West Coast Road Trip Part 5: Dinosaur Footprints and Rocky Outcrops

I didn’t realise how much I appreciated curious rock formations until I came to Australia. On the way up the west coast we stopped off at the Pinnacles, columns of golden limestone clustered together in the desert; in Broome we hopped over stacked discs of red rock at Gantheaume Point.

We’d driven out there hoping to see the fossilised dinosaur footprints in the bay but since the tide was high they weren’t visible. I really liked the idea of being somewhere where ancient history hadn’t just shaped the landscape but physically stamped it. Even the characteristic red colour of the earth had its origins in prehistoric times when heavy rain soaked through to the bedrock and dissolved the iron. The water percolated back up to the surface resulting in iron rich red soil.

By the time the next low tide came around we had somewhere else to be. We joined the gathering crowd at Town Beach to watch the Staircase to the Moon, a natural phenomenon where moonlight reflected off the sand flats looks like rungs of a ladder leading up to the moon. There must be places all over the world where you can see this effect but in Broome it’s a big deal. After watching the moon rise we wandered round a nearby market where there was a lot of Staircase-to-the-Moon- inspired jewellery for sale, pendants made from silver bars topped with pearls, for example.

The following day, Dave and I said our goodbyes. The original plan had been to go all the way up to Darwin and then back to Perth via an interior road but since I had run out of money and Dave had lost faith in the campervan after the Coral Bay incident, we decided to call it quits after Broome. I flew back to Perth to look for work and Dave arrived back in the campervan a few days later.

West Coast Road Trip Part 1: Lost on the Road to Mt Magnet

It was night time, we were lost on a red dirt road out in the middle of nowhere and we were almost out of petrol and water.

To our left, red lights glowed in the dark like scattered garnets on a velvet cloth. The flickering light told us they were not streetlights but flames. The series of small fires in the neighbouring field were too close together and there were too many of them to be campfires. It was eerie. All we needed now was to hear a report on the radio that a madman with a hook for a hand had escaped from a nearby lunatic asylum and we would know that it was all over.

It was only day one of our road trip. How did it all go so horribly wrong?

What happened is this: in my zeal to save money, when we stopped to refuel at a highway roadhouse I only half filled the tank. The petrol here was 15 cents a litre dearer than in Perth and I began to panic when I saw the rate at which the numbers on the petrol pump were flapping up.

“We’ll just refill properly in Geraldton tomorrow,” I said.

Another one of my great money saving ideas was to only camp in free campsites. We consulted our guide to camping in WA and found one a short way along the Mt Magnet road.

Taking the turnoff just outside Geraldton, we passed a sign warning that there was little drinking water available north of here. “We’ll get water in town tomorrow too,” I said.

The thing is, in Australia, what looks like a very short distance on a map is actually a very big distance on the road. We drove more than 60 km before we found what we thought was the turnoff for the campsite, a rutted red dirt road that crossed the train tracks and disappeared into the darkness.

The campervan juddered and shuddered over the uneven surface taking us further and further away from the main road.

There was no mobile reception and it occurred to me that no one would ever think of looking for us so far from the highway if we broke down now. Or if we ran out of fuel.

“How many kilometres have we done now?” I asked Dave.

“520” he said. “Do you know how many we were on when we stopped for gas?”

“350”

We were both silent for a moment while we did some calculations, because you see, the fuel gauge on the campervan didn’t work. We reckoned we could go 400km on a full tank and the plan was to reset the counter to zero every time we filled up. But since I had only partially refilled the tank last time we stopped…”I think we can go 150km on what I put in,” I said.

“And we’ve already gone 170km since then,” Dave shot back.

Uh oh.

We decided to get back onto the Mt Magnet Road and to try to get to the next town, which was 20km away.

We made it all right but, wouldn’t you know it? Both of the town’s petrol stations were closed for the night.

Loneliness

Sorry for my long absence from the blogosphere. I’ve been travelling on the west coast of Australia where a good internet connection is hard to come by. I’ve still been writing posts, I just haven’t had the opportunity to upload them till now so they’ll be appearing over the coming week.

Don’t feel bad for me when you read this one, because I wrote it two weeks ago and of course everything has changed since then.

Yesterday I left the tomato farm. The time I was there passed so quickly. I wish I had appreciated the stability more, maybe taken a few moments every evening to be thankful for my own bed, the regularity of the working hours and the nice people that surrounded me.

In seven months in Australia the longest I’ve stayed in one place was seven weeks. There were the six weeks on the tomato farm and the rest of my time has been a patchwork of two weeks here, ten days there. Stability has definitely been lacking.

