We were peering into the deep water, straining to see as far as we could through the blue. The first time we had jumped off the boat had been in vain and we had not seen anything. This time we were hoping it would be different. The guide indicated we should put our masks in the water and look in her direction. At first there was nothing just the deep blue ocean with the sun shining brightly overhead. Then slowly it appeared gently, majestically swimming slowly towards us, the largest fish in the world, a beautiful spotted whale shark. You could hear everyone gasp as the whale shark appeared and the excitement fizzed through the water. Some of it was sheer excitement but some was also apprehension as the 7.5 metre shark swam towards us. There was no need to be frightened though as the whale shark feeds almost exclusively on plankton and is really a gentle giant. Unperturbed by our presence the shark swam slowly passed us. With Lucy between Gilly and I, we quickly swam alongside admiring the beauty of nature. The shark has a massive mouth to take in the plankton and underneath its spotted body were various sucker and feeder fish coming along for the ride. We spent a couple of minutes with it before it dived deep from the surface and disappeared way beyond our sight but not from our memory. It was an amazing experience. We had arrived in Exmouth, which is situated at the end of a peninsular on the North West tip of Australia the previous day. Exmouth is the gateway to the world heritage listed Ningaloo Reef and is famous for encounters with whale sharks and other marine life. As the boats only take 20 passengers we had booked our trip in advance and set off the next day hoping we would be lucky enough to swim with whale sharks. We need not have worried. The tour companies use spotter planes which can see the sharks on the surface of the ocean and guide the boats towards them. Only 10 people are allowed in the water at any one time and we were lucky enough to swim with 3 different whale sharks. The visibility was fantastic and it was truly magical to spend some time with these wonderful creatures. It was a great trip out and was so much more than just the whale sharks. We got to see lots of humpback whales that were migrating North to give birth from Antarctica. Perhaps we even saw one that we had seen previously in Antarctica 18 months ago! We also saw turtles, dolphins and a minke whale. There was also the opportunity to go snorkelling on the coral reef which was full of fish and we even saw a sting ray and a reef shark. The crew were excellent and very knowledgeable about the reef and the animals that lived there which helped make it such a special day out. The next day we headed out of Exmouth around the top of the peninsular to the Cape Range National Park. The park is set right on the side of the ocean and the Ningaloo Reef is only just off the shore. Backing up onto the ocean is a small range with gorges that lead down to the sea. There is a lot of wildlife on land too with kangaroos and emus running around. One of the added bonuses is that there are some great snorkelling spots that you can swim to straight off the beach. For the first one, Oyster Stacks, we had to time it to arrive at high tide and were rewarded with fantastic snorkelling. The reef was full of fish and we spent several hours snorkelling there. Turquoise Beach was a beautiful sandy beach that you could easily spend the whole day relaxing on but a short wade and swim out led to another great snorkelling spot. There was quite a current there and if you went in at one end you could drift easily along enjoying the coral and fish below. You just had to make sure you got out before the current swept you out to the ocean over the top of the reef. Mind you Gilly got out early on one drift after seeing a 1.5 metre shark swimming near her. It was probably just a harmless reef shark but she wasn't taking any chances! The weather forecast for the next few days was not good so we were glad we took the most of the swimming opportunities. We camped in the National Park just back from a gorgeous beach but as we went to bed the rain started. It rained all night and we woke up to a wet and blustery day. What a change from a few days ago. The temperature struggled to reach 20 degrees and the rain was pretty constant all day. This is when we love having our truck. There may not be a lot of space in the back but there is enough for us all to be comfortable and to do our own thing. It was a day watching movies with a brisk walk along the beach to get some fresh air. We had heard that the snorkelling at Coral Bay was exceptional so headed there down the peninsular for a few days. Coral Bay is a tiny town that is really just a shop, a pub, a hotel and a couple of caravan parks. When we arrived the weather was still miserable so we didn't fancy going in for a swim. However on the beach every other day at 3.30 they feed the fish. The kids loved feeding the large Spangled Emperor fish that swam around their feet. We were told you had to bury your toes in the sand to avoid the fish biting them! The next day the weather was starting to improve and it was good to see the sun again. However it wasn't very warm and there was a cool breeze. As it was our last day though we were determined to go snorkelling so took the plunge. We were rewarded with amazing coral gardens that looked like cabbage leaves with fish swimming amongst them. The corals were rather dull in colour which we were not sure was natural to this type of coral or due to coral bleaching that is currently affecting coral reefs around the world. Every so often there were tips of coral sticking out that were bright blue and some amazing rocky coral formations. Again snorkelling was very easy, you just had to walk in off the beach. Mind you as soon as you came out the cold wind hit you so each time we dashed back to the truck to change into dry clothes. When it comes to coral reefs in Australia it is the Great Barrier Reef that gets the headlines but we enjoyed the Ningaloo Reef more. It is more accessible and we saw much more there. As we drove south the terrain of the peninsular reminded me of the English moors. After all this was sheep farming country. After the rain it was much greener than normal but the scenery was one of grass and short bushes. We turned off the main road south to head again to the coast. Here the ocean seemed much wilder crashing against the low cliffs. We stopped to see some blowholes where the waves washed under the shelf of a cliff before shooting out of some holes into the sky. We camped at Quobba Station, a sheep farm and found a spot right on top of the cliffs looking down on the waves crashing below. It was great as we could even spot whales from the truck as they were swimming up the coast. Although the sun was out it was now a lot cooler as we are in the depths of winter and no longer in the tropics (we crossed back over the Tropic of Capricorn on our drive south out of Coral Bay). It was too cold and too rough to swim so we passed our day there with a long walk along the coast and enjoying the scenery. We will have to get used to this weather as we continue south to return to Perth which is now not that far away, well relatively, in Australian terms.
