How does one entertain oneself in a very small cabin with only a musical birthday card to help? Here’s how. Well it made us laugh…
I have talked a lot about the unimaginable vastness of Western Australia. It all sounds so romantic doesn’t it? What I haven’t talked about is my passengers on this epic journey. Children aren’t exactly renowned for their love of being trapped in confined spaces for hours at a time, so what do we get up to entertain ourselves? When we’re not marvelling at the views, obviously.
Top of the pops is listening to music. The esteemed husband takes his deejaying very seriously and we have an eclectic diet of Mozart, Pet Shop Boys (Go West of course), Flight of the Conchords and the Sound of Music. We are, as he says, putting the camp into camping.
Second only to music are audiobooks. The dulcet tones of David Tennant reading about dragons have whiled away many an hour and when we tire of him we can have Mr Gum, The Famous Five, Killer Cat or Roald Dahl. They have an undeniable power to keep the children quiet, which is obviously a good thing.
Of course there’s plenty of arguing, what would a family car journey be without it? Normally this would be primarily between the two adults in the family, but as there’s pretty much only one straight road for 2,000 kilometres, the driver and the navigator don’t have much ammunition. When the “He touched me!” reaches a fever pitch, we crack open the Sesame Street and Hanna Barbera cartoons on the children’s iPods. Peace is then restored until we disagree on who gets to hold said iPods or what to watch.
We listen to Percy Parker’s times tables. It’s educational, innit.
We eat Lifesavers. The fizzy fruit ones are my favourite. Sometimes we eat something else instead, but it’s never as popular.
One thing we don’t do is stop, bladders permitting, unless we’re in a place with airconditioning, which only happens every 200 kilometres or so. Stopping at the side of the road means stepping into a shadeless desert and being attacked by a plague of pestilential flies. Not nearly as appealing as the frequent grassy, shady parks in New Zealand with excellent playgrounds. But I guess emus don’t have much use for zip slides.
Speaking of flies, we spend a good part of each trip randomly opening and closing windows whilst waving our arms in the air in an attempt to rid the car of these pesky creatures. One or two always manage to evade us and buzz annoyingly around my legs for the entire journey.
Sometimes, the stars align and the gods shine upon us and all being in the car together is actually pretty good. We have far ranging discussions about spinifex and termites and who would win in a fight between a big white (sic) and a saltie, and no one hits anyone else for at least three minutes. At times like these it feels like we doing exactly the right thing.
If we’re very lucky, they fall asleep.
It’s incredible. Truly incredible. It’s hard to believe that somewhere like this exists anywhere on earth. This Martian landscape was formed so long ago, that the only life on earth was small blobby creatures and rock spewing volcanoes. The rocks are still here, just as the volcanoes left them. Huge mountains of rust red boulders that look for all the world like an oversized digger dumped them here yesterday. It’s cyclone season, and unusual amounts of rain have been dumped on this dry country, covering the rock mountains in a fuzzy bum-fluff of pale green spinifex grass. The orange sandy ground is covered in bright green teletubby hummocks, their velvety appearance belying their hedgehog spikiness. If you know where to look, and clamber up the boulders in the scorching sun, you can find pre-historic rock art, a man with a boomerang, emus, a kangaroo, children’s hand prints. This landscape is so ancient and so forbidding that it’s hard to comprehend.
What is even harder to comprehend is the vastness. For two days we drive. Hour after hour, and then some more. This incredible landscape stretches in all directions, under a blue bedspread of sky, giant cotton wool clouds floating above the rock piles, the narrow tarmac road the only evidence of man’s existence. The towns are hundreds of kilometres apart, with very little in between. A roadhouse every three hundred kilometres, a couple of dead cows, an emu, a few tracks leading off to cattle stations, one mine, vehicles, perhaps one every five kilometres or so.
Driving out here is awe inspiring, but it’s also dangerous. The heat when you step out of the car is overwhelming, we get through litres of water but are still thirsty. The flies are like a Biblical plague, feasting on the remains of roadkill and buzzing around our eyes and mouth, searching for moisture. There is no mobile phone coverage, no handy phone boxes, we are utterly alone. The frequent sight of exploded tires a sobering reminder that breaking down happens all too often. In many places the road is flooded. Sometimes a couple of centimetres of water, on one occasion, so deep that the car struggles to make it through and my heart pounds scarily in my chest. Despite the straight, empty roads, there’s no temptation to speed.
So far we’ve driven just over a thousand kilometres, visited three towns and stopped in both roadhouses. Can you imagine that? It truly is an incredible place.
He chuckles at something on TV as he picks his teeth with a steak knife. He’s the only other customer in the cafe and I study him as I wait for our chips. Sleeveless orange shirt with reflective stripes, shoulder length brown mullet, in need of a wash, portly stomach which speaks of many hours spent behind the wheel. He’s the archetypal truckie.
We’re in a roadhouse, a uniquely Australian institution. About 300 kms from the nearest town in either direction, this small, dusty, hamlet provides a vital place for road train drivers to have steak and chips, mine workers to refuel and families travelling around the world to stop for the night.
In a place where towns are 600 kilometres apart, and with three children whose car tolerance is about four hours, it was inevitable that at some point we’d stay at a roadhouse. So here we are. I expect you’re picturing something like the Watford Gap, we are on Australia’s equivalent of the M1 after all. Well, not exactly. The first clue is that the forecourt isn’t paved. The next is that there isn’t much traffic. A truck passes every ten minutes or so. Then there’s the shop, it’s a single shelf in the cafe with bug spray, razors and Glee DVDs. Bustling.
