Published: August 18th 2006July 2nd 2006
The leg to Coral Bay was a good demonstration of the deficiencies of Greyhound compared with Easyrider, with us arriving in Coral Bay at about 1AM. Elena had caught the same bus and I played her a selection of my Italo disco music, which she rubbished - a slur I won't forget in a hurry.
Daniel had kindly waited up for us, though as it turned out we were in his dorm anyway hence would have woken him up regardless. He warned us that there was a drunken Canadian guy also in residence, who had had a big row with his girlfriend earlier in the evening. Sure enough, when we entered the room there was a sleepy-eyed, blank-expressioned chap sitting up in his bunk, grunting occasionally. An American girl (Lori - with a hypnotic southern accent) from the Greyhound had also just moved in - since everyone was clearly awake, I put on the main light to avoid having the usual torch-lit obstacle course when arriving in a dorm late at night.
As we all sorted our gear out and did our ablutions, the Canadian guy's behaviour became a little worrying. He asked Elena "what the fuck" she was
doing, in an aggressive tone, as she cleaned her contact lenses. He also made a few unintelligible comments to me, before summoning up sufficient clarity to ask "Why don't you just wake everyone up?" I wasn't really in the mood for conversation, whether confrontational or otherwise, so I kept my responses short and polite.
Within a couple of minutes of everyone being in bed and the lights going out, he started snoring and did not let up for at least an hour. During that time, his cell-phone went off - he didn't even miss a snore, and I was forced to turn the thing off myself.
Though I could have done with a decent sleep, there was a further snoring incident at about 8AM so I decided I may as well get up. One great thing about this trip is that having little sleep will not impact anything I do during the day, e.g. I don't need to worry about falling asleep in meetings. Bliss.
Water in Coral Bay is an extremely precious commodity, and as a result the tap water and shower water (and no doubt the toilet water) in the bathrooms is salt water -
which can be a shock when you clean your teeth, or open your mouth in the shower. There are a couple of taps in the kitchen dispensing fresh water. I noted in passing that the men's showers were accessible by a vengeful pair of saloon bar doors.
Back in the dorm, Mr Canada was absent, so I took this opportunity to discuss the situation with Elena and Lori. Lori said that when she'd arrived in the dorm, he had simply sat and stared at her without saying anything. Neither of them were particularly keen on staying in the dorm with him there. I asked at reception what the deal was with him, and was told that one girl had already complained about him and moved out - however he was also due to be leaving in a day's time. I was also given the news that because the hostel has almost 100% occupancy, we would be doing ourselves a favour if we booked for our entire intended stay instead of expecting to do it day by day (which, of course, ANY hostel would say, but in this case it was actually good advice).
As usual, I had a
brief wander around the village to orient myself and see what was there. It's even smaller than Denham, seems to exist purely for tourism and, though I was unable to do a comparison of prices via the Monte Index (an Australia-specific biscuit-based counterpart to the Big Mac Index), I noticed that a jar of pesto that had cost $4 in Denham was a scandalous $5.80 here.
The main attraction of Coral Bay is its proximity to the Ningaloo Reef. The reef is often described as being a smaller version of the Great Barrier Reef but more accessible. Indeed, you can see parts of it by simply wading off the shore with a snorkel (though the best bits need to be reached by boat). All manner of marine life can be viewed in the surrounding waters, including manta rays all year round and whale sharks seasonally. Though Exmouth (further up the coast) has more options and better infrastructure, it also attracts the lion's share of the crowds, allowing Coral Bay to retain a peaceful charm that can (and, in my case, did) intoxicate.
The rest of the day was spent in a situation that I rarely put myself in
voluntarily, namely lying on the beach. What persuaded me to engage in this activity was simply that there was no good reason not to. With the weather perfect, the beach uncrowded, the sea clear and sufficiently warm to support swimming with minimal risk of hypothermia, and a rumoured shortage of any of the Australian aquatic nasties that can chew off a limb or cause an agonising death, the golden sands took on a seductive aura that living next to the North Sea had never been able to provide. It also helped that I had nothing else to do, and had been looking a little pasty. Belying my Anglo-Saxon heritage, I successfully managed to apply an appropriate amount of sunscreen to prevent a lobstery red and acquire a slightly brown tinge. The areas that I missed were unsparingly revealed by the shower.
Day 2 was another beachfest, but this time on the other side of the headland at Paradise Beach. Another miraculous combination of sun, sand, sea, and "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. At one point, I watched in amusement as 3 English guys came racing back to shore at Ian Thorpe-like speeds because they had seen a fin. It turned
out to be a dolphin, which you can recognise because (broadly speaking) shark fins tend to remain above water for periods of time, whereas dolphin fins go in and out. It's easy to say that when you're lounging on a towel watching 3 scared-silly guys trying to look unconcerned in front of their girlfriends.
Despite all the nature-watching of recent days, the World Cup had been progressing regardless and on our second night in Coral Bay, Germany were due to play Argentina, which was televised in one of the pubs. Shortly before the game there was a bout of fisticuffs (not football-related) that brought the tally to 2 fights in less than 2 weeks - more than I can recall happening in London. The evening provided an amazing illustration of the bizarre climate that exists in this part of Australia. During the day, a pair of Speedos had been sufficient covering. By the end of the game, i.e. at close to 1AM Western Australia Time, I was wearing all of my warm clothing bar my down vest. Elena had long since returned to the hostel because of the cold. Daniel had stopped caring about the result and was simply
wanting the game to finish. It really is the difference between night and day. The one positive was that the Milky Way was as bright as I've ever seen it, which itself has the power to warm you up a few degrees.
