Thursday, June 02, 2011

Farewell to Exmouth

I've loved living in Exmouth. The Ningaloo Reef, the Cape Range National Park, both of the very different caravan parks in which we’ve stayed, the people I've met and the town itself. Before the 60s, Exmouth wasn't even a town. There was an Aboriginal community in the general region but no white fellas. It was only when the Americans installed a naval base that Exmouth came to be an official town. The reason for the joint US and Australian base was to build and support thirteen transmission towers that operated in the VLF (very low frequency) range and were to be used for communicating with submarines. Today it is the largest of only four such communications centres in the world and is capable of transmitting a signal all the way to a submarine sitting underneath the Golden Gate Bridge at the bottom of San Francisco Bay. At one time there were 5,000 American servicemen resident in Exmouth and the base provided several home comforts such as a basketball court, baseball field, drive-in movie theatre, burger restaurant (of course) and a giant white water tower built in Texas to make the place look more like "home". They even drove on the right-hand side of the road. The town of Exmouth sprung up to support the base, undoubtedly with many people setting up businesses there to help the servicemen spend their pay. The Americans left the base in 1992 but there are several reminders still of their former presence. In particular, the giant towers that dominate the landscape at the top of the cape. Taller than the Empire State Building and the Eiffel tower, they loom high on the horizon as you drive from the town towards the west coast. The towers were built in the US, then were dismantled and shipped to Exmouth, landing at the navy pier that was built specially for receiving this cargo. The base is now run by the Australian Federal Police and while strictly controlled, the pier is accessible to the general public as one of the top ten ranked dive sites in the world. Nobody has ever been permitted to fish from the pier so in effect a marine sanctuary has been provided. Having already dived on the reef a few times and rediscovered both my love for it and my confidence in the water, I was looking forward excitedly to diving on the famed navy pier. But the day that I went the conditions were diabolical. The sea was surging in the heavy wind. The visibility was non-existent. On descending down the line to the dive site, I couldn't see anything at all and was being pushed from side to side disconcertingly by the swell. On getting to the bottom things were a little clearer but visibility was still only a couple of metres in any direction. However the fish life was incredible. Schools of huge potato cod, white tipped reef sharks, grey nurse sharks, lion fish, giant moray eels, octopus, thousands of fish of all sizes and colours. But due to the conditions the dive was difficult. And when on the second dive my equipment started to play up, it became a case of surviving the dive rather than relaxing and enjoying it. My buoyancy jacket had begun to malfunction and I couldn't release air, floating up away from the group and into the structure of the pier with its mess of shell and coral encrusted cross beams. The air just wouldn't release from my suit for a very long minute or two and I'd lost sight of those below. At only around 12 metres it's not a very deep dive, but when you can't really see and your equipment decides to have a mind of its own, taking you where you don't want to be and tangling you up in the beams, it's a bit frightening. Eventually and thankfully, the air finally released and I sank back down, relieved to see my dive buddy and the others. I left the pier feeling disappointed with how things had gone, having been looking forward to diving there for months. I couldn't bear this as my last memory of diving in Exmouth, so I went along on another day. This time the sun was shining. The sea was calm. The visibility was clear. My equipment operated correctly. And what a difference all of that made. I was relaxed and able to glide around and properly explore the amazing creatures that made the pier their home.

All of the time spent diving and snorkelling on Ningaloo Reed gave me a completely new view on sharks. Having been scared senseless by Jaws when I was a kid, there have been many times over the years when I'd be in the sea and would hear that theme music in my head. Seeing a shark in the water would have made me soil my speedos for sure. But there are so many sharks around Exmouth, of so many varieties, that I came to have regular encounters with them and swapped interested stories with others on those that I didn't see. On various dips into the water with snorkel or tank, I sat and watched an eight foot leopard shark as he dozed on the bottom, followed white tip reef sharks as they cruised around under the pier, got close and personal with a grey nurse shark while trying to get a decent photo of him, jumped excitedly into the water on a dive with the anticipation of seeing a tiger shark (even though we didn't end up seeing any) and swam with the biggest, but most harmless of them all, the giant whale shark. I hope I can maintain this perspective. They are amazing creatures.

The whale shark day was another of the many highlights of Exmouth. The whole family spent a day out on a boat on the reef, periodically jumping into the warm water to swim alongside a 5 or 6 metre shark as he cruised along devouring plankton and krill. The sight of a pregnant woman with a big belly floating around on a pink noodle in the open ocean was also an interesting sight. Tori chased the whale sharks around a little too heartily and paid for it the next day, barely able to leave the bed. Her energy levels have been quite low over the last few weeks but she hasn’t been able to resist taking part in the adventures to be had. The day ended with some drama when Jazzy was stung by what appeared to be a jelly fish. While she said the sting itself wasn’t too bad, she was holding on to her stomach saying that she felt like it was shrinking, sucking in breaths of air with wheezy gasps. After dousing the sting with vinegar, the crew broke out the oxygen cylinder and mask to try and help her breathe while she sat on one of the bunks below deck. It took an hour or so for her body and mind to eventually settle down. In the past this would have completely tarnished the whole experience for her. The previous hours of fun and amazement of swimming with the whale sharks would have been wiped out by this unfortunate incident. But it is a sign of Jazzy’s growing maturity that this was not the case. She took it in her stride stating that the trip out to see the whale sharks was all worth it sting and all. Watching your kids grow and evolve is perhaps the most amazing wildlife viewing that one can have.

