Friday, October 09, 2009

Headed Back South

[Kyle]I suspect you haven’t really experienced Australia until you’ve showered in a road house. We have seen many different bathing facilities in our day, in India the standard in non-western hotels is a tap in the wall at about knee height, a bucket and a cup; you fill the bucket with the tap and then scoop water to pour over yourself as necessary – it is quite effective and uses very little water. At sea we’ve done everything from showered on deck to the standard bath (soap up and dive in) to the less expected wave over the side. There is a huge variation in quality of marina shower too; we showered at one place where the water pressure was so low that the surface tension of the stream pulled the water back up on the shower head and it ran down along the wall. By these standards road house showers were pretty good, there was a choice of hot or cold water, a place to store the soap while you rinsed off, and the whole village was not looking in. Really, what else do you need? It got the job done but hence forth we’ll think of road house showers as “for emergency only”.

We rejoined the North West Coastal Highway. Just before the industrial town of Port Headland, we encountered a group of termite mounds (30 or more), each topped with their own hard hat; we’d seen smaller numbers in a few other places, some even had boots and lunch boxes added. There is so much mining in the area, and assumed the local miners have a sense of humour, perhaps equating themselves with termites? Slowly the scenery became more mountainous. We stopped at the small town of Roebourne for lunch (at the only place to eat in town), and found everything surprising well made and tasty. Mount Welcome provided a 360 degree view of the town and the surrounding area, and despite most of the town being closed (Sunday, in the off season) we did manage a tour of the Roebourne Gaol. The Gaol was used during from early 1900s and for a few years during the mining boom of the 70’s.

In its first period it was used as a gaol to house aboriginal convicts, most were in for one of 2 crimes. In those early white settlement days aboriginal males were “blackbirded” (Kidnapped, and signed into a labour contract, without their understanding, with a local farm). If the aborigine tried to return home, they were officially classed as contract breakers and arrested – then to be convicts doing hard labour in the hot sun for the local council. When they eventually returned to their families they had often been gone so long they were forgotten by their tribe and family and no longer had a place. The other main reason for arrest was for killing cattle (mostly required for food after the whites had decimated the local kangaroos for “sport”). Within the museum were transcripts from hearings clearly showing this abuse of the aborigines was part of a deliberate program to provide for a free labour force for the area. There were many abuses, and little regard for the people or the culture except as a labour force; Aborigines were not even counted in censuses of the area, but were counted as assets like stock (sheep and cattle) with a farm. Once forced to work on a farm they were not paid any money, and were not even given enough rations to live on (they were expected to continue to provide much of their own food from the bush). When in gaol they were treated much more harshly than the regulations specified, and than any white prisoners in the adjoining gaol. They were kept 40 to a small room, and held in heavy neck chains, tethered in a gang with other prisoners, 24 hours a day. Quite depressing how the great white man has treated locals in yet another colony.

As we were leaving the gaol we spotted one of the standard issue signs warning of snakes. Having grown up in Colorado I was accustoms to seeing such signs (usually at trail heads), they would say something like “beware the western diamond back rattle snake” then there would be a picture, then it would say something like “these are very ill tempered animals, dangerous, do not harass them, do not make fun of them, and by all means do not go poking at one with the toe of your boot, even if you have very long boots.”. Sometimes for completeness or to fill out the rest of the sign they would throw another rare species in on the warning. This Australian poster had something like 19 different snakes. We looked closely and found that two of them we had already come across; one said to have the fastest strike of any in the world, and the other to inject more venom than any other in the world. At the bottom was a reminder “beware of these snakes”. Hey how about this, when in Australia beware of any snake, yeesh!

The next place we intended to camp was in Cane River Conservation Park, marked on the map by a conspicuous tent symbol (Bush camping). It was accessed by a road from the North that splits from the main highway, joins the camp and returns to the main highway to the South after about 20km. The road passed behind a ridge of hills between the highway and the camp. As we approached the area we were on the lookout for signs for the entrance but could not find anything, eventually we crossed Cane River, and from the map this showed we’d missed our turn... Oh well, we’ll just enter by the South road. Once we got to the turn off passed the South road we realized we missed that entrance too. We both scratched our heads and decided to turn around and conduct a more thorough search. Heading North now, we again could not find anything where the South road was supposed to be, nothing that looked like a road, and no signs indicating the conservation park. We crossed the river again and as there was no traffic we slowed down and both scanned the roadside hard for our North entrance. A couple of kilometres later we saw a dirt track disappear into the bush, there were no markings or any indication of where it went, but the sun was close to setting and we thought It worth a try. The road was heading in generally the correct direction, as we went further and further into the bush the quality of the road deteriorated. There were several spots where we had to slow to a crawl to get over rocks or around gullies, while the weeds in the centre scraped along the undercarriage. At a couple of points we were required to ford a stream, fortunately 95% of the waterways around here are currently dust dry, so the crossing involved keeping momentum up only to pass through the 2” gravel surface and up on the other side. There were a couple of spots where it seemed prudent to give up and turn around, but there was no space to do so, so we carried on (poor rental car). Australian maps tend to indicate stations (ranches) on the map by putting the name in quotes, Cane River was marked this way so we expected like Nallan the week before to find a cattle or sheep station with room to pitch a tent – this was odd as it was slap in the middle of a conservation park. After 10km of very slow driving on the edge of needing 4WD we came upon a station, as we rolled closer it was apparent it was abandoned and at some point burned down along with a large tract of the surrounding land. We stopped the car at the entrance (still unmarked), and noticed a emaciated dingo exit the bush and stand on the road, before turning and heading towards the remains of the station buildings – well this didn’t seem good at all.

