Sunday, 7 November 2010

Denham, Australia: Where the wind and the sun battle for dominance

When we woke up in Denham the morning after our arrival, it was rather a surprise to find the beach literally a stone's throw away on one side of our door, and a grocery store on the other. It had been so dark the night before that we hadn't noticed either feature. The grocery store was particularly convenient, since the main task of the day was to procure food. I always find it interesting to cook while traveling, since every step of the process involves compromise. You try to cook things that don't require too many ingredients and won't produce too many leftovers, since you won't be able to store them and take them with you; you are constrained by the dishes and implements that are available in your accommodations, or by how imaginative you can be in figuring out how to prepare something without tools that you would normally use; perhaps most importantly, you are at the mercy of the local grocer, who determines what food you will be able to purchase. The Denham grocery store turned out to be a bit of a surprise, since it looked rather small and unimpressive from the outside (this is true of many things in WA), but then had a bizarre selection of foods on the inside. For instance, we ran across tofu, of all things--an ingredient I still haven't been able to locate in our local grocery store in Falmouth. Another thing that struck me funny was finding a package of Virginia ham (as in, not just in the style of Virginia ham, but actually from Virginia) in the sandwich meat section.

After buying our rations, we set off to explore the rest of the town on foot. First we headed across to the beach in order to dip our toes in the water and see how the temperatures compared to those of the Atlantic just off the Cornish coast. Unfortunately, because the Australian spring and summer were only just beginning, the water was still chilly; however, "chilly" by Australian standards is still "comfortable" by British standards, so it was better than nothing. The real downer was the incessant breeziness along the shore. Swimming in cold water is one thing, but swimming in cold water and then emerging into cool, blustery winds is another. The one advantage of the wind, though, was that it kept the flies at bay. Prior to going to Australia, I was unaware that flies were such a problem, but it was a lesson I learned quickly. Where we were, at least, they didn't bite, but they did perch in a very obvious and emphatic way in obnoxious locations--the corner of your eye, your lip, up your nose, on your forehead (they really like faces). Heaven forbid you left your car window down; if you did, you could find yourself driving hundreds of miles listening to the flies incessantly buzzing while bashing themselves against the windows.

In any case, it didn't take us long to walk down to the edge of town and back. Even though it is a fairly well-known tourist destination, Denham hasn't experienced the sort of tourist-induced building boom that you see in beachfront places in the US--a rather nice change of pace. It apparently can be quite busy during the tourist season, but we were there just before all the visitors arrived, so many of the shops and restaurants were open only for limited hours. We did find an internet cafe where we could put our iPhones to good work. While we were surfing and e-mailing from the comfort of the patio, I got a good look at a new species of local bird with whom I was to become very familiar--the singing honeyeater:

[This photo is poached from the Canberra Ornithologists Group--I only wish I had taken it.]

This species is a great example of what is so amazing about birding in other countries. No matter how pretty or interesting your own homegrown birds are, you can't help but grow used to them after a while. When you go somewhere else, even the most common, ordinary birds seem exciting. In the case of Australia, they often don't just seem exciting, they really are. Australia, after all, is chock-full of biological excitement, full as it is of things that can't be found anywhere else; many of the plants and animals aren't even closely related to species found elsewhere. Later in the day we went to the oceanfront, where I sat on the beach shivering while my husband plunged into the cool water in order to look for interesting marine life. Sure enough, he located one of these and herded it towards me so I could take a peek:

[Thanks to the Australian Museum for this photo of a sea hare. Sea hares are perhaps not the most photogenic of all marine creatures, but they look very graceful in action--a video would be better than a snapshot, I think.]

I apologize for waxing eloquent on biology, but my husband and I are, after all, biologists, and the predominant reason we decided to go to the Shark Bay area was to see the local wildlife. On our second day, we drove up to Monkey Mia, a resort/research station about 15 minutes outside of town. Monkey Mia is sort of a tiny town unto itself, since it has a restaurant and bar and tiny shop and post office, one set of facilities for the tourists, and another set of facilities for the biologists. They do dolphin feedings every morning so that visitors can see the dolphins up close; that is, perhaps, a bit Sea World-y for some people, but you can also explore the outback in a number of other more "realistic" ways, including 4x4 adventures through otherwise unaccessible wilderness, camel safaris, Aborigine-led walkabouts, snorkeling, hikes along the nature trails, and cruises. My husband and I elected to partake in the last of these three options, spread out across three days. On the first day we took a long walk along the coast, where I added many new species to my mental list of Australian fauna; the numbers of cormorants were phenomenal and we passed several inlets where they congregated with pelicans, ducks, gulls, and terns--hundreds of birds just sitting and staring out to sea. We came across two other interesting animal specimens, but both were dead--a sea snake that had washed up on shore (not pictured, because I am not that weird) and a long-desiccated turtle:

[I was glad to discover this was quite an old skeleton; I have been told by several people that the smell of rotting, recently-deceased sea turtle is one of the most appalling stenches imaginable.]

