Going Over the Edge

52 floors. 220m.See that speck, second from the right? That’s me, totally abseiling down the tallest building in Western Australia. For the record, it’s also the highest urban abseil in Australia.

I wrote last month about how I was taking this “plunge” to raise $1,000 for Kids’ Camps, a charity that gives recreation and respite camps for children with disabilities. As ever with these things, it has gone from an idea in an email that I enthusiastically accepted to being all too real. This Sunday past was my day for taking the plunge.

The Measure of Adventure

People kept asking me in the days leading up to the event if I was nervous. It was a very different sort of challenge to either the Inca Trail or the Arctic Adventure — one that a surprising number of people found scary just thinking about it. The truth is, I wasn’t really nervous about it. I don’t have a fear of heights, I’ve abseiled down structures before, and climb frequently (albeit indoors) — which also involves a small amount of abseiling. I also have a kind of mental block when it comes to this sort of thing: it’s too big to really conceive of it as real.

When I visited the roof of the Central Park Building with the newspaper reporter and photographer last month, there was admittedly a small bubble of nervousness, seeing the city so far below, and imagining hanging from a rope — but I got used to it quickly.

On Sunday we all had to arrive an hour before our descent time. After checking in at the registration desk, this left us with a lot of time. A lot of time just standing at the foot of the building. A lot of time to spend looking up at the ropes, and the 52 floors, and time to spend thinking about what we were going to do. Time to spend thinking about all 220 metres of the building above us.

Shortly before our descent time, my team was chaperoned into the building and whisked up to the top — the lift ascending 50-something floors in much less time than the several flights of stairs we had to climb from where the lift finishes and the top floor starts. The top floor of the Central Park Building was a big open place office — but completely empty of all the usual things like desks and computers. Instead there was a core team of people to help us get into our abseiling gear, and give us a crash course in how to get ourselves down the building. It was also our first real view of the city below us.

I mentioned before I don’t have fear of heights, so I enjoyed standing by the large windows and staring out — but I admit to feeling a small bubble of nervousness. I’d seen this view before, but this time I was going to be dangling above it by a rope.

Stepping over the edge

Once we were kitted up, and familiar with how to work the rope and belay, there was no more delaying. We were given our rope numbers, and headed out on to the roof. Without a doubt, starting the abseil itself was the hardest part. We were clipped into our ropes, given some brief instruction on what to do, then there was nothing else to do except go over the edge. I stepped up onto the edge of the building — and had to walk backwards over it, lowering myself with the rope, with nothing but a 220m drop behind me.

Once over, I stopped almost immediately while I was given further instruction. Dangling in the air with the city so far below, I was told how to signal if I wanted to stop, and then it was all up to me. The rope was heavy, and required a lot of effort to pull through — but with my body weight and gravity on my side, it was easy to get the hang of it, and before long I was making good progress, speeding my way down the side of the building.

One thing that was different about this abseil to my other experiences was that we were asked not to “push off” — the kind of bouncing technique you might have seen — because being an office building there was a real danger that we could crash through a window. Smashing through a window into an office like that could add excitement to the whole experience, but I wasn’t so sure that it would be appreciated. Instead, I used a combination of walking down the vertical side of the building and lowering myself, hanging.

Enjoy the Ride

The total abseil was 220m, but it was staggered in two stages, because of the nature of the building. The first part was 90m, and then another 130m. Because of this we had to do the whole stepping-backwards-off-the-edge-of-the-building thing twice. It also meant that we could use the first 90m as a kind of warm up.

It was a fine, sunny day and at times I had to consciously try and slow down to try and enjoy the journey and the experience. The mirrored windows of Central Park would give me views of the city behind and below me — though friends have since suggested I should have spent more time looking down, to make it more intense.

From start to finish, we were told the whole abseil took 30 minutes — but as I didn’t wear a watch, it’s hard to say how long of that was spent on the side of a building. For an adventure that made so many people uncomfortable, it felt easy — unlike other challenges in the past, it didn’t require a lot of training, and didn’t scare me like it might have done others.

Now I have to find a new, bigger challenge to take on. Like base jumping…

Or like this one.

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7 Summits: A Real Adventure for a Real Adventurer

Want to hear about a real adventurer?

