Sunday, 26 August 2012

Way out there, who would have thought?

Lying on my back, eyes open just a crack. Headache, dry mouth, urrgh. I looked around the bedroom. What the hell, where was I? I’d spent each night for the past couple of months in my little green tent. But this was no tent - I was in a single bed in a tiny room. Make-up and moisturiser bottles lined up on the shelf. A girl’s bedroom? Swinging my feet to the floor I saw I was fully dressed except for my shoes and jacket lying at the foot of the bed. I ran my hands through my hair and stood up to look in the mirror. Why was my face painted blue?

I’d been staying at Arkaroola, at the northern tip of the Flinders Ranges for a few days. A privately owned property, run as a low-key eco tourism place, Arkaroola sits on the edge of the desert. Rugged hills lined with layers all skewif stand to attention around the landscape. The air is clear, the colours sharp. Hillsides are dotted with spinifex, grasstrees are everywhere. Kangaroos, wallaroos, emus. In the sky wedge tailed eagles circle and glide.

It’s a remote place. The journey could be said to start at Port Augusta, which is itself isolated enough. Port Augusta is the town at one of the country’s major crossroads – where the main East-West highway meets the main North-South highway. A small, dusty town where the caravan park is surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence.

From Port Augusta I drove north-east towards the dry centre of the country. Through small town Quorn, through tiny Hawker and past Wilpena Pound, the main camping area in Flinders Ranges National Park. Then I turned off the tarmac and onto the dirt road which took me the one hundred and eighty kilometres to Arkaroola at the northern end of the ranges.

I camped down the back and had been hiking the rocky paths by day and staring into the campfire by night. Flaming wood crackled, smoke drifted upwards and shooting stars arced across the sky.

On the third night I’d booked in to visit the observatory and was excited because the night sky fascinates me, though I’ve never troubled to learn much about it. I went up to the bar to have a beer to get in the mood. There’s a little bar, restaurant and motel type accommodation to cater for the guests who weren’t camping or caravanning.  I got talking to the girls behind the bar, and learned they were Veronica and Kim from Alice Springs, best friends since primary school.

‘There are three of us. Kate’s here too, but not working tonight.’

Then it was time to go. The tour was good, we saw Saturn’s rings, noted that Alpha Centauri is not one but two stars, and observed a globular cluster that was some incredible distance away. It ended at nine thirty and I was all wired up, in the mood to discuss space and aliens and life’s big questions, but all the old folk filed out and into their motel rooms and caravans.

The door to the bar was locked but I could see Veronica and Kim were still inside cleaning up. I knocked on the door and mimed ’drink’ ‘quick’ ‘?’. Veronica came and opened up for me.

Yeah, no worries she laughed.

Half way through my glass of port Kim said ‘we’re having a dance party tonight and you can come if you want.’

 ‘You might have to wear something crazy though.’

They locked up and I walked with them to Veronica’s room. The two of them dived into the wardrobe to search for something appropriate. There were African pants, red high heels, a fluffy dressing gown. A pink scarf was thrown onto the bed. ‘You can wear that Steve’ Veronica said as she ran into the bathroom to get dressed. They came out with headscarves, lurid makeup and other Veronica (another one from next door had shown up) had a sort of Pocahontas thing going on.

They grabbed some drinks and Veronica handed me a cask of wine and told me to drink it. We walked up to the room where Bobby, the Welsh chef, stays. His room was about three metres by two and he’d decorated it with signs and pictures over the walls, and space for people to draw self portraits. He was wearing a tuxedo jacket and half his face was painted blue. Kate was there with blue hair and eyebrows. She was wearing a pink onesie. Kim pounced on a silver sequin jacket that belonged to Bobby, and put it on proudly. The stereo was an iphone – there were other workers sleeping nearby so volume was a problem.

‘We need some of that blue stuff’ Kim said. ‘Want some Steve?’

‘So, brought your Grandma’s pink onesie all the way from Wales because...?’ I asked.

‘Because you never know’ he said.

‘And the sequin jacket?’

‘Same reason.’

These guys had been working there for a few months, doing long split shifts six days a week. They seemed to love the isolation, the feeling of not really being part of the bigger world. One of them told me that on a recent trip to Port Augusta she'd had been frustrated by all the traffic lights - but I remember only seeing two sets of lights in the whole town. 

They'd created their own little world where they spent a chunk of their salary on Tim Tams and chips from the little store, drank lots of wine any night of the week and they improvised their entertainment.

