Our travels over the last few years have taken us all over Australia, but we had never seen anything between Brisbane and Sydney before. With a spare week between leaving NZ and going to Indonesia (which became a spare fortnight), this seemed like a good time to fix that. First we spent a few days in the Gold Coast though. I’d never been interested particularly in the Gold Coast (we principally went there because of a combination of a friend living there and AirAsias cheap flights) so I was pleasantly surprised by what I found there. There may be a lot of high rise buildings, they made cast big shadows on the beach in the afternoon, and it may all be a bit too much like living on a beach in the CBD – but somehow its nicely laid back and enjoyable. It’s also relatively affordable. We had a bit of Aussie-Mexican fusion with a Barramundi enchilada one night, and a budget barbecue in the park on another. We tried learning to surf ($35 at Currumbin Alley surf school – they have some good teachers and a great location) and visited David Fleay wildlife park to see a few of Australia’s shyer inhabitants. We also got horrific sunburns – even in November, you can get cooked like a lobster in a pot before you know what’s going on! That aside, a lot of slim, active people are leading a life that looks like the Australian dream here in Gold Coast, and they look like they’re pretty happy about it.
There’s even good public transport, which we used to take ourselves back to the airport to collect our hire car. Before we did though, we mailed a 5Kg box to the UK and spent 2/3rds of what we would if we’d mailed it in NZ – if you have a stopover, bring your parcels to Australia!
I’d always wanted to take the train in New Zealand but it had never been going anywhere I wanted to go or been acceptably priced. This time though, the usually reasonable Intercity bus was charging almost the same as the train – so I bought tickets. I wasn’t sure what to expect of trains in NZ – as it turned out, they’re aiming for the best experience feel. We boarded in Ohakune, so the guard knew who we were by a process of elimination using his (very) short passener manifest, and stowed our larger bags in the baggage car, before directing us to our seats, which had plenty of leg room and huge windows, with curtains. Occasionally the ice cream tray came round. There was an audio commentary available, and the headphones were in our seat pockets. Upon arrival at each station, the guard explained in detail how and when the doors would work and begged us not to ‘wander away’ from the train!
When we reached Auckland, there was a complimentary bus to the main station. And the real reason for taking the train? The views were great, all the way around Ruapehu and past the Raurimu spiral until the scenery started to get a bit more routine and developed in the Waikato and approaching Auckland. When the prices align, I’d recommend the train over the bus as its more comfortable, more enjoyable, and takes the same time anyway. For us, there was an extra incentive – we could walk to the train station from our house!
If riding the train to Auckland was something I’d been wanting to do for a while, riding the ferry to Rangitoto Island was something I still wanted to do. We’d been there a few years earlier but another spare day in Auckland gave us another chance to check out the lava tubes and get over to the adjoinging island, which we hadn’t explored before. Rangitoto is a (now) uninhabited Island in the Auckland harbour, which can be reached by ferry for $30 return on Saturday mornings if you go at 7:30. We did, and spent the morning getting sunburnt, wandering the green fields and sneaking views of the distant Auckland CBD, before climbing Rangitotos volcanic cone to revisit the lava tubes. You can actually walk through some of these and come out the other side. Having a sunny day to explore a volcanic island before a relaxed dinner back at our hostel was a good way to say goodbye to NZ – much better than the previous occasion when we got up in the middle of the night in a dead megahostel to catch the airport bus. Goodbye New Zealand!
Having already stayed a night in Perth (which was forgettable) and explored its CBD (which was more interesting) and museums – we decided to spend the rest of our time in WA at Fremantle, before flying out to Taiwan. I was pretty keen to visit Rottnest Island too, although the cost of the ferry was looking like it might be a problem. We dropped our car off at the airport and took the inexpensive bus to Perth CBD, getting off a bit early and changing to a Fremantle bus, on the advice of our friendly bus driver. The hostel in Fremantle (the old fire station) was quite a lot nicer than the one in Perth (most of the CBD hostels in Perth seemed pretty grim) and was very near the railway and bus station. It was also very near the ferry port (which isn’t huge), where we discovered that there was a promotion the next day that brought our Rottnest tickets down to something like what we were prepared to pay! I’m not sure how you can predict when they will be doing cheap tickets, but we went with www.rottnestexpress.com.au
Fremantle turns out to be a lot more historical feeling than Perth, and also has nice things like beaches and sunset. It’s also a more laidback place to go for a drink – unless you prefer suits and ties to long hair and flip-flops, then by all means go out in the Perth CBD. Not that I have a downer on the place or anything…
Rottnest Island was the highlight of our stay in Fremantle, and we went there on our first full day. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect there (my research is often minimal), so I was delighted to find it was big enough to have a decent wander about on, go snorkelling, ride a bike, hunt down Quokkas (though not kick them – not cool – neither is setting them on fire) and enjoy the beautiful beaches. Being down at Perth latitude, the climate is a bit more temperate, and of course the water is safe (I bury my head in the sand on the subject of sharks).
