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Storms, Sharks & Sheep: WA's Ningaloo Coast

24th August 2015

The tarmac ended as night fell. I’d driven 1,120 kilometres north from Perth, seeing the landscape change subtly and slowly: white sand to yellow dirt, then orange and red. The vegetation got smaller and the bush flies grew to be a plague.

I’d taken three days over the journey, but now I was approaching my final destination: Gnaraloo sheep station. It’s one of Australia’s most remote coastal spots, celebrated for its Outback authenticity, its fearsome surfing and, most importantly for me, access to one of the world’s great reef systems: Ningaloo, a place almost unvisited compared with the Great Barrier Reef over on the other side of the continent – 19,000 visitors per year, as opposed to two million.

 Destination: Ningaloo. Picture: Getty Images

En route to Gnaraloo

That was the big attraction but there were other reasons: the chance to explore this wild west coast, so vast and remote, and also to meet some of the legendary characters who make up the sparse population. One of these was the man who owns and runs Gnaraloo: Paul Richardson, an Irish emigre eccentric who had taken on this isolated outpost a decade ago when even Outback-hardened Aussies had quailed at the prospect.

I had an idea of Paul: he would fix me with a thousand-yard stare, nail a stray ewe with a jet of tobacco juice and snarl: “Get down to the shearing shed, mate. There’s work for Poms.” Famously, he had appeared on the Australian version of The Farmer Wants a Wife reality TV show, though none of the women had been able to last long at Gnaraloo.

Would the place be a bit too much for me, too? They did accept visitors but there were reports of the place being badly hit by a cyclone.

 The Murchison river. Picture: Getty Images

My nights en route I’d spent in my trailer tent, picked up in Perth. I’d spotted my first kangaroo near Jurien Bay, 225 kilometres up the coast, then emus and cockatoos at Billabong, where the petrol station sold coffee under old photos of sun-dried pioneers. I’d kayaked down the Murchison river with a guide called Alex who told me the flies were a rare epidemic brought on by the cyclone. They would, he said, soon be blown out to sea. They were not.

Now I had passed the last settlement, Carnarvon, and its roadside reminders to buy life’s essentials: 'Fuel, liquor, bait.' I turned off the main highway and followed a long, lonely road down to where it ended at the Indian Ocean, a shimmering sheet of wine-dark purple in the last embers of sunset.

To the right, a dirt track began, curling off into the darkness of the coast. My instructions were to follow it.

For two hours I motored north, seeing a sign for a distant salt mine and a few kangaroos. I passed under an arch marking the start of Gnaraloo homestead, then, finally, I reached it: a shadowy clutch of buildings on a low rise above the ocean.

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Warm greeting

I walked up to one with a light shining, shouted a greeting and walked into an open-plan kitchen-cum-living room. Dinner was bubbling away on the stove, tended by a middle-aged lady who turned to me with a big smile.

“Ah Kevin,” she said, “You made it. I’m Colleen and Paul is around. Want some dinner? Hey Paul! Kevin’s arrived.”

It was as if I’d come home. Paul came sauntering out of his office with an impish grin under a shock of curly hair. “Come on in! Take a seat.”

He was personable, friendly and funny – nothing like I’d imagined.

We had dinner with various people: a young guy who had come on the organic farm work scheme; a surfer dude come to fix an engine; a gardener whose passion was bush flowers; Colleen, who was office manager; and Paul. He had some news: “There’s another cyclone coming – Cyclone Quang, heading straight for us. If you don’t leave before it strikes, you could be here a long while.”

 Camping on the Ningaloo Coast. Picture: Getty Images

After dinner we went and examined the computer screen. Sure enough, Quang, a Category 2 – 'minor house damage, crop destruction, possible power failure' – was out in the ocean, aiming itself at Gnaraloo.

“You see what life here is like,” said Paul. “A cyclone brings rain; rain brings flies, then clouds of moths, armies of frogs, and then mice. The grass grows, dries out and catches fire. Then another cyclone comes. Never a dull moment.”

I slept in one of the smart cabins looking out towards the ocean. Gnaraloo may be a sheep station but it is also home to a superb campsite (next to great surfing, fishing and snorkelling) and to these upmarket self-catering chalets.

On Paul’s advice, I tried sleeping on the verandah, but the bright moonlight woke me and I went back inside.

Abundant marine life

At dawn, there was no sign of Quang, only gorgeous sunshine. I went down to the beach and snorkelled along the inner side of the reef, marvelling at the quantity and size of the fish: huge, colourful parrotfish, blue-spotted wrasse and unicornfish.

