12.06.2014 - 14.06.2014 13 °C
And so ends the Gunbarrel Highway.
By the time I'm ready to head out, because I'm dreadfully slow in the mornings (if you call departing by 8:30am slow) most of my new friends have left on their way, all in separate directions. The last two stop by to bid me a fond farewell. Such a strange campground, yet what a wonderful experience it brought.
I am now faced with six nights to spend in Western Australia...with only a general idea of what to do. A conversation with one of my new compatriots over my Hema Australian road atlas led to some good suggestions. Head towards the coast, start at Shark Bay, and work my way down. That is a hell of a jaunt from where I am, but the gentleman looked at my vehicle and suggested that perhaps I need to think a bit more outside the box. Normally from here, to get to the coast the path would lead west to Meekatharra, and then either south all the way to Mount Magnet, across to Geraldton and then north...or all the way north to Port Hedland, which would be an epic journey, one that would allow little time to waste getting back to Perth. Through Geraldton, easily a two day drive, maybe more. But, looking at my 4WD he tells me the right way to go...is across. He points out a series of small back-country roads that cut across to the coast, telling me I can easily navigate these roads with a 4WD and a GPS. And if I have to, I could simply find places to camp along the way...meaning bush camp wherever I need to.
Sounds a bit like an "ad-ven-chah!"
This plan leads me to leave via Wiluna and cut across to Meekatharra via the Goldfields Highway, which is really just a dirt highway. A real dirt highway. I barely break a sweat the entire way going an average of 110Kmph. Although this doesn't come without costs, as the newly acquired large star-shaped chip on my windshield (windscreen) that is big enough to cast a shadow on the dashboard now constantly reminds me. This poor vehicle.
The scenery along the way is ok...I guess
I reach Meekatharra (another small Aboriginal Community), call home, and head off down the 'real' highway for a bit to a town called Cue (yep...Cue...as in ball) where I enquire locally about these roads I was advised towards. My first stop at the local roadhouse results in the young, heavily pierced girl suggesting I keep to the main road down to Mount Magnet. Her reasoning (other than the obvious fact she doesn't really know much about the roads across the back-country) is that even if a road happens to be open on this side of the Murchison Range, there is no way to know it will be OK on the other side. Fair enough, play it safe. Do not send tourists to some uncertain fate if you cannot be sure.
For a split second I'm ready to give in...but I decide a second opinion is in order. I drive back into town and ask at a local grocery store, and there I find a young guy who is very knowledgeable about the road system in the area. He tells me all the right things - have lots of fuel (check), spare tyres (well, one...check) and keep an eye on the signage. I can do that.
I blast out of Cue along a road heading west, at first all sealed and honestly surprising that the young girl at the roadhouse would be this much in the dark about the roads around here. I chalk it up, as I have been able to on many occasions, that she probably did not quite understand what I was really asking...as both my stumbling conversational skills and my thick Yank (heh heh) accent have caught a few Aussies off guard along my travels (..."eh, what's that?" is a common conversation piece when I am conversing with Aussies...on both sides of the conversation).
I follow the signage, and turn off on the road that will lead me across the mountain range to the Carnarvon-Mullewa Road, my destination being the Murchison Oasis Roadhouse. At this point, I notice the time. It is three pm. I have maybe two and a half, maybe three hours of sunlight left. And several hundred kilometres to cross. Tanami, anyone???
The suggestion to follow this route is rewarding with some amazing scenery. And really, like the gentleman said, I can pull over and camp anywhere it seems ok to do so if I need to. Part of me is really kind of hoping this ends up being the case, but my problem is that once I get a plan into my head, I stick to it like the desert flies on my face every time I step out of the truck to take pictures.
I'll fast-forward a bit, and just say the landscape was magnificent, and laden with Kangaroos. Which is kind of awesome, but at the same time a bit concerning because this is not a good place for a truck-on-roo pow-wow.
I am now sitting at the Murchison Oasis Roadhouse, which is a beautiful and clean roadhouse with a campground in the back. I am totally alone...except for the god-forsaken wind. It is totally unreal to the point that I wonder if I will wake up lying on the side-window of the campervan after if blows over in the night.
I find it funny that camping in the middle of nowhere all by myself is one of the most satisfying feelings I've had in my life, but spending an evening in an established place completely by yourself is nothing but lonely and almost depressing. Strange, these conflicting feelings.
Day 12: Shark Bay and No Dolphins
I guess I already gave the story away.
I leave the roadhouse and again cut across to the coast along another dirt road, again really a dirt highway, called the Butchers Track. I kind of hope it was named after a person and not those who dwell upon it waiting for ripe tourists to, well, Butcher.
