Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Perth to Shark Bay: Wide open spaces...and a few kangaroos

There was no way to avoid a very unromantic first day of our honeymoon; we were starting off the day in Perth and needed to end the day in Denham, and that meant we had to drive 841 km (approximately 523 miles, or 10.5 hours) all in one go. When I was a child, I used to think that extravagantly long car trips were fun, but that was when I could sit in the back seat listening to music, reading books, snacking on Wheat Things and Twizzlers, and asking my dad to pull over every 20 minutes so I could have a pee. Now, of course, I have to be involved in driving or, at the very least, navigating, which means I also have to worry about running out of gasoline or locating the nearest toilet or passing slow drivers in the single car-length of space where the road has a dotted center line. Driving in new places can be particularly stressful, even with the help of a GPS unit, because you are surrounded by new and unexpected stimuli, but it can also be entertaining for the same reason. Here are a few of the things that Australia's roadways have to offer:
  • Road trains. When I read Bill Bryson's account of Australia, he frequently mentioned heart-pounding encounters with road trains, so I was really excited, though a bit nervous, to experience these first-hand. Soon after my husband and I left the city limits of Perth and began our drive through rural WA, we passed a warning sign indicating that we were entering road train country and should be on the lookout for road trains that were as long as 35 km. For those of you who aren't used to thinking in scientific units, 35 km is 21 miles. Yes, that's right, a 21-mile-long vehicle, not over on some tracks parallel to the road, but actually on the road with you. My husband and I kept trying to figure out how the drivers could possibly handle such long and unwieldy vehicles, and what they would do if something went wrong somewhere in the middle. Surely it would be impossible to maintain any control? After a while, when we'd passed our first few road trains and found them to be only 2-3 cars long, we were feeling pretty disappointed in the lack of drama; then we passed another sign that said to be on the lookout for road trains that were 35 m long. In other words, approximately 100 feet. Obviously, someone had thought it would be amusing to play a little joke by manipulating the previous sign; there aren't actually any road trains 21 miles long (which is probably much better for everyone's safety and sanity!). As you might imagine, then, road trains, with 2-3 cars that might extend about 100 feet behind the cab, are nothing more than semis. In fact, none of them were any bigger or more dangerous-looking than semis I've passed in the US. What a letdown! All the same, I took a picture of one that we were about to pass, just to capture the essence of driving behind this cultural icon:
(Rear end of a road train. Even from this angle, you can tell it's just a semi with a fancy name.)

  • Roadhouses. If this makes you think of Patrick Swayze, you are not getting the correct mental image. Roadhouses in Australia are like those giant rest areas you get along toll roads in the US, where they put restaurants, convenience stores, and gas stations all in one place. Only in this case, it is smaller, has much less variety, looks like it was built in 1970, and sometimes even has a small motel attached. I'm not poking any fun at roadhouses here, because they are a godsend when you are in the middle of nowhere (which is where we were about 90% of the time) and need a drink, get hungry, have to use the toilet, or are running low on gas. What is weird is that you would think these places were be larger and fancier because there is nowhere else around for anyone to do business, so these guys must be rolling in dough. But, like pretty much everything we encountered in WA, they are only as fancy as they need to be--which is to say, not very. However, the short order cooks at most roadhouses can grill up a mean hamburger and great fries, and they offer the most wonderful collection of carbonated beverages. I found four different varieties of fruit-flavored sparkling/tonic water (lemon, lemon-lime, lime, orange) and kept cycling through them throughout our trip. I also discovered the same dinosaur-shaped gummy candies that I stumbled across during my recent trip to Ireland, after which I proceeded to ensure their mass extinction. After about 4 hours of driving on the first day, I started to get a massive headache from being pinched by my sunglasses, so I bought a new pair at the first roadhouse we visited. As we shall see, this turned out to be rather a large mistake.
  • Sunshine. I have spent a lot of time in sunny places, and I have spent many consecutive hours out in the sun, but I was completely unprepared for Australia. I don't know if it is the angle of the sun, the openness of the habitat (easily the most expansive horizons I've seen), the brightness of the orange-y red soil, or the fact that we saw almost no clouds the entire time we were there, but boy is it a bright country. Endlessly bright. The sun rose around 7 AM and set about 12 hours later, but by the end of the day you'd swear you'd been exposed to about 20 hours of light. As it turns out, while my roadhouse sunglasses were polarized, they were not UV-protective. Thus, I managed to sunburn my eyes (yes, that is actually possible). For about four days, they were itchy, burny, raw, and streaming tears, and I had difficulty focusing them. It really is bright Down Under.
  • Bugs. Our trip to Australia coincided with the beginning of the Australian spring, so what can normally be quite a barren-looking landscape was very beautiful (though sparse)--lots of green bushes decorated with small, brightly-colored flowers and little birds flitting from branch to branch. You know what those birds were doing? Catching bugs, of which there were very, very many. When we drove without any music playing, we could hear a steady tappity-tappity-tappity of seemingly endless numbers of insects being plastered against our windshield. Here is what our car looked like at the end of the trip:
(Because of the brightness of the sun, you can't quite see just how many insect carcasses are glued to the front of our poor, dirty car.)

