One Eye to the Indian Ocean

Kalbarri and Coral Coast, Western Australia
March 21 – 29

Taking on Scarborough Beach, Perth, Western Australia

At long last, we emerge from the island continent of Australia. With some 5,096 road miles logged, it seemed fitting that we were rendered incommunicado for nearly all of two months. After all, with fewer than 21 million people spread over 3.5 million square miles, which equates to about 6 people per square mile (compared to the United States at 76:1 and New York City at 71,201:1), a wireless signal was often hard to come by.

Our original intentions of how to tackle such a massive country began as I suppose they all do: we wanted to see it all. Beginning in Perth, we planned to travel due north up the western Coral Coast and bank east through Broome, onward to the Top End and the mystical terra incognita of the Kimberly. Through the bush we might then dog-leg to the Red Center where we could take in Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) and the MacDonnell Range that runs ram-rod through heart of the outback. Onward then to Southern Australia, loop through Adelaide and Melbourne, and curl up the east coast through New South Wales. The beaches of the south trickle up to rainforest of tropical Queensland, and there we would conclude our adventure, nine weeks later.

Cue a chorus of laughter. Having confessed our initial plans, I might as well inform you that our itinerary would prove to be as ambitious as attempting to drive from the UK clear to China, and then BACK, in the span of a school holiday. Needless to say, we were in for a rude awakening…one should NEVER underestimate the distances in Australia.

Our adventure began auspiciously enough. We arrived in Perth off a red-eye from Denpasar, Bali at approximately 5:00am, slap-happy and exhausted after a four hour flight that had somehow managed to cheat us out of a night of rest. Sunburned and startled by the first temperate breezes we had experienced in more than seven months of traveling, we realized that we had landed squarely in the start of Australia’s autumn. 50 minutes later when we pulled up at the ramshackle pub/nightclub/hotel that was wedged right up against the Indian Ocean, we were sadly informed that our room was occupied for the night, and that we would have to wait at least until dawn for the first guest to check out. Oliver was already comatose and sprawled out (un)comfortably over our backpacks, so Ryan and I scuttled off to the breakfast room where we cursed our lack of common sense and set up in dark corner to wait.

Over the course of the next several days, we did what we do best, which is casing a city. We rode the bus from Scarborough Beach downtown, navigated rail links and perused travel brochures over Styrofoam cartons heaped high with fish and chips. We replenished our supplies, got haircuts and contemplated purchasing a vehicle from the local backpacker‘s auto market. Oliver attempted to take up kite surfing from a fellow who had tethered his to a rail and turned his back, and in the nick of time we intervened before he was carried off to Papua New Guinea. Everywhere we went, we paid through the nose in Australia’s most expensive city, and when we complained, we were constantly reminded of exactly how far away we were from the rest of civilization.

On the third day, we were robbed us of nearly $400 USD by an unassuming guy working at a travel agency. He seemed honest enough at the time, and we took his word when he told us that we would surely perish if we attempted to see as much of Australia as we intended to in the time we had allotted. On the spot, we agreed to rent a Toyota HiAce (essentially a miniature motor home) for sixteen days in Western Australia, and subsequent 35 days on the East Coast. Given that the Northern Territory was still experiencing The Wet, its “suicide season”, it was implausible to consider driving through the center; we would fly instead to Cairns and book our tickets onward to New Zealand out of Melbourne after completing our road trip.

The following day, we were ready to begin! Perth’s glorious sunsets were permanently emblazoned in our minds, but the superfluous tattoos, Sunday Sessions and bums passed out in the drive-thru lanes of the alcoholic retail outlets were indeed more than we had reckoned for. We yearned for the road.

But our camper, with its onboard gas cooker and twin berths, its pull-out couches and cute campervan-ish cabinetry, never materialized. In a terrible oversight, our travel agent had neglected to inform us that these vehicles lacked an extra seatbelt required to strap in a toddler, so the game was off. We were devastated. Images of us boarding Grayhound buses every day for the next two months terrified us, and the idea of joining a backpacker tour group alongside seventy nineteen year-olds whose soul aim was to drink the country dry was out of the question. Naturally, when a small husband-and-wife outfit contacted us about their kitted out minivans, we jumped at the opportunity. We never ended up seeing the refund for our cancelled 35 day rental on the East Coast. A nice score for that creep in Perth.

The Pinnacles: how DID those things get there?

This is how we found ourselves traveling nearly 3,000 miles through some of Australia’s most unforgiving and isolated terrain: in a van, with a cooler full of ice, and a tent. First stop was Nambung National Park, home of the eerie Pinnacles rock formations.The origin of these standing structures continue to be shrouded in mystery; most scientific sources allege that the limestone jutting from the desert floor was formed when compacted seashells calcified into craggy columns with help from the elements.

