Thursday, September 26, 2013

The wild and wet South West (not Tas)

Having crossed the continent to go to Christmas Island it seemed sensible to value-add to the trip with some time in Western Australia. So when we finally got back to Perth (2.30am) there were not too many hours of sleep before it was time to go and pick up a hire car and set off for the bottom left hand corner of the Great Southern Land.

Real sand! (Not like Christmas Island). Meelup Beach, near Dunsborough.

We drove down the spanky new Kwinana freeway, then on through Bunbury and Busselton to Dunsborough, which I remembered as a relaxed beachside town from field trips 20 or more years ago, but it has clearly moved upmarket since then. Plenty of posh shops, coffee shops and eateries, and our self-catering unit was palatial.

The coastal scenery in the south west corner is spectacular, and we spent a pleasant day in Cape Naturaliste National Park, enjoying the views, the flowers and a steady procession of whales passing just offshore. They seemed to be a mix of Humpbacks and Southern Rights, and the former were doing all their stuff: fin waving, tail slapping and breaching. It was frustratingly difficult to get the binoculars on the spot where a whale was going to breach, but we eventually got good views. All this was off the eastern side of the cape, and when we got to the whale viewing platform on the western side there wasn't much to see, to the disappointment of the tourists gathered there.

Cape Naturaliste. There are whales out there.

Sugarloaf Rock, Cape Naturaliste NP. 
Reputedly the most photographed item of coastal scenery in the South West.

Wildflowers, lots of wildflowers. 

What are they? Sorry, I don't know.

Lots and lots and lots.

Much of the coastal heathland was in flower, showing off the diversity of the WA flora. The coastal heathland is more or less intact, in contrast to some of the drier inland forest, which is full of introduced weeds.

Our other Dunsborough-based excursion was to the last remaining substantial remnants of tuart forest, a bit north of Busselton. Some fine trees, but not a lot of regeneration and amazing carpets of arum lilies underneath. Also a lot of mosquitoes, and it was only later in the day that we saw the signs about the risk of Ross River Fever in the spring and early summer! But we've been home for longer than the incubation period now, so we seemed to have escaped.

Tuart forest, Ludlow.

Arum lilies everywhere.

From Dunsborough we drove to Albany, passing right through the Margaret River area, where every turnoff seems to lead to another winery (or cidery or meadery), but conditions were not conducive to stopping. It rained very heavily, as it seems to have been doing for quite a while, since the country was all lush and green, and the dams all overflowing. But we did nip out for some tall karri forest and a waterfall, and also the huge tingle trees in the Valley of the Giants.

Waterfall near Margaret River.
That's probably sauvignon blanc, not water.

Karri forest. 

Roots of a tingle tree.
They probably walk around at night.

In Albany we stayed in a charming little cottage built in the early 1900s, lined with horizontal boards inside and corrugated iron outside. My last visit to Albany was by ship (see the blog for May 2010), but driving in this time showed me that it's a much larger place than just the waterfront and centre. We didn't spend much time in the town, apart from evening meals.

Oakview Cottage, Albany. 

The kitchen. The range was just for show.

We had a couple of targets in the Albany area: the Two Peoples Bay Nature Reserve and the Porongorups National Park. Two Peoples Bay is home to some very rare birds and mammals, including the Noisy Scrub Bird, once thought to be extinct, but re-discovered in the 1960s (I know, I know, but birders take this sort of thing seriously). The Noisy Scrub Bird is notoriously cryptic, and on the day of our visit it was probably clinging for dear life to the scrub to prevent it from being blown to South Australia. It was windy and wet enough for the waterproof pants, but we got some sunny breaks too.

I know that's a Banksia. Two Peoples Bay. 
Jeannie's photo; she concentrated on the flowers.

Granite domes, Two Peoples Bay.

Domes of granite pop up all over the south west, and the Porongorups are a modest range 30-40 kilometres inland of Albany. We arrived at the picnic area in time to meet up with a tour group of naturalists from Canberra who were all directing their binoculars at something on the ground which quickly resolved itself as the Rufous Treecreeper, one of the the local specialities that we had come to see. We congratulated ourselves on having seen it so easily, before we found that it is ridiculously tame. One of the Canberra people remarked that she had expected a treecreeper, not a tirecreeper, as the bird explored their bus.

The not very elusive Rufous Flycatcher. Porongorup. 

Well-adapted to picnic areas. Cleaning up the BBQ brush. 

Proclaiming its territory from the top of the BBQ.

We walked part way along the base of the range and then back along the top. An undemanding walk with extensive views to the coast, and then inland to the substantially higher Stirling Range, another 20 kms or so away.

Climbing the Porongorups.

Porongorup Range. 

Family group, Porongorup Range. 

Stirling Range from the Porongorups.

It was just a taster of the south west corner, and as we drove the long straight road back to Perth we resolved to return to explore some more one day.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Christmas in the sun

Well, this blog is supposed to be about the traveling bears, and at last there's some significant travel to talk about. (I know, I know, there are those out there who would like to hear The Everyday Story of Tasmanian Folk......)

A couple of weeks ago we took part in the (notorious!) Bird and Nature Week on Christmas Island. This involved flights to Melbourne, then Perth, an overnight stop in Perth and finally the scheduled flight with Virgin Australia to CI, which takes the best part of four hours. That kinda confirms what the map tells you, that CI is much closer to Indonesia than Australia, and well into the tropics. The CI airstrip was once among the world's six hairiest commercial landings, but since it has been lengthened the pilot only has to cope with the turbulence that the trade winds create over the edge of the island. We got down with only a few bumps, but the cabin crew still suggested that a round of applause for the pilot was appropriate.