  • Animals that like roads. At sunset, just before my husband and I turned onto the road that ran up the peninsula to Shark Bay, we stopped at a roadhouse to gas up. Noticing our foreign accents, the proprietor mentioned to us that we should be wary of kangaroos. In all my excitement about the possibility of seeing a real, live kangaroo, it never occurred to me that there might be a down side to their presence. As it turns out, they are very similar to white-tailed deer in the US--they are crepuscular (perhaps my all-time favorite word, so you'll forgive me for sounding a bit overly-scientific here), they love to graze right next to the side of the road, they are apt to cross right in front of you as you drive past, and they can do devastating damage to your vehicle. We were later to find out that emus are fairly similar, only they appear not to even notice that a car is nearby; they just proceed across the road, completely lost in their own little worlds, without any concern about your presence. It really is unnerving. As soon as the light starts to fade, you find yourself intently staring out the window, analyzing every little shape and shadow; every pile of dirt and fence post begins to look like a kangaroo sticking its head over the next rise. After a while, we did finally see our first kangaroo, after which we went on to see dozens over the course of the trip; there were probably some wallaroos mixed in there as well, but we aren't really experts in identifying marsupials at 60 mph. Once you see a few and there is no problem, it's easier to relax--like deer, most of them seemed pretty well-educated about the road, and the real danger was probably the odd occurrence where something happened to make them jumpy (literally!) just as you drove past, leading to a collision. We even saw a few hopping along, which was pretty cool--their tails were amazingly thick and strong and even from the car it was easy to see how they were used to provide stability and balance, almost like a third lower leg. We eventually saw emus, too, but not for a couple of days, and only during the day. Because emus are diurnal, I was able to catch a snapshot of a couple:

(The pictures aren't nearly as good as the video I shot, but this was the best I could do in my over-excited state, with only an iPhone at my disposal.)

What we weren't warned about were the little animals--in particular, rabbits--which seemed intent on killing themselves under our wheels. I don't think I have ever encountered so many bunnies in my life--especially ones that were so suicidal. We were braking and swerving left and right (no pun intended) to avoid hitting them, though to be honest it would have been better for the ecosystem if we'd killed them all (they're an introduced species and have irreparably munched their way through Australia's native flora). Given the odds, it was almost inevitable that we eventually would hit something, and wouldn't you know that the one thing we couldn't avoid was a (feral) cat. It appeared to be taking advantage of the heat rising from the asphalt, and as we crested a rise we only had the briefest moment during which to observe it lounging right in the middle of the road. My husband swerved well clear of its initial position, but, in its fright, the cat jumped up and ran towards us rather than away, and that was that. I felt absolutely nauseous and thought there couldn't be a much less auspicious way to begin a honeymoon, but later was mollified by the discovery that feral cats are a horrible problem in the region because they eat so many native birds and small mammals. In fact, the government routinely sets out poison for feral cats and dogs (we saw warning signs posted all over the place), but the animals have mostly learned to avoid the traps; furthermore, when they are tricked, their last moments are pretty uncomfortable. So, while I would rather the strike had never happened, at least we gave the cat a quick, painless death, and saved a whole bunch of endemic animals in the process.

  • Cheap gas! Now, obviously, "cheap gas" doesn't mean the same thing to a resident of the UK as it does to a resident of the US. All the same, we paid less in Australia than we normally do in the UK, and it wasn't any more expensive than the high prices that we hit in the US a few summers ago, when some people were paying over $4/gallon. Given how expensive everything else was in Australia, this was quite a pleasant surprise--particularly since we spent so much time on the road. Our car was actually very fuel efficient, so on top of paying less, we also needed to do so less often.
  • Great views. I tried to take some landscape pictures to capture the essence of the Outback, but my little camera just wasn't up to the task. The vistas really were incredible. I once drove from Ohio to Iowa and encountered some of the flattest, most open spaces possible in the US, but the amount of space I could see then does not even compare with what I saw while driving through Australia. It is amazing how far you can see in all directions, and how there is nothing in the way of the view. The habitat is also fascinating, since it is has so much variety and is so unlike anything most people will ever have encountered before. We passed through scrub country full of gorse-looking bushes and various species of euphorbs putting up enormous phallic-looking flowering bodies; there were bright, velvety-green pastures for sheep (lots of sheep) and cows; there were rivers and creeks edged by massive eucalyptus trees (no koalas, though--those are on the other side of the country); there were vineyards and orchards just starting to bloom. Then, of course, if you go far enough west, there is the ocean, bright, clear, and teal blue, sparkling under the blinding sun.
(A view of the countryside from Eagle Bluff, just outside of Denham. Is that the Pacific Ocean I can see in the distance?)

