Chris Khalil's Musings

My thoughts on work and life

Page 4 of 4

St Kilda Festival

Went to St Kilda festival over the weekend, this was my first opportunity to experience this famous event (it was cancelled last year, I think due to the Commonwealth Games). In the morning it seemed like the Gods had frowned upon us, with some early rain and grey clouds. However, by lunch time the sun was out again, and the crowds started milling into the area.

The festival itself had so much going on, with areas set aside for bands, rides and my personal favourite, extreme games. We checked out the skateboarding, wakeboarding and BMX events, which were fabulous. As the day work on, the wind picked up, and we got fatigued by the ever increasing mass of people. So, we went back to my place, and opened up a few beers. Loads of friends were passing through and called in, before we knew it we had a mini gathering on our hands!

It was a really great day, and the vibe in the area was amazing. Melbourne truly is a place that lives on events such as these. Barely a weekend goes by without some event happening in the city. Next up the Grand Prix….

Check out my pictures of the day.

Innovation and Usability

Right, I’m going to try and be provocative, I may not believe any or all of the following, but thought I’d throw it out there….

The age old debate of Usability Vs Innovation still continues with many still arguing that Usability rules over creative design approaches. Personally, I think the two are not mutually exclusive and are often complimentary (particularly as we move away from the page-centric view of the web to more RIA’s). However, for a lot of Interaction Design professionals it can be frustrating that they do not often get a chance to be really innovative.

Novel Design Approaches

The problem is usable interfaces often tend to be rather conservative (some would say dull). For, you see, usable interfaces tend to be consistent with the look and feel of similar applications, and have been designed for ease of use by novice users. The problem with this is that innovative or different designs tend to depart from the existing interaction paradigm, and may therefore take a little more time to learn. In the medium term, these alternate approaches may bring far greater benefits than the traditional design. However, they rarely get that far, as users are just not prepared to learn a new dynamic, they want something they are familiar with already. Even if we make an assumption that the users are willing to adapt, how prepared are management to task a risk on something different? Does making something usable and understandable first and foremost, trounce any inspiration that may yield ‘innovative’ ways of defining a system model? Well perhaps..

I believe there are two different aspects to this problem. The first is creating innovative approaches to UI design that add value over the accepted designs, but whose opportunity cost may be the increase in learning time for users (this is not always the case, particularly with some RIA’s whose new model matches that of desktop metaphors user’s are familiar with). The second is the tension that can sometimes exist between usability (minimalist, simple and clear designs) and the accepted advantages that aesthetics (in other words adding unnecessary noise to the interface, purely for visual reasons – as Nielsen would argue) can bring to an interface.

In some projects UI design is restricted to designing interfaces within an existing, well defined look and feel. Hence, the job of UI designer becomes that of a guardian of principles already defined by others. This can be very frustrating when obvious flaws exist in the current interaction paradigm, which a creative approach may resolve. In these situations the flaws must be worked around, because resolving them may break the applications look and feel. This is the kind of example where usability (in this case the usability of consistency) and creativity may clash.

Perhaps the answer to this is, on occasion, to be brave. If an evolutionary approach, rather than a revolutionary approach is taken, such that small tweaks to the look and feel are introduced over time (rather than an overhaul) a new interaction can emerge. This is often resisted by those in charge, because for some consistency is everything. I think, though, in some cases we underestimate the user. Users can adapt, more quickly that we may give them credit for, and if an approach is taken such that we can improve their ability to interact with the application, even at the expense of learning time, I believe users would prefer it.

Currently the main focus during design is on ‘user ability to do’ and not ‘user ability to learn’. In the former approach we only see what a user can do, and not their ability to adapt to new models. By listening intently to the user, and not straying from their existing mental model, we run the risk of ‘safe’ or stagnant design (in other words, sticking to what they know). If we take the latter approach it opens the door to innovation. To be really daring, I’d even suggest an approach could be taken where we stop asking users what they want and instead make assumptions about their abilities. These assumptions can be derived by doing good user research – observation/contextual enquiry/cultural probes/ethnomethodology etc the result of which may be a really good model of user activities (Activity Centred Design), by doing this we model what the user wants to achieve and from this we can design solutions the user may not even conceive of, yet once learnt will increase their efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction. An alternative to this approach is to do just the opposite, involve users completely throughout the design process. By involving the user in participative design sessions, and giving them a say in the design, potentially creative solutions may emerge. It is important, though, to make the user see past their expectations of the interface, since these are defined by their use of existing applications.

If this all sounds a bit too much (and I think it may), I’d suggest trying to implement new interaction paradigms into the existing UI structure. When I worked at Schlumberger we had some rather unique situations (highly complex applications which conventional UI patterns could not cope with). Most of these situations related to complex data visualisation and I found some rather interesting technologies out there which might provide a solution (these are probably a bit dated now but what the heck). The following links highlight novel approaches that may well resolve some of the problems encountered in some applications.

  • The TimeSearcher (A novel prototype environment for interactive querying and exploration of time-series data)
  • Fish Eye Lens Menu Navigator (A brilliant application of the fish-eye lens principle, suitable for any application which requires navigation of long lists)
  • Hyperbolic Tree Browser (Stuart Card at XeroxParc came up with this some time ago, here is the latest commercial incarnation. Interesting way to navigate large data trees)
  • Table Lens (Innovative way of navigating around large data sets, very efficient and useful)

These are a few years old now, but there are many great technologies around now which can provide fantastic alternate approaches (Ajax/Flex/Laszlo etc).

