We made it to Steep Point, the westernmost spot on the Australian continent! That may not sound like a big deal, but it turned out to be quite a challenge.
We have already been to the easternmost (Cape Byron, NSW) and northernmost (Cape York, QLD) points, so of course, it was important to us to get to all four extremities. It has been difficult to even learn where the westernmost point was. We knew that Denham claims to be the westernmost town. Eventually we learned that Steep Point, a very remote spot on the tip of a very remote peninsula that forms the western edge of Shark Bay, a World Heritage Area, was actually the spot we were seeking. But how to get there?
Our first stop was Denham’s visitor center where we were told one could take a charter boat near the bottom of the cliff (all booked for the next two weeks) or a scenic flight over the point (VERY expensive), but the only way to actually stand on Steep Point was by 4WD vehicle through many kilometers of very tricky soft sand tracks. There were no 4WD rental cars in town. Ocean Park Aquarium offered a one-day, twelve-hour 4WD tour to the point, but it required at least four people. There didn’t seem to be very many clamoring to take it, but we put our names on a waiting list and resigned ourselves to the fact that being in the westernmost caravan park in the westernmost town might have to suffice.
Meanwhile, we went to Monkey Mia for a day, about 25 km (15.5 miles) east of Denham in the Monkey Mia Conservation Park and Reserve. In the 1960s fishers began feeding wild dolphins on the beach there. It became a tourist draw and a resort soon grew up. Some twenty years later, they figured out that feeding the dolphins was having a deleterious effect on their health. They had become human-dependent. Mother dolphins were not able to nurse their young in the shallow waters of the beach, and they were not teaching the calves how to forage for their own food. Very few calves were surviving.
As a result, the conservation program was put in place. Only five dolphins, all females, are in the feeding program. They come on their own; it is their choice whether to come or not for this interaction with humans and when to arrive each morning. They are given only a very small amount of food, about 10% of their nutritional needs for the day, in up to three feedings from 7:45 a.m. to noon. The calf survival rate has increased dramatically since the program was instigated, researchers have a great source of information about dolphins, and the tourists still come to the beautiful beach and resort.
We had booked an afternoon cruise that leaves from Monkey Mia. We decided to go early to check out the rest of Monkey Mia and got there about 10:30, just as dolphins had come to the beach for the third and final feeding. There were as many as seven dolphins close to shore, one of whom was a mother with a two-year old male calf close at her side. We joined a long line of tourists standing knee-deep in the water, and a Department of Parks and Wildlife representative with a microphone walked a little further out in the water explaining about dolphin behavior in general and these dolphins in particular. After about twenty minutes of introduction, all the male dolphins (including the calf) pulled away from the beach leaving three females who are part of the feeding program. Each of them was assigned a handler with a bucket of fish. Each handler invited people out of the crowd to give the dolphin a fish. Jon got to feed “Surprise” one of her fish, which she gently gathered into her mouth and didn’t close her mouth on it until he had released it.
Afterwards, while we had lunch awaiting our boat cruise, we got a call that two more people had signed up for the Steep Point tour two days hence, so we would be going there after all!
The cruise on the Shotover, a 60’ sailing catamaran, was a delight. We were on the peaceful water of Shark Bay for about three hours, seeing sea turtles, both green and loggerhead; one dugong (similar to manatees in the US but longer and more of a brown color); eagle rays; pied cormorants; and many dolphins. The Sunset Cruise was included in the tour we chose, so after about an hour on shore, we were back on the Shotover for another hour and a half, just relaxing as the sun went down, enjoying the chatter of a young couple from Canada – so good to hear people who sound like us.
But back to Steep Point! That was definitely NOT a relaxing trip. We were picked up at the caravan park at 6:30 a.m. by our driver and tour guide, Daniel, a marine scientist only about a year out of university. Staying at the same caravan park were the other couple, Michael and Michelle, from Sydney. These Irish immigrants have lived in Australia for 25 years but still have the most delightful Irish accents. We all piled into a new 4WD Toyota Hilux five-passenger pickup.
The first hour of the trip was spent on the paved highway getting to “Useless Loop Road,” so named because an early explorer felt there was really no use for the harbor on the eastern side of the Steep Point peninsula. An enormous salt mine along there has proved him wrong, but the name stuck. Another hour and a quarter was on a decent gravel road; we even met a two-trailer road train coming from the salt mine on that road. Then we got to the sign that told us it was 4WD access only beyond this point and another that said, “Reduce tyre pressure to 20 PSI or less.” Daniel took our tyres (or tires if you are American) from 32 PSI down to about 16 PSI, and we proceeded onto a single-track sandy trail that went up dunes and down, along beaches, over rock ledges. The only way to keep going in the sand is full bore, but then he had to creep over the rocky spots to keep from high-centering. Jon, Sharon, and Michelle were rocking and rolling in the back seat, with Michelle giggling nervously every time we got tossed from side to side, while Michael bounced along in the front seat – thank heaven for seat belts.
About four hours after we had left the caravan park, we got our first look at Steep Point from another point south of it, and we could see why we wouldn’t be able to land there in a boat! Ten minutes later we were standing (quite a ways back from the cliff edge) with the sign stating we were at Australia’s westernmost point.
But there was so much more to the tour: “The Oven” just below Steep Point where we had “morning tea” and saw a turtle, mackerel and other food fish, and a huge Queensland groper (fish) in the waves below; Thunder Bay with its towering waves and blowholes; Crayfish Bay where we got temporarily bogged down in the beach sand until we all got out of the truck and Daniel lowered the tire pressure even more, and where we had a delicious lunch of meat and veggie wraps we prepared ourselves from ingredients Daniel had brought; and always the adventure of plowing through the sand and creeping over the ledges (wondering where the track went) and rattling around in the truck with our new friends. We got back to the campground about 6:30 p.m. as promised, just in time for a beautiful sunset on the beach in front of our motorhome. We had put over 500 km (300 miles) on Ocean Park Aquarium’s nice new Toyota pickup.
We did see some of the other sights around the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, such as Shell Beach where the shells of tiny Fragum Cockles have built up through the millennia to a depth of over nine meters (nearly 30 feet); Project Eden, a three km electrified feral proof fence built to keep feral cats, feral foxes, and feral goats from invading the Peron Peninsula where Denham and Monkey Mia sit; and Hamelin Pool where some of the oldest living things on earth, cyanobacteria, have built microbial mats and stromatolites along the shore of the densely salty bay.
And most importantly, we had made it to Steep Point!