A work in progress
Leaving Perth at six am. Traffic is light, most of the lights are with me. The Friday morning rush has not yet begun. A light drizzle reminds me of other journeys in dry heat. In the pre-dawn twilight I am glad of the glowing street lights. Full fuel tanks and close on two thousand kilometres ahead. Two days on my own. Just my thoughts and the road and 1290 Km to drive today. School opens on Monday and I need to be there by Saturday night.
Driving into a setting sun after a day of air-conditioned cabin. Days when the outside metal burnt the hands. Several litres of water drunk avoiding any chance of dehydration. Stopping to pee the excess is dangerous if the engine is switched off. Yes, I check, my drinks cooler in beside me.
Crossing the early morning railway tracks, not quite trusting the boom gates and looking both ways. Driving north through the vineyards. Dry whites and rough reds I have drunk when tourist-travelling with the family years ago. Kids in the back enjoyed the grapes and sometimes the oranges from roadside stalls. Neither of us really liked the dry whites. The fresh grapes were wonderful. A son was married near here years later.
On another rainy day. A depressing drizzle for most of the day. Photograph sites had to be changed. The bride was late, more than the fashionable late. Getting into the car with a dry wedding dress had been a problem. Or maybe the hire cars had got lost.
That car passing me is asking for trouble. Wet roads and he’s really pushing it. This drizzle will probably stop around an hour north of here. News on the radio telling of more deaths in Iraq mixed with early morning jokes and idiosyncratic music. I wonder how far I will be able to hear this frequency. Turning left and across another railway line. I pass the service stations used by the road-trains.
Road trains! I hate it when I am on the outside of a road curve. I worry about the trailing bogey swinging out. It keeps me awake when the road becomes boring. Passing will be interesting. Long empty roads ahead are needed. Thirty years ago I family-drove to visit my brother who was then living in Carnarvon. Those long empty roads were addictive. I became possessive of those empty roads and felt violated when another vehicle appeared in the distance.
60Kmph signs appear, Bindoon. Air Force town. I have a brother who once stood guard at the main gates. He also fixed the planes. I pass the end of the airstrip. Signs warn me to beware of low flying aircraft. Take my speed back up to 90Kmph. I have a few hills to climb and a heavy load. I’ll stay in the uphill slow lane.
I get to the top of the hill, 297 metres above sea level. Now I settle for the curvy, up and down road to New Norcia. One lane each way is not all that comfortable when a road train traveling at 100Kmph is coming at you. The trees on either side of the road leave little room for error. The first time I traveled south along this road there was one corner I almost missed and I only just recovered in the face of an unstoppable truck.
In my rear view I see a large truck behind me. A quick estimation puts him about a one kilometer behind and a look at the road ahead tells me that there are about fifteen more kilometers before there is a straight run. I speed up to avoid inconveniencing him. They get very rude on the CB about small vehicles slowing them down. I listen to Channel 40 most of the time. If I keep quiet, they don’t know I am there.
I pass the gravity wave detector dishes and know New Norcia is just five Km ahead. I slow for the town site, marveling as always at the dedication of the Benedictine monks of the 1850’s who built the original stone church and monastery. The art they imported from Spain is one of the wonders of Western Australia. I am more impressed with the bread they still bake in the original wood-fired bakery. My reading of history lets me know again that Bishop Salvado, the Spanish founder, would travel the eighty miles to the fledgling city of Perth where he would give organ and piano recitals to raise funds for the settlement.
My photographer’s eye looks for new angles to shoot. Four years ago I stopped here for an hour and found that I couldn’t get the views I wanted. The trees had grown too large and interfere. I keep hoping for inspiration as I travel the five hundred metres of the town road.
The drizzling rain begins again. I realize it had stopped without fanfare some time ago. The full light of day opens up the vista of dry brown wheat fields. Feeling pity for the farmers I recall the greens of past years. Flocks of fat sheep feeding on rich stubble. Less than a hundred Km to the first farm I ever lived on. Long hazy memories of green Dalwallinu fields and Dad building a giant haystack, harvesting wheat which in my childish minds eye seems to have occurred before the plowing and seeding. Mum cooking bread and scones and roast lamb dinners for Sunday. The road straightens out and I know that it runs in a direct line for the next 25 Km with ups and downs. For the first time I can see the distant reaches of the road surface. Wool was a pound a pound back then and farming was cash rich industry. Years of drought have changed all that and there are few farm labourers left.
