Monday, March 16, 2009

Exmouth, Australia

The flight to Exmouth went off uneventfully, despite a 5:40am Taxi pick up and flight attendants that were quite intrigued by the Kindle. We originally planned not to have a car in Exmouth, but the airport pickup shuttle person told us that having a car was a must, so we stopped off in town to rent a stick-shift car for $50/day.

Getting into the Best Western, we discovered that it was right in the middle of the former U.S. Naval base! The owner, Axel, was a German transplant who had lived in Exmouth for 15 years with his wife and kids, and eagerly set us up in a nice room that looked like great value (full kitchen, full size refrigerator, etc.). He then gave us an orientation of the area, lent us an ice box, an umbrella, and rented us snorkels and masks.

We then headed to town for lunch and a visit to the shopping center to fill the ice box, and then drove to Turquoise Bay to try the drift snorkel. The beach is filled with pieces of coral skeletons, just to show you how robust this coral reef is. The drift snorkel is set in a lagoon with a consistent current from South to North. You enter through the South, and the current carries you to the North, the only catch being that if you forget to leave the lagoon before it carries you past the Southern sandbar, a powerful rip-tide will send you right into the Indian Ocean, where there's no landfall between Australia and Africa!

We snorkeled cautiously, and it was a lot of fun --- I even saw a reef shark moving around in the water. Then while preparing for another entry, I saw another snorkeler doing something very smart --- she put on her fins and stepped backwards towards the reef, and by the time she was forced to swim, she was almost right on the reef, and didn't have to fight the current at all. I followed suit and had a great time.

In fact, we had too great a time, since after we were done it was 4pm, and we were feeling a little sun exposed. We drove South to Sandy Bay, which was a pretty place, and then back North to Mandu-Mandu gorge, which was a walk up to the highest place in the park for a good view of the entire Ningaloo Reef. I started the walk, but found the going tough, not because of elevation gain, but because the trail was right on a stream bed which was rocky and painful to walk on. After a while I started looking for short cuts. I found a rock climbing ascent, but on examination discovered that I just wasn't good enough to do it. A little while later, I backtracked and found a chimney. I'd read about how to do this in The Freedom of the Hills about 10 years back, but never had a chance to apply it, and so took the chance to do so. What do you know, it worked like a charm.

Once at the summit, I took a few pictures, and walked back down, and on the return, discovered to my chagrin that if I had only been more patient I would have found the non-mountaineering ascent. C'est la vie. Lisa then wanted to look for turtle hatchlings, while I wanted to see the sunset from the local lighthouse. Fortunately, the two attractions were right next to each other and so we could each do so. I found the sunset disappointing, however, and Lisa found no turtle hatchlings.

We had dinner at Whalers in town, and the food was found to be absolutely top-notch, right up there with the best I had at Google, while the service was slow but acceptable.

The next morning, we were picked up at 7:40 for the Navy Pier Dive, billed as one of the top 10 dives in the world. The U.S. Navy built a submarine communications system that consisted of really high towers (the tallest is taller than the Eiffel, but doesn't look that tall because we had nothing to compare it to), and ran a base in Exmouth in the 1960s. Since then, most of the work has been automated away, except for the pier, which is used to deliver diesel to operate the system.

The dive itself was quite amazing --- you really do feel like you're in an aquarium, surrounded by fish. We saw Rays, Sharks (multiple of them!), Lion fish (also multiple), Potato Cods (big huge ones), schools of Barracuda, the list goes on. The visibility was not great (20 feet at most), but the density of wild life was quite impressive. If you're in the area, this dive is definitely a must do.

We returned to the hotel at noon, went to town to have lunch at Grace's Tavern (surprisingly good food), and then I went snorkeling again while Lisa stayed at the hotel. By the time I returned, it was almost time to return the car, so we did so and had dinner at Pinnochio's, an Italian establishment that was disappointing.

The dive on Saturday was changed on account of the wind --- it was way too strong to go to the Murions, so we were sent to the West Coast instead. We dived two dives and did a snorkel in between, but I wasn't too happy with the dive guides this time. The reason is the Ningaloo Reef Dreaming also trains Dive Masters (known as Dive Control Specialists in the SSI lingo). In this case, the number of trainee Dive Masters outnumbered the paying customers (this is because Ningaloo trains you for free if you work for them as an intern for 4 weeks after your Dive Master course), and I did not appreciate being used as a guinea pig for trainees during a dive I'm paying for. The first dive felt like a race, with the trainees shooting off like a rocket, and us paying customers chasing them. The second one was considerably better, with better wild life viewing, but with all the switching arounds and confusion, I would have preferred getting an experienced guide. If you're signed up for a trip with these guys, I recommend making sure you get a real dive guide, not an intern or a trainee!

By the time the diving was over it was nearly 4pm, so we chilled in the hotel room and did a BBQ for dinner.

The big disappointment this morning was that our whale shark spotting trip had been cancelled, again due to wind. We salvaged the day by renting a car, and going snorkeling again, first at South Mandu (which Lisa loved), a site where the coral is practically at your nose, granting great visibility but few large fish, and then we had lunch at the Yardie River. We finished up the day at Turquoise Bay again, but on the non-drift loop, where we saw a small Manta Ray, and I spotted a clown fish --- but the drift loop really is better. Dinner was at Whalers again, as we tried to drown away our sorrow at not seeing Whale Sharks with good food.
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