What's the etiquette when you've squeezed round a blind corner of a narrow chasm and find four people coming the other way ? Oh, and three of them are 2 metres up the gorge walls walking like spiders to keep out of the icy waters below. There was an awkward few seconds and smiles before we all decided to keep on going in the direction we were heading in. We didn't even need to duck, as we stayed in the water, and they inched their way forward way above our heads. We were in the spectacularly beautiful Karajini National Park. The red, iron ore filled, rocks with their sparse covering of spiky, golden spinifex grass were lovely but not that dissimilar to the surrounding countryside. What made Karajini special was its gorges. Unseen, until you were almost falling down their sheer sides, we looked down on an oasis over a 100 m below. Often just a few metres across, the red sides could be read like a history book. Millions of years ago under a shallow sea the layers built up a little each year to form the sedimentary rocks we saw below us. Where the rock layers had split horizontally you could still see the ripples and bubbles that had formed on the warm sea's muddy bottom. Climbing down to the bottom of Dale's Gorge we found ourselves amongst lush green reeds and tinkling streams. There were three very different waterfalls, with the water trickling down the russet rock. Lucy, yet again proving she is the bravest and hardiest member of the family, opted to swim in the icy turquoise waters under two of the falls. Stepping stones through the stream took us along the bottom of the gorge for a couple of kilometres. It was hard to concentrate on the slippery rocks and narrow ledges under our feet as we kept on gazing up to marvel at the sheer brick red walls on either side of us. It was the following day that we discovered our favourite gorge, Hancock, where we had the tight squeeze with the backpackers. We had descended down the steep sides on huge steps and ladders. Just a few metres across at its widest point, it was cool even in the middle of the day. We scampered along the narrow ledge of rocks at the side of the gorge, as the walls got closer together. Just a few hundred metres from the end of the walk, the path along the sides out of the stream ran out. It looked like it was a thigh high cold wade for the next bit....brrr...chilly. Thankfully, as we came around the corner the sun was warming the next section but it looked like it would be a swim or very slippery climb to the next bit. Lucy and I opted for the cold swim, Steve the high road and Alisha decided to sit in the sun and keep an eye on the backpack. Further on was a blind corner with a cascade of water over the rocks, the walls were just a metre apart. We shimmied our bottoms over the rocks to make the short drop down into a shallow pool, which is where we met the human spiders inching their way forward above us trying to keep out of the water. We were completely wet by then so splashed our way underneath them. At the end was Kermit's Pond, possibly named after the frog because of its lovely green colour. Steve swam across and could see another series of cascades and pools but sadly that was the end of where you were allowed to go. Returning to Alisha in the sunny spot, we warmed up with a brisk hike to the top. Three days before Karajini we had left Broome, the charming beachside town where we had spent a night to restock. The drive south was both very long and boring. Driving around a country this size we are accustomed to big distances, the hours on the road are usually made up for by the lovely scenery. However there were no such distractions on the road south just dry, flat bush. So it was a nice surprise when we pulled off the road to Cape Keraudren. It was a beautiful local nature park with basic camping right on the rocks overlooking the sea. Protruding into the sea, we watched the sun set on one side of the truck and the sunrise on the other. Unconcerned Red Kangaroos hopped amongst the spinflex grass. The following day we moved to another lovely spot at the edge of a white sandy beach and went for long walks, while the girls cooked up imaginary dishes from their finds on the beach. Over the previous week the weather had changed from a hot and sticky 36 degrees when we were first in Broome to a more manageable 28 during the day, with cool nights. Heading south we've noticed winter just starting to creep up on us. Anyone for "sponge" pudding? After Karajini, we had two long days of driving to get to Exmouth, our first stop on the Ningaloo reef. The iron ore that colours the amazing scenery in this part of Western Australia, is a valuable asset. Mining is big business out here, located a distance off the road we didn't really get to see it. Apart from the huge accommodation blocks made of hundreds of portacabins in the few towns for the fly-in workers. The roads were excellent as lots of huge Road Trains transport the ore to the port. Road trains are huge lorries with up to 4 trailers attached, in this part of the country they are up to 60m long! Each trailer can have a double set of 12 wheels, with the cab that is 25 axles. A total of 98 tyres per train! No wonder the first thing we see the drivers do in the rest stops is walk around the rig, checking all the wheels. As well as passing them coming the other way, Steve also had to contend with them overtaking us. As their top speed is 100km an hour they are far faster than us, we tend to keep to a more sedate 80kph on good roads. It was rather scary watching them bearing down on us in the mirror and then overtake just feet away from me in the passenger seat. Thankfully the roads were pretty straight and empty. "Truckie" looking very small alongside one of the massive mining trucks. We had a couple of nights breaking the journey in remote roadside rest stops with just the rumble of the road trains, like a lullaby, to send us to sleep. The second night's stop had a huge number of caravans in it, even though it completely in the middle of nowhere. Beside a dry river bed it had a tar pull in; some long-drop loos; a dump station and lots of paths off the back with flat, shady spots for parking. It wasn't the most exciting spot but for a roadside stop it was clean and quite pretty. Obviously the "grey nomads" thought the same thing as there were over 30 caravans there and we were one of the last to pull in - at 3.30pm. I don't think it was worth pulling in early so you could spend the day there. The other bizarre perk of Barradale stop was a burger bus, we wondered where it came from as there is absolutely nothing on the road for hundreds of kilometres. For a change we went for breakfast the following morning, the bus had stalled 20 metres away from its parking place. Three of us pushed the bus to its parking place keen to get our morning coffee which the lady kindly gave us for free. It turned out she was from a neighbouring station and had seen a business opportunity with all the caravans. The coffee was great too.
