America’s old military outpost in Western Australia.
Set inside the landscape near the tip of North West Cape on the coastline of Western Australia is the remnants of Americana that I refer to as Gomerpyleville.
That’s not its real name.
Officially it is called the Harold E. Holt Communications Station.
The base was named as a memorial to the only Australian Prime Minister to have drowned whilst in office.
At the time of Prime Minister Holt’s drowning off a notoriously treacherous beach near Melbourne, it was during the Cold War, when Australia had joined the U.S.A. to help fight in the Vietnam War.
There was speculation at the time that Mr Holt had, in fact, been captured by a Chinese submarine.
I have no idea why Harold Holt would be considered such a valued hostage by the Chinese, but that, or the fact that he drowned, is very coincidental that the Harold E. Holt Communication Station’s reason for being was to communicate, using very low frequency signals, with America’s fleet of nuclear submarines which were then plying the depths of the Pacific and Indian Oceans in order to protect the free world from God-only-knows-what.
The station was commissioned just a few months before Harold Holt died, and after U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson had visited Australia, the first trip down under by a serving U.S. President. It was a trip made in order to shore up support for the action in Vietnam.
Holt famously declared that Australia would go “All the way with LBJ” and leased the tip of North West Cape to the Americans for a peppercorn rent.
At the time, there was no town or infrastructure at North West Cape, so, in 1967, the town of Exmouth was established in order to service the communications station, and to provide housing and a community for the families of the military personnel.
Work also began on building the communications station and the 12 enormous towers, the height of which hovered above 1,000 feet.
That’s why I call it Gomerpyleville, because the base that was built was American in every detail.
In fact, it is just like we saw on the TV shows of that time – the military base looked like it was a set from Gomer Pyle USMC. It was the sort of clean cut Middle America that was featured on The Brady Bunch.
Heck, the personnel were even able to transport their American left-hand drive cars to Exmouth, so that the town was filled with Dodges and Chryslers instead of the Australian-built Holdens which were the most common vehicles in Australia then.
It was a little bit of America transplanted to a remote part of Australia.
The Americans are long gone. Probably because they now communicate with subs using satellites. The base still remains, but it is a shadow of its former self.
A small team of Australian military personnel occupy the site to man and maintain the communication towers, but the base, which once bustled with activity, is much like a ghost town.
Not quite as rundown and as abandoned as Detroit, because the lawns are still mowed; but looking sad, just the same.
The baseball diamond, which, at the time the Americans were there, was probably the only purpose-built baseball park in Australia, is now rundown and rotting.
The large community pool is empty and disused.
The bowling alley is no longer alive with the rumble of the balls and the crashing of strikes.
Not even prayers could have saved the chapel.
This slice of America has mostly gone to rack and practically to ruin.
The Brady Bunch has gone. The kids have grown up and Mike and Carol are in a high-security gated aged community in Florida; Gomer Pyle is now back in Mayberry; a Vietnam Vet battling war-induced illness and psychological terrors.
Yet, North West Cape now thrives – because it is one of the best preserved pieces of nature you would find anywhere in the world.
Much of the terrestrial area has been declared as Cape Range National Park, and the Indian Ocean waters as Ningaloo Marine Park.
Both are superlative examples of how best to preserve a pristine area.
The town of Exmouth, which was originally built to support a military base, now supports a burgeoning tourism industry.
Cape Range National Park boasts some spectacular scenery. It has two great gorges, Charles Knife Canyon and Shothole Canyon from where you encounter fantastic landscapes and can enjoy panoramic views over Exmouth Gulf. There is plenty of wildlife to be seen here, including the rare black-footed rock wallaby, which can normally be spotted on rocks above Yardie Creek. I was really impressed with the size of Charles Knife Canyon; its rocky outcrops, steep cliff walls and of the stunning and changeable views that you get as you traverse the road above the gorge.
On the Ningaloo coast there are lots of beach camping spots, where you can stay for a reasonable fee. There are few facilities there, so you do have to be pretty much self-sufficient, but the spots do get busy from May until October, which is peak season. Each May hordes of Perth retirees make the 1400 kilometre trek to Exmouth to shelter from Perth’s very moderate winter. Try to launch your boat at the Tantabiddi Boat Ramp, and you’ll need to join the queue. As for Ningaloo Reef, it is simply jaw-droppingly breathtaking, and a truly inspiring place to visit. It is Australia’s largest fringing reef, and, at 260 kilometres in length, is the second longest reef in Australia after the Great Barrier Reef.
Where it differs from its larger cousin is in its accessibility. The reef is literally just a few metres offshore. You can just walk out to it. Much of it is enclosed within a marine park. Beach fishing is allowed, but fishing from boats in these areas is banned. And the fish seem to know they are safe. At most of the beaches you will be able to easily view untold numbers of fish and marine creatures. With over 200 species of hard coral, 50 species of soft coral and over 500 varieties of fish, it is an unbelievably rich environment.
Sit on any beach for a while and you will likely see many schools of colourful fish, various types of turtles, certainly sharks (if you are fishing from a boat in the approved areas, catching fish is the easy part, landing them without having sharks steal them is far harder), plus dolphins and, occasionally dugongs. Beyond the reef whales make their annual migration between the tropical and Antarctic waters. This is one of the best places in the world for spotting, and swimming with, whale sharks, the world’s biggest fish. These glorious gargantuan filter feeders, which easily exceed ten metres in length, feed during the winter months, and now whale shark cruising is big business.
Expensive too. But, hey, it’s probably a once in a lifetime experience.
Yes, Exmouth is probably one of Australia’s best natural tourist destinations, for which we can thank Gomerpyleville. If it wasn’t for the infrastructure that was needed to service the base, it wouldn’t have the services that now help support tourism in the town. Now that the base has been downgraded, and the Americans long gone, tourism is the top industry. Though Gomerpyleville isn’t one of the attractions. Even though you can drive in and wander around at your own leisure, most people don’t bother.
The reef commands their attention.
For me, though, I am fascinated by the place as it represents the perfect Cold War relic. It is a genuine piece of America replicated on the other side of the world; a great example of American imperialism, but in a setting where the U.S. was not only welcomed with open arms but given carte blanche to do as they wished. Gomerpyleville is the perfect representation of the strong bonds that determined the friendly relationship between the United States and Australia, it is a permanent proof of mutual trust which seems not to have decayed at the same rate as the base’s buildings.