We’ve pitched our tent on the small grassy area to the side of the cafe. We’ve swum in the muddy brown river, getting covered in cooling silt. We’ve watched the road trains come and go: huge trucks pulling three or four trailers, carrying building materials, cars, fridges, diggers, houses, everything that is needed for life in this far flung corner of Western Australia. We’ve built a fire and cooked pancakes. We’ve chatted to the people passing through: a man riding a camel the length of the west coast, a Swedish couple whose campervan blew a gasket in the middle of the Nullaboar and they couldn’t afford the cost of towing it 1,000 kms to get it fixed, a Filipino decorator who was driving the very long way home after finishing a job three towns further south.
It’s a funny sort of place to spend the night. It makes the Reading Travelodge look glamorous, but the locals are friendly and the sunset is stunning. Our chips are ready so I leave the truckie to his steak and gravy and go and feed the children before it gets dark. Later we’ll be lulled to sleep by the rumble of passing road trains and the cacophony of a thousand crickets. It turns out that adventures come in all shapes and sizes.
As the plane banks over the silty brown sea towards the airport, the view is like a child’s play mat, a child who is particularly fond of diggers. Huge machines move piles of red dirt from one place to another, dumping it on conveyor belts that snake their way across the barren, rust coloured landscape. A single railway line stretches into the desert, carrying an impossibly long train, we try counting the carriages and give up at one hundred.
Geometric shapes made by huge salt pans impose order on the flat, barren land. A perfect, sparkling white Mount Fuji of salt, is the only contour on the map.
Out at sea, twelve gigantic ships, are lined up, as if by a toddler, waiting for the little orange and grey tug boats to guide them safely into port where the wharfs, march confidently across the water on metal legs.
Port Hedland is a strange place. If it wasn’t for the valuable iron ore that oozes out of every rock, it would barely exist. But thanks to the red dirt, it’s growing at a furious pace. There is such a shortage of housing that our campsite cabin is costing about twice what our London home is earning this week.
Everywhere you go there is evidence of the town’s primary industry. Men wander around the supermarket in orange shirts with reflective stripes, every second vehicle has a large number on it’s side, indicating that it’s owned by one of the mining companies, and washing machines in laundrettes bear the sign ‘absolutely NO work clothes’. Everything, but everything is stained a dark, rusty red. Swimming pool tiles, pavements, tree trunks, buildings, street lights, vehicles, clothes, anything that moves and doesn’t move. A vivid, colourful reminder of the town’s reason for being.
Despite it’s noisy, grimy purpose, it’s a lovely town. Thanks to generous investment by the biggest mining company, the art gallery is outstanding, the public spaces are beautifully planted and we are assured that it’s a wonderful place to live. Wonderful but hot.
It’s hard to imagine what this funny little town on the edge of the desert will look like in one hundred years time. It’ll either be a shiny, bustling city, full of grand buildings and prosperous people, or it simply won’t exist at all.
It’s a place of vast emptiness. Two hours drive between towns, when a town is a petrol station, population five. The Great Northern Highway, cuts a narrow tarmac scar through the relentless red earth, rising to meet the huge, shimmering blue sky. Lone gum trees, silver bark stained red, and windmills providing the only vertical lines. Travelling through this landscape, unchanging day after day, has a hypnotic rhythm, the galloping miles a form of meditation.
I first came here twenty years ago and I’ve longed to return ever since. The red earth, blue sky and total isolation have buzzed around my head like a pesky Aussie fly that I can’t shake. There is nowhere on earth that is in greater contrast to teeming London.
Tomorrow morning we set off on our great Australian road trip. Sixteen hundred kilometres through one of the world’s most starkly beautiful landscapes. Just us, the road trains and the kangaroos. I can’t wait.
Water drips in fat splashy drops from every leaf of every tree. It stopped raining half an hour ago, but it’s never dry. Won’t be for months. We’re right in the middle of the wet season, after the humid, temper-inducing build up, and before the violent storms of the knock ‘em down season. Over a couple of months, the heavens are dumping their annual load of rain on Australia’s tropical far north. We fall asleep to the thundering of torrential rain on our canvas roof, which almost, but not quite, drowns out the crickets, frogs and other noisy nocturnal creatures. We wake up to the gentle pattering of drops on the deck outside. Throughout the day, rain comes in waves, sometimes a fine mist that settles on your hair like dew, sometimes so heavy that it’s like standing under a dinner-plate sized shower head on the needley setting. Occasionally, the rumble of thunder adds a bass note to the music of constant dripping and splashing.
Nothing, is dry. The grass squelches as you walk, noisily sucking flip flops from feet, mud splattering up bare legs. Clothes remain damp, day after day and mould creeps furtively across any surface that doesn’t move. Sometimes the fierce tropical sun burns its way brightly through the heavy grey clouds, scenting the damp, steamy air with warm eucalyptus.
The rain performs magic tricks on the landscape. Grass seeds that lie dormant in the cracked, red earth during the dry, suddenly shoot into poker straight, rusty pink and pale green spears, taller than a man, obscuring giant termite mounds and providing shelter for venomous snakes. Trickling creeks become swollen torrents, drowning bridges and turning a gentle walk into an Indiana Jones adventure. Roads and swimming holes are closed, as crocs take advantage of the rushing water to make their way from the coast into the deep interior. Tiny flowers of every colour bloom for a short season. Earth that’s organgey red when dry, takes on the colours of ancient rust and livid purple bruises.
We have the place to ourselves, everyone else is scared off by the rain. Mile upon mile of stunning impenetrable forest teeming with wildlife, the noise of flowing water the constant soundtrack to our days. I feel very privileged to be here now, alone, in this beautiful place. But I’m glad we’re not here in the knock ‘em down season.