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Stars, Sand and Sea-life


Pauline and I left dirty Dublin just after Christmas 2001. We had travelled around the world in 2 weeks and had been dazzled by sights and sounds on a daily basis-the Golden Gate Bridge wreathed in mist, the Sydney Bridge lit up for New Year’s Eve, and the natural brooding majesty of Ayers Rock, glowing like a piece of Mars that fell right in the middle of dear old Oz. After all that excitement, Perth, with its manicured gardens, and its lazy Swan River, was too quiet, too respectful, essentially too deferential for us. Even the rain, the first we had seen since we left Dublin, was almost apologetic. A Kiwi taxi driver summed up Perth nicely but not too cruelly -“mate, it’s a very big country town”-we had to get out of there.

We had to break things up, get away from the room service, the avenues and alleyways. We had to rough it . Months before, I was half listening when Pauline planned us the trip to Monkey Mia in the mid west of Western Australia. In Irish terms it seemed like bloody miles away but Monkey Mia resort is world famous for its dolphins. These animals are wild and unspoilt but because of an elaborate feeding programme they’ve been conned into swimming right up to shore each day to get fed and to provide remarkable photo ops- all of this makes Monkey Mia a Must See. We could have flown up there but we were sick of the drudgery of airports and besides, the frontier spirit ruled. We were going to drive and drive and see the scrubs and stones and dingos. This was a big trip, we reckoned it would be close on 1400 miles, there and back. We just could’nt wait any longer.

It’s Friday evening in Mid January, we’re in a little white air conditioned Toyota heading for the great wilds, or at least searching frantically for the North Highway. Of course there’s a false start, a wrong turn, and mutual recriminations. We career south for a little while but after a pit stop there’s a quick turn around and we’re cruising north through sleepy Perth ‘burbs with their hissing lawns glistening in blazing sunlight. Soon the houses get bigger, and the gardens sprawl, and by three in the afternoon we’ve passed the very dapper Australian Air Force compound at Northam. Before long there’s roadside signs for prim little equestrian schools and we’re skimming through miles and miles of the most delicious looking vineyards. These gradually blend into the huge farm holdings with the farmhouses on distant hills and with fields that seem to go on forever. After another hour or two the grass on the local hills is less green, the livestock looks less nourished, and the soil takes on a burning red colour in the lowering sun. Almost before you know it you’re there, the middle of nowhere.

We’re driving through the late afternoon, the best part of the day, and there’s nothing but parched scrub, red stone and Christmas trees-the latter are monstrous parasite weeds with blazing flowers. They tower over everything, everything they’ve eaten. There’ll be a stop soon enough, Eneabba in a hour. There’s hardly a car in sight but when we pass the local ore mines we can barely see the road trains, monstrous juggernauts with two or three trailers, through the dust they kick up. The signs begin to sprout up for Eneabba “ free coffee for the driver”-and before too long we’re there.

Eneabba looks like it sounds-we’re there on a Friday evening, the time of the week when most people’s pulses are rising, but hereabouts you can almost see the tumbleweed blow down the main street. The local folks are nice though. I’ve to pay for a thankful of petrol and I’m looking forward to getting served by a vision-picture Sophia Loren at 40 but sassy and more sensual. A greasy young mechanic shuffles to the counter. Just as he’s about to pay our Sophia pokes him in the ribs and says “Greg? Young Greg Cornell? “He’s blushing to the tips of his toes. “I babysat you when you were a wee one. You were a cute baby, but bugger me, look at ya now”. She calls her daughter from the storeroom. “Stella, come on out, look who’s here”. Stella glides in behind the counter, the spit of Sophia at 17. “ Stella, this young buck is Greg, I babysat him when he was a nipper, he shared a cot with you. A bundle of joy he was too”. Greg is now deep purple, his top lip is sweating, and Stella does the bashful routine. Greg makes his apologies and runs. Stella’ mother sighs, “bugger me, Greg Cornell”, and I pay for my petrol.

So we’re stocked up with petrol, any amount of bottled water, sweets and crisps and we still have a big distance to drive yet. We’re pushing on to Geraldton, the next big town. In fading light the countryside begins to get greener and more hospitable and it feels that we’re chasing the sun as it sinks over hills. Miles and miles of straight road, and hardly another motorist in sight, but there any number of dingos leering at us from roadside shadows.

We’re listening to the cricket on the radio, Aussie are playing in Melbourne, some of the spectators have drunk too well but not too wisely, and for the first time in living memory Aussie are coming second. Cricket has a terrible reputation in Ireland but in Australia it’s part of the country’s lifeblood. Aussies love the game but they’re irreverent about it too, their cricket commentators are more akin to shock jocks. If Australians love one thing more than talking up their winners it’s ripping the piss out of their losers and the boys on ABC radio don’t spare anyone. Results are no big deal with us though-later on we listen to the Strokes, U2 and Ed Harcourt and keep an eye out for kangaroos. They generally make a beeline for cars’ headlights after dusk and we’ve seen any amount of roadkill but we avoid any fatalities. By the time we pass the exit for Dongara, a fishing resort, we’re in total darkness. The last few miles to Geraldton are almost too long for words and by the time we reach the Sun City Hotel, just outside town, we’re out on our feet. The Sun City is functional and devoid of any the glamour which its name might suggest. Having said that, we’re so tired it seems like Claridges.

