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Oceania » Australia » Western Australia » Monkey Mia
December 16th 2008
Published: January 26th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Today we went on our first Monkey Mia tour. It was a full day safari trip through the national park.

We all met at the tour booking office and were introduced to Tim Hargreaves, our guide for the day. He was a cheery bearded man, the kind you could imagine to make a fun worldly wise grandfather. He was full of old stories and had experienced lots of adventures during his lifetime travelling the world. He was originally from Jersey and had been officially Australian since the 70s but he still had a very posh English accent gained from years at boarding schools.

We took us into Denham first and told how the early settlers were attracted to the place because of the abundance of pearl shells and sandalwood. He pointed to a small restaurant on a corner of the main street and said we had to go and see it up close. We started thinking that it was a sales pitch for a friends restaurant or something, but as we got nearer we saw that it was a genuine tourist attraction. The building was made completely out of tiny white shells. At first I thought that the walls were breeze blocks that had been coated in cement and rolled in shells, but Tim explained that the blocks had been hand cut out of the beach at Shell Bay down the road -a beach we’d read about that was made up entirely from layers and layers of tiny shells. The shells had compressed on the beach to become solid so they weren’t stuck together by any man made substance, the calcium in them bound them together. The next revelation was the Tim himself had built it single handedly. He explained that he’d done it on weekends and evenings over a three year period but sadly at some poin he’d ‘lost it’ so the place no longer belonged to him. He never told us how he lost it but I’m sure it would have been another interesting tale. Even though it no longer belonged to him he took us inside and showed us around, telling us that it was a great place to eat if we fancied a night out.

We started to realise that this man wasn’t just full of stories - he really had had an amazing life! Not only had he built the world’s only shell restaurant, but it turned out that he’d built his own house out of mud!

As we drove to the national park entrance in the 4x4, he filled us in on the history of the country and we learnt some interesting facts about how the name of the country changed from New Holland to Australia (after a lady called Isabella from Austria). The family we were travelling with were religious so he gave us some insights into how the Aborigines sense of history also matched with that of the missionaries who came to the area - they were found to believe in the great flood and even had wall paintings which depicted this years before the missionaries arrived.

Next stop was an information centre which depicted the history of sheep farming in the area. It was set up around a shearing shed where the sheep used to be brought in by hardy dogs that were a cross between old English sheep dogs and dingos, penned up and sheared using very old looking machinery.

After a short stop we moved through the Francois Peron National Park along bright red dirt tracks towards the beach.

It was a long drive over bumpy ground before we saw the aqua of the water peeping over the hill. We were all looking forward to seeing the coastal scenery as on the photos it looked much more intense than the beaches we’d seen before. As we approached the beach Tim became hesitant as he didn’t enjoy driving on the soft sand. Luckily we made it past the loose part and were able to drive along the flat, compacted sand close to the tide line all the way to Bottle Bay.

It was midday but apparently it was only time for morning tea, so we got out and enjoyed looking at the spectacular view while munching on as many biscuits as we could grab. The water was bright blue and took on different shades as it got deeper, the sand was a blinding white, and the cliffs which bordered the beach were a deep burnt red. The colours looked concentrated, as though they were as bright as they could get. I felt like I could stay there for the whole day just looking at the view without needing to get into the water (the guy in the tour office reminded us before we left that there would be no swimming on the tour due to sharks!)

Between us we must have taken a hundred shots of the bay from different angles. It felt impossible to capture the essence of the place in a single shot.

It was sad to say goodbye to the scenery but it was time to move on for a pre lunch bush walk. Tim drove us a few minutes further up the coast, and then dropped us off telling us he’d see us at the top end of the walk in half an hour. We took the walking track along the top of the cliff which weaved us from viewing point to viewing point. Once we’d arrived at the top of the first small hill we were treated to a view of thousands of cormorants (birds) standing in a line along the waters edge. The line seemed to go on and on. The odd renegade bird had broken from the pack and was swimming around and ducking under the water but the rest all stood together.

The sun was baking down on us and I was glad we’d brought our hats and bottles of water. The (unnaturally) red sand was hot to touch and every time I took a step more of it spilled over the tops of my shoes and burnt my bare feet. The track was difficult to follow despite there being occasional arrow signs. Our group split off and we were left trailing at the back taking pictures. It looked like a prime place to find snakes but Matt pointed out that it was probably too hot for them - it felt like 43 degrees!

We walked and walked, draining our water bottle every few steps. Half an hour passed, with no sign of Tim’s car. In the end it must have taken fifty minutes to reach the carpark, and by that time we were all wilting under the sun and starving,.

Tim loaded us all up with the lunch things and we set off together to the lookout point a bit further ahead. From the decked area we had a great view of the water below and could easily make out the basking rays - there were eagles, shovelheads and Tim said there were also mantas and stingrays. Every now and then a green turtle popped it’s head out for a breath.

