Commune with nature. Swimming with Sharks

Crew member Todd instructs novice divers in the fine arts of meeting a really big fish

PiC 1: SWIMMING WITH A BUS: The diver is about 150cm tall, the whale shark is close to 10 metres long. So who bought the chips and tartare sauce?

The diver is about 150cm tall, the whale shark is close to 10 metres long

PIC 2: “THIS IS HOW IT’S DONE”: Crew member Todd instructs novice divers in the fine arts of meeting a really big fish.

Beach buggies are the only way to fly in Coral Bay

PIC 3: GETTIN’ OUT IN THE BUGGY: Beach buggies are the only way to fly in Coral Bay.

 

GAY Car Boys sent intrepid road tester BRENT DAVISON to the far-flung reaches of Western Australia to sample Hyundai’s Accent. He drove the car but liked the location more.

“DRIVE THE Hyundai Accent and write us a story,” they said. “Anywhere you want,” they said. So I did.

I met my Accent in Exmouth, Western Australia. It was white, had a 1.6 litre engine, four-speed automatic transmission, four doors, a boot big enough to swallow half a Mardi Gras Parade (and who hasn’t?), was reasonably comfortable and drank about 7.0 litres of unleaded for every 100km travelled.

It was an el cheapo renter, had 42,000 kays on the clock, big rental car agency signs on each door that might just as well have screamed: “TOURISTS!” and, to its credit, avoided every emu and kangaroo that hopped, skipped, jumped or stood in front of it.

And that’s it, the story of eight days in a boringly reliable, reasonably comfortable, nicely efficient, surprisingly spacious and impressively functional Hyundai Accent.

Mind you, the roads on that seemingly lonely Western Australian peninsula they call North West Cape are hardly challenging, even for a Hyundai Accent and there are better ways to spend eight days.

So let me tell you the real story of a place where, like most of the WA coastline, the desert meets the sea in a stunningly vivid turquoise fire.

This is the land that forgot time, a place where clocks are optional, shorts and T-shirts mandatory, snorkelling gear obligatory and the word “hurry” banned from common use. A place where the seafood is fresh, meals are big, fast food chains non-existent, where opposing IGA supermarkets compete for business across a 50-metre-wide pedestrian plaza and no-one gives a damn about ethnicity or sexual proclivity.

No, North West Cape, whose tip is the northernmost point of the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef and whose nominal capital is Exmouth (permanent population circa 2300 and an unspecified number of emus) is one of the most laid-back areas you could wish for and one of the most amazing places to visit.

The downside? Everywhere is a long way from everywhere else and visitors really do need wheels because there is nary a taxi or bus to be seen. The upside is that white Hyundai Accents in both sedan and hatchback guises are thick on the ground and readily available.

But we did not choose North West Cape for its large Hyundai Accent population.

No, we chose it because late March through until late August is whale shark season and Ningaloo Reef is the only place in Australia — and one of just a few places on the entire planet — where anyone with a dive mask, snorkel, fins and the ability to swim a bit can commune with the big critters.

Did I say big? Think MASSIVE because there is apparently no such thing as a small whale shark. We saw five on our day in the water and the smallest measured four metres.

Those in the know reckon one metre of length equals about one tonne of mass and that, let me tell you, is one big mother of a fish.

A good thing then that whale sharks lack serious choppers and live by sucking plankton through their sieve-like mouths, rendering them completely harmless to humans. Unless they bump into you, that is, because they don’t seem to change course very often and all that tonnage could make a nasty bruise..

They could grab hold of you and give you a damn good sucking, too, I suppose but that tale is yet to be told.

Communing with whale sharks is relatively simple. You book with one of the 10 or 11 tour companies (we chose 3 Islands), they send a bus to your accommodation on the allotted day, take you to the Tantabiddi boat ramp (the bus ride from Exmouth is long enough for a verse or three of Koombiyah if that takes your fancy), put you on their boat named Jazz 4, take you out to the reef, throw you in the water to make sure you don’t drown and then give you morning tea.

At this point spotter planes take to the skies and point the boat skippers towards the whale sharks and when the skipper yells: “Go-go-go!” 10 swimmers plus a dive leader jump from the boat’s stern and play “spot the fish”. Not hard when the fish is as big as a bus.

The biggest whale shark we saw during our day on the water? About nine metres and change and if you are not impressed by that then there is a fair chance you are comatose. Or worse.

If jumping into 45-metre-deep water to chase bloody big fish cruising past gets a bit tiring then stay on the boat and watch the crew at work. Seriously, whoever gets tired of watching hot, tanned, nubile, semi-naked, sub-35-year-olds doing active stuff, or, any stuff at all?

But if swimming with whale sharks or watching attractive sailors really does seem like hard work then chuck together a picnic lunch, grab your snorkeling gear, jump into your white Hyundai Accent and head for the Cape Range National Park and the beautiful ocean beaches between Lighthouse Bay in the north and Yardie Creek in the south.

