Blog 6 – Further explorations in WA’s South West, then we venture north – June 2008

Near Cape Naturaliste, WA                                            Well, despite what you may think, we haven’t disappeared, nor have we been abducted by aliens.  We are, in fact, writing to you from Geraldton on the mid west coast of Western Australia.  We are nearing the end of our first housesit, looking after the home and pets of a couple named Gloria and Rob while they enjoy a holiday in Bali.  We have plenty of company here in their home – 6 dogs, comprising a beautiful Rottweiller named Chloe, 5 pugs – Shortie, Mack, Fifi, Burtae and Misty – who are full of mischief and personality, a talking female Corella named Bob, two more birds and a couple of fish.  So, after many months without any pets, we have gone into saturation mode.  We’ve had an enjoyable and entertaining time looking after them all.

Before we go any further, we should fill you in and what we’ve been up to for the past few months.  After many months of touring and camping in national parks, we’ve had a few changes to our routine.  Since our last blog we’ve mainly stayed in towns, entertained guests from home, worked for a living, Peter had a whirlwind trip home to Canberra, and, as we mentioned above, we’ve been doing our first housesit.  The months have simply flown by.

Our previous blog finished as we were re-united with Richard and Lisa in Perth.  With them, we travelled to the town of Busselton, south west of Perth on Geographe Bay, where we were based for the duration of their stay and, ourselves, for the next couple of months.

It was an absolute joy for us to have our friends over from Canberra.  We know they had great intentions of sitting back, relaxing, reading a few books, sleeping in etc etc.  The reality was far busier.  We did plenty of sightseeing, visited quite a few wineries in the Margaret River region and explored Busselton.  And seemingly in the blink of an eye we were farewelling them from Perth.

Nirbeeja & Lisa in rose garden at Voyager Estate winery, Margaret River region WA

Waterlily – Voyager Estate
The Margaret River region and WA’s south west are quite ‘touristy’, but for us are saved because there remain large areas of wilderness.  The coastline from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the south is wild and beautiful.  The Indian Ocean pounds the coastline relentlessly, and the weather can change unpredictably from idyllic sunshine one minute to wild storms the next.  We sat mesmerized watching as long rolling waves broke onto deserted beaches, or as surfers were tossed like rag dolls into the air by the huge, crazy, choppy waves at the mouth of the Margaret River. We visited Cape Leeuwin, where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, but wild weather prevented us from leaving the car to explore any further.  Hamelin Bay, Bunker Bay and Eagle Bay all proved scenic, and we had a fantastic cup of coffee at the Augusta Emporium, which somewhat unusually combined a coffee shop with a shop selling manchester and underwear.  Venturing inland, we drove through the majestic Karri forests near Pemberton.

What do you mean I have to walk all the way back!  On Busselton Jetty

Blue Poles? Towards end of Busselton Jetty
In Busselton, we walked the length of the wooden jetty, proclaimed by the locals as Australia’s longest.  Now, astute readers may recall from a previous blog entry that Port Germein in South Australia made similar claims for its jetty.  Both jetties have lost some length to storms in recent decades, so we are not sure just who the winner would be.  Perhaps there should be some independent body established to verify their claims.  No doubt we will encounter more of Australia’s “longest” wooden jetties as we continue our travels!  An underwater observatory at the end of Busselton’s jetty provided views of an amazing variety and number of fish.  We were fortunate to visit on a day where visibility was superb.

Locals at the Underwater Observatory, Busselton

Nirbeeja & Lisa on Busselton Jetty, up to no good by the look of things
No visit to Margaret River would be complete without a trip (or two) to the wineries. We visited some of the best known wineries of the region – Leeuwin Estate and Voyager Estate for example, but found the best value was from the up and coming middle sized producers such as Witchcliffe Estate, Were Estate and Brown Hills.  The Margaret River, with its relatively mild climate, produces smooth, elegant wines.  The reds took a little getting used to after many years spent enjoying their robust, full bodied cousins from the eastern states, but we were soon appreciating the local style.

The town of Margaret River, once a sleepy hollow by all accounts, is now a thriving tourist centre.  At last count there were 120 wineries in the region, with new entrants, resembling resorts more than small cellar door outlets, popping up everywhere.  One winery – Laurance of Margaret River – was palatial.  Real estate prices have gone through the roof there, as they have in the whole of south western WA.    The tension between the environment and development is apparent in the region.  In Busselton, the Peppermint gums provide food and homes to the endangered Western Ringtail possums.   Whilst many locals regard the trees and possums as widespread, the reality is that they are restricted to one relatively small region.  At least the local council has protected both trees and possums, but we were nonetheless shocked to witness, during our stay, peppermint trees being bulldozed in town to make way for some new townhouses.  Canal-style coastal housing resorts are popular in the region, but are usually established at the expense of wetland areas and migratory bird populations.  We wonder where it will all end.

