I was heading north along the coastline of Western Australia, immersed in expectations of Ningaloo dreaming. Turquoise ocean, white limestone, red earth and intense blue skies. Instead, as I approached Cape Range waves of dense mist rolled over the desert landscape. Termite mounds loomed out of the darkness, flashing by in a vista shrunk to a mere stage.
We were being tailed on the remote and lonely road by another vehicle. Unnerved, I stopped to let it pass only to have it pull in behind me. Feeling edgy, I slid out of the car. The driver opened her door and leaned out. ‘Can’t see your brake lights!’ she called. ‘They’re really dim. It’s dangerous.’ Red desert dust had worked its way inside the light covers, and was now turning to mud from all the moisture in the air. She drove off, leaving us alone in our enclosure of fog.
The long road to Ningaloo reef was like a minor pilgrimage for me. My Dad, Barry Wilson, was a marine ecologist. In 1994 he wrote a marine park proposal that resulted in the longest fringing coral reef in Australia being protected by reserve. He devoted his life to the ocean, and even in his final months in hospital demanded a laptop. He was racing against time to finish one last book, about how millions of years of climate change had shaped the land and seascapes of Ningaloo. Time won the race, and I had brought the unfinished manuscript along with me, hoping I could help my cousin complete and publish it. So I headed North with my two teenage daughters. None of us had ever been to Ningaloo and I wanted to experience the place that had so inspired my Dad.
By the time we arrived at our campsite at Osprey Bay the fog had cleared, but a dark, seething cloud mass hovered over the ocean. I struggled to set up a marquee in thirty knot winds, tying the whole thing down with ropes and strips of fabric. Anxious by evening, I walked down to the sea. The gale was blowing in form the north west, and the rising tide had swallowed the shore. Wavelets leaped and smacked on the rocks, and rays from the obscured sun flared out, turning the water a shade of stormy blue you never see on postcards.
That first night I sat huddled in the shuddering marquee with the wind turning the pages of the manuscript. I read about the paleogeology of the fringing reef: layers building upon layers over time, its position changing with shifting sea levels over multiple climate change events. Reading past climate change in the landscape serves as a warning.
As of 2020, Australia is the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas, and the majority of it is from the west coast. Rather than switching to renewables, Australian governments are continuing to promote dirty fossil fuels as the basis of our energy industry. The ‘Runaway Train’ report prepared in 2019 by the Conservation Council asserts that Western Australia is a major contributor to global carbon emissions. Currently, new projects encroaching on the Ningaloo reef are on hold while they undergo further assessment by the Environmental Protection Authority. The climate impacts from our multiple gas mining projects in the North-West are already enormous, and pushing ahead with more gas is a road to disaster. Already from the world-heritage listed Ningaloo reef you can see lights on the horizon from the Wheatstone gas refinery and numerous offshore rigs. The bright spark of a hydrocarbon cyclone preparing to pounce.
Our second day dawned windy and dark. We braved the unseasonable cold and went snorkelling at Oyster Stacks. There were plenty of people already there when we arrived, stretched in flapping huddles along the beach like pods of fluorescent seals. We swam out to look at the coral, only to be swamped by a set of freak waves. My things, left on rocks high above the waterline, were washed out to sea and had to be rescued by strangers. I shook my phone and car keys dry, and drove home dripping and cold. Only to find that the wind had swung around and blasted a rainstorm right through the guts of our camp, drenching all our gear.
Just before dusk I abandoned damage control and went to explore one of the many small gorges running west from the edge of Cape Range. The lack of rainfall means that the creeks flow only after cyclone events. Most of the time they are as dry as the desert, but only a month before our visit cyclone Mangga had swooped in from the sea and unleashed a deluge. Evidence of water flow could still be seen on the floodplain below the gorge. The rust red soil was damp and dotted with burnt black shrubs sprouting green regrowth. The foliage was festooned with green and black caterpillars, so large that at first I thought they were flowers.
The floor of the gorge was still dishevelled by the storm. Long piles of sticks and leaves were banked up around corners, draped over rocks, and hanging from small trees arched over the floodway. A black-flanked rock wallaby peered at me over the edge of the cliff. Its eyes were encircled with white patches, lit up with a supernatural glow in the late light. Feeling like an interloper, I turned and walked back across the floodplain towards the setting sun. Behind me Cape Range glowed a deep, blood red. It was disturbing and eerie, as if a multitude of ancient eyes were watching me pass.
Archaeologist Kate Morse has excavated some of the rockshelters in the limestone of the Range, finding the longest record of marine resource use by people anywhere in Australia. Because the continental shelf is so close to the current coastline, sea level fluctuations during the Pleistocene ice ages had less impact on the location of the shore than in other coastal regions. The ocean was never more than a few kilometres away from the shelter of Cape Range, and people have been exploiting its resources for thousands of generations. Fish, shellfish, turtles, shark. Baler shells used as water containers.
In a rockshelter at Mandu-Mandu Gorge Kate found beads made from cone shells, the oldest surviving human ornaments in Australia. I walked the Mandu trail early in the morning, soft light enhancing the contrast between the red cliffs and white coral pebbles of the creekbed, smoothed and rounded by aeons of intermittent flooding. The trail heads up the side of the gorge, rising through layers of reef created by tiny living creatures over millions of years. From the top, you can see the white creekline snaking its way down through the steep red walls, and away towards the enticing deep blue of the sea.
Further to the south is another gorge called Yardie Creek, the only permanent waterway on Cape Range. There’s a persistent local legend that the Yardie Creek people were all wiped out by a tsunami after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Whether or not there is any truth in this, it brings to life the spectre of an uncontrollable natural catastrophe.
Carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are already causing sea level fluctuations. Millions of people living around the northern shores of the Indian Ocean will be impacted by rising sea levels in the near future. Packing up the camp in a gale and using forty-knot winds to fold the tents, I had the ominous feeling that the lifestyle of our own generation might unleash a maelstrom of change, and that the world as we know it may soon be swept away.