FROM the rolling hills and farmland around Northampton we drove north, confusingly for us Brits, to Carnarvon. The landscape changed progressively but dramatically, from fields to forest to safari-style bush and dry scrub, towards desert. The drive took the best part of the day, with no settlements between the two towns and only two roadhouses; fellow drivers were so rare that we instinctively gave one another a cursory nod (or extravagant toot, flash and wave, depending on your state of sanity). We were starting to feel the distance we had put between us and civilization. Perth was three days drive away, and Perth was a long way from anywhere itself. Curiously, after sweating our way through the desert, Carnarvon turned out to be a fertile oasis, the fruit-growing and fishing capital of the west.
Our stay in Northampton had been short and sweet. The entire town was classed as a Historic Town by the National Trust in 1993, and it retains a clean, quaint and traditional charm. At the heart of the town is Our Lady in Ara Coeli, a sandstone church (one of three churches in town) with Gothic and Byzantine features, and the neighbouring Sacred Heart Convent, now a hostel. Shop fronts and old miner's cottages retain their half-century-old charm, petrol stations have pump attendants, and just down the road is a museum of old farming machinery. The town holds an annual Airing of the Quilts, where buildings are draped in colourful, handmade patchwork quilts. It seemed, in the warm dusk, to be an ideal place to settle for the night and rest ahead of the beastly drive we were facing the following day.
We pulled in to the Northampton Caravan Park, unfairly described by Lonely Planet as 'rudimentary', to find it full. But though not as glamorous and kempt as other sites we had visited, it had everything it needed plus a certain element other campsites lacked - friendly owners. They came to meet us as we pulled up and began to create space for us, clearing a corner by the office and stringing together extension leads to charge our van. They then invited us to a sausage sizzle that evening - to be held five metres from Ben - in support of the Returned & Services League (RSL), the Australian defence services veterans' organisation. It is a charity event they hold once a month and a good excuse for park visitors - many of them regulars - to get to know one another. To our shame we didn't go, although it was unlikely any of the food would have suited our dietary requirements. Instead, we rustled up something in the van and went out for a drink at the local tavern.
The tavern is a long white building with a red roof sporting the word 'TAVERN' in enormous letters across its length. It was hard to miss. Inside it was precisely what an outback tavern should be expected to be: unglamorous, basic, the bar stools not particularly comfortable and not a hint of gastro-pub to be found. It sold beer, wine and peanuts, and that was about it; there was a TV showing Australian news, none of it relevant for hundreds of miles; bingo was the game of choice; and there were certain locals, a bit crusty round the edges, perving over pictures of naked ladies on the wall. I prefer the pubs of home, with their warmth, home comforts and drunk-but-harmless bearded old men, but it was a memorable experience nonetheless. We stayed for just the one drink, Rachel not enjoying her chemical lemon, lime and bitters, then returned to the campsite trying not to be noticed by the sausage sizzle crowd...
...which we failed, as Ben (our van) was so excited to see us return that his security alarm blared out a celebratory holler.
The following morning we arose before sunrise with three objectives: to fill our empty clean water tank (a necessity for the desert drive), to fill up with diesel and to make it to Carnarvon before sunset. However, having been given a makeshift pitch, we had no access to a tap, and only a metre of hosepipe. So began a lesson in applied physics as, under torchlight, we attempted to siphon buckets of water from a rainwater butt into a narrow inlet on Ben's side. The hole was tiny and inconveniently painted black; the buckets heavy for Rachel, who had opted for the job of manual lifting over that of sucking on a dirty hosepipe. Try as we might, most of the water ended up on the floor. Although our efforts improved with practice, it quickly became clear we were going to be doing this for some time, until another early-rising camper came to our aid by allowing us to park alongside their pitch to use their tap. Refreshed and refuelled, Ben was raring to go, and so were we.
It is from Northampton that you finally leave behind the world. Though the drive had been sparsely populated until that point, you were never far from a town of some size. Traffic was never heavy but sufficiently busy to warrant occasional overtaking lanes. After Northampton, landmarks stopped being towns but changes in the landscape - the fertile zone around the Murchison river and then the features of the ever-drying bush. Two tin sheds serve as roadhouses along the way, lifelines on the highway and at the junction to Shark Bay, and they evoke the usual service station emotions, but otherwise it is just you, nature and the possessions that you tow that occupy this vast expanse of nothing. That and a very, very long straight road.
This is the land of red earth, land of the kangaroo at dusk. Cars shimmer in the sun and heat haze; the Tropics are looming. We crossed vermin-proof fence no. 3, twice (we think). Miles and miles rolled by. It was a dry, dry world. For long distances we were the only vehicle. We were the only people.
And then came Carnarvon, a town of 5,000 people based on fruit farming, rich fishing and mining further inland. It is a holiday hub, and it was packed. What we hadn't realised was that while we had been racing North, invisible scores of families and their caravans had been doing the same. Quite where they had been on the roads we could never fathom, but there they were, filling up campsites. The school holidays had begun, and our plan to drive to wherever we pleased, whenever we pleased, was over. Booking pitches prior to arrival was now a necessity: settlements and their accommodation options were already limited, now very likely full, and hopping over to a neighbouring town as a backup simply wasn't an option. Neighbouring towns didn't exist.
For now, we were in. We raided the fish shops by the port, full of trawlers, nets and opportunist seagulls, settling on a fine selection of shrimp from The Crab Shack. We walked the One Mile Jetty (now only half a mile long after an arson attempt), watching mudskippers in the mangroves and trying not to get run over by the Coffee Pot tourist train. We met a man from Colchester.
And then the day drew to a close, with pancakes and mango puree on the dinner table. We could see the sun setting behind Carnarvon's dominating landmark - the OTC Satellite Earth Station Carnarvon, a companion satellite dish to a NASA tracking station that was once just down the road. The tracking station was built for the Gemini missions, and the setup was invaluable during the Apollo moon landings as it was the only dish able to communicate with the missions during re-entry. It was also crucial for tests of COMSAT's Intelsat satellites and for NASA's Skylab. Though the tracking station has since been razed, the OTC dish remains. Officially decommissioned in 1987, it has continued to prove vital in ongoing scientific research coordinated from - I have since discovered - the University of Birmingham, where I work.
On our road trip through WA, we had felt blissfully far from the trappings of the world. But here, in the middle of the desert, surrounded by hundreds of miles of nothing, there is an automated satellite dish controlled by computers only five minutes from my office. I wonder if they were watching me on CCTV as I climbed it?
Further reading: Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network (BiSON) at the University of Birmingham