Tales of inspiring journeys, intriguing places, and fascinating people.

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Exploring the wild western coast of Australia uncovers strange sandstone monoliths, rugged coastlines, scenic river gorges, and, unexpectedly, fields of colourful flowers.

Early on a September morning I join a pack of 18 Jaguar cars heading north out of Perth to explore Western Australia’s wild Coral Coast. Our convoy of vintage XK120s, E-Types, and modern grand tourers will travel 1,300 km over three days to discover strange sandstone monoliths, rugged coastlines, scenic river gorges, and, unexpectedly, fields full of colourful wild-flowers.

Leaving slow moving city traffic behind, we drive through sprawling outer suburbs, cruise between cultivated fields of vegetables, speed past small farms on the edge of town, then race out onto a deserted highway weaving across a wide, flat, coastal plain only populated by stunted bushes. Cars built in the 1930’s have no trouble keeping up with more recent models; they may lack comfort and electronic gadgets, but they don’t lack power or pace.

Ninety minutes on, turning off the highway into Nambung National Park, we are amongst ‘The Pinnacles’. Strange rock outcrops that stand tall like tombstones scattered across acres of yellow sand dunes. These weathered limestone pillars up to four metres high that formed 25,000 years ago from sea-shells, coral, and molluscs are now left exposed by a receding ocean and desert winds eroding surrounding dunes.

A few members brave squadrons of bothersome bush-flies to get a closer look, while most take a 4 km dirt track to drive between ‘The Pinnacles’ viewing the eerie, alien landscape from the comfort of their cars. It was an extraordinary sight to see concourse quality Jaguars going “off road” onto a desert dirt track looking as incongruous as NASA rover vehicles on a distant planet.

Our convoy continues on to the fishing hamlet of Cervantes where hungry members pile into the Lobster Shack for lunch. This quaint humpy of rough timbers with a rickety tin roof is on the beach right next door to a processing plant where the catch is landed; consequently the tasty lobsters, crabs, and fish served up could not be fresher.

Travelling north, briskly swinging through curves of Indian Ocean Drive as it snakes along the coast, spectacular vistas open up of ocean swells surging, cresting, and breaking to tumble foaming white onto long arcs of golden sand. For an hour the conga-line of cars follow the eroded edge of a desolate windswept coastline.

A brief stop at the Port Denison marina, calling in at Southerly’s bar where homemade cup-cakes and frothy coffee were all the go, then it is only a short drive to the Hospitality Inn in Geraldton for a two night stay.

Friday night festivities begin with drinks as everyone crammed into the Hospitality Inn’s tiny bar area. A sumptuous dinner follows in the hotel’s Emerald Room Restaurant where wine flows, chatter gets louder, and many a belt is loosened as delicious crumbed calamari, eye fillet steaks and strawberry soufflés are devoured with relish.

A bright Saturday morning dawns with a sobering visit to a memorial to HMAS Sydney high on a hill above Geraldton There a poignant statue of a woman, possibly a mother or a wife, anxiously scans the Indian Ocean hoping to glimpse the Sydney returning to port with her loved-one safely aboard.

Sadly, the Sydney will never return. Beside the statue, in a cascading Pool of Remembrance the outstretched steel wing of a solitary seagull marks the latitude and longitude where the ship lies 2,468 m below the waves, 207 km from the Australian coast, sunk by the German raider Kormorant. The HMAS Sydney went down on the 19 November 1941 taking 645 souls with her to rest silently on the sea bed.

Turning westward at Northampton the pace picks up as the pack of Jaguars race along deserted back roads towards Port Gregory. Approaching the Hutt River estuary we flash past ruins of a stone depot built in 1853 where convicts were brought ashore to be hired out to labour at the Geraldine Lead Mine and on local farms.

Nearby, amongst coastal dunes where rain runoff from the plateau is trapped in shallows behind a sandbar, a two kilometre long mineral lake stretches out before us glowing in an unnatural iridescent fuchsia pink as if painted by an artist’s brush.

As our Jaguars bound on over crests and dips of George Grey Drive, a seemingly endless coastline of ragged cliffs eaten away by a restless ocean comes into view. A desolate landscape that remains virtually unchanged from that seen by explorer George Grey in 1857— before he was speared by a hostile native.

