We travelled to Exmouth on the last day of 'winter'. Already many wild flowers were in bloom along the road verges making our journey immeasurably more enjoyable.
The Exmouth Cape Holiday Park was a different world to the Onslow Ocean View Park - very much nicer, cleaner and better organised, and with many more facilities. And it has a nice pub - Grace's Tavern - just across the road.
The attractions offered by the town mainly involved fishing and snorkelling. We could swim with whale sharks if we wanted to - but we didn't want to, we prefer to grow old gracefully. Or even disgracefully, as long as we continue to grow old.
While in the Tourist Information Centre, we asked why there were no Aborigines in Exmouth. It appears there are evil spirits on the North West Cape. We asked if it was possible to 'acquire' some of these evil spirits to take with us. No, we were told with a large smile, the residents of Exmouth were quite happy to keep the evil spirits just where they were.
A Little About Exmouth
The crime rate is very low. Situated as it is, near the tip of the North West Cape, any person with evil intent would have to drive a hundred kilometres up the cape to carry out a crime in the town, then drive the same distance back along the one and only sealed road to escape, perhaps with Senior Constable Plod on his tail. Hence Exmouth is a remote but peaceful little town with just the occasional crime of opportunity taking place when someone leaves their property unsecured.
A map of the Cape showing Exmouth. If the Cape appears cluttered on this map,
don't believe it. Most of it is uninhabited.
A Condensed History of the Cape.
The first Europeans to land on the cape were the Dutch in 1618. They initially thought they had landed on an island and found human footprints on the beach. I wonder if that's where Daniel Defoe got the idea for his book, Robinson Crusoe? Later another Dutch explorer, Commander Willem de Vlamingh explored the coast. The tip of the cape, and later the lighthouse, were named Vlamingh Head and Vlamingh Head Lighthouse in his honour. Two centuries later the famous French explorer, Nicholas Baudin, sailed up the coast and named Cape Murat after Napoleon's brother-in-law. Much good that did him, poor chap. Phillip Parker King explored the cape in 1818 and named the gulf
after Viscount Exmouth RN. Yet more brown nosing. King reported that the whole area was desert and therefore unsuitable for settlement. So much for him!
During World War II, Exmouth Gulf became an important submarine base for Australian and US submarines. The base, nicknamed 'Potshot' by the Americans, operated between 1942 and 1945 when most of the facilities were destroyed by a cyclone. It was during the war that the Learmonth airbase, named after Wing Commander Charles C. Learmonth, was opened.
The town of Exmouth came into being after it was gazetted in 1963 to service the Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station to its north and, to a lesser extent, the Learmonth airbase to its south.
The Communications Station was a joint U.S./Australian facility and most of its personnel were Americans. Critics of the base argued that in the event of a nuclear war it would be a prime target as its thirteen huge radio masts monitored the movements of US warships in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific.
In 1964 there were four houses in Exmouth - most of the population lived in caravans. Development continued and the population peaked in the late sixties at around 4,300, many being US service personnel. The Americans pulled out in 1992 and the permanent population today has settled to around 2,000 people.
The Learmonth air base is still operational, as is the downsized Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station. The masts which support the Very Low Frequency (VLF) antenna are higher than the Eiffel Tower and the tallest is the second highest structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Very important statistics, are these.
For the technically minded the VLF transmitter is the world's most powerful, operating on a frequency range from 14 - 28 KHz and the antenna is capable of radiating two million Watts. The tower assembly is designed to withstand winds up to 500 km/h.
Exmouth has a dry climate with hot summers and beautiful winter days which are just perfect; we can personally vouch for that. In summer there may be several consecutive days over 40° Centigrade but, strangely, it's a very dry heat and as such, much more tolerable. I say 'strangely' because low humidity is something I would not expect in a town almost surrounded by sea.
The average annual rainfall is a mere 267 mm. (As a guide, Perth receives 860 mm.) Exmouth has an average of 26 rainy days each year; now that I could live with, how about you? The wettest month is June when you could expect five rainy days. The driest period is September through to December when it might rain once or twice.
The cape is subject to a tropical cyclone every couple of years. The tapering waters of the Exmouth Gulf concentrate the cyclonic winds towards its southern end. A wind speed of 267 km/h was measured at Learmonth Airport in March 1999, the highest wind speed ever recorded on the Australian mainland.
The caravan park being so close to the tip of the peninsula, we decided to explore its northern extremity. On the way we passed the joint Australian and American Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station with its many towering masts and warning signs. We headed for the now-disused lighthouse and lookout from where we could see whales blowing and breaching in the Exmouth Gulf.
The disused Vlamingh Head Lighthouse. The new warning light is atop Mast Eleven at the Communications Station.
Why no whale pictures? I rushed to the car to fit the telephoto lens and tripod to the camera and arrived back just in time to be too late. Know the feeling? Then the camera threw a wobbly and refused to take pictures. A 'master reset' (removing the battery for a minute) cured the problem but by then the whales were having a nana-nap.
Up by the lighthouse is a lookout where the remains of a World War II radar stands.
On the left is the stand with the shafts and gearing. On the right is what the 1943 cyclone
left of the framework which supported the camouflage over the scanner dish.
Looking east over the Exmouth Gulf, the Australian coastline was out of sight over the horizon so that all we saw was water on three sides of us. From there you can watch the sun rise and set over water without moving from the spot. Eat your heart out, Onslow.
Again we were spoilt by the profusion of wild flowers. Many of the blooms were tiny and delicate, others large and robust.
Wild flowers blooming in the most inhospitable of soil - all of it dry and salty,
sometimes stony, sometimes just dune sand.
As well as the flora we saw some interesting fauna. As we prepared to leave the lookout a kangaroo popped its head above a ridge, gave us a quick stare and then hopped it.
Footnote on the spelling of Vlamingh Head: On maps and in tourist literature, the name Vlamingh frequently has the final 'h' left off. Often both spellings are used in the same document. Which is correct? I honestly don't know but my best guess would be that the 'h' is more likely to have been omitted in error rather than added in error.
Turtles And A Shipwreck
We drove down to a turtle display area near the beach. From October to December the female turtles come ashore at night, dig a hole in the sand and lay up to a hundred eggs before filling in the hole and returning to the sea, job done. Much then will depend upon the temperature of the sand. The warmer it is the shorter the incubation period and greater proportion of the hatchlings will be female. On hatching they dig themselves towards the surface, waiting until dark to emerge when their chance of reaching the sea is greatest. Their predators are many, both on the beach and in the water, and very few will reach maturity.
The display educated people on how to observe the females coming ashore and laying their eggs - what to do and what not to do. The path through the dunes was illuminated by small lights powered by batteries charged by solar panels. Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to provide this facility.
Before returning home we visited the nearby wreck of the S.S. Mildura which came to grief in a storm on 12th March 1907. The ship, which weighed 1,394 tons, was carrying 481 bullocks, all of which perished. No human lives were lost but the plaque tells us that the master, Charles Edward Thorpe, was suspended for eight months.
Still, it's an ill wind. The outcome was that a plan to build four lighthouses along the north-west coast of Australia was expanded to include the one on Vlamingh Head.
All that remains of the 1,394 ton sailing ship, S.S. Mildura.
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