I get the impression that Geraldton somehow sees itself as the Paris of Mid Western Australia-Geraldton folks, while they don’t sniff unduly at out of towners, are quietly proud of their relative sophistication. It looks like a provincial seaside town but it’s pretty with it and the railway line runs along a glorious looking seafront, rather like it does in Wexford. Geraldton has a good name for surf and sea fishing but we’re staying one night, we’re barely able to venture out. We’re too tired to entertain or to be entertaining so we have some pretty tasty Spanish nosebag, field polite questions from the locals about our accents, ( “so cute”) drink some BYO wine and beer, and then sleep the long sleep.

It’s mid afternoon the following day and ABC radio tell us about the blistering heat that’s burning up the country and how constant hydration is the name of the game. We’re three hours out of Geraldton-we took a rain check on the continental brekkie in the Sun City and as we drove out the north road from Geraldton we saw the start of a cricket match in blazing heat. We scoot through Northampton, a sulky little frontier town that’s done up like an old western high street, complete with wooden hotel balconies and swing doors on the lounge bars. Beyond Northampton the land gives itself up once more to scrubs and Christmas trees. We decide to stop at a lay by to have a bit of a picnic –everything is still, as if it’s waiting for the shade of evening. Within a minute heat and breathlessness burns into us and we almost crawl to the salvation of our air conditioned car.

The north road stretches beyond sight and we’re so far out of town it hardly matters. Billabong, a roadhouse, looms up, and we stop simply because it’s there. The bar is half full, everyone is dressing down, and I check out the menu. “Can I have some chicken?” “No mate, I’ll stick yer on two burgers”. In Billabong you take what you can get.

Two hours later and we’re still on the road north. Not a hint of green to be seen, the scrub is bleached white, nothing can escape the sun and the sky looks like it’s never seen a cloud. After what seems a lifetime taking a straight road north we’ve reached the left turn for Monkey Mia and Denham-it feels like we’re turning left at the Equator. We’re now into the last part of the trip and in awe of the emptiness-Pauline looks out into the wilds and stones that stretch to the end of the world-“you could walk out there and never be heard of again”.

We’re racing on to Denham, a little seaside resort that has seen better days. It used to have a big snapper fish industry  but over-fishing destroyed the stocks, jobs were lost in the local plants and the place was dragged down . Websites advise people visiting Monkey Mia to stay in Denham. We stop for a few minutes in a Tab bar on the seafront to stock up on beer and vino-road signs tell you in no uncertain terms it’s the last bottle shop before Monkey Mia, so it’s literally the Last Chance Saloon. I sense the locals don’t like the cut of my or indeed anyone else’s jib so I’m glad we’re moving on.

Sunday morning, on the beach in Monkey Mia. It has an unfussy little wharf from which you can take fishing or scenic trips and the oceanfront itself was imported piece by piece from Paradise-perfect blue sea under perfect blue sky, shimmering white sands, and, of course, dolphins. 40 of us listen very attentively to a very forbidding looking Park Ranger up to her knees in water. She’s telling us about the dolphins which we can see swishing around 20 yards from shore. We’re told in no uncertain terms that apart from feeding times in the mornings visitors are strictly forbidden from feeding or touching the dolphins.. “These guys are as cute as’ and they’ll swim up to ya and look at ya but you’re not to feed them n’ you’re not to touch them. Y’hear??”. Don’t cross this woman.

As the sun climbs higher our Ranger gives us a detailed history of the doings of the four dolphins and answers all questions. A fish bucket is produced and the dolphins edge in closer. The Ranger picks out volunteers and at this point the dolphins are right beside the shore, gliding and ducking and diving. The three volunteers start to feed and video cameras begin to whirr away. There are any amount of ooohs and aaaahs, but in what seems like a couple of seconds the feeding is over, the dolphins, well fed and grinning, have drifted out to sea.

After the crowd has dispersed we tramp back to our chalet and change for the Beach, perhaps a little disappointed. The dolphins are pretty and can certainly chomp through every morsel they are fed, but, as we discover later that afternoon, that’s not the end of it-we return to the beach and the dolphins never stray far from shore. Later in the day you find yourself swimming alongside one or two of these graceful creatures, or you’ll see them playing amongst themselves, without a care in the world. They’re curious about us and the roles are reversed from the morning. We were never told they stay so close by, and the dolphins look mre laid back than they did in the morning-they are probably as scared of the Park Ranger as we are.

Even if the dolphins were not regular visitors, Monkey Mia  really is a gorgeous little resort. The folks looking after the resort itself are not the friendliest but they’re more clipped in tone than unpleasant. Monkey Mia’s accommodation is varied in terms of options and prices available and it’s  uniformly clean and well appointed. Monkey Mia also has a very good eaterie, ( though it closes quite early), a few shops and takeaways and its own outdoor barbeques.

That evening we eat in the diner and later, after all of the light has fallen we have a few drinks on the beach, perched against a little white rowboat. It’s a glorious evening and we can see millions of stars we’ll never see from Dublin.

They’re a blessing, and so is Monkey Mia.

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