Luckily, we were to see both of these species alive later in the trip. Further along, we came across a small tidal pool filled with hermit crabs and marine snails. We amused ourselves by conducting minor behavioral experiments and filming the results with my iPhone. (Yes, this really is what biologists do on their honeymoons.) Later, I wandered off to look (unsuccessfully) for birds in the bushes, while my husband went for a brief snorkel. He saw a few more sea hares and some flat fish, but the sightings of the day were two rays that he startled off the bottom, plus a green turtle browsing in the eel grass.

The following day, we headed to the aquarium just outside of town. On our way there, we encountered our first emus:

[I was so excited about running across not one, but two emus, right next to the side of the road, that at first I didn't pull my camera out at all. When I did, I started off by shooting two videos, and only after that took a still photo. Too bad the bird is a bit far-off, which prevents you from seeing the iridescence on the head/neck and the crazy texture of the body feathers.]

When we arrived at the aquarium, I was a bit worried because, yet again, it looked a bit unkempt from the outside, but the trip ended up being worthwhile. The display consisted of several circular tanks filled with coral fish, squid, eels, a sea snake, lobsters, and juvenile turtles; a kiddie-pool-like rectangular pool filled with small sharks, skates, and fish; a pool with a couple dozen large fish; and a deep circular tank with several small and medium-sized sharks. We had a guided tour of the facility and though our guide was quite young, he was very knowledgeable and funny; he reminded me of a less manic version of Jeff Corwin. The most poignant part of the tour was the bit centered around the tank with the juvenile turtles:

[The sea turtle tank. The turtle at the back is in the midst of diving deeper; the turtle in the front is, alas, not able to perform such a maneuver.]

Both of the turtles in this tank were less than a year old and had been brought to the aquarium after being found, injured, in the wild. The one in the back, who you can see diving deeper into the tank, had some sort of flipper injury from which he appeared to be recovering nicely. The one in the front, on the other hand, is currently in quite a precarious position. Like an increasing proportion of marine wildlife, this guy has ingested plastic refuse. Because it is not biodegradable, plastic accumulates in the water, from streams to rivers and eventually to the seas; although it is broken down into increasingly smaller pieces, it never goes away. Organisms like this turtle eat those small pieces, and if they eat enough of them, they do what the plastic does--float on top of the water. This particular turtle has been nicknamed "Bob" because all he can do is bob on top of the water. This is not a very handy trait in a species that needs to dive in order to hunt. The biologists at the aquarium are hoping that Bob will eventually pass enough plastic out of his system that he stops floating, but if he doesn't he will end up living in an aquarium for the rest of his life.

But on to happier topics. That evening, we headed back to Monkey Mia in order to hop aboard the sunset cruise. All the Monkey Mia cruises involve a catamaran called the Shotover, which is decorated with a very clever emblem:

[At first I thought this was just a gigantic hibiscus, but then I noticed that each petal is an animal common to the bay.]

For the sunset cruise, you are encouraged to pack a picnic, including alcoholic beverages if you like, and have a relaxed dinner while watching the sun set over the bay. We didn't see much in the way of wildlife (except for the seemingly endless stream of cormorants flying back and forth), but we did hear some interesting tales from the ship's crew as well as from the Australian couple sitting next to us. The sunset was quite impressive, as was the waxing moon high in the sky, accompanied by two bright planets (Venus and Jupiter?).

The following morning, we reported back to the pier in order to board the Shotover for an all-day wildlife cruise. Our first sighting was a sea snake (alive this time), after which we ran across dozens and dozens of dugongs munching on eel grass. At first, we were quite far away (there are laws regulating how close to the dugongs ships can purposely go), but then we had some dugongs approach us and swim near the sides of the boat. It is utterly pointless to try to photograph dugongs unless you have a great camera and vantage point, otherwise all you'll see is a brown splotch underneath the green water; in fact, lots of people who were taking photos were joking about how they'd look back at the pictures later and wonder why they took so many shots of the ocean. But, to help you imagine what we were experiencing, I have poached another picture:

[Thanks to Richard Seaman, the "Flying Kiwi," for this view of a dugong. As you can see, dugongs are larger than dolphins and much more brownish.]

We caught brief glimpses of a loggerhead turtle that came up for air and then dived under the water again; we also saw several pods of dolphins, including some that were being observed by the resident biologists. Although we were hoping for possibly a whale (one had recently been seen in the bay) or a shark or a couple rays, we struck out. Still, it was lovely to be out on the ocean all day, and to do so in a place where it was actually warm and comfortable to do so (unlike in the UK, where it is often chilly even in the summer).

Because we still had a bit of energy and daylight left once the cruise was over, we decided to head back to the other side of town, past the aquarium, to Eagle Bluff. The name is a bit of a misnomer, since actually you are more likely to see osprey out there, the ubiquitous cormorants and gulls, and possibly some parrots that nest on the rocky outcroppings of a little island just offshore. From our vantage point on the bluff, we could see straight through the crystal-clear water to everything that was going on under the surface. We watched cormorants swimming around after fish, only to emerge and have gulls try to steal their hard-won prey. We also saw a couple of rays, languidly flapping along just above the sea floor. The flies became a bit aggressive and we had to flee back to our car after a short while, but as we were departing I briefly caught sight of two enormous birds gliding along the shore. I will never be sure, but I think they may have been albatrosses--my first ever. Hopefully one day I will have a confirmed sighting of these birds (and a better view).

