Our next leg down the West Coast takes us from the Pilbara region, all the way down to Fremantle; a lazy 1500 km. Apart from a near miss with a very resilient dog in North Queensland and a stray caravan oven on the bumpy roads of the Kimberley, we had had a pretty charmed trip so far. All that was about to change. And I guess we should have expected some mechanical challenges at some stage during a full lap of the country. But it doesn’t help relieve the frustration and disappointment when they raise their ugly head in a fairly remote part of our big wide land.
Back in Paraburdoo’s military inspired caravan park, life was good. It felt like we had set a new 24 hour clothes washing world record, and the van had been scrubbed and polished. The Karijini red dust was almost a distant memory … almost. It was a calm, warm, late-afternoon and time to take a walk into town to track down a well-earned icy pole. We had just locked our sparkly van when a big gust of wind came out of nowhere, picked up our caravan awning and smashed it back over and onto our roof. It was a sad sight seeing our beloved caravan’s shade providing left arm turned into a mangled mess of metal, but at least no one was hurt, and thankfully our van avoided too much extra damage from the flying metal as well. The kids were initially shocked, but then seemed to move on quickly enough and busy themselves at the playground – Mum and Dad must have seemed stressed! Oh, to have a kids mentality about these sorts of things… The next half hour was a tricky, expletive-filled process of unbending and unscrewing, during which Kass got a decent whack on the head by a stray metal beam, rubbing the proverbial salt into the wound. The awning provides an extra dimension to our small living space and it was certainly disappointing, trying not to think about times when it will be missed over the next month or so as we traverse some pretty remote and exposed places.
The next day we somehow packed all the stray bits and pieces into the caravan and headed West back to the coast. A quick internet search uncovered a caravan repair workshop in Exmouth where we would be in 2 days time, and a very helpful insurance company had us in a much better mood. We had a one night farm-stay stop over at the very charming Bullara Station, a working cattle station not far from Ningaloo Coast where would be spending the next week or so. The afternoon was spent exploring the array of interesting vintage farm buildings and machinery, and interacting with the animals. This included a short walk to some of the reddest sand dunes we had ever seen (rivaling the Kimberley and Karijini dust), closely followed by an inquisitive, but somewhat unsettling mob of cattle. As the sun set, the dunes seemed to light up even more, and the kids ran, slid and tumbled up and down the soft sand until it was time to head back. Back at the busy camp it was a great night chatting to other travellers, as well as the farm owner, around the open fire. It was also a treat to try out the roofless wood-fire heated ‘donkey’ shower with a clear view of the stars. All-in-all a very memorable one-nighter.
A short drive the following day had us arrive in Exmouth, situated on the Eastern side of the tip of the North West Cape. This area is still a harsh and remote landscape, but we were happy to be back on the coast. Unfortunately we were a month or so too late to take part in one of this area’s best known attractions – swimming with the whale sharks – but we had an easy couple of days exploring the local markets, attending the open day for the local swimming pool and meeting the friendly local emu population. The real highlight of the stop in the Exmouth region though, was when we ventured over to the western side of the cape to stay in the Osprey Camp Ground within the Cape Range National Park. Situated right on the World Heritage Listed Ningaloo Reef, it really is a unique part of the world. A super rugged, exposed landscape void of trees, just low lying green shrubs, with the rocky Cape Range rising in the East and the amazing turquoise waters to the West. The fact that the Ningaloo is a fringing reef makes it incredibly accessible, as you only need to swim a few metres offshore and before you see coral and fish everywhere. We spent a couple of great days snorkelling and exploring the white sandy beaches. On the way out of town, the extremely helpful and friendly caravan repair centre replaced our caravan awning and life was good again.
Our next stop was only a few hundred kms down the road at the Ningaloo Reef sister town of Coral Bay. Pretty much everyone we had spoken to on our road trip had advised us to go to Coral Bay, so it was good to finally be here. A small, sleepy coastal village brought to life by a busy surge of peak season campers and caravaners. The two caravan parks in town were humming, as was the local pub and we enjoyed our three days here. The snorkelling was amazing again, and the caravan park was certainly more kid-friendly than the national park, with a well stocked playground and a heated swimming pool to boot! The Ningaloo Coast is yet another example of an amazing Australian landmark we didn’t know anything about before setting off on this adventure, and we feel blessed to have been able to visit and experience it first hand.
