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Essay

Where Sands Drift Back in Time…

Shernaz Wadia explores Western Australia

The aquamarine Indian Ocean shimmered to our left on this sunny day along the drive up north from Perth. There was vague comfort in the thought that it connected us to distant India. This picturesque drive would take us to Lancelin, a small town about 129 kms. north of Perth, approximately an hour and half away. Its biggest attractions are the sand dunes and the sand boarding. As we drew closer to the small town, we passed by many small dunes They were so far from the ocean with tracts of shrub-land on both sides and the highway running through the middle that they seemed like freaks of nature.

From here it was another 3-km drive to the dunes. There was a car park at the entrance but we risked our jeep through the flat, stony terrain to park closer to the dunes and went the next bit on foot. The path was narrow. Having left all footwear in the car our bare soles were chafed walking the few meters of pebbly, coarse path to our destination. But voila! We rounded a bend and it seemed that someone had waved a magic wand!

Simply Stunning! Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Snow white, wind-chiselled dunes rose up over silk soft sand that widened in an undulating carpet. The ocean glittered and foamed some distance away below an azure sky dotted with white clouds; and a wide, lush green strip acted as a barrier between the surf and the dunes. The snowy dunes stood lofty. Reaching the top could be quite a task with a sand board in hand as feet kept sinking into the cool sands! With effort, we managed the yielding surface as we climbed up a mound. Caps and hats blew off. Bare headed at the mercy of the cobalt sky, we lumbered up. But once on top, the panorama took our breath away more than the climb!

‘Have A Chat General Store’ on 104 Gingin Road in the town centre, hired out sand boards. Other than boards, there were buggies, quads, 4WD cars and motorcycles to zip up, down and around the dunes.

Sliding down appeared to be a lot of fun for adults and children alike but climbing back up the steep incline took the wind out of many. For those not quite physically fit, (which I wasn’t) this could be very daunting.

Sand Boarding. Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Much as we would have loved to spend more time on the dunes, a merciless wind forced us to pack and leave. It blew sand into our eyes (we had sunglasses on), nose, ears, hair and even inside our well protected cell phones. The battery later had to be removed to blow out the fine grains. It was worth it, nonetheless.

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

From the sand dunes we drove further north on this one day trip. Along the way, most of the vegetation was stunted. But flowering trees dotted the wayside to cheer us en route to the amazing desert of ancient limestone pillars, scattered across approximately 190 hectares, 60 meters above sea level and just a short distance away from the ocean. Coming upon this alien looking place, with its millennia old history, one’s reaction could only be of reverent awe. It was nature — raw and unrefined — a gateway into the unknown.

These limestone formations were within Nambung National Park, near the town of Cervantes. August to October was the best time to visit the Pinnacles. The weather was mild, wattles and wildflowers welcomed us. One could drive right into the desert, along a four-meter loop carefully demarcated with stones. There were delineated parking spaces where one could stop to roam among these pillars and enjoy a richer experience of the astounding landscape. They have been rightly nicknamed “The Rock Stars of the Outback”. These fragile structures demand to be treated with respect. The raw materials that went into forming these pillars were lime-rich sand and ancient sea-shells, but there are three theories regarding their formation and no consensus has been reached so far.

A diminutive view of the vast Pinnacles desert. Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

This millennia-old site, about 60 meters above sea level, evokes veneration. Thousands of the mystifying columns rise above a yellow shifting sand bed. Many of them daunt at 3.5 to 5 meters in height, some with jagged points and others mushroom-like with rounded, hard, calcrete caps that protect the frail formations. It is harder than the limestone below it and so takes longer to erode.

These Pinnacles and their surroundings are a very significant region for the traditional owners of the land, the aboriginal people. The aboriginals who inhabited this region were named the Nyoongar. A river called ‘Nambung’, meaning ‘crooked’, weaves through the region. The Pinnacles are sacred to the local tribe. During the wet season, the Nambung River made a chain of waterholes throughout the park, with the water flowing into the cave systems. These cave waterholes became essential for the survival of the tribe for hundreds of years.

There are many myths surrounding the region, with the local aboriginal people stating the large rock formations were the remains of fossilised ghosts. They were said to be young men who had wandered into the forbidden desert which was sacred and reserved for women. The gods punished them by burying them alive and leaving behind only their standing limestone figures.

It continues treated as a significant region for women, with many women groups gathering together in the desert to do traditional ceremonies, give birth, and camp beneath the stars.

The spectacular desert with its shrubbery is home to many native birds and animals like emus, black-shouldered kite, white-tailed black cockatoos, sand goannas, grey kangaroos, carpet pythons, bobtail lizards and more. Unfortunately we did not spot any of these. A visit to the Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre, at the edge of the yellow sands gave us an idea of some of these splendid creatures through photos and taxidermy mounts. It also explained the geology of the formations and the cultural and natural heritage values of the area with soundscapes, videos and objects.

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Wandering among these ancient sage-like structures is to expand the margins of oneself and slide into a meditative trance; into a strange beyond. The ego slinks away; only deep awe fills the mind and spirit.

Lake Thetis

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

As we drove back towards Perth, we made one more stop for a tryst with ‘Living Fossils” the modern versions of our Earth’s most ancient life-forms: living marine stromatolites. The lake has a circumference of 1.2 metres, with an easy walking path looping around it. A walk down a gravel path and then up a boardwalk and one reaches the lookout platform which has good, informative and instructive sign posts, like this one.

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke
Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke
Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Lake Thetis is one of the few places on earth where stromatolites or living fossils are to be found. They are built by microbes called cyanobacteria which are similar to the earliest organisms that produced oxygen for subsequent life forms. They have been growing here for about 3500 years. These rocklike formations teem with micro-organisms that are invisible to the human eye but these living communities of varied residents have population densities of 3000 per square metre! Stromatolites are layered, while their microbial cousins Thrombolites, which are also found here, are clotted structures.  

Fragile Stromalites. Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

The stromatolites are our only doorway into the emergence of life way, way, back in cavernous time. A small piece of stromatolite is encoded with biological activity that is thousands of years old. This community is threatened by nutrient enrichment and physical crushing, so visitors are requested to keep off these extraordinary forms.

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Shernaz Wadia regards reading and writing as an inward journey. Her work has been published in various anthologies and e-journals. She sometimes dabbles in short Japanese forms of poetry too.

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