Hi there,

For those of you arriving late to this intrepid family journey through the heart of Australia, you may like to start reading at the beginning. Unfortunately, Blogger organises posts with those most recently created appearing first. So, if you jump in at the top, you're not going to get the full experience of this gritty blow-by-blow account of our adventure. As such, I suggest using the navigation window above and head down to March, where the first part of this journey began. Hopefully, by the end, you’ll be hooked. From there you can scroll upwards to continue the journey. I can’t wait to see how it turns out!

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http://theblackstump.blogspot.com.au/2017/03/.

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Monday, 1 October 2018

Coral Bay and the deep blue sea


Now, back to our regular scheduled program: “Coral Bay and the deep blue sea!”

 


Date:
26 – 29/06/2017
Location:
Coral Bay (Western Australia)
Distance Travelled:
231 km
Temperature:
Min:
5.2

 
Max:
24.1
hours spent swimming with Manta rays:
3

 
Packing up our wee trailer, we slowly made our way back out of the Cape Range National Park and said a fond farewell to our slice of heaven on the shores of Ningaloo Reef. The early morning light made the slow drive back to Exmouth (albeit, along a road littered with corpses of many a slow-moving kangaroo) all the more magical.

Stopping briefly in Exmouth, we restocked with a few essential supplies and had a hearty breakfast of pies and coffee (Ahhh, pies and coffee, the food of champions!). And so, with bellies full, trailer restocked, and car full of diesel, we hit the road once more.


 So long Exmouth – we had a blast!

Today’s journey would take us 230km south, down the Western Australia coast towards Coral Bay. The trip was lovely, with the coastal road giving up glimpses of the ocean as we moseyed on by.

By early afternoon we pulled up at Coral Bay. Almost like magic, the immense stretches of roughly shod highway transmogrified into well-manicured byways. And here, in the middle of nowhere, all roads seemed to lead to little other than two caravan parks and little shopping mall – both of which appeared to have been built with the single purpose of catering to the whims and vagaries of a passing nomadic trade.

With school holidays in WA just around the corner, we had opted to book ahead at the main camp site, Bayview Coral Bay. At this time of year, both sites were a sprawling metropolis of tents, caravans and motorhomes of all shapes and sizes. Well, perhaps not all shapes – there are, after all, only so many ways you can pack a living space into something that is rectangular enough to fit on a campsite, yet also compact enough to be hauled down the highway without taking out too many other cars in the process…

Despite the vast size of the camp ground, we followed the earnest directions of the campsite owners and soon found our way to the allotted plot on to which we squeezed in our trailer. Luckily, Nat had booked a site at the end of the row. However, while this afforded a little breathing room for us, most people weren’t as lucky. The campsite owners had certainly found a way to capitalise on every available patch of ground on their expansive plot of land. And so, with a little manoeuvring, we were able to slot ourselves in alongside the other sardines, just in time for a spot of lunch.

Sardines, anyone?

 Our first afternoon was spent wandering around the shops and the multitude of seafaring tourist-companies, hoping to spot the best deal for a cruise out to the reef, where we hoped to belucky enough to hang out with a manta ray or two. After a little negotiation, we left Ningaloo Marine Interactions, clutching tightly to three and a half tickets for a snorkelling cruise two days hence (yup, three and a half – Daniel wasn’t overly keen on the idea of jumping in the water with a massive manta ray – who can blame him… these things are HUGE!).

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering along the beach, setting up our trailer in a way that would give us a little more protection from the sun and wind, and watching our neighbours dig their camp-trailer out of the soft sand of the Coral Bay caravan park. With the day’s jobs done, we wandered across the road for a spot of afternoon tea. But, unfortunately, the bakery had already run out of its world famous hot jam donuts, so we returned forlornly to our trailer. That evening we sat down to a sumptuous Mexican inspired dinner – making the most of the fresh veggies we’d picked up in Exmouth.