Cane River Bush Camping

We exchanged looks of trepidation and got out of the car to see if there was any sign of a park ranger or a camp site. Our tour of the station felt like the opening scenes of a horror film; the dingo mysteriously vanished into the bush, as we walked towards the burned out remains of the buildings we noticed the few vehicle tracks were long crossed over by many layers of animal tracks (cows, dingos, snakes, and lizards). All the while in the background a piece of corrugated metal wall, now only partially secured, banged in the wind against the side of its building without any particular rhythm. We walked around the station for a while paying very close attention to our foot placement, we could find no signs of humanity since the fire. The area was pretty overgrown and there was nowhere obvious to pitch at tent. Neither of us liked the idea of sleeping alongside that creepy banging sound either. As we had not yet crossed the main river, Maryanne suggested we continued South in search of the official camping area. After a kilometre or so we came upon the Cane River. The road went through the gravel river bed, and out on the other side, but the gravel was 6-8” deep and we knew impossible to make our way through in our compact car; there was no way we wanted to get stuck out here. We parked the car in the road and walked to the other side of the river, and up the embankment to continue our search for the camp site – just more spinifex grass and trees. The road looked like it was used only occasionally by 4WD vehicles, but it was obvious the area had otherwise been abandoned for some time. Neither of us really liked the idea of being stranded so far in the middle of nowhere.

Maryanne was all for returning to the main road and going to the next camping spot, or even checking into a room at a roadhouse since it was getting late and dusky. I was worried about even making it back to the main road by dark, and the thought of the room we had at Bruce Rock kept me from finding a road house room any more appealing than our current location. After a little more reconnaissance, I determined the most suitable and softest spot was a fine gravel area on the bed of the river. Yes, you heard me right, I said on the bed of the river as in the surface that the water flows over, but there clearly had not been any water in a long time, and there was no expectation of rain so I figured we’d be OK. Maryanne took a little more convincing, but eventually with the light running out and the only other options for camping among snake harbouring spinifex clumps we opted for the river bed on the condition that I put up some sort of barrier just in case some night time 4WD tried to plow into our tent. {Maryanne: Ladies, to say I was not happy is an understatement, I was petrified. Snakes? Dingos? River beds? 4WD tracks, stampeding cattle? and not even a comfortable place to pitch our tent.... Kyle won me over really with the argument of the diminishing daylight, but even then I was more keen to sleep in our tiny car than around the hungry dingo... Eventually I capitulated with the proviso I had the whistle to hand and a good couple of glasses of red wine to ensure I slept through my imminent death.}.

Once we got the tent setup on the river bed, things started to feel decidedly less ominous. Without our tent fly, and since there was no grass growing out of the gravel at the bottom of the river, there were clear views in both directions of the trees on the banks. As night fell we could hear the cockatoos roosting for the night. Parrots tend to chatter to each other as they fall asleep as a means of knowing where the rest of the flock is, one by one we could hear one bird after another slowly drift off to sleep and become quiet, leaving only the sound of a light breeze rustling the tops of the trees and a few far off crickets. The stars of the Southern sky came out and shone like they can, only so far from civilization. The trepidation I had felt before gradually faded into a deep contentment. I was in this beautiful wild place looking up at the most brilliant night sky with the woman who I love so much and with whom I’ve shared so many wonderful adventures. I knew that on paper it didn’t look so good (for all the reasons already mentioned), but I really did feel lucky to be alive and in that place in that moment. I stared up into the sky as Maryanne drifted off to sleep and tried as hard as I could to pull that moment close to me so I would remember it for a long time to come.

Just as I was drifting off to sleep myself I heard a distant sound. At first I thought it might be dingos howling but it turned out to be mooing, the cows of the Baskervilles? I recalled as we pitched out tent there were a few indentation in the gravel that could well have been hoof prints, I now wondered if on their nightly roam in search of food and water a heard of feral cattle would come moseying through our camp. I wonder what they would make of our tent in their path? I hoped they would regard it as another obstacle to walk around, but what if it somehow startled them and where would that leave us? It took me a little longer than usual to fall asleep.


Mommy Dearest said...

Kyle, you are such a romantic. Who, but you, could make a night in the midst of absolutely NOWHERE with no provisions for comfort, into a zen moment? And I must say, I expect there were a few more fireworks than either of you admits during the "discussion" about whether you were going to stay the night in the riverbed or go find a room somewhere. Thank heavens for red wine.
If this whole adventure doesn't turn into a best-selling book somewhere along the line, there is no hope for best-sellers. Your photography is stunning and I always finish reading an installment with my heart in my throat and a grin on my face.
Why in the world would I ever worry about you, Hmmmm?

Mommy Dearest said...

BTW, that Dingo looks hungry enough to tackle something more than a baby, you know!

kate said...

hehe, is it too soon for the "dingo ate my baby" jokes? kind of a spooky place you went trekking through, and an interesting spot to bunk for the night. i was trying to think of how that sentence would have ended if i'd been maryanne: "kyle won me over by... " and was utterly defeated. i don't know that the dingo would have frightened me as much (emaciated=weak, right? but, perhaps ever more aggressive as a result) as the spectre of a croc lumbering towards the tent. but it turned out fine, and you've another adventure under your belt - well done!