I feel so lonely to be hitting the road again on my own, leaving friends behind. I spent the day in Adelaide today brimming with tears. I watched a video installation in the art gallery for half an hour just to be in the company of other people, focusing on the same thing.

I’m not homesick, but I miss the comfort of being able to stay in one place with loved ones close by. I miss being able to meet friends for tea in Edinburgh at a moment’s notice and then decide to spend the whole weekend together just because we could. I’m sad because I can’t imagine I’ll ever have that again in the future.

When I left Melbourne to go to Tasmania I felt the same way, lonely and lost, and I wrote about it in my notebook. A few days later I was in the Barossa Valley working on a vineyard with a great group of people. When I reread my notes from Tasmania I couldn’t believe that I’d ever felt like that. The loneliness passes so quickly.

Tomorrow I’ll be in Perth and I’ll be meeting friends so I know I’ll be fine.

Deadly Australia

After six months in Australia I’m still not sure what can kill you and what can’t. It’s no good asking the Australians. If they want to have a bit of fun with you then those spiders you saw when you were clearing out the tool shed were poisonous. You’re lucky you got out alive. The moment it’s time to get back to work they want to know why you’re making such a fuss about them.

The thing is, just because something’s poisonous doesn’t mean that it’s deadly. But since I didn’t grow up here, I don’t know which of Australia’s many snakes and spiders fall into the latter category. As a result, I have a healthy fear of all fanged creatures.

A few days ago we had a huntsman spider in the house. I looked it up on Wikipedia and found out that the bite of a huntsman spider will make you unwell but won’t kill you. It didn’t seem dangerous enough to call the farmer whose house we were staying in for help, nor harmless enough for me to want to attempt removing it myself. One of the other backpackers tried to catch it with a bucket and the cardboard inner tube of a kitchen roll but it moved so quickly she soon gave up, worried that it might hide behind a piece of furniture. Spiders that you can see are less scary than those that you can’t but that you know are there anyway. She called the farmer up to the house and – I didn’t see this bit but heard about it afterwards –he chased the spider around the living room and out the door with a broom.

That same bucket and cardboard kitchen roll tube which were ineffective against the huntsman had already been used to rid us of another unwanted creature in the house. One night I was sitting on my unmade bed when a mouse ran across the mattress. I’ve stayed in houses with mice before so I wasn’t scared. I got into bed and turned off the light. Then I began to wonder, is there rabies in Australia? It doesn’t seem nearly so important for me to Google that now as it did at 2am when the mouse was scratching around under the bed. Besides, it’s gone now. We put a piece of cheese in the cardboard roll and balanced it on a chair over the bucket. The mouse walked right into our very primitive trap. We relocated it to a field far away from the house where it might get eaten by one of the deadly poisonous snakes we have here on the farm.

That’s right. Deadly poisonous snakes. What is a good distance to keep between you and the angry, injured tiger snake that the dog has been worrying in its jaws and tossed on the grass in front of you? I thought the biggest distance I could quickly achieve without spilling my pail of tomatoes seemed about right. But even when it comes to lethal snakes the Australians are surprisingly relaxed. They hung around considerably closer to the thrashing tiger snake than I did, I think. It was hard to tell because I positioned myself so that they were directly between me and it.

At least if you do get bitten by a poisonous snake or spider, or by a rabid mouse, there is a lifesaving shot. It’s just that you might have only twenty minutes to get it. I met a backpacker here who told me he wanted to go diving with sharks. Even I know that a shark will kill you. There’s no antidote for a shark bite. I told him he was mad. Especially since at the time when I met him he was out of action due to spider bite that left him unable to walk on his swollen and painful leg. You would think that one encounter with a deadly creature would be enough for anyone. I suppose that’s something I should be grateful for: the chances of me running into a shark around the house are pretty slim.

Adelaide

There was a storm right over Melbourne Airport so my flight to Adelaide was delayed by more than three hours. I had planned to grab dinner in a sushi bar and to spend the evening strolling around the city centre but it was well after dark by the time I arrived.

I stepped off the bus into the middle of a street brawl. I swung my rucksack onto my back and walked away as fast as my 20kg of luggage would allow. A few blocks later I saw a drunk man standing outside a building shouting abuse at some people on the balcony. I realised with dismay that the building was my youth hostel and the people on the balcony were some of the guests.

“Don’t worry, it’s not always like this,” the man at the reception said. I asked if there was anywhere nearby where I could get something to eat. He directed me to Hindley Street. “It looks seedy because there are lots of strip bars and night clubs but don’t be scared, it’s quite safe.” He thought for a moment then added. “Except at the weekend.”

Great. Where in God’s name had I come to?!