 
Fiesta Mexicana 

Rising bright and early the next morning, I still had a hankering for the donuts that I felt I was robbed of the day before. So, figuring it was time for a treat, I wandered across the road while the kettle was heating gently on the stove of our trailer. Returning just in time to pour the coffees, we sat down to a hearty breakfast of sugary donuts filled with runny strawberry jam. These little beauties had just been cooked and were still warm, fluffy and oh, so scrummy! (sorry, no photos of these beauties – they were gone quicker than the snap of a camera lens)

With a day to kill before our grand adventure on the high seas, we had a nosey around for something to pass the time. Chatting to the local information officer (which really amounted to an old dude sitting in a run-down shack near the beach), I learned that there was some decent fishing at the nearby marina.  With that, Ben and I grabbed our fishing gear and made our way to the boat ramp to try our luck.

It’s hard to describe what the Coral Bay marina/boat ramp is like, particularly the number of colourful fish that were dancing about in the waters nearby. Over the course of the afternoon, Ben and I pulled in many weird and wonderful fish. Everything from stunning silver bulletlike fish, to pretty zebra striped marvels, and my personal favourites the iridescent green and blue beauties. Unfortunately, the photo of this last green fish didn’t really show its true splendour, but they sure were good looking. I’m sure these all have names, but to me they were new and exotic – and likely will remain elusively so forever.


(although, it occurs to me now that a handy fish spotting guide such as this, surely might have helped)





Fish caught off the marina in Coral Bay

Having returned to the trailer for lunch, we determined that the rest of the afternoon would be spent exploring one of the plentiful 4x4 tracks that have been carved along the coast. Clutching a roughly drawn map, given to us by the same old dude in the shack wo pointed us in the direction of all the fish caught this morning, we head back to the highway to find the hidden sandy entrance to a path less trodden by man nor beast...

Arriving at the gateway of doom, we stopped briefly to dutifully relive our tyres of some of their cumbersome air. With a conscientious deflated feeling creeping over our car, we headed gingerly on down the track, testing out the soft sand ahead of us. Quickly we realised that the map given to us by our enthusiastic, but ‘less than accurate’ fisherman friend, was intended for ‘illustrative purposes’ only – and the actual track twisted and turned in ways that were not included on our topographical diagram. Along the way we picked up a small train of other motorists, who were heading in the same general direction and wondering why we were creeping along so slowly. Having a chat to these fellow wanderers, they invited us to follow along, assuring us that they had driven this path a few years ago and they were ‘sure it wouldn’t have changed much’ (yes, mark the sarcastic italics and finger waggling quotation marks used with precision and not so much as a whiff of irony!).  But you see, the thing about sand is that it has a tendency to get blown about a bit by the wind and only lot in life is to eroded away by the elements that pound against the coast. What used to be a track last week could be massive sand dune today. I was beginning to see why the map was so vague on details… Yet, we pressed on, managing to keep our wheels from getting bogged (too much(, as we hopped from one patch of solid ground to the next.

The scenery along the way was pretty spectacular to say the least. The track meandered its way through dunes and scrub and eventually along the crest of a ridge overlooking the ocean. From this vantage point, the white tipped waves stood out proudly against the bright blue of the water below. We pressed on further along the coast until we came to a steep dune that turned out to be our nemesis this day. One of the other cars in our small ad hoc company managed to battle their way to the top… but the other two of us reached only half way, before rolling back – white knuckled – to the base. Deciding it was a hill too far, we said goodbye to the rest of the cars and headed back along the track to check out some of the spots we had passed along the way. In the end, the boys spent an hour or so rolling down sand dunes and hiking back up… over and over again.



 
Rolling down the dunes!!

With sun on its way towards the horizon, we decided to made our way back to camp – happy to have escaped another off-road experience largely unscathed. Tonight, we would be early to bed in preparation for our big adventure with the manta rays the next day.

Rising at the crack of dawn, we made our way to the small cluster of shops across the road from our campsite to meet up with our guides at Ningaloo Marine Interactions. Having tried all our gear for size, we jumped aboard a minivan and coughed and splutters out way down the same marina that Ben and I been fishing at the day before. Our vessel was spacious enough for the small adventurous party of 20 keen manta ray spotters, and soon we had completed our safety briefing and were heading out to sea.

