WA has so much to offer holidaymakers, even if it needs more vision and capital works, writes Ross Taylor.
I love Bali.
I first visited Bali in 1972, when I was a young backpacker travelling through Indonesia.
That was when this amazing place stole my heart and never gave it back.
COVID-19 has changed everything.
Like the 7,200 West Australians who usually head to Bali each week during winter, I had to seek-out an alternative destination.
I chose WA’s North West.
Following the directive from our premier to fulfil our civic duty and holiday in regional WA, my wife Katherine and I set off in mid-July for Exmouth on a ten day road trip to experience part our great state and see what we offer tourists as an alternative to Bali.
Located about six hours from Perth, this seaside resort holds an important link for my family.
My uncle, Ernie Grinham, was the first tour operator in Kalbarri, and was responsible for ‘opening-up’ the Z-Bend and much of the gorges around the Murchison River.
Recently, the Kalbarri Skywalk was opened and now allows visitors to walk over 20 meters out – and 100 meters above – the beautiful gorge.
Next was the trip to Carnarvon; about 4-5 hours away with a stop-off at the Billabong Roadhouse where pleasant staff and cheap fuel is the main attraction.
On this part of the journey the side of the highway features endless kilometres of spinifex and sadly, empty alcohol bottles.
Hardly a good look for international tourists and the collection appears to have been built-up over many years.
I have to admit the only reason we visited Carnarvon was to stop-over for a night’s rest on route to Exmouth, but this large town surprised us with its lovely town centre and its bakery, where you join the queue each morning for coffee and a pastry.
The real surprise came at the motel where we stayed.
The Carnarvon Hospitality Motel was comfortable, but a generally standard motel that you would find in WA.
Feeling tired, we asked if we could eat in the motel dining room, which obviously was not going to be a five-star dining experience.
Upon reading the menu we noticed one dish in particular; a Sri Lankan chicken curry.
We both agreed that what we should not order!
That was until the young waiter, from Guangzhou in mainland China, told us that the cook was a leading chef in Sri Lanka and was working in Carnarvon as part of his working visa requirement in Australia.
We had spent some time in Sri Lanka years ago, and the meal was undoubtedly the best chicken curry we had eaten in years.
Stunning if slightly modified to meet the Aussie palate, the meal was packed with flavour and quality texture.
This is what we love about Australia: we are really one of the most multi-cultural nations on earth; something we need to embrace more fully.
On the road to North West cape
From Carnarvon it was another four hours and a surprisingly easy drive interrupted by a stop off at the Manilya Bridge roadhouse.
That’s where we, and so many greying nomads, were greeted by a pleasant young lady from Israel who was on a working holiday in WA.
The highlight at this roadhouse though were the sub-standard toilets that left much to be desired.
Ironically above the filthy wash basin was a sign that read: “Please do not wash your eating utensils in the wash basins”
Not much chance of that, I would have thought.
I was so worried about this small town being overrun by Bogans dressed in Bintang t-shirts.
Again, my prejudices were proven wrong, although Exmouth was incredibly busy.
The usual population of 6,000 normally doubles in June, but this year we were greeted by an additional 20,000 visitors.
Exmouth is nice; a small central village accommodates a great micro-brewery, a bakery, several quality cafes and general retail stores.
It was very busy.
South American backpackers have discovered Exmouth and, despite COVID-19 restrictions, many cafes and shops were staffed by young people from Brazil, Argentina, Chile or Uruguay giving this small town a lovely internationally feel.
Bookings were essential to get a meal in the evening at any café or restaurant.
Exmouth is home to whale sharks, stunning coral, pretty beaches and at this time of year, sunny skies.
Located on the western side of the peninsular – some 65 km from Exmouth - the star destination is Turquoise Bay; a stunning white beach, crystal clear water and surrounded by coral reef where even the kids can snorkel in safety.
Just don’t find the need to use the toilet or change rooms as the facilities consist of two tin dunnies in the true Aussie outback tradition.
Fascinating, but hardly ideal for international and interstate guests.
Nearby Turquoise Bay is another small beach called Lakeside, and it’s only a short three minute drive off the main road.
Lakeside has shallow, clear water and stunning coral ‘bombies’.
But once again, poor infrastructure means that from the car park, it’s a rough 600-meter walk to the beach, making it impossible for people with disabilities or the elderly.
A wooden walkway similar to that at Canal Rocks in our South West would allow almost all visitors to access this beautiful area.
On our final day in Exmouth I asked the tourist office why the key attractions such as Turquoise Bay requires a 130km return trip, when a road directly across the small range would reduce the drive to around 40km return.
That would also allow for a small carpark on top of the range where tourists could enjoy incredible views both east and west across the ocean.
We departed Exmouth after six wonderful days, heading home via a stop off in Coral Bay.
We have been to the Maldives, Thailand and the Bahamas, and Coral Bay competes easily with the best beaches in the world.
This place is small, casual, and simply beautiful; a perfect way to finish our holiday.
Will I still go back to Bali one day? Of course I will, and so will most other West Aussies.
The relationship between WA and Bali is unique, extended over 45 years.
In the meantime though, WA has so much to offer holidaymakers; it just needs a bit more vision and some capital works to make it simpler to access and comfortable for all visitors.
Ross B. Taylor (AM) is the president of the WA-based Indonesia Institute Inc.
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