The following morning, I awoke with a start in the pre-dawn darkness. Ryan must have been gnashing his teeth in a dream, or perhaps it was Ollie to my left, smacking his lips while still sound asleep. I peered down at both of them, the light from the waning ¾ moon illuminating our tent in the otherwise total darkness characteristic of this remote part of Western Australia. Both were sleeping soundly, Ollie trailing a thin sliver of moonlit drool across his camp mat. Just then I turned to look out the window toward the Murchison River that flowed past our campsite to where it met the Indian Ocean at a small estuary. There, beyond our pair of flattened camping chairs stood a enormous red kangaroo, his wooly coat the precise hue of the red clay that formed his home. He dialed his ears forward and blinked out of the darkness at me, contemplating the level of threat I warranted, there in my tent. In a moment he hobbled forward and resumed clipping back the grass that grew up in vulnerable tufts around our tent pins.

Nature's Window

Here in the Kalbarri, some 430 miles away from Perth , we were guests in the big red’s country. At sunset on the day of our arrival, we entered town via the coastal cliffs that rose up from the sea 300 feet or more, and gave the appearance that they spared all of Australia from the wrath of the ocean with their embattled, wave-lashed rocks. The following day we undertook our first “bushwalk”, a five mile loop through sandstone gorges that cut through the interior. We passed “Nature’s Window”, a fantastic layered rock formation that seemed to hint at the sublime decorating instincts of a Higher Power, as it perfectly framed the river below. Heading north via the Brand, an endless, two-laned road that carried us up the coast, strange, scrubby banksia growing alongside resembled bushes covered in bottlebrushes. Ryan pointed out one that appeared as if it had sprouted a crop of corndogs and I noticed a haystack-looking thing that was crowned with an enormous phallic-looking stamen.Truly the most well-hung plant I have ever seen.

A very manly plant

On the Coral Coast, so named for the location of the stunning Ningaloo Marine Park, a barrier reef that could give its East Coast alternate a true run for its money, we started to feel the heat. While Ryan and I set off to investigate the stromatolites of Hamelin Pool (ancient organisms believed to have played a critical role in the formation of the earth’s atmosphere), Oliver made like the kangaroos do in the middle of the day and scuttled under a cluster of mulga brush to escape the UV. We made it up to him by traversing the entire length of World Heritage-listed Shark Bay to visit the famous wild dolphins of Monkey Mia. Like clockwork, a small pod of females swam to the beach every morning at 9am for a twice-daily fish feed. Ollie was lucky enough to be selected out of a sea of onlookers on both visits, and on the second go-round, he was slightly less terrified so as to be able to drop the fish from five feet above the ground where he was holding fast to my neck.

The final 100 mile coastal stretch brought us all the way to the remote northern tip of the continent, where a small town called Exmouth had achieved notoriety over the years due to the arrival of one very special visitor: the whale shark. Shortly after the first coral spawning of the year (May to July), the enormous filter-feeders regularly ply the waters surrounding Ningaloo to feed on plankton and other small fish unfortunate enough to swim within the trajectory of their enormous mouths. For an exorbitant amount of cash and confirmation that this would be the ONLY Mother‘s Day gift I should expect to receive, Saint Ryan procured me a spot on one of the local shark‘n‘dive boats, and kindly ferried Oliver off to one of the quiet, turquoise beaches in Cape Range National Park so that I might have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim alongside the largest fish in the sea.

Hello, whale shark! Swimming with the biggest fish in the sea

For the next six hours, twenty lucky participants rotated in and out of the water with snorkel and fins at the ready.I summoned every muscle in my body to keep pace with the giant, forever mindful of the sweep-radius of its enormous tail and the creature’s curious inclination to every so often turn its head toward the swimmers fanning out from its flanks. On one such dive, my heart leapt into my throat as a nearly 30 foot long whale shark surfaced between the group of eight of us. The phrase “once-in-a-lifetime” is one I tend to find far to fatalistic for my taste, but when that animal rose from a distant speck deep in the fathomless azure depths below to swim beside us, its vast form a dappled mirror to the sky, I could have held my breath forever.


  1. Dear Ryan, Emily and Ollie,
    We have been tracking your moves around Asia with pleasure since we met in Vietnam, but now you're in Australia we're soooo jealous! Karijini Nat'l Park, Kalbarri, Cape le Grand, Ningaloo Reef…. some of our favorite memories of our Australia trip. We indeed laughed when we read your initial itinerary of 9 weeks; you wanted to do the same as we did in 8 months haha! Your stories and pictures are always a highlight in our working lives, and we look forward to the next story. You give us an abundance of inspiration for our next long 'break'…. Enjoy the rest of Australia and New-Zealand!! Love, Kenneth and Kiki from The Netherlands

  2. Kenneth & Kiki!
    Ollie still names all his stuffed animals after his favorite blonde Dutch girlfriend!
    We just left Australia and wrapped up our time there with Andy, Jane, Sara & Michael Gebicki. Remember them? We have about another month in NZ before we head home, but we too are already planning our next trip. Perhaps it will involve a stop in your neck of the woods!
    Btw, Karijini was one of the most magical places we have ever been to. Stay tuned for that in the next blog.
    We miss you lots, and if your travels take you to CA, you'd better come see us first!
    Much love,
    Em, Ry & Ollie

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