I set off nice and early for Denham, on Shark Bay, further up the west coast. Denham is on the northern tip of a long peninsula that juts west and north from the mainland, creating this sheltered bay, Hamelin Pool. The result is an idyllic blue ocean with a large number of unique natural phenomena, hence the area's World Heritage status. It's a very famous area – at least, it's famous to readers of National Geographic – and as I turned off the highway onto the peninsula the clouds cleared, and that good old blue sky appeared for the first time in a few weeks.
My first stop was Hamelin, a tiny place up a dirt track on the southern end of the bay. Normally this place wouldn't be that interesting – a nice beach, a couple of buildings – but there are two completely freaky aspects to Hamelin. The first is the collection of stromatolites on the beach, and the second is the shell mine.
Stromatolites are the oldest living things on earth; they look like little stumpy coral reefs just under the surface of the sea, right on the beach, but the patterns they form are quite surreal. They're made up of microbes that exude sticky chemicals, forming these strange underwater towers that slowly grow over thousands of years. Because of the geography of Hamelin Pool and the huge sea-grass meadow up the coast (itself pretty special), the water in the south of the bay is really salty, the perfect spot for stromatolites. Apparently stromatolites were once very common, and were responsible for releasing huge amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere, thus creating the right conditions for life, so without those stumpy bits of splodge, we wouldn't be here today. I was unwittingly looking at our ancestors, there in the shallows of Hamelin.
The shell mine is another odd thing. The Great Australian Bight, the huge bay that sits to the south of the Nullarbor, is full of millions of tiny shellfish, and when they die, their shells get caught up in the sea currents. Quite why these shells end up in Shark Bay is anyone's guess, but they do, by the bucketload. The beaches round Hamelin are packed with shells, and in some parts they are so densely packed they've reacted with water to stick together in a kind of prehistoric concrete, just right for cutting building blocks from. There's a shell quarry in Hamelin where you can see blocks have been cut out from the dunes, and, indeed, the toilet block there is made out of shell blocks. This is definitely not normal.
Shell Beach was my next stop, further up the peninsula; there are no points for guessing what was there. Shell Beach is a 110km-long beach, totally made up of white shells about half an inch wide, packed to a depth of nearly ten metres. That's a awful lot of shells...
My final stopping-off point before Denham was Eagle Bluff, a little hill with views out to the west of the peninsula, where there's yet another peninsula and a collection of small islands. I fancied a bit of a walk, having been cooped up in the car for most of the day, so I grabbed my rucksack and headed off down the coast, just to get away from the crowds (not that there was anyone about, really). This turned out to be an excellent plan; after about half-an-hour I'd discovered this beautiful beach with really shallow water, just ripe for a swim. Unfortunately I'd forgotten my swimming trunks and towel, but it was so hot and isolated I just stripped off and ran in: back to nature, and why the hell not. The water was a gorgeous temperature and crystal clear, and I had to paddle miles out to get even waist deep. It's times like this that you remember for a long time...
Denham is Australia's most westerly settlement, and it's not a bad spot to camp. I settled in for the night, and got up the next day for a day trip to Monkey Mia, 26km east of Denham. Easily the most famous spot in Shark Bay, Monkey Mia isn't famous for its beaches, even though they are beautiful and golden. It isn't famous for its weather either, even though the sun shines for almost the entire year and rain is rare. It isn't even famous for being a near-perfect paradise setting. No, it's famous for its dolphins, for Monkey Mia is home to a collection of wild dolphins that just love to hang around with humans.
If you stand knee-deep in the rather chilly sea when the dolphins decide to visit – which they do a few times a day, though totally at their own whim – then they swim right past you, posing for photographs and taking fish from the rangers. The feeding is carefully monitored, so the dolphins don't get too dependent on mankind, and if you catch feeding time you can get to drop a fish in one of the dolphin's mouths. On their second visit I even stroked one as she went past; she felt kind of rubbery and incredibly smooth. There were even tame pelicans who hung around the beach like kids bunking off school; eventually they got round to going to hunt for food, which was hardly difficult as the beach was packed with tiny fish that would collect around your feet while the dolphins played. It must be some life, being a lazy pelican at Monkey Mia.
I was so impressed with the place, with its gorgeous beach and beautiful weather, not to mention the dolphins, that I spent all day sunbaking, lazing around and writing letters. I also stayed around for the sunset: big, red, round, incredibly slow and lazy, and quite breathtaking – it was paradise, and apart from the sandflies, everything was perfect.
Which – rather obtusely – reminds me of an odd thing that happened at the local Foodland in Denham that day. I parked my car outside the supermarket (a word I use with caution, as it was anything but 'super'), and a woman who was getting out of her car called over as I locked my car. 'You don't need to do that,' she said, 'this is Shark Bay, you know. No one's going to break into your car here.' I mumbled something about it being a habit and that I was from the city, but by this time she'd disappeared.
I couldn't help the feeling that if I was a car thief, not only would I hang around Shark Bay a little longer on hearing that, but – hey! – she'd just left her car and wandered off, and she wouldn't have locked it, would she? Sometimes the most trusting of souls leave themselves wide open; when crime hits Shark Bay, as it no doubt will one day, the locals will all probably sit there on their seaside benches, chewing baccy and spitting out, 'I remember the days when you didn't have to lock your car. I don't know, the youth of today.'
But if you're going to wave a carrot on a stick, don't be surprised if the donkeys come a-runnin', that's what I say. I sincerely hope Shark Bay's trusting mentality doesn't backfire on it. It's a wonderful place.