Western Australian Journal

Before I went to Oz, my mum gave me a leatherbound journal and told me I had to write in it every day and give it to her to read on my return. Amazingly, I did.

Inevitably, though, not that much of what we did was anecdote-worthy, shocking, or funny. And I’m just not a good enough writer to make the account seem that it was. So, if you choose to read on, please do bear that in mind!

I’ll post it in chunks, as 6,500 words is quite a lot to chew through in one go. First off, 23rd to 28th March…

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Tuesday 23 (and Wednesday 24th) March

Playing as I leave the house – ‘Suicide is Painless’ by Johnny Mandel.

My check-in girl is dealing with me immediately after having a panic attack. ‘Don’t get any piercings abroad’, she advises me. The Australian dollar is $1.50 to the pound here. I managed to get $1.57 in a dodgy tourist shop on Oxford Street. Hope it’s not forged – not a problem with Travelex.

Primarily for the boating elements I bought anti-nausea pills. ‘Travel Calm Pills’ they’re called! I AM calm, goddammit! I want ‘travel non-vomit pills’!

At the gate I can’t see any small children. I was warned they get put in the front row; my seat is in the second row. Maybe the ear plugs in my back pocket and chunky old-school headphones around my neck will do the job. Just spotted the first small child; he looks like an 80s child prodigy, with small spectacles and white denim.

On the plane (the Airbus A380 is a palace – it has wooden toilet seats!), all the kids come out of the woodwork to pee. All of them. They all look like mathletes. I’m sitting next to a Japanese guy with little English but an abiding love of the Twilight movies. The cabin crew speak about 25 languages between them, including Russian, Tagalog and Swahili. I wish I had a window – we’re flying over countries I’ve never seen.

A filmic aside – I thought being a soldier was all about following orders. If Greenzone and The Hurt Locker are anything to go by, they’re about being a maverick, not playing by the rules but getting things done. Gotta love Hollywood. Okay – sorry to harp on about the toilet situation but there is a constant 5-10 min queue for the loo. Why so few facilities? They are very plush but I doubt that’s why people want to visit. There also seem to be a lot of disabled and frail would-be toilet users, which makes me wonder why they chose to have 4 steps up to the loos.

‘Why are we flying over Iraq?’, he thinks with alarm? ‘This is just turbulence, right?’. We flew right over Baghdad – once again I wish I’d gone for a window seat. The rest of the flight is good – I struggle to watch movies on planes but ‘Up’ is fantastic – and once landed, I pass an hour with a glass of wine in a quiet bar. £11! This is the first time in Dubai airport and the first time on this trip I’ve heard myself say, ‘sod it, I’m on holiday’, but I don’t think it’ll be the last.

The flight to Perth was 10 hours of slightly unpleasant non-event. No delays, but a fair bit of turbulence during prime sleep time. As I came through customs, I couldn’t see Bree anywhere but her mum found me and launched herself at me with a squeal. A proper Australian welcome. All that happened thereafter was the drive to Bree’s grandmother’s house (where we’ll be based) for dinner, cheesecake and successful sleeps.

Thursday 25 March

First thing Thursday we picked up the hire car from Bayswater Cars (‘no birds’ is its allegedly non-sexist slogan, apparently because, unlike the competition, they don’t use half-naked women in their ads. As I found out later in the trip, they actually – post-modernly? – do use half-naked women in their ads. Go figure) and drove to Chidlow, north=east of Perth, where Bree’s uncle Bob and his wife Jennifer demonstrated the suffering involved in owning  a massive bungalow in their own five acres. Must be awful, especially the millipede problem. Lunch was a group affair in Mundaring with a succession of blasts from Bree’s past, washed down with Oz’s finest low-cal sparkling wine. Then to (Bree’s mum) Rhonda’s where I was obliged to play Bree’s nephews, Sam and Milo, at FIFA 10. I can’t believe Bree makes me work on my holiday.

A stroll around the shops, leftover dinner and (disturbed) sleep before a 5am start.

Friday 26 March

We almost left for Kalbarri at 130am since I was wide awake and Bree had just been rudely roused by my tossing and turning. But I managed a precious couple of hours more before we drove off as the first light of dawn appeared. The drive was easy, empty and beautiful, and I got the first proper tick in my ‘Aussie Wildlife’ spotter with a foursome of emu in a field next to the freeway.

We arrived at the Pinnacles – strange, slim limestone rocks surrounded by dunes, which may once have been a prehistoric forest – soon after 8am, and it was utterly deserted. We drove and wandered and I took a work call in the unlikely surrounds (but with excellent reception) of the Nambung National Park.

As we left the hordes arrived in their buses, but we found a second deserted idyll by Lake Thetis where I got overexcited about some crumbling, dumpy rocks. While I was slightly disappointed the stromatolites were only 3500 years (I was expecting them to be 100 times that!), I hadn’t appreciated how rare they are, so another tick in my spotters guide.

Breakfast in Jurien Bay, then the coastal road to Dongara for the first cheese and ham toastie of the holiday, and the first beer. I napped on the drive through Geraldton and only properly woke up as we came over the hill to see the Indian Ocean stretching out in front of us.