Daniel peering over the sides of our Manta Ray spotting boat

The waters off Coral Bay are protected by a natural breakwater made up of a system of coral reefs. As such, today we would start our exploration inside the protected waters of the reef, before venturing out to deeper water to where the bigger rays live. We were fortunate enough to have a very experienced underwater photographer with us, so the shots we were able to get from this trip were awesome! He even threw in a few other shots for free, like this overview of the reef from the air.

Coral Bay – from the air

We first spent an hour or so cruising around giant colonnades of coral, with our guides pointing out turtles, reef sharks, giant clams and all manner of fish and other sea life. True to form, Ben took to the water like a veritable seal and dived deep to check out the hidden gems at the bottom of the reef. Nat was happy to take in the sights from the surface, as she floated along on her noodles with the group. While I swam back and forth between the two making sure all was ok. Despite our encouragement, Daniel was determined to stay on the boat. So, he kept the skipper company while the rest of us drifted along with the currents.






 Underwater adventure in Coral Bay

Soon enough, it was time to jump back on board the boat for a hot cupper and a snack, as the skipper took us further out to sea – just beyond the protection of the inner reef. With a spotter plane in the air, it wasn’t long before we had our first sighting of the elusive manta ray. Similar to our whale shark experience, when the ray was nearby we gathered together in pods of 10 and dropped into the water in front of the giant beast. 

Peering down through the crystal-clear water, we quickly spied a jet-black manta ray gliding serenely along the seabed like a prehistoric Pteranodon. This creature was immense, yet it moved effortlessly through the water; gliding on great watery wings. For the most part, it seemed content to have a gaggle of on lookers floating overhead. But, when a swimmer came too close, it would glide deeper under the water and disappear into the gloomy darkness below. Fortunately, it seemed to forgive these transgressions reasonably quickly and would soon return to warmer waters near the surface.

We spent a large part of the afternoon floating alongside and above this magnificent ray and were able to watch it roll and twist as it scooped minute krill in its massive maw. Smaller fish clung to its belly, holding on with mouth suckers and seemingly enjoying the ride.

 
 
 
Manta Rays at Coral Bay

Having gawped at the ray for hours, we left it in peace and returned once more to calm waters of the inner reef. We took a final swim amongst a new batch of corals and even more brightly coloured fish, before having lunch on board the boat and heading home.

Having not yet had enough fishy frolics, we ended our time in Coral Bay with another day of fishing at the marina and then feeding fish from the beach. It turns out that the wildlife folks around Coral Bay have had trouble with large crowds of people feeding fish for many years. Over decades, too much junk food had been tossed into the water, which in turn has had a negative impact on local fish populations. Realising that banning the practice was going to be difficult to enforce, they decided if you can’t beat them… well, at least help people do it responsibly. As such, every day during the tourist season, a group gathers in the knee-deep water at low tide, where they give a talk about the local fish species and provide environmentally safe fish food for the public to drop into the waters.

It was somewhat of an eerie feeling, as you stood there in the ocean with the cold waters lapping up the inside of your thighs. When, suddenly a large school of fish (many up to a meter in length) came cruising around you, ravenous and searching for food! As the environmentally safe pellets were cast in the water, the sea began to boil with countless fishy bodies – each trying to catch the small morsels of yumminess on offer. These were Spangled Emperor fish, and they came out in force!


Feeding fish off the beach at Coral Bay

With fish fed and the sun going down, we returned to our trailer and got ready to head off on the next leg of our journey. Tomorrow we would be moving away from fish, sand and sea, as we headed to a stop over destination at Carnarvon.