Over the course of four years Cody Hudson is summiting the seven highest mountains in the world.

Cody Hudson

Yes, that includes Everest.

And yes, it also includes Vinson Massif, the highest mountain in Antarctica.

Why would someone want to do such a thing?

It’s all so he can raise a quarter of a million dollars for Save the Children, going towards children’s education in Nepal.

Cody’s lust for life and taste for adventurer comes from his late grandfather, whom Cody describes as “an avid hunter, trekker and mountain lover, often volunteering on rescue teams operating on Mount Cook: New Zealand’s highest and deadliest mountain.”

While his grandfather wasn’t able to realise his dreams of scaling peaks around the globe, he did pass on his passion for the great outdoors.

Summit 1: Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa

Summit 1: Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa

Cody’s 7 Summits Project began last December, with Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

The highest freestanding mountain in the world, in true Cody style he describes it as “without a doubt the most popular, and probably the easiest, of the Seven Summits – bar Australia’s own Mount Kosciuszko.”

Despite this, the effects of altitude on a climber make it far from certain that even seasoned travellers will make it the summit of the roof of Africa.

For Cody, the journey to the snow-capped peak on summit day was a mere seven hour hike.

Summit 2: Mount Kosciuszko, Australia

Summit 2: Mount Kosciuszko, Australia<Hot on the heels of Kili’s snowy peak was the tallest of the Australian Alps, Kosciuszko (“Kosi” to its mates) in New South Wales.

Cody notes on his blog that there is a lot of debate since around whether Kosi should be included among the 7 Summits. He notes that it was included in Dick Bass original list of the 7 Summits in 1985, but the controversy centres around whether Australia is a continent.

It turns out that there is no one hard-and-fast definition of what a continent is, how many continents there are, or what the continents are.

Some sources will list six continents, each starting and ending with the same letter for ease of memory. These are Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Antarctica and Australasia. Others will tell you there’s seven continents, counting North and South America as separate continents.

While agreeing on seven continents, there’s further debate about whether Australia is a continent, or whether it is Australasia or Oceania.

It might sound unimportant, but these distinctions matter: because it means the difference between the 2,228 metres of Mount Kosciuszko, the smallest of the summits, or all 4,884m of Papua New Guinea’s Carstensz Pyramid.

Cody describes himself as “a circumstantial patriot” who considers Australia a continent, and Bass’ original list to be definitive – so he crossed Kosciuszko off the list in March.

All Work and no Play

Training on the Kokoda trail

What does an adventurer like Cody do between summiting mountains?

Easy: he trains. It’s no surprise that Cody’s craziness doesn’t begin and end with just the summits.

While you’d expect the usual training, like running, or swimming (which Cody swears by, for helping with lung capacity), or rock climbing, Cody goes all out.

On any one day you can expect to find him scaling the 30 steps of Jacob’s Ladder in Perth’s picturesque King’s Park 50 times in one day, or going running along the Kokoda trail: while carrying a 17kg pack on his back.

Summit 3: Mount Elbrus, Europe

Summit 3: Mount Elbrus, Europe

This month found Cody on the slopes of Europe’s Mount Elbrus.

The Russian giant rises 5,642 metres into the air, and is a long-dormant volcano — with its  snowy slopes making Cody’s home for eight days.

After a few days of acclimatisation hikes, Cody and his group setting off at 3am for the summit. Conditions were fine… at first — but by the time they had reached 5,200m a blizzard set in — and would follow them to the top of the continent’s highest peak.

This didn’t stop them reaching the summit, marking the 7 Summits Project off as three down, four to go.

Get Involved

Aside from training hard, another important activity for the 7 Summits Project is fundraising, and raising awareness of the project.

It’s with both of these in mind that Cody will be climbing the equivalent of the height of Mount Everest this August, without even leaving Perth.

At the University of Western Australia’s annual book sale event for Save the Children, Cody will spend over 15 hours on a treadmill, spread over two days. Anyone is welcome to drop in and join Cody for part of his journey: there will be a second treadmill alongside the crazy climber if you want to cross Mount Everest off your own bucket list without having to deal with the little things like training, altitude, or international air travel.