We have returned to the West Coast of Australia and this means that for most of the rest of our time in Australia we will be enjoying the sun set over the ocean. A wonderful way to end the day. And what better way to start this tradition than on the lovely Cable Beach in Broome. Cable Beach extends for miles and miles but you do not have to walk far to enjoy the sunset. On arriving in Broome we quickly headed to the beach to enjoy the last warm rays of the day and to watch the golden ball dip quickly (we are still in the tropics) into the sea. Cable Beach is also famous for camel rides along the beach so the next evening saw us all atop camels to do the customary sunset walk along the beach. Even with all the people on the beach it was still wonderfully peaceful and offered a different perspective on the evening ritual. The camel that Gilly and Alisha rode, Kabul, was even famous as he had walked across the whole width of Australia from East to West so I suppose a casual stroll along the beach was a pretty easy trip for him. After we had finished the Gibb River Road we had stopped in Fitzroy Crossing where we met an old colleague of mine from Moscow, Henrik Loos for a drink. It was great to see Henrik and hear about life in the Kimberley outback. Quite a change from Moscow. Henrik seemed to be enjoying it though and it was very interesting to hear about what they were doing in the Aboriginal community. Mind you it does have it's challenges. Henrik's daughter has her piano lessons in Broome every week, 400kms away! We also took the long drive to Broome but we were only doing it once. Mind you Broome is not a bad town to visit. Not only does it have wonderful beaches but also an interesting history centred around the pearl industry which was the mainstay of the town when it was first developed. We learnt more about this on our visit to the interesting town museum. Broome has had lots of immigrants as a result of this industry over the years so we decided to have a lovely Chinese meal for lunch in Chinatown. From Broome we headed up the Dampier peninsular to Cape Leveque. To get there the road system is slightly strange. Shortly after leaving Broome the tar road runs out and you have to drive nearly 100kms on a hard sand corrugated road. Fortunately most of it was in quite good condition although one part of it was heavily corrugated. It was though quite narrow in parts and because they kept digging further down to smooth the road we did end up on a bit of an angle when passing some other vehicles. Then you join a beautiful tar road for the last 100kms to the top of the peninsular. This tar road connects the various communities up there but is not connected at all to the rest of the tar road network in Australia. On arriving at the top we checked into Kooljaman Resort set right on the tip of the peninsular. Our campsite was set on a small cliff top overlooking the beach. It was a magical place. Although there were more upmarket glamping options we were delighted with our spot. We spent two lovely days there enjoying the most fantastic beaches. There were two beaches: The Western one with amazing sandstone cliffs coming up to the edge of the beach and where we went every evening to enjoy the sunset and the Eastern beach which was better for swimming. Whilst we enjoyed some lovely walks along the beach we did not do as much swimming as we would have liked as the heat finally broke. A weather system had moved across Western Australia and whilst we did not get any rain the temperature dropped nearly 10 degrees and the wind picked up. It was lovely to have cool nights again but I think the cold morning starts will soon lose its attraction. From Kooljaman we headed back down the peninsular. We went from glamping back to wild camping and found a lovely spot on a sand dune overlooking another beautiful beach. It might not have been quite as beautiful as at Kooljaman but I think we had been spoilt. The beach stretched for miles and miles and there was a big tide so at low tide lots of it was exposed. In the evening hermit crabs would come out scurrying across the beach which Lucy enjoyed going looking for. Alisha and I felt a little under the weather while there for a day so it was a nice spot to relax, do nothing, enjoy the view and have gentle strolls on the beach. Fortunately we quickly recovered so we headed back into Broome to restock before heading West. Oh and to enjoy yet another wonderful sunset over the ocean.