Aesthetics

Style, brand, look and feel are all very important elements of daily life -and the user experience- and are things we should be paying attention to if we really want to differentiate our products in the market place. To achieve a certain style, it is important that attention is paid to aesthetics. Yet sometimes aesthetic are forsaken at the alter of usability or cost. A usability disciple will often tell you that clarity is important and that the interface should be stripped bare of all unnecessary clutter or distraction. A graphic designer may well tell you people will sacrifice a little clarity for an increase in visual experience. Whose right? Well both actually.

Clearly most people do not use software applications solely for the purposes of being visually pleased, just as most people do not use their cars solely for the purposes of looking at them (although some do spend an undue amount of time doing just that!). Most people get into their cars every day in order to get from one place to another (as software users do), however, car manufacturers understand that one cannot build a car that is merely functional and not pay ample attention to the aesthetics.

Why? Because car manufacturers acknowledge what many usability specialists do not people are emotional beings and not simply functional robots. We make purchases based on any number of factors, usability and aesthetics being very important ones of them. If that were not the case, no one would ever buy a Porsche, why should they when a Skoda performs the same function (ok a little slower admittedly!). People would, like Homer Simpson, own several pairs of the same items of clothing so as not to spend time deciding what to wear. After all, one style of clothing serves the function of covering and protecting your body, right? What function is served having different styles?

Design, when it’s done well, is like architecture and combines the best of form AND functionality. The legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

This is where we should be aiming to go…

The Issue of Context in E-Commerce

Are people are more likely to be engaged when information is presented to them in a contextualised, relevant environment, than in an isolated disconnected one?

Well it’s all about connecting with people in meaningful ways. The Internet, for the everyman is a treacherous place. Engendering trust is crucial in a successful e-commerce environment. People tend to not trust things they are unfamiliar with. Therefore, providing meaningful metaphors that reflect real life situations is comforting to the user. Once trust has been gained and the user has successfully engaged with the site they are likely to return and interact with it (and believe it’s message).

Remember User Experience, is at the heart, about providing the user with an experience that is (and these are the standard type of definitions, there are more complex ones):

  • Intuitive
  • Consistent
  • Comfortable
  • Trustworthy

Intuitive and Consistent relate to Usability, Comfortable and Trustworthy relate to the User Experience. This is why we endeavour so much, in our field, to understand the user and why invest so much effort developing persona’s. Because, by doing so we can achieve the right tone and voice in which to speak to the user we are aiming for, this provides them with comfort and familiarity. Speaking down or obfuscating a user is a certain way to alienate them. By presenting information in a context free way, we increase the risk of this dramatically.

Trust is also crucial. If we are to compete in the ruthless on-line market where we expect users to give us their credit card details and personal information, it is critical that we build a bond of trust with our audience. This cannot be engineered per se (other than through explicit privacy statements etc). It must be gained by giving the user a sense that the site feels like a shop might in the real world. Friendly assistant and familiar surroundings contribute to this. In the real world shops go to a great deal of effort to provide many cues which re-inforce this message. So things like making a site feel personal (but not to the extent of anthropomorphising it totally which can just seem artifical) help. Providing familiar looking images or pictures of real life people add to a feeling that the site isn’t an impersonal automaton but has real people behind it. This goes back to context. In the end, the interaction a user with a site is an emotional experience. Over the course of many successful visits a positive experiences lead to trust.

Western Australia

Last November (2006) I spent a magical week in Western Australia, whilst I was there I kept a journal. What follows is the story of that week taken from my journal. Pictures can be seen on my photo page.

Arrival

So, the adventure had began. We arrived into Perth airport some 20 minutes early. Leaving the airplane you notice the instant increase in humidity, especially when compared to Victoria. It was all so exciting though, a genuinely new place to visit, and the hopes and aspirations that we might see that which we had not seen before. The airport, a rather modest affair was clean, modern and bustling. So different to airports you often get in parts of Europe. Things happen fast here (a most unlikely characteristic for something in Australia); you are literally off the airplane and picking up your baggage in 5 minutes. Awaiting our baggage we gazed out the window at the bright sunshine and wondered what lay ahead of us, would it really be as alien as we thought? Would we see things that would change our perspectives on Australia and life in general?

I called Siggy, a friend I’ve known since my Schlumberger days, who was coming to pick us up. “DUDE!! Welcome to Perth” he shouted down the phone “meet me by the taxi rank, I’m in a Range Rover Discovery”. Siggy has always been someone who has a zest for life replete with boundless energy and humour. I was really looking forward to catching up with him. We hopped in the Range Rover, and there was Siggy looking every inch the noveu West Coast boy, resplendent in Yellow t-shirt and baseball cap (you’d never guess that he was both Icelandic and the Schlumberger Business Development Manager for the whole of Australia).

We got chatting like it was only yesterday that we’d last seen each other and met his partner, Megs, a charming and beautiful girl, funky and interesting; a really good match for him. As is the want when we meet on occasion we were all down the pub in a matter of minutes. We sat in a large beer garden, the air warm and beautifully refreshing, reminiscent of those carefree Mediterranean holidays of my youth. The beer was cold and the company excellent. We chewed the fat and drank long into the night, enjoying the balmy evening air and spirited conversation. On our way back to the hostel, we happened across the Perth Gay Pride march. Float after float of scantily glad, wildly camp and happy looking people passed us by. Confetti and disco music drifted through the warm Perth evening. One couldn’t help but get swept away in the pure joy of the moment and it was with a smile on our face that we went to bed. A great start to the holiday…

To Kalbarri

We picked up the camper van early the next day and promptly called it Bruce! What other name could we have possibly chosen given the location. We were ready to go on this epic drive that would take us, well who knows where?