(Looking the other direction at Eagle Bluff, a view of the shore. We didn't see any eagles or the osprey that are known to nest here, but we did have a great view of a ray swimming through the shallow waters at the base of the cliff, as well as some gulls trying to kleptoparasitize some cormorants, and--just maybe--some Indian yellow-nosed albatrosses.)

One other thing to mention about our road trip(s) through WA is how easy it was to imagine we were driving through the US, but on the wrong side of the road. Although there were roundabouts, there were also lots of stop signs, which you almost never see here in the UK. The average vehicle was also larger than in Britain. The majority were Land Rovers and Range Rovers and similar 4X4-equipped all-terrain vehicles; the next most popular was the mullet of cars: sedan in front and truck in back (the popularity of these "crossover" cars certainly explains why the Subaru Outback was so named). We also encountered a seemingly endless array of caravans, for quite a practical reason: All along the road, every 20 miles or so in some places, there were roadside rests where you could pull over and spend the night. This must come in handy for anyone who plans to travel very far across the WA countryside, since you wouldn't have to worry about where to eat, go to the toilet, or spend the evening; whenever you get tired, you can just pull over, cook up dinner on your stove, wash up in your sink, then tuck yourself in for the night. Another very American feature of the roadways was how wide and straight the roads were; not that all of Britain is full of narrow, windy roads, but certainly for someone coming from Cornwall, driving in Australia was like being given an upgrade from economy to first class. The wide open spaces and distance between establishments/settlements was also very American. Although I've rarely driven through anywhere in the US that is quite that remote, it seemed remarkably similar to images I've seen of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. All that sunshine was certainly more American than English, that is for sure.

At the end of a very long day, we finally reached our home base for the rest of the week: Monkey Mia Wildsights Beachfront Unit #1. Because we were arriving so late, the proprietor had agreed to leave the key under the mat for us, so we just pulled in and made ourselves comfortable. As we were unpacking the car, we could hear the waves crashing on the beach nearby, though because it was so dark, we had no idea where the ocean was. Not until the next morning did we realize that this was the view from both our front and back porches:

(A view of the bay that runs along all of Denham's eastern, and part of its southern, border. Clear blue water, bright white sand, and warm sunshine. If I had to complain about anything, it would be the breeziness, which could become a bit intense, but which wasn't any worse than the wind here in Cornwall. Also, the water was chilly enough that none of the locals were going in; however, it was still several degrees warmer than the waters off the shore of the UK. All in all...pretty lovely.)

Next up: Visits to Monkey Mia, where we see many new species of animal while hiking, snorkeling, and boating, the Denham Aquarium, Coral Beach, and the Hamelin Bay stromatolites, as well as a brief adventure in Jurien Bay.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Perth, Australia: Driving on the left while sitting on the right

It sounds a little lame to say this, but I think perhaps the defining activity of my trip to Australia was successfully driving on the left-hand side of the road, while sitting in the right-hand side of the car, without anyone else in the car with me. Because my husband's car and I don't get along very well, I avoid driving in the UK as much as is humanly possible, and so most of my experience with the left-hand side of the road is as a passenger. That means that, while it now seems natural to be on the "wrong" side of the road, I haven't yet had the opportunity to get comfortable with the different spatial arrangement, or with orienting myself from a novel position in the vehicle/road. Thus, from the moment I began organizing the trip to Australia, the thing I most worried about was having to pick up our rental car and use it to get to and from my hotel all by myself for a day and a half before my husband arrived in the country.

To make things easier on myself, I reserved an automatic rather than a manual, just to make things easier on myself; it's not that I don't drive stick, it's just that I don't normally do the shifting with my left hand. I also rented a GPS unit so that I could have a nice, calm voice telling me when/where to turn, rather than trying to shuffle through maps in the midst of driving. When I arrived at the rental desk in the airport, I was told that not only would we be getting an upgrade on our rental, from a small mid-size to a medium mid-size ("mid-mid-size"?), but also that it was a brand-new vehicle with only 7 km on the odometer (but it wouldn't remain in the single digits, or even the double- or triple-digits, for long!). It was a nice little car, from the same manufacturer (Hyundai) as both my mother's and my cars, so I felt pretty comfy in the driver's seat:

(Our little Hyundai.)

All the same, I sat in the parking lot for a good 5-10 minutes, trying to feel normal over there in the right side of the car, and also trying to look over all the controls and figure out where stuff was (I wish I'd spent a few more minutes on the latter task--I kept putting on the windshield wipers the first dozen times or so that I went to signal for a turn).