There’s not so much to say about Rottnest really, it’s a beautiful island and I’ll go again anytime I’m in Perth (so probably not very often). The alfresco dining scene was a bit minimal (mainly the sandwiches we brought) and I don’t think there was a bottle shop – if that’s a problem, there’s an alternative.
Cottlesloe is (perhaps) Perth and Fremantles answer to Bondi – more laid back and with sunsets. The surf is fun and the beach is lovely – actually much nicer to look at than Bondi, more like Bronte or somewhere a bit further from town. The fish and chips was decent too. You can get there pretty easily on the train from either Perth or Fremantle, and its a comfortable walk down the hill from the train station to the beach. There are some bars there too (it is Australia, after all) – so it’s pretty much the complete package, just less urban feeling than Bondi or St Kilda or Semaphore. It was our last day in the area – and it was a good one.
The Pinnacles Desert, near Cervantes, is only 200km from Perth. It was our last stop before Perth on the way south and along with the wave rock, is one of the strange, random rock features in WA that get a lot of attention because of their proximity to Perth and thus their inclusion on lots of tours. Thankfully there weren’t too many tours around when we showed up, and it wasn’t that hot either – at least not for WA. Oddly, the desert at the Pinnacles is very yellow, unlike the usual Australian red dirt. This isn’t the oddest thing though, that’s definitely the multitude of rock pillars, rising up from the sand and spare scrub. Even (or perhaps especially) with a threatening looking sky, this desert is the kind of place that makes me happy – I like it (I liked Monement Valley in the US too, but I found it a lot gloomier – maybe it was just our tour guide…). We spent hours examing the rocks there, perhaps subconciously trying to work out why they might have suddenly formed like that. You’re discouraged from climbing on them, but we clowned around and took plenty of pictures, particularly with this one.
If you’re a bit quieter or come earlier in the day, theres also a few of the residents of the Pinnacles to meet, like this guy…
…and these folks.
We actually enjoyed our second trip round the Pinnacles more – that was the morning one. Basically the whole place has a driving loop around it, which you can do easily in any car, and there are a bunch of places to pull over and get out. Australian tourists seem to feel uneasy straying too far away from their utes and SUVs, but if you abandon the car and go wandering off into the desert, you escape the crowd and the noise and disturbance of a procession of V6 engines pretty easily. You can do this as much as you like, and stay as long as you like, so it’s all good. There’s a little spur off the main loop that goes to a more sparsely turreted area, this is where we saw the Emu and her chicks.
If you’ve ever enjoyed Monument Valley, Stonehenge, or pretty much any rock formations along those lines – then the Pinnacles is likely to be fun, or if you just like the desert!
Our day began in Gladstone, searching for dugongs. Allegedly you can see them here, just by watching off the rickety old jetty that stretches a little way out. Maybe it was the wrong time of year. We couldn’t see any dugongs (I’m hoping we would have recognised a dugong if we’d found one) but as ever in WA, we had the place almost to ourselves and the weather was good and it was relaxing. But otherwise a failure. Marine life can be tricky (spent fruitless hours looking for turtles after all), so we moved on to something a little less mobile – stromatolites. These are rocks formed by bacteria and are therefore usually where they were last seen. This held true for us, and we located them at Hamelin Pool. This is some of the most ancient life on Earth, or at least, evidence of it – which is always a fascinating thing, so much of WA looks like it hasn’t changed in millions or billions of years.
With one chalked up in the win column for the day, we headed to Eagle Bluff to see if we could find some sharks and rays. We could – this is definitely a place to go to get a look at sharks swimming in the sea without getting yourself on the news!