We spent the next hour eating our sandwiches while watching the fish below on the unshaded platform. The heat was tiring and I was more than pleased when Tim said other than a quick stop at one more beach for photos we were heading back. The journey back through the park was long and uneven. Tim chatted away to us all finding out about our interests and jobs, and sharing some things about himelf in the process.

We learnt that he is a local councillor although isn’t liked by most of the council as he is too eccentric for them. As well as building, his other skill is story telling and he told us about a book he’d just published. When he heard that I was interested in writing we spent a long time chatting about getting published and about the types of writing I’m interested in. It was inspiring listening to him as he had experienced so much. It wasn’t long before we’d all agreed we wanted to buy his book so he promised to sign us a copy when we got back to the office.

I think the best way to describe Tim is through a story that he told us on our journey home. A few years ago he’d read an article about a couple of British soldiers who’d been badly injured while fighting and had lost limbs. He’d read about them in the Telegraph and thought the fact that they were eager to get back to their regiment and carry on their jobs was inspiring and admirable. Rather than read it and keep those thoughts to himself, he wrote letters to both soldiers via the newspaper congratulating them on their courage and thanking them for fighting for the country. The soldiers were touched to receive his letter and sent him one back thanking him for his effort. I think that says it all. How many times do you think about doing something like that but never actually get around to it?

Unfortunately Tim had been calling me Kate for most of the trip. Before it didn’t matter and I hadn’t bothered to correct him, but now I was going to buy his book I knew I’d have to tell him or risk him signing the book to the wrong person! He wasn’t too mortified luckily and wrote us a nice message in the cover.

When the boss of the main Monkey Mia wildlife tour office asked if we’d had a good day we all quickly agreed that we had. The irony was that it wasn’t the scenery or the wildlife that had made it so - it was being out on the road with Tim.

We had a few hours in between tours so used it to get showered and have some dinner.

Tonight’s tour was called ‘Awestronomy’. The sky had been cloudless every day since we arrived in WA, yet typically today, the one day we needed it to stay clear, they were everywhere. We kept our fingers crossed that it would clear up otherwise it would be a short tour.

We met Harvey at the tour office at dusk and he showed us all to the conference room for the first part of the trip. Inside he gave us a talk about our galaxy and how it fitted into the universe. As usual we were amazed at all of the examples he gave us about how far away things are and how long light takes to get to us from stars and planets.

We were told that stars are nothing more than a collection of compressed gas with light shining on it. The colour of the light that we see depends on how compressed the gas is and it‘s often possible to see stars that look like they are flashing different colours like red and green. Shooting stars are nothing more than dust or pieces of rock travelling through the atmosphere. Our sun is about half way through it’s life and no matter what we do, it will eventually die. He talked about how scientists guess the number of stars, planets and galaxies using mathematical probability but often this is incorrect and every few years someone discovers a revelation that shatters previous thinking. The light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach us.

The talk was filled with lots of incomprehensible facts and, just like the Bill Bryson book, we found it all hard to take in.

After giving out some binoculars, we all descended onto the beach and walked around the bay until we came to a very dark spot. We turned out our torches and let our eyes adjust. While we waited for the stars to start appearing before us I thought how funny it was that I’d never been interested in astronomy before. I used to wonder how anyone could pick out constellations or galaxies as I thought the sky all looked the same. I was so wrong - now we can easily pick out the main constellations - Palades, Orion and the galaxies that look suspiciously like patches of cloud. I can even pick out satellites every time we stargaze which Matt finds frustrating as he can never see them until I show him where they are. Harvey asked us to keep an eye out for satallites so a few minutes later I’d spotted one we could all have a look at through our binoculars while he pointed a red beam of light at it to help us find our way to it. It’s a lot harder than you think trying to find something in the sky with binoculars even when you know where to look! It moved quickly - much faster than I’d realised when watching with the naked eye.

We spent the next hour in a haze of learning. There was so much to take in and he kept testing us by asking us the names of stars and planets he’d introduced us to. He told us that when a star dies, the act creates more stars. He showed us some hazy patches where stars were forming and he also showed us stars that were flashing in different colours. I had no ideas that the light given by stars was different colours before this! It was crazy thinking that the light from the stars and plants has taken anywhere from minutes to years to reach us - any of them could be dead by now but we wouldn’t know until the moment the light reaches us.

We were shown the ‘false cross’ which was similar to the southern cross but the southern cross was currently out of sight due to the season. At different times of the night and different times of the year you can see different things in the sky. Harvey explained that we will see a completely different sky when we get back into the northern hemisphere - the things that we’ve got used to seeing will appear upside down.

We went back to our van excited that we’d seen and learnt so much in one night, and inspired to learn more about astronomy when we get home. As soon as we got there we realised how absolutely exhausted we were after such a long day.


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