All we wanted after a great snorkel session off the coast of Western Australia was for the stupid motorhome to start, to stop grinding away with that almost-but-not-today sound that made our hearts race faster than the engine. Bertie, as we called the 21-foot recreational vehicle we rented, sounded like she wanted to work. She just lacked the energy.
My wife, Diana, turned the key once, twice, three more times, giving only the same sneezing rhythm. I could see panic in her usually cheerful eyes as she pulled her hands away from the troubled switch. We were in a remote place with more marsupials than people.
“Okay, breathe,” she said, exhaling slowly.
I was silent, as were our two children, Baz, 14, and Amelia, 12. Sitting in the van with the teal Indian Ocean to our left and a camp to our right, we were shocked at our misfortune. Five years ago, Amelia walked home from school begging with third-grade enthusiasm to someday see what she had apparently just learned in class — the Ningaloo Coast, home to one of the longest nearshore reefs in the world where hundreds of huge, peaceful whale sharks gather every year.
We were 150 miles away from her dream. I’ve already paid a fortune for us all to have an early morning swim with the gentle giants. It was our third attempt. The first, for Amelia’s 10th birthday in July 2020, fell to Covid lockdowns. So did the second – just a day before departure, no less, prompting cries and desperate pleas for refunds.
Even this time, we were afraid and attracted trouble. A category 5 cyclone hit Western Australia the week we arrived. It was about 800 miles north of us, but on our first night, gusts of wind tossed our RV from side to side like a Marvel villain’s plaything.
Amelia, miraculously, took it all in stride. “I don’t think Western Australia likes us very much,” she joked as Diana called the rental agency to request a tow truck, and as I searched the web for a taxi service willing to travel long distances on remote roads for God knows. how much
“We’ll get there, Amelia,” I said. “I just don’t know how.”
Touches in the (long) way
In truth, stranded in the rusting plains of a vast continent, we all felt torn between problem-solving and doom. The pandemic still whispered in our minds: Do not trust the gods of serendipity and adventure; every little thing will not work.
Pre-Covid, Diana and I were true believers. We dragged our children immediately to new places all over the countries where I worked as a New York Times correspondent, without rigid routes. During Covid, living in Australia, where state and national borders were closed for over a year, this was impossible. And when the borders reopened, we were plagued with doubt. We were afraid of breakdowns in airports, Covid, quarantine, lack of work, which reduced services. Travel has changed. Us too.
More than anything, we wanted all that fear gone. We wanted to move around the world like us again, to exorcise the Covid demons – and what better way to do it than to revive a trip to Western Australia that was ruined by the coronavirus?
But, sheesh, didn’t we practice. After picking up Bertie in Perth, Diana and I argued about how far to drive on Day 1 – she was nervous about beating kangaroos after dark; I was nervous about missing a sled down giant salt dunes. And when we arrived at our campsite a few minutes after dusk (OK, hour; the saltines took a while) we found out that I had forgotten to pack enough flashlights. We gave up on finding the showers. With the barest set-up accomplished, I persuaded Diana to do what we often did during travel setbacks in our 20s: Sit down with a drink.
While we sipped gin and tonics in camp chairs, the kids surprised us by getting to work on dinner. Amelia made a salad; Baz cooked some steaks. It was the first time they had ever cooked a whole meal for us. Maybe we could get used to this RVing thing after all.
The second night, the comedy of errors continued – we didn’t have the right hose connector for the water connection so we had to borrow one from a couple next to us. They were from Perth, and regular road trippers. Inquiring about our plans, they raved about the Kalbarri Skywalk. We had a few stops planned on the way north, but not this one.
Diana and I went over our itinerary. It would add an hour or two to the drive, but with the cyclone still around further up the coast, why not slow down, pivot, enjoy?
On the way into Kalbarri, we doubled back and decided to follow signs for pink lake. There are a lot of them around Western Australia, produced from salt water and algae that produce beta-carotene (also found in carrots). Like so much on our trip, the pink lake was otherworldly, eerie and Instagram-friendly.
Then we pulled into the Skywalk parking lot and found ourselves awestruck by the giant platform stretching over a canyon of planetary proportions in deep reds, oranges and browns. Hanging over it all, we were able to take in the expanse with only a few other people, and then grab a decent flat white at the national park cafe.
Diana and I were starting to feel pretty good about our progress. After a few days, we found our rhythm: Drive up to six hours a day, make at least one tourist stop and find a campsite before sunset with the help of crowdfunding program called WikiCamps.
The long roads bothered us less than we expected. The kids curled up in the back with unlimited screen time — a detention to keep the peace — while Diana and I talked, listened to podcasts, and admired the landscape, which gradually became drier, redder, and emptier, but which still offered the occasional surprise.
