Visiting Geraldton is like opening both a treasure chest and Pandora's box.
The former relates to the wealth of things to see and do in the heart of Western Australia's coastline, some 416km north of Perth. From crayfish tours, extreme water sports and whale watching, to taking a flight or fast ferry to the port city's nearby chain of islands dubbed the ‘Galapagos of the Indian Ocean,’ there's enough to excite water babies of any age.
On the flip side, the latter relates to Geraldton's cursed offshore history. Evidence of coastal mishaps and battles rediscovered in the past century provides a compelling education on Australia's maritime history. The lessons learnt is enough for you to want to dive deeper to find out more about past events with a 16th century castaway-led mutiny and WWII shipwrecks Geraldton's most gripping chapters.
Doubtless, this laidback city of 32,000 is a fascinating place — and that's what makes it the perfect springboard for extraordinary seafaring adventures by all modes of travel.
JOURNEYING ON LAND
The coastal road trip to ‘Gero’ as locals affectionately call it, is nothing short of impressive — and peculiar, too.
I took a slight detour to Ellendale Pool, just 45km south-east of Geraldton, while passing through a patchwork of apple green lands and bright yellow canola fields with wildflower season in full bloom. Located along Greenough River, the towering red rocky gorge is a tip-top overnight pitstop at $5 per night per person. A rejuvenating morning swim in the freshwater pool is sure to perk you up, but if not feeling brazen enough for an icy dip, watching the sun slowly peek-a-boo from behind the gorge is also an uplifting way to start the day. The site has barbeques, picnic tables, and bathroom facilities for added convenience.
Along Brand Highway there's Greenough's leaning natural towers — eucalyptus and red river gum trees that have been battered by prevailing southerly winds to form a distinct angular appearance. Seeing these trees growing perpendicular to the soil raised my eyebrows — it’s something bizarre you would expect from a surrealist painting.
For a good view of them, drive to the purpose-built parking lot 21km south of Geraldton. Right in front, there is one massively warped tree with its trunk arched and resting its leafy branches on earth.
The Museum of Geraldton is a great introduction to fully appreciating this part of the coast — not that you'll need too much convincing.
Beautifully positioned opposite the Indian Ocean, the modern museum commemorates the rich history of the Mid-west region, inclusive of local Yamaji People, ancient landforms, and marine environments.
Perhaps the most gripping exhibits to make you want to investigate further is seeing the well-preserved archaeological finds from four Dutch shipwrecks dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries — Batavia, Gilt Dragon, Zuydorp, and Zeewijk. A free guided tour is offered daily at 11.30am to discuss the incredible chronicles of each ill-fated ship with Batavia — the most famous and gruesome story of them all.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BATAVIA
There're some hard truths behind the inspiration of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands' name. Discovered in 1619 by Fredrick de Houtman, the word ‘Abrolhos’ is thought to have derived from the Portuguese expression ‘Abri Vossosolhos,’ meaning ‘open your eyes’.
You could easily understand the power behind the words if discussing the pristine beauty of the 122-island chain, but at the time, the saying was worse. It was interpreted by those who cruised the seas to watch out for danger.
The Indian Ocean is second to none in terms of raw beauty
The islands, situated 60km off the Geraldton coast, would hold the tragic story of the ship's maiden voyage that met its costly demise in 1629. En route to the Dutch colony Batavia — now modern-day Jakarta — the trade ship, carrying roughly 300 men, women, children, and soldiers — had become stuck on low-lying coral at Morning Reef. Like something you would expect out of a pirate fable, the wrecked ship was filled precious jewels and 12 treasure chests of silver. It was a massive bounty and one the crew could not afford to abandon.
While the ship's Commander Francisco Pelsaert and skipper Adrien Jacobz sailed the rescue boat to Batavia some 1500km for assistance, the third in command, Captain Jeronimus Cornelisz, was left in charge.
