Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Blog 17 - Outback Days Part 2

From Exmouth the trail went inland through the mining town of Tom Price to the Karijini National Park. It was another long day on the bus. Its a fact of life here. Distances are so huge that traveling for hours on end along dead straight roads that disappear into a pinpoint in the haze, is just something you have to put up with. You would think that this would be a good opportunity to get to know people and chat. Quite often after a pee stop or lunch break, people would be quite animated. But then the battle would commence to maintain concentration. If you could find any sort of comfortable position then you could sleep. But usually your entire concentration is dedicated to not be bothered by being too cold from the ac or too hot when the ac struggled to cope or ignoring the aching legs and bum. So that eventually its just too much trouble to talk. You try to read but the book dances so much because of the movement of the bus that your eyes can't keep up with it. So most people descend into a zombie like state until the next chance to stretch your legs. When we came to a roadhouse to stop for fuel and the loo, I would always get out and have a walk around even if I didn't need anything.

The days developed a bit of a routine. We all mucked in at meal times and spread the jobs around. Some people were good at food prep others would carry boxes and some would wash up. Everybody found their own level after a bit of initial awkward shyness and reticence. Bags had to be loaded and unloaded onto the roof of the bus. When we camped, the swags and tents had to be rolled and stacked onto the trailer. Toby, our guide and driver had us all well drilled after a couple of days. He was a good guy, always cheerful and helpful. Able to get everything done without winding anyone up. Its a tough job. You are away for two weeks at a time with 20 or so people to look after in some really wild territory. Your average person usually has enough common sense to keep themselves out of trouble but something unlikely is always around the corner.

If something was going to happen then Karijini was the place. Everything had been pretty smooth so far. But on our way down into the gorge to see Circular Pool it began to thunder. Pretty soon the wind was up then the rain followed. Big flashes of lightning and thunder echoing round the gorge walls. Water was running everywhere. The frogs had started to croak. Toby was starting to hurry us along and was looking agitated. The pool was stunning but we only had a few minutes and had to leave. Flash floods in the gorges are a big problem. People have been killed, trapped by a 4m wall of water. So he was understandably nervous and couldn't wait to get us out of there.

Our first night camping in the park was the real deal at last. Gathering wood for a fire then rolling out swags to sleep in. Only the brave slept in the open. The rest went in tents. The chances of a spider or snake wanting to share your swag are pretty slim and you have to put that out of your mind and revel in the freedom of sleeping under the stars. To be honest it was also a bit of a relief to see the sun coming up ;-)

The next night camping was at a proper campsite rather than just at the side of the road. By proper campsite I mean they had loos (no showers) checking under the seat for the use of. In the bush they obviously don't have a lot of water so all the toilets are of the composting variety. Everything disappears silently into a black hole (and comes out in Birmingham!). Very good though, no smell.
One of the girls had been feeling a bit poorly and made a dash into the bush to throw up. As she turned to go back to camp a dingo appeared from nowhere and promptly ate the pavement pizza. Nature doesn't waste a thing. Just when I was getting cocky about sleeping in the open I now have to add dingo's to the list of nocturnal nightmare scenarios. They were howling nearby in the night. Not your traditional wolf like howl or the rendition afforded by a friendly mongrel on hearing the Dr Who music. More a sort of flat tuneless (spine chilling), morose sort of howl. Anyway, it was enough to have me peering intently into the gloom for a good while. It was an uncomfortable night. Not helped by the smell of piss coming from the top right hand corner of my swag. Either a dingo had decided to express its distain of pommie campers while I was nodding or a previous occupant had refused to venture more than a foot into the bush for a spot of nocturnal micturition. Next morning the park ranger had said the dingo's had made off with someone's boot from one camp and a pack of butter from another. Fortunately our donation to dingo nutrition had been confined to someone's second hand lunch.

We had all been having a brilliant time exploring the fabulous gorges and swimming in deep pools surrounded by ancient canyon walls 100m high, watching giant orb spider webs enticing the myriad of dragon flies in for dinner. Our last visit was to Hammersley gorge. Things had started to go amiss when one of the rear windows of the bus shattered. They take a lot of stick from the unmade roads. We were able to fill it in with some cardboard and tape. I'd wrapped some gaffer tape around a marker pen before I left Blighty as a sort of boy scoutish precaution against some unknown eventuality. You only need two things in your toolbox. If its broken.. gaffer tape. If its stuck...wd40. I'll concede that a Swiss Army penknife can be jolly handy too. There are always those times when you just have to whittle!