A local resting at Busselton Jetty

Hands up if you’ve had too many wines. Richard, Lisa (obscured), Terry, Claire, Peter
As well as spending time with Richard and Lisa, we caught up with Claire and Terry in Busselton.  We enjoyed a couple of days as the six of us travelled the region together, carrying on like a bunch a naughty kids and having a great time all round.

One afternoon Peter, Lisa, Claire and Terry went swimming in Geographe Bay near our caravan park in Busselton.  The water was warm and inviting, but we soon learnt that it was infested by stingers – fortunately not the deadly variety, but with enough poison to make life uncomfortable.  The concentration of stingers was closest near the shore, probably due to currents and prevailing winds. As the swim ended, Peter waded warily towards the shore, wondering why onlookers were laughing and pointing at our group.  He peered over his shoulder and realized that his brave friends were following close behind, in single file, allowing him to be a human shield against the stingers.  Okay, so it seemed funny at the time!!

We had bidden farewell to Claire and Terry many times on our travels, only to be reunited at the next town.  This time, as we sadly waved them off from Busselton to continue their travels up the west coast, we knew the parting would be for longer.  We have remained in contact with them; at last report they had travelled via the Kimberley, Darwin and Bali, down through the centre to Broken Hill and beyond, and this morning we received a message to the effect that they had seen their first dancing Brolgas.  We look forward to meeting up with them again at some time on our respective journeys.

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, at Australia’s most south westerly point

We've seen many claiming to be the longest, but surely this is Australia’s shortest wooden jetty. At Hamelin Bay, WA
And the farewells weren’t over for us.  Next we accompanied Richard and Lisa to Perth to see them safely on their flight home to Canberra.  It was so sad to see them go.  We had looked forward to seeing them for so long, and now their visit was over all too quickly.  But it was great to see them again and add some more adventures to the many travels we have shared with them over the years.

Wild surf at mouth of Margaret River, surfers in wave at left

Late afternoon at Prevelly, near Margaret River

Norfolk Island Pines, early morning, Busselton

Start of Busselton Half Ironman, Busselton Jetty in background
At first it seemed odd to be alone again, just the two of us.  Could we cope?!  But this gave us the opportunity for some new experiences and adventures.  Our finances had taken some serious damage as we enjoyed the delights of the Margaret River region, so the time seemed right for us to re-enter the workforce.  (We can imagine the enormous sympathy our plight would receive from all you folk who have been working away while we have been swanning/brolgaing around the country).  Much as we would have liked to organise courses and teaching, we felt this may result in our sitting around for weeks waiting for something to happen; so casual work seemed a better idea.

Our initial idea was to do some grape picking in Margaret River, which had a somewhat romantic appeal (though people who have done this before suggest that it is simply tough physical work).  Unfortunately, we had left our run a bit late and, as most harvesting is now done by machine, we missed out.  As an ironic aside, we had registered as grape-pickers in McLaren Vale south of Adelaide earlier on our travels and the day we looked for work in Margaret River we received a message saying that pickers were required urgently in McLaren Vale.  Keen though we were, a couple of thousand kilometers was a little far to travel.
Next, we approached a couple of employment agencies in Busselton who weren’t interested in short term workers, but one of them suggested we try a local cleaning firm – Delron Cleaners.  So, off we went, walking in off the street, our fingers crossed. It turns out they were desperate for workers and we were able to start work the next day.  Neither of us had any commercial cleaning experience to speak of, but we were taken under the wing of a couple of very patient and highly experienced cleaners and ended up with lots of work, as well as a lot of fun.    We can now tell the difference between a Doodle-bug, Bannister brush and Dolly mop, and between blower-vacs, wet-vacs and floor scrubbers.  Peter now knows how to perform a Strip and Seal which, contrary to what you may think, isn’t something performed by consenting adults in the privacy of their own home.  We cleaned schools, wineries, building sites, nursing homes, post offices, banks, shops and hospitals.  The staff at Delron became great friends, in particular Sue, who has a heart of gold and looked after us the entire time we were there, Warwick, who underneath his slightly gruff exterior is one of the most caring and considerate people we have met, Ian, the owner of the business, who is a friendly, decent and generous boss and Mark, with whom we had a lot of fun.  We were simply blown away that they put on a farewell lunch for us – a couple of casual workers from interstate.  We miss our mates at Delron in Busselton.

Working in Busselton allowed us to spend some time there and better gain an appreciation of the town.  After Richard and Lisa left for home, we moved from the up-market Mandalay Holiday Resort to the Kookaburra Caravan Park, nowhere near as luxurious but much cheaper.  It did have the bonus of being closer to the centre of town, meaning that we were within a couple of minutes walk of the shops, the jetty, the farmers markets and the town common, which hosted a half ironman event, and a section of the Australian Rally championship while we were there.  It proved an interesting place to stay.  Peter embarked upon regular walks along the shoreline and one day was thrilled to say g’day to Dennis Lillee, a childhood hero, who still looks fit enough to open the bowling for Australia.  Almost as exciting, he also saw giant stingrays and pods of dolphins during his walks.  We were both intrigued by the local birdlife.  Magpies and Willy Wagtails are abundant in Busselton, but have noticeably different calls from their counterparts in the east, as do the local butcherbirds. And a small army of Western Ringtail possums patrolled the caravan park at night.

