Of Pinnacles and sand dunes
Sculpted by wind, rain and sun, the amazing natural limestone structures stand tall. Yes, the Pinnacles north of Perth are a sight to behold
The wind is the leitmotif of the Indian Ocean Coast in Western Australia. Its wind-blown landscape has mobile sand dunes and the famous Pinnacles, a product of wind erosion. We are on the Indian Ocean drive, north of Perth, driving past great stretches of white sand beaches, native banksia plants that look like orange lamps, and spikey grass trees that line the sides, framing the large sand dunes and the aquamarine Indian Ocean in the distance.
The song that's playing is the voice of indigenous artist Gurrumul Yunupingu. "He was born blind and as one of the greatest Aboriginal musicians that lived," explains our guide Carola Verschuren, from Explore Tours Perth, who is also giving us a glimpse of the country through the eclectic music that she's playing today for us on this coastal tour.
Our first stop on the coast is Cervantes, the gateway to the Pinnacles Desert and the beginning of Australia's Coral Coast region. The town boasts beautiful white sandy beaches and turquoise waters teeming with marine life. The lobster fishing town was named after an American whaling ship that was wrecked nearby, which in turn, was named after the author of Don Quixote.
We head to Lobster shack, a family-owned seafood processing operation that allows visitors an up-close encounter with the most valued seafood in Australia - the Western Rock Lobster. We take a tour of the factory to understand how crayfish, or Western Rock Lobster, as it's also called, are weighed, sized, temporarily sedated in cold water, packed in a foam box with sawdust, collected and driven to the airport to be exported all around the world!
From Cervantes, we drive to the Nambung National Park, 193km northwest of Perth along the Indian Ocean Drive. As we drive out of the bush, I am looking at an alien moonscape out of a sci-fi movie that reminds me of a million tombstones, or termite mounds rising out of a stark desert, casting eerie shadows in the afternoon sun. The Pinnacles, a UNESCO heritage site, are weathered rocky outcrops that range from tiny ones to some that tower over me as tall as four to five metres tall. "No one knows exactly how they got here," says Carola.
There are many theories about their formation. One is that they are remains of the roots and trunks of a large forest covered by moving sand dunes and petrified down the ages. Another theory believes that these geological formations were formed years ago after the sea receded and left deposits of sea shells and quartz sand. Over time, the strong coastal winds removed the surrounding sand leaving the limestone pillars exposed to the elements. Sculpted by wind, rain and sun, today this barren landscape attracts busloads of tourists from across the world.
The Pinnacles have been home to the aboriginal tribes for centuries, they believed that each formation was an enemy who now lies dead! The Dutch navigators were the first to sight these formations from their ships and they thought these were the remains of an abandoned city, "Between August and October is when the park is at its best with the wildflowers blooming," says Carola. The ever-changing light adds another dimension with the outcrops changing colour and the shadows varying their sizes.
Today, the Pinnacles sprawl over an area of 17,487 hectares, and have signposted walks and drives. We drive along the Pinnacle Loop track that runs 4km around the Pinnacles, hopping on and off the vehicle to see different formations. Some look like animals, others like figures, and yet others like castles or buildings. The colour of the sand is a deep dandelion yellow, and the rocks cast long shadows.
The otherworldly landscape has tourists clambering behind formations posing for photographs or jumping in front of them, feet up in the air. There are signs asking tourists not to climb the formations. Close to a stretch of bush is a raised, decked platform that acts as a boardwalk. The Desert View Lookout is the centerpiece of the trail, providing walkers and drivers an excellent vantage point from which you get a view of the entire land scattered with the pinnacles.
Each pinnacle is different from the other. One looks like a chair, another like a person crouching, some look like groups of people chatting. Grey kangaroos, cockatoos and emus lurk in the scrubby heathland. Some are buffed and polished by centuries of erosion, others are rough and jagged. Some are hollow like a flower pot and some native plants like wattle and wallaby grass spring out of them. Some look like stubby mushrooms, some reminiscent of sponge-like coral that you would see at the bottom of an ocean. Some have pink bases, probably due to the presence of minerals like manganese.
From the Pinnacles, we drive an hour south to Lancelin, a small town known of its sand dunes and exciting adventure sports such as sand boarding and 4WD adventures. Carola points out the trees bent at angles due to the ferocious wind. Lancelin was established in the mid 1940s as a hub for the cray fishing industry. This tiny fishing town hosts Australia's biggest windsurfing event, attracting professionals from all corners of the world every summer. The original name for the town was 'Wangaree', the aboriginal word for fish.
We drive to the sand dunes where blindingly white sand stands three stories high. The dunes stretch up to 15km inland from the coast, and runs along the coast for approximately 17 km. The shapes and sizes of the dunes are constantly changing, because of the strong winds and they move at a rate of 12 metre per year. Sand boards, dune buggies, dirt bikes and ATVs line the base of the dunes for some adventure.
We take a 4WD trip with our guide Jason. He tells us to belt up and hold on as he drives us up and down the dunes, encouraging us to scream and whoop. He slows down to show us crusty corals unearthed in recent weeks by the shifting sand dunes - once this region was under water. Clumps of native bush and grass cling to the fine sand in many places - they help to stabilise the sand dunes.
We drive to the foot of a very tall dune and carry our sand boards to the top of it. Sand-like powdered sugar fly everywhere and I put on my large goggles to protect my eyes. I find it hard to balance at first, but after a few falls and sand in my eyes, I whiz down sitting on my sand board, my arms outstretched, and with the tip of the dune behind me. It's exhilarating to taxi down this mound of sand. From the top, I see the bush and the azure ocean behind it, rolling farmland, beaches and islands.