Much to my surprise, it turns out that the driving wasn't awkward at all. I guess I've spent enough time in the UK that my US instincts are starting to fade, and I never had the impulse to turn down the wrong side of the road or to panic when I approached a roundabout. The major problem was the fact that the GPS unit and I did not agree about what constituted a road versus a driveway versus an exit off roundabouts, and also about how to count the exits; during my journey down the driveway to the airport, I had to circle two roundabouts multiple times because the map and the voice on the sat-nav didn't quite match up. So much for having technology make things easier! Beyond that (and the blinker/windshield wiper problem), there weren't any incidents in getting to my hotel. It was surprisingly easy, and after a while it was even kind of fun. I was on an adventure in a brand-new car in a city I'd never been to on a continent I'd never visited. I even relaxed enough to turn on the radio and jam out a bit.

Because I'd been worried about driving very far on my own, I'd booked the closest hotel I could find from the airport. It was a motor lodge on a rather busy highway that led straight into the downtown area. I was worried that it might be loud, but my/our room faced away from the traffic and overlooked a little courtyard full of tall palm trees and quietly cooing turtle-doves. During the check-in process, I discovered what appears to be a fundamental truth about Australians, or at least about Western Australians: they are incredibly friendly and helpful. I have never been anywhere where people were so naturally pleasant and considerate. Also, I have never checked into a hotel where I was given a small carton of milk along with my receipt (it was for the complimentary tea in my room).

The room was a bit spartan, but otherwise very comfortable. It included a little kitchenette area, which I quickly stocked with food from the deli around the corner. After all that time eating airplane food, the fridge/toaster/microwave were a godsend.

(The room may not have been too fancy, but at least there were wine glasses!)

(The strange window that opened from my kitchen counter out to the hallway. Why?)

The TV didn't have much to offer--none of the TVs we encountered in WA ever did--but I was able to find some news and catch up with current events. I also had free wireless access, which, along with a bed, is really all I need in a hotel. The most exciting event of the evening was looking through the bird book that I'd purchased in the airport. I had forgotten to buy one in the UK before leaving (how?!), but was pleased to find exactly the volume I wanted in the book store at the Perth airport. It was quite expensive ($48 Australian), but I figured that, with the exchange rate, that was a pretty fair price. Then I got home and discovered that the exchange rate had become much less favorable for Americans than when I'd last looked; in fact, for the duration of our trip the Australian dollar was at, or near, an all-time high against the US dollar, meaning that I was paying outrageous amounts of money for pretty much everything (with the exception of, oddly enough, gasoline). In any case, if there is one thing that is worth a little money, it is Australian birds, and I spent my first evening in Perth stoking myself up about all the cool species I would see during my trip.

I was not scheduled to pick my husband up from the airport until midnight on the following day, so I decided to amuse myself by locating a mall with a movie theater. I planned to stock up on all the food/toiletries we'd need for our massive drive the next day, perhaps pick up a couple of souvenirs for family and friends, and then watch a film. Luckily, the nearest mall was less than a ten-minute drive away, and the GPS unit found me a shortcut for getting there. First, though, I spent a good 30-45 minutes just driving up and down the road outside my motel, getting comfortable with the car and driving in a foreign country. When at last I did get to the mall, I became further acquainted with the dismal exchange rate--I managed to spend about $70 on nothing but breakfast and snacks (in other words, a shopping trip that should have cost about half as much as it did). However, I did stumble across a Christmas present and a couple of stocking stuffers, which was pretty handy. I then went over to the movie theater and watched Despicable Me in 3D (ticket + bottle of water = $20 Australian; ouch). While I was in the restroom after the movie, Men at Work's "Land Down Under" started playing on the radio.

After a few more agonizing hours of waiting, it was finally time to go to the airport to pick up my husband. Before I went, I had a nice, refreshing shower. I only mention this because, as I was soon to discover, showers would be a recurring theme during our trip. I am not sure if Australians just don't like baths, or if the aridity of the country has inspired its citizens to try to preserve water when they clean themselves, but either way, it was a bit of a bummer to have to spend three weeks shaving my legs while standing up. In any case, when I got to the airport, I discovered that my husband's flight was a bit delayed, so I paced around for a good hour or so until he arrived. In the process, I discovered some additional evidence that Australia (or Western Australia or Perth, whichever) is awesome: a little kiosk, of which there were several in the airport, where three computers were set up to offer free internet (there are few things in the world that make me as happy as free internet).

Luckily for my husband, his trip through customs and immigration was more rapid than mine, and we were soon back out in the surprisingly chilly and even more surprisingly gusty Perth night, making our way back to the motor lodge. We needed a good night's rest because, the next morning, we planned to embark on an 11-hour trip up the coast to our first stop: Shark Bay. The honeymoon had begun!

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which we see our first road train, stop at our first roadhouse, see our first kangaroo(s), and hear the waves of the Indian Ocean just outside our condo.