I remember so many summer holidays here – sometimes camping with friends and their family, which seemed such an adventure; other times in more sedate holiday units with my own non-camping family. Either way, I remember them as the best of days – especially those in my early teens when I started to gain some independence.
Meeting other kids who were also here with their families – making new short-term best buddies & developing holiday crushes; showing off on the trampolines at the entertainment centre and lamenting my lack of mini golf skills; swimming in the river or at the resort pool; day trips to Red Bluff and Rainbow Jungle (it was a day trip back then!) or the cliffs or gorges; working out that the best time to ask mum and dad for money was when they’d had a drink or three…
I remember once the ecstatic happiness of my sister’s best friend, holidaying with us from her home in Perth, after talking to her boyfriend from the payphone booth at the end of the street. I remember wanting that same happiness – pre-teen though I was and without a boyfriend of my own. So I phoned my then best (girl)friend for a chat. Oddly enough, it didn’t quite have the same effect! But oh well, I was in Kalbarri enjoying my holidays so I got over it.
There was such a sense of innocence, freedom, an appreciation of simple things (though of course back then, I probably didn’t appreciate the value of simple things like I do now). It seemed a forever happy, friendly, holiday town.
When occasionally I discovered that some classmate had been on holiday overseas, to some exotic location like Bali, or New Zealand, or the US, I was impressed and mildly envious but couldn’t really appreciate why that was necessary and thought it just seemed like showing off…
Nearly twenty years on from those days, and having lived out of the area for most of that time, I came to know Kalbarri in a different way, through my work in regional development. As the grants coordinator, tourism and shire liaison officer for the agency I worked with, I was fortunate enough to enjoy regular trips to the town. My boss was quite astounded with my commitment to this community. 😉
During my time away, Kalbarri had grown astoundingly. A second access road along the coast from Port Gregory had been sealed. A new suburb and cluster of homes had emerged near Red Bluff. New businesses and new resorts had opened, while many older ones had closed or relocated.
Sometimes I met with prospective grant applicants to advise them on their project and grant application development; sometimes for tourism workshops or community meetings or events; and also for openings and launches of projects we funded. Without exception, all the people I met with – from organisations in the fields of tourism, emergency services, youth services, arts, landcare, and more – were committed to making their town and community better, and I admired their determination and passion so much.
But I also became aware of an undercurrent the casual visitor is unlikely to see. Of the in-fighting, the bitchiness, the obstructiveness, the accusations of corruption, the clash between residents who considered the place to be a fishing town and resented the tourism industry, and those who understood that practically everyone in the town relied on tourism, whether they had a direct business relationship with the thousands who descend on the town each year or not. Even within the tourism industry, there was the struggle between business owners who wanted to be progressive, to achieve their full potential and to work together to build the destination appeal and reliability of experience the town could offer; and those who chose Kalbarri for the lifestyle and weren’t going to go out of the way so long as their business kept ticking over enough to sustain their own needs and desires.
I can well believe that in all likelihood, most small towns – and perhaps holiday towns in particular – experience these same issues, to which the casual outside observer would be oblivious. At the time though, it was such an eye opener for me and I was genuinely worried for a time that the efforts of a particular group of locals to air dirty laundry on the internet about some of the more vitriolic underground goings-on in the town would marr the destination’s appeal.
One of my recurring memories from that time was the first sight of the river as I approached the town from over the hill at Red Bluff. It was always so stunning, so beautiful – no matter the weather. And I’d wonder, how can people who live here be so distracted and caught up in negativity and vitriol and conflict? It just didn’t make sense.
Now more than three years on since I was in that job, and having been away for two of those, I have returned for a weekend to get away, to write and to spend some time on my own.
And I’m enchanted all over again, happy to sense that Kalbarri is as it always was, even back in my childhood.
Some things simply never change. The beautiful landscapes, the outdoor lifestyle, the simplicity of walking barefoot along the river, the stark red of the cliffs, white of the sand and blue of the sky. Friendly people. Being able to walk or cycle wherever you might want. Buying fresh fish direct from the wharf. Bustling cafes, surprising shops with all you might want for a great holiday, and more. Oh and a power outage for half the town! At least this one was for power pole replacement – hopefully it helps to minimise future problems.
So now as I head back to Geraldton, refreshed and relaxed and reminded about how good simple things are, I thank the stars for places like Kalbarri. And I’m already planning my next escape to somewhere else that can make me feel like this all over again. Next stop: inland Mid West.