And finally, overgrown children that we are – we probably got even more enjoyment from the family of wood ducks that visited our campsite that night.
Our final morning at Ningaloo we woke to a wind that was whipping up the sea and making snorkelling unfeasible, so we hopped in the car and drove the couple of hours to Coral Bay. A bit more developed and compact, Coral Bay is purely a tourist operation, but despite the development, it’s still pretty laid back. It’s also just as accessible as at Ningaloo – we parked our car and headed straight into the water. If you were there, you’d do the same.
The snorkelling here is slightly different to Ningaloo, it’s just as close to the shore, but there’s a much steeper drop off and a denser reef – so diving down is much more possible, and rewarding. Coral Bay also has something else that Ningaloo doesn’t, and after lunch, we went to see them. Just a short walk from the main beach…
Now, we didn’t actually see the sharks the first time we went, but we did see some rays, and the public toilet in town was full of swallows!
Next morning we jumped out of bed (in so far as anyone sleeping on an inflatable bed in a tent ever could) and jumped in the sea (it’s always warm). The water was nice and clear and we saw lots of marine life – again, why don’t I have an underwater camera? The next trip to the shark nursery, the sharks were at home! We probably saw about 10 of them swimming around, and plenty of rays too. That was mission accomplished, and we dashed off to see some blow holes – as you do.
Approaching Exmouth from the north gave us a taste of things to come; by 9AM it was 40°C. Exmouth was hot and dusty sprawl and apparently closed by 3, which is when we arrived, so we continued to the coast. Ningaloo is kind of a long way from anywhere, so no surprises to find a VLF array for talking to submarines. We didn’t come for that though, we were interested in snorkelling – or shallow free diving, for those of us that don’t use snorkels! Ningaloo is a fringing reef – so you can swim (or pretty much walk) out to it.
In terms of the practicalities, we had already bought a snorkel and some flippers/fins at KMart in Perth, and we had our tent, so we found ourselves a pitch in what turned to be a kangaroo tick ridden campsite. The camp sites are nice, with plenty of space in each bay for a car and a tent, with a scrubby hedge, and plenty of benches. There is lots of information at the visitors centre, which includes the tides and everything you need to know to see the best stuff at the best time. We managed to find a turtle paddling around at the Bay loop, before heading over to the Oyster Stacks, which was very shallow, so we could see everything close up, including an octopus which changed colour. Once we’d had enough snorkelling for the day, we checked out the birdlife at Mangrove Bay.
Once we’d been death stared out by the local birds, we headed back to the beach and chilled.
Next morning the sea was a bit choppy, but we snorkelled at Lakeside and managed to see a ray, before trying Turquoise Bay and the Drift Loop again. Drift Loop has a strong current so that all you really need to do is get into the sea and keep an eye on your position and get out at the right time; if you don’t you float off into the Indian Ocean and don’t come back. After an entire morning of that, we were up for a bit of a walk and wandered off into the Cape Range national park. There are a bunch of set walks around the gorges here, easily tackled even by people in flip flops. I wouldn’t want to do it in flip flops, but others did and survived.
Ningaloo is more accessible from the land than the Great Barrier Reef, but that bit of land is a bit less accessible – a long drive from Perth or Karratha, which are a long way from everywhere else themselves! I find in Australia, getting there is half the fun, but if you don’t, the Great Barrier Reef is definitely a lot less effort. However, where the Barrier Reef required a boat trip, we could just walk from our tent to the sea and dive in, and emerge for lunch, or a rest. We did get sunburned a lot, probably due to inexpert and insufficient application of sun screen. When the sun is out – it burns hot and long, and it’ll probably get you. Apart from a slightly pissed off looking octopus that I mentioned earlier, the only other annoyances were the wind, which screwed with our cooking and reduced visibility for snorkelling, and the Kangaroo ticks, which appeared in the mornings in groups and got into our stuff after Kangaroos has been nosing around our camp. Apparently they actually carry Lyme’s disease, so these need to be watched out for. There don’t seem to be any sharks in the area, and we didn’t encounter any poisonous snakes, though I expect they are there. If you want to do things on your own time, don’t mind a long drive, and enjoy the isolation – this is a great place to visit. I just wish I’d taken an underwater camera!