I hit the coastal highway, and head up into Shark Bay. Seeing the Indian Ocean is again a bundle of mixed feelings - I'm already missing the inland Outback, the Heart of Australia that I successfully traversed...the hard way, might I add. But the ocean is so unbelievably vibrant and welcoming, I can't but help feel a different kind of peace. Of course, the completely awesome part about coastal Australia is that even though you are travelling next to the ocean, it still feels like you are in the middle of an endless desert. I get the best of both worlds.
I visit Monkey Mia, the world-renowned dolphin resort. I pay my $8.50 just to be allowed to park and wander around the beach. I am able to take some fantastic pictures of the resort and the beach and some storks or pelicans or whatever (I'm not an Australian bird-ologist) but alas, the dolphins were tipped off to my pending arrival and fucked off to wherever they do their shitty dolphin things, somewhere far away from here. Whatever, I can say I'm been here I guess.
And now, an informative article I will call "A Canadian's Guide to Camping in Australia". (Please note I take no responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or even truthfulness of the information that is provided).
Campground: Often contained in a National Park or other remote or semi-remote area. Can range from no amenities at all to drop toilets (outhouses) or flushing toilets, sometimes solar-heated showers, maybe even a camp kitchen with free BBQs and propane ('LP'). If you are lucky the water, if there is any, is drinkable but do not count on it. It is not uncommon for the ground to have no real established sites, meaning numbered or whatever, and really it is a totally free-for-all. Fees may apply. In Canada, we would call this a 'campground', or in some cases a 'Family Reunion'.
Bush-Camp: You are in the middle of no-where, but someone has been here before you, as you can tell by the poorly covered-up campfire pit they were supposed to completely bury before they left. There are no showers, no toilets, no water (although maybe there is a bore nearby, but good luck with that). But there are also no lights, no traffic, and probably no other people. This is living off the land at its finest, with only the Australian sky to keep you company. Your firewood is whatever you can gather, and your toilet is a hole in the ground you dug (and if you are not a dick, you burned the toilet paper afterward so the wildlife doesn't dig up the hole you hopefully filled in after you are done). These are, of course, free. When you leave, you make sure to leave absolutely no trace of the fact you were here, otherwise you are in fact a total and complete dick. In Canada, we would call this trespassing, or 'squatting'.
Homestead/Station: Some cattle ranch or remote Outback station has opened its grounds to weary travellers, setting up a campground somewhere on the grounds, sometimes it is a large established campground, other times it is pretty much the back yard. Often there will rooms available as well, and full amenities such as washrooms with showers and fully-stocked kitchens. You will often share these amenities with those who reside here. And the people running these places are some of the most amazing friendly folks you will meet. The fees for these places range, but are often sub-$20 for a campsite. In Canada, we would call these perhaps 'Bed and Breakfasts' but with campgrounds...or 'Rapidly Wearing Out Our Welcome Whilst Parked Out On The Back Lawn Of One Of Our Distant Relatives...Probably An Aunt Or Something'.
Rest Areas/Waysides: Literally at the side of the road, likely a highway. Ranging from small dirt parking lots with only rubbish bins to large complexes of established camp lots, maybe even fire pits and drop toilets. There are usually a tremendous number of flies. Also, they are (almost) never empty, because they are free and you are allowed to stay for up to 24 hours. But who is really counting? I've seen set-ups that guarantee that some folks have been there a lot longer than their allotted 24 hours, with clotheslines set up and such. It seems that people actually plan their trips around these stops because, again, they are free. In Canada, I'm not sure what we'd call this because due to budget constraints I'm pretty sure we've torn up and/or shut down many of our highway rest areas. In the US there are more, but they've started cracking down on what was an 8 hour allowance and now you can only hang for an hour or two. So I guess in Canada we'd call this 'Broken Down On The Side Of The Trans-Canada Highway'.
Roadhouses: Truck-stops on steroids. Gas-Station + Campground + some combination of grocery store, restaurant, souvenir hawker, sometimes with massive lots in the back to allow road trains to park for the night (recall these road trains can be over 50m long). If you are lucky, it may even have a full bar. These are often in between established settlements, because the distance between established settlements here can be massive. The fees are mostly reasonable and can range from $12 to $25 but this often includes an AC outlet to allow plugging in and charging your iPad. In Canada, I guess we'd call these 'Truck Stops on Steroids'. But really, we don't have anything like this. We should, because they're rad.
Caravan Parks: This is where I write this from now. They are very well set up - you have full running water, showers, camp kitchens with free BBQs, stoves, hot water to wash dishes, full laundry facilities, and in some cases they may even have stores and/or restaurants. They are often full of people who are endearingly referred to as 'Grey Nomads' in Australia, people who are retired or semi-retired who spend their time off travelling Australia often for months or even years at a time. When I grow up, I think I want to be a Grey Nomad. In Canada, we would refer to these as 'RV Parks' or 'Holiday Parks' or, of course, 'trailer parks'. And there are rules posted...everywhere, telling you what not to do. And...well...they are kind of depressing. There are so many people around you that really do not want to have anything to do with you. The social system in these places is odd, very isolated and keep-to-yourself. The only people you see interacting are those that either know each other already, or are, like me, real campers that are stuck here because they need a washing machine. The parks are usually really expensive ($30 to $60 or more a night, usually charged by the head), partly due to the range of facilities they provide, and partly due to the fact that they have lobbied to get every free campsite within an 100km radius shut down so they have a monopoly on the camping in the area.