Now it’s your turn to get involved. Follow the 7 Summits Project blog, on Facebook, or Instagram – and most importantly donate to help raise vital funds for the children of Nepal. The country has been hit with two devastating earthquakes this year alone, so your help is needed more than ever.

The 7 Summits Project

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Taking the plunge in Perth

Taking the Plunge: Central Park Perth

While I wait and plan for new adventures, I have decided to take the plunge, and go abseiling 220 metres from Perth’ tallest tower next month.

This one-off mini-adventure is called the Central Park Plunge, and it is to raise money for Kids’ Camps, a charity that gives recreation and respite camps for children with disabilities.

My abseil is making the news this week in Perth: it’s just a little unfortunate that this first article to come out doesn’t include a link to my fundraising page.

I was asked by the reporter if I would call myself a “thrill seeker”. I told them, no. I’m an adventurer. Also, an idiot, and a fool, who thinks it’s a good idea to climb down tall buildings…

The fundraising link, by the way, is here: http://bit.ly/JayCPP

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The Amazing Aussie Adventure: Amazing Albany

Middleton Beach jetty, Albany

A little place called Albany is where the Amazing Aussie Adventure all started.

Albany has the distinguished honour of not just being where I lived for the first few months on arriving down under. Albany us also the first place in Australia that I visited: Perth airport doesn’t count.

Right on the south west coast, Albany is the edge of Australia where it once joined to Antarctica — and parts of it still look like it.

Albany feels more like a town than a city, to me — maybe because of the preserved old colonial architecture, and a lack of highrise office buildings. It also has a population roughly equivalent to my home town in the UK, although here — like all of Australia — it’s on a much bigger scale.

Something in the water in Albany

Because it’s right on the Southern ocean, the water in Albany can be colder than swimming in Perth, where you’re swimming in the warm currents of the Indian ocean.

There’s lots of good beaches in Albany. Duh, it’s Western Australia — of course it’s going to be awesome. But they aren’t just good for swimming, they’re also good for whales. Albany is known around Australia as a place for whale watching: the humpback whales migrate in from June, and when the humpbacks leave, the southern right whales come for a few months. Sometimes, I’m told, there are even blue whales.

At the right time of year, you can stand on the beach in the early evening sunshine and watch whales happily splashing their tails in the water a short way off the shore.

The edge of the earth

Natural bridge, Albany

In Albany, you can stand on a rock, stare out to sea, and the next landmass out there is the endlessness of the Antarctic continent.

The pounding southern ocean has formed the coast into vast cliffs, and in one place a huge, granite natural bridge — where the waves crash underneath.

You shouldn’t ever try and walk across the natural bridge (maybe it should be renamed the natural bridge of death), other than the risk of a gust of wind blowing you over the side, or slipping on a wet rock, there is also the danger from king waves knocking you off.

It’s much more interesting to look at than climb on, anyway.

Albany: scenic city

Amazing AlbanyOther than the rocky outcrops of Antarctica, and the marine visitors, and the beaches (of course, the beaches, always the beaches), Albany is just plain scenic.

The boardwalk at Middleton Beach on a fine day is a favourite walk for me.

Even if there are no whales to spot off the shore (though you’ll often see cars parked on the hill in the lookout spots, with people staring out, just in case) there’s lots to stop to take in.

If you’re feeling energetic you can also take a walk at the Albany windfarm, taking in as much or as little of the Bibbulmum track as you’re comfortable doing — where there’s hills and lookout points and wooden steps leading down to the water’s edge.

Albany is one of those places that’s a must-see in Western Australia.

As a footnote, a little piece of trivia I recently picked up is that Albany is apparently one of the best places in Australia for viewing the southern lights, the Aurora Australis. For someone that loves space like I do this is quite exciting, and promises many more trips on the future.

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The Amazing Aussie Adventure: One year on in Perth

I’ve been living in this great Southern land for more than a year now, and the tipping point for what feels like a dream has been reached.

Aussie Adventure, 1 year onWith any big change the new ‘reality’ feels completely unreal — this is particularly true if you leave a dark, cold and rainy London and find yourself in sunny Perth.

However, there comes a point where the balance shifts and it’s now what was there before that doesn’t seem quite real any more.

This Aussie adventure of mine is about the lifestyle more than anything. Sure, living in a city in Australia isn’t so very different to living in a city in England — but then it’s the small things that make the difference.