Unlike the day before, it was a somewhat grey and murky WA morning that we set off into. After navigating our way out of the intricacies of the Perth one way system, we were soon into our stride upon a long straight highway that would be our companion for the next week. It’s really quite difficult to convey what this initial part of the journey was like. The road seemed to continue endlessly into the horizon, flanked on either side by flatlands. I’d seen plenty of this very characteristically Australian type of landscape in Victoria. But here it was truly epic. For as far as the eye could see, scrubland surrounded you. You felt like the earth was yawning and drawing you into it. It was, however, never boring. Quite, quite the opposite. Every corner presented new scenery and views. The early part of the journey was remarkable for the scarred and twisted trees that surround the highway, and the grubby salt lands that would randomly appear. As we ate up the miles the vista would morph unexpectedly like a movie unfurling before our eyes. One minute farmlands would appear on a mammoth scale with hay balls and sheep everywhere. The next volcanic and dark earth which, with the dark clouds rolling above us, spewed forth images of Armageddon or a lunar landscape, totally alien and bizarre.

Still, the road continue, metamorphosing into savannah, surprisingly green and elegant with colourful wildflowers abounding, and strange malformed trees that reached unsuccessfully towards heaven. As we continued we noted how few settlements there are in this remote outpost of the world, and how precious life is in this harsh environment.

The road seemed to carve a path through the endless bush that surrounded us on all sides, one could well imagine the relentless bush never surrendering its heart and trying to engulf and reclaim the road as its own. Strange feelings flow through you on this type of journey. The mesmeric quality of the endless kilometres and alien landscape make you wonder if this land was ever meant to be populated. Once in a while and quite out of the blue, you’d get a road train hammering past (a huge caravan of lorry trailers, seemingly perilously connected together) causing wind to shake and knock poor old Bruce. Often these were going to mine sites, the life and blood of WA. These ugly, but I suppose necessary evils, were generally well hidden only revealed by small roads and cleverly disguised signs.

As we ate through the kilometres and barrelled north at some speed the grey clouds evaporated into a gloriously blue sky. The heat rose dramatically and the pallor of the land changed, what was once foreboding and odd became beautiful illuminated and interesting. This land literally comes alive in the sunshine, its natural demeanour changing considerably. It was whilst pondering these things and staring out at the glorious sunshine and red roads that I noticed something I’d been hoping to see for quite some time. Emus’, wild in the bush. We pulled the van off the road in a huge cloud of dust and go out to take a closer look at these shy creatures.

In the rolling hills ahead of us by a small cluster of trees a herd of emus grazed. Their elegant necks, stretched legs and flabby bodies oddly familiar but transformed into something reminiscent of Jurassic Park when placed in this wild, glorious savannah. They moved together in a discordant and eerily quiet ballet of motion before spotting us and taking off, at quite some speed, behind a batch of trees. We stood watching the empty space they had just occupied and wondered at what we had just seen. Before us had been the very symbol of Australiana, we felt privileged and happy. It was time to continue the journey and see what else we might happen upon.

Finally, after quite some hours the road gently reached to the left and aimed itself squarely toward the coast. The scrubland thinned out and a surprise corner brought a whole new scene into view. It was quite simply stunning, clear blue waters and white sands presenting a stark contrast to the dusty interior. We stopped the van to eat a sandwich and to quietly gaze out to sea. We’d only been out of Perth a few hours but we felt like we’d be transported to another time and place.

We decided to continue on and see how far we could get this first day; we skipped past Geraldton (the major town in this area) and kept striking North, our new destination Kalbarri. The decision to skip Geraldton was partly based on the short time scale we had and the wish to see the red rocks and gorges of Kalbarri National Park. However, an unspoken but just as real element of this choice was that we were simply enjoying the journey too much. Sometimes it’s not where you are going that’s important but the journey that you take to get there that is. We were revelling in the road, the modulating scenery that past us by and all the familiar tunes that we played on the stereo as we continued on day one of our road trip.

As we continued North toward Kalbarri the blistering heat increased causing a heat haze to shimmer over the roads as we flew by. This stretch of the journey marked the transition from the greenlands and shrub to red, dusty highways. As the road struck ever northward, we decided to take the scenic route to Kalbarri. This rewarded us with fleeting promises of the Indian Ocean through breaks in the hills to our left. We’d encounter mountainous sand dunes, shimmering a luminescent white in the bright sunshine, and then we’d keep an eye out for the deep blue of the ocean that would surely follow.

As we got closer to Kalbarri we passed a most curious thing. To our left a body of water started that seemed to continue for an eternity. Long, thin and a shockingly bright Pink in colour, it at first appeared to be a mirage, a heat induced lustre above the red earth. But then we looked closer, and this nebulous channel, which sat between the highway and a bank of sand dunes was actually, really pink. It was, we found out later, originally titled the Pink Lake. So called because of the algae which reside in it, whose refractive properties appear to turn the lake its famous colour. Every so often we’d see large processing plants, which use the algae to produce colourings for fruit juices and Vitamin A for supplements. This part of the world is sometimes a fairy tale place, a Pink Lake in an arid desert. Real life is often stranger than fiction.

We continued on, in true Australian country now, the real outback. The Indian Ocean to our left, escarpments and the odd giant ant hills to our right. The every present heat was starting to increase once more. On our approach to Kalbarri the Ocean came into view on our left. We turned a final corner and this beautiful, small town came into view. With a small number of fishing boats bobbing gently in its sweeping, small harbour, and the day slowly fading into evening this was a picture postcard scene. A more perfect little town you couldn’t imagine.

