Down memory lane to Kalbarri ...

Trip Start Apr 13, 2011
Trip End Jul 13, 2011

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Flag of Australia  , Western Australia,
Sunday, May 8, 2011

I approached Kalbarri with some trepidation, as I've been talking it up ever since I was here 20 years ago, and have been a bit afraid that it wouldn’t live up to the memories I have carried around ever since. Along the way, we have been gathering brochures, and the ones for Kalbarri have not done anything to reassure me. It seems that the sleepy fishing village I remembered has been replaced by a glitzy Noosa-like playground for all of WA and anyone else from the other states who makes it this far and wants to live it up a bit. Paddy had been making noises about lashing out on some nice accommodation in which to really enjoy our second official slow-down, but we also had three caravan parks to choose from, all of which looked pretty luxurious in the glossy publications.

Driving from Geraldton to Kalbarri was interesting, as we suddenly found ourselves in the most barren landscape we’ve encountered so far – acres and acres of dry, red sand with not a tree in sight – that’s white man’s agriculture for you. They have no hope of ever revegetating this area, as there is nowhere to anchor even the humblest beginnings of an erosion repair strategy. Northampton, a heritage-listed little township was absolutely gorgeous, and probably warranted a closer look, but we could smell the salt air by now and were not stopping for anyone or anything. If you read my previous entry, you would also know that we had lost a lot of time earlier in the day walking a sandy bike trail with flat tyres.

It was quite a challenging drive for Serge, as we had a headwind all the way; and it was the first time he had visibly struggled with his load of Piedemontes parmesan (we are down to our last two blocks), special cherry tomatoes from the Mediterranean Wholesaler in Sydney Road, and my favourite linguinetti, also only available from Piedemontes. I got some loud laughs when I packed all this stuff, but have had no complaints when I dish up food that tastes better than what you get in most of the restaurants out here! We’ve had a few exceptions, thank God, but it’s a pricey gamble each time you eat out.

So, over the barren hills and far away we drove, until eventually we rounded the last hilltop before our destination, and there it was – lovely Kalbarri – and lovely it still is. The view as you come over the hill is every bit as beautiful as my favourite part of the road to the Prom – you know, where Whisky Bay suddenly pops into view. Sadly, this is also where the new money in Kalbarri is parked, so all along the right hand side of the road, there are some incredibly vulgar mansions springing up and a massive gated community under construction. We couldn’t work out why you would move in there, as the magnificent view is well and truly obscured by a 6-foot wall that surrounds the entire estate. My heart lifted and sank all at the same time as we descended into the main part of town. Imagine my relief when I realised that the town itself had not actually progressed anywhere near as much as the brochures had lead us to believe. In fact, we never did spot most of the swanky places in the brochure, because on closer inspection, they were interior shots – and we all know what that means, don’t we?!? The "sea front villas" turned out to be little brick council houses that were lucky enough to be on the waterfront when someone knocked them up in a day back in the 60s, and some of the prime real estate is still covered in little fibro shacks masquerading as “self-contained apartments”. In fact, most of the beachfront architecture was horrendous – so much so that I undermined Paddy’s plan to go glamorous, and insisted on sticking with the tent after all. I didn’t see the point in staying somewhere swanky that was off the beach, and all the beachside accommodation was awful. The only proper resort looks like a prison, and is also a short walk from the beach, so I’m not sure why you’d waste your money there, either.

We’d picked out the park at the end of town, thinking it would keep us out of the tourist drag, but by the end of our six days here, we realised we needn’t have worried. Although we still had three days of school holidays left, the main tourist season had finished, to the point where some tour operators were already paring down their schedules in a big way. Through sheer coincidence, I heard the lady in tourist info telling someone it was the last night for a sunset tour, so we jumped on that. That was highly entertaining, and our tour guide reminded us of our old friend, Johnno, who would also have been perfect in a job like this one. We had a G&T in his memory as the sun went down and giggled as our host took the piss out of everyone in the boat at some stage or another. He was a good source of interesting information, and wasn't afraid to air his views on the latest government policies, either, which are unfortunately killing small towns like this. The new fishing policies, in particular, have led to a crazy situation where you can't buy fresh fish anywhere along this coast. And, although they export thousands of fresh crays from the place every day, you can't get your hands on one as a tourist.

Our time in Kalbarri started cheerily enough, although I had a bit of a grizzle when I realised that we had been allocated a gravel camping spot when there seemed to be plenty of grass spots still free. We figured they had probably been booked for other people, so didn’t think too much of it, but after six days, when various people had been and gone again on these lush spots and we were still roughing it in the gravel, we wished we’d been a bit more pro-active. By this stage, I was suffering from “Princess and the Pea” syndrome, and was having trouble sleeping on the stones that kept trying to break my back, even through the faithful futon. After a day or so, I resorted to blowing up a Thermarest and putting it under the futon – what bliss! For some reason, there was an enormous amount of coming and going in this park, always late at night or very early in the morning, so even if I hadn’t had back troubles, there was not much sleep to be had anyway. In fact, the caravan park in the middle of town got more enticing by the day, with its lush green lawns and little picnic benches at each site; and on day three or four, we found the youth hostel and its nice-looking little self-contained units, which I have earmarked as our destination for next time.