It was getting late in the day and as the road into the gorge was steep, Toby left the trailer with all the camping gear, food and water at a campground about 3k from the gorge. Hammersley was different again, with loads of weird rock formations and inky red water from the recent rains. We had only just got under way to go back when the bus stalled on a hill and wouldn't start. Everyone got off while Toby poked around with no luck. We must have been a good hour or more's drive from the nearest help and it was going dark and starting to thunder again. Big spots of rain began to fall and people were beginning to wonder what next? To add to the drama, one of the girls sat on what she thought was a clump of grass but was the Spinifex plant. A nasty ubiqitous derset dweller that not to be outdone by the animal kingdom, will leave its razor sharp spines in anybodies backsite who cares to sit on it. I thought it was a sort of girly ritual at first when confronted by a bunch of girls peering at another girls bum bt torchlight armed with tweezers.

The company provide the drivers with a satellite phone for just this eventuality and Toby was able to speak to a mechanic who gave him some ideas. While this was going on another vehicle appeared out of the gloom and stopped. The guy was heading for the toilet at the top of the gorge! He agreed to put his needs on hold and ferried half the folk back to the trailer to make camp and get some food on. He brought back a jerry can of diesel and one of water. We had worked out that the fuel wasn't getting through. We could bleed the line but it meant getting under the bus and priming the pump manually with a spring loaded valve. Toby and I took turns in pumping it until eventually it got through to the engine and it fired-up. There was much joy on our return to camp. Its only a small crisis but it certainly added a bit of spice to the trip.

That night was one of the best nights I ever had. It was still threatening rain and everyone had gone in tents. Bar me. I set up my swag near the fire and sat out for ages on my own, listening to the night sounds, watching the fire glow, sipping a beer. One of life's champagne moments.

Next day the group split up. I was heading back to Perth with three others and the rest were going on to Broome and some to Darwin. It was a tediously long two day drive back. The highlight of which was staying at Nallan sheep station on the way. This time the toilet block was full of frogs. A bit disconcerting having all those pairs of eyes watching you do what you have to do. There was even one in the toilet bowl! He enjoyed a nice log flume ride to the septic tank ;-) The shearers kitchen was an arachnophobic's worst nightmare. Its not used very often and was furnished in a 40's corrugated iron sort of look with a healthy sprinkling of spider webs on every plate and utensil. One of those places where you don't want to pick anything up for fear of enraging a local hairy occupant (not the shearers!). We hadn't paid the extra few dollars to stay indoors so I was glad to be back outdoors in the swag (not the pissy one this time). It wasn't until next morning that I noticed the close proximity of snake tracks in the sand. Just as well I didn't see them before turning in. There was loads of them. Mark, the new driver casually remarked that they were probably a few days old. Not really any comfort.

Coming back the country gradually changed from the open bush to mining country then into the wheat belt then wineries in the Swan Valley closer to Perth. It was a real let down coming back into the city. I used to feel the same way as a kid when returning to Liverpool after a couple of weeks with my Dad's folks in the Scottish countryside. Everything was crowded and busy. The outback may be wild and harsh but its definitely the place to get away from the rat race.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like you are having a great time. Shame on me for not heading west! I will have to make it over there on my next trip to the southern hemisphere. Really loving the blog, keep it up! By the time you get back you will have a ready made book "the backpackers guide for the over 50’s."

Jealous as hell here, but good to be able to hear about all the fun someone else is having in sunnier climes. I can’t wait for the next entry.


Psychodudu said...

You have serious talent. As soon as I start reading your essays I cannot take my eyes off the page until I'm finished. Your turn of phrase, your easy flowing style and your genuine wit makes for a winning blend in ny opinion. You need to think about doing it for a job, John.
Aside form that, I am revelling in your enjoyment of the whole trip, and all the unforgettable things you are seeing. I wish only one thing for myself...that I was with you.