Kalbarri

We parked the van for the evening and went to explore. As we walked to the beach, to catch the last rays of the sun, a flock of Gullahs appeared and swopped all around us, as if welcoming and warning us at the same time. The landed on a grassy strip that lay before the beach and cried and swooned noisily. We edged closer and watched as they appeared to talk and scream at each other. As we approached, our eye was caught by something else. Something, in fact, that was the antithesis of these noisy, hyper birds. It didn’t register with us at first due to its stillness. Like the sphinx it sat there imperiously, still and unmoving, as if it had always been such throughout the ages. A beast of a Pelican, with huge beak and large jowls. It seemed to sense our approach, and turn menacingly to stare at us directly, as if challenging us to come any closer. We did not. We looked at each other, and understood where we were. We were just bowled over by seeing such an unexpected thing. We said our goodbyes to the Pelican, and carefully moved away.

As the night drew in, we set the van up, and went for an explore. It was an evening rich with promise. The air was warm, and the smell of brine from the sea made us hungry for seafood. As we walked under the bowl of stars above us, and the ocean to our right, we smelt seafood. Following our noses we found ourselves in somewhere quite wonderful.

The joint was called Finlay’s BBQ place. A real Aussie institution an open-air bbq place that cooked fresh fish, whilst you wait by a real fire. It was something quite unexpected. We brought our own booze, and sat looking at the stars above us in the clear night sky. Draped from wooden beams overheard fairly lights entwined with climbing plants twinkled and a happy, jovial crowed of older locals mingled around. The music evoked a bygone age. Sounds of Gerry and the Pacemakers and other 1950s musical mainstays wafted through the air, combining well with the smoky barbecued smell of prawns and snapper.

Gentle old couples looked at each other, obviously very much still in love, and got up to dance in the space between the tables. Nineteen Fifties Americana came to mind, as licence plates, old radios, dishes, and other assorted items clad the walls. We ordered and waited for our number to be called. Drinking our wine, we people watched for a while, observing the myriad of people dining and laughing. Finally, our food arrived and was a plate of delicious friend and barbecued food. We ate until we could eat no more, and walked off the food on the stroll back to the van.

Kalbarri National Park

On the previous night at Finlay’s, we had over heard the conversation of two young girls sat at the table next to ours. One was from the UK and her conversation centred on her regret at imminently moving on from Kalbarri. She had been there three months, and had wondered, at first, how she would cope living in such a small place (after having spent several months on the east coast). But, she said, she had grown to love the place. I never really understood how that could be possible. How could anyone linger in such a small, remote place? Today, I found out.

We had signed up for a day of adventure in the Kalbarri national park. After eating a breakfast of toast and jam in the opaque light of morning, we awaited our transport. We weren’t disappointed, with a deep engine rumble our transport arrived looking like some dubious cross between an amphibious vehicle and a humvee. Our host for the day was Davo and his trainee Grant. They were as lovely as everyone else we had met on this side of the world. They welcomed us with warm smiles and once we’d settled in the cabin we were off.

We picked up a few more people and were soon joined by a motley crew of other intrepid travellers. A Danish family (father bare chested, blonde and red as a lobster), a father and daughter from NZ and a quiet UK and Aussie couple. We immediately hit it off with the Aussie couple, who were charismatic and fun. He was a mine site driver and she a nurse. They had previously spent 3 years travelling around Australia. It sounded quite a journey.

The 4×4 rocketed down progressively bumpier dirt paths, it was clear that only a 4×4 monster such as this might take us we were going. We jarred our way down a seemingly endless succession of hairpins, ever descending. This was true Australia, as I’ve always pictured it, truly vast, truly unique and very, very ancient. As the scenery became increasingly more primal and baked by the sun it felt like we were being transported back to a stark pre-history. Finally we reached our first port of call, the hike towards the Z-Bend (a naturally occurring zig zag in the landscape where the Murchison River cuts its way through the gorge). As in previous adventures I was wholly unprepared for this, wearing my tatty sandals, one of these days I’ll pick up some walking shoes.

This was spectacular country. Vast red gorges and white striated rock were hewn deep into the earth, conjuring images in the mind of the primeval and tireless brute force of nature and water required to create these edifices. Beautiful and enormous they plunged giddily towards a deep emerald green river. It is estimated that these tumblagooda sandstone walls were created 400 million years ago on the tidal flats of an ancient sea. We wound our way down past wickedly disfigured bushes and strange looking florae. Finally, we reached a lookout and ahead of us lay the Z-Bend.

Davo told us about the geology and history of the place, much of which I forget now, as I was quite swept away with the view and aura that surrounded this place. My reverie was broken by Davo pointing out a series of inch wide tracks running parallel to each other, some 20cms apart that continued on for a good meter or so. These fossilised tracks are unique to Kalbarri and represent the oldest recorded evidence of the invasion onto land of a formidable pre-historic creature called a Eurypterids or ‘Sea Scorpion’. They were a fearsome predator equipped with a long stinger much like the scorpions of today. These tracks recorded the Eurypterid emerging from the water and leaving imprints on the firm sands that were exposed to the air. They are believed to be the first creatures to venture onto land about 420 million years ago during the Silurian Period. Apparently their tracks were all over the national park. Somehow this didn’t surprise me as one could well imagine these creatures still stalking around some quiet corner of this vast reservation. To see such things is to look back to a long forgotten time. We felt privileged and awed.