This is all starting to sound like torture, which is actually painting the wrong picture. In terms of scenery, Kalbarri and its surrounds were as magnificent as I remembered. I guess a landscape that has been around for over 400 million years doesn’t alter much in twenty, does it? By the end of our visit, we had almost worn our National Parks Pass out and loosened every bolt in the car on the 50km return journey, which we did three times. We walked “The Loop” anti-clockwise, then again clockwise to catch the last section in daylight. Well, we didn’t bother with a full second circuit in the heat, as it was an 8km walk, after all. We also walked all but one of the cliff walks. My photos for these days, whilst plentiful, are not great, as I have been using the shade thingo that came with the camera, and have since found out that in certain light or at certain times/angles, it actually graces each of my photos with little rounded black corners – ie, the bugger shades the lens TOO effectively. If anyone knows what is causing this, please let me know, so I can go back to taking good photos!

Our plan had been to use the bikes to get around, and to relax a bit in between our manic walks up and down the various gorges and cliffs, but somehow we only managed this once. Writing this with the benefit of a little distance, I think we actually let ourselves get sleep-deprived in Kalbarri, as we never gave ourselves the opportunity to relax and do nothing, even though this had been the plan. Perhaps we should have pulled up stumps and moved somewhere else in town, but every second night, we sort of slept enough to trick ourselves into thinking it was going to quieten down. Then, every other night, something weird would happen that kept us awake till all hours – hoons one night, gale force winds another, an exodus of nomads and screeching children on a morning or two, and so it went on. We were also desperately in search of a quiet stretch of white beach where we could just lie on the sand and read, then jump in for a quick dip when we felt like it, but Kalbarri is essentially a fishing town, not a swimming town. We did swim a few times on the main beach that runs along the front of the town, but it’s not a brilliant swimming beach and on one day, there was this weird brown froth that did not look very inviting, so we decided it might be time to head further north, after all.

One more whinge before I finish on Kalbarri. Shortly before leaving home, I saw one of the travel shows on TV, and they featured this area. I was super-excited when they visited Finlays’ Fish BBQ, because I celebrated my birthday in this place 20 years ago with some friends and my sister, and the atmosphere and the food were amazing. I was looking forward to a little walk down memory lane, so Paddy and I fronted up there with great excitement on our first proper night in town. The ambience is still great - the place has expanded, but they have maintained the rustic look of the place. I was cross that I’d left my camera behind, but figured I could slip back in during the day for a couple of shots. All that went out the window when we got our meal. I’m sorry, but there will be no atmospheric photos of Finlays, as I have no wish to promote them. Their service was taciturn to the point of being rude, the three dollar salad was a bowl of lettuce with a couple of tiny tomato bits in it and the potato salad looked inedible. Whilst the coleslaw was OK, the supposed highlight of the meal - the barbecued fish – was grilled to within an inch of its life, and the "platter" was just a pile of deep-fried, oily stuff we could have bought from the IGA. I swear, some of our leftovers (and yes, how unlike me to have LEFTOVERS!) will still be around in hundreds of years, as they had already begun to fossilize. These guys are trading on people’s fond memories of the old bloke who started the place during a transport strike more than twenty years ago, but in terms of food, it’s a rip-off! Just goes to show, not many people can maintain their standards for 20-plus years. However, it’s also a lesson to me not to look back so much. Keep moving forward, which we did, so I’d better balance the scales by giving the crew at the Kalbarri Motor Hotel a pat on the back for their efforts. Had a delicious steak there, whilst being entertained by a nice lady who sang and played guitar. Once again, prices broke the bank, but at least the experience was a good one.  

Kalbarri was a funny mix, as it turned out, and we have met others who think the same. Maybe they were just worn out after two weeks of school holidays, but they don't seem to have really got themselves sorted as a tourist town, and whilst there's plenty there to do, the town isn't really doing itself justice. The young boys in the two supermarkets (and I'm all for our youth learning the value of work, etc) had no idea about customer service, and the lady at the tourist information did not seem to have much of an idea about what was going on either (we nearly missed our sunset tour because she had refused to give me a receipt, so the boatmeister wasn't keen to let us on the boat; nor did she know where the ATMs were in town). By the same token, this might be partly why the place is still relatively low-key, which we actually like in a town, so perhaps I should refrain from offering my tips for improvement. I still hope I'll be back one day, as the place has a certain kind of magic, and as I have already pointed out, the scenery was amazing. In fact, Paddy has issued a challenge to Karijini, as he reckons it will have to be pretty good to beat Kalbarri! Let's hope we get to find out, as it's still raining up in the Pilbara, and we need it to stop before we get there!

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stones_luce on

I had to give up a day in Rio to read this monster! We loved Kalbarri when we were there last year too. It's a lovely little place.

kyser on

Sorry about that, hope it was worth it to bring some good memories back! We have another great destination for your next attempt at WA - all will be revealed in the next 24 hours ...

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