Travel bloggers are notorious for telling you not to plan. I know.
We’re always like, “Just get lost! See what happens! Go with the flow!” And then we post 3,000 words on how much we love organizing our trips, the perfect day to book your flight (57 and 1/2 days in advance, in case you were wondering*), and the 37 apps you should download before you go. But aside from that, don’t plan a thing!
* This is a made up number. Please don’t book your flight 57 and 1/2 days in advance and then get mad at me when it’s cheaper two days later.
Pinnacles Desert at Nambung National Park
Joking aside, whether you’re the kind of person that likes to have an hour-by-hour itinerary, or the kind that closes your eyes and points to the map, I think we can all agree on one thing: no matter how much or little you plan, there’s bound to be some unexpected moments along the way.
Our 10-day road trip along Australia’s west coast was no exception.
Pink Lake of Port Gregory
Australia’s west coast is far more sparsely populated than its eastern counterpart. In fact, though WA is the largest state by a wide margin, it’s home to only 11% of the country’s total population. As you might expect in a place like that, the nature dictates your day far more than any itinerary you may (or may not) create.
So in that spirit, I present to you: my favorite unplanned, unexpected, and unforgettable wildlife encounters from Australia’s west coast. (Look sharp!)
The Flash in the Water (Monkey Mia Marine Reserve)
After all, dolphins are what the reserve is known for — specifically, the bottlenose dolphins that show up on the beach almost every morning of the year, like nature’s version of clockwork. Most of them just come to say hello, but a few will also accept fish fed to them by staff members (and one or two chosen visitors).
Years ago, before there were any regulations in place, visitors to the beach would feed the animals willy-nilly, leading to significant problems in the local dolphin population. No longer accustomed to hunting for themselves, many would suffer when the tourists weren’t around to feed them. Now, feedings are strictly regulated, and limited to 10% of their daily diet (at most). In addition, visitors are kept out of the water during feedings and instructed not to touch or approach the dolphins.
I recommend going to the demonstration (and going early; the dolphins are never a sure thing, but your best chance to see them is the first feeding of the morning). However, the really special moment of our visit came afterwards.
We decided to hire a kayak and head along to the coast to another part of the reserve. There had been a small crowd at the beach to see the dolphins — maybe thirty others — but here, only a short distance away, we were the only people in sight.
Perhaps that made it all the more magical when a bit of silver flashed next to us, just under the surface of the water; and, before we knew it, a dolphin was swimming directly beneath our kayak — so close we could have reached out and touched it.
(Don’t worry. We didn’t.)
The Daredevil Echidna (Kalbarri National Park)
We were heading towards Kalbarri’s eponymous national park when, up ahead, we saw a group of people huddled in the middle of the road. Afraid there’d been an accident or some other kind of trouble, we slowed to a stop and climbed out of our campervan.
One member of the group, who was clearly the leader, waved us over. “It’s an echidna,” he explained, pointing at a little creature around which they had gathered — and luckily so, since otherwise, we’d likely have flattened it and been none the wiser. (Phew.)
Echidnas are monotremes — mammals that do weird shit like lay eggs and, apparently, hang out in the middle of the highway. They look a bit similar to hedgehogs, with a round shape, dark color, and spiny covering. They’re native to Australia and New Guinea, and are the only monotreme species left on earth besides the platypus.
This particular echidna seemed perfectly happy to remain perched on the road, and did not respond to the group’s attempts to gently shuffle it to the side. (I don’t mean he didn’t respond well; he didn’t respond at all. Whether this is a testament to the quiet highways of WA or the terrible survival instinct of echidnas, I really couldn’t tell you.)
Don’t worry, this guy wasn’t actually pushing the echidna — just using his hat to dissuade it from walking any further in that direction.
Eventually, the animal made its way off the road in its own sweet time. We bade the group farewell and carried on toward our day’s destination — our eyes opened just a bit wider now, in case any similarly reckless creatures wandered into our path.
The Pelican and the Fish Head (Kalbarri)
Similar to the dolphins at Monkey Mia, Kalbarri has a local pelican population that regularly stops by this spot and will take fish from volunteers. The demonstration is free to attend, but “gold coin” donations are encouraged (in Australia, that refers to a $1 or $2 coin).
The day we showed up, only one pelican came by. (Fair enough: you can’t make wild animals appear, can you?) As the volunteer of the day went over some history and fun facts, she would toss pieces of fish out of her bucket into the pelican’s wide open beak.
She noted she also had a large fish head in the bucket, but she kept it hidden away from the pelican’s view, and seemed intent on saving it in case any other birds stopped by.
The pelican was not fooled. She shuffled back and forth a bit from the group to the beach, as if she wanted to fly off — yet she lingered.
Of course, I don’t know if she actually suspected the volunteer was holding out on her, or if she just hoped. I only know that, as soon as the volunteer finally tossed the fish head out of the bucket, the pelican snatched it up — and immediately ran off to the water as fast as she could go, never once looking back.
Surprise Bonus Round: Tips for a better west coast road trip
Not to totally contradict the theme of this post, but the travel blogger in me would be remiss if I didn’t give you at least a few words of advice. If you’re doing a road trip along Australia’s west coast, here are a few things you should plan on doing.
Sunset over the sea in Denham
• Stock up on food and supplies before leaving Perth, especially if you’ll be camping or otherwise cooking for yourself. Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world; while you’ll pass through small towns during your trip, they’ll have much smaller supermarkets with much skimpier selections — and at much higher prices.
• If you’re driving, make sure you always know how far it is to the next fuel station. Towns in WA are set hundreds of kilometers apart. Don’t ever skip a chance to fuel up without being certain you can make it to the next one.
• Plan on reaching your destination for the night well before sunset. Driving after dark in rural Australia is highly discouraged, especially around dusk and early nightfall, due to the tendency of wildlife to wander in and across the roads.
• Drink plenty of water and always wear sunscreen. This is probably good advice for everyday life, but even more so in WA, where the sun is wicked hot and the air is very dry. Stay hydrated and protect your skin. A hat would not be out of order.
• For that matter, try to visit in autumn. Western Australia is hot as hell in the summer. In the southern part of the state, it’s a nice dry heat, but things quickly get humid as you head north. Either way, I vastly preferred traveling in May. The weather down south was still sunny and warm enough for a single layer; up north, Broome’s humidity was still off-the-charts but tolerable; and while there were definitely other tourists around, we never felt crowded or overwhelmed by them, and always had plenty of space to ourselves.
The only downside is the shorter daylight hours, but hey: I never said we could have it all.
Kalbarri National Park
To sum up: Make your plans or take your chances. Either way, Australia’s west coast and its resident wildlife will keep you on your toes.