Thus drew to a close our time in Denham, but not our last adventure in the north. We had to reach Jurien Bay by the end of the day, since that was the half-way point between Denham and our next major destination, Nornalup. Jurien Bay wasn't too far away, though, which gave us time to stop and explore a bit as we traveled southward. On a whim, we pulled over to see Shell Beach, which is known for its blinding white beach composed entirely of crushed shells (hence the name):

[My husband gets his last taste of the Indian Ocean during our brief visit to Shell Beach.]

Our next stop was one of two places we went after being inspired by Bill Bryson's Down Under: Hamelin Bay, to see the stromatolites. Stromatolites are the structures formed by accretions of sediment secreted by cyanobacteria. I know that doesn't sound very exciting, but some of the stromatolites we saw are several thousand years old, and they may be representative of some of the first life forms to emerge on Earth. They thrive at Hamelin Bay because its geographical layout is such that the bay is rather isolated and shallow; as a result, it is both relatively undisturbed and intensely saline, allowing the cyanobacteria to go about their business without any interruptions. Stromatolite formations vary in color and size and height and layout, and we saw quite a variety at Hamelin Bay:

[Trust me, stromatolites look more interesting in person.]

The weather had become increasingly warmer as we stayed in Denham, and this particular day was the warmest yet. As you can see from the background in the photo above, the sand at Hamelin Bay was brilliantly white. The 10-minute walk from the car to the stromatolites was intense--baking sun, blinding sand, incessant breeze. As annoying as the breeze usually was, it was a godsend here because we otherwise would have been miserably hot. We got a good taste of how harsh the outback could be--and we were only out in the elements for about a half-hour, during a relatively cool time of year. I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in that place--where, I might add, many people do not have air conditioning--during the summer. It was a relief to get back in the car, crank up the A/C, and down a bottle of water.

The rest of our day was spent retracing our steps back towards Perth. Around sunset, we decided to ignore the advice of our GPS navigator and take the scenic route the last few miles to Jurien Bay. It was a pretty drive (prettier than the scrub we had been seeing earlier), and we did not have much trouble finding our bed-and-breakfast, which was only about 5 minutes outside of town. Unfortunately, upon arrival we discovered that we could only pay in cash. That meant we needed to go to town to find an ATM so we could pay up in the morning. We decided to take advantage of the trip and try to find a restaurant where we could eat dinner. This was a bit of a tall order, given that it was a smallish town and we were heading out past the normal dinner hour. However, it turned out that the major complication was not associated with what would be on offer in Jurien Bay, but with whether or not we could actually get there. Since we hadn't quite understood our hostess' directions, we decided to rely on our sat-nav to point us toward the nearest ATM. As we followed the instructions, we became increasingly uneasy at how we seemed to be driving away from lights, toward houses, and into a very dark area. Our suspicions were confirmed when, while sitting in front of someone's driveway on a dead-end street, we were declared to have reached our destination. *sigh* On the up side, as we sat there we saw a kangaroo hop across our path and start digging its way under a fence at the side of the road; that answered a question I'd had earlier about whether the fences acted as 'roo corrals (apparently not).

Eventually we got ourselves into town (without the aid of the navigation system this time, thanks). When we pulled in to a shopping center to use the ATM, we happened to notice a small diner still open for business. The menu featured all the standard fried, meaty sorts of dishes we'd been seeing everywhere, but, remarkably, they also had a huge range of Thai food. The place was owned and run by an Australian man, his Thai wife, and their children. The wife whipped up a tofu pad thai for me and a green curry for my husband, and they were amazing--authentic Thai cuisine late at night in a small town in the middle of nowhere at the extreme western edge of Australia. Unexpected, and delicious. (I should point out that Australia has quite a large number of Asian immigrants, but, as you might imagine, the majority of the population is on the east coast, closer to Asia. All the same, we routinely saw a huge variety of Asian ingredients in supermarkets, even in places where we weren't seeing many Asian faces. I got the impression that, culinarily speaking, the Australians and Asians have a link similar to that found between the British and Indians in the UK, where the most popular dish in the nation is chicken tikka masala).

Cash obtained and dinner eaten, we reported back to our spacious B&B to relax with a bit of television after a long day's driving. Because we were located out in the countryside, away from streetlights, we had an amazing view of the southern hemisphere constellations. As I was to find out the following morning, our pastoral location also offered some prime birdwatching opportunities, a feature that is definitely something worth paying for in cash.

Next up: The final leg of our Australian honeymoon journey, during which we see a most amazing moonrise, walk in the canopies of tingle trees, paddle up the Frankland River, watch kookaburras forage in our yard, and see the cutest bird in the world.