Our house and pet sitting job turned out to be a real success. The house was in a suburb of Perth called Mullaloo on The Northern Beaches. It was owned by an English couple who moved out here 7 years ago from Warrington, UK, and in their words, “have never looked back”. They were taking their two teenage boys on an Easter Holiday trip down to Esperence and The Margaret River area from where we had just come from and we were looking after their dog, gecko, four fish, a budgie and a water worm.
Barclay, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, was an absolute dream to look after. He was well behaved, affectionate and generally good company. Looking after the rest of the mini zoo was also pretty easy, especially after Sarah produced a feeding spreadsheet for the 9 days (which also included exercise time for Mango the budgie, as every couple of days he is let out of his cage to fly around). We were a little dubious the first time we did let Mango out, having visions of him disappearing, but sure enough when he was done he went back into his cage and waited to be shut in. Steve won the job of feeding Eric the Gecko his live crickets! Meanwhile, Sarah took charge of Barclays dietary requirements.
We then settled into the exceedingly difficult task of looking after the four bedroom detached property, which included among the many rooms a huge kitchen, containing what seemed like every appliance known to man, and a living room, containing an enormous TV with an uncountable number of channels and apps. But the icing on the cake was the beautiful pool and patio area. Sarah had picked up a bit of a cough, so it was the ideal place to relax and recover from what has been a fantastic but tiring start to the year. We realised that prior to returning the last van we had only spent one night (January 1st) sleeping outside of a campervan so far this year, and with another 6 weeks straight after the house sit we were determined to make the most of our luxury.
We didn’t spend the entire time by the pool and in front of the giant TV, we did get out and about and see some of the local area. We ventured to nearby Scarborough beach which has really improved it’s image over the last 20 years, with a whole heap of money being spent on the area. New hotels, modern cafes, outside barbeque areas, a beach amphitheatre and the unbelievably superb recently opened aquatic centre. It is an impressive open air facility which is situated right on the ocean front and it’s well used by families, recreational athletes and serious swimmers alike. It also has a cafe which serves great coffee and (according to Sarah) has muffins to die for.
Our time enjoying our house sitting gig was over far too soon and we welcomed the owners back from their Easter break and said our sad goodbyes to Barclay. Hopefully, we will return to the area in a few years and pop in and say, “hello”, but for now we were off again, this time in a different type of vehicle, a four wheel drive campervan. The area we are travelling through, on our way to Cairns, has many spots which are only accessible by 4WD, so not wanting to miss out we decided to do without the relative comfort and space of the Mercedes Sprinter and opted for a converted Toyota Hilux. It’s cramped, it’s basic, it’s pretty small for a six week trip, but it’s different, it looks like it will do the job we want it to, and it’s a change. One of the things we have learned in the last two and a half years is change can be pretty good and it is something we tend to look for, rather than avoid.
Our plan to make some quick distance North along the coast was very quickly, well and truly blocked… literally! Cyclone Seroja was circling off the coast and had decided to turn East and head straight toward our first stop. We had been following it online and saw it alter course. We then saw the road closures and evacuation notices go on one by one and had to resign ourselves to sitting it out.
We had planned to drive as far as the town of Geraldton, a few hundred miles up the coast and restock on provisions there. However, after 50 miles we found all three roads North had been closed and so we decided to double back, almost to where we had started from to restock there and then go back to the road block and sit it out. We arrived at the road block mid afternoon and joined a queue of only 10 cars. Sarah jumped out and started to walk to the front and find out any updates. However, just as she got there the Police removed the barriers and off we went. As we reached the newly opened road we saw about 100 vehicles and caravans all lined up down a small side road, where it transpires they had been waiting for the last 24 hours. Luckily we had arrived at exactly the right time and with an open road ahead we were able to make great progress North.
What we saw over the next couple of hundred miles was the after effects of devasting Mother Nature in the guise of a cyclone. Trees were uprooted and road signage had been completely flattened. Luckily, the area is sparsely populated and so only two small towns were in the direct path of the cyclone. One was on our route but we were diverted around town and the worst of the damage but we still saw homes missing their roofs, outbuildings and stabling completely demolished, fences destroyed and general destruction everywhere. The other town in the firing line was apparently even worse but luckily no-one was killed.
We arrived in Geraldton the following day and found our decision to restock elsewhere had been a good one. The town was completely without power so the traffic lights and phones were down too. Every shop was closed with the exception of a chemist where one customer at a time was being allowed inside, who were then escorted around the store by a staff member with a torch and all purchases had to be made in cash!
Also no power meant no fuel pumps, so the petrol stations were all closed. Luckily we had filled our tank a hundred miles out of town and with our two spare jerry cans we were good for another 500 miles or so!
Once we were a couple of hours North of Geraldton things started to return to normal, with no more visual signs of the cyclone it felt like we were back on track as we headed to our next stop at Shark Bay. Shark Bay has a few interesting sights, with probably the best known being Monkey Mia, where a pod of dolphins has visited the shallows a couple of times a day for the last 40 years. Their regularity could have something to do with the local resort feeding them a few fish and making a dolphin friendly attraction out of it. But it is a nice experience and they do stress that “no dolphins are harmed” in the making of this attraction!!
We put our 4WD to use for the first time and made our way down a dirt track, through the sand dunes and parked up, all alone, close to the water in a great spot to spend the evening and watch the sun go down.