Cornelisz proved to be nothing short of devious and wicked, leading a mutiny and murdering approximately 125 men and women on Beacon Island. Soldiers that were forced as castaways to nearby West Wallabi Island built two stone forts for protection after news of the bloodbath made their way to the neighbouring island.
The two sides fought against each other, with Cornelisz eventually captured and imprisoned on the fort. After the remarkable return of Pelsaert and Jacobz, a two-week trial was held with Cornelisz executed alongside other mutineers. Most riches were able to be recovered, save for one treasure chest wedged under the moored ship.
Fast forward nearly 350 years after the epic episode, Batavia was discovered by a local crayfisherman. He took local divers to the wreck site in 1963, and amazingly, the vessel was relatively intact with bronzed cannons and anchors.
Today, many of the artefacts salvaged from the wreck can be viewed at the museum, with the reconstructed remains of the ship located at the WA Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle.
“The unofficial slogan of the Dutch trading company, VOC, was ‘God is good, but trade is better,’” joked the tour guide as she led a small group around the centuries-old artefacts. “I'm allowed to say that — I'm half-Dutch.” You could believe it after hearing the great misfortunes of Batavia — and seeing it right before your eyes.
Besides complete trinkets and loads of shiny silver coins, 137 blocks (30 tonnes) of German sandstone that would have formed an archway at Batavia's (the city) Waterport castle are brilliantly displayed in the Shipwrecks Gallery.
The museum also pays tribute to the remnants of WWII ships HMAS Sydney (II) and HSK Kormoran at their final resting place, 2500 metres deep on the ocean bed, in a touching 3D film exhibit. The ships sunk after a battle in 1941, only to be discovered in 2008 off the Geraldton coast.
To experience what sailing would have been like in the 1700s, a group of volunteers — the Batavia Coast Replica Boat Association — takes people out on a replica Batavia Longboat opposite the museum on the last Sunday of every month free of charge.
A MODERN-DAY VOYAGE TO THE ABROLHOS ISLANDS
I took to the skies to make my way to the Abrolhos Islands, and I am glad I did.
Shine Aviation offers full-day trips to Islands, including their most popular itinerary, Fly and Flipper. The all-day tour leaves from Geraldton and includes a scenic flight over the Abrolhos Islands.
My flight over was operated by a laid-back pilot named George, who navigated through patches of rain, grey, and seemingly optimistic white fluffy clouds towards the archipelago. “Officially, there are 18 recorded shipwrecks around the islands with many more unaccounted for,” George told my small group of four as we soared the skies.
Large cargo ships dotted along the ocean were made to look like child's play, and seeing some of them closely aligned made me think of the board game Battleship.
The deep-sea discovery I would soon make from air was seeing a humpback whale slapping its tail along the water. I was mesmerised. Like something on replay, the whale was a blimp in the navy-blue ocean, but the repetition of its movements made for bonus viewing.
Stretching 100km from north to south, the Abrolhos Islands are divided into three groups — Wallabi, Easter, and Pelsaert — with some populated by fishing settlements. Sarongs of bubblegum blue waters and blotches of reef surrounded the islands — a stunning visual to behold at bird's eye view.
Once we landed on East Wallabi Island, I was in a biodiverse mecca. The National Park is a nature lovers' playground. Many visit the islands to partake in fishing, birdwatching, snorkelling, and diving. Some of the marine and wildlife that call these islands home include dolphins, sea lions, wallabies, lizards, king skinks, pacific gulls, white belly sea eagles, and osprey to name a few. Flora-wise, the island is populated by low lying shrubs with shade non-existent. We walked along the sandy shores of Turtle Bay to reach a lone standing wooden hut. Here, tourist groups gather to picnic on day trips with a busy day on the island considered classroom size.
The sun may not have been in our favour with temperatures less than desirable, but that didn't dampen the mood to don a thick wetsuit, snorkel, and flippers to jump right in and explore.
