Saturday, 30 June 2018

Shark Bay to an Early Finish in Broome

Obviously, while I was in Shark Bay the winds had been blowing from the south, and when I left they were still blowing that way, which meant more suffering.  As I turned back northward, they switched to northerlies again.  By the time I had made it to Carnarvon I was well and truly exhausted and fed up.

Shorefront in Carnarvon.
I had 3 days in Carnarvon working and rested-up in a caravan park free of charge as the people who ran it were on warmshowers.  I didn't really see them much but they had done some extraordinary adventures on every continent using all different kinds of transport, including cycling, riding across Mongolia on horseback, canoeing, sailing, and much more.

There wasn't much to do in Carnarvon, like many outback towns it looked like it had seen it heyday and was now gradually deteriorating.  This has been the story of most rural towns with an industrial background, whereas the towns that had some natural wonders to offer tourists were going in the opposite direction.  Two of those towns were ahead of me, Coral Bay and Exmouth, both situated on or near the Ningaloo Reef, one of the biggest areas of shoreline coral reef anywhere in the world.

The lagoon in Coral Bay.  Just 20 metres offshore were some huge coral reef structures and beautiful marine life.
This was a part of the tour I was really looking forward to, but yet again the weather was to have different ideas.  Another storm came through while I was staying in Coral Bay, limiting the amount of time I could get in the water.  I worked around it, but on the day of my arrival it was blowing a gale and the lagoon was choppy to say the least.

I thought about whether I should go out in the windy weather, but the odd person was snorkeling and it was quite warm, so I thought I should or I'd risk not getting into the water at all with the forecast for the next couple of days (it hadn't rained in about 6 months before I arrived).  I'm glad I got in as the coral structures literally about 20 metres offshore were huge, which obviously attracted a lot of marine life.

It was swinging, in the wrong direction, always in the wrong direction.
I reconnected with many of the fish I once was so familiar with from my time diving in Fiji about ten years ago.  While I was there I had done about 50 dives, most of them survey dives around the island of Gau.  I had to learn all the names of the fish to do this, and I recognised many of the same species, as well as some new ones.

While in Fiji I got a fleeting glimpse of a sea turtle underwater, and I had seen many in Shark Bay from the boat, but in the choppy water of Coral Bay with perhaps unusually few people in the water, I had the pleasure of swimming with one for about 15 minutes.  It eyed me up a few times, but seemed mostly unconcerned with my presence as it went about feeding off the algae on the coral and occasionally going up for a gulp of air.  It made me wish I had an underwater camera, but I appreciated the moment of my own personal swim with one of the world's most loved sea creatures.

The next day the heavens opened and the winds blew harder and all there was to do was use-up my mobile data surfing the internet.  There wasn't even any wifi as the remoteness of Coral Bay meant their wifi was incredibly unreliable.  I was truly bored.

I had to leave the following day, but not before getting in another snorkel, this time for much longer.  The weather was much cooler, however, so I did it on and off for about 3 hours before the cold got the better of me.

This photo demonstrates nicely the scale of these creatures.
Then it was off to Exmouth on the North West Cape.  I hadn't planned to go here, but there were a few reasons I decided to go; they had a squash club, the Cape looked an interesting place to explore, and their Whale Shark diving packages were better than Coral Bay.  Because I hadn't planned to go there, and the weather still being terrible, I decided to hop on a bus taking the opportunity to have an extended few days off the bike.

Had to kick pretty hard to keep up with this one.
I'm really glad I went to Exmouth.  The principle reason I went there was for the Whale Sharks, and that was another unforgettable experience, the squash was also good, and I did some great camping on the Cape, in fact some of the best of the trip.  I was, however, tremendously disappointed with the town of Exmouth itself.

Exmouth is a tough place to get to, it's way out there at the north-west tip of Australia, with no big towns or cities anywhere near it.  It is a small town which attracts people because of Ningaloo Reef, for the Whale Sharks and all sorts of other spectacular marine life.  The reef is truly remarkable, but it felt like the town was selling it's soul for the tourist's dollars.  The place is still not that developed, it doesn't feel touristy, but the locals want the money off anyone who comes and the town and accommodation seemed like it was set-up to squeeze every last cent from whoever went there.

Of course, when you have this feeling, you become slightly embittered by everything and try to squeeze every little advantage out of your stay, creating an adversarial atmosphere and not much joy.  The YHA I stayed at for a couple of nights was like this; the staff were rude and boy did they not like to make your stay convenient.  In return, this created a really bad vibe with the guests, as no one washed-up, cleaned-up after themselves and no one seemed happy.  I couldn't wait to get out of there, and once I did my work, I shot-off for some free camping on the peninsula.

I was originally going to stay another night and have the Whale Shark tour company pick me up from the hostel, but instead I cycled around to the boat ramp on the other side of the peninsula, camping halfway overnight.

