Getting the hump on Australia's Humpback Highway

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, discovers that the whales in Australia aren't as friendly as those in Antarctica

7 mins

I had chosen to go whale-watching with Mills Charters because I could drive from my campground near Perth to their departure point at the port in the town of Hillarys in about 20 minutes (including a stop to put air in my rental car's flat tire), and there was plenty of parking nearby. Plus, their Wednesday trips included free admission to the Aquarium of Western Australia, which is also located at the port.

I used to get direly seasick whenever I'd go out on a boat. The worst time was off San Diego, where I was attending a comic book convention as part of my job. I'd ended up bobbing up and down alone in the ocean while my dive buddies were wandering around chasing fins or throwing up. The bobbing got to me as I waited for them, and by the time one of them hauled me back up onto the boat, I was too weak to even take care of myself. He'd had to pull me over to the side and put my head over the water so I could vomit into the Pacific, then he'd removed my dive gear and dragged me to a bench, where I'd remained until we got back to port. Somehow, none of this stopped me from going on the company dinner that night, but I probably didn't eat much.

But I seemed to have gotten my sea legs during my four freighter trips and one transatlantic QE2 voyage of MariesWorldTour 2001, during my previous trip around the world.

Still, sea legs aside, yesterday's winds on this decade’s had been strong enough to demolish my tent. I didn't want to risk it, so I took a Thai version of a Dramamine as soon as I pulled my hire car into the Hillarys parking lot.

Just in case.

I found the yacht I’d signed onto for the day and boarded. The pilot gave us a typically understated Aussie chat before we set off into what is known as Humpback Highway in the ocean off Perth.

"Yesterday we had a bit of wind so today we'll have three-meter swells. If you're feeling a bit crook, we have bags up by the water. Don't be crook in the wheel house."

The boat's naturalist showed us a plastic humpback whale named Steve so we'd know to look for ridges and dorsal fins to spot our whales, and off we went.

About half our 30-or-so passengers started rushing for the sick bags within the first ten minutes, as the boat rocked up and down, up and down. The day was clear but the swells were left over from yesterday.

I was now very glad indeed to have taken the Thai motion sickness tablet.

We stayed out for about three-and-a-half hours and saw loads of whales. They weren't as social as the whales in Antarctica had been when I’d been there in 2004 – there, minke whales had come right up to the Zodiacs and stuck their noses out at us. But these were still pretty cool whales – almost all mums and calves, on their annual migrations to Antarctica for the Australian summer.

By the end of the first hour, about 70-80% of the passengers were sickly, and there was a serious risk of running out of barf bags. I averted my eyes from the garbage can of full bags and kept them peeled on the ocean, hunting for dorsal fins.

Whales are too fast for you to focus, plan, and shoot. You just have to click your camera when you see one and hope you can pull something out of the shot later in Photoshop.

I got a few, but mostly missed the best shots. And after the trip, I headed to the aquarium before going back to camp, to my tent with a borrowed pole. I’d have to return the pole to the camp security guard in the morning. But what would I do after that?

*  *  * 

"Can you fix it?" The next morning, I handed over my broken tent pole to the cashier at Ray's Outdoors where I'd bought my tent a week ago.

"Sure, but the question is do we have it in stock."

We checked. They didn't. I was hoping they'd just take the tent back and give me a new one, but apparently torrential rain and wind wasn't covered in my purchase agreement.

"We have these." She showed me some spare rods, the same diameter as mine but longer. "But they're too long."

I didn't really want to try to sort out how to take apart the poles and re-string them anyway.

She made some phone calls.

"They have them across the road. Here, I'll show you where to drive."

I drove to the nearby outdoor store she'd pointed me to. The manager was expecting me.

"Here, follow me."

He took me to identical tent poles to the ones I'd just seen.

"But it's too long."

"You just saw it." He made a sawing motion with his hands.

"Oh. I'll be taping mine then. Never mind."

He looked puzzled.

"I'm travelling. I'm not carrying a hand saw!"

"Well, just use a steak knife."

I took one more shot at explaining my situation.

"I have a plastic butter knife."

Tape it was then.

I got back in the car and after a quick stop at the rental car agency where the clerk waved off my leaking tire as no big deal, I headed south, past Perth, past the exit for Fremantle, and into the wild blue yonder. My goal was to make it south to Albany for a few days, to see some giant trees before turning around to get back to Perth for my flight out.

I made it to a shore town called Busselton, famous for a long timber jetty. I checked into Kookaburra Campground (I didn't see any kookaburras) and walked into town to find some chow.

Man, I thought again. Restaurants are so ridiculously expensive in Western Australia. I couldn't work it out. KMart was cheap, dollar stores were cheap, car hire was the same price as at home, but gas was crazy-expensive and eating in restaurants was off-the-charts pricey. Was this something to do with the fast change in the value of the Aussie dollar? But how did that relate to salaries, which seemed to be no higher here than at home in the States?

I'd have to see what things cost in New South Wales and Tasmania before considering this any further, I supposed.

In the morning, I took a quick look at the jetty (which has a small train that goes all the way to the end) before driving on. At the adorable tourist trap town of Margaret River, I stopped long enough to sit in the coffee shop, then checked out the wi-fi at the local bookstore. Oh, so cute, this town. But I didn't dawdle – I drove straight south to Cape Leeuwin.

Now I was almost off the map. This is as far south-west as you can go in Australia. From here to the south, there was nothing but ocean between me and Antarctica. And to the west lay Africa. I waved.

"Hello, Africa. Remember me?"

Probably not, I realised. I'm just one small person and Africa is a big continent with a lot of stuff going on.

Here I was, where the Southern Ocean meets the Indian Ocean.

And it felt like it. What a breeze!

I hurried back to the windless-inside of my Hyundai and sped up the road. I'd intended to head east to start my journey to see the big trees, but I missed the turn-off.

Eh. Forget it, I thought. Enough driving. I decided to go back to Margaret River for a few days, then to Fremantle before my flight to Tasmania.

So my impulsive change of itinerary took me back to the Margaret River Visitor's Centre, where I walked up to the woman behind the desk.

"I need two things. A campground, and something to do tomorrow where I don't have to drive. I'm tired of driving."

She set me up. A few minutes later, I drove up to Margaret River Tourist Park just outside town. This was great – it had one of those level mesh green mats I'd learned I liked from a few other campgrounds. You brush it off (I bought a whisk broom at the dollar store in Perth), stake your tent down through the mesh, and pop it up with your taped-up poles, and voila, instant nest.

Plus, Margaret River Tourist Park had laundry at four dollars a load and excellent wi-fi I used in strategic increments.

I walked to town for another financial nightmare of a meal, then came home to snuggle up in my warm sleeping bag, my $11 K-Mart extension cord poking through the back screen of the tent to charge my camera.

And in the morning, a man drove a bus up to get me for a half-day winery and brewery tour. I don't even drink alcohol, but I like to taste the wine and see the vineyards, and he drove us around to see the scenery and also a chocolate factory. The others on the tour were six young Europeans in their early 20s and a retired Danish couple.

I had Neil, the driver and owner of the tour company, drop me off in town so I could get a sandwich to take back to camp for dinner.

I'd learned my lesson about restaurants here too many times.

And in an uncharacteristic moment, I even ate in my tent. I'd sweep it out in the morning before breaking down camp and heading back north to Fremantle.

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