Should you have wondered whether I have perished in the outback due to my zero dark thirty status over the past month (or two?), I’d like to inform you that I am, in fact, very much alive and enjoying life offline in Coral Bay. Located on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, Coral By is some 1,124 km from Perth and 150km from the nearest town, and when I say that I mean quite literally – there is nothing between the two places; no stations, no turn offs, no motels and no lights. The town itself offers all the amenities you could need on a daily basis, but nothing excessive in the way of luxury – a couple of drinking spots, two small supermarkets which sell all manner of items from fresh food to fishing gear and Coral Bay branded holiday gifts, there’s a bakery for fresh pies and pastries and four spots to head to for dining out. Of course there’s tours galore – currently it’s whale shark season which is attracting most visitors, but there’s also manta rays, dugongs – the original mermaids of the ocean – dolphins, octopuses, cuttlefish, reef, hammerhead and the tiger sharks, three different species of turtles and a huge variety of fantastic fish, crustaceans and jellies out there – it really is like I’ve landed on the set of Finding Dory.
So, seven weeks here so far and I’m currently employed by one of two potential employers in this small haven, my role provides a varied repertoire as a cleaner, receptionist, dog walker and sheer drunken entertainment for locals on most days (I’ve won the local karaoke contest twice now, but don’t ask me how!) if you think about it, I’m basically like Arya Stark with all these personas or maybe it’s more like that J-Lo film, Monster-in-Law? I’ve just moved into my employee accommodation, covered the place in sarongs, shells and candles, I’m burning incense and I’m about to start up teaching some basic yoga classes to a few of the girls here – it’s got to be done right? I mean, I’m not ashamed to say I’m wearing shell jewellery of every kind and my main consideration on outfits is as to whether they’ll be easy to get off and back on at the beach.
I’ve settled into not only removing my attention from my social media likes, but the internet as a whole – you see there is no Wifi here and limited coverage from one or two of the network providers. Really the entertainment is the ‘sunset pilgrimage’ we embark on whenever possible; ciders in hand we make our way either to the beach or to ‘Hippie’s Hill’ to an old couch on the dunes, it looks over most of Coral Bay and on occasion blesses your efforts with added ambience like a kangaroo hopping by or a snake in the bush as you trudge up (I say blesses because I haven’t been bitten). There are always bottles of cold cider involved and, if we’re feeling fancy, we even bring gin and tonic with lemon slices and split it in to various sized cups and plastic glasses. Then we sit, stare at the clouds and make assessments of the sunset – sometimes it’s clear and simple – a predictably beautiful set with a rainbow after-burn that lights the sky up burnt oranges, purples and pinks ten minutes after the sun has disappeared (that’s why I like to call it the after-burn). Other times there’s the perfect layer of cloud that sits over the ocean and, as the sun dips beneath it, the colours are stretched out over the clouds and reflected in the still water of the bay, as the reef’s dark coral patches densley populate the clear turquoise water. The birds all gather on the edge of the water and just moments before the sun slips down behind the horizon, when both the sun, the moon and the first star are together in the sky, they flock across the sky in squawking harmony. Of course some nights you forget how to be grateful because the cloud is hanging that touch too low and cancels out the sun before it’s set and covers all the glowing colours hidden behind it and the stars are hidden – they’re the nights that you start drinking that half an hour earlier and stay out those hours longer because it’s warm and damn it, you didn’t get a sunset.
It’s a surreal experience and yet it feels like the most real one I’ve had yet – the first few weeks held some kind of weird haze, mostly from all the alcohol, but the drink was fuelled by the enthusiasm to enjoy this place for every hour of every day and to do so you need a routine. We wake up and jump in the water for a snorkel then we dry off for lunch with a little gin followed by another snorkel and a final sun bake before we start on our pilgrimage to the sunset of an evening, which is naturally followed by more drinks, rarely dinner and the start of the evening. I mentioned there’s only two pubs right? So what happens when they close? I know what you’re thinking, panic! But here there are no worries, no dramas and always a desire to party through. So, of course, the party moves to the beach or ‘Baz’s park’ (don’t think of London’s Regents or Victoria Park, think more along the lines your mum’s garden but with no flowers). We’ve bought speakers and panic purchases from the bottleo, which always results in far too much gin and cider for such an already sloshed bunch of people (it’s that panic I mentioned) and as this night progresses we all seem to have lost each other and then wake up still drunk and, fuelled by last nights remaining blood alcohol levels, we’re ready to restart the mayhem; because if you drink just enough as to not remember the devastation from the previous night, there’s really not much of a deterrent and there’s really not that much else to do. Cue the university years round two*
*I’d like to say I was an adult and had better things to do, but the truth is that I found out that I’m just way better at it this time round. When I say way better, I mean my appreciation for the mayhem is a fully-fledged daily gratitude (Twenty-one again!)
I fell in to this way of being on the first night, during which I found my top bunk in our dorm much too hard to handle, poor Rach had a shock when she woke with my pile of blonder hair laying next to her on the bottom bunk – many of the guys here have long sun bleached hair – you can imagine her distress. It was later we learnt that we had in fact got up to all kinds of small town mayhem, attempts to climb the back gate to the backpackers as apparently we forgot there was a front door, following this failed attempt Rachel fell in the bushes and I felt the best move was to lay down next to her, there, in the bushes. No, I didn’t remember doing this, if I remembered it that would mean I may have had enough sense not to climb a gate or lay in a bush with Rach and the wide variety of venomous things that lurk there, luckily we’d attracted many an audience over the evening and the locals enjoyed getting to reintroduce themselves to us over the following week, retelling the stories of how they first met the two British girls. Yes, we’ve made a splash. Though for first two weeks this was a literal one in to the pool first thing in the morning to shock the hangover out of action, some days it took three attempts followed by a cider – I welcome you to the Coral Bay circle of life.
Just a note to all the tourist boards who will undoubtedly be interested in using my content to generate WA and Ningaloo reef tourism, there’s plenty more where this came from and of course I’m happy as long as I’m notified and credited.
Words and pictures by Cat Foley