Living in a Marsupial World
 
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Without Em, Devin turns to little furry creatures for affection
Off the west coast of Australia is a fairly large island that has several claims to fame. Dirk Hartog Island first holds the westernmost point of Australia, and second the history of the first recorded European landing on Australian soil by Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog in 1616. The island is privately owned, but the family is working to establish it as a national park. We happened to contact Kieran Wardle, the current owner, about wwoofing at just the right time – right as he was beginning construction on a solar powerhouse for the homestead.

The only way to reach the island is to travel by boat or small plane, and Kieran just so happened to be picking up 2 tons of cement on the mainland by boat, just around the time we were scheduled to arrive in the area. Dirk Hartog is located in the Shark Bay World Heritage area, just off the coast of the small town of Denham. Not only is this area considered a sanctuary for hundreds of different marine animals, but it also plays host to a very nerdy attraction: stromatolites! We were of course super excited to catch a glimpse of these rather unimpressive looking underwater formations, which, for those who are unfamiliar, are the blob-like, rock-like life forms that billions of years ago produced enough oxygen to allow oxygen breathing creatures to evolve. As I adjust my nerd goggles I say, “hooray stromatolites!” On our way into Shark Bay we paused to see them but light was running low and conditions were too windy, so we decided to make it an exit visit.


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Eagle Bluff
There are four awesome free camping areas on the way into Denham (where we were to meet Kieran) and we spent the night at the impressive Eagle Bluff closest to town. We arrived on top of the bluff just in time to catch the magnificent sunset and spent another relaxing night by the sea. 


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Denham
Denham was a cute port town in the way we expected Exmouth to be. It had one main street lined with cafes, tour shops, and fishing stores all facing the beautiful water of Shark Bay. We weren’t in town very long before Kieran arrived and introduced himself, giving us our first tasks of retrieving some BLT burgers and helping to load the boat with cement and food. Dirk Hartog is isolated enough that all food and other supplies must either be airlifted or retrieved by boat once per week. Once we were finished arranging the two tons of cement so that his small center console boat wouldn’t sink, we were on our way across the bay.


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By boat it takes roughly an hour to cross from the mainland to the island. The day we arrived happened to be calm and windless, apparently very rare this time of year, so the water below us was smooth like a mirror and incredibly clear. We were cruising along at top speed, halfway across the bay, when we noticed a large object near the surface directly in our path. As we got closer we realized it was an enormous sea turtle, the size of a bathtub at least! Kieran couldn’t see it from the driver’s seat and continued on a potential collision course. Right as we were about to hit, the turtle realized his impending doom and frantically paddled below the water in an “oh shit, oh shit” turtle fashion. He ducked below just in the knick of time. 


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The rest of the journey across opened up a world of marine life none of us had witnessed in the wild before. As we cruised along, pods of humpback whales breached the water around us. We spotted dolphins, sharks, and giant schools of fish bubbling at the surface. Flying fish burst out of the water and flew for several meters in the air. By the time we reached the island, the three of us were geeking out so hard we figured we had stumbled upon the most magical place on earth. 


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The homestead was beautiful – made of limestone blocks and thick timber, positioned right on the water’s edge. It had been built back in the 1800’s when the island had been used as a remote sheep station. We arrived just after the last of the paying guests departed, but we were not the only wwoofers taking up residence. Four Germans and one Dutch wwoofer were also there to help with whatever needed doing. To our great surprise, two of the German wwoofers were two young women we had wwoofed with before at Wilderness Farms in the Northern Territory! It was great to reunite with Steffi and Katrin, especially in one of the most remote and unique parts of Australia. 


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Indentured servitude at its best.
Work at Dirk Hartog centered on the solar powerhouse project, and we arrived just as they needed to mix and pour the concrete foundation. Before we could do that, however, rocks were needed to use in the mix, so for the first few days we would venture out to various remote locations and collect any rocks we could find that were smaller than an egg. Needless to say it was horrible, unsatisfying work. It would have been fine had everyone on the island (including the seven children) gone out for just one day to rake up and collect rocks, but usually there were only a few of us and all we had was one rake and several buckets. After three hours of bending over and sifting through sand and antique sheep poo, the trailer still appeared largely empty, and many times we returned to the homestead without much to show for our labor. The one cool aspect of the job was that the “rocks” we were collecting were, for the most part, prehistoric sea fossils. We found many whole fossilized shells and a few whole clams. Shame that they were being put into concrete.


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Some random old Greek man posed for this picture.
When we finally got down to the cement mixing, it took the three of us a few shifts to really get in the groove. Turns out cement mixing is a lot like baking a cake, and once we finally got the recipe right we were able to punch out batch after batch incredibly quickly. If we weren’t fast enough, or if our mixture was not up to par, Anthony, the visiting cement master, would get very cranky. It soon became a game between Anthony and Kieran (who was helping us mix) to see who could do their job faster, and Kieran would motivate us to have Anthony backed up with extra wheelbarrows of ready concrete. When we were doing well, Kieran would come over and say, “We’ve got him now - he’s really annoyed, good job guys!” We each had our roles in the mixing process, whether it was shoveling rocks or pouring in cement powder, sand, or water. At the end of the day the blowback and sputtering from the mixer left us looking like we had been in some sort of muddy battle.


