I have packed the car with art equipment, with notebooks, with good reading. The Eski has several snap-frozen, homemade curries. The back seat is cradling some fine red wine. I have packed a jumper and my walking shoes and my husband. These things and the bonus of some good company at our journey’s end are all I need for a holiday.
When we start with a long drive in the sunshine and the music on shuffle, the destination becomes almost irrelevant, except that this time we are driving to somewhere new. Bremer Bay, five hours south east of Perth on the southern coast of Western Australia is a place I only know of from weather reports.
‘A strong wind warning is current from Bremer Bay to the South Australian border,’ they say and the lines swirl on the map.
On an afternoon in mid April we drive into Bremer. We have been invited to stay with friends, who in turn have friends, who have a holiday house here. Our friends have been here many times over the years and assure me I will love it.
It is a calm, sunny day but we find a town stoically dug into one bank of the Wellstead estuary, hunkered down as if against the weather. Many of Western Australia’s coastal towns began life as holiday destinations for farming families who could only take a break after harvest, always in the hottest part of the year. What they wanted in a holiday was pretty much what they had at home: peace and quiet, wide horizons and the ability to supply their own food, fish this time rather than red meat. They used available materials and built houses that could be left to the elements for large parts of the year.
Bremer Bay is just such a town. It is tough, practical, inclined to go feral and just not that pretty. If it was to have an animal emblem I would suggest a donkey, hard working and probably lovable if you took the time to get to know it.
The Shire of Jerramungup website claims Bremer Bay has a permanent population of 250 and a transient population of 6500 during whale watching season, but at the moment it appears deserted. We do a quick survey. There is no main street; no bank, no shopping centre, no old pub, only a small knot of roads and a few new subdivisions lined with For Sale signs. There is the new Bremer Bay Resort with accommodation and restaurant sitting, slightly aloof, on the road out of town, the Tourist Information building and a health clinic with a once a week nurse.
If I had to pin the tail on the centre of town, I would pick the general store, built in the Brutalist style out of chocolate brick and square corrugated roofing iron. It is regularly supplied with fresh vegetables from the nearest city, two hours away and the rest of the shelves are stocked with ubiquitous tinned goods, emergency underwear and fishing tackle.
This is not a place you will visit if you want to swan about in galleries and exclusive fashion shops, or if you want a coffee, cake and winery holiday. To be fair there is a winery just out of town but Sandra, in the tourist centre, damned the wine with a faint ‘Some people like it.’
Bremer Bay is a place you will visit if you have friends with a house to stay in; if you are keen to watch whales calving or swimming lazily past; if you have an interest in native flora and fauna; if you have a four wheel drive; but mostly if you want to go fishing. We tick the first box then the third and the fourth. We would love to see whales but it is the wrong time of year and I am happy to go fishing if someone baits the hook.
Along the main road fronting the estuary but veiled from the view by a screen of paperbarks and peppermint trees, there are some of the original holiday houses of Bremer Bay. The main rooms are tiny, the roofs are low, the building materials are asbestos, corrugated iron, the local mottled orange stone slapped together with rough mortar. Each of these tiny cottages, with or without a new extension to the rear, sits in the middle of a grassed block with a wheel track driveway and an enormous shed on the back fence line. There is room to park Landcruisers and utes, room to manoeuvre a trailer, room to back a boat.
On the hill behind these cottages new houses are being built, pandering to a more recent passion for sea views. We stop on our afternoon walk to chat to a man tidying up around the building site of a new two-storey house. ‘It is my sister’s place,’ he says. ‘Nice position,’ I say, imagining the view from the second floor. ‘That’s mine over there.’ He points diagonally down the hill to a small low house settled down into the sand dune with the remarkable prospect of the neighbour’s enormous shed. We look from one house to the other. ‘You didn’t want to be up here where you can see the sea?’ ‘Nah,’ he says ‘that suits me.’ He looks critically down at his house. ‘But I suppose I could put on a second storey.’
The Bremer River, widening into the Wellstead Inlet, does what many other rivers along this coast, and indeed many a visitor to the area does, it pulls up short at the sight of the Southern Ocean. Like me, it declines to do more than paddle occasionally in the cold foam and instead has formed a permanent sand bar across the mouth. The bar provides four wheel drive access across the water to the best fishing spots and the Fitzgerald River National Park to the east of the town.
To the west of the town is a peninsula of curving beaches, each with its own dive trails and reputation for the catching of certain fish. While we were in the Tourist Centre, Sandra, who has lived her whole life in the area, commented on the brochure in my hand. ‘The diving is fabulous’ she said. I had to admit that I didn’t dive but wished I could see the beautiful leafy sea dragon pictured on the front. Sandra confessed that in all her years here she had never seen one, reminding me that what you see on a brochure is not always what you get.
