Monday, 24 May 2010

Western Australia IV: Quilts, satellites and old farm machinery

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.

Image source: Gemma at Yukiba

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

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Western Australia III: Shark Bay Days

AS we drove north into bush we passed several place names on the map - isolated and tiny communities tucked away and unsighted from the highway - that contain only a handful of people. Some of these communities were abandoned, others apparently only in existence because of long-distance haulage railways. Some communities were aboriginal and as such, secretive to this English outsider. I began to wonder what kind of people lived out here, what characters could survive - both now and in the past. Where do they get their food from? How do they endure such isolation? And how or why were these settlements founded?

The following excerpt from Shark Bay Days, by a local author, provides no answers whatsoever to the above questions, but it did make me laugh. Though my query refers mainly to inland settlements, the Shark Bay area, now a World Heritage Site, is far from major towns and facilities, and in the 1950s would have been a remote and self-contained pocket of people. Pearling, fishing and mining of solidified blocks of cockle shells were the primary trades of a hard-working and hardy population; the area also contained an important landing point for cargo vessels collecting wool from nearby stations to be transported back to Perth. Today only 1,000 people live in the Shark Bay area, taking up only 1% of an area of coastline 1,500 km. The land and seas are unforgiving, though a beautiful location to visit. The population was inevitably much smaller at the time in which the book is set, and indeed in 1919, when the author arrived there, only 20 students attended the tiny school. With no roads, only sailing boats and horse carts, one can scarcely imagine how they survived out there. But survive they did.

"During the 1950's John Woodward bought a little boat from a chap in Denham and went off fishing on his own. We didn't expect him to come back from his first trip. He was one of those happy chaps, always full of fun, who would always say "she'll be right" and never worried about anything. He used to go down to the lighthouse on Dirk Hartog Island, where all the big boats worked. He made a lot of trips and always seemed to get a few fish and get them safely back to Denham. He was fishing there on one of his trips and was anchored off the Island lighthouse. He turned in to sleep after dark and when he woke in the morning he was about five miles out on the west side of Dirk Hartog Island, and still drifting. The anchor had come off the bottom. He went to start his motor but the battery was flat, so he drifted all day, further and further out to sea and the land of no return. He thought that was the end for him as he had no way of getting back to land. When he had just about given up hope he looked around in case there might be a ship coming from north or south, thinking he might be able to put something up for them to see, when he spotted something sticking out of the water. It looked like a big shark fin and gave him quite a fright. All of a sudden it came to the surface. It was an American submarine going from Singapore to Freemantle. It came alongside him and wanted to know what he was doing so far out in a small boat. They gave him a new battery, food and cigarettes, and towed him to Dirk Hartog Island. In return he gave them the fish in his ice box, about 100 lbs. of good big schnapper. He wouldn't forget that trip. When he offered me a Lucky Strike, I couldn't believe it when he said they'd come from a Yank submarine. We couldn't really believe him, as he always had a story to tell, until we saw a photo of his boat alongside the submarine. Pommie John didn't take much notice of what had happened. Later on he shifted to Geraldton, taking his little boat with him. I think he was fishing at the islands off Geraldton when his boat was caught and sunk in a breaker and he swam ashore. I met his parents at the Victoria Hotel in Geraldton when they came out from England and persuaded him to go back with them."

Pommie John & The Submarine from Shark Bay Days by G.W. Fry, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA/L. Price, Moonyoonooka, WA; 1988/1995

Rachel and I went to Shark Bay, its main town Denham as well as Monkey Mia and Hamelin Pool, on our way back down the coast. There is much to tell about it - but for now, we shall keep heading north.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Western Australia II: Postcards of the outback

IT SEEMS a funny thing to say, but I have always wanted to see the Outback. It's a funny thing to say because, before I went to Australia in 2007, I had never really considered going to Australia at all. Many people have lists of the places they most want to go - I still do - but mine had places like Peru and, because of a Primary School project I remain fond of to this day, Mongolia. But as I travelled down the East Coast from Cairns to Melbourne over two months in 2007, I started to yearn not only to see more of this tremendous country, but to see the real country, away from the densely populated thin strip of land east of the Great Dividing Range. I wanted to see it all, but more than that I wanted to see the lesser-known west, where people are few and far between and the earth turns red. Given the privilege of returning to the land Down Under, it was always the plan to go to Western Australia and travel into the bush.