Other drivers hurriedly push their cars past my conservative, economical travel speed. Blue skies appear and sun rays highlight stands of trees or stretches of the dehydrated paddocks. Falcons hover flutteringly above the fields, looking for breakfast while I find myself behind a truck carrying two half houses. I vaguely wonder which mine site this load is heading for. As it slows on the upward grades I console myself with the thought that it will probably have a break at Wubin, at the end of the wheatbelt. Only half an hour ahead. I have, unknowingly slowed for and passed through Miling, Bindi Bindi and Pithara. All names I remember from more than half a century ago when a trip to Perth was the end of year treat. Staying with grand-parents, swimming in the Swan River, climbing mulberry trees and riding the escsalators in Boans Store, dodging the floor manager who did not like little boys running up the “down” escalator. Watching, without comprehension, the interaction between the farm labouring Corporal and the factory owning Private who had shared a war.
The edge of the cloud band rises in the sky and the sun brilliantly highlights the tamed and cultivated land.
Three miles short of Dalwallinu I pass two old farmhouses, either side of the road. One of them was my home when I was five years old yet I cannot remember which one. Both are surrounded by wheat fields. There is now a bypass beside the townsite and I again cross the railway which carries the golden grain from the fields to the city. In mind-vision the flock of white corellas feasting on spilled grain along the railway tracks returns. Every new trip brings hopes of that photographable sight returning. A rise in the road leads my eye from the large truck in front of me which inconveniently slows as it climbs the hill to the grain silo and the conveyor belts which load the summer trains. I compare it with the many others I have seen. With the stories of the University students who would use their summer break to book in the trucks of the local farms recording the tonnage and earning some money to help them through their studies. So many of them rose from this simple book-keeping task to become leaders in this country with a common touch engendered here in the interaction between rural workers and the citified students.
The brown fields spread undulatingly to the horizons. Straight fence lines and jagged erosion gullies catch the eye. Contour plowing! That was the big new agricultural technique just after the Second World War. It is one of the few things I remember my short-lived father discussing. Now the decades of mis-use are being repaired with drainages suited to the Australian soils being used. Gullies were great places to play “Cowboys and Indians”. They had the same look as the backgrounds to the “Hopalong Cassidy” films we saw during our annual trips to Perth. Now they just look like ugly scars across the landscape.
The ulcers of rising salt are slowly disappearing after a decade of experimental drainage work and tree planting. The huge blank expanses of the wheat fields I lived with in my youth has gone forever and now inefficiently inconvenient stands of eucalypts dot the landscapes. Inefficient as maybe, but effective in keeping the rest of the land productive.
A sudden twisting of the road, rising and then it falls down to Wubin. My mind relaxes as I enter the town and pull in to the road house where I will get my bacon and egg sandwich. I nod to the driver of the “house truck” and ask if he is heading West or North for this town is a junction. A right hand turn to the North and on into the mining areas or West, straight ahead, and through to the coastal port of Geraldton.
“North, mate. I’ve been watching you behind me. Not in a hurry, are you.”
“ No rush. As long as I get to Newman tonight I’ll be happy.”
I grin, “No problems as long as I don’t stand around talking.”
“Have a good one,” he replies.
“You too,” I hold the door open for him to go in and get his breakfast.
It is nearly 10 am and I have another thousand kilometres to travel today.
Taking my bacon and egg sandwich, a carton of iced coffee and a litre of cold water back to my Toyota Land Cruiser I hurriedly wolf down half of the sandwich. Start up, pull out and yes, I have beaten that road train onto the road. Turning right I head North.
I am amused once again by the colourfully painted power poles as I leave the small townsite. Paynes Find is the next sign of civilization, about a hundred and fifty Kilometres ahead and I probably won’t stop there. The sky ahead is blue and the wheat fields stretch out either side yet I still cannot suppress a sympathetic shiver at the memory of a night spent in the sparse and frozen quarters the one time I stayed there.
The road is undulating with many curves and it is hard to see far ahead. Is it experience or memory that leads me to expect a road train ahead of me within the next forty Km? As I settle into the comfort of a three hour drive I suddenly remember that just after Paynes Find I will have to transfer fuel from my gravity feed, long-range tank. I won’t have enough in the main tank to reach Mount Magnet.