I can't complain much, I managed to get a site right on the water with only the groaning trees above me swaying and bending from the wind to keep my senses heightened. Denham, Western Australia, is really beautiful in it's own way. But already I wish I was somewhere back in the real heartland, with only the sky and the trees and the bats to keep me company. But in the end it doesn't really matter because I'm in Australia, and I'm seeing places I'll probably never see again in this lifetime.
Day 13; Kalbarri National Park and Deal-Or-No-Deal, Aussie-Style
I will spare you the details of the again getting up too late (e.g. 6:45am) and leaving too late (e.g. 8:30am) to start on my 400km journey. The only really interesting thing that happens between then and now is that as I travel south, the land starts to get...greener.
Fast-foward to Kalbarri National park, where I roam around taking in massive river gorges and red stone cliffs...
...and then at one point I suddenly realize, wait a minute, it's Friday. What if this means is that if I wanted a campsite anywhere I need to move my ass. My original plan was to bypass the town of Kalbarri and head to a bush camp area on the beach a bit south, but now that I'm thinking about it, I haven't left myself enough time to either: a) find the place before sundown, or b) stake out a site behind a sand-dune where I may have at least a remote chance of being able to keep my crappy stove lit long enough to boil water.
So...I resign myself to another caravan park in downtown Kalbarri...hoping they've have some room left by the time I get there. I luck out, though once again I'm kind of put off by the fact I'm staked out at a shitty caravan park, plonked in front of the ablution block (in Canada we call these 'the Shitters'). So I decide if I can avoid it, I don't want to cook tonight, I'm going to wander into town and find dinner instead. I find myself at the Gilgai Tavern - a real Australian bar.
I buy dinner - a crappy rump steak with green peppercorn gravy, but after a week of shitty sausages this may as well have been fillet mignon. As I pay for my dinner, and on the subsequent trip to the bar for another wine, I fill put my name on these bits of paper for some kind of draw. No idea what it is for. Whatever.
I'm just finishing up in the restroom when I here the unmistakable sound of my name being mispronounced: "Steve...Croughhurst..." How on earth do Australians fuck up "Crowhurst"??? Americans and telemarketers I can almost understand, but fellow Commonwealth? I'm sure the Queen wouldn't screw it up. It's Crowhurst, as in the Crow, as in eat-your-eyes-out-after-you're-dead-carrion-mooch Crow. Not difficult.
But really what this means is I have won the draw.
The draw is for a box. There are 20 of them, within which range prizes from a six-pack of beer up to $1500. The barkeep leads me on, suggesting it is Friday the 13th. So like a tool I choose box 13. She then holds up a gift card for $50 and asks if I want the gift card or the box. She involves the bar patrons: "$50 or the box???" The bar responds overwhelming with "the box!". Of course, I choose the box. She then holds up another gift card: "$100, or the box". This is Deal-Or-No-Deal in a back-water Australian tavern. The bar is now divided, but most start now yelling out "the money!!!" Do I take the money?
I'm not sure what I would have done with $1500. Probably buy a round of drinks for the entire bar and been a total hero. I would have worn an awesome-halo for the rest of the evening, and met new friends and god knows what else...the North American Hero! But alas, inside the box was a $50 gift card. That I kind of have to spend, well, now, because I won't be here tomorrow.
I count my blessings: this saves me money on wine later, because I spend the gift card on a couple of bottles of shitty take-away red wine, and blow the remainder on a couple more drinks. What could have been an amazing celebration of cross-continent generosity turned out to be me sitting alone at a table, pounding out this blog like a douche, with the occasional 'congratulations' thrown my way - most notably from the staff of the tavern.
As I sit here, someone puts the jukebox on to play 'Never Tear Us Apart' by INXS, and immediately I am pulled back towards home, back to my amazing and beautiful wife whom I miss to no end. INXS seems to be a thing here in Oz, several of the patrons and even the staff are singing along. I am embellishing where I am right now and all the amazing things I have seen and have happened to me, but at the same time in my mind I'm slow-dancing with my wife to this song, knowing that all the distance in the world could ever tear *us* apart.
That was a bit cheesy (albeit heartfelt); I can't end on that. So another artical: a Canadian's Guide to Outback Cooking.
Step 1: Add chopped onions to whatever it is (probably sausages) you are cooking.