Somewhere Between Sea And Sky - Unearthing the Magic of Shark Bay

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May 22nd 2014
Published: June 9th 2014
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A sight for sore eyesA sight for sore eyesA sight for sore eyes

Our first view of Fowler's Camp
Some places blow you away with spectacular scenery; others seduce you with irresistable beauty; and then there are those places that slowly sink into your subconscious due to less tangible reasons – the quality of the light, the clarity of the water, the interplay of colours in the sky. Shark Bay was one of these places.

Linda and I had left Kalbarri at the start of our fourth week on the West Coast (Monday 19th May), looping back through the National Park of the same name (stopping off along the way at a couple of scenic viewpoints above the Murchison Gorge) to rejoin the Coastal Highway, before again turning off the highway a couple of hours later to take the 130km detour to Denham - a small and tranquil seaside town that sits on the western side of a long and slender peninsula that sticks out into Shark Bay, effectively splitting it in two.

The largest bay in Australia, Shark Bay is perfectly protected from the Indian Ocean's roaring swells by a second peninsula that runs parallel to the first (which is home to Steep Point - the most westerly point in mainland Australia) and extends further into the
Shark Bay sunset #1Shark Bay sunset #1Shark Bay sunset #1

View from Denham's waterfront at dusk
the sea in the form of Dirk Hartog Island. Perhaps more importantly though, it is protected from an even more destructive force: humans. The entire bay is protected within the Shark Bay Marine Park, and this – coupled with the fact that the bay is very shallow and contains some of the world's most extensive meadows of sea grass – makes it a haven for marine life.

Despite all this, we were unsure what to actually do in Shark Bay in order to experience this unique environment – that was until we stopped in at the swanky new visitors centre in Denham, where we not only obtained a permit to camp at one of four peaceful and secluded seaside campgrounds (restricted to just four vehicles each per night) just outside Denham, but also ended up booking a three-hour wildlife cruise that came with a free sunset cruise from a local tour operator on a former racing catamaran called Shotover.

After indulging in a late lunch of fish and chips (which I had been craving ever since the start of our trip) and then sticking around to watch our first magnificent Shark Bay sunset from the waterfront in Denham,
Spectacular start to the daySpectacular start to the daySpectacular start to the day

Sunrise over Whalebone campground
we headed back out of town to spend the night at the lovely Whalebone campground, located beside a sheltered cove on the western side of Shark Bay. It was here, with the nearest artificial lights 25kms away back in Denham, that we were treated to the stunning spectacle of the entire Milky Way stretched out across the sky above us.

But as if that was not enough to make our stay at Whalebone memorable, the following morning I awoke just before sunrise to find one the most beautiful and colourful skies I have ever witnessed. All around me swirled soft tones of pink, gold and blue as whispy clouds overhead caught the day's first light. I grabbed my camera and dragged myself from the comfort of our warm and cosy bed to capture one of the most unforgettable sequences of photographs I have ever taken. Mother Nature had used her full palette in creating this sunrise, and I felt incredibly privileged to have been there to experience it.

After a scenic seaside breakfast later that morning, I climbed a small hill overlooking the campground to check out the view of the coastline from the top, and discovered to
Stunning girl in a sparkling seaStunning girl in a sparkling seaStunning girl in a sparkling sea

Linda cooling off at Shell Beach
my surprise a beautiful little deserted beach just over the other side – but as I was fast discovering, Shark Bay is full of such enchanting little beauty spots.

Another scenic gem lay waiting for us about fifty kilometres back along the main road when we visited the exquisite Shell Beach – which, as the name suggests, is made up not of sand but tiny little cockle shells that stretch for miles and reportedly are up to nine metres thick in places. And while the water might have been too shallow to swim in (despite my best efforts to prove otherwise!) it was a wonderful place to while away an hour or two. Eventually though we had to tear ourselves away from one beach to drive to another – this time the sandy beach at Monkey Mia, a small resort/settlement on the opposite side of the peninsula to Denham, which is famous for it's daily wild dolphin-feeding show.

We were there for a different reason however – to board the speedy catamaran Shotover (piloted by the father-and-son team of Harvey and Quinn) for our sunset cruise. And, it has to be said, lying back in the boom netting
Under SailUnder SailUnder Sail

View from the boom-netting onboard Shotover
nursing a craft beer (or in Linda's case a white wine) whilst drifting quietly across the azure waters of Shark Bay as the sun sunk slowly toward the horizon was one of the finest ways to end a day that I could think of. But while the day had ended just as perfectly as it had begun, the night was destined to be a very different story indeed...