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When we weren’t working the family let us take full advantage of their facilities and fantastic location. We kayaked around the bay, went fishing, and took the Troop Carrier on excursions to other parts of the island.

Kayaking, especially on a calm day (of which there were few), made for some spectacular creature watching. Out in the shallow waters you could often look underneath the boat and observe turtles, stingrays, sharks, and occasionally dugongs! Devin and I were paddling into shore after the sunset and spotted a small reef shark just a few feet from our kayaks bursting out of the water to chase a fish!


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My kayak drifted a bit too close to this island of birds and disturbed the pelicans
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The proud fisherman and his Pink Snapper
The fishing was spectacular everywhere around the island, especially off the coral reefs just near the shore. We went fishing one evening with Anthony’s friend Craig, a retired banker who now cuts women’s hair as a casual profession, after learning to do it while in Singapore. [I let him experiment with my hair, which he cut incredibly short. I was in a state of shock for quite some time.] While we were out by the reef, Ben’s fly line caught something monstrous! It pulled his line so hard that the reel spun out of control and bashed his knuckles. Before Ben could tighten the drag the fish pulled the line onto some sharp coral, causing it to snap. Ben unfortunately spent most of the remainder of the trip untangling and retying his line. Devin and I fished with bait and were pretty successful. I caught four fish that were all beautiful but too small to keep: a Spanish Flag, a Black Snapper, a Parrotfish, and a Pink Snapper. Devin caught three, two of which we kept and ate that very night! Pink Snapper is the specialty fish of Dirk Hartog, being beautiful, feisty, and delicious to eat. Devin’s largest fish, and the largest fish caught on the trip, was a 65 cm Pink Snapper. Woot!


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Beautiful Black Snapper
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My first fish at DHI - A Spanish Flag
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Best buddies bring home the bacon... er... fish
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Dirk Hartog's Dramatic Western Coast
We made two major excursions during our weeklong stay at Dirk Hartog. The first was an afternoon spent at the Blowholes. The homestead is located at the southeastern part of the island and the Blowholes are directly opposite on the western side. The island’s western coast is breathtaking and strikingly different from the calm, beach laden eastern coast. Waves from the Indian Ocean run unbroken for hundreds of nautical miles and finally crash into this westernmost point of Australia. Because of these intense conditions, the western coast of Dirk Hartog is rough and rugged, lined with dramatic limestone cliffs. There was one blowhole in particular that sounded like a jet engine, and spewed salt spray hundreds of feet in the air, high above the cliffs on which we stood. There was another point along the cliffs where the wind was so strong you could barely stand. Nevertheless, it was worth the risk of being blown off the precipice just to see the spectacular view. We could hardly believe where we were, it seemed so surreal.


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Climbing the dunes for a better view
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Moments made for Fantasia
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The swirling waters below
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On our last full day on the island, we drove the troop carrier up and around the northernmost part of the island (a 3 hour drive on dirt track) and spent the night at Urchin Point, where a simple fishing shack had been built. The inside of the shack was covered in the graffiti of the numerous visitors to the island. Most were written on driftwood and other flotsam and jetsam, and then tied to the ceiling rafters. Quite a few mentioned impressive catches of the day off the shore nearby. There was even a map drawn on the wall of the shoreline where good fishing spots could be found. While there was still light, Ben ventured out to try to catch at least one fish on Dirk Hartog, one of the most renowned fishing locations in the world. Instead of giving him a fish, the sea decided to take some flies. Ben came back from fishing a bit grumpy, but Devin and I set him straight by giving him a cold beer and reminding him where he was in the world, albeit without fish.


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Rainbows in waves at Urchin Point
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Ben fishes the point
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View from the shack
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Pondering sunsets
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Homeward bound through the dunes
After a chilly night’s sleep in some very rudimentary swags, we awoke to a spectacular scene: migrating humpback whales and pods of dolphins breaching the water practically at our doorstep. After a good breakfast of sausage and eggs we made a quick drive-by viewing of the nearby Mystery Beach before heading back to the homestead.


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We arrived just in time to pack our bags and catch the small charter plane back to Denham. The day before, as we prepared for our trip to Urchin Point, Devin just happened to ask Kieran’s wife Tory what the schedule was for trips back to the mainland in the coming week. We were shocked to find out that our only option was to leave the next day. We had expected to stay at least a few more days, so this felt a bit like a rather sudden eviction. It had to happen, however, in order for Devin to catch his train in Perth. The plane ride was beautiful, but we were sad to leave so soon.


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Shark Bay from the air

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