Storing that in my mind, I consider the difference between experience and memory. Just as I reach an hypothesis that experience is dependent on memory I sight a road train ahead. No need to get upset. There is a long straight stretch about ten Km ahead. I wonder if I can catch him before then. If I don’t I could be slowed down as he struggles up the many rises in front of us. I plant my foot and catch up.
As we enter the straight I pull out to check what is coming at us and my heart sinks as I see a couple of small vehicles in the distance. Too close to pass 53.5 metres of road train and get back onto my side of the road safely. This straight, like so many I will traverse today, begins at the top of a slight rise and after several Km it begins to rise again to the horizon. A south-bound road train appears over the horizons distant edge 10Km away. I pull in behind and settle for a quiet time.
The two small vehicles, matches for mine, flash by. I realize I have slipped back into the long-distance traveller’s habit of waving to passing drivers. My wave is an economical two fingers raised from the steering wheel. I watch the rear bogey on the train in front. It has a good stable ride. Visions of past encounters with rear wheels which swing from side to side jump into my mind. Not sufficient to stop you passing but certainly enough to get the adrenaline flowing as the metre you have to spare is cut to mere centimeters. Swinging out I see the road beyond the oncoming train is clear. I judge my run towards the obstruction in front.
As the oncoming one passes and I raise my fingers from the wheel, I swing out onto the wrong side of the road and begin to pass, all the time watching the swiftly approaching horizon. As I slowly gain on the prime mover at the front I carefully judge my distance from the soft shoulder. I know if I keep it out of sight, just underneath my window ledge, then I am far enough away from the side of the train. Finally the drivers cab appears, the road ahead is still three kilometers clear so I keep accelerating until I am well past before I drop back to my side of the road.
Now I must keep my speed above a hundred. If I want to stop, I need to wait for at least an hour, possibly two or I will be passed in turn. The last wheat fields slip past and the untamed scrub begins. I cross the pointless rabbit-proof fence. I have reached the outback.
Ahead there are blue bumps on the horizon. The Mt Gibson range. My memory tells me the hills are about forty Km distant. Before they are reached, there is a sign on the right. “Mt Gibson Gold Project” it announces. “No Entry!” it demands. A gravel road leads off into the distance.
Now, with an empty road ahead, I can get a feel for the rest of the day. Drifting into a zone of concentration where I am aware of the road, of the possibility of traffic, of the possibility of kangaroos or cattle but where I am mostly in my thoughts. I play with limericks. Creating new ones with outrageous rhymes and impossibly obscene situations.
Trying to avoid my over-use of “and” –
“Northbound, I have 4.2 metres” jumps out from the CB.
My eyes check the road as my thoughts leave the limerick. He was talking to someone traveling in my direction. He assumed they had a CB so it is probably another road train going my way. He could still be around twenty Km away. I watch. Overwidth loads are commonplace on this trip.
The road is winding around the Mt Gibson Range. Road visibility is down to a couple of Km. I hear nothing more from the CB and I begin to feel there is nothing between me and the wide load ahead and then the big train going my way. A white pilot vehicle with a cherry, a flashing beacon, on top comes around a corner and I grab the CB and ask, “South bound, how wide are you?”
“Four point two. No Problems.”
“Ok. Thanks.” I respond and wave as we pass. I slow a little and the truck with a bull dozer chained to its back tray swings into view. It also has lights flashing. I pull to one side but there is plenty of room to spare so I don’t stop. A quick wave to the passing truckie and I accelerate away. It is only when two overwidth vehicles of this size meet that they have problems. There will be even larger loads on the road ahead.
Straightening out again the road takes me beyond the Range. I vaguely hear the South bound talking with the North bound I passed some time ago. Trying to remember the improbabilities in my limerick, I realize the radio signal has faded. I turn the static off. A small green sign flashes into view and on behind me. For the first time today I begin to feel the road is rumbling along beneath me, dragging the landscape at and past me, while I am sitting in a stationary vehicle. PF70 the sign read. 70 KM to Paynes Find. About three quarters of an hour.
There are blue hills on the horizon to the west. For the first time today I wonder what they would be like, close-up. Then I realize I have wondered that every time I have seen them. That I have wondered that at every range I have distantly passed. That the true wonder is the ever-changing sameness of the Australian Outback.
I sight the road train ahead of me and slow to keep around five Km between us. By the time I pass him it will almost be time for me to pull over. Reaching into my esky I pull out a water bottle and swallow a couple of mouthfuls. Limiting myself as my bladder is warning me that I do need a break soon. Ahead the road becomes hilly as we move closer to the spoil heaps which mark the prospect found by Payne. Which Payne? I know there were several families of that name in Western Australia back in the heroic days of the gold rush.
