Tag Archives: Discover WA

The Road to Kalbarri

With a squeal of tyres and a cloud of dust, I pull over to the side of the road. There’s a big sign saying “Kalbarri” and I’ve driven six hours to get here.


I mentioned Indian Ocean Drive in my previous post about Jurien Bay. It recently occurred to me that I’ve taken several road trips on it but not seen the end.

I’ve been to the white dunes of Lancelin, the desert pinnacles of Cervantes, the abandoned water park of Two Rocks, the koalas of Yanchep, and now the sea lions of Jurien Bay. But its end, in Geraldton, I didn’t know.

With some time on my hands before starting a new job, I decided a road trip was in order. I looked up where I could fly to in Australia with the meagre frequent flyer points I have, and the answer was not far. So I looked where I could drive to, instead.

I spent my first few months in Australia in the southern part of the south-west. Mainly Albany, with trips to Esperance, Walpole, and Denmark, so I felt I’d done the south coast. I can’t count the number of road trips to Albany I’ve been on, and even Margaret River doesn’t call to me in quite the way it does others in Perth.

Going North

This time, I decided I’d take the trip farther north to Kalbarri.

I booked a week in Kalbarri about 18 months ago, but was made redundant from my job and had to work the notice period instead of taking that break. It felt like we had unfinished business.

Destination decided, I set about looking for accommodation. I wanted it simple. I wasn’t planning to camp but tried to keep it basic. There were hostels, pubs with rooms, motor hotels, but I got a deal on a place through Airbnb for cheaper than anything else I saw.

All that remained was to squeeze some things into a backpack — particularly hiking gear, since I wanted to see the gorges — throw it in the back of the car, and go. Kalbarri is a six-hour drive from Perth, and that’s if you don’t stop.

Luckily, morning traffic in Perth goes north to south, so I was able to start driving and barely stop. Despite owning my car for several years, I have only recently worked out how to use the cruise control — and I wouldn’t have wanted to make the drive without it.

Dongara

My first real stop of the day was in Dongara, about three-and-a-half hours from home.

The first half of the journey felt surreal. I didn’t stop at the Pinnacles in Cervantes, why I’m usually on that road, and having so recently visited Jurien Bay, it felt strange passing through the town again.

It wasn’t Dongara itself where I stopped, more just a parking place on the side of the road. All that was there was a picnic table under a metal roof, not even a toilet. From the smell of the place, motorists were using it as both.

There was a strange contrast between the dusty road with the smelly shelter, and the blue ocean with its crashing waves if you turned your back to the highway.

Just the same, I didn’t hang around for long.

I planned to stop in Geraldton for lunch, and formally recognise it as the end of Indian Ocean Drive. The universe had other plans. I joined a line of cars in a roadside traffic stop and understood right away; this was more than just RBT and was slightly alarmed when the officer said they were looking for drugs and money.

It felt like one of those movie moments where an escaped convict is hiding in a car boot when the driver gets caught up in a routine stop.

I’m also not on the road often enough to see many stops. There was a checkpoint near Cervantes on a recent trip to the Pinnacles, but that was spot checks for rock lobster and fish. I didn’t know what to expect from this kind of stop, didn’t know if there would be saliva tests that would then flag up my ADHD medication. And if they did, what then? Would someone have to call my psychiatrist?

In the end, the stop came to nothing more than checking my driver’s licence, a breath test, and waving me on my way.

Geraldton

Geraldton foreshore

I was greeted by Geraldton less than an hour later, and surprised by the coastal city. In my head, I imagined it a dustier place with colonial-style buildings. Instead, it felt more like Albany, with definite signs of being an agricultural town — which makes sense, in the Wheatbelt.

I pulled in at the first pub I saw. Not immediately obvious was how to get in, but I found the doors to the bar. Locked. It should have been open, but the doors had other ideas.

While I stood off to one side, checking maps for where else I could try, another customer came along. He tried a door. Found it locked. Looked inside. He then appeared to say something to people within, opened the door, and went in. I followed close behind.

The pub was one of those places where the bar is more of a TAB than anything else; men sat at the bar with their pints, watching horse racing.

I looked around on the bar and the walls for a menu, and couldn’t see anything. Surely in a place like that, at lunchtime, you’d want to keep people around by offering food.

I asked the barmaid if they had menus. She looked confused. Are you serving food? Is the kitchen open? It will be for dinner. When’s dinner? Tonight. Nothing now? No.

I thanked them and set off to the foreshore instead. There would have to be somewhere to get food there, and I could enjoy a view of the ocean.

I found another pub, and this time the doors weren’t locked. Except I seemed to have to walk through what appeared to be a hotel lobby, all polished marble and freezing aircon, and into the bar.

This place was as different from the last as you could get. Instead of men drinking beer at the bar and placing their bets, it was a dining room. Tables, set nicely with cloths and wine glasses. And not a single soul in sight. I turned right around and walked back out again. Even if the kitchen was open in this place, it was probably too expensive.

I then gave up on the idea of a pub and settled for a toasted sandwich at a coffee shop. At least it had a view of the sea.

Lunch was brief. I’d spent longer than I wanted to find a place to eat, and figured I could always see Geraldton on the way home. Kalbarri was still two hours further, and I was eager to get there soon.

I’d made a reservation for a canoe tour in Kalbarri the next day. Booking instructions came with the direction to call at 4 pm the day before to check it was going ahead. There wasn’t far to drive, but that deadline was going to strike right between two places — so I resolved to pull in somewhere as close to 4 as I could.