The warm, southward-flowing Leeuwin Current is responsible for the Abrolhos Islands' unique mix of tropical and temperate thriving marine life. As I splashed my fins 50 metres from the shore, I soon observed the rich colours of the abundant reef right below me — and it was teeming with life.
A local sunbather
Pink snapper, coral trout, baldchin grouper, starfish, West Australian dhufish, and crayfish were just some of the fauna observed. Soon, I had this whole stretch of the reef to myself as the water got too cool from some. I relished it, slowly kicking my way around the open aquarium and basking in the solitude of it all. Bliss.
Our trip back to the mainland included a flyby of the former resting place of the Batavia, with turquoise lines drawn in the reef. Would it be a permanent marker? Who knows, but what is certain is that the trip over the islands would leave an impact.
SAILING TOWARDS A RED ICON
No trip to Geraldton is complete without seeing its unofficial red mascot, the crayfish. Geraldton boasts a huge western rock lobster (crayfish) industry, and one way to experience the day in the life of a cray fisherman is to join one.
Husband and wife duo Kim and Natalie Wheatley operate Offshore Charters, hosting small private excursions out on the water, including pot-pulling tours. It's a day out learning about how the crayfish industry operates and taking home freshly-caught dinner only enhances the experience.
A team effort is made with Kim yanking the prized pots from the water, clipping the crays' tails as Natalie helps with the ropes; all the while, the small tour group sat back and observed the action. It wasn't all labour intensive as Natalie dished out crayfish fun facts that are sure to come in handy for a quiz night, particularly how the male cray is wooed by the female during their courtship. Answer: her scent.
“They are referred to as the ‘cockroaches of the sea’,” Kim said jovially as he continued to pull one of the 12 pots he manages. At least these so-called cockroaches taste good, I thought as I looked into the tub of frenzied crayfish. Kim made catching crays look easy, but no doubt there are plenty of rules and regulations to consider when doing the hard yards.
On this outing, the maximum of 40 crayfish was caught. My take-home showbag was filled with eight, the legal amount per person. How to serve it was the big question. Mornay? Butter and garlic? Decisions, decisions…
CRUISING FOR WHALES
I arrived at Geraldton at a good time as its yearly visitors were lurking its shores. Over 40,000 humpback whales migrate off the coast of Western Australia each year.
To see the whales at play, I hopped onboard a morning Abrolhos Adventures whale watching tour to spot these ocean greats as they make their pilgrimage north. It wasn't long before we made our first sightings of the majestic creatures that roam the surface.
“Look to your left,” the guide instructed, with many of us rushing to the left-hand side of the bow to get a glimpse of these epic ocean beasts. Slowly but surely, they receded back into the water only for a few moments to pass until their next appearance. Blink and you'll miss it.
How thrilling it was to watch them now in close proximity, hurling their slick bodies above water, stretching their large fin and giving us onboard folk a wave. I was all for their giant gesture. Which direction would they pop up from next? The suspense of it all was exciting, seeing their black bodies appear to dip in and out, with the money shot, seeing a whale's fluke move up and down into the water — massive flirts. Six whales were sighted in a mere few hours. Some whales appeared to be shy, with their presence short-lived before diving into the depths of the ocean.
Fortunes can vary but with spotting whales, catching crays, and sightseeing the Abrolhos Islands, I left feeling the luckiest to have witnessed the joys Geraldton has to offer.
Geraldton lies within the region traditionally belonging to the Yamatiji Peoples, including the Amangu People, Naaguja People, Wadjarri People, Nanda People, Badimia People, and the Martu People. We would like to pay our respect to elders past, present, and emerging.
LOST FOR WORDS?
The City of Geraldton features in Hema’s Mid West Western Australia Map.
Ph: (08) 9923 3600
Ph: 0428 531 231
Ph: (08) 9942 4515 or 0448 089 707
BATAVIA COAST REPLICA BOAT ASSOCIATION
Ph: 0428 781 358
GERALDTON BELAIR GARDENS CARAVAN PARK
Ph: (08) 9221 1997