As we trekked our way back to the transport Davo told us more about the geology that had formed this landscape, but really I had the feeling this aspect wasn’t the one that interested him most. He was a wonderful guide and his eye lit up at the stories he told of the early settlers, local ranchers and native peoples of this region.

We arrived at our vehicle and continued on down an impossibly small and rugged track. We bumped up and down as once again we descended into further and more remote locations. There are areas no tourist goes to on their own. Finally, we reached the starting point for our second and major hike, a good 4 kilometres down into the heart of the gorge we had spied earlier. Perilously we followed Davo downwards. Jumping over large edifices, clambering sideways over steep cliffs, climbing down (with the help of ropes) sheer, rocky cliffs. This was a truly challenging but extremely rewarding trek. As I descending I couldn’t help but feel this was the only true way to feel close to this place. A landscape such as this is not to be observed from distance, but to be held, climbed and embraced. To feel the heated rocks on your hands as the merciless white furnace of the sun beats down on you, is to feel the very land itself.

With great triumph and satisfaction we made it to the base of the ravine. Our reward was the green untouched, turquoise waters of the Murchison River. It is really hard to capture in words the splendour of the situation. From our viewpoint the river wound its way around a bend, flanked on either side by mammoth slabs of red rock, lined and ancient. The sun twinkled and reflected of the surface of the water and the air was remarkably silent. We were deep in the national park now, a long way from civilisation and it felt wonderful.

The next leg of our journey was to canoe down the tranquil waters of the Murchison River for some 6 kilometres. We clambered into our canoe and gently and silently set off. Being on the water creates a whole new perspective. The world became an impressionist painting. Luminous pure colours compete for your senses, vivid and overwhelming these are not the subtle shades we see in our everyday life. Looking up at you see a white sun set in powder blue sky, panning down to striking red cliffs and gleaming green water. Nature must have decided to have a party here and forgot to clean up afterwards.

We continued on at a sedate pace, looking at the cliffs that bordered us on both sides, and filled with curiosity about what lay around the next bend. Out of the blue, and quite to our surprise, a jumping fish leapt high out of the water. At its zenith, it almost appeared to twist towards us and wink, as its green scales shimmered in the sun for one glorious moment, before it splashed back into its home. It was a magic moment.

As we coasted over the water we noticed huge boulders under the water below us and great birds of prey circling overheard. This was definitely outback country. By the end of the canoe ride we were thirsty, hot, sweaty but happy, really happy. Upon landing the canoe on a river bank, we striped into our bathing costumes and jumped gleefully into the wonderfully cooling, soothing waters. I swam across the river to the opposite bank, before diving back in and exploring this river that teemed with fish (oh how I wish I had my fishing rod). I smiled to myself and thought of old friends, and how I wished they could share this moment of contentment with them.

Drying off, we had a spot of lunch and chatted idly with Davo who amused us with tales of unruly passengers and beer fuelled antics. Unfortunately, it was time to start our journey back. The final hike upward took us an alternative route that was shorter but even more vertigos than our descent. Upon getting to the top, we drank lots of water, and looked back on what must have been one of the great days of my time in Australia. This is what I came here for!

Davo dropped us back at the campsite, and with a cheery goodbye he wished us good luck on the rest of our journey. It was 3:30 and we had little time before sunset to venture as far north as we could. Our destination was World Heritage Site, Shark Bay. First we cut through great swathes of Kalbarri National Park on our way back to the Great Northern Highway. We passed the turning for the Z-Bend and Natures window and reflected on our adventures in these quite amazing places with a smile before continuing on at pace. Once out of the Kalbarri National Park, the road became incredibly straight, dusty, red and seemingly endless.

As we devoured the kilometres the panorama on either side of us became progressively rawer. Carcasses of feral goats and kangaroos lay strewn on the highway, no doubt victims of the mammoth Road Trains. The colour of the earth, transformed from a pale red to a fierce, fiery clay colour. The road continued to a vanishing point in the horizon a heat haze shimmering in the distance. As the day gradually ebbed into early evening, so the fierce white light of the sun shifted frequencies to a muted rich golden colour draping itself over this empty land. With light fading, we finally reached the entrance to the Shark Bay peninsula, and turned westward to our destination Hamelin,

Hamelin Pool

Hamelin Pool (to give it its full name) is little more than a small settlement and tiny caravan park. Its real fame originated from it being one of only two places in the world with living marine Stromatolites, or “living fossils”. Stromatolites are the earth`s oldest life form. They were thought extinct, but were discovered by scientists in 1956 as being alive and well in Hamelin. They are perhaps the most intriguing creatures in existence as they offer a singular and unique window into deep time on earth, the emergence of life, and the eventual evolving of the life forms from Cambrian to modern time. A small piece of Stromatolite encodes biological activity perhaps spanning millions of years. They are single cell organisms that in pre-history created the biospheric conditions that spawned life, today, as we know it. Stromatolites are able to survive in the area because Hamelin Pool’s water is twice as saline as normal sea water and sea grasses and many other forms of life cannot survive there. Therefore they were net preyed upon, and in this small pocket of ocean continue to thrive.

We’d read about these, and their huge significance. With some excitement we pulled into the caravan park which had a tired but rather charming air. With only 2 or 3 other campers here, it felt like we were the only ones to discover this place. A rickety old shop/post office guarded the beach, its white washed walls and random assortment of signs and paraphernalia (such as old oil lamps and old coca cola signs) a throwback to a bygone age.