Later, while walking along an isolated curve of sand I find the miraculous body of a sea dragon curled amongst the wrack and ruin and marvel at such elusive beauty discarded on the tide line. Kangaroo bones; fish skeletons; plastic containers; ropes; a barnacled hard hat; an enormous log, three metres long and half a metre across, the floating side sun bleached, the bottom mysteriously patterned with the hieroglyphics of hundreds of tiny sea mouths; all these things line the 4WD tracks on the high soft sand. They have either been brought in by an angry ocean or left behind by absentminded fishermen, too busy crunching their low gears and grinding their way up the sand hills to notice.
Looking at the tracks I am reminded of visiting my brother-in-law’s farm, chiding him for driving the ute the twenty metres from the machinery shed to the chook yard and back. ‘But I might need something out of the tool box,’ he said, genuinely perplexed. It is the same at Bremer; nobody walks to the beaches, in fact most are not accessible without 4WD. Having reached a beach you will find few car parks. You just drop your tyre pressure and head out onto the sand, stopping randomly at the spot that looks fishiest to you.
On the day we go fishing we pull up at a place where we can actually see salmon swimming through the upraised waves and haul herring and trevally effortlessly onto the beach, almost out of the jaws of a pod of dolphins. Here I feel the pull of something primitive, a need to prove myself tough and resourceful, an urge to pit myself against land and sea. I wonder about this feeling. Is it the ruggedness of the place that exerts this pull or is it stirring fragments of my father’s farming DNA? I start to bait my own hooks with mulie, wipe the blood off on the back of my shorts.
In the prismic sunlight of a summer day the bays of the Southern Ocean are the deep turquoise of a tropical island brochure but on a cloudy, cool day at the turn of the season, the sea has the cold grey eyes of a killer. In this ocean boats are capsized. Along this coast whales beach, fishermen are washed from rocks.
At the stony end of one beach a black shape extends from the water near the edge of the reef. As we get closer we see movement. The shape is the flipper of a seal and every few minutes the animal hauls its head above the surface to breathe. It is clearly in distress and caught, on a hook or a net wedged in the reef. Around the animal another, smaller head appears, a seal cub confused and circling.
There is nothing we can do. Without a boat or a kayak or a wetsuit or a knife or a reckless indifference to sharks or the teeth of a wild, desperate animal we can’t cross the 20 metres of surging water and rock to help. The nearest knowledgeable assistance is hours away and the local farmers would be pragmatic about the value of the exercise. They have little use for sentimentality. There is life and there is death. I turn away from the seal, the way I would from an Attenborough documentary. My feelings of toughness evaporate.
On a cool, blustery day we take the Landcruiser and cross the sand bar to go exploring. The Fitzgerald River National Park is approximately 330,000 hectares of flora and fauna recognised worldwide for its diversity. In January 1802 Matthew Flinders sailed along the South coast of Western Australia and lazily named three of the smallish conical hills which suddenly appear in the otherwise low, undulating land as West, Mid and East Mount Barren. His shipboard observation that they were barren hills underlying the prevailing view of the time that the area was not of much botanical interest. Edward John Eyre, trekking through the area in 1841 noted that the area had ‘no important rivers to enumerate, no fertile regions to point out … on the contrary, all has been arid and barren in the extreme.’
What these men failed to see was the extraordinary fragile beauty of the landscape and to understand that biological diversity is what will give the world cures for incurable diseases and solutions to unsolvable problems. This is a rare and precious place.
We arrive at the base of West Mount Barren and decide to climb. At the start of the track is a flat metal box and a bench. A sign announces the prevalence of dieback in the area, an unstoppable fungus killing off large sections of Western Australian flora. The fungus spreads through the soil, travelling downhill with water runoff, but in order to get up the hill in the first place it seems it has taken advantage of our predisposition to climb things, hitching a ride in the soil caught in the treads of our shoes.
The sign urges us to take precautions so we open the metal box to find a plastic laundry scrubbing brush. This is all we have to protect this precious environment from destruction. Dutifully we brush our shoes into the tray before and after climbing but I wonder whether it would be simpler if we could cure ourselves of the need to climb things; if we could stop ourselves from wandering about unexplored places, killing them just by looking at them.
The area around Bremer Bay was first opened up by the Wellstead family for cattle and sheep grazing in 1850. By 1905 they felt the need to build a vermin proof fence, running north from the coast for over a thousand kilometers. As we drive through the dusk back to Bremer a fox runs through the headlights. Rabbits are visible on both road verges. Department of Environment and Conservation officers are camping in the Fitzgerald this week baiting cats. I watch the dust rise from our wheels and worry about fungus spores. If we were to build a vermin proof fence now I wonder which side we should put ourselves on.
The long range forecast has a surface trough and a mid level disturbance, isolated thunderstorms and patchy rain but tomorrow we are packing for home.
Threatened by winds; battered by heavy seas; overrun with introduced species, and four wheel drives and big sheds; final home to so much of the detritus washed overboard into the Southern Ocean, and a long drive from anywhere, Bremer is not an easy place to love at first sight. I concede that I could learn to but maybe the place would be better off if those who learned to love it loved it a little less.