Although more people are familiar with Australia’s east coast, home to most of the country’s population, its northern and west coasts were the first ones Europeans explored. The Dutch led the way, since they were already trading with what is now Indonesia (which they called the Dutch East Indies). In 1606, Willem Janszoon came upon the Cape York Peninsula, not far from Indonesia on Australia's northern side, the first European to encounter Australia.
Ten years later, seafaring trader Dirk Hartog landed on an island, now named for him, just off the country’s west coast. He was headed for Jakarta, but strong winds blew him south of his original route; instead of populated Indonesia, he came upon deserted islands. He spent three days exploring what is now called Shark Bay and nailed an engraved pewter plate with his name and an inscription about his voyage to a tree, thus becoming the first European to leave an artifact on Australian soil.
Making his way northward along the coast and drawing up charts of what he found along the way, Hartog eventually made it to his intended destination — five months late. Eighty years after Hartog left the plate behind, another Dutch sailor, Willem de Vlamingh, happened to find it. He replaced it and brought the original back to the Netherlands, where it is still on display in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
Meanwhile, Shark Bay continues to be relatively unpopulated, except for its abundant wildlife (including dolphins and sea cows), rock-like stromalites made of ancient microbes, and underwater grass beds. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Area and the focus of environmental preservation efforts, the bay’s turquoise lagoons, white beaches and red cliffs mean solitude and natural beauty for the small numbers of tourists who venture this far off the beaten path.