Shark Bay gets its name from the abundance of sharks which inhabit the waters and there are a few places where you can look down from high on the cliffs and see them swimming around in the bay below. Apparently, most of them are completely harmless but just the shape and movement conjures up images of ‘Amityville’, a Great White Shark and one of the most recognizable pieces of music in movie history!
After Shark Bay our next stop was The Ningaloo Reef. Now we have been travelling around Australia for coming up sixteen months and we have seen some truly amazing places and sights. To pick our number one place would be a tall order, but if we had to, if we were pushed, Ningaloo Reef would be a very strong contender. We both absolutely loved it.
The reef is much smaller than its East coast brother, The Great Barrier Reef, but you can access it straight from the beach. Imagine laying on an almost deserted white sand beach under a cloudless blue sky. You’re getting a little hot, so you walk a few steps into the warm turquoise waters to cool down. You put on your snokel and mask, sink beneath the water and you find yourself in an aquarium with literally hundreds of brightly coloured fish, all shapes and sizes and every colour of the rainbow and then some. Then a turtle swims by and pops his head up for a breath or two before slowly moving on his way to feed some more. He is followed by a ray who sees you and dives into the sandy bottom and disappears in perfect camouflage. All this is happening amidst a background of amazing, colourful coral and giant clams, as around every corner it seems something new is there to be seen. Then, in the distance, the silver colour, distinctive shape and stealth like movements of a shark can be made out coming your way and a four foot black tipped reef shark comes into view! He is more afraid of you than you are of him, and he quickly beats a retreat, but a shark is a shark and maybe you should go back to lounging around on the white sand beach for a while. This is Ningaloo Reef.
We spent six days exploring Ningaloo, from three different locations along its length. One involved a 50 mile drive along a very rough road, and at some points Sarah said it was how she imagined driving on the moon would be. The tough drive was worth the rewards as we arrived in Gnaraloo Bay, where the days were filled with snorkelling and walking on the beach and the evenings were spent camping on the cliffs on the edge of a cattle station. “Have you got any room for our campervan”, Sarah asked the manager on our arrival. “Sure, no worries, we have almost a quarter of a million acres, we’ll squeeze you in somewhere”, came the reply!
After the teeth chattering ride back to the main highway we moved up through the small town of Exmouth and into Cape Range National Park where we stayed on two small campsites right on the beach. We explored the various snorkelling locations, Lakeside, Oyster Stacks and The Drift were our favourites. At the latter you were able to walk a few hundred metres up the beach, walk into the water and then get carried back up the coast on the current, taking in the amazing sights as you drifted along before being dumped off at a sandbar and starting all over again.
It was a fantastic few days and at points Sarah thought Steve was never going to get out of the water. But the absolute highlight of Ningaloo Reef was still to come! Wednesday April 21st 2021 was a bucket list day! Steve first heard of Ningaloo Reef a few years ago after seeing it on a documentary. It instantly appealed to him, but it’s not a straight forward place to get to. It’s almost a thousand miles north of Perth, so getting up and back on a normal holiday to Australia eats into a lot of time. But when you have time on your side things become a whole lot easier, and when you pass through in April, May or June things get even better because there is a visitor in town by the name of Mr and Mrs Whale Shark. The biggest fish in the sea comes to feast in the Ningaloo Reef waters and a couple of licenced operators offer swimming tours with these strange fish.
We joined a tour with 20 people and we were thoroughly impressed with the whole set up. The boat was fantastic, we were fed and watered, and we were given strict instructions on the protocol of swimming with the Whale Sharks. The main points were; we were split into two groups, a spotter plane would radio in a sighting, we would then move to the area, and then a crew member would swim out and establish the direction of travel of the fish. We would then enter the water in a line and watch the fish swim by and ensure we were no closer than three metres away. We would then get out of the water, the boat would move us to a point ahead of the fish, and we would swap around so the other group would do the same. Then we would hopefully find another Whale Shark and repeat. If we got two or three passes that would be considered a good day. Sounds good we thought.
There was one flaw in the plan…… no-one told the Whale Shark! The spotter plane located a fish, a juvenile over five metres (17 feet) in length, which was probably weighing in at about 5000 pounds. Not the biggest one out there but certainly not a tiddler. Then the crew swimmer found it in the water, we jumped in and lined up and waited in eager anticipation for a glimpse of this giant creature. However, Mr (or Mrs) Whale Shark didn’t swim by. Instead, it circled right around us, not once, not twice, not twenty times. It just kept going around and around. Sometimes it was going underneath us and sometimes on its side. The three metre rule went out of the window as we struggled to get out of its way. When we did try to move aside for the other group to get in to see it, the Whale Shark just followed us! At first the crew were amazed, “We’ve never seen one behave like this”, was their initial reaction. After thirty minutes this reaction turned to laughter as we just couldn’t shake off our clingy new friend. Then, after an unbelievable 60 minutes, we all had to get out of the water to make our journey back to shore…. and still our friend hung around heading towards the boat as we turned for home!
Probably a story best told by images.
On the journey back you could really sense by the atmosphere on the boat that something unusual had happened. We all talked about our individual encounters with the Whale Shark and just to round off a perfect day, on the way back we saw a family of Dugongs, these are strange looking and quite elusive creatures. Then a pod of dolphins started to surf the bow wave of the boat and just as we were disembarking a green turtle popped up to say goodbye.
When we got up the following morning we really had to ask each other “Did that really happen yesterday”? It was that good!