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Bill Leithhead's WA Trip Diary
Segment 6 - Days 28 to 32 - Carnarvon to Exmouth then Coral Bay
© William G. Leithhead 2006

Day 28    Monday, September 10th, 2001
Carnarvon to Exmouth

The Carnarvon dawn was cool, then warming up rapidly as we packed up for the road north. It was very windy during the night so we had taken down the awning, and spent the rest of the evening inserting 4 films (96 photos) into the album. We had bought a new album in Carnarvon, so we're into over 300 photos so far.

The first leg of 140km was to the Minilya Roadhouse, where we had lunch. The road threaded through the now familiar dry country with sparse, stunted growth which gradually became even drier. This is real outback country, fit only for occasional sheep, no cattle visible, but goats, kangaroos and emus. We photographed a group of five of the latter wandering casually by the road-side, totally uninterested in our car.

Later on there were dozens upon dozens of dead kangaroos, all large and reddish in clour. We didn't see a live one at all. We've never seen such a scattered jumble of variously mangled corpses in every stage of decomposition. Some corpses were attended by substantial numbers of crows, or is it ravens? Some flocks of crows even seemed to be wheeling overhead in flighty circles. This is harsh country.

Near Minilya Roadhouse we started passing great floodways with depth signs up to 2m. We have seen several of these further south, but they became more plentiful, reminding us that we're in cyclone territory. This afternoon we saw pictures of damage to Exmouth done by cyclone Vance in March, 1999, rated Category 5 - gusts up to 276km/h. North of Minilya we left the North-West Coastal highway (still part of the continent-girdling Highway 1), and pushed towards Coral Bay (100km) and Exmouth (225km).

Smashed caravan near Minilya Roadhouse
Wreckage of a smashed caravan near Minilya roadhouse, where some family's holiday dream became a nightmare!
As we diverged gradually towards the coast the country became even more arid, when all of a sudden we were surprised by the sight of wreckage just off the roadside. This was the remains of a caravan which had swerved off the road, overturned upside down into a deep culvert, where it had shattered like an eggshell! No one was there but a couple of blokes from a local maintenance-type vehicles who were curious, just like us. They said it was there last night, too, and it looked relatively freshly done, say, in the last few days, as there was very little dust collected on the nice white interior surfaces which had served as walls, roof, kitchen, lounge, shower cabinet, etc.

Strangely, the caravan chassis was gone, and there was a badly-smashed car window there, too, plus a few belongings like a half-full brandy bottle, beer cans, sauces, etc, and trinkets like sea shells and so on. It told a strange and unhappy story. The skid marks on the road spoke of a jack-knife after some incident such as overcorrection, or dodging an animal, or fatigue. Slightly shaken, we pushed on.

Burnt desert rise
Typical burnt low scrub on the stony, red rises along the road to Exmouth.
Towards the Coral Bay turnoff, we came upon semi-dune country covered with red sand and rocks and strewn with dead, heavily-burnt, remnants of low bush remnants in what was very close to a moonscape. So we walked up to a low hill half a kilometre off the road and took photos of the most desertified country we have seen so far. Strangely enough, we discovered there some delightful little wildflowers growing on th opposite side of the highway, which miraculously was unburnt.

Mulla Mulla flowers gently glowing magenta amidst the red desert and the low, dark scrub.
Burnt scrubby desert
A stretch of stony, red desert stretches to our caravan in the far distance; the scrub is relatively unburnt on the other side of the highway.
This was our first view of Mulla Mulla, a feathery purple-pink poker-like low shrub which grows in WA and other places like this. A nicer surprise was in store for us later on in the day!

Passing the Coral bay turnoff, we decided to leave this for the trip down again, and pushed on for Exmouth, on North West Cape. Around this time, we saw increasing numbers of termite mounds, which stand, tombstone-like, scattered around the parched hills. These are the colour of en-tout-cas tennis courts, and reach over 2.5m high. We indulged in photos here and several other spots.

Sturt's Desert Pea
Our first sight of the brilliant Sturt's Desert Pea in the gravel near the entrance to Exmouth. The blooms in this are an unusual variety, lacking the central shiny black boss in the bloom.
Suddenly, spying a flash of brilliant crimson out of the corner of his eye, Bill pulled up our rig once more, and we walked back to photograph and gaze in admiration at out first sight of Sturt's Desert Pea in the wild, just by the side of the road. This truly is a beautiful plant (the SA state emblem) of the most brilliantly silken blood red you could imagine, in contrast to its ferny, divided, trailing, grey-green leaves. We saw several more closer to Exmouth.

On the southern approach to Exmouth we skirted the deeply-channeled Cape Range, looming into late-afternoon shadow, and the vegetation started to a still-arid but greener foliage, with increasing numbers of eucalypts, of which we had seen virtually nil for some hundreds of kilometres. We also encountered what seemed to be dozens of flood channels which are a result of the cyclonic climate which touches down this far south. By the way, we note that we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn near Coral Bay, and we are now in Exmouth, equivalent to the tropical Queensland town of Mackay.