There was dancing on the bed, some fast drinking to catch up with the others who’d been at it for several hours, and about a thousand selfy photos, before someone decided we’d better go to the games room to make some more noise and not annoy all the sleeping staff. Plenty of room there for handstands and a few rounds of a game called beer-pong. When it was time to call it a night I’d become such a lurching, squint-eyed version of myself that it was decided by the council of the wise that I was in no condition to either safely drive or walk the eight hundred metres to my tent. Kim let me stay in her room while she stayed with Veronica.

The headache in the morning was bad, but I didn’t regret it because I asked myself if I’d ever I again be invited to a party of this unique flavour? I guess you never know.


Saturday, 18 August 2012

Oh, Brian

Brian had it all organised. He’d done some thinking and he’d done some talking and he’d nutted out a plan. I could tell he was the organising type when earlier in the afternoon he’d wandered over to my campsite and formally invited me to his fireplace that evening.

‘I’ve got wood, plenty of it. Bring a drink, cook your food on the fire, whatever you like.’

I was measuring powdered milk and sugar into ziplock bags and he asked if I was preparing for a hike. I told him my plans of walking three days through the National Park from Parachilna to Wilpena, which would involve a complicated bit of manoeuvring – dropping my car at Wilpena and then trying to hitch a ride up to the start of the hike. He nodded, then walked off to continue his invitations.

It was a little roadside campsite in Flinders Ranges National Park, South Australia. I brought my folding chair and a beer over to the roaring fire where I met Brian’s wife Kerry and the couple from the caravan on the far side, Rob and Christine. Colin, my garrulous neighbour, came over with a bowl of something to eat and he slumped in his chair to slurp it down.

Around sixty and a bit overweight, Brian had good manners and was very sure of himself. Not only that, he was also sure of his wife.

‘Dinner ready yet?’ he asked her as he eyed me getting into my couscous and noting that Colin, the other single male, had also already eaten. Kerry got to it and served it up, and after demolishing his long awaited chicken and vegetables, Brian said ‘you can leave the dishes til morning, it’s getting late.’

‘Like hell’ she said, handing him her plate for him to wash. 

Brian made a show of putting on the last piece of Tasmanian timber he’d been carting round the country for several months, then stood with his back to the fire, wine glass in hand.

‘Steve, the crazy bugger, is going walkabout tomorrow’ he announced, ‘and we’re going to help him. Kerry and I will take him to Parachilna, and Rob here will drop his car at Wilpena.’

I wasn’t sure if it was a look of surprise that crossed Rob’s face at this news. I didn’t get to find out because Colin interrupted with a story about how he had hiked fifty kilometres along a beach in Victoria last year. ‘And I’m sixty nine! Sixty nine eh...’ he faded off into a reverie.

So Rob was part of the plan, whether he liked it or not. I was so pleased with my little gang of grey nomads I could have hugged them all. Even when discussion turned to politics and they began abusing Bob Brown for stopping the progress in Tasmania, I looked fondly upon my little flock of red necked grey nomads chirping away in the night.

 In the morning I sat in the back seat of the Nissan ute while Brian and Kerry took turns pointing out things to see.

‘Kangaroos on the hill there.’

‘Look at that rockslide.’


At Blinman we stopped and Kerry, who had been delegated the camera duties, wandered off to take the official record of the abandoned copper mining town. In supervisory role, Brian directed her not to miss the old red phone booth or the filled-in swimming pool.

The Parachilna road was closed so we had to take a thirty kilometre detour on corrugated gravel. Brian drove cautiously but once he hit some bumps at speed and sent us jolting around the cab.

‘Shit, Brian’ Kerry said.

‘ Hehe’ he chuckled,  ‘I didn’t see it did I?’

‘Car’s gonna need another service now isn’t it?’ she muttered.

A little later he stopped the car and directed her to take a picture of the mountain range. She opened the door and a cloud of dust blew in.

‘Oh Brian’ she said.

‘What, I didn’t make the dust did I?’

‘No but it was your driving.’

We got to the trailhead and I heaved my pack out of the tray. They said goodbye as though I was walking to my doom, then drove off with a beep of the horn.
The shale clinked underfoot as I plodded along dry riverbeds, admiring the big old River Red Gums which were bright and vibrant despite the dry conditions. Their bark is white, not red, and they glowed in the warm sun. I tried to imagine how it would look here after rain, to have the creeks gushing with water. The health of the trees, the piles of detritus wedged up against their roots and the scarred erosion on the river bends were all evidence that the water surely comes.

Red-walled gorges rose around me and when the trail climbed to the ridge tops I had views of the ranges rolling away to the south and wedge tailed eagles circling above. I strolled through hillsides covered in native cypress pines.