Fish & chips and the sunset

Small things like eating fish and chips at Scarborough beach and watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean — or just getting out of work promptly on a scorching hot day to join the rest of the population swimming in the ocean to cool off.

My Home is Your Home by Ken UnsworthOn any particular day, you will find people swimming in the ocean and playing games on the beach until it gets dark.

Or the lifestyle is things like the annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition started at Cottesloe beach, and though it’s spread east to Bondi beach and internationally to Denmark, it feels very WA — the setting sun adding an extra element to the art works.

Not just beach…

The lifestyle is not all about the beach life, either.

With friends, we meet up each month for a BBQ in a different spot in Perth — from Leighton beach, to the river foreshore, to Banks Reserve, and Kings Park: going for a picnic every month is something I couldn’t dream of doing in the UK. Unless you didn’t mind having your picnic inside the car or in the rain. And most people in the UK have done both of those things on more than one occasion.

the PinnaclesA short drive out of the city takes you to national parks where you can see koalas (they’re not native to WA, it should be noted, so don’t expect to just see them in all parks) and kangaroos.

You don’t even have to travel to see kangaroos — at dusk they will be hopping all over your nearest oval. I hope that the small thrill of seeing koalas and kangaroos doesn’t get ever old — except for the kangaroos that jump into the road when you’re driving.

Busselton Jetty, WAA longer drive north of Perth will take you to the Pinnacles, but even when you’re standing on a hill in the desert and admiring the rock formations, you can still see the sun glinting off waves not far away.

Driving south from Perth takes you through forest and down to Busselton and its famous jetty, and on to the vineyards of Margaret River — where people will go for a week or a weekend and decide to never leave.

Shorts and thongs

I still stand out as a stranger, here. Although I find myself unintentionally saying words like “thongs” when I mean “flip flops”, and greeting friends with “Hazzitgawn?”, other times I am very conscious of how posh and English I sound when I ask “Please may I have…” instead of the more Aussie “Can I grab…” and being caught off guard when someone asks me “How are you travelling?” when they mean “How are you?”scarborough beach sunset

Summer is waning in Perth and it reminds me of the best times of year in England, when it’s warm and fine. Although I know that winter is on its way and our house has no heating and very little insulation, it isn’t like there will be wintry things like ice, frost or snow in Perth.

Life here has tipped over so that now 30-something years in England now seem like the part that’s unreal.

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Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe beach (2015)

Read all about the 2015 Sculpture by the Sea at Cottesloe here

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The Amazing Aussie Adventure: It’s the Little Differences

Festival of Christmas in PerthIn the classic Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction, the characters played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson discuss what Europe is like compared to the USA.

Travolta’s character Vincent Vega puts it best when he says “You know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It’s the little differences.” That’s how the Amazing Aussie Adventure feels: the biggest things of all are the little differences.

For a country that speaks English as a first language and drives on the left-hand side of the road, you’d be surprised at the little differences in Australia.

The Language

Yes, they speak English here. And it’s not even like it’s “American” English, for all intents and purposes it’s the same English that I know. Things like realise and fantasise are still spelled with an “S”, and as a professional copywriter, I go around correct American English spellings on my company’s website. We’re an Australian company and our brand should reflect this. But then other things trip you up.

Like pants, for example.

As with the North American continent, pants here are not your underwear. If someone mentions wearing “dress pants” they do not mean the occasion is so formal it requires special underwear, but just smart trousers. Pants are what we, in the south of England at least, call trousers. I know the English makes no sense, since surely underpants go under your pants, but that’s just how it is. Neither is right and neither is wrong, but it can be confusing if you see a pub’s dress code stating that pants must be worn.

Which brings me to another confusion: thongs. If a pub has a dress code, and it mentions pants, it only follows that it would also mention no thongs allowed. As an Englishman, I nod my head to this and think it makes sense — pants yes, thongs no. Nobody wants to see your g-string. But thongs are what the rest of the world calls flip-flops. Or if you want to compromise, sandals. If a friend mentions they wear thongs in the shower, they’re talking about their footwear, not their choice of shower apparel.

Even when you logically know these things you can still get tripped up.