Bye ‘d Bye

Gregg 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Ningaloo Reef - Osprey Bay



Date:
21 - 25 /06/2017
Location:
Cape Range - Ningaloo Reef (Western Australia)
Distance Travelled:
170 km
Temperature:
Min:
10.2

Max:
28.1
Whale sharks swam with
3


As is often the case on days when we are preparing to shift from one place to another, we were up early and ready to hit the road. Having arranged to have our windscreen fixed (finally) in Exmouth, we were determined to ensure that we would be there on time. So, pulling out of Bullara Station, we waved goodbye to the sheep who were wandering aimlessly through the campsite, said ‘see ya later’ to Damper John and watched as several flocks of galahs made their early morning rounds of the Bullara water holes; before turning onto the Minilya-Exmoth road toward Cape Range.

The drive to Exmouth was lovely; especially as we watched the sun creeping slowly into the sky, bathing the land in that pristine sort of light you only ever see at the start of a new day. I must admit, in my day-to-day life, I don’t usually appreciate such things. This is particularly so when the sun is rising as I’m heading to work. Back in the ‘real world’, any day on which I see the sun rising over the horizon, typically means I’m heading to an early morning meeting; rather than spending an extra hour in bed. But, deep in the heart of the Western Australia wilderness, the rising of the sun brought with it a sense of adventure and the promise of exciting times yet to come. As such, on this fine morning, any thoughts of staying in bed were summarily cast from our minds.

Thus, we found ourselves hurtling down the road, along a narrow peninsular jutting out between the Indian Ocean and Exmouth Gulf. Arriving at Exmouth, we soon encountered the usual hallmarks of a big town. However, this place still had the feel of a seaside destination. Amongst the hardware shops and light industrial spaces, there were marinas, boating supply shops, and all manner of outlets ready to supply the traveller’s every need and desire. But for us, we had a single task in mind – to get the irksome crack fixed, which had been marring our vision out of the front window.

We found the windscreen repair shop easily enough. Pulling up alongside a host of other vehicles that had been parked on a patch of waste ground, we unhitched the van on the edge of a slip road opposite the mechanics. With everything locked up tightly, we drove our cracked and bedraggled Pajero into the fix-it-shop. The folks at Exmouth Smash Repairs were quite delightful. Not only did they offer to keep an eye on our trailer, while we went off to explore the town, but also happily dropped us a few kilometres down the road in the heart of Exmouth. Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, we accepted their kind offer, piled into the car and tootled down the road.

Having been dropped off in the heart of Exmouth by our friendly mechanical taxi service, we headed to the nearest bakery for a spot of breakfast. Having scoffed down an egg and bacon roll and a strong cup of coffee, we soon felt fully watered and raring to go. As such, we took a quick nosey around the shops before heading to a public water park where the boys had a good run around.


Ben and Daniel on the 'Big Chair' in Exmouth

This place was brilliant!! However, I’m not really sure how to describe it… it wasn’t a water park, as such – rather it was more of public space filled with watery fun for kids to cool off in the hot summer’s sun. Sitting alongside a grassy playing field, this area was a fenced off area with all manner of jets and sprinklers spewing their misty water all over the place. There were water fountains, a model whale (complete with a spout from its blowhole), cascading showers and water cannons to play with. Fortunately, there was also a smattering of sunlight pouring through the railings, which was just warm enough to keep the early morning chill away.


Exmouth Water Park

A few hours later I gave the folks at Exmouth Smash Repairs a call and found that the car was just about ready to rock and roll. Leaving Nat and the boys to play for a little longer, I sauntered down the main road and picked up our car with its sparkling new windscreen (they had even reattached our tourist passes to the new window!). Hitching up our trailer once more, I waved goodbye to our beneficent glaziers, picked up the rest of the clan and soon we were on our way.

Exmouth – Giant prawn

Pulling out of Exmouth, we only had a mere 50 kilometre drive up the peninsula, around the corner and back down the other side of the cape to reach out destination. Surrounded by water, we enjoyed the route down the coast, watching waves crashing on the rocky shore as we came ever closer to our final destination of Cape Ningaloo National Park

Exmouth to Osprey Bay

And soon, we arrived at Osprey Bay. Oh my… What can I say?

Cape Ningaloo was awesome!

Now, I know I’ve used the word awesome a few times while writing this blog… But seriously, this time awesome means AWESOME!