Walking out to a headland at Island Rock we are buffeted by a stiff breeze carrying a salty spray and deafened by the thunderous sound of breakers. A sea bird soars, wings outstretched in the updraft, then glides to land nimbly on a rocky shelf. Thirty metres below, down a sheer cliff incessant waves rolling all the way from Africa pound against the unyielding edge of the Australian continent.

Invigorated by a brisk walk in the bracing air everyone is ready for lunch at the Kalbarri Hotel. However the staff are overwhelmed by numbers, consequently our orders of burgers, chips and salad are slow to arrive. Yet, no one complains as we are all enthralled watching football on a big screen where the West Coast Eagles are thrashing the Sydney Swans.

One vintage Mark II Jaguar coughs and splutters into Kalbarri a little late attracting a cohort of concerned members who pontificate various diagnoses and remedies. One member’s expert examination of the symptoms correctly identified a loose high tension lead causing a misfire which oiled a spark-plug. Someone rummages in their boot to find a spanner, another provides a replacement plug. Then, with concerned members leaning over the engine like surgeons bent over an operating table, the owner successfully implants the donor spark-plug. The engine burst back to life with a full throated roar from all six cylinders. In fact, the car recovered so well that on the run home it collected a speeding fine!

Travelling back to Geraldton a diversion into the Kalbarri National Park take us down a winding lane through dense scrub to Hawks Head view point overlooking an 80 km long, 60 m deep gorge carved into a vast plateau by the Murchison River.

Like George Grey and other explorers of old we scramble down a rough wallaby track; over colourful red, pink, and ochre rock ledges; between pale ghost gums and bright golden wattles; to where the gorge floor is strewn with rounded boulders dislodged and tumbled by flooding wet season rains.

Today the Murchison’s flow is barely a trickle, the last remnants of winter rains are trapped in still pools between shoals of stones and banks of soft silt. Deep in the gorge, in the shade, sheltered from the wind, surrounded by stillness, you can sense the timelessness of the rocks, the enormity of this country, and the untouched, untamed nature of this isolated corner of Australia.

Out of the park, taking a deserted back-road toward Ajana, drivers are confronted by a boundless high savanna of course grasses and twisted bracken only dissected by a narrow black ribbon of bitumen that streams out towards a distant horizon.

On return to Geraldton explorer tales a plenty are shared in the Dome Café on the foreshore as we watch a setting crimson sun tint lingering wisps of cloud a delicate pink.

It is an early start on Sunday to reach Port Denison by 9 am to participate in the Mid-West Car Show and Shine. Arriving right on time, member’s Jaguars were ushered into a reserved parking area like VIP limousines rolling up to a ball. Our bug-splattered and road-grime coated cars looked shabby among the polished and pimped up Show and Shine competition entrants. However, they present an emphatic statement that these Jaguars are not cossetted ‘show ponies’, but purposeful vehicles used as Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons intended— for driving; and driving far and fast.

Our impromptu display attracts a crowd of car enthusiasts and a pleasurable couple of hours are spent discussing makes, models and all things automotive. Then our Jaguars sprint out of the reserved parking area to race along the Brand Highway flying through Eneabba on our way to the tiny wheat-belt settlement of Badgingarra for a traditional pub lunch a ramshackle outback tavern.

After lunch it is a more sedate stroll along the Vern Westbrook Nature Trail to search for wild-flowers. A search soon rewarded as, after heavy winter rains and warm spring sunshine the surrounding fields are full of glorious blooms. Everlastings fill wooded groves, Cats Paw line pathways, Cowslip Orchids bloom in sheltered nooks, and Purple Flag cascades down banks to slow moving streams. The vivid, delicate petals of the wild-flowers bob in the bright sun, in stark contrast to the drab, leathery foliage of surrounding Banksia and Hakea bushland. It is uplifting to see the normally harsh uninviting Australian bush fleetingly transformed into a decorative and welcoming native flower garden; at least for one short season of the year.

Returning to Perth that evening we are soon caught up in heavy traffic, travelling in a stop start fashion through outer suburbs, and then inching along congested city streets. Still we carry with us memories of the open roads, the spectacular scenery, and those glorious fields of colourful wild-flowers we discovered while exploring Western Australia’s Coral Coast.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Exploring the Coral Coast

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