The West

Age no barrier in Kalbarri
Reading about the stromatolites at Lake Thetis. Picture: Tom Jenkins

The legions of grey nomads towing caravans on Australia's roads are testimony that the elderly need not share a tour coach with 30 others, but can retain their independence.

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But it had been 12 years since Babs and I visited Kalbarri. Last time we went was for my 70th birthday. Could we do it again for my 82nd? Could I drive that far, and back, in safety? Could we find things to do within our reduced capability? Would we experience the good surprises that have made previous holidays memorable? Would we miss our own beds?

Well, yes, yes, yes, yes and no.

We worked out ways of not driving too far in one day. We spent our first night at Cervantes, two nights in Kalbarri, one night at Geraldton on the way back and home from there. Altogether we covered 1388km in my 2007 two-litre car, about 50 of them on gravel.

We drove out of Perth under grey skies. It was still wet and cool at Cervantes but the Pinnacles motel was comfortable, the twin beds we had requested excellent, service cheerful and considerate, licensed restaurant good enough.

We didn't go to the Pinnacles but went a kilometre out of town to Lake Thetis. A beautifully designed track takes you to where the ancient circular organisms known as stromatolites cluster in the saline water, like wreaths of stone.

They are one of the oldest known forms of life and some in the lake are 3400 years old. It was quite cheering to gaze at them and think we were a lot younger.

We took the coast road through Jurien and Leeman to Kalbarri. By the time we got there, the sun was shining, though the wind was cool. South of the town are short side roads to spots on the spectacular coastal cliffs with names such as Eagle Gorge, Red Bluff and Pot Alley. The ocean sparkled in the evening light.

On the internet we had found the Two Tin Cow bed-and-breakfast, a beautiful two-storied house in a development of bush blocks south of the town. And, yes, there are two black-and-white-painted metal cows in the front garden.

It is run by a lovely couple called Karen and Luigi who live upstairs with their two affectionate dogs. Downstairs are two suites of bed, bath and lounge rooms. You go upstairs for breakfast on a deck with views.

I must have told them about my birthday. Soon after we arrived, Karen brought a platter of sumptuous home-baked cream horns and chocolate-covered strawberries as a welcome. Then we discovered that two of Kalbarri's restaurants had either closed or were no longer doing dinner; John Molcher, who ran the iconic Black Rock Cafe has retired and the place is shuttered and silent.

Kaz and Lui invited us to have dinner with them - mulloway and crayfish Lui had caught from his tinny and the rest of the cream horns and strawberries. We took the wine and talked until bed-time. If you go there, ask for their hilarious tale of walking (and partly running) the Bibbulmun Track. We also heard that Karen had only one kidney since she gave one to a friend in need.

Our queen-sized bed was indulgent, as was breakfast next morning and the morning after that.

The wildflowers were a little late because of a dry winter but we saw enough to enjoy. Our main expedition was along the Ajana- Kalbarri Road, lined with pale lilac smokebush and yellow acacia, to the turn-off that leads to the Z-bend gorge on the Murchison River.

We travelled 26km of corrugated gravel (and the same back), which I did not enjoy; the walk to the look-out had a lot of rock steps, but it wasn't far, striking pink hakea bobbed in the breeze beside the track and though the river looked a bit dry, it was still a great sight beneath its ancient layered red cliffs.

In Geraldton on the way back, we had booked into a Best Western just down the road from the cathedral built between 1916 and 1938 to the design of the priest/architect Monsignor John Cyril Hawes. This remarkable man left Geraldton in 1939 for Cat Island in the Bahamas. He lived out his life as a hermit and died in 1956 in Miami, Florida aged 79.

Our unit was clean, comfortable and well-appointed with two beds, a table and three chairs, flat-screen TV and good air-conditioning/ heating. We found there was no plug in the washbasin, but the receptionist found one while we had a drink in the bar. It was taped to our door when we got back.

Geraldton was once separated from the ocean by a railway but that has gone and the foreshore has been landscaped. We were to find pleasure in two buildings on it. One is the result of a WA success story. It is part of the Dome chain of franchised restaurants, founded in Cottesloe in 1993 and now 100-strong in seven countries.

We went there for lunch and liked it so much we went back for dinner - with acceptable wine in glass-size bottles, delivered by an energetic and entertaining young waiter.

The other building was the Geraldton Museum. Its displays are organised along a series of curved walls and reveal, among other things, that many important fossil finds have been made along this coast. But there are three jewels in this museum's crown: the shipwreck gallery, the story of HMAS Sydney and a much more recent and, indeed, futuristic display of the Murchison Widefield Array.

The shipwreck gallery tells the stories of the Batavia, Gilt Dragon, Zuytdorp, and Zeewijk, ships of the Dutch East India Company which were wrecked on this shore in the 17th and early 18th century.

But it is dominated by an amazing stone arch, shipped out as ballast then recovered from the sea floor and re-assembled as it was intended to be built - as a grand entrance to the company headquarters at Batavia. It still inspires awe as you stand, dwarfed, before it.

The tragic Sydney story is also told in the beautiful memorial on a hill above Geraldton but here is an illustrated and detailed account of the 1941 battle between Sydney and the German raider Kormoran, and the 2008 discovery of the wrecks.

After time spent in the distant and recent past, it was refreshing to take a peek into the future. On display are 16 of 128 small antennas to be installed at Boolardy Station, part of the early work on the Square Kilometre Array which scientists have said will enable them to look back in time, almost to the Big Bang creation of the universe.

With a coffee break at Cataby, we made the 430km journey from Geraldton to home in Perth in exactly five hours. We've got some pictures and good memories and we think we can do it again.

The West Australian

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