Welcome to Cape Range

Forty kilometres from the start of the Ningaloo National Park, down a coastal road with grass covered mountains on the left and the crashing ocean on the right, Osprey Bay campsite was nestled amongst sand dunes and spinifex. There were forty-ish large campsites, spread out over a couple of kilometres, set along the rugged rocky coast overlooking the sea.

Osprey Bay campsite at sunset

Driving down the immaculately kept road towards the campsite, we were soon hailed by the camp hosts who had been charged with the sacred pact of looking after this patch of earth. As we trundled our way down the track, Mr and Mrs Camphost came out of their trailer and hailed us down. Quick as a flash they verified our bona fides, and once thoroughly satisfied, they cordially waved us on to our oceanside colonnade. We had expected some level of checking upon arrival; particularly after we passed the huge sign at the entrance to the park advising potential visitors that all campsites were “FULL!”. But luckily for us, Nat had headed the advice of our good friends at Morrows Westward Adventure and had booked early!

When I was younger, I remember watching the likes of Paul Daniels, David Copperfield and (bless his little cotton socks) Tommy Cooper, performing their arcane arts on telly. You know, pulling rabbits from a hat and making the statue of liberty disappear, and things like that. But, for all the magic I’d seen as a kid, I’d never witnessed a feat as tremendous as the magic Nat had performed when securing this fine campsite.

Osprey bay

Even during this ‘off season’ time of the year, the Osprey Bay campsite was pretty much full to the gunnels. While we set up our trailer, we watched as van after van came and were sent on their way by Mr and Mrs Camphost, when their names were not found on the sacred clipboard.

But, for us, these trifles were not our concern. Indeed, way back in the distant past of late summer 2016, Nat had spent many evenings pouring over maps, blogs and websites with the aim of locating the perfect spot for us to pull up at in Cape Range. Amidst all these late nights, with a protractor and compass in hand, Nat finally had a eureka moment when she eventually triangulated the perfect spot. Perched at the ideal position between camp toilets, beach and open swathes of sky, she had calculated the most impeccable campsite amongst the dozens that were on offer…

…and as we pitched up for the night, I couldn’t have agreed more!

Osprey Bay - just perfect!

All the camp sites at Osprey Bay were cordoned off by a simple timber fence, with a lucky few (aka US!) having private paths leading the 20 meters or so down to the water’s edge. Underfoot, the sites consisted of thickly packed earth and shells (which were an absolute bugger to try and drive a tent peg into for holding one’s awning). Fortunately, I was lucky enough to meet a number of kind hearted Samaritans, who took pity in my plight (or perhaps had spent enough time laughing at me trying to drive a tent peg into the unshifting earth) and came over with a rubber mallet and screwdriver to help drive the pegs home. While the kids played on the beach, the trailer was eventually set up and the welcome mat was set out.




Osprey Bay campsite

The next few days passed in blissful, sandy frolics. During the day, the sun shone gleefully on the lapping waves of the beach meters from our campsite; as the sea crept its way languidly up and down the sand. At their apogee, the waves pummelled into the rocky shoreline, before turning around and sweeping down the sea floor back to its sandy nadir many meters below.



Osprey Bay - Life on the ocean waves

Being so close to the water, there was of course plenty of opportunities to drop a line or two into the waves. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much biting – other than a couple of undersized flounders. But, as they say, a bad day of fishing always beats your best day at work, hands down!



Osprey Bay - fishing!

With a lovely breeze coming in from the ocean, many of our evenings were spent unfurling the kite that we had lugged around the country – in search of the perfect place to let it sail across the sky. Indeed, we found the perfect place for a spot of kite flying here at Ningaloo, and soon we had small crowds of kids lining up to have a go at taming the winds with our colourful sail. This kite had been a gift to the boys from their uncle Gareth a few years ago; but until now, it hadn’t been given a proper opportunity to truly spread its wings. As it turns out, Ben was a dab hand at aerial acrobatics… he’s always said he wanted to be a pilot; perhaps this is hint of things to come!




