Denham (Shark Bay) & Monkey Mia
Trip Start Jul 07, 2011
49Trip End Oct 10, 2011
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Where I stayed
Denham Seaside Tourist Village
What I did
Feed the dolphins
Look for Dugong
There's no fanfare on this route as you leave the tropics (on the way out of Alice, there’s a huge steel globe marking the line), just a couple of brown signs saying "Blink, you missed it".
Marking the 26th parallel, though, is a mystery to us. We have no idea why this latitude is significant enough to signpost both on the main coastal highway and on the road into Denham. In central Australia, the latitude of 26S marks the boundary between South Australia and the Northern Territory, so those folk might have reason to make a song and dance about it, but we can’t see why West Australians have cause to bother
There’s nothing much on the stretches of highway in this part of the world – and we sort of knew that this would be the case. Chris often says that “Australia is an archipelago of cities held together by land”, and if this is true, then the roadhouses dotted along the highways are the isolated sandbars. They offer fuel, toilets (of vary varying standards), souvenir shirts/stubby holders/magnets emblazoned with the roadhouse’s name, and a place to eat – with varying qualities of fare, although gourmet cuisine is definitely the exception than the rule. (Note: In terms of roadhouse food, “gourmet” means either home cooked or that the food doesn’t need sauce on it to disguise its flavour). Despite these dubious qualities, roadhouses provide an essential service: They keep the traffic fuelled so that it can keep moving.
A kind of natural evolution has occurred in their positioning such that they occur at either major intersections (read: where two roads, each with nothing on them, collide) or where you’re just about to run out of fuel.
And so it is with the Overlander Roadhouse – a dustbowl of flies, made dustier by the multitude of caravans and motor-homes swarming around the fuel bowsers, and that sits at the junction of the Northwest Coastal Highway and the road to Denham. We fed the car with fuel (and the passengers with food) and fled.
Shark Bay Caravan Park was the last place that we’d booked before leaving Adelaide. Megan’s astute forethought had correctly predicted (it’s a female intuition thing) that this place would be full – and it was!
The number of caravans struggling back towards the Outlander roadhouse against the now howling south easterly wind was testament to that. Meanwhile, we sailed down the hills and up the peninsular watching the vegetation get lower and the sea bluer until we finally reached Denham – two mini-marts, two hotels, two fuel stations, two jetties, two 'restaurants’, but three caravan parks, all perched on the edge of a white sandy beach.
Thankfully we had booked – and also they’d managed to move our booking back by a couple of days due to Caitlyn’s Pt Hedland medical delay – because they were jamming people in everywhere
Neil had called us when we were in Carnarvon and had told us (because they’d already been) that we should try getting a site at the far end closer to the beach because they’d just about been blown off the fact of the earth while they were there. But on check-in, we didn’t get a choice because they were chokka!
Luckily (or perhaps unluckily depending on which way you look at it) we got a slab site at the far end, on the lower level that was right opposite the laundry/toilets and next to the ‘long timers’ – people who come and stay at this caravan park in the same caravan sites for the same for 4 months of the year. Every year. For the past 20 years… But we were shaded and sheltered by a row of tall and thick pines that helped keep the wind off the van and that provided a significant level of privacy.
If you think that the park had a blade of grass on it though, think again. An ice white carpet of sand and micro-shells that went from wall to wall – so white that sunglasses to reduce the glare were a ‘must’ and so hard and sharp (sharp for our delicate feet!) that thongs were a ‘must’ for any movement off the concrete slab
But it was remarkably pleasant – and it must have been for the long timers to come back again and again. Luckily also, the forecast was for much lower winds over the following days (which turned out to be correct), so we settled in – and chatted to the long timers – ready for a few days both here and at Monkey Mia.
Feed a wild dolphin
Monkey Mia is that famous place in the world where wild dolphins come right up to the beach and are hand fed by the tourists knee deep in the water. It features in practically every holiday brochure of Western Australia and is one of the big ‘natural experience’ draw cards for Australian tourism. And here we were.
Our WA Parks Pass didn’t get us in here so we got a 4 week family pass. ($30 buys you a family pass that’s valid for 4 weeks – or you can shell out $16 for a single day visit). We were told that the daily feedings started at 7:45am, so we were up pretty darn early to get going by 7am for the 30km drive across the peninsular to Monkey Mia
It wasn’t the best of days – there were clear blue skies and beautiful sun, but the blustery wind chopped up the waves a bit, and the crowd of ‘get-out-of-my-way-we’re-here-to-see-the-dolphins’ tourists were as irritating as the wind.
The DEC (Department of Environment and Conservation) staff who supervise the selection of volunteer dolphin feeders have the whole experience scripted and sewn up (in a nice way). It’s hardly surprising since they feed the dolphins 3 times a day, every day – but in a very controlled and measured fashion to ensure that each dolphin is fed only once and to encourage them to naturally forage for food, while still feeding the tourists’ want to ‘pat a dolphin’. Which, thankfully, they’re not allowed to do! There are 104 razor sharp reasons and the risk of transmitting a human disease for not touching the dolphins, facts that the DEC staff are more than happy to remind you about.