Without further ado we parked up and headed to the beach where the Stromatolites awaited us. We walked up the slight slope that led us on a path towards the beach and underneath our feet were shells. Tiny little white shells, conical and lined. At first glance it looked like the whole area we were walking towards was composed of white sand. But they were in fact shells. We were to see more of this later at Shell Beach.

After a brief walk we arrived at the waters edge. Here ahead of us were the Stromatolites. Looking for all the world like rocks, these most ancient of creatures had cleverly disguised their appearance and hid for man for eternity. As we took to the jetty boardwalk which protected visitors from touching them, we gazed at these things which looked like a mushroom stalks. These pillars were largely red or black in colour and stretched for as far as the eye could see. Fortunately, the tide was out and so we were able to see them very clearly. The sun started to touch the waves as it closed on another day. We reflected on the significance of these creatures and how without them we wouldn’t exist today. This journey was showing us things we might barely imagine being possible. As night drew in we headed back for the evening. Being so isolated the sky was ablaze with stars, and with a fond farewell to the day we looked to them as we made some pasta and fell asleep.

Eagle Bluff & Shell Beach

We woke to the sound of chomping. Yes, chomping, with tired eyes we opened the van door to find goats, wild goats surrounding us. These creatures are one of the uncontrolled pests that were introduced by Europeans and which breed prolifically at the expense of the native animals. Pests but rather cute.

Another early morning rise, 620 am. We had a spot of breakfast and navigated the van around the goats and back onto the main road. Our destination, Monkey Mia, home of the dolphins. The day started out a little overcast but still warm. We pushed onwards, ever onwards. Our first port of call today was Eagle Bluff. We turned off the main highway to our left onto a rutted and hazardous dirt road. We kept to a very slow speed and patiently navigated our way, wishing we had a 4×4. Some 20 minutes later, the surface improved and we gathered up a little pace as the road bent upwards and to the right to a cliff top. We parked up and walked the final few meters to the edge. The cliffs dropped vertically downwards, and below us was a startlingly multi-coloured ocean. Its hues seeming to shirt from bright cyan to deep turquoise and opal as the sun shifted in and out of the clouds. Off the coast lay an intriguing looking island, barren and surrounded by birds of some kind it was the first thing your eye was drawn too. But the island wasn’t the main reason for our coming here; the crystal clear waters hid another secret. We gazed patiently down and began to notice menacing dark shapes moving through the waters. The unusually salty water here and abundance of sea grass along with the subtropical waters led to an abundance of sea life. Here, below us, in this isolated and rugged spot, were the slow moving pancake shaped Eagle Rays and long, fearsome Tiger Sharks. Beasts of some menace and much elegance glided through these waters, whilst we watched from safety. What an incredible sight to start the day with. With much reluctance we decided to move on as we’d see more of this unusual wildlife in closer quarters at Monkey Mia.

En route, we made another pit stop, to Shell Beach. This beach is formed from billions of tiny shells and is one of only two in the world. It stretches for around 110 kilometres and is between 7 to 10 metres deep. The water here is highly saline, and together with the high temperatures generates ideal breeding conditions for shells. Shell predators cannot cope with them and so the shells can live virtually untouched. Strong winds single out the shells and deposit them with each tide on the beach. It’s a unique and thrilling place. Picking up a handful of the beach itself revealed shells identical to those we saw in Hamlin. Once again the sea was beautiful and we sat on the waters edge, looking through the shells and watching the waves lap onto the beach. There is something mesmeric about this place

Monkey Mia

But onto the last leg of our outward journey. We drove past the 26th Parallel; we were in the true North West now. Monkey Mia is a resort not a town. It has a stunning white sandy beach, and the water had the same visual qualities of ocean we saw at Eagle Bluff. Palm Trees marked the edge of the beach, and a pristine jetty led to large catamaran. The overall effect of the place was quite unexpected, after the starkness of territory we had been through, we had ended up in some Caribbean like paradise. Quite modern and quite out of place. Nonetheless, the clouds had now burned away and the sun, once again, beat down relentlessly. So of course, we sat on the beach, and took some time to relax. Monkey Mia is famous for its dolphins, which although wild, come into shore at random intervals during the day to be fed. So, it was some excitement that we spotted the first fin poking out of the water. Soon a dolphin and its cub drew into the shallows of the beach. It was followed by several others, and a small crowd drew on the beach. It was wonderful to see these creates so close up, and to see them frolic and play. Some might say they are being exploited. To me, though, it looked like the Dolphins were having the last laugh. These incredibly smart and gentle creatures genuinely seemed to enjoy putting on a bit of a show; they eat some food, laugh at the curious human and then return to the Ocean.

We decided to explore more of the extraordinary marine life in this area and take a trip out to sea on the Catamaran. We were welcomed onboard by two surf looking dudes, resplendent in Bermuda shorts, light blue t-shirts and sun visors (with pony tails). Our hosts for the afternoon Grant and Scotty were incredibly funny, charming and informative. The large catamaran moved out into the ocean and we were on our way. It’s such a buzz being out on the water, particularly on such a vessel. Our mission was to sail around the bay looking for marine life. Over the next few hours we encountered amongst other things, great Sea Turtles, floating elegantly on the surface before spotting us and diving, packs of dolphins gliding through the water at great speed and jumping through our wash. But most impressive of all we saw Dugongs. These rare, slow, sea cows feed on the sea grass around the area. Legend has it that the myth of the mermaid originated from (surely lonely and probably drunk) sailors spotting these creatures. They often cradle their young in their flippers like a human woman might; We saw many of them, very close up. This part of the world fosters such a rich diversity of sea life that it seemed like something new was popping up every few minutes. Moments such as these will live with me all my life…

To celebrate the end of our outbound trip we stopped for the night in Denham, a sleepy but engaging seafront town, the most westerly settlement in Australia. Wine and beer was drunk, some games of pool played and a hearty dinner was consumed of the best fish and chips I’ve had in Australia. On the wall of the fish & chip shop was a mariner’s map of the peninsula, my fascination for maps took me over, and I spent quite some time looking at it, and imagining some of the more exotic sounding places. There were large uncharted areas of ocean and land (even now) which was testament not only to the sheer size of the region but to its remoteness. Names such as Useless Loop and Desperation Loop told stories in themselves about the difficulties the early settlers must have experienced. This was a fascinating place, and one that I must come back to explore in more depth, one day.