The “5 kilometer to Paynes Find” signs appears followed by a series of tattered signs advertising the joys of the home made pies available there. Leading off to the left is the road up to the roadhouse. Several diamond-drilling rigs are parked in the large car park. I spot the single men’s quarters which are now used as motel units. Air-con, bed, sheets and two blankets. All for $40 a night and I recall the freezing night I once spent there. I was almost happy to leave at 4am so that I could stop shivering in the warmth of the vehicle heating.
I pass the northern entrance to the roadhouse, the artificial hill on the right which marks the find Payne made, the reverse set of pie signs and see the back of the “5 kilometer to Paynes Find” sign. More open road beckons, I listen on the CB for any signs of traffic from behind and accelerate to catch the road train ahead of me. The yellow light indicating low fuel comes on and I know I need to stop within 50 Km. My bladder is also telling me to stop soon. I know I won’t last the 150 Km to Mt Magnet.
As I catch up with the truck in front, I begin to look for a lay-by. Indicated by a blue “P 1Km” sign and then by a second sign which baldly states “P”. These lay-bys vary between simple graveled road verges to full off-road campsites. Trucks carrying oversized loads can only travel during daylight hours so most nights see many of them parked, with campfires, in these roadside havens. Spring and Christmas, the Grey Nomad migration season, see whole swarms of caravans and trailer boats in these spots.
Neither the Land Cruiser nor I can wait any longer as I park off road. I listen but hear only the grumbly roar of the road train ahead pulling away. That and the squeaks and squawks and cheeps and chirps of the many birds hiding in the scrub trying to escape the midday heat, and the loud, wheeled monsters which invade their space. Crickets resume their chitin chatter as the sounds of internal combustion die away. A Little Eagle with its distinctive white “W” spread beneath its wingspan circles lazily a little further up the road. Invisible crows dispute like laryngetically hoarse politicians. The engine creaks and cracks as it takes the chance to cool down a little.
Completing attention to the needs of both vehicle and driver, I reach that heart-stopping moment of starting the engine again. If it fails here there is inconvenience rather than danger so it starts without missing a beat. Not being critical, of course it fires first time. I pull back out onto a deserted road. Topping the rise ahead, I can see the road curving gently to the right several kilometers in front of me. A series of slight rises followed by deeper valleys show segments of the roadway. Further away, the landscape uses a series of rising steps to lead to the miniscule cut in the scrub which shows where the road crosses the horizon, some nineteen or twenty kilometers distant.
The CB is quiet and I have around an hour before I reach Mt Magnet. With an empty road I gaze around at the horizon. At the far-away imperfections in the curve of the world which indicate hilly ranges. I wonder at the sights I would see from within those ranges. I am reminded of a story I was told.
A group of Europeans and the local Martu elders were surveying a new road. Checking the availability of waterholes and avoiding any sacred sites. Several of the Martu had been teenagers before they ever met Europeans. Living in the only way they knew, initiated into the traditions, hunting and gathering and memorizing the waterplaces because they were the difference between life and death. One night during the journey, a European saw one of the elders, hand made hand held spear rooted in the earth, foot on knee, gazing from the rise they where they had set up camp for the night. A traditional man, yet educated in European ways. Well-travelled, from his home to Port Hedland, to Perth, to Canberra. A natural teacher, a negotiator between the representatives of Government and his own people. A simple question was asked. Not “What do you see?” but “What are you thinking?”
The answer blurs my vision again, as it always does.
“I knew all this land once. I have walked all over it. When I did, I thought that this was all there was.”
The changes we expect from people. It takes an exceptional man to change from his up-bringing yet we incomers have expected the Indigenous people to adapt immediately to alien, European ways. Ways which go against the four, or forty thousand years of hard earned desert wisdom which has been codified into Aboriginal Lore.
I feel the touch of a connection between half-grasped ideas which is swept away by the CB announcing that there is a seven metre load traveling south. I snap back into total road awareness and watch ahead, intently. I now know there is traffic ahead of me going my way as well as something big coming at me.
Over the five kilometer horizon I spot a flashing light which resolves into a small white vehicle. Another Land Cruiser.
I ask the CB, “What width are you, Southbound?”
“Seven point two metres.”