The dolphins know when they’re on to a good thing and they have the crowd eating out of their hands. They know the routine better than any tourist and were busy playing off the beach waiting for the morning “do and don’t” briefing to the knee wet tourists
Matthew and Caitlyn were two of the lucky ones and got picked out of the crowd of jealous tourists to feed Nicky – the 35 year old grandmother of one of the pods – which was great for them. And then it was all over. Empty buckets and the dolphins were off. In the immortal title of Douglas Adams’s book, “so long, and thanks for all the fish”. They had better things to do. Or so we thought…
We bumped into some Karijini travellers who we’d swam with at Circular Pool (small world again) and while we were chatting, the dolphins came back for round 2. By this time, all of the out-of-my-way tourists had pulled up stakes and gone, so the 15-20 people still milling around the beach got to see it all again – and better still, the wind had just about gone, so it was heaps more fun, the dolphins were far less intimidated and they came in really close. At one point a large fish darted into the shallows amongst our feet and one dolphin was on to it in a flash, echo locating and about ready to beach itself if the fish wasn’t so fast and the water so shallow. Everyone checked their toes – still five on each foot
We doubt that the Monkey Mia resort (and caravan park) would be in business if it weren’t for the dolphins. It’s a top spot – beautiful coastline and scenery – but that’s about it for the location. So we left and went back to the Denham side of the peninsular and to the Ocean Park aquarium where we lobbed just in time for the start of a tour round the tanks and shark pool. Actually, it’s always just in time for the start of a tour since they run continuously – it’s just that we joined at the starting point of the continuous tour. Confused? So were we so we just listened and looked at the amazing array of critters that they had in the various tanks – all local and all living in happy co-existence, but in separate tanks!
The guys there run it as a private enterprise and are passionate about what they do. There are some voices that you’d love not to hear (politicians are high on that list), but these guys had enthusiasm, knowledge and the gift of the gab, so we listened and watched and were then thankful that our guide didn’t ask for volunteers to clean out the shark enclosure – although the guides have to on occasion and get paid danger money to do it… (We think that the extra cash isn’t worth it!)
That night we had a go with the squid jig, but despite seeing a number of them, none seemed to want to hop aboard – and to be honest, we’re not sure what we’d have done if we caught one anyway
Neil said that they had a great time on the Aristocrat II catamaran that takes tours out from Monkey Mia to see the Blue Lagoon Pearl farm and then on to see the Dugongs in Shark Bay. The wind was forecast to die on the Monday, so we hopped over to MM again for the 10:30 departure.
We were early and sat with coffees and scones in the very well positioned restaurant overlooking the bay as Jamie, I’m-still-a-farmer-without-a-wife, came across to grab a boatload of tourists and take them off to the pearl farm, and the dolphins hung around for their second feed of the morning.
Chris hung around and was the first to get picked to feed a fish to one of the bottlenoses that could be seen through the almost glassy water, and then we were off on the catamaran to join the pearl farm tourists – dolphins on the bow (not the ones we fed) and turtles underneath
The pearl farm operates from a pontoon moored out in Red Cliff Bay, just off Red Bluff, and it’s Jamie’s brother Bob who has the talking part of the show. He’s a great, if not reluctant, showman who tells the encircled tourists how they seed the black lipped oysters to make a pearl. And it’s a skilled profession – mostly performed by the small fingered Japanese seeders – the best of whom can earn up to $5,000 for seeding 700 oysters each day!
Bob offered everyone a slither of black lipped oyster – an aphrodisiac that sells for $600/kg for those with deep pockets and the need – but we refused on the basis that we’d probably all be feeling sick within 30 seconds rather than feeling anything else in 30 minutes. Then we had a look through their on-pontoon shop where everything looked beautiful except the prices!
The farm is obviously a leader in the business since they’ve developed a range of additional jewellery pieces (gold and opal embedded in pearl) and a range of side products to clean the oysters that’s saved the industry thousands of dollars a year, but the global financial crisis has obviously had an impact on sales since the first items to get dropped off the shopping list are luxuries – like pearls
Megan put Caitlyn up to asking Jamie it he’d found a wife, but she got all shy and just said “Hello, mumble mumble, what was I supposed to ask Daddy?” In the meantime, Jamie gave Caitlyn a 1mm diameter pearl seed and bet Chris that while it was worth nothing now (thanks Jamie), he could turn it into $100 inside a week: And promptly bet Chris $100 that Caitlyn would loose the darn thing! Sorry Jaime, it’s still worthless, we still have it and you own us $100! Pay up!
Oh, and in case you wondered how he ended up on the “Farmer Wants a Wife” show, Bob said that Jamie nominated himself at 1am after a lot of alcohol. So, he’s only got himself to blame – but the silver lining (no pun intended) has to be the additional publicity and attraction to their business that it all generated.
And then it was off to see Dugong – a fairly bizarre (and metaphorical) mix between a dolphin and a cow! They float around all day, every day munching on only 5 types of seagrass in order to consume 75kg of the stuff each day to maintain their bulk and make little dugong. Given that the conservative estimate of numbers in the bay is 14,000 (there are only 5,000 dolphins in the bay), you’d have thought that someone would have thought of a use for them – although, perhaps operating eco tours to watch them is marginally more practical that milking them…
So after seeing goodness knows how many dugong, half a dozen big (and very quick) leatherback turtles and a sea snake (that didn’t want to be seen), we got to sit in the dragnet at the back of the cat – this time without any sea lice biting us and associated Caitlyn screams before being dumped back on the beach
Then to round it all off, we dropped (well, lowered ourselves slowly, because the water was darn hot – 40C) into the artesian hot tub at the Peron Homestead and lolled in the tub watching two emu families have a barney about which family was allowed to drink at the nearby creek.
We’re not sure what the 4-month-a-year-every-year people do for their stay in Denham. Probably not a lot, which is probably why they go there. The few days we had were enough, so onwards to Kalbarri, to an area that we know very little about – and into the realm of last minute bookings and availability.