To Doongara & Roadhouse

Next morning it was time to set course back from Perth, our goal was to complete a large chunk of the journey home, so that we could reach the Pinnacles and beaches of Perth by Thursday. It was during the drive that we saw a quite amazing thing. Driving onward with nothing ahead or behind us, and endless scrub and desert on either side, we noticed something spectacular. A twister of red dust spiralled up high into the hot blue sky to our right. It moved across the bush and then right across the road in front of us. We slowed the van and watched it with some amazement as it ripped across the road and off into the scrub on the left hand side. It continued like this wreaking havoc for some time before disappearing into the horizon. It’s passage complete; we sat in silence for some moments before laughing in a strange mix of wonderment and relief before continuing on. Australia, a place full of surprises.

The drive back was rather eventful, but just as captivating as it was on the way down. After some hours we were getting hungry and decided that this was be a good time to find out more about an Australian Roadhouse. These curious places are absolutely isolated, hundreds of kilometres from any town. They service the huge road trains and odd tourist, serving petrol and food. Who would choose this remote existence? One particularly took our eye, the Billabong Roadhouse, because of its name and the intriguing sign it had on the roadside “Change of Management – Everyone Now Welcome” – we wondered what the old management were like.

It was like walking back right into a 70’s. A grey haired man with glasses and a white safari suit, no less, stared at us as we passed through the saloon doors.

“Whaddya wanna drink?” he asked. We said, quite politely, we were here for food.

“You’re in the wrong place for food, this is the bar, restaurants that way” he said in a gruff voice as he pointed us to a Formica and plastic jungle of a place on the other side of an arch. We walked the few meters to the ‘restaurant’ only to be served by… Yes, our grey haired friend who’d followed us from behind the bar, to behind the restaurant bar. Incredible! Anyway, it seemed like they only served breakfast so I asked our friend if they served anything like a burger. “Mate if we sold burger it would be on the menu see” He pointed silently to the board behind him which had a small selection of toasted sandwiches. “I’ll have a chicken sandwich please”…”Don’t do chicken mate, pick something else”. I chose a bacon and egg sandwich, which he took great pleasure pointing out, was on the original breakfast menu. He looked at me with some disdain; it was all I could do not to laugh. He cooked it up himself, and it wasn’t too bad. The roadhouse itself was interesting. Covered in old mining pictures it had an air of weathered robustness, like it was immune to the ravages of time. Despite it only being 1130 a small group of red-faced old men were sat by the bar drinking beer and arguing loudly. It felt very authentic.

Fed and watered we were on our way once more. The long drive took us back through Geraldton, where we stopped for a closer look. This lively town (the capital of the area) took us quickly back to civilisation; we even had mobile coverage for a short while! We decided to check out the museum which turned out to be excellent. But we had to keep moving and decided upon Dongarra as our destination for the night. A somnolent fishing village, we ate some terrific sea food, before turning in for the night.

Pinnacles

My terrible navigation led us on a long, yet ultimately rewarding detour. It was remarkable for several things. First, the vast tracts of pastoral areas reminiscent of the mid-west of the US, farm land were everywhere. Secondly, we drove through a swarm of locusts. I thought locusts were biblical but, no, they are alive and well in Western Australia!!! Some got in the grill and several hours later when we reached Cervantes were still alive. Indestructible creatures these. The last aspect of this detour was a still, white lake. What appeared to be either salt or lime gave it its bright white colour. We stopped and took it all in, making closer inspection of the crystals that lay on the waters edge.

As we got back to the Ocean drive we passed through the lovely seaside towns of Green Bay and Jurien, where we stopped for lunch. The waters here were incredibly, clear, blue and shinning. Little fishing boats went out to sea to catch crayfish, and the air was that of quiet peace and contentment. The people here lived a different life to any I could imagine, but seemed genuinely happy.

Finally, and our last stop for the day, was Cervantes, the gateway to the Pinnacles. Cervantes is an odd little town, maybe one of the oddest I’ve seen (and I’ve seen some VERY odd places). It’s tiny, with a population of only around 200. Its picture book homes with white picket fences are punctuated by a series of macabre looking mannequins. Dressed up in various styles they sit on lawns and look out menacingly at visitors. We never did find out why, but let me tell you it’s unnerving.

The beaches here are truly stunning. White sandy beaches that stretch on forever, with the Indian Ocean lapping gently on their foreshores. As with monkey mia the variety of hues of blue in the ocean is something to behold. We stopped at Thirsty Point and then headed for Hangover bay (I can’t help but think these names are somehow connected, or is that just personal experience?). Hangover Bay had a magical beach pristine and secluded, a more romantic spot you couldn’t dream off. Truly paradise.

