Albany is cute, but it drove me insane, literally. It seems to be an Australian thing, not bothering with road signs, or making them so hard to find that by the time you spot it, you've missed your turning. One theory is that in a country where roads are all orthogonal and people work in blocks, you don't need road signs, it's all a case of 'two blocks west' and so on. I think that's crazy: in a world where everything is at right angles and looks the same as everywhere else, you surely need signs even more. My pet theory is that it's a bravado thing: when I see a bumper sticker that says 'Real Men Do It Without Road Signs' I'll know I was right all along.
However, after getting lost a number of times I did manage to get to the top of Mt Melville to look over the city – not one of the world's most wonderful panoramas – and eventually found the right direction for Torndirrup National Park, the most visited park on the southwest coast. I couldn't, however, work out why this is the case; I like National Parks because they're challenging, they're as near to wilderness as you're going to get in this day and age, and they have beautiful walks, stunning sights, and hardly any tourists. But Torndirrup is the most popular National Park because it's close to Albany, which is a tourist centre. Sure, I saw the Gap (a reasonably impressive cliff), I went to see the Natural Bridge (not bad, I suppose), I visited the Blowholes (which steadfastly refused to blow), I climbed Stony Hill (where the view was good, but not mind-boggling), and everything was pleasant enough. But what was mind-boggling was the group of people I met there.
Backpackers vs Travellers
When I got to the top of Stony Hill (a five-minute walk, I should add), there was a little group of people there, and when I got my camera out to capture the view, one member of the group offered to take a picture of me, with the view included. He then proceeded to explain what it was I was looking at – the Gap, Natural Bridge, Blowholes, Albany – and I listened politely, not mentioning that I knew all this, thank you, and I wasn't a complete moron and did know how to read a map, so nice to have met you. It turned out that this guy was a manager of the Youth Hostel in Albany, and he had a tour in tow, and would I like a cup of coffee, seeing as they were about to have one?
Of course I would, thank you very much, and I sat down to enjoy coffee and biscuits with this little group from the hostel. And that's when I realised what has happened: in the time since I last stayed in a hostel, back in Port Arthur at the end of January, I've developed into a traveller, and these people were still backpackers. The distinction is subtle but important: I go where I want, precisely, even to the point of driving past a sign, doing a double take, hanging a yooey, and following it just to see what's there (I've got 200km of spare fuel in the boot, so I won't run dry). But backpackers are bound by the laws of Coach and Hostel: they need both to exist, and travel from one place to another, staring at the world through bus windows, and meeting other people from within this culture, mainly other Europeans, Asians, Americans and so on. They think they're travelling, and they think they're really experiencing Australia, but they're not. Ask them if they've met any nice Australians, and they only talk about tour guides and hostel managers. These people made me realise that getting a car – even one that has not only eaten up my funds, but also chewed the cud seven times and converted it into milk – was a great move. If I did it again, I wouldn't change a thing.
One handy thing about backpackers, though, is the discounts they get at museums, and the guy from the hostel got me into the Whaleworld museum for a dollar less than normal, and then gave us all a guided tour of the old whaling station on the peninsula there, and most interesting it was too. Actually, it was rather horrific – we saw where they chopped the whales up, and boiled the blubber to release the oils, and the harpoons they used to kill the whales, and so on – but it was well worth the visit. So perhaps I should stop being too critical; after all, backpackers are still nice people. They're just not travellers.
Porongurups and Stirling Ranges
Unsatisfied by the views at Torndirrup, I decided to spend the afternoon in the Porongurups, a range of hills to the north of Albany. The Porongurups are home to Castle Rock, a mountain that was about the right size for an afternoon's climb. It was gorgeous, with these huge granite boulders perched precariously (or so it looked) on the top, and the view was worth the effort, even if I did get mauled by a huge cloud of flying ants when I reached the summit. The area round Albany is truly weird: it's totally flat, but you get these big triangular mountains that just appear out of nowhere, and when you climb them you can see for miles. This is what happened at Castle Rock, though the best was yet to come...
After Castle Rock, I headed north again towards the Stirling Ranges, a bigger range of mountains still. As it was getting late, I pitched camp in the National Park: a lot of parks allow camping at specific sites, and although you don't get any amenities, they're really cheap, and their locations are second to none. The beauty of them is the silence and the ruggedness: you don't get too many families with kids in National Park sites, as they need the amenities. I sat in a clearing that night, reading my book by the light of the full moon, and the way it lit everything up was quite beautiful, albeit rather eerie.
The next day was when the weather started to turn: since the Nullarbor things hadn't been too bad, with cloudy mornings, beautiful afternoons and freezing nights, but on Wednesday, the rain came to say hello. Luckily I had an early start and managed to climb Bluff Knoll, the highest peak in the Stirling Ranges, before the weather joined the party, but I could see it rolling in from the peak, and made a hasty return to the car to drive to Pemberton.