There are a few places on this earth where can you mistakenly believe that you are on an alien planet. Not just the landscape, but the feel of the environment, is foreign and unknown. As we travelled through the mesa country of the American South West, we were awestruck, but felt at home. These rocky, flat top mountains, (Mesa is Spanish for ‘table’) were instantly recognisable thanks to countless documentaries and John Ford Westerns. And although we were awestruck in their presence, we expected them. They were of this planet.
The Coral Coast in central Western Australia, however is another story. I think this location may be why the word ‘ancient’ was created. The dirt is red, gravelly (like little bauxite balls) and rocky. The animals are weird and unusual (this is Australia, after all) and the environment is ‘Mars with oxygen and gravity’.
You drive for hours through ‘big sky country’ where the landscape changes from flat to flatter. Bar of course, the rocky ridge that runs parallel to the coast. Not tall, maybe 200m high, it follows the coastline. It’s later when you’re standing in awe of the blues and whites of Turquoise Bay, that someone mentions that that rocky ridge, is from the Devonian Era and is the remnant of a vast coral reef that once hugged the coast, submerged, on the ocean side!
It’s been uplifted and worn down, weather-beaten and drenched in sunlight, over millions of years – if not millions and millions.
Just then one or two crazy emus scurry past, almost tripping over themselves, and the feeling of ‘other place’, becomes even stronger.
Later you find yourself perched high on a gravel road looking down a red rocky gorge in the Cape Range National Park Canyons, towards the sea that is so blue, it embarrasses the sky above. Although it’s nothing like the size and magnitude of The Grand Canyon, it only adds to the eeriness and solitude of this place.
The Coral Coast’s main town, Exmouth, is not an old community and is full of likeable rascals, most of whom seem to be escaping something, either the past or the southern weather. They’re quick with laconic advice or stories, and happily tell you tales of wild cyclones and wild life.
The centre was founded in the nineteen sixties as a part of Australia’s defence agreement with the US and was built around the United States Communications Station ’The Harold E Holt’. There are thirteen large communications antennae (the largest as tall as the Eiffel Tower) outside the town. We were told they enable America to talk to its Submarines under the Arctic Circle. It was manned by a small but dedicated force of American servicemen but after the attacks of September 11, they were all shipped home.
It appears they just left everything exactly as it had been. That means there are still soda cans in the drink machines, and leather soled shoes in the bases’ bowling alley. The images this news conjures brings visions of ‘The Twilight Zone’ and only help cement the surreal nature of the place. Today it is ‘restricted access’ and protected by the Australian Federal Police. The locals seem quite proud of the whole thing.
The Coral Coast feels other worldly, void of the vulgar trappings that tourists can bring to an area. Yet there are tourists to be found, especially grey nomads, but on this particular large, flat, red planet, they easily disappear from view. This is the closest that I have come, and probably ever culturally could, to having a feeling of ‘dreamtime’.
The spectacular night skies, the almost unbearable silence, the timeless aura of the landscape, the strong echoes of an ancient past – all create emotions and feelings you will never experience anywhere else.
If you’re looking for a bucolic scene of verdant hills rolling into a glorious sunset, this isn’t the place. But if you’re after a destination to challenge your senses, to force you to see the earth in a different light and then understand how temporary is our stay, explore the Coral Coast. If you’re at all aware, you’ll be in awe.