So, to the Pinnacles themselves. We set off into the desert to see this phenomenon of nature. These strange, limestone pillars look like no other landscape in Australia. There is a quality of moonscape or otherworldliness about the whole area. They are magnificent, eerie and wondrous. Like broken teeth they stick out of the ground in a multifarious combination of shapes and sizes. . We walked around them as they stretched out on all sides. As the evening began to close in they really came alive. The long shadows produced by the fading sunlight cast a whole new aspect on them as they seemed to twist and turn in the ground and shift into different patterns and configurations.

As the sun slowly set over the horizon the shadows got longer, the light redder and the pinnacles seemed to grow more eerie… In a wondrous and quietly stirring moment the sun turned from a glowing globe into a spot as it passed over the horizon, and marked the end of this transcendental show of nature. We contemplated all that we had seen that day and then headed back to the campsite in preparation for our last few days.

City of Perth

The last stretch of this trip into Australia’s heritage and natural lands took us back into Perth. For the first time we drove into this great city. It truly is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. The mighty and enormous Swan River snakes its way through the city. Its lustrous waters stretch for miles and it’s incredibly wide and clean. As we drove over one of the many bridges we saw many yachts and pleasure craft. The cities skyscrapers stretched high into the sky and the sun illuminated its smiling people. Incredibly this modern city sits on some of the worlds best beaches. This was our plan for the final day. To unwind and sit quietly on a beach. Our destination was Cottseloe beach. The long stretches of fine sand and blue water was occupied by people sunbathing, reading and swimming. This was the perfect way to end the day. We bodysurfed for a while, and unwound, whilst the sound of guitar and didigeroo wafted around us, as a group of happy (and slightly drunk) looking people played behind us. With quiet contentment the final evening passed.

The next day we decided to take in some of the museums. My first port of call was the museum of Western Australia. I spent several hours here; it truly is one of the best museums I’ve been to. Small, friendly and interactive it tells the story and history of this part of the world. From the heritage and ancestry of its aboriginal tribes to the heroic, wild and sometimes cruel stories of its western settlers. I wandered into the Aboriginal section full of curiosity and left it moved and emotional drained. I had heard about the plight of the Aboriginals and had caught whiffs of the story behind the Stolen Generation, but had never really thought about it deeply before. The exhibit took you through what happened, the impact it had and its ramifications today.

The Stolen Generation was an attempt by the government of the time to integrate and socially engineer aboriginals with the ultimate aid of breeding out their blackness. Half caste children were taken from their families and home in an unprecedented case of racial engineering, where it was seen that natural outcome was for black to go white. This process was undertaken by progressively breeding lighter aboriginals with white colonists in an effort to eventually dilute away their aboriginal characteristics. Harrowing and awful tales were told of the impact this removal had on the children and the mothers, brother, sisters and fathers they left behind. None were quite the same. For many years this ultimately failed plan was left unacknowledged by the governments of the time until Prime Minister Keating in 1992 made the first acknowledgement by saying that “… we took the children from their mothers … It was our ignorance and prejudice.”. He commissioned a report called “Bringing them Home” which indicated that in a large number of cases children were brutally, forcibly and even deceptively removed from their parents. Sadly, the Howard Government then came into power and refused to acknowledge the report. On 26 May 1998 the first “National Sorry Day” was held, and reconciliation events were held nationally, and attended by over a million people. As public pressure continued to increase, Howard drafted a motion of “deep and sincere regret over the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents” which was passed by the federal parliament in August 1999. Howard went on to say that the Stolen Generation represented “…the most blemished chapter in the history of this country.” However, some felt that his motion stopped too short of saying “sorry”, and therefore was unacceptable. I still get the feeling in Australia today that many people do stop short of saying sorry. Countries as with people have done things they are not proud of, but it takes courage to acknowledge your mistakes. This is a great country and a great land; we should be noble and right. For only by doing what is right and ethical can we grow and move forward. The pain will take too long to heal otherwise….

The rest of the museum painted the story of WA and was fascinating. It showed meteorites born far away in space only to land here in this big country and human stories of those that now populate it. It gave me a sense of context about the things I had seen and done over the course of the last week. It brought about in me a sense of my place in the world. It showed the formulation of the planet, illustrated the materials from the stars that still live inside of us and talked more about the Stromatolites which created the environment for humankind to be born into. It wrapped up all that I had encountered and re-enforced that I’d journeyed not just in space but in time. I’d see long dead creatures come to life and walked through the most timeworn of all landscapes.

Reflections

My journey had taught me that WA is a very special place. A vast ancient landscape formed by primal natural forces, occupying 1/3 of the Australian continent. It showed that even one of the most isolated places on earth can abound in plant and animal species. Its long isolation and geological stability meaning that the vast majority of plants and animals here are found nowhere else. It truly is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world. This is a place that still has vast tracts of land largely untouched by the hand of man. When one considers that until only 200 years ago, this continent was peopled by only 60000 aboriginals then it becomes obvious why it is still as nature designed.

This really summed up Australia in general for me and showed me how lucky I really am to be here. It’s a magical kingdom on your doorstep, and illustrated once more that you don’t need money to be wealthy in terms of natural riches. To live in Australia is to be rich in life, rich in sunshine and to be close to the earth and great oceans that surround it. With a heavy heart we turned to leave this place, but just before catching the plane we took one last trip to the beach. The sun was once more setting on the Indian Ocean and the sea turned to pure molten gold, liquid gold reflecting out at us, and the beach a rich hazy red colour. We saw the last rays, sighed and turned our backs and headed home. We had survived and learnt a great deal, one day I will return to this place. One day I might very well live in this place…

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