Aussie Slang

British kids raised on a TV diet of Neighbours and Home and Away are more familiar with Aussie slang than maybe other nations around the world. Apparently, Aussie TV soaps are also responsible for the proliferation of “up-speak”, but that’s a different conversation for another day. But when someone calls you a flaming drongo or a great galah, you are already on the ball. Except you’ll almost never hear someone talk like that outside of the country.

But there’s also a world of Aussie slang that you might not know, from having roos loose in the top paddock to being mad as a cut snake. Before moving to Australia, it’s a good idea to read some Aussie literature to get up to speed. You can buy books of Aussie slang, though trying to drop things like “I hope your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny door down” into everyday conversation is as difficult as using the phrase “le singe est sur le branche” when in Paris (there’s not a lot of jungle in France).

You’re likely to also be confused by being asked how you are going, especially if you’re not travelling anywhere at the time. It’s just saying “How are you?” and probably means something similar to “How are you going on your journey through life/the day/the universe”. One of the things that delighted me most early in my days in Australia were the words “dobber” (what you might call a snitch or a grass, but in a much more schoolboyish way, than a criminal informant sort) and the phrase “made you look you dirty chook.” Other phrases you’re likely to hear in normal conversation include “winner winner chicken dinner.”

Australian Politics

You’ll be glad to know that Aussie politics is just as bipartisan as it is in the UK or the USA. That’s about all I understand of it. Oh, and the Liberal Party are not what anyone else in the world would ever describe as “Liberal”.

The one and only election day I’ve been to here was a big disappointment: I was promised a sausage sizzle and a cake stall, and there was neither. Both of those things probably also need explaining another time. Voting is also compulsory here: not voting means a fine, and possible jail time if you don’t pay.

Strangely, it doesn’t seem to drastically increase voter turnout.

Seasons

Obviously, in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed, and for a while that confuses you, until you go through a full cycle of seasons and learn to disconnect the month from the season. What you don’t get used to is the confusion between things like Easter and Christmas and the seasons. It feels plain weird to have Christmas in the height of summer, and to see inflatable Santa wearing shorts and holding a surfboard — but then everything else is still branded for the Northern hemisphere version of Christmas. Evergreen trees decorated with tinsel and fake snow, cards have images of snowmen and robins. Santa still comes on a sleigh, pulled by reindeer! There’s “Australian” versions of songs like Jingle Bells and the 12 Days of Christmas, and even that song by Rolf Harris that we won’t listen to any more — but they’re not really official songs, not like the traditional carols.

Easter, too, is “branded” for Spring — even though it officially falls in Autumn, so it’s not really all about rebirth and new life and all the traditional themes of abundance. Except that the seasons get even weirder: it’s in Autumn and Winter that it rains and things like your lawn that died in the summer comes back to life.

Sometimes it’s the little differences you didn’t even expect. When something you know from home looks different or tastes different to what you’re used to, or when you can’t find something in the supermarket and you realise you don’t even know what it would be called here.

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The Amazing Aussie Adventure: Surfing Dude


surfing WA

Image: allianceabroad.com

One of the things I wanted to take up when I came to Australia was learn to surf.

It seemed like a simple enough task — I’d surfed once or twice in the past and had managed to get to my feet. I figured some dedicated lessons would refresh my memory and after a short course I’d be ready to buy my own surfboard and start hitting the surf at weekends.

My first surf lesson in Australia, a wave hit me the wrong way and I wrenched my shoulder. These things happen, I didn’t think so much of it at the time. Except it carried on hurting throughout the day, in a way a pulled muscle doesn’t.

I cancelled my following day’s lesson to avoid making it any worse, but by the Monday morning although it wasn’t any better I didn’t want to miss another day’s lesson (they’re non-refundable) so got through it with pain killers.

My ideas of buying my own surfboard were seeming more far-fetched: I wasn’t getting any better at surfing (that is, I still couldn’t stand on the board without falling off) but it was only my second lesson…

A few days later, with my shoulder still hurting, I saw a doctor. I described the pain, how it happened, and demonstrated the limited range of movement. The doctor told me it was a torn shoulder rotator cuff, and referred me for an ultrasound.

An ultrasound and an x-ray later confirmed a partial tear, but luckily not a bone chip that the ultrasound suggested.