The boat ramp was literally just a ramp with a few vessels offshore, it was all incredibly small-scale and remote, which made it feel quite special.  I was also not on an especially big boat and with only 15 others, so it wasn't overly crowded.  After a bit of a briefing, we first entered the water inside the coral lagoon to test our gear and look at the marine life around the shallow coral areas.  There were some black tip reef sharks and one huge stingray, which the photographer on the boat got a couple of wonderful pictures of.

Then it was the main event.  There were a number of companies running similar tours in different areas and they all shared the cost of a spotter plane.  Once the whale sharks were spotted from above the boat was carefully positioned quite a distance away from them, then Dave the photographer, entered the water, swam towards it and gave directions about where to drop us in the water.  There were strict rules about where to position ourselves in order not to disrupt it's normal behaviour or get in it's way.  I immediately broke these rules accidentally, as I got a kick in the face from another swimmer just at the wrong time as the shark changed direction, so my first view, as the bubbles cleared, of a whale shark was of it's huge mouth coming right at me and then almost brushing past me, just a few centimetres off it's side.  We were meant to be at least 3 metres from it's side and 4 metres from it's tail, and never directly in front of it.  I broke all those rules on my very first interaction, but it wasn't my fault (it was an unforgettable lucky close encounter though).

We were in and out of the water several times over the next two hours with 6 different sharks, as they came up to the surface and dived down out of sight.  On a few occasions we got extended swims as they stayed just beneath the surface for some time.  It's the biggest thing I've ever seen underwater, and they are actually very pretty sharks, covered in spots.  The scale of them was quite something, but the whale sharks at Ningaloo are only juveniles, the biggest we saw was about 8 metres long.  Adult whale sharks can grow to twice the size!

It was an awesome day and after I had just enough time to squeeze in another snorkel as I made camp on a secluded beach for the night.  With only a mild current in the water, but without fins, I did begin to feel a bit vulnerable out there on my own, so I didn't stray far and started to get a bit freaked out so came back a bit early.  I am not a confident swimmer, but with a mask and snorkel, I feel quite comfortable, however being on my own as the sun is going down with not a soul around to help if I got in trouble made me rather sensibly worry, I think.

There was some fantastic coastal camping on the Cape, even though technically, I shouldn't have been there.  You do need to break some rules when bicycle touring from time to time though.
After another night camping on the Cape, I returned to Exmouth (it was a dead-end road, you had to return) and picked-up the photos before hopping on a bus and getting it to drop me to the point I would have been without the detour.  I was now heading to a town called Tom Price, gateway into Karijini National Park.

Handy place to camp.
Karijini was one of those uniquely Australian places I wanted to visit.  Part of the ancient Pilbara range, the area is not only home to a heck of a lot of iron ore, but also a haven for geologists because the region holds some of the oldest rocks on earth.  In fact, one of these geologists was a squash player who kindly let me spend a night in the squash club in Tom Price.

Karijini was predictably a couple of days riding into another stiff headwind, but it was well worth it.  Beautiful sculpted gorges with pools of water for swimming, and some unique walks.  The hills were actually also quite welcome after all the flat into the wind cycling I had been experiencing.

The first area of gorges was 14Km down a very rough dirt road, and I wasn't happy taking my bike the whole way up and back, so I parked it up at a camping area and ran there instead.  I figured that I might thumb a lift as well, but I had to run about 7Km before this happened.  A nice couple picked me up and I kept on running into them for the rest of the day, meeting them at various points on different walks, and then also they picked me up just as I was starting to run back, which was very handy.

There were a series of short, but adventurous walks in Karijini where you had to wade through waist-high water, climb across the walls of the gorge, and even straddle both sides of the narrow gorge to get through.  I was a little concerned by this as I had my phone with me and falling in was not an option.  I carefully made my way through, though, and drank directly from the gorge water along the way using my trusty lifestraw, which was very useful as I didn't have to lug any water bottles around with me.  This will surely be of great benefit in New Zealand where there should be plenty of water flowing.  I haven't had much of a chance to use it in Australia as there is almost no water that isn't buried some metres underground.

I couldn't quite capture how spectacularly deep some of these gorges were with the pictures. They were quite vertigo inducing.
At the other end of the park were a series of other gorges, slightly less severe, but actually more picturesque and I had another great walk through Dales gorge the next day.  It was an exhausting couple of days; over 100Km of cycling and about 3 hours of walking and running on both days.

Dales Gorge
After leaving Karijini, I made my way north towards Port Hedland on the Great Northern Highway, a road frequented by lots of road trains carrying 4 huge trailers of iron ore.  I met a Frenchman cycling in the same direction and rode with him for some time.  This was the first time I had met someone traveling in the same direction as me on a bike for the whole tour - in fact any tour I have done.  I seem to have the knack of going at different times and/or in opposite directions to everybody else (this seems to be the story of my life).  We stopped for lunch and discovered he was eating almost exactly the same food as me, even the same brands; wraps, carrots, peanuts, oats, etc.  I guess there are only so many kinds of food you can fit into your bags that won't go off in the heat.