Ospey Bay - Kite flying

The water in front of our trailer was also filled with all manner of aquatic life. Flashy schools of large silvery fish (who, in retrospect, I’m glad were too smart to get hooked by my fishing line) swam shoulder to shoulder (or fin to fin) with green turtles and reef sharks. Nat, who preferred to keep herself firmly planted in the shallower waters near the beach, was lucky enough to swim for several hundred meters alongside a massive turtle (while Ben and I were at least 500 meters out in the ocean trying in vain to find one of the buggers…). Ben and I did eventually see and swim with a battalion of turtles, but on that particular day Nat had a magical time of her own in this unexpected one-on-one encounter with such a majestic beast.

Osprey Bay - Reef Sharks

Despite having paradise on our doorstep, we also remained cognizant that there were other slices of heaven to explore nearby. On one of our days at Ningaloo, we spent hours at the nearby ‘Oyster Stacks”. This was a superb place for snorkelling, with next to no effort required to see all of the wonders on offer. This stretch of beach was caressed by a fairly strong current, which flowed from left to right along the beach. As such, all one needed to do was traipse a little way up the shore; hop in the water and casually swim out 20 – 30 meters; then let the current pull you gently along. As you floated in the water, it was almost as if you were flying over cities of coral; each of which was inhabited by a myriad of colourful marine denizens, all going about their daily life unperturbed by the giant floating onlooker cruising overhead.

The giant pillars of coral and stacks of oyster encrusted rocks weren’t the most colourful (these were hard corals, which are far duller than their brilliantly coloured gaudy ‘soft coral’ cousins on the east coast). But, they were teeming with life – from little electric coloured fish, to large clams the size of a chest of draws. Amongst all of this were monolithic turtles, cruising their way amongst the patches of sea grass (but if spooked, these fellas could take off like a rocket!), and all manner of fish from the microscopic to specimens almost as large as me!






Marine Life

In order to top off our Ningaloo adventure, we felt it was only right to leave the shelter of the inner reef and venture out into the ocean to swim with the biggest fish in the world. As such, on a cold and blustery morning, Nat, the boys and I, found ourselves standing on a concrete pier waiting to board a boat in search of an elusive whale shark (Rhincodon typus). Fortunately (or rather, thanks to Nat’s tremendous planning), these magnificent creatures made this stretch of the coast their home during this time of the year. Throughout the months of April to August, these great beasts come out to play around Ningaloo Reef. Here they cruise the waters in search of food, trying to sate their voracious appetite (they have rather big bellies, after all…). Growing between 4 – 8 meters in length (in these waters at least – elsewhere they can be up to 12 meters long and weigh up to 19 metric tonnes), the gentle giants that inhabit Cape Range are mere teenagers compared with the specimens that occasionally appear in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean.


Whale sharks - All aboard, here we go!

Meeting the crew of 3Islands Whale Dive Tours, we and the other 20ish expectant passengers who were huddled together on the pier, were ferried in small groups to a boat anchored off shore. Once we were all aboard, and safety briefings were completed, we took to the open waters and cruised around for a few hours in search of these elusive critters. Along the way, we spotted pods of dugongs and dolphins, and spent a few hours searching for blue whales that had been sighted on the horizon earlier in the day.




Before long, the boat picked up the trail of a whale shark, so we abandoned the search for blue whales and got down to the business we’d signed up for. Over several hours we dropped into the cool waters of the Indian Ocean and swam alongside a handful of the largest and most magnificent beasts on the planet. In small groups of 10, we plunged into the briny depths, followed a spotter from the crew and swam out little hearts out. At times these great beasts moved dreamily through the water, cruising up and down in the water – disappearing for a short while into the murky depths, before reappearing again beneath us as it followed a trail of plankton through the columns of water.






Whale sharks - Ningaloo Reef

And so, with the best of Ningaloo experienced, we regretfully had to pack up our home on wheels and hit the road once more. Thankfully though, we weren’t saying goodbye to our beachy paradise for long, as we would be heading down the coast to Coral Bay…

…I hear there have been Manta Rays spotted there recently – AWESOME!

Until next time,

Bye ‘d bye,

Gregg