Elena revealed that, in Italy, English people have the reputation of not washing very often - a completely incorrect stereotype that I'd not heard of before. Interestingly, when she told her mother that she was travelling with an English guy, her Mum assumed from that statement that she must be getting lots of action, so I suppose we Brits have a somewhat checkered reputation in southern Europe.
I met a lot of people travelling on the Easyrider bus while I was in Coral Bay, which gave me further insight into what life is like as a "Sleazyrider". Though it is often lumped in with some of the other "screw and spew" outfits that operate in Australia, I met enough normal (in inverted commas) people to make me think that maybe it's a cut above. For example, Beth and Kat are both Easyrider customers and I had no problems identifying with them. However it was from the
ranks of the Sleazyriders that the first recorded case of shagging on my trip came to light.
With a clientele mainly consisting of young people often liberally soused with alcohol, it's not too surprising that hostels see their fair share of sexual activity. What I was rather surprised by was that it had taken over 2 months for me to hear talk of any action going on in any hostels that I'd been in. What I was even more surprised by was why anyone would choose a dorm bed - with the non-trivial inconveniences of a lack of space and comfort, plus a selection of unwilling spectators in the shape of one's dorm-mates - for such a liaison. However Beth and Kat reported that some shagging had indeed taken place in their dorm, involving one of the Easyrider travellers and some unknown partner. This was to become an oft-repeated theme all the way up the west coast.
Coral Bay also had a healthy ration of weirdos. To add to the drunken Canadian was a strange Aussie guy. I first encountered him at the bar, when he clapped his hand on my shoulder and asked "So how are you
doing today then?" I turned around, expecting to see someone I recognised, and was confused to see him there, as I'd never seen him in my life before. I replied, slowly, that I was doing fine, hoping he'd see the confusion on my face and help me out, but instead he just said "Great - I love a story with a happy ending" then ordered his beer. I subsequently found out that he had been riding around the (Easyrider, coincidentally) dorm on a Razor scooter, and he then caused a kayaking tour to be brought to a premature end because he wouldn't stop making unnecessary noise and splashing when they were trying to quietly approach some marine life.
Among the more disappointing aspects of my stay in Coral Bay was England's woeful departure from the World Cup, putting in yet another inept performance against Portugal, a side not exactly world-beaters themselves, and then managing to only slot away one penalty in the predictable shoot-out, with even that one being deflected off the Portuguese keeper's hand. It's a continuing mystery to me how the England team can perform collectively so poorly when individually they have the ability to be whacking
in goals by the hatful. Not that I would ever claim to be England's greatest supporter, but from a purist's point of view it's frustrating (a bit like Spain's continuing underperformance, or Eiffel 65 being treated as a novelty band).
Fortunately I had the ideal fix for a World Cup departure hangover, in the shape of a Nature Tour of Coral Bay. This promised to take in snorkelling with manta rays, whale watching, turtle watching, and reef snorkelling, which sounded perfect. It lived up to its billing too. Elena and Kat were also on the tour, though poor Elena was feeling a bit nauseous so wasn't able to fully participate in the activities (though she got a good look over the side of the boat).
A spotter plane had gone up in order to locate manta rays, and when they identified one the captain put the boat on turbo boost and we sped towards the sighting. As we were steaming along, the guide ran us through the signals that she would use when we were in the water. She also explained the rays' feeding patterns - they swim along near the bottom of the sea, flapping their "wings"
and stirring up the sea-bed (in particular the small creatures that they feed on), then they do a U-turn and filter-feed through the cloud of krill that is now wafting around.
On reaching the spotter plane's coordinates, we entered the water one by one. Most people had wetsuits or rash-guards, which turned out to be extremely sensible as the water was damn cold. I didn't have anything except my trunks, and if I wasn't swimming at full pelt I began to feel most uncomfortable. It was easy to spot the dark ray against the light-coloured sea bed, and it looked enormous though was "only" about 3.5m wide. It swept along majestically with minimal effort, accompanied by a couple of remora. We were hard-pressed to keep up with it, and my ears were filled with the sounds of my rapid breathing. After a few minutes, it moved up a gear and zoomed off into the distance. A brief but amazing experience. Drying off on the boat proved to be chilly, but the crew had some cups of vegetable soup available to warm up the internal fires a little.
The plane couldn't find any further rays, so we next started
looking for whales. The first humpback we found wasn't particularly interesting initially, but it soon realised that it was required to put on a show, and started doing all the breaching, tail-slapping, and fin-slapping antics that you could hope to see.
We then visited a turtle sanctuary before our final stop at an area of the Ningaloo Reef called The Gap. There is a "cleaning station" here, run by a school of wrasse, that sharks, rays, etc visit when they need sprucing up. Unfortunately today the cleaning station was empty of customers, however there were scores of anemones and small colourful fish in the vicinity, not to mention Northwest snapper and other very curious fish that approached to within inches. After this we returned to Coral Bay, after an exciting day that more than made up for the disappointment of the football.
The other downside of the Greyhound delivering me here at 1AM was that, when I wanted to move on, I had to wait up until 1AM to catch it again. I was sorry to be leaving Coral Bay, as the lazy days on the beach together with the awe-inspiring nature tour had already positioned it in
my Top 5 favourite places in Australia. Elena also left at the same time as me, though Daniel was staying for an extra day in order to fit in a dive. It was a tiresome wait in the hostel reception, though while reading a gossip magazine I did see an advert for a product called Piss Off! that claims to eliminate the odour of cat urine. Daniel generously waited with us, and the coach obliged by only turning up 20 minutes late. With a double seat to myself, I watched the stars for a while and then nodded off.
There are more photos below