Exmouth sign
Welcoming sign at the entry to the town of Exmouth.
At Exmouth, obviously a town strongly associated with the armed forces, judging by the extensive networks of huge radio aerials nearby, and by the fenced-off navy headquarters, and by the nearby Learmonth airforce base, 30km south. We enquired after the caravan park of our choice, the Lighthouse Caravan Park, Ningaloo, and drove the 16km north to it.

Here we set about going into our chosen caravan site. The chosen spot was a difficult one to back into, and took me much manoeuvering, with a considerable number of spectators enjoying their evening drinks while watching Glenyce and me agonize over this ticklish process, which we again accomplished with neither of us losing our temper - it was touch and go, though! I just hate doing that - it really annoys me!!

Settling in, we discovered the power had gone off, so we engaged in a process of checking connectors, swapping leads, flicking switches, bending plug-pins, and general frustration. Bill discovered the power lead was hot, and repaired the plug at the caravan end, as there was a broken wire in there. This turned out to be a red herring, however, for when Bill attempted to to boil the newly-repaired electric jug to wash up the rice which Glenyce had accidentally burnt in the electric frying-pan, the caravan circuit-breaker kept on tripping, leaving us in the dark! Much consternation and general enfrazzlement!

Finally the problem was solved by Bill. He realized we were using the bore water from the nearby tap for washing up. This underground Artesian water is very salty. Now it so happens that our ancient Hecla electric jug has an exposed element. The salty water conducts electricity quite nicely. Hence the salty ground-water allows a stronger-than-usual current to flow in it, which is obviously more than that permitted by our 15amp circuit-breaker. Click goes the circuit-breaker - off go our power and lights! I must say that it heated the water up real fast - until the cutoff tripped!

Time to sleep.

Day 29    uesday, September 11th, 2001<
First day in Exmouth

View north from the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse
View north from the restored Vlamingh Head Lighthouse. On the right is the Lighthouse Caravan Park, and to the left is the Ningaloo Reef area.
Last night it was was 24°C still, at 10pm! A nice and even temperature - got to 33°C in our closed van this arvo, but with a nice breeze to cool us. After visiting the lighthouse this morning we spent the day in the town, and will tour the coast tomorrow.

Vlamingh Head Light House
Vlamingh Head Lighthouse at North West Cape Range near Exmouth.
We went to the close-by Vlamingh Head Light House which has been here since 1907. (Vlamingh was another early Dutch explorer.) It is being restored by a local radio technician, together with his partner, to be the only kerosene-burning optical light house in the world. This charming young man gave us a tour of the whole structure, its history, its clockwork mechanism using a descending weight and gears driving the whole lens-prism and mantle lamp, the whole of which floats on liquid-mercury bearings. It's just like a giant grandfather clock!

Vlamingh Head Lighthouse prism
View out through one of the many hand-ground lighthouse prisms. Note that the desert scenery is inverted! Just right of centre is the white kerosene lamp mantle which is a larger version of the ones seen in standard gas lamps.
It was a fascinatingly close look at the lighthouse prisms, controls, and living and working conditions, and the history of the contruction, role in navigation, and the wartime influences in this region.

The lighthouse gave a magnificent 360° view of the North-West Cape Range area, with the red plains of the interior, the cliffs nearby, the massive complexes of radio masts, and the most beautifully blue coastline with the close-in Ningaloo coral reef giving a unique coral lagoon. This is a very popular area for overseas visitors, mostly back-packers, for the coral reefs and diving, tours for which are offered everywhere in the town. The Perthites apparently also come here for long fishing holidays.

We toured the town, had lunch, shopped, looked at the Exmouth Gulf boat harbours and beaches, and saw quite a few - a dozen or so - emus wandering within 5km of the town, or even closer. The town has a nice feel about it.


Day 30    Wednesday, September 12th, 2001
Second day in Exmouth

Today we awoke to an overcast, grey sky, but with warm air. Another cloud hovered over us all day, too, as we listened to news broadcasts dealing with the shocking, catastrophic airline hijack attacks on the New York Trade Centre and the Pentagon, with the obscene, awful loss of life that followed. It is a day of awe, sober mood, outrage, and a wierd sense of uncertainty as to the direction world events might subsequently follow. For us, this was heightened by learning that our plans to eat at the Naval Base smorgasbord have been put on hold owing to the base having been placed on an orange alert footing, hence closed to lowly diners such as ourselves.

