Special Guest: Buzz Aldrin

Tuesday we headed towards our next intended attraction, Shark Bay World Heritage Area. It was a fair distance away, and turned out to be mostly a driving day. The highlight was the town of Carnarvon, which had a NASA tracking station which was used in the Gemini days. We asked if it had a museum, and the answer was interesting: “Yes, but it doesn’t open for a couple days. Buzz Aldrin is coming out to preside at the opening. We’re spending $50,000 to fly him and his entourage out here.” We poked around the museum where things weren’t all quite set up, and looked at really old computer tapes and communication equipment that dated to before the invention of User Interface. There’s a little panel on some giant box that has a red light that says “CALL”, two quarter inch plugs with the label “TEL SET”, and a switch that throws between “CALL” and “BUZZ OFF”. This is where rocket science got its reputation for being hard. My iPhone has 34,000 times the capacity of the computer that took Buzz Aldrin to the moon, and it’s a couple of generations old.

There were also various objects which had fallen from space into the Outback, including a small Gemini fuel tank. Carnarvon Steel Supplies has built a replica capsule for kids to sit in and have their picture taken. Bob and Keith Brown from Carnarvon Smash Repairs generously donated the painting of the space craft, according to the sign.

The people who speak to you in the tourist industry moderate their dialect, but many of the others you meet can’t be understood, unless they are foreigners. Irish, Dutch, German accents, these can all be deciphered, but beyond Crocodile Dundee and GEICO lies an unintelligible wilderness.

The Australian and American languages are both descendants of English, but they were different classes of English, and they were mutually unintelligible in England even before the separation occurred. Our American ancestors were mad, but they were literate; they expressed ideas with an English so rich that it had words for more things than there actually are — the “elect” come to mind. The Australians, on the other hand, were drawn from a class of people for whom language was not even the preferred method of communication. They coshed each other and grabbed such victuals and organs as they wanted, and furthermore, the Australians are drawn from the least verbally expressive members of that class: the ones that got caught, could not explain themselves, and were transported.

Eventually ministers arrived but the original strain of Australians are still working in the mines out here in Western Australia. A guy in a gas station — petrol, I mean — was putting $665 of unleaded into an industrial crane (the stations in Port Hedlands have REALLY high clearance in their bays) and he started a conversation with me and I couldn’t understand a single syllable of what he said and I’ll bet a Melbourner would need translation as well. The people who put together the exhibit in the museum in Canberra ten years ago worrying over the loss of the Australian dialect — they need to listen to the ones who dig their Sub Zero refrigerators out of the ground and ship them to China for metallurgical polishing. They are thinking mostly of vocabulary. I heard few people on the whole trip say “G’Day” to me, or anybody else. One reference to “Waltzing Matilda” from a tour guide. The word “barby” appears in print commercials but the usual word seems to be “grill”.

There are benefits. The problem, for example, of going to sleep in a noisy environment is not the noise but the information. You hear one shoe drop and you want to hear the other. This is only a problem if you speak the language. Listening to loud, drunk, heterosexual Australians in a tavern immediately adjacent to a trailer park is not any more of a problem than sleeping in a stamping mill.

After our visit at Carnarvon, we continued driving and got close to Shark Bay, but stopped at dark at the Woomeral Roadhouse.

Wednesday we proceeded onto World Heritage Drive and went to the Hamelin Pond area to see the stromatolites. These are rock formations in the tidal area which, they tell us, are created by cyanobacteria. I was entranced by a bird call, three or four notes descending repeated endlessly. After an hour or two I was lucky enough to see the bird who was making the call: he had a distinctive crest. That made it easy to look him up: the chiming wedgebill, who was described in the book as making exactly that call. Continuing up towards Denham, we stopped at Shell Beach, a beach covered with millions of identical white coquina shells — a tiny bivalve. We also stopped by the side of the road to see various plants: what looked like a scattering of yellow tennis balls turned out to be some kind of squash growing wild. One of the things we’d hoped to do in this area was to see the dugong, the Australian version of the manatee. And by the time we got to Denham, it became clear that it was very unlikely that that would happen. The only other attraction there was dolphin feeding: despite the name Shark Bay, there weren’t really tours that take you snorkeling with the whale sharks like the ones we didn’t go on in Exmouth. So we turned around, drove back down World Heritage Drive back to the North West Coastal Highway, and continued south. We drove as far as we could before it got dark, which turned out to be a rest area with “24-hour stopping”. This was pretty cool, because it was free. It had a toilet, but that was all: no water, no showers, no electricity. Despite its rusticness, it was quite popular: there were probably thirty vehicles parked there.

Thursday we drove out towards Kalbarri National Park, which hosts various gorges on the Murchison River. We decided on an interesting destination for the evening, so we didn’t have time to explore Kalbarri as fully as one could: ideally one would have a 4WD vehicle to take on their 30km dirt road to the Window on the World. We didn’t, and settled for some nice roadside views, and a coastal walk along some incredibly eroded rocks. There were areas of “positive/negative”: a square foot would have one-inch “nubs” on it, and several adjacent square feet would have one-inch pits. Several formations looked like small stalactites: they turned out to have been formed by worms. It was a fascinating landscape. But it became time to press on to the Western Flora Caravan Park, whose owners are avid botanists and can tell you the name and detailed life facts about just about every plant on their large property. They host guided walks daily. At night we set up the telescope and had fun looking at various celestial objects like nebulas and globular clusters and just little star clusters. It was a delightful place to stay.

If you go to the Western Flora Caravan Park, don’t forget to slam the toilet seat down. It makes the most profoundly resonant boom you have ever heard a flimsy plastic toilet seat make. The bathroom itself is mission style architecture, real adobe.