Australia is huge. Yeah I know, obvious, right? But it’s not until we’re barrelling down the highways, swerving against kangaroos and blue-tongued skinks in a WesternXposure minibus, that I truly realize it. The number of flies slapping against the windscreen is unreal. Outside is worse. Desperate times call for desperate measures and both Sarah and I fork out for army green outbacker hats, complete with full frontal fly netting. We are just that cool.
The bus that is taking us from Perth to Monkey Mia is a mix of nationalities – Scots, Japanese, Spanish, Swiss. For the first couple of days we travel with another bus that is going further north, to Exmouth. Having the two buses side by side makes me realize how much your enjoyment of a trip is up to chance. There are good groups of people – like those on our bus. Then there are those who seem in a permanent state of drunk or grump or both. Would it kill the girls on the other bus to crack a smile? Since they never dare to try it, it is easy to think so. Our bus is lucky. Well, except for the poor unfortunates who have to put up with the “When we were in Africa…” girls.
The big ticket stop on the tour is Monkey Mia and its wild dolphins. Not that we don’t see other things along the way: the Pinnacles desert with its eerie cemetery of innumerable limestone headstones; the reptile infested Murchison Gorge; our great great great ad infinitum grandparents, the 3.5 billion year old stromatolites; Hutt River Province, Prince Leonard’s own country (I have a new stamp in my passport); or have our first taste of kangaroo. But no one is kidding themselves; we are here to see Flipper.
After days of driving through horrendous storms in places that haven’t seen rain in years, the day breaks on the Peron peninsula clear, sunny and bright. The water sparkles as if its been polished for our arrival, a mix of aquamarine shallows and emerald deeps. There are dark figures frolicking by the pier. Even at 7am, they have attracted a line of admirers. Sarah lets out a small squeal of recognition as the apparitions solidify into dorsal fins and bottle-noses. We both drop our bags in the sand and run to join the crowd.
They are so close you could almost reach out and touch them, although we are under strict orders not to. This is especially paramount with the sighting of a one-month old calf playing in the water beside his (or her) mother. Watching the babe is a rare treat, and the slightest disturbance could send the calf and its mother fleeing.
Calfs have about a 50% chance of survival in these waters, the ranger tells us. Tiger sharks are abundant; Shark Bay is no misnomer. I look down at my toes, into water that is neither aquamarine nor emerald but crystal clear and wonder how there could be any danger. They say that whenever you swim in Australian waters, you’re always within 100 metres of a shark. But tiger sharks are so well fed on the West Coast, humans don’t need to worry about falling accidental prey. Seeing the baby dolphin attempt a leap over its mother, I hope s/he doesn’t have to worry much either.