It was more than six weeks before I was able to surf again, and complete the surf lesson course. By this time, summer had faded in Western Australia but sunny mornings spent in the surf, mostly falling off, were time well spent.

And no, I never did buy that surfboard, or really ever manage to learn to surf properly.

Although I did get a certificate.

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The Amazing Aussie Adventure: Beach life

Greens Pool, Western AustraliaI wrote a few weeks ago about swimming outdoors at Serpentine Falls, and how it was the only time I’ve been wild swimming other than at Highgate Ponds in London. Swimming is something I enjoy a lot. I like the meditative calm of just pushing through the water, thinking quietly, and the variety of being able to pick up the pace if I feel the need: and being non-impact, it’s much better suited to me than running.

Naturally, on this amazing Aussie adventure of mine I have embraced with open arms the many opportunities for swimming in the ocean.

Admittedly, I am still a little nervous venturing into the ocean in the knowledge that there’s so many things that can kill you. This is not helped by the government-fuelled hysteria over sharks. This isn’t a place for a full-scale rant about the WA shark cull, but the fact is that sharks still kill fewer people than careless drivers. Sharks are an easy target, however, and have been a figure of fear ever since Jaws.

Green’s Pool

My first opportunity to get into the ocean in Australia was at Greens Pool, in William Bay National Park. The “pool” has almost completely calm waters because the bay is sheltered from the waves of the Great Southern Ocean by large, round boulders. When I was told we were going to Greens Pool I didn’t immediately make the connection that this “pool” was the ocean: in the UK if you told me we were going to visit a pool, I’d just presume it was a particularly good swimming pool. In Australia, if you’re going swimming anywhere it’s safe to presume it will be outside.

Greens Pool was a great way to get in the ocean in Australia, with a gradual slope into clear waters and no waves. It’s also fairly typical of beaches on the Southern ocean, because the water is freezing cold. Being English, I’m not unused to cold water, although I can’t remember the last time I went in the ocean in the UK without a wetsuit (because the last few times were surf-related).

Albany, WA

Middleton beach, Albany, WAI’ve been spending a lot of time in Albany, on the southern coast of WA, an area famous for its whales.

There’s also a choice of beaches, and on a warm afternoon, one of the last of the summer, we went swimming at Middleton beach. The last time I came to Middleton Beach it was October, and a humpback whale was merrily splashing in the water a short distance off the beach. This time, there were no whales, and although it was not quite as cold as Greens Pool, and even though it’s protected by King George Sound, it was noticeably cold.

The beach has a floating pontoon in the summer months — I guess for jumping and diving — and we made use of it for that. What the two beaches had in common were their calm waters, ideal for leisurely swimming, and hot days combined with cold waters.

Perth’s beaches

Recently, I visited two Perth beaches: Cottesloe and Scarborough, though I only swam at the latter of the two. Cottesloe is Perth’s most popular beach, but despite temperatures in the high 30s on Friday, by Saturday they had dropped 10 degrees — the multitude of visitors to the beach were there for Sculpture by the Sea.

A short drive along the coast from Cottesloe is Scarborough beach. Unlike Middleton beach and Greens Pool in the south of WA that are on the Southern ocean, Perth’s beaches are Indian ocean — bringing with it warmer waters.

Scarborough is a popular surfing beach, and it was easy to see why on this particular day.

Scarborough beach, Perth

Scarborough is a long, beautiful beach, with sand banks and rolling waves. With a strong swell there was less swimming to be done, and more diving into the waves, and avoiding being knocked off your feet.

I’ll be returning to Scarborough beach in the near future for several days of surfing lessons: watch this space.

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It’s raining in Esperance

Esperance, Western Australia

Esperance is an odd kind of city, on the south-west coast of Western Australia. It has a modest population of about 15,000 people, but with a reputation for the best beaches in the world Esperance is a draw for cruise ships and tour groups from around the world.

I arrived in Esperance at the start of Autumn, 10 days into March, with the heat mostly gone out of the summer and the tourists largely moved on. Though already Autumn, it would be mistaken for a good summer’s day back home: deep blue skies and sun sparkling on the southern ocean like thousands of fireflies.