On the afternoon of the second day the trail crossed a dirt road. A city four wheel drive was parked with four retirees sauntering around.

‘Hiking all that way on your own! You must like yourself.’

The first human being I’d seen in a day and a half and this is what he says to me.  I walked on, into the trees and the hills and the wide open spaces.

Monday, 13 August 2012


On the edge of the desert at the eastern end of the Nullarbor plain, where the cracked and dusty land meets the wild shark-filled sea, there’s a wooden chair overlooking the ocean. Sitting on this seat you can watch waves break off a jagged headland, along a shallow reef platform.  The lefthanders peel a distance and surfers take turns to ride their walls, the offshore wind sending spray off the back of the wave with each turn they make. This is Cactus.

The wooden chair was built in memory of a young man who was taken by a shark some years back, and its construction – with a little platform at the bottom, and a solid backrest – makes it like a mini grandstand with room for eight or nine people.

Early in the morning surfers crawl from their tents and vans in the sprawling campsite, rubbing their eyes and running hands through their hair, they stumble up the sandy path to the chair. They stop to piss into the bushes on the way, the sharp smell of all this accumulated urine lingers until the next time it rains and washes it away. Then they sit on the chair and watch the waves. Breath comes thick and steamy in the early morning chill, and the still air makes the ocean clean and glassy. Some have come prepared with a cup of hot tea that they wrap their hands around, blow into and look through the rising steam at the lefthanders breaking off the headland.

 Another surfer comes along and he says a muted good morning, then watches too.

‘Looks alright eh?’

‘Yeah. Sets are closing out a bit but the inside ones look like fun.’

‘You going out then?’

‘Reckon I might wait til the tide comes in a bit more.’

‘Time for a bit of brekky then eh.’

But before he leaves others arrive.

‘You guys been out yet?’

‘What? Nah not yet. Waiting for a bit more tide’

‘I’m gonna get out there before all the crew paddle out.’

The waves were pretty good. The bay at Cactus has three main breaks, and a few others that work in certain conditions. The one in front of the campsite is the lefthander that made the bay famous.  It's a long wave with a takeoff that wasn’t too tough and a nice wide channel to paddle into. Surprisingly friendly, for all I’d heard about the place.

The land is owned by an old surfer called Ron who runs the campsite. Every evening, in his brown overalls and wide brimmed hat covering his wiry white hair, he comes around in his rattling yellow ute to drop off the bundles of firewood and to collect the ten dollar fee from everyone staying the night. Unless it’s your seventh night, which is free.   

A lot of the surfers staying there were part way through a crossing of the country, but such was the allure of the place, the consistency of the waves and the easy way that time slipped by, that they might find themselves staying weeks longer than they had planned.

There’s a bore water supply for washing and for a quick outdoor shower, but its not fit for drinking so you need to come supplied. The little town, Penong, at the turn off from the highway will sell you what you need, at the kind of prices you might expect from a small isolated town.

Throughout the day, the wooden chair is the spot to come for some company.  As the afternoon wears on, people arrive with beers in hand and the stories and chatter fire up. With the chair full to capacity, others sit on the sand or lean against the old fence posts to join in.

Snowy demonstrated his black labrador’s party trick. When Snowy called out ‘it’s offshore!’ the dog yelped and ran frantically up and down in major distraction, then when he called out ‘it’s onshore!’ the dog immediately stopped and walked back to sit at his feet.

Jur and Ties, the easy going Dutch brothers told how they’d been in Adelaide and checked the surf forecast. It was going to be flat for a week, so they decided to drive to Uluru. At the maximum eighty kph their old landcruiser allowed, this took them three days. They got to the rock and weren’t that impressed so they took a few photos then turned around to drive straight back.

Matty seemed to lose track of who he’d already told his stories to, so we all heard his collection of tales many times over.    

It was a little off putting when you were out in the water, because you knew the mob on the seat would be watching and having a good laugh at any flailing wipeouts. Coming in from the surf, you walked up the track and past the chair where they asked you what it had been like and if it hurt when you got pitched out of the lip on that last wave.  

I stayed for a week, surfing a couple of times a day and hanging out with people living the same kind of dream as me.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Hiking The Stirling Ranges

I stayed a few days in the Stirling Ranges, just to the north of Albany. The creased and folded mountains were easy on the eye after the continuous flat flat West Australian landscape.

One evening in the campsite I got chatting with a guy called Kurt. He asked what I was doing the next day and I told him I was going to climb up Toolbrunup, the second tallest but most difficult of the peaks. He asked if he could tag along and I said sure, some company would be good. He asked what time I normally got going and I said about eight would be good. Great he said.