While cycling with him, however, I heard that dreaded twanging sound of a broken spoke.  Man have I had some issues with my back wheel on this tour.  I couldn't travel another 200Km on it so I had to flag down a lift and fortunately a lone traveller from Belgium helped me out and got me to Port Hedland.  With no bike shops in town, I was forced to hop on a bus to Broome.  During this time I reflected on the rest of this planned tour in Australia.

It occurred to me that the cycling was pretty grim.  The winds would now be guaranteed to be permanently against me and stronger all the way to Cairns.  There was also nothing to see off the main sealed roads either.  There were some great places to cycle, but these areas needed a different kind of bike with wider tyres and less of a load.  On my mind since the Ningaloo reef was also the desire to get back into scuba diving.  And on top of all this I was getting dangerously close to not being able to work reliably on the road, having a number of close calls with classes.  The stress of it all was starting to make things unenjoyable.

Another consideration was that my back wheel was becoming very unreliable.  The areas going East to Cairns were some of the least well-supported on the trip, with few stops and less grey nomads travelling around also.  More bike problems, this time in hotter, dryer conditions, seemed an unacceptable risk.  I couldn't keep flagging-down kind strangers to help me.  In New Zealand I can take such risks because towns are never that far away, but Australia is not a place to be doubting your equipment.

With all this in mind then, I made the call to finish the cycling in Broome and get on a bus to Cairns and spend a month or two there in a place where I could work easily online, do quite a bit of scuba diving, play a bit of squash, go to the gym and be kind to my body for a while before jumping on the bike again in New Zealand.

Cable beach in Broome
At nearly 4 months, this was my longest cycle tour and there had been some epic experiences within it.  Australia is a country of amazing nature, it is not as scenic as New Zealand, for example, but there are few places that can match it for uniqueness and experiences with wildlife and some of the most uninhabited wilderness areas on the planet.  It was these wildlife encounters that were the highlight of the tour for me.

One of the great things about traveling in this way is that it gives you time to reflect; you ask yourself some hard questions and you understand yourself a little better.  I learned a few things from this trip, the first being that I am not someone who can jump on a bike and go on a super-long bicycle tour, like some do for perhaps a year or longer.  One of the main reasons for this is general health and fitness, actually.  One would think cycle touring would make you pretty fit, and yes it does, but in one very specific way.  In actual fact, I began to feel slow, less agile, and less powerful.  I tried to workout differently on the road when I could, but it was very difficult due to fatigue from the bike and a lack of routine.  Add to this the less than perfect diet also, and I don't think long-term bicycle touring is especially great for my health and fitness, and that is something I am very much concerned with.

Boab tree near town beach in Broome.
Another thing I learned from visiting many different places on this trip is that going forward I need to live somewhere that is not a big city like Melbourne, but also not too isolated.  On top of this, I really need to live somewhere that has some outdoor adventure on it's doorstep.  My hometown in England, Colchester, is the right size, but is fairly devoid of natural beauty and that part of England certainly doesn't encourage an outdoor lifestyle.  This is a real conundrum for me, as I do miss my family and friends back home, but I do find that it isn't long before I get tired of the lack of adventure in Colchester.  It is like a drug habit that I just can't kick, the adventure and the nature is what makes life meaningful for me.

The sun setting on Cable beach and on the cycling in Australia.
One of my general problems in life is that, despite my slightly right-leaning political persuasion, I am extremely open to new ideas.  This means different notions about what to do in life ping around in my brain from moment to moment, which makes it incredibly difficult for me to settle on one direction, profession, or place in life.  With the stresses, strains, highs, and lows of a bicycle tour, and with the time to think, observing my thoughts on where I am going is intriguing.  Ideas come and go, especially in moments of hardship and of exhilaration, of which there are many when traveling in such a way.  It is a nice problem to have, though, in this day and age experiencing the world is so manageable and the range of truly life-enriching possibilities is almost endless.

This tour has given me a clearer idea of what I'm looking for in a place to live more permanently, but the adventures aren't over yet (I can't imagine they'll ever truly finish anyway).  New Zealand looms large in a couple of months, and plans are formulating for 2019 already, in fact next year is set to be even more exciting if everything goes to plan.

The full tour map; it doesn't follow the exact route as this is hard to do on Google Maps, and doesn't take into account the many detours I did, so I think the approximate distance covered, minus the odd bus trip is about 7500-8000Km on the bike.  Not quite as far as I intended, but still a bloody long way.


  1. Well written Chris,

    Always hard coming to the end of a tour. Good luck with your search, at least you get to have some great experiences along the way.


    1. Many thanks, Will. Not that long to the next tour. A couple of months and then it is New Zealand! Learnt quite a bit from this one, so there are some interesting changes from the original plan over there. You guys can't be far away from your North American epic. All prepared and ready to go?