Esperance — so I am told, and I am little sceptical — officially boasts the best beaches in the world. Apparently this is based on something like the lightness of the sand, or perhaps length of beaches. The city is a 6-hour drive from the city of Albany, hardly a bustling metropolis in its own right but many times the size of this city 500 km further along the cost.

That’s not to say Eleven Mile beach is unremarkable. With the sky a deep blue and the sun shining on the ocean, it was sparkling like thousands of fireflies on the surface of the water. The beach’s soft sands weren’t so “white”, though — and it’s not a criticism, merely an observation that it would be lazy to describe them so simply. They are an incredibly pale yellow, a soft cream, perhaps.

This morning, on my second day in town, I woke up to rain. After a month in Australia not seeing rain, and apparently no significant rain in this region since the year began, it was welcomed. Although I had been looking forward to visiting a beach properly, and experiencing its famous icy waters, I was content to listen to the sound of heavy rain on a tin roof — and when the rain eased, listening to the streams of water as it ran down to the parched garden.

In the afternoon, with the rain and thunder behind us, our host took us out in his four-wheel drive vehicle to experience up close many of the city’s bays and beaches. Even if the rain had stopped, it still wasn’t a day for swimming, but that was OK too — because there’s plenty to see on the beaches and the surrounding areas without having to get your feet wet. Intentionally.

I don’t remember the names of all the bays and harbours we visited, driving down on to the wet sand and following the tracks of vehicles that had gone before us earlier in the day. The names don’t matter, I’m not a tour guide.

On one beach a group of vehicles stood, seemingly abandoned, with doors hanging open and belongings on the sand around them, until we noticed half a dozen surfers out in the water. The swell wasn’t large, but what I enjoy about surfing is sometimes as much about the zen of it: sitting on a board in the water, just quietly and peacefully waiting for the next wave. They weren’t chasing adrenaline today, they were just enjoying being out surfing at all.

On one beach I stopped to look at the line in the sand where the tide reached. Whether the tide was coming in or going out I didn’t stay long enough to make out, but at a certain point the sand was darker and uniformly speckled, while past that point it was glassy and smooth. Perhaps the mottled side of the sand was marked by the morning’s heavy rain, and the great southern ocean was edging its way up the shore to wipe the slate clean.

rock pools, EsperanceI could have stood for hours by one collection of rocks. The rocks were mixtures of dark greys and browns, with white sand dusting their crevices like snow. Every now and then a larger wave would come along and wash all around them, and I’d watch as the water drained back through all the small gaps between them. The ocean was a light aquamarine, but in the small rockpools that briefly formed it barely reflected the cloudy sky — in my pictures the water is all but invisible apart from where it catches the light.

On the beach, the pale glassy sand met a white-fringed ocean that went from the slightest hint of blue to aquamarine and out to a deeper blue as it swept out to more distant islands.

The islands themselves seemed to be fighting a war between rock and vegetation, overseen by the patient ocean. Out of the ocean rose smooth reddish brown rock, streaked grey and black in places, and it was impossible to tell if the greenish black vegetation that covered the rock so completely on top was spreading downwards to the sea to cover every last remaining stone, or if the island was balding, with the vegetation receding up the front and sides.

Above the beaches, the same greenish black vegetation was cut through with the dusty red tracks of roads, and up out of the foliage rose monoliths of that reddish brown rock, crusted with yellow moss in its cracks, and worn into the familiar shapes of people and animals by countless seasons of wind, rain and sun.

From high vantage points you could look across the harbours as the sun briefly came out and bleached the sandy shores of colour so that the almost resembled Dover’s chalk cliffs and made that same ocean — still aquamarine darkening almost in a line to a slate or cobalt blue — shine against it where it swept up and retreated. In the sun my attention was directed back towards the houses of Esperance, where a dark curtain of rain was again falling on the city.

rock formations, EsperanceAround the beaches, up the paths in the vegetation and rock, were areas for campsites — no doubt filled to capacity in the high season, and a ranger’s house a short distance away. I was reminded of Edward Abbey’s season in the wilderness of Arches National Park in the USA, and wondered what a life would be like as a ranger: wanting to live among the nature of national parks, and recognising that the roads and campgrounds and tourists are in part necessary encroachments for civilisations that must see value from these places: a value that comes from making them easily accessible and habitable.

 

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