I didn’t realise how much I appreciated curious rock formations until I came to Australia. On the way up the west coast we stopped off at the Pinnacles, columns of golden limestone clustered together in the desert; in Broome we hopped over stacked discs of red rock at Gantheaume Point.
We’d driven out there hoping to see the fossilised dinosaur footprints in the bay but since the tide was high they weren’t visible. I really liked the idea of being somewhere where ancient history hadn’t just shaped the landscape but physically stamped it. Even the characteristic red colour of the earth had its origins in prehistoric times when heavy rain soaked through to the bedrock and dissolved the iron. The water percolated back up to the surface resulting in iron rich red soil.
By the time the next low tide came around we had somewhere else to be. We joined the gathering crowd at Town Beach to watch the Staircase to the Moon, a natural phenomenon where moonlight reflected off the sand flats looks like rungs of a ladder leading up to the moon. There must be places all over the world where you can see this effect but in Broome it’s a big deal. After watching the moon rise we wandered round a nearby market where there was a lot of Staircase-to-the-Moon- inspired jewellery for sale, pendants made from silver bars topped with pearls, for example.
The following day, Dave and I said our goodbyes. The original plan had been to go all the way up to Darwin and then back to Perth via an interior road but since I had run out of money and Dave had lost faith in the campervan after the Coral Bay incident, we decided to call it quits after Broome. I flew back to Perth to look for work and Dave arrived back in the campervan a few days later.
Before I began road tripping in Australia, I relished the idea of driving on long stretches of highway through the empty outback, the road in front of me like a shimmering oil slick streaking towards the horizon. I couldn’t wait to be in that enormous landscape, a tiny person in a tiny car with nothing but sand as far as the eye could see.
That was until I drove north towards Port Hedland on the North West Coastal Highway. I nearly expired from boredom. Don’t ask me why, because I managed the road from Port Augusta to Coober Pedy without a problem and it was even longer and more monotonous than this one. Perhaps because by the time we were approaching Port Hedland we’d already been on the road for eight days? Maybe one week of red earth and stunted trees is the most I can handle. I was almost hoping a kangaroo would dive nose first in front of the car just to give me something to do.
We were maybe about 30km away from the next rest stop and I couldn’t wait to get off the road and lie down for the night. Behind me in the mirror I could see the sun was setting. Ahead there was nothing but road and red, and a curious, glowing pink mound. Some kind of man-made construction, I thought, for its curved top was far too smooth to be natural. But then it began to rise up from the ground, gradually, like a hot air balloon, and I realised it was the moon, enormous and pink. I have never seen anything like it before in my life, although Dave told me that the moon often appears magnified when it’s low on the horizon.
Moments ago I had been so weary of the landscape, thinking that there was no more pleasure left for me in outback driving. Now, watching the moon rise and deflate and change in hue from pink to yellow, I felt as though I could stay on that road forever. Too soon we reached the rest stop and the moon went back to normal, a hard white disc in the sky.
We were half way up the west coast when our campervan broke down. We tried to start it up one morning and it just wouldn’t go. Luckily it happened in Coral Bay where I had a good phone signal and there was a mechanic only half an hour away.
He looked inside the engine and whistled. There were two wires attached to the battery with alligator clips. “Look at that! The positive wire has been touching the metal casing. It’s welded itself on. That’s how you burn a car to the ground.”
But that wasn’t what was preventing the campervan from starting. The mechanic was stumped. He fished around inside the engine pulling out wires and looking for fuses. Eventually he left with assurances that he would be back once he’d got hold of a wiring diagram for our vehicle.
We had been planning on spending a few hours snorkelling on the Ningaloo Reef but now we had the whole day at our disposal. Boy am I glad we had that extra time. It was amazing, like being inside a giant aquarium.
We swam through clouds of tiny, iridescent blue fish that floated up from coral towers. Pancake flat neon yellow fish, spiky lionfish and metallic green parrot fish flitted in and out of the reef, oblivious as we drifted on the surface of the water above them.
In places the coral bloomed from the seabed like huge stone lettuces. Sometimes it was piled up like stacks of petrified firewood, or bulged into cratered domes like brains suspended in formaldehyde. Fish of all shapes, sizes and colours darted through their curious playground, wriggling into holes and diving under arches.
We returned to the caravan park salt crusted and exhilarated shortly before the mechanic reappeared. This time he was able to find what was wrong with the engine and fix it.
The next day we could continue with our adventure.