground! The weight of the handle probably tipped it over and prevented that from happening. We wrapped the foot in a tea towel and put some pressure on it and what seemed like an age later managed to stop the bleeding and inspect the damage. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been but it didn’t look great. It was a quarter of an inch, clean cut, which judging by the shape of the blade was about the same deep. In the UK it would have been a trip to A&E and a stitch or two but the nearest hospital was well over an hour away, so after some discussion we settled on a few plasters and a tight shock!! Over the next few days she looked after it pretty well and Steve did his best to look after her. It is now well and truly healed and she has only a small scar as a memory. It actually matches the one in exactly the same pace on the other foot from where she was bitten by the spider back in New South Wales….. did we forget to mention that one?
We left Cape Le Grand a little reluctantly but feeling pleased we had seen so much and promising each other it would be a place we would return to in the future. We then had a plan to spend more time along the South coast and explore the Southern Forests but the unpredictable weather looked to be making a turn for the worst, so we decided to head to our old favourite of Busselton, a couple of hundred miles away, for a week and then return South when the weather improved.
Often you find a place in the World that you really like, but when you return it can sometimes seem different, not quite as good as you remember, the memory can be better than the reality, or it has become so popular and developed that it has little or no resemblance to the place you visited years before. Busselton is just the opposite. Everytime we come here it seems to get better and better. The changes that have been made over time seem to make it more and more our sort of place. If we lived in Australia this place would definitely be on the short list. It is not a very well known town outside of Australia and we discovered it as it hosts an international Ironman race. In fact it hosts an abundance of events, music, art, culture, food, sport and it has become known as the ‘Events Capital’ of Western Australia. On top of that it has a fabulous climate and is surrounded by endless beaches with something for everyone.
Busselton gave us chance to restore a little bit of normallity. We were able to go to the local pool to swim, wander around the town and pick up a few bits and pieces that we have been unable to get elsewhere, stop at some great cafes, go for a walk along the seafront and enjoy a beer or two. After being there for a week we were almost feeling quite civilised, so at that point we thought we had better move on!
The weather had improved in the South West so we headed into The Southern Forests. Covering an area of a few hundred square miles, the forests are predominantly made up of Karri trees. These are very tall red bark trees and resemble slightly the big redwoods of California, although not quite on the same scale. Driving and cycling through the forest was pretty spectacular and the fact the sun was out and there was virtually no traffic made the experience even better.
On leaving Busselton Steve dragged Sarah out of bed pretty early and before arriving in the Forests he took a small detour to Hamelin Bay. He had heard that early in the morning, if you are lucky, you might see some stingrays close to shore. So we went for a look and sure enough, moving stealthfullly through the shallows, we found five huge stingrays. They were at least a metre and a half across and were quite inquisitive when Steve ventured in to take a closer look. We wandered up and down the beach for half an hour or so following these strange creatures, before hunger and the call of breakfast pulled us away.
After Hamelin bay we headed to a cave that Sarah fancied seeing. Steve wasn’t that excited but never the less was up for checking it out and was he glad he did. Jewel Cave is one of a series of caves in the area and it was utterly unbelievable and probably one of the biggest suprises of our entire trip.
It was hard to take in the number and variety of the rock formations, not just stalectites and stalecmites but a whole manner of shapes, sizes and colours. The tour took us through three caverns, all slightly different, and lasted an hour but we could have easily stayed down there much, much longer. It was only discovered about 50 or so years ago and the three men who found it kept it a secret while they explored it themselves….. for over three years!! I can understand why!
Next was a trip to “The Gloucester Tree”. Many areas of Australia are susceptible to extreme weather. This usually ends in one of two situations, either too much water or too little. The former generally brings severe flooding while the latter brings dry, drought conditions which severely raises the risk of bush fires. Since we have been here the country has experienced a devastating period of bush fires and two periods of flooding, one of which is currently ongoing and is the worst here for a century.
These days technology plays a huge role in preventing and managing these situations, but not that long ago things were quite different. Spotting the start of a bushfire used to entail finding the tallest tree in the forest, climbing to the top, and posting a lookout during dangerous conditions, and for a large part of The Southern Forests that tree was The Gloucester Tree!
If it were just a tall tree in the middle of a forest of other tall trees we probably wouldn’t have gone to see it, but you are still able to climb it. The metal rods drilled into the tree are still there, like some flimsy spiral staircase disappearing higher and out of sight and the lookout platform, precariously perched at the very top, is still in situ. There is no safety or security staff clipping you into a harness and giving some detailed safety brief. If this were in the UK, Health and Safety would take one look at it and laugh. But we are in Australia, so game on!
Steve isn’t the best with heights but he likes a challenge and Sarah fancied at least doing some of it, so off we went. Funnily enough there weren’t that many takers. A few people were stood around getting some photographs, so when we started to climb we were the only two on it, which is a good job really as how you would pass going up and down we have no idea. Anyway, up we went slowly but surely, the metal rods flexing under our weight. Up and up, round and round, always trying to keep three points of contact on the rods. At about half way things were getting serious. It looked a long way down to fall and still a very long way to the top. Sarah felt like she was happy with how high she had climbed, a decision Steve was happy with so we decided to head back down. After a few steps down Steve stopped and when Sarah reached the bottom she saw he wasn’t behind her. While she was looking up and a little confused, a man standing close by said, “He’s going back up”. Steve’s competitive side had got the better of him and he continued slowly to the top. The steps got smaller and smaller and more vertical until it was like climbing a spiral ladder.
Eventually he reached the top, saw there were no bushfires, grabbed a quick photo and made his way back down, which he said was much easier than going up. “That was something to be done once and never again”, was his summary of the morning.
In the afternoon we spent a couple of hours on the Mundi Biddi Trail. This is a 1000 km cycle trail which winds its way around the South West mostly through the forests. Sarah took her mountain bike and Steve ran. The surface is quite rough and although Steve had a brilliant time, Sarah finished the afternoon a little saddle sore!
The next stop on our mini tour of the South West was back on the coast at a place called Elephant Rocks. It is one of the more well known places in the area and we have tried to get here a few times in the past and for one reason or another never made it. This time though we had time and weather on our side.
Elephant Rocks and the adjacent Green Pools beach are picture perfect locations and feature in many tourism advertisements and rightly so. It is basically a fairly narrow inlet of clear blue water with granite rocks to the side, several large granite boulders in the water and a small white sand beach at the end. We thought it would be packed, with it being so well known, but when we turned up there was hardly anyone around. It is a gorgeous place both above and below the water as the granite rocks make for great snorkelling. We also put on our snorkelling gear in Green Pools which was even better.
We decided to make our way back to Busselton and have one last week there before returning this campervan to Perth. We meandered back through the quaint towns of the forests and into the wine region of Margret River where we camped on a vineyard, the cost of the site was about £8 and included a bottle of wine!
So after another, what can only be described as a relaxing and pretty uneventful ‘normal’ week in Busselton (did I mention we love it there?) it is time to head once more to the big city lights where Sarah has found us another house sitting job for a week or so over Easter, where we will be looking after Barclay the Staffordshire Bull Terrier!