Kalbarri is sleepy and sprawling (if small), and even the tourists seem laid back. Our room is more an apartment (currently writing this on our terrace, drinking sarsaparilla by the currently unlit Barbie) with a big bed and enormous bathroom complete with executive spa. Of course.

First off we both napped, me still battling jetlag and Bree after a heroic 7 hours in the driving seat. After we got up – maybe the hardest getting up I’ve ever experienced – we went to the pub for some Coopers and Redback, then to the renowned Finlay’s for dinner. Finlay’s is renowned because all it serves is the freshest fish (and steak if you’re too Aussie to eat fish), with no waiters, drinks, glasses, corkage or any frills whatsoever. Just paper plates next to a log fire on benches, in the fresh air. The fried Red Emporer fish was indescribably fresh and delicious.

As an added bonus, on the way to Finlay’s, as dusk settled, we got to see two kangaroos, startled by passing cars, bouncing across the road and off into the bush respectively. Considering I’d spend virtually every (waking) minute of the day’s drive trying to spot one, I was just a bit pleased!  After dinner (and still pretty early) we went for a night-time dip in the hotel pool recklessly ignoring the ‘no swimming outside daylight hours’ sign. And to round off the day we both got in the spa on which I had insisted and played with bubbles until the water cooled and our sleepiness took hold.

Saturday 27 March

No hurry to get up today, but when I did I was a useless zombie – I don’t think I’ve ever been so brain dead! Bree kindly got breakfast which we ate on the terrace, then we went shopping for essentials and I was way less than useless. I wonder if this is how stupid people feel all of the time?

We optimistically picked up a couple of polystyrene cool boxes for the massive fish we’re going to catch tomorrow, and drove just outside Kalbarri to Mushroom Rock for our first stroll of the day, and Red Bluff beach for our first paddle. A couple of sandwiches and a pair of brand new board shorts later we headed up a yellow sandy track – all 27 suspension-jarring kilometres of it – to The Loop and Nature’s Window, two of the most beautiful sights among the gorges of Kalbarri National Park. With 3 small bottles of water (not really enough in 33 degree heat and no cloud cover – we discovered later a British tourist had died after going solo hiking with just 600ml of water) we hiked a rocky trail to Nature’s Window, a natural hole in the rock atop a ridge with an unparalleled view of a pair of loops in the (currently dry) Murchison River.

After taking the requisite pictures we walked together a little further; Bree then stopped at another window to rest in the shade while I carefully calculated how much water I had left and did 25 mins more (fantastic and peerless) hiking before meeting up with Bree and trekking back to the car where we stuck the A/C on full, ate apples for more liquid sustenance and drove back to Kalbarri, ice creams in hand, for a paddle just where the Murchison meets the ocean. Then a shower, a root/ginger beer, and journal-writing and chick-lit reading on the sun-dappled terrace before a proper Aussie Saturday night of watching AFL in the pub before necking god’s own fish and chips on a bench by the sea.

Sunday 28 March

At 845am Ashley from Wagoe Beach Quad Bike Tours picked us up in his van, an unfortunately fair-skinned young man, straight talking and full of quiet wisdom. He turned out to be a brilliant guide, educating us about the reef, the dunes, the ocean and even the wildlife – crabs, shrimp, oysters (which he shucked for us on site, standing on the reef and dodging the waves – they were salty and delicious, the eggs cutting the salinity and providing a warm richness), an osprey and a large, dead turtle washed ashore with its shell torn on the rocks of the reef, or possibly by a shark or the hull of a boat.

The bikes themselves were simple to learn and fantastic to ride. We covered about 30km of entirely deserted beach, just us and Ashley, but the real joy was climbing the dunes, plunging in and out of dips, peaks and corridors, and up onto the highest ridges with perfect yellow sand and breathtaking views. We’d signed documents saying we wouldn’t exceed 35km/h but as it turned our 65km/h was doable on the downhill slopes.

Lunch coincided with the Australian Grand Prix so we adjourned to the pub again and at the most exquisite snapper before abandoning the race halfway through to watch it in the coolness of our apartment, away from the temptation of ice cold Redback. Except it wasn’t available on our tv, so we lounged in front of Super Diamonds on National Geographic. Diamonds that are harder than diamond!

I went to the gym to spend 20 minutes on the bike (I live in dread of losing my fairly decent bike fitness, though as it happened this was the only riding it did the whole time we were away) followed by another dip in the still-empty pool. And then, inevitably, journal writing and Mills & Boon reading on the terrace while the sun went down (though the wind, which prevented fishing as planned, was still very much in effect).

Our first aussie barbie is almost ended prematurely as we can’t light the bloody thing, but it responds to Bree’s prodigal touch and we cook a simple, blissful dinner of snags, peppers, courgettes and salad, Coopers (or Bundaberg Dry & Lime, in my case) in one hand and tongs in the other.

As a non-sequitur, we settled down in front of ‘An Englishman in New York’ and I wonder how Quentin Crisp would have enjoyed Kalbarri. Bree, for the second night in a row, lasted about half and hour before hitting the hay. And, for the first time in Australia, we both sleep long and well.

I’m uploading photos including all those above to my Flickr stream – please check it out by clicking on one of the pics in the sidebar to the right and up!

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