By now I can see a large obstruction on the road ahead. I pull over, off the road and grab my camera. Waving at the pilot vehicle I jump out and get ready for the large load to pass me. Big though it is, it is still traveling at a good ninety kilometers an hour, covering almost all the black-top. A very wide mining scoop is being carried south. Another of those one chance photos. Snap. I think I got it but I try for another shot as it goes away from me. The trailing pilot vehicle passes and is followed by about five more drivers all desperate for a chance to get past. There is only one road train in this queue.
Looking back to check the road and start to move again. As I settle back into my rhythm I first pass the sign announcing the Kirkalocka Station on the right; a stay and experience outback life spot. Secondly I spot one of the little green signs; “MM 20”. Mount Magnet is twenty kilometres ahead. Checking the horizon; yes, there is the eponymous mount breaking the line of the horizon.
Checking the watch and it is just after 1pm. Two hours to Meekatharra, six and a half to Newman. I’m starting to run a little late. Look at my water bottle. That is OK, I still have a chocolate bar. That will keep me going until Meeka.
There is the turn off to the coast, The Geraldton road. It is all blacktop now. I remember driving to Yalgoo way back in the 60’s on gravel. Then there was a railway line which ran from Geraldton to Mount Magnet. That has been ripped up now. The rails used to create the Newman to Hedland railway. There are still little broken bridges spanning the gullies and the raised rail bed still serves as a reminder of past steam trains.
I slow for the Mt Magnet townsite. 50Km per hour through the built-up section. Past the shops and pubs. Past the strangely shaped roofline of the BP service station at the northern end of town with half a dozen parked road-trains. Good tucker in there but I can last until the next major stop.
Past the sign which gives me the distances to the next few towns. About 80Km to Cue, Queen of the Murchison, about 200Km to Meekatharra. The next little sign is for the “Granites” on the right hand side of the road. Building speed as I pass I remember my only trip into what looks, from the main road, like a small detour. It isn’t small!
Around ten kilometres of roadway around and through a granite formation which has been engraved by the local aboriginals for tens of thousands of years. Other than huge, broken balls of granite there is not a lot to see from inside the cab but there is a lot of research being done to record the ancient work. From the top of the rocky hill there is a good view and the sand-bottomed gullies caused by the occasional rains. As an experiment I tested one of those gullies, just on a curve where any heavy sediment would be dropped. There is gold in that sand. There are also a lot of snakes there as well. Their tracks criss-crossed the sand.
Back up to speed and I listen for any CB traffic. It is all quiet so I quickly settle into my routine. Looking at the horizon, singing along to the mp3 disc I have in the player. Watching for cattle on the side of the road. Several small vehicles pass, heading south. Big roadside sign moves past. “CUE, Queen of the Murchison”. Halfway on this short leg. I just left the Mount Magnet Shire and entered Cue Shire.
The road flattens out and the horizon ahead becomes a constant. No risings, no shallow valleys. I have reached the southern edge of Lake Austin. During the Wet Season, this next forty kilometers is surrounded by water and what I think of as samphire. Low growing clumps of vegetation separated by meandering lanes of salty-whitened sand. At the moment there is no water, just flatness with occasional small islands which appear as hills in this dry lake.
One hill grows a little higher. To the right of the road. A parking layby with a small brown Tourist Information sign appears. I know from previous stops that it is informing travellers that the town of Austin used to exist. Around the turn of the century before last and before the Great War it began decaying.
Here. Beside a road to nowhere. On top of the island-hill now beside me. To the left are the dilapidated remains of a small railway siding and possibly a few old graves in a long-forgotten cemetery. Austin was a mining settlement set in the middle of a huge lake back when rain was more regular than it is in today’s changing climate.
My wheels drag the landscape to me and spit it out behind and so the ghosts of dead Austin disappear again.
Suddenly it is just twenty Km to Cue. As so often happens the last little stretch seems longest. Time slows as if Einstein was driving in a relative way.
Home to a number of important and productive gold mines. Two, Day Dawn and Big Bell remain in production. Finally a sign on the left points to the old Cue Hospital. An empty and broken shell of a building at the end of a dirt track.. As the signposting asks drivers to slow down, a twin border of gaily painted 44 Gallon drums appear.
Slowing to 50Km as requested I drive down the wide doubled main road of Cue. Past old hotels both left and right. Past an unexpected and inexplicable rotunda squarely placed in the wide, overgrown median strip.
To be continued . . .