Having been told at the visitors centre that we could not spend consecutive nights at one of the cheap campgrounds outside town, we decided that rather than fork out forty dollars to stay in a caravan park we would simply try to find somewhere quiet just off the road to park for the night. So as we left Monkey Mia after our sunset cruise we had our eyes peeled for suitable-looking side roads heading off into the bush, and sure enough just a few miles down the road we found one. But after venturing about a hundred metres or so up this red dirt road, I decided that I would rather find somewhere else to stay – and this was when I made the fateful decision to try to turn the
Shark Bay sunset #2Shark Bay sunset #2Shark Bay sunset #2

View from Shotover at dusk
van around by executing a three-point turn.

The problem with this idea was that although the narrow 'road' that we were following was made up of well-compacted dirt, the ground on either side of this consisted of loose red dirt with roughly the same consistency as sand. So sure enough, no sooner had I turned off the road, come to a stop, and tried to reverse back onto the road, than we found ourselves stuck in the dirt with the wheels spinning but us not going anywhere! And that's when the real fun began...

Almost instantly I leapt out of the van and proceeded to run around like a maniac whilst cursing wildly. Linda's reaction was far more sedate - and, in hindsight, appropriate - as she walked around the van assessing our situation... whilst laughing heartily at my antics! What followed was a blur of waving arms and flying dirt as we tried desperately to clear the loose dirt from behind the van using only our hands, a plastic tub we used for washing our dishes, and a flimsy plastic dustpan we had bought for two dollars in Fremantle! Surprisingly we managed to move quite a lot
Unscheduled overnight stopUnscheduled overnight stopUnscheduled overnight stop

Our campervan stuck in the dirt somewhere near Monkey Mia
of dirt in only a small amount of time, but try as we might, every fifteen minutes or so when I hopped back behind the wheel and tried to extricate us from our sandy grave, we slipped even further into the mire. After about three hours of digging and at least eight or nine failed salvage attempts, I forlornly suggested that it might be time to acknowledge the obvious – that we were not going to be going anywhere that night!

Having grudgingly accepted our fate, we proceeded to set the van up for sleeping... though first we had to solve the problem of both of us being covered in red dirt, which – in my case in particular – was by now stuck to our bodies with sweat! I looked like I had been dipped in oil and rolled over a bed of red breadcrumbs, meaning that Linda had to give me a makeshift 'shower' by slowly rubbing the dirt off me with a wet tea towel – as I stood naked as a jaybird in the middle of nowhere! But my goodness, the Milky Way sure looked impressive overhead...!

Waking up to our seemingly hopeless predicament
Monkeys in the MireMonkeys in the MireMonkeys in the Mire

Still stuck in the red dirt the next morning
the following morning, I made the wise decision to avoid looking for the quick fix (as we had done the night before, when it seemed that each time we shovelled dirt out of the way we would end up having to move the same dirt again later on) in favour of a more patient and measured approach, whereby I would try to remove ALL of the dirt from both behind and underneath the van (rather than simply digging a pair of parallel trenches behind the wheels) before attempting to reverse out.

For half-an-hour before breakfast (lovingly prepared by Linda, who was by now suffering from a migraine) and then a further two hours afterwards I toiled away, hopeful that all of the hard work would be worth it in the end; and that we would be able to make it back to Monkey Mia by one o'clock in the afternoon in time for our wildlife cruise on board Shotover. The breakthrough came however when Linda discovered an old wooden fence lying on the ground nearby, from which we were able to take countless planks of timber to lay directly behind the tyres of our van - thus greatly increasing
"I sure hope this works...""I sure hope this works...""I sure hope this works..."

Our campervan shortly before we finally made it out of the red dirt
our chances of successfully reversing out of the bed of dirt.

With as much dirt cleared as possible and the planks of wood in place, we finally crossed our fingers and pushed in our thumbs (the German way of wishing for good luck!) as I hopped behind the wheel for what I desperately hoped would be the final time and nervously started the engine. Creeping slowly backwards at first, I felt the tyres gain traction on the timber and then slammed my foot on the accelerator whilst holding my breath... and to my everlasting relief felt the van struggle up and over the bank of dirt that had hindered our progress since the ordeal had begun!

Having exited the ditch in a whirlwind of flying dirt, I then had to reverse back as far as possible without getting stuck on the opposite side of the road, before slamming the car into first gear and turning as sharply as possible whilst proceeding forwards so as to avoid the mound of soft dirt that lay beside the now vacant ditch. Halfway through the turn I felt the left rear wheel starting to spin, and having learnt the hard way the
Reward for our effortReward for our effortReward for our effort

Arriving at the jetty just in time for our wildlife cruise
night before that revving the engine wildly in this situation only causes you to sink deeper into the ground, I backed off and killed the engine.