After Coral Bay we had a rather uneventful one night stay in the very windy town of Carnarvon. We’ve often pondered how weather can have a huge bearing on what you think of a place as you pass through fleetingly, and Carnarvon happened to be the unlucky township this time around. So we hit the road for our next major planned stop at the World Heritage listed Shark Bay, including the most Westerly point of the Australian continent. Our car, however had other plans, and whilst driving through a remote stretch of WA nothingness smoke began billowing out from the undercarriage. Now, while all occupants of the car were fairly mechanically inept, the smoke, coupled with the dripping oil and strange burning smell didn’t bode well. We limped another 30km or so to the Overlander Service Station and thanked our lucky stars we were this close to ‘help’. However after poking our heads into this overpriced oasis, the disinterested demeanour of the owner quickly made it clear we were still in a tricky situation. Drive 130km West into the Shark Bay peninsula where the local mechanic may or may not be able to help? Or carry on South towards ‘civilisation’. After some thought, and a barrage of well meaning advice from interested fellow travellers, we decided to set up camp behind the service station for the night, setting the record for the worst, and perhaps the scariest overnight stay so far – think something along the lines of Wolf Creek.
The next day, after some contact with a very friendly local mechanic who just happened to be driving by, we decided to keep going South towards Kalbarri. While disappointed to miss out on the Shark Bay area, including the famous Monkey Mia, this would take us 200 km further South, and within towing range of Geraldton and someone who may actually be able to assess the damage. Putting along in low gear, and at low speed, the car seemed to handle this 250km drive admirably. Although tempted to ‘just keep going’ we decided to play it safe and cop the $500 to have the car towed to Geraldton for a once over. After spending two hours chatting to the colourful local tow truck driver, Matt was relieved to unload the car at the Geraldton Jeep Dealership and be one step closer to a fix. He was further relieved when less than an hour later the Jeep people had ‘finished’ an inexpensive top up of transmission oil, and she was “right to go”. This relief turned to immense frustration upon arrival back in Kalbarri, as it became clear that the oil leak and that ominous burning smell had returned.
Despite the car troubles, and the very persistent fly population, we had a reasonably good stay in Kalbarri. A very picturesque, sleepy coastal town with a nice town centre surrounded by some amazing natural beauty. Although we were hamstrung by our smoking car and didn’t want to risk the 50km 4WD track into the nearby national park, we were able to explore the awesome coastline. The vast stretches of rugged sea cliffs and rock formations that had been carved out over many centuries by the Indian Ocean were easily accessible close to town. We enjoyed our time walking the cliff tops, looking out from the lookouts and exploring the sandy coves very much.
Unfortunately we still had the issue of our car which was still working, but was leaking transmission oil, and no-one seemed to know why. Was it damaged and were we doing more damage driving it? Again, no-one could give us a firm answer. We decided to push on and drive back to Geraldton, caravan and all, for another try at fixing the car. The Jeep mechanics this time spent a couple of hours having a better ‘look’, suggested they had found and rectified the fault, and sent us on our way. Next stop Perth in just over 400 km and we could breathe easy being back in civilisation. However less than 30 km out of town and we noticed the dreaded smoke billowing from underneath the car once again – disaster! After a somewhat heated and drawn out roadside phone call to our ‘mates’ back at the Jeep dealership we decided to push on rather than turn around indefinitely. Because of the flammable nature of transmission oil, Matt drove at a conservative 60-70 km/hr, Kass with the caravan fire extinguisher at the ready. Maybe it would have been better for the car to catch fire then and there, but that’s a story for another time.
We were extremely relieved to make it to our next stop in the lovely Fremantle. This was our first look at how fundamental a car in good working order is to a successful road trip, and the week since we first hit trouble near the Overlander had been filled with frustration and anxiety. Until then we had marched on around the country, fully expectant that our relatively new car would just keep going. Somehow we had limped 700 km at no more than 70 km/hr and were now in a major city. Surely, now, everything was going to be OK…