When I wandered over to his site around eight in the morning his table was littered with cooking gear and food containers and bags of flour and jugs of water. He was busy chopping up an orange peel.

Hey Kurt how’re you going? I said.

Good he said and you?

Good. What are you up to?

Just making a cake. And some bread.

Right, cool. Um, you still want to come hiking this morning?

Yeah man yeah. This won’t take long. I make all my own stuff you know. I’m a vegan and you know the supermarkets don’t have much. You know. Plus it’s cheaper. One whole bag of flour only costs a dollar and you can make lots of cake with that you know. And bread. This won’t take long, you know. Forty five minutes.

Two and a half hours later he called over to me at my site – Hey Tim, you ready to go?

Me? I said. Yeah I’m ready.

We started walking, and after a couple of minutes he stopped dead in the middle of the track and started waving his arms round in slow whooshing movements. I stood watching. After about thirty seconds he said oh sorry I’m into tai chi you know, it helps you know keep the energy flowing.

Righto. Can I walk in front?

He stopped like that every few minutes, so I left him to it but waited at intervals for him to catch up. Approaching the top I nearly trod on an echidna sitting right in the path. I stayed still while it unfolded itself and waddled right past me, brushing against my foot before crashing off into the scrub.

When Kurt finally made it to the top I said great view hey. Did you see the echidna?

The what? Nah mate nah.  He admired the view and took a few photos. I offered to take one of him on his camera and he said yeah just wait a sec. He got down in the yoga guru position with legs crossed and hands upturned on knees and sat on a rock ledge. I took a few photos from different angles then put the camera down.

He sat with eyes closed for ages so I walked around the summit and noticed we were being circled by one two three wedge tailed eagles. Round and round they went, riding the air currents, flying so fast and with such ease. Like they’d been doing it all their lives. They came close – within thirty metres of where I stood – the sun glistening off their dark feathers, their strong legs hanging down and their big claws so prominent. Then they’d drift high up, before swopping down to my height again.

So close they came that I worried for Kurt’s safety – he was only a little guy so I reckon if one eagle had’ve grabbed him by each ear they could have carted him off.

Two of the eagles started putting on an aerobatic display, with some sort of mid-air clashing. One rolled onto its back midflight and the other would hurtle down and collide before making off again. They did this a few times when, following some unseen cue, one of them flew off. Just made a beeline for another peak to circle.

Kurt finally surfaced and I told him all about it, but my words didn’t even register. He just grabbed his camera and looked through the photos I’d taken of him, saying I thought you might have zoomed in on me a bit more to capture the serenity you know.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

An Offering

An hour east of Albany , with hardly a signpost to point the way, is Waychinicup National Park. Its main feature is a wide, flat estuary surrounded by grey and orange granite boulders. A quiet river bending into the Southern Ocean. Seagrass meadows below the water, blue sky and a grey mountain above.

My first visit there was a couple of years ago with my sister Anna. We stumbled across it after a long drive, and were struck down. There was nobody around. We scrambled through the spiky undergrowth to swim in the cool water, lured in by the untainted purity of the scene, then warmed up like scaled beings on the sunny rocks. There was an ancient feel there, and I half expected to sight a sea creature emerging, something from another epoch rising to greet us. We felt on that still, clear afternoon that this could have been amongst the most beautiful places we’d ever seen. A goanna ambled up the path before us.

This time I stayed a few days. There are only a handful of campsites, and they’re nestled into the bushes so you can’t tell that anyone else is around. Like an exclusive resort for campers. Some days there were kids splashing around in the water having raucous fun, sometimes it was perfectly quiet and still.

I snorkelled, watching the fish flit in and out of rocky crevices. And I walked around the shore, listening to the water gently lap around my feet. There were birds circling around, cormorants and some bird of prey I couldn’t identify. Mostly I just sat and watched the scene around me. Simply sitting in a place like that seems to be a worthwhile way to pass time.

I drove out one morning to look for some waves at a beach round the corner and when I came back I was told of the spectacle I’d missed. A large school of herring had been chased into the inlet by a school of salmon. The salmon had herded the herring up into the shallows by the rocks right near the campsites. Once they had the herring trapped the salmon began a feeding frenzy, turning the water into a seething pool of froth. Fish were leaping out of the water onto the rocks, and flapping round on the shore. You could see them all right there at your feet. One man reached down and picked up a salmon in his hands and hugged it to his chest before throwing it back in the water.  An offering.