Saturday, 20 August 2011

Swimming with dolphins and other adventures

At Monkey Mia, a little further down the coast, we came hoping to see the famed dolphins that come into the shore each day for a little snack of fish. The story is that about 15 years ago a fisherman would throw some of his fish to the dolphins each day and soon they realised free fast-food was available at Monkey Mia. These days the feeding is strictly managed and wild-life rangers make sure the dolphins are protected however people can stand in the knee-deep water but are not allowed to touch them. A few lucky people are then called on to handfeed a dolphin. Sometimes up to 20 come in each day around 8am, have some breakfast then disappear in family groups for an hour or so and then return once or twice throughout the morning for more snacks. These are wild dolphins and so are not fed much food – they still do their own searching for fish further out from the beach. We are told that the ‘feeding’ section of the beach is out-of-bounds for swimmers, fishing and boating. However a section of this beautiful beach left and right is available for the public to use. We watched as they dolphins swam in and interacted with the rangers and were eventually fed before swimming out to sea again. It was quite a sight. We were told, however, that the dolphins rarely came back into the shore in the afternoon.

Later that afternoon, with the weather still just warm enough for a swim, I wandered down to the beach. The water was freezing, and I was the only person silly enough to go for a dip. After about 15 minutes I noticed two or three dolphins further out and eventually they came further into shore not too far from me. A group of people on the beach walked along watching as the dolphins headed further up along the shore and towards some boats and I thought they were gone. Next the watching crowd turned and began walking back following the dolphins as they made their way towards me. I stood in waist deep water, delighted to see them come so close. The two (mother and calf) swam past either side of me and I could easily have reached out and touched them. One little boy on the beach said rather plaintively “Oh, she is so lucky!” – and I certainly consider I was.

We spent a few days here, but eventually had to move on and as we drove south the bushy landscape abruptly seemed to change to cultivated land not far from Geraldton.  I had read some time ago Randolph Stow’s classic Australian novel “The Merry-go-round in the Sea” which was set in post-war Geraldton and so was curious about the area.  I don’t think Mr Stow would recognise it today – it has grown enormously from the beach-side town it once was. Another group of Soldiers’ Graves at Geraldton was photographed, before we headed inland towards the old Spanish missionary town of New Norcia.
This is an astonishing place – An outback aboriginal mission begun by a small group of Spanish monks in 1846 and still owned and maintained by a dozen or so Benedictine monks. Now they employ about 70 people to provide all the services needed to keep this remarkable little town and district operating for travellers. The Spanish style buildings throughout the town are quite a sight in the middle of the Australian bush. All money generated goes to further the work of the monks and to maintain the many wonderful Spanish style buildings that comprise the town – 27 of which have National Trust listing. In the morning we gathered with a group of other interested people and were taken on a walking tour of the town. A very knowledgeable guide showed us around and told the story of the Mission. Later I visited the well laid out Museum and the wonderful art gallery of religious paintings. (Remember in 2006, the gallery was famously robbed of many of its valuable paintings, however all except one was recovered although much restoration needed to be done).  The town also has a very big hotel – built especially grand in 1926 as it was expected that the Spanish queen (benefactress of the Mission) would be coming for a visit. Unfortunately, ill-health prevented the royal visit, and the hotel was used by parents of children at the mission boarding school. Abbey Ale, the Mission’s local brew was given the thumbs-up by Peter when we fronted up for our evening meal.

The century-old bakery has been restored and locally milled flour is made into wonderful bread baked in the Mission’s wood-fired ovens. If I had a freezer in the caravan, I would have stocked up – it was really beautiful bread.

Leaving New Norcia, we headed out towards the Wheatfields of Western Australia to photograph a lone grave of a returned soldier at Mandiga Siding. This small settlement no longer exists and it took quite a bit of ingenuity and help from local people at nearby Bencubbin before we were able to successfully photograph the last resting place of Private James Freeman. The grave was finally located in the middle of a wheat field some miles away from Mandiga.
On towards Kalgoolie – famous as a gold town with quite a wild reputation.  The goldfields 19th century architecture is stunning with many of the old shops/hotels restored and still in use. The town streets are exceptionally wide originally this width to allow an ox and dray to turn but nowadays the majority of small businesses are support industries for the big mining operations.  The one ‘must-see’ sight in Kalgoolie is the stupendous Super Pit from which gold bearing soil is extracted. Enormously deep, the huge trucks look like tiny toys at the bottom. It is one of the richest gold bearing mines in the world.  At nearby Boulder we photographed more soldiers’ graves before heading to the very large Kalgoolie Cemetery for another dozen or so. We were rather taken aback at the extent of this cemetery but fortunately a very nice office lady in the cemetery office identified for us the position of each grave and supplied photocopied maps. Her kind help saved us hours of frustrating searching and so later that day we returned and presented her with a box of chocolates as a thank-you.

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