Nocturnal visitors – Western Ringtail possums in Busselton

Nirbeeja at base of Tuart Tree
On weekends we were able to further explore the region.  On Anzac Day we went to the Fairbridge Folk Festival, a couple of hours north east of Busselton.  The highlight for us was seeing Tonchi McIntosh perform again.  Tonchi, you may recall, wrote a collection of songs about the Firestone in Louth, in outback NSW, and his work was the inspiration for our visit to Louth earlier on our trip.  We are pleased to say he was extremely well received at Fairbridge and no doubt has many new fans.

We explored the Tuart Forest National Park north of Busselton, seeing for the first time the large, and rare, Tuart trees growing in the region.  The south west of WA seems to feature an abundance of giant trees.  No doubt the high rainfall in the region helps.  We were amazed, especially coming from the eastern states still battling drought, to find that in late autumn it rains virtually every day in Busselton. The countryside is a lush, brilliant green.

We also visited the Mammoth Cave, near the coast south of Margaret River, featuring an impressive array of limestone formations within a huge cave.  The name refers to the size of the cave rather than any large hairy mammals which may once have lived there.  We explored more of the beaches in the region and, oh yes, we did get to a couple more wineries before we left.

Nirbeeja explores Mammoth Cave, Margaret River region

Toadstools outside cave
As some of you would know, Peter returned to Canberra briefly in mid May to arrange for new tenants for our home and to sell Nirbeeja’s much loved VW, Gracie.  He had a very busy time there, finishing some long overdue work, including painting and maintenance on the house, and catching up with as many family members and friends as he was able.  He would especially like to thank his parents for all their love and assistance while he was there (and for spoiling him) and was thrilled to catch up with his sister Linda and her family, Richard and Lisa and the Monday night gang, to see Ian’s new house, and to have dinner with Sue and Tony, Rosalie and Chris, Tim, Gerry and Julia, and Chris and Janice, Rovaye and James.  It was also heart warming for him to see that ‘our’ three cats have settled in so well into their new, loving homes.  Much as he tried, he wasn’t able to catch up with everyone during his visit but hopes to see you all soon.

Sunset from our balcony, Crowne Plaza Hotel in Perth

Eucalypt flowers, Kings Park in Perth
While Peter was busy working and playing in Canberra, Nirbeeja kept the ‘home’ fires burning in Busselton, continuing her work at Delron and doing her best to survive some wild weather that hit Busselton at that time.  One night the winds were so wild she was forced to take refuge in the car.   Fortunately, she, the car and the camper trailer survived the storms intact, though she barely slept a wink that night.

After Peter’s return, we packed up and headed northwards towards Geraldton, where we had arranged a couple of housesits via an internet site.  En route we visited New Norcia with its impressive old monastery, stayed overnight at the town of Moora and visited the Pinnacles at Nambung National Park.  The Pinnacles are quite spectacular, featuring an extensive area covered by limestone pinnacles several metres tall, exposed by erosion.  The scenery is eerie but beautiful, with the limestone pinnacles jutting up out of the red earth like tombstones in some ancient burial ground.

Nirbeeja at base of some pinnacles, Nambung Ntl Pk

Ancient molars?  Pinnacles at Nambung Ntl Park
Our first housesit, on the southern outskirts of Geraldton, has been a lovely experience, surrounded by animals and looking across huge sand dunes to the Indian Ocean. Rob and Gloria, whose home and pets we are minding, made us very welcome when we arrived. Geraldton is a much larger place than we envisaged, with a population greater than 30000.  The town is doing quite well through the current mining boom, and the large local fishing industry underpins the economy.  Hopefully we will witness the wildflowers for which the area is famous, before we continue our journey north.

We’ve had the opportunity to explore the region, visiting Ellenborough Pool, surrounded by high cliffs formed by erosion, the small township of Walkaway (which was exactly what early settlers did in times of prolonged drought, thus its name), and have enjoyed walking the dogs along the beach.   It didn’t take us long to realize that this region can be quite windy.  The region hosts a number of wind farms, featuring their enormous but somewhat alien looking structures, and is home to windsurfing championships.  Some of the trees as you drive into town give you a foretaste of local weather conditions (see photo).

78 metre high ‘wind harvester’ near Geraldton

Yes, it does get windy, Red Gum growing near Geraldton
We have been doing some more cleaning work for the local branch of Delron (the folk in Busselton put in a good word for us).  In a couple of weeks we start another housesit, on the northern side of town, which will give us a good opportunity to explore further.

A Geraldton sunset

Twins.....Chloe & Burtae, new friends, at our housesit in Geraldton
All the best for now.  Hopefully our next blog won’t take so long to materialise.

Peter & Nirbeeja
18 June 2008