Americans have always prided themselves on rugged individualism; Australians emphasize the community effort of “togetherness”. We were reminded of that difference during our road trip whenever we had a question at camp or on the trail – and especially when Bertie decided not to start.
Stuck in Coral Bay (population: 245), we didn’t just call tow trucks or try to pay our way out of trouble with a taxi. We also asked for local help.
Everyone we asked gave us one name: Johnny. About 45 minutes later, a guy with a bald head, a truck and a trailer full of tools showed up. First Johnny tried to give us a jump. When that failed, he asked to see the motorhome key.
“Did it get wet?” he asked.
The button on the key to open the doors did not work during the entire trip. Rather than leave it on the beach, Diana suggested we take it with us when we snorkeled.
“That’s the problem,” Johnny said. Today’s keys remotely connect to the computer in the vehicle, even when they cannot open the doors. Dip the key, forget to start the engine.
Johnny sent me to the store for a new battery while he pulled out the corroded one inside and put all the parts in the sun.
“I’ve seen this work maybe one out of 20 times,” he said. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
When he returned, a sherbet-colored sunset had cooled the evening. Our options were reduced to luck with poor odds. We all held our breath as Diana turned the key.
Bertie roared to life. After confirming that she could hold her diesel throat long enough for a drive, I danced in the parking lot. The children screamed. Diana – leaving the engine running – gave Johnny a huge hug through tears. He just smiled and waved off our questions about the cost, saying he would take the package of extra batteries and nothing else.
Finally, the whale sharks
The next morning, we were up at sunrise and in the water before noon. The whale sharks were huge, the biggest creatures we had ever seen. Spotted, majestic and navy blue, they are identifiable as sharks by their vertical tails, which look just like great whites. But as we swam as fast as we could to keep up with them—one, two, and three times in separate dives—I kept thinking they looked like prehistoric catfish.
The second one we saw was about 30 feet long, according to our guides with Ningaloo Discovery. It was the same company I booked with three years earlier. They gave me a rain check, a refund, then a third amazing try.
We had an all-female crew of sailors who told us that Ningaloo is the only place where you can swim with whale sharks, watching them without interference — unlike in the Philippines and Mexico, where tours entice them with food. A few hundred appear in Western Australia each year. Many are returnees with nicknames such as Fingers (for split fin).
“They all have personalities and different behaviors,” said Holly Matheson, our boat’s underwater photographer. “The best are ‘bubblers’ – they see our bubbles and swim to us.”
In between whale shark swims, we saw dolphins rushing alongside us at the bow of the boat. We snorkeled near a pristine section of the Ningaloo Reef. We ate delicious snacks and sat in the sun at the front of our catamaran, where Baz and Amelia laughed as water drenched their faces. We even met an American who was close to a mutual friend in Senegal.
The day was a mix of casual, meditative and wonderful. It was traveling as the serendipitous gods intended and as we remembered.
The next morning we watched the sunrise from a lighthouse outside the town of Exmouth. The natural beauty of white dunes and red earth amazed us all. We had breakfast at a beach where we were alone and went to continue swimming.
On our return trip to Perth, we all seemed to be more relaxed. Vast distances traveled in tight quarters freed our minds from anxious clutter.
We played cards as a family at night while during the day, Diana and I worked out the drive and rekindled our spontaneity so much that we quickly ordered. quad bike tour of a national park near Shark Bay — a highlight as we sped down dirt roads at sunset with the kids.
On our last night, we pulled into Cervantes, a town just a few hours north of Perth, with a mixture of relief and ambivalence. After 2,000 miles and over a week of travel, we were one night away from a real bed, not on wheels.
So after a pub dinner and another glorious sunset, we did what made no sense at all – we crawled up into the narrow bed at the back of the caravan, crammed together like sardines, to watch ‘Ted Lasso’ on a cable. laptop to Bertie’s tiny TV.
It was the episode from the most recent season where the team is in Amsterdam trying to figure out how to reconnect and rekindle their sense of purpose. There may have been some illegal substances involved – Diana and I didn’t do a great job explaining hallucinogens – but by the end, Team Lasso is back on the bus, a little lighter but still trying to make sense of a confusing world teetering between despair. and joy.
Suddenly, Rebecca, the owner of the team, breaks into song – a Bob Marley song that all four of us recognized and started singing too. Huddled so close we could feel every breath and note in the back of a rented trailer, we shouted to ourselves, to a city named after the creator of Don Quixote and to everyone everywhere, “Every little thing is going to be okay.”
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