I pulled in at some historic convict trading post. Mobile coverage is what it is outside of major cities, and it was a dead zone. I got out, walked around looking foolish, then jumped back in and sped off to find somewhere else.

The second stop was so unremarkable I didn’t even write notes about it. It was probably a wide spot in the road, but it had mobile reception. And nobody answered when I called.

Ever resourceful, I fired off a quick email and an identical text message and set off once more with Kalbarri in my sights.

Welcome to Kalbarri

The sign for the town crept up on me, and it was a spur of the moment decision to pull over and grab a photo. I’d driven a long way to get to this point, and had little more than 30 minutes left to go.

A short time later, I pulled into the dusty red dirt of the driveway for my home for the next couple of nights.

A short way off the back veranda, a couple of kangaroos were browsing in the early evening sun. The world was quiet, and having driven for so long it all now felt weirdly unreal.

And then realised I had less than an hour until the town’s only supermarket closed.

Jurien Bay’s sea lions

It’s Sunday morning. I should be relaxing in bed, considering feeding cats breakfast. Instead, I’m underwater watching two sea lions chase each other, round and round, in playful circles.

Only two and a half hours from Perth lies seaside town Jurien Bay.

My biggest question is why I haven’t visited sooner: it’s got beautiful beaches and a sparkling ocean. And sea lions.

Indian Ocean Drive runs up the south-west coast, starting in Perth and ending a dusty 400km later in Geraldton. Opened less than 10 years ago, it’s slightly quicker than other routes, and connects coastal towns directly to Perth. Combined, it’s had a positive effect on the local economies of many places along the way. Including Jurien Bay.

I’ll write about other places along the Drive another time, but today is Jurien Bay. And, yes, its sea lions.

A Town Divided

This part of the coast was discovered by Europeans more than a century ago, and Jurien Bay got permanent buildings for the first time in the 1950s. Even those were reportedly little more than corrugated iron shacks.

In parts of Jurien Bay, there are still some original houses, built when it was a fishing industry town. There was a time when the seafood supply chain connected almost everyone; catching the fish, processing it, or selling seafood.

Rock lobster has since become a billion-dollar industry, and when the mining boom funnelled wealth into Western Australia, Jurien Bay benefitted.

Today there is a strange disconnect in the town. One street will have original weatherboard houses, but a short distance away, closer to the water, it’s more like a millionaire’s row.

What is also clear is the impact of the global financial crisis.

Some lots are half-finished, and faded billboards are still advertising land for sale. Fancy mansions stand almost as islands with their residents enjoying early evening drinks on their balconies overlooking deserted streets.

The housing boom might have looked like it would last forever, but Jurien Bay shows the high-water mark of where that wave broke and rolled back. As a town, it feels like it has a fractured identity.

The Mane Attraction

What I didn’t know until recently was that Jurien Bay is famous for its sea lions. 

I have a decidedly amateur interest in marine biology, including sea turtle conservation, meeting seals on kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding adventures, and even swimming with wild dolphins last year. I leapt at the chance to meet sea lions.

Tourism is big business for towns like Jurien Bay. Climate change affects ocean temperatures, the fossil fuel industry is becoming less sustainable, and extreme and unpredictable weather events are becoming more common, so it’s important to support local economies.

Luckily, there are several sea lion tours to choose from in town, and during school holidays you definitely need to book in advance. We got the last two spots on the last tour with Sea Lion Charters — leaving first thing, 7:30 on Sunday morning.

The tour starts with a short journey out into the bay while the skipper blasts 80s Aussie anthems and shares his knowledge of the area with his passengers on board. But everyone on the boat is nervously thinking the same thing: what’s going to happen? Will we even see any sea lions?

Face to Face

This is no ordinary tour where you watch wildlife from the comfort of a boat. Here, you meet sea lions, face to face, in the water. You slip on a wetsuit, strap on a facemask and snorkel, and jump in the water — the sea lions are waiting to meet you.

Once the boat reaches the area of a nearby protected island in the bay, sea lions of all shapes and sizes are lounging about in the warm morning sun. Once they see us, it doesn’t take long for the sea lions to come swimming out to us.

Sometimes you observe sea lions swimming a little distance away from you, indifferent to your presence, doing their own sort of aquatic feline thing, other times more playful ones swim up and try to encourage you to join in a game.

Or a pair of playful sea lions, barely a metre away, will spend several minutes chasing each other in circles, over and over. You watch, transfixed, feeling like you have stumbled (or haplessly swum) into a nature documentary, but you can’t look away.

You watch until their endless twirling makes you start to feel dizzy, but the sea lions are content to keep on going like they are performing in a show just for you.

There is up to 16 people on a tour, and multiple tours in the same area — plus private boats also out to see the wildlife, so it might seem like it gets crowded in the water, but it’s a big ocean. You can swim happily and peacefully on your own, and a smiling sea lion will rocket past underneath you, or you might be among a small group of people, and just as you put your face into the water notice, a sea lion friend is swimming, unnoticed, by your feet.

Tours have the option to hire a GoPro camera so you can take photos or shoot video of the experience. I’m only glad that I didn’t take it up, because any video footage would be soundtracked by my excited swearing when a sea lion swims by.

With this sort of thing, you can think you know what to expect. Even if you know you are going to meet sea lions, sometimes literally being face to face with them if they are feeling curious about you, nothing can prepare you for how that feels when it happens.

It’s exhilarating and humbling and emotional.

Jurien Bay is so close to Perth, and an adventure to meet the town’s sea lions is an easy and unique experience.