Travel: In a funny bus to a strange place: It had four-foot wheels and was heading for some weird rocks in an Australian desert. Lesley Reader climbed aboard

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The Independent Travel
The Beast arrived at 7am and carried me away. Or rather, I should say, I climbed willingly aboard. I am not normally a tour person. I prefer my travel independent and solitary. But I learnt quickly in Australia earlier this year that some places are difficult without your own transport; car hire is expensive, public transport elusive and hitching is not for women these days.

Which is why I found myself with a group of Malaysians and Singaporeans bound for a natural wonder called the Pinnacles in a four-wheel drive truck-cum-15-seater bus. The Beast had been adapted to cope with the most comfort-loving tourists and the harshest of terrain. The wheels alone were 4ft in diameter with a tread I could fit my hand in. We all needed a ladder to clamber on board, a bunch of radio antennae swung comfortingly in the breeze and the tan and brown paintwork completed the picture of rugged capability.

My companions had endured a hard few days. 'Yesterday sheep farm and sights, tomorrow Fremantle, next day shopping, next day home.' They slumped into their seats and slept.

The Pinnacles are set in Nambung National Park, 250km north of Perth. Thousands of limestone pillars stand sentinel in a stark desert landscape. Dutch sailors in the 17th century reported them as the only remains of an early civilisation. The real story is one of geological formation and erosion, of the remarkable creativity of nature.

The first shock was the countryside. I was expecting to hit the empty 'Red Centre' of Australia about five minutes inland from Perth. Wrong. The scenery changed from flat to rolling to hilly in the space of a few miles, and during the day we travelled through scrub, forest, farmland, sand dunes and along wide sweeping beaches. It was varied, fascinating and green.

Tom, the driver, tour guide, ex-photographer, nature expert, was a New Zealander who had come to Australia with dreams of the big outdoors and golden sunsets. He smiled as he confirmed he had found both, waxed angry about the deforestation of the countryside and tried to interest his snoring cargo in startled kangaroos, soaring birds of prey and a party of six emus, dad and five youngsters, lolloping through the bush. He woke the slumberers to examine roadside bushes of brilliant orange banksia, named after Joseph Banks, the botanist on the Endeavour. The only time he got rattled all day was when the Singaporeans started picking them to take back to Perth.

I saw my first pinnacle after lunch. My initial reaction was disappointment. Yes, they are startling, unusual, grotesque even as they rise a few inches to 12ft or 15ft from the desert floor, battered into weird formations and contours by the forces acting on them. But the publicity pictures of thousands of rocks stretching to the horizon in acres of brilliant white sand is not quite true. You have to choose the camera angle very carefully to get that shot as large areas of shrubs dot the area, which is too hilly to give a vast panorama. While this does not detract from the pillars themselves, the scale becomes smaller and more intimate than the pictures convey.

Getting out of the Beast and walking among them, examining the complexity of each creation in the savage heat bouncing up off the desert floor, watching the eerie flurries of sand scouring the rocks as the wind continued its work, made me feel very small. From there we drove for miles along deserted beaches as the rollers surged in from the savage blue ocean and the gulls, oystercatchers and plovers rose, shrieking, at our approach.

As it crawled up to the crest of a sand dune and roller- coastered down the other side, the Beast was in its element. That woke the sleepers up so they could take photographs. The cameras clicked again as we floundered in the sand trying another ascent. The shovels were unhooked and enthusiastic digging got us out. Tom displayed the smile of a man who knows how to get stuck for maximum enjoyment.

The foolhardy paddled in the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. How could anything from India be so cold? Then back on board for a meander through the maze of barely motorable roads that criss-cross the dunes behind the beach. The Beast purred in contentment through Wedge Island and other squatter settlements in the area. Corrugated iron houses, boreholes for water, small private generators for electricity and the less said about the toilets the better. The Singaporeans were appalled.

In 'Len and Sandra's Roadhouse' in Lancelin, about half- way back to Perth, I tried to buy an ice-cream. The Australian roadhouse is a cross between garage, petrol station, newsagent, sweetshop and restaurant. Sandra was a hefty lady who hoisted her attributes and squared her shoulders as the tourists approached. She beamed in delight at my pommy accent, leant forward eagerly: 'Is it true Camilla's husband is going to divorce her?' I pleaded ignorance.

She pulled a mountain of thumbed-to-death magazines from under the counter: 'What do you think of these? Di and Andrew?'

I struggled for an answer.

'Are they having an affair?' She stabbed the photos in emphasis: 'It's all in the body language.' I just nodded. Hers was doing overtime: 'Well, are they?' I shrugged. Sandra's face fell: 'Don't you know?'

She led the conversation into the imaginary realm of royal underwear. The Prince of Wales's possible underpants seemed to hold a particular fascination. She was much more creative than my suggestion of boxer shorts as my still unpaid-for ice-cream melted towards my elbow. But I still do not think pink nylon Y-fronts.

I eyed in terror the magazine pile, all adorned with lurid royal stories, and did some fast learning on Australian coins. I slapped a few on the counter and rushed towards the waiting Beast. I turned back at the door and asked: 'Are you going to vote for Australia to become a republic?' She nodded vigorously, clutched the magazines close to her chest and affirmed: 'Of course I am. We don't need that lot.'

As we headed towards Perth the sun set and the sky changed through gold and ochre to scarlet and finally an impossible burgundy, Jupiter rose and I gazed in awe at the Southern Cross.

All that, the Beast and Sandra as well. Maybe tours are not so bad after all.

Several companies run day trips to the Pinnacles from Perth and can be booked locally. My trip with Travelabout cost Adollars 70 ( pounds 33). It also does longer trips through Western and Central Australia and Queensland.

(Photograph omitted)

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