A green turtle took a look at me and sped away; a blacktip reef shark hung in the furthest gloom, and vast swarms of stripy convict surgeonfish came past, shepherded by some chunky parrotfish guards. I could hear them all pecking away at the coral with their teeth. The fact that this 260-kilometre-long reef has never suffered the depredations of commercial fishing was obvious all around me.

After breakfast in the cabin, I went up to the house and found Paul examining the computer screen. Quang was now 160 kilometres closer and upgraded to Category 3 – 'some structural damage, caravans destroyed, power failure likely'.

A call up the coast confirmed that my scheduled whale-shark-watching trip and all flights were cancelled for several days ahead. My plans would have to change – I’d stay here until the cyclone was in sight, then hightail it south with the wind behind me.

There is something about having your travel plans ripped up mid-journey. You feel the weight of pre-determined timetables lift; your journey is salted with the thrill of the unexpected – but also, to be honest, a peppering of anxiety.

 A green turtle says hello. Picture: Getty Images

Quang, however, had yet to show itself. Paul and I toured the coast of his domain that day, having great fun roaring the 4x4 up sandy tracks to view magnificent empty panoramas of blue ocean from the cliffs.

“We’ve got some of the best left-hand breaks in the world here,” said Paul, when we spotted surfers negotiating the improbably massive waves. “That and the fishing brings people back year after year.”

Down below us in the clear water, sting rays and giant groupers lazily moved around in the quiet shallows. At Turtles Beach, we found a Welshman heading off with his surfboard. He had moved to Western Australia 15 years ago.

“I could have been a teacher in Swansea but I’m here instead. No regrets at all!” He ran off to join his nine-year-old son who was nonchalantly surfing down waves big enough to swamp Port Talbot steelworks.

Expect the unexpected

Over the day, I teased out some of Paul’s own story – how he had arrived in Australia after seeing the film Crocodile Dundee, then ended up buying a sheep-farm lease: “I’d never touched a sheep before.” Not only that, but it was 89,000 hectares – bigger than many small countries.

The struggle of his early years had become a lifelong passion. “We look after this place like no one else would. I’ve cut the sheep numbers down and eradicated European foxes, which were decimating the turtle population. We’ve now got one of the world’s best turtle-nesting sites.”

 The pristine waters of Ningaloo reef. Picture: Getty Images

A lot of this is achieved with volunteers who do four or five hours' work a day in return for board and lodging, then have the rest of their time to snorkel, fish, surf and swim. Among the regular visitors was Claire, a professional gardener, who had taken on the task of beautifying the station with indigenous plants, and convincing visitors like me that the surroundings were an amazing botanical treasure: “People think it’s just scrubby bushes.”

The next day, she showed me otherwise: clumps of brilliant green trees where wedge-tailed eagles and nankeen falcons perched, tiny desert-adapted flowers and some very large ones, too. There was one yellow inflorescence that she unexpectedly dropped down and began to suck: “Ah! Delicious!” I tried it. The whole flower tasted of nectar.

That afternoon, Paul showed me the vehicle graveyard where he also kept a hump-backed whale skeleton that he was drying out before reassembling. While we examined the bones, he talked about the visit of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Somehow he had lured them out to play in his shearing shed with indigenous musicians.

One of the many joys of Gnaraloo, I was realising, is that around Paul the unexpected happens – often.

Cyclone escape

Next to the whale skeleton was his cyclone shelter, a shipping crate tied down with cables, and 36 tonnes of rusting farming machinery. On the forecast Quang was now Category 4 – 'caravans blown away, flying debris' – and the horizon to the north-west was dark and menacing.

In the evening, I went down to 3 Mile Camp to snorkel. Local knowledge said that there was a narrow 'keyhole' in the reef and, if you swam out, there were big sharks and rays to see. However, the swell was surging over the reef and I couldn’t even hold myself against the rush of water coming in. Visibility was not good, but there were plenty of fish in the inner lagoon: moray eels, turtles and vast schools of fish.

That night I was hoping Quang would change course but it did not. “You leave at first light or when the heavy rain starts,” Colleen had said.

In the end, it came at dawn as I was hooking up my trailer. Then I was off, running from the black clouds behind me, driving the 15 hours back to Perth.

 Fremantle is worth a stop. Picture: Getty Images

I’d missed out on whale shark watching, but I gained a day exploring Fremantle, which has excellent cafes, bookshops and museums. That night, I turned on the television in my hotel room and watched Quang tearing the coast up: sideways palm trees, flying caravans, cars swimming down suburban streets.

But when I spoke to Paul, it turned out Quang had veered off course and missed Gnaraloo. “It was a total non-event,” he said, with a hint of disappointment. “We never even got inside the cyclone shelter. You could be snorkelling at 3 Mile Camp!”

I suppressed a groan. One day I will get back to Gnaraloo and swim that keyhole.

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This article was written by Kevin Rushby from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.