The town of Exmouth is quite a vibrant and cosmopolitan little place considering its tiny population. People come from all around the world to swim with the whale sharks or to dive the reef and navy pier. Some of them stay and take jobs with the dive companies or in the bars or restaurants, and it gives the place much more of an international feel than you would normally expect in a tiny isolated Australian town. The standard of food in the restaurants and pubs is also surprisingly good. I don’t expect that you could find a nice bowl of Vietnamese pho soup in too many towns in Australia that boast a population of only 2000. Most people living in Exmouth seem to have originated from somewhere else. And the visitors who swell the numbers of the population all know that they are somewhere special, often having come to escape the winter climes of the southern Australian cities and instead spend their days fishing, swimming, diving or exploring the national park on beautifully warm sunny blue sky days. The net result being that Exmouth is a particularly friendly and welcoming town.

Time in the water was the dominant feature for us at Exmouth. Days of snorkelling out on the easily accessible coral reef from the various beaches dotted up the coast. Turquoise Bay, Oyster Stacks and Lakeside all had different reef structures providing a variety of snorkelling experiences. Jaz, Finn and I swam with a hawksbill turtle at Turquoise Bay. He was completely nonchalant about us swimming right beside and over the top of him as we followed him around for about 15 minutes before we decided we’d had enough and moved on to look at something else. Blue spotted stingrays were abundant. Starfish were scattered around the sandy floor. Sea urchins sat in the crevices. An octopus stuck out from his hiding place in the coral, his big eye gaping as he looked around for food. There was so much to see that every entry to the water was completely different. Such a wonderland, it is sad to be leaving this behind even though I know we’ll be heading somewhere else beautiful. And as if to snap me out of my idyll and remind me of caravan living on the road, on our last morning the door handle to the van snapped off, meaning that the only way to get inside is by jimmying the door open with a screwdriver. And still the electrical issues seem to persist. Having replaced all batteries and the inverter, there’s only a couple of other components that could be the cause of our quickly draining batteries. More van maintenance and undoubtedly expense now awaits us in Broome.

With our departure from Exmouth, the first instalment of our trip is essentially over. We decided not to go to Karijini in the end as it seemed pointless with Tori unable to walk down any of the steep paths through the gorges. Instead we stayed those few extra days in Exmouth. And despite all of our water adventures here, we still managed to be the useless tourists that we are and somehow didn’t make it to the gorges and canyons of the Cape Range National Park. I guess those combined with Karijini give us an extra reason for coming back up to this great part of Australia some time in the future. Our next real stop is Broome, some 1300km north of here, though I expect we will be travelling this distance quite quickly. Tori is now a couple of days over 36 weeks pregnant and Broome is where the baby will be born and where we expect to be living for three or so months. The first couple of weeks there will no doubt be spent establishing ourselves in whatever manner of accommodation we have waiting for us. There will be an unfinished house involved, though I have no idea at what stage of building the house is at. This is the new house that our friends Marty and Bridget are building and that they have said we can stay in. I know there’s a bathroom, so that’s good. And I believe that there some other completed rooms. But I am expecting the place to look like the building site that it is and for us to still be largely staying in the van. I guess it continues a good pattern in the births of our children. When Tori was pregnant with Jaz, we lived in a small rented cottage in the English country village of Fulking. It had a roof that leaked in four or five different rooms which finally resulted in me banging on the landlord's door at six o’clock one rainy morning demanding that he remedy the situation. When she was pregnant with Finn we were renovating our own house in the village of Henfield and going to the bathroom involved balancing across a narrow plank stretched several metres over a sandy floor where the kitchen was to be built. Every other room had a layering of sawdust. So I guess it’s fitting that now for the birth of this child we’ll be living in an unbuilt house. I’m not sure how this all fits in with Maslow’s pyramid of hierarchical needs which has security in a physical home as one of the fundamental requirements on the path towards esteem and self-actualization. But so far we seem to be doing alright.

And then of course once the baby is actually born our life will become a completely different ball game. We’re hoping for a calm and healthy one. And also for our own spirits to remain strong. Perhaps then we will be able to resume the journey and find some more naturally beautiful places in this large country to move around to. There’s still so much exploring to do.

1 comment:

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