Oyster Stacks, which is really for stronger swimmers, puts you onto Ningaloo Reef right from the beach (but be mindful of the tide times) while the nearby Turquoise Bay is the stuff of postcards and is truly one of the most beautiful beaches you could ever lay eyes on. What it lacks in snorkeling appeal it more than makes up for in sheer ”wow!” factor.

Want an all-over tan? The clothing-optional Mauritius Beach is your target but if history is your thing then look at the lighthouse, its World War Two gun emplacement and the wreck of the SS Mildura (which ran aground on the reef in 1907 and was not actually shot at by said gun).

Going through to Yardie Creek (about 90 kilometres from Exmouth) for the gorge tour is a great experience too. Turtles and stingrays live in the creek near its mouth and colonies of rock wallabies populate the cliff faces either side of the creek.

Be aware though that the only food outlet of any kind in the entire national park is at the visitors’ centre so food needs to be taken in. No bins either so all your rubbish needs to be taken out.

All that snorkeling, swimming, sightseeing and Hyundai Accent driving can work up an appetite and Exmouth caters for such eventualities.

Blue Lips Fish and Chips does a solid range of “let’s have a night in” grub while BBQFather is Italian with a twist. Huge servings, a choice of ice cream, ice cream or ice cream for dessert and each meal finished with a complimentary glass of port.

Also nice is the Game Fishing Club’s restaurant at the marina and Whalers, at the Escape Resort, is superb with an extensive drinks list and a triple layer seafood platter for two that requires solid resolve from those working their way through it.

Make a reservation for Whalers because in the peak winter tourist season (aka whale shark season) it is packed and even staying at Escape as we did will not get you any favours on a walk-up start.

Exmouth accommodation, not surprisingly, ranges from bare bones camp grounds all the way through to five star and, at the top of the tree, the $1500-a-night Sal Salis resort for those who like glamping in the peace and quiet of the national park.

There is more to this amazing area than Exmouth though and our Hyundai Accent test drive program took in the amazing Coral Bay, “amazing” because it seems to exist for the sake of tourists.

Two huge caravan parks, a resort, a modest shopping centre, at least two surprisingly good restaurants and a couple of eateries, some tour booking agencies and a backpackers hostel is pretty much the extent of Coral Bay but what it offers is impressive. And not just on the eye candy front.

Unless you are incredibly lazy it pays to just park the Accent and get about on foot because everything is close.

We stayed in a bungalow at the People’s Park caravan park (it sounds tres hippie but really is not). It is not cheap but it was, we were told, the best the village had to offer (and should you go there you really won’t be the only gay in the village).

Just about everything was within 250 metres which meant a brisk walk to Bill’s for dinner, a couple of vins rouge with the very large meal of tasty heartiness before staggering back to our bungalow, going to sleep with the sound of waves crashing over the distant reef and waking the next morning for breakfast and a swim at the town beach, a mere 100 metres away. Bliss!

Fins was closer and the same deal applied. Eat, drink, be merry, stagger home, snore loudly, swim away the hangover. I could get to like this place.

What else can you do in Coral Bay? Fishing seems to be a major consideration but there are more fun things to do than kill the marine life.

Manta Ray spotting is fun and, like the whale shark dives in Exmouth, requires doing nothing more than giving someone money and getting onto a boat with mask, fins and snorkel and having the ability to swim a bit. And swim a bit quickly because unlike the big fish, Mantas are amazingly quick and acrobatic.

By the way, having your own snorkeling equipment is not a requirement and the Exmouth and Coral Bay tour boats have plenty of everything, including wet suits and stinger suits, aboard.

Those who want to stay dry – at least for a while – can try their hand at beach buggies and, much as I hate to say this about an area that lives for its coastline, this felt a lot more normal for us car guys.

A visit to Aqua Rush (the booking office is in the shopping centre), a flash of the plastic, a helmet fitting, a sunblock rubdown and we’re good to go.

There are two-seater buggies for couples, four-seaters for larger groups. The tyres are big, the tracks rough and rugged, the dunes monstrous and the fun factor high. Auto transmission means you only have to think about throttle (mostly) and brake (rarely) and the passengers soon figure out what things can be grabbed for support, so sit next to someone hot.

Need something a little more Steve McQueen and less Lightning McQueen? Another company rents quad bikes and runs tours.

Of course, there is a water component and halfway through the drive, at Five Finger Reef (I swear the guy said “Five Fingered Relief”), we got the buggies in a circle, stripped down to our boardies, found our masks, fins and snorkels and waddled into the Indian Ocean to look down on the amazing coral and the colourful fish living on the reef.

The worst part of all this swimming, drinking, eating and having fun? Leaving. And while that is the biggest cliché copout any journo can make in a travel story it really is true.

We put it off for as long as we could but there was only one flight back to Perth and we had to be on it. We made it, climbing the aircraft stairs clutching a toy whale shark in one hand and a matching manta ray in the other then staring wistfully out the window as the aircraft gained altitude and headed south. Tragic.

And the white Hyundai Accent? We abandoned that in the airport carpark, leaving it to commune with about a million other white Hyundai Accent renters.

Which brings me to just one conclusion: they really do know a good car when they see one out in the wild, wild west.

— END —

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