A young Frenchman waved us down as we drove from Cape Le Grand National Park toward Esperance. He was on his way to Melbourne. Or at lead he had been, until the battery in his van failed to wake by key, or cable, in the morning.
We talked on the way into town and he asked whether we thought he should purchase a tool for taking the tyres off.
Yes, the tyre-iron.
That would be a good idea.
He planned to buy four bottles of water for the trip - you know for safety. And he told us that Esperance meant hope in French.
That seemed appropriate on a number of levels.
My wife and I were on a camping break in the region visiting the great National Parks of Fitzgerald River, Stokes, and Cape Le Grand. A re-charge trip. The kind you take when you have been city-bound for so long that the general electric hum makes you feel like you are living in an MRI machine.
And as a newly minted National Parks Ambassador for the WA Parks Foundation, I have made the decision to visit all 100 National Parks within the impossibly expansive network of 31million hectare of Western Australia’s conservation estate.
It may take some time. We may require a tyre-iron.
We decided to start with a peek behind the postcard of a region that has become an internet sensation for its eye-piercingly white sand, pristine water, and accommodating kangaroos. The parks of the Great Southern. An overnight sensation after 200 million years of isolated evolution.
It is a remarkable place. The landscape has been weathered so broad that it barely breaks the progress the of the cloud shadows running over it. And yet, at moments, it feels brand new. Every beach, cove, and bay, has a chemistry like the water and sand are meeting for the first time. Waves divide the blue behind from the white in front with a strip of translucent green and footprints are left as perfect as impressions in plaster.
Point Anne and Mt Barren stand out against the sky. And islands with the names only sailors can give pepper the sea. Whalebone Island. Doubtful Island.
It is also an remarkable in the density of life it supports. From a distance the foliage reads like a uniform olive, grey, green matt. But the moment you step into it and follow one of the many walking trails that trace the coastline you are hit by sheer diversity.
Threads of red and orange follow the seams in rocks, and plants of almost painful delicacy nest on the brow of dunes.
On our first day we drove over a corrugated red road lined with Royal Hakea, like extra-terrestrial cabbage, to Pt Anne. From the promontory we watched a pod of dolphins herd herring in waters that will soon be the nursery of humpback whales, till a slick of fish oil rose to the surface.
We camped tucked into the low trees behind the sand dunes at St Marys campground and met a juvenile kangaroo who wandered in from the dunes and stayed close enough for long enough that it seemed impolite not to offer her a name.
Wanda had ears that moved with the precision and independence of felted and folded satellite dishes.
That night we walked down the beach in front of St Mary’s Inlet in the Fitzgerald National Park with our bare feet squeaking in the sand and lay down to look at the stars.
There were no clouds, the moon was visiting friends, and the sky was so brilliant with stars that you could read the label on the bottle by them.
Satellites cruised past, a meteor bounced twice on the atmosphere, and for the first time in my 45 years I could see the Milky Way so well that I started noticing the holes in its lace. There, under the southern cross - a well of perfect blackness.
Each day was more brilliant than the last as we moved our way through a paradise both rugged and fragile. The privilege of it was stunning. That these places, so remote to the crowded world, are so close to our doorstep is something not just to marvel at, but to be proud of, and a passionate about.
And that is something that only happens with proximity. That sense of connection, of pride, of value, of heritage, cannot be told, let alone madated. It can only be felt.
And yet, the inherent tension between visitation and conservation couldn’t have been more clear. You find yourself staring into geological time at one moment, and another at a hand rail, a sign that says King Waves Kill, and, occasionally, a scattering of toilet paper off behind the parking lot.
You want to camp on the beach under the stars at exactly the same moment you glory in the absence of people camping on the beach. You simultaneously feel the immense value of interacting with these remarkable places as wish less people were doing exactly the same.
National Parks are, of course, much more than places of natural beauty to the human eye. They are a places, and ecosystems, of immense intrinsic value, independent of us. But they are also an interface, and a contract, between people and the environment.
And like all contracts, they exist only by force of our willingness to honour them.
Not everyone values parks in exactly the same way, or for exactly the same reasons. But there are things I think we feel in common. The beauty in these places that speaks a language we are born understanding. The presence of something fiercely pure and grandly indifferent. A kind of freedom, and, when you let yourself feel it, a deep responsibility.
A responsibility to the land, to the things that live there, but also to future generations who will visit them. The environment, and the parks we mark out to protect it, are, at the end of the day the truest, and most profoundly valuable, inheritance we can leave.
Three down. Ninety-seven to go.
This blog was originally published on the WA Parks Foundation website, written by Nature Play WA CEO Griffin Longley in his role as Parks Ambassador.