Overjoyed that we had finally escaped our sandy tomb, but knowing that there was still more work to be done, we frantically set about freeing ourselves once more – which involved me clearing as much loose dirt out of the way as possible while Linda took the planks of wood from the ditch and replaced them in front of where the van's left wheels now lay. Ten minutes of furious toil later I was back in the drivers seat, and with the engine roaring (and me doing my best rally driver impersonation!) I soon had Oscar bouncing back down the god-forsaken dirt road that we had driven up some eighteen hours earlier. As Linda gathered our things and came running after the van, I jumped out of my seat and ran about hooting and hollering at the top of my lungs. We had finally managed to free ourselves from the red earth that had threatened to derail our road-trip; and we still had fifteen minutes to make it back to the beach at
Sailing AwaySailing AwaySailing Away

Linda taking it easy on board Shotover
Monkey Mia for our wildlife cruise!

The look on Quinn's face when I walked up the jetty towards him covered in red dirt and politely explained that we had encountered some car trouble and would appreciate it if they could just wait another five minutes before departing so that we could go for a swim to wash off the red dirt was absolutely priceless! But given that it was his final day in the job (after five years working on the boat) before heading to Amsterdam, it was safe to say he wasn't too bothered! And so against all odds Linda and I managed to make it back on board Shotover for the second time in nineteen hours (eighteen of which had been spent stuck in the dirt!) - this time with the intention of doing some serious wildlife spotting!

With Quinn driving the boat and his old man Harvey keeping a keen eye out for marine life up at the bow, we eventually found a sea turtle in the shallow waters; before a shark was spotted and we proceeded to follow it for the next five minutes or so. But the highlight came when we finally managed
Shark Bay sunset #3Shark Bay sunset #3Shark Bay sunset #3

View from Fowler's Camp at dusk
to locate a small pod of three or four dolphins, who from time to time would indulge in a spot of bow wave-surfing – much to the excitement of everyone on board! Watching these incredible animals ducking and weaving about only inches from the front of the boat was a truly magical moment, and a perfect way in which to experience the marine life that Shark Bay is so famous for first hand.

Well satisfied with the afternoon's events, we disembarked back in Monkey Mia and headed straight back to the visitors centre in Denham to obtain another camping permit for what would be our third and final night in Shark Bay; but with Whalebone already being booked out we had to settle for another of the campgrounds (recommended to us by the lady at the visitors centre) called Fowler's Camp. It proved to be an inspired choice. After loading up with fuel and water - provided at a cost of just $1 per 20 litres from an automatic dispenser outside the local water company building - we headed back down the main road before turning off onto a short (but thankfully solid) dirt road, and after cresting a
Memorable end to an unforgettable dayMemorable end to an unforgettable dayMemorable end to an unforgettable day

Looking out over Fowler's Bay just after dusk
rise we were treated to our first unforgettable view of Fowler's Bay – complete with a narrow sandy spit extending out into the water immediately in front of the camping area – as the sun inched it's way towards the horizon.

We were ecstatic. As Linda set the van up for the night and made a start on dinner, I grabbed my towel and camera and waded out to the little sandbank to take in another spectacular Shark Bay sunset whilst indulging in a gloriously refreshing swim. With reds, pinks, purples and blues all melting together in the sky I made my way back to the van to join Linda for a wonderfully scenic candlelit seaside dinner. We had found ourselves in a horrible situation that neither of us could have foreseen, but we had worked together to get ourselves out of it; and now we were free to sit back, relax and enjoy our incredible good fortune as the last light of an unforgettable day faded from sight in a truly magical part of the world.

Additional photos below
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Late afternoon lightLate afternoon light
Late afternoon light

View from Denham's waterfront
Shadows growing longer by the minuteShadows growing longer by the minute
Shadows growing longer by the minute

Another view from Denham's waterfront
Colourful SunsetColourful Sunset
Colourful Sunset

View from Denham's waterfront at dusk - take one
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Colourful Sunset

View from Denham's waterfront at dusk - take two
Colourful SunsetColourful Sunset
Colourful Sunset

View from Denham's waterfront at dusk - take three
Colourful SunsetColourful Sunset
Colourful Sunset

View from Denham's waterfront at dusk - take four
Stunning start to the dayStunning start to the day
Stunning start to the day

View from our campervan at dawn - take one
Stunning start to the dayStunning start to the day
Stunning start to the day

View from our campervan at dawn - take two

10th June 2014
Under Sail

On the Sea
Very cool photo. What a great trip.

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