As I’ve said plenty of times before, enjoying beer is very often all about context. The right inspiration, company or location makes all the difference, and often overshadows completely what you’re actually drinking. For instance, although the best beer I’ve ever had was Staminee de Garre’s house Tripel in Bruges, it was bettered by the bottles of Black Isle Blonde I shared with my other half one afternoon, sitting on a wall behind Lothian Road. That was a moment I found myself pondering just the other day, in between dodging the peppery showers that appeared suddenly over Edinburgh. I ended up thinking back on the most enjoyable drink I ever had – which, as it turns out, wasn’t even a beer. Instead, it was a plastic cup of cheap wine.
At Cape Vlamingh in the far, far northwest of Australia there’s a lighthouse that looks out over a broad earthy bay housing the Harold Holt Communications Station, established in 1967 by the Americans to track Soviet submarines in the Indian Ocean. Eight years ago I was there, looking out over the sea after a long day of snorkelling and sunbaking (as the Australians call it). Although the US base (pictured above) is abandoned, rusting under the unyielding sun, the small car-park next to the lighthouse still existed, and the backpacker bus I was on wheezed up the hill so we could all enjoy the view. Our driver, Steve, produced a battered box of road-station wine and a stack of plastic cups, and we toasted another successful afternoon.
The Vlamingh peninsula is famous for more than submarines, however, as the Ningaloo Reef (Buzz Aldrin to the Great Barrier’s Neil Armstrong) lies off the Western tip; it was where we’d been snorkelling earlier that day. I was idly gazing out to sea, drinking the warm wine, when I saw something dark grey splash out of the water in the middle distance. Someone else saw it too, and we both said at the same time “Ooh! Was that a…?” seconds before a Humpback Whale vaulted out of the sea and thumped back in a soundless plume of foam.
Very soon, everyone was eagerly watching as the whales launched themselves spectacularly out of the ocean every half-minute or so. We were so far away that I could hold my thumb and forefinger an inch apart and they weren’t obscured – but in many ways it was much better than point-blank whale-watching aboard those intrusive boats. Here nobody was hassling or pressurising them, they were leaping about in the late afternoon sun purely for the hell of it – and had no idea we were watching.
Steve turned to us and said something like “It’s a pity they’re so far away and we can’t see them, eh?” whilst casually leaning against a large copper telescope. I pointed it out to him, and by his reaction I don’t think he had even noticed what it was. So he rolled a dollar coin into the slot and enthusiastically twiddled the focus dial for a while, before swearing and standing upright again. “Bloody thing’s broken! The one time someone needs to use it, and it doesn’t bloody work!”. He thumped it a couple of times, before noticing a brass plate screwed to the top, with a contact phone number etched on. “I’m bloody ringing that”.
“G’day mate”, he said “I’m standing here at Cape Vlamingh trying to look at these whales jumping out of the sea, and the telescope has swallowed about five bucks of my money”. He paused for a moment. “Ah, right. So you’re the bloke that fixes it, yeah? Are you in the lighthouse?” We all turned expectantly to look at the lighthouse. “You’re in Broome?” [three days drive up the coast] “Bugger mate – the whales are all over the place down here. Can’t you send a helicopter or anything? Hello? Hello?”
In the end, we watched the whales for half an hour, until they stopped as the sun went down, and we boarded the bus to rattle back down the hill to our hostel in Exmouth. Amazingly, two years later I saw Steve again, on the Isle of Mull (of all places), but didn’t manage to talk to him. I’m sure he’d forgotten about the whales of Cape Vlamingh, at any rate – but I certainly haven’t. I have no idea what that wine was – I can’t even remember if it was red or white – but that moment was, hands down, the best drinking memory I have.