Glenyce on sandhill at Yardie Creek
Glenyce has an exciting moment on a sandhill at Yardie Creek.
Regardless of all that, we happily spent the grey old day meandering down the coastal drive from here, North West Cape, to Yardie Creek (72km) and back. Travelling south along the west coast of the North West Cape, which is fringed by the close-to-shore Ningaloo Reef, a coral reef which is a mecca for swimmers and divers of all kinds, we came to beach after beach of exquisitely blue and turquoise waters of the enclosed lagoons. We did think to swim at Turquoise Bay, but it was a grey old day and we demurred. As we journey south, on our right is the reef, and on our left is a semiarid coastal plain which rises abruptly to the unique Cape Range National Park, puctuated by rocky gorges and steeply worn slopes, peppered by caves.

The Milyering Visitor Centre was excellent, and we encountered many euros (kinds of kangaroo) and emus, including emu chicks, along the road - too close for comfort! We also photographed more wildflowers, including some rare, pale-coloured varieties of Sturt's Desert Pea, and a fascinating plant called the Cockroach Bush.

After an evening meal of gnocchi and sauce, we phoned home. While we were at the phone box we noticed someone come in with a boat to a nearby fish-cleaning bench, where they proceeded to clean some fish about a metre long!! Apparently they had caught them out near the Muiron Islands, north of here. Then we wrote diaries and fiddled around before an early night.

Day 31    Thursday, September 13th, 2001
Third day at Exmouth

Today was much sunnier, and we shopped, toured, and bought fish and prawns, looked at Bundegi Beach, got the paper, and rested in the afternoon. Glenyce did some washing today. It is very warm and tropical and balmy. We went to the fish factory and bought fresh fish and king prawns; we also mildly amused to surprise a man and woman behind the counter in the middle of a very passionate embrace as we silently entered the shop!

Again we are pleased with how a film from yesterday came out. We bought the "West Australian" which had a special on the New York attack. This is still astonishing and stunning, and it brings my heart into my mouth how we are witnessing, afar, an event which has changed the world irretrievably in a direction unknown to anyone on the planet!

Seeing the ghastly pictures was a shock after 24 hours of just listening to the radio. Today all the armed forces installations here are guarded, and we saw a patrol in a jeep. Even the lighthouse is closed down - the old, historic, nonfunctioning one! Tonight we drove up there in the dark - and it sure was dark - but we saw the stars as we haven't seen them before.

We again visited pretty little Bundegi Beach, and tonight went for a torch-light walk along the road, followed by a drive in the dark in the car. The networks of radio installations are lit up like Christmas trees, or like multiple towers dotted with red lights. One tower has a light-beacon which has replaced the function of the old lighthouse just up the nearby hill on the North Cape Range.

We had a lovely meal of the king prawns we bought today, with pasta sauce and salad. Delicious! Glenyce is off a bit today with a rough throat, swollen sinuses and tiredness, and my back is pretty sore. Tomorrow we hop down the coast to Coral Bay.

Day 32    Friday, September 14th, 2001
Exmouth to Coral Bay

To a greyed-out pressure-cooker-sky we pack ready for Coral Bay. Exmouth has been good. We've had emus around the park, and their quasi-dignified slow stroll where they are all feet and legs is quite fascinating to watch.

So here we are, driving southwards for the first time, through the oh-so-familiar semiarid country we seem to have been in for weeks now, listening to the car radio reporting all the ramifications of the collapse of the Ansett airline and subsidiaries, which have served this particular part of Australia for many decades. Coming on top of the momentous events of the week in America, it continues the sense of surreality which threatens to overwhelm me at times. All I can do is shake my head, psychologically, as well as physically.

Journeying down from Exmouth to Coral Bay, we saw few wildflowers, and no wildflife except for a very large wedge-tailed eagle not two metres from the car as we passed, eating kangaroo carrion. As we travel, we are aware of the thousands of stranded air-travellers in this country, not to forget the unprecedented aviation grounding in the USA. George W. Bush has "declared war on terrorism", and I am afraid that it could go nuclear!

Coral Bay is a lovely little bay in the middle of nowhere, entirely tourist-based, and the action is all sight-seeing, with glass-bottomed boats, turtles, whales, manta rays, snorkelling, scuba-diving and fishing. Prices for accomodation, supplies and food are high, but the lagoon is beautiful!

Caravan site at Coral Bay
We relax together after the long drive south from Exmouth to beautiful Coral Bay.
Next to our van in Bayview Resort are taps giving hot Artesian water from 830m deep - good for cooking and washing-up, but lousy for car-washing and drinking. But, strange as it may seem, it lathers! Hooray! (Must be salty but low in calcium.) When they sprinkle it on the lawns they have to use very fine sprinklers so that it cools faster, and they use salt-tolerant couch grass here, under the she-oaks (Casuarinas) dotting the caravan park. The underground water even has to be circulated through cooling coils before it can be used in the showers!

We used the green perforated plastic flooring here under the awning for the first time, and it worked a treat, very effectively preventing the sand from being walked into our van, and we used the external van power point for the first time to fry the snapper from Exmouth. This, together with a conglomeration of vegetables was ultra-tasty.


© William G. Leithhead 2006