So here we were, Rachel, Ben and I, driving north into the countryside. First along the dual carriageways around Perth - initially getting lost and driving into the airport - into smaller suburban towns, repeatedly over the ever-diminishing Swan River and into the farmland beyond. The land was surprisingly fertile; I had had preconceived ideas that the area around Perth would be stripped of moisture, exacerbating the city's reputation as the most remote in the world, but the vineyards and pasture blanketed the landscape in two shades of green - that of grass and gum trees. It wasn't long before we turned off the Great Northern Highway and on to the Brand Highway, the split between the only two roads that cross the state to the north. The Brand Highway follows the coast, whereas the Great Northern Highway, a drive of stamina and strong engines, cuts north-east as far as Port Hedland, 1,635km away, with little in between. Missing the turning was non-negotiable.

I had not driven any vehicle for a very long time, and I had never driven anything as big as Ben. High-sided and heavy (and more importantly, subject to a $1,300 deposit), driving him was a daunting task. We could take no chances, nor could we attempt speed or sudden changes of direction or velocity. Road trains overtook us. We knew we would have to get faster and endure longer distances in the days to come, but for now we were taking modest steps. Our official final destination was Shark Bay, 833km away, but in our minds we really wanted to go further - to Coral Bay and Ningaloo Reef, a further 500km away. We knew that some days driving we would see few people and even fewer settlements; we knew there would be days when driving between neighbouring towns would take the entire day, with no services in between. So day one would be to orientate ourselves - our target became Jurien Bay, 267km up the coast. By nightfall we were exhausted: we had taken frequent breaks and switched drivers often. Less than two weeks later I would drive the same distance in one stint with absolute ease.

Over the course of our journey I became an irritating bundle of excitement.

"Wow! Look at THAT!" I would repeatedly shout. I was unendingly enthusiastic about everything, usually utterly mundane things or a cluster of particularly fascinating trees. Mostly it was the dirt: I was ecstatic all the way because the earth was red. The roads went on to the horizon, and the earth was red: simple features but, in my mind, captivating. I am enchanted by wilderness - for me it equates to solitude. My enthusiasm was undoubtedly irritating but I couldn't help it. I see the world in postcard photographs, and everywhere I looked I wanted to capture what I saw - trails breaking through the forest or the scrub, criss-crossing the world in lines of red dust; unfailing sunshine and outback; the continuum from fertile land to desert and back again.

"Wow! Look at THAT!"

I think Rachel wanted to hit me.

For a sparsely populated coastline, WA contains a surprising number of landmarks, so much so that it was not possible to stop at them all. First along our route was the Moore River National Park, a forest to the left of the road: desert lay to the right. Upstream on the Moore River was once the Moore River Native Settlement, a relic of Australia's shameful history. Moore River was a centre for the relocation of Aboriginal mixed-race children, removed from their parents for 'their own good' to be converted to the ways of the whitefella - and often then into slavery. It was from Moore River that in 1931, Molly Craig, Daisy Craig and Molly Fields, three Aboriginal children aged between 8 and 14, escaped and, without roads, maps or compasses, walked 1,600km to their home of Jigalong along the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Their story has been immortalized in Doris Pilkington Garimara's book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, subsequently turned into a feature film by Phillip Noyce. It is an inspiring tale but telling of a dark place in history - it was not until 2008 that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Aboriginal community for the Stolen Generations, 39 years after resettlement policies ended and 139 years after they began. We couldn't stop at Moore River because it was too far out of the way and, besides, the settlement no longer remains. It was enough to know that it once did, but I found it a curious notion that this empty landscape not so long ago had such a key role in history. I wondered what other secrets innocent landscapes hold both here and elsewhere around the world. The Aboriginal Land Trust took over the Moore River site in 1974 and it is now known as Budjarra - "mother earth".

Jurien Bay is a coastal town on the Indian Ocean. As the sun set on day one, tourists and fishermen alike stood at the end of the pier in silent contentedness. The sun scorched the horizon a deep orange as it disappeared into the dark blue sea, and a sea lion popped his head out of the water, coming to see what all the fuss was about - and steal the fishermen's catch while he was at it.

I can't be sure, but I probably said "Wow! Look at THAT!". Entirely by accident you understand.