CI stands in a rather strange place, operating under the laws of Western Australia, but administered by the Federal government, so there is no GST or Duty on alcohol, for example. And the island was excised from the Australian migration zone by the Howard Liberal government, which means that people arriving on the island cannot automatically apply for refugee status. This is overlaid on a resident population of about 2000, and an economy that has been based largely on the mining of phosphate rock, at least before the construction of the refugee detention centre.

Flying Fish Cove. Phosphate loading right alongside the only swimming beach.

But we were there for the birds, and the crabs! CI is home to large numbers of seabirds, several of which only nest on the island, but also a huge and diverse array of terrestrial crabs which live mainly in the island's rainforests (or "jungle" as the locals call it), but can appear anywhere (such as under the steps up to our room), or everywhere, as they do during the migration when millions of red crabs march to the sea to deposit their eggs.

The ubiquitous Red Crab. Bigger than I thought.

Robber Crab on my boots. The world's largest terrestrial invertebrate.

Forest floor scene. Crabs everywhere and hardly a leaf in sight.

We were part of a group of 30-odd, but we were split up into groups of seven for a rotation of activities with four experts, who dealt with their own specialities (goshawks, Abbots Booby, seabirds and general natural history) but also took us all over the island to see things of interest. And it was all fascinating. The birds were gorgeous, and we got to meet many of them close up and in the hand (I was mildly scarred by a Red-tailed Tropic Bird, but I was warned to wear the gloves). Memories of the birds include the ethereal Golden Bosuns against the blue sky, the prehistoric-looking Frigate birds scooping up water from the resort's swimming pool, the confiding Island Thrush and the (it has to be said) stupidity of the Goshawk.

Red-tailed Tropic Bird.

The "Golden Bosun", CI's unique morph of the White-tailed Tropic Bird.
Often more golden than that, and I can't think of another seabird that isn't either black or white, or a combination.

Frigate birds drinking from the resort pool.
A bit scary for swimmers.

The charming, and very tame, Island Thrush.

CI Goshawk, caught by Jeannie (well, more or less).
This is an immature bird.

And the crabs were just amazing. We knew that we were not at the right time for the mass migration, but thanks to a late end to the wet season there were still plenty about. It was so strange to look into the forest and see the floor bare of fallen leaves, with crabs dotted about all over the place, chewing away. And so many giant Robber Crabs! CI is now the main refuge for this huge invertebrate, and it was good to see that the islanders take their conservation seriously. The "Slow Down, Drive Around" road signs were everywhere, and there are very expensive underpasses and even bridges for the crabs to cross the roads. A competition for a new save-the-crabs slogan was on while we were there; our driver John (from Cornwall) came second with his entry: "Better Red than Dead".

Mind that Robber Crab! They jump up under vehicles.

The monthly toll. Note the insert directed at the detention centre staff.

Underpass for Red Crabs. They cost $0.5m each to build!

The alternative: a crab bridge. And cheaper at a mere $250,000.

We got a small taste of what life is like in the CI community. Like islands everywhere, I suspect. Nobody locks their doors, piles of gear left by the beach while you take a walk are perfectly safe, people stop if you even look like crossing the road and many people have more than one job, like the tourist bureau lady who re-appeared at the airport in a uniform operating the security check. The fact that three of our seven evening meals were Chinese, one Malayasian and the rest "western" reflects the make up of the community nicely. The Chinese and Malays came to the island as coolies for the phosphate mine, and for a long time the ethnic communities were segregated, but that's all over now. In fact our best meal was the one prepared and served by the hospitality students at the island high school, who were a mix from all three communities, and very charming.

Chinese Buddhist centre in The Settlement.

Christmas Island is a long way from being the stereotypical island paradise, if your mental picture includes sand, loungers and beach umbrellas. Most of the island is ringed by steep, jagged limestone cliffs and really the only sheltered beach where you can reliably enter the water from sand is Flying Fish Cove, which also houses the phosphate port, a jetty and the community housing just across the road. My first impression was "scruffy", but by the end of the week I understood that it's everyone's beach, everybody goes there to relax and swim, and what's more the snorkelling just off the beach was fantastic!

The swimming end of Flying Fish Cove. Really the only sheltered beach in the island.

As he was taking us for a look at the detention centre, one of the guides said, apologetically, that was the one thing that everyone would ask about when we got home, and so far he has been quite right. Even though the centre is tucked away at the far end of the island, we were struck by everyone's openness about it. There were two "arrivals" while we were on the island. The navy frigate that was in sight offshore most of the time came close in (can't anchor, too deep) and small boats ferried off two more loads of asylum seekers, or "illegals" as the recent election campaign wanted them to be know as. The islanders we spoke to were all very sympathetic to the refugees (but less so to the detention centre staff), and several spoke of the horror of the shipwreck in 2010 when 50 people drowned just offshore of the main settlement, in full view of the locals who could done nothing to help because of the seas and the savage rocks.

The detention centre, tucked away at the other end of the island.

Navy frigate unloading asylum seekers.

SIEV: Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel.There was another very moving memorial to the SIEV X.

The detention centre has a significant effect on the island, economically of course, but also through the renovation of the "resort", a failed casino that was being gradually swallowed by the jungle, to the commandeering of aviation fuel to take refugees away. The latter gives Virgin some headaches for their flight schedules, and we fell foul of that as we left, having to return to Perth via Port Headland in order to take on enough fuel, and consequently arriving in Perth at 2.30am.

Would I go back? Like a shot: to see the crab migration, to take time to watch the birds and to enjoy the gentle pace of quirky Christmas Island.