After making a bad first impression, Adelaide didn’t seem much better the next day. It suffered from following immediately on from Melbourne. I went to Central Market but it just wasn’t as good as the Queen Victoria market. The street art wasn’t as vibrant and the coffee wasn’t as smooth. Everything that I liked about Melbourne was a shade less awesome in Adelaide.

I left for a few weeks to do some grape picking in the Barossa Valley (and yes, I did see some redbacks) and came back to Adelaide for the festival. This is when the city really came into its own.

Most of the events in Writers’ Week were free: completely, utterly, wonderfully free. I saw Kate Grenville, Jo Nesbø and Alice Pung FOR FREE. And you know what a geek I am about author events; I was riding on that high for a week.

The event space in the Women’s Memorial Garden was open, under the shade of trees and canopies, which made the whole thing even more accessible. This would never work in the Edinburgh Book Festival where the frequent rain would make for soggy audiences but in South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent in the world (as we are constantly being reminded by stickers above sinks in public toilets and youth hostel kitchens), it works well.

Sadly the Adelaide Fringe is less accessible than the Edinburgh Fringe because the tickets are so expensive, but I still managed to stretch my budget to two shows: slapstick comedy Kaput and the dirty, flirty East End Cabaret.

I spent most of last weekend hanging out at WOMAD, which has got to be one of the easiest festivals in the world to get into for free. What you do is you run up to the gate shouting “I’ve lost my lanyard but you’ve got to let me in, quick! Quick! My band’s about to go on stage and they can’t play without me.” Or you say “I’m under 12. My mum’s over there to vouch for me,” and point to some random woman in the crowd before running through the gate to get your free wristband slapped on by some well meaning volunteer who overlooks the fact that you’re 6ft tall and have acne/facial hair. Or you could do what I did and get a festival pass in exchange for 14 hours of your life scanning wristbands at the entrance, where you will witness a whole range of people blag their way in for free.

On my last day in Adelaide I hung out with Ruby in Glenelg, a seaside suburb close to where she grew up. She was desperate to show me her favourite places in the area which was really quite sweet and somehow made up for the time I had to spend hearing about all the things you can do with marshmallows and chocolate sauce to make money.

We visited some great boutique shops that sold clothes made out of reworked vintage pieces. The dresses were beautiful and quite affordable at around $30. If it wasn’t for my already ridiculously heavy rucksack I might have treated myself to something. That kind of stuff can cost $100 in Melbourne, so perhaps Adelaide is a shade more awesome in some areas too.

Coober Pedy

Coober Pedy was known to me as the town where Guy Pearce’s character in Priscilla Queen of the Desert was chased by angry miners. I had no intention of going to backwater Australia where the locals spent their days hacking out tunnels underground and their evenings drinking beer among the surface rubble and beating up the occasional passing transvestite.

Then Gabby and I started planning a road trip that would neatly fill the four days we had until we needed to be back in Adelaide for WOMAD, the world music festival where we were volunteering.

We had both read Bill Bryson’s Down Under and were enamoured with the idea of an outback sunset “a hundred layered shades – glowing pinks, deep purples, careless banners of pure crimson – all on a scale that you cannot imagine”.

Suddenly there was Coober Pedy on the map, so tantalisingly in the middle of nowhere and a two day drive from Adelaide.

To make our trip into the outback affordable we needed to recruit one or two more people to share the cost of car hire and petrol. We advertised on Gumtree and that’s how we found Ruby, an exotic dancer with no nudity complex and a penchant for gambling. With Ruby we discovered the thrill of pub pokies – nothing to do with her source of income but the push button fruit machines that you find in amusement arcades back home.

On the 541km stretch of highway between Port Augusta and Coober Pedy there are only two refuelling stops: Pimba and Glendambo. We missed the turnoff for Pimba and sailed straight past it. I worried that we might do the same with Coober Pedy. I’d heard it was built underground and I imagined the entrance to be a solitary escalator out in the desert that would be almost invisible in the shimmering heat rising off the tarmac. I hoped it would be well signposted.

I needn’t have worried. The conical mounds of pink earth that had been churned up in search of opals signalled our proximity to Coober Pedy long before we saw the numerous advertising billboards that lined the highway on the approach to the town.

Coober Pedy was neither the rough and desperate place I’d expected from Priscilla nor the underground city of my imagination. The pubs, restaurants and bars on the main street were mostly above ground and the people we met in them were pleasant and friendly. There were a few cave-like constructions that served as entrances to underground churches and B&Bs and the dugout homes, designed to protect their inhabitants from the baking desert heat, were identified by the chimneys, aerials and satellite dishes perched on pink slopes. I thought it was charming.

I wanted to buy some postcards to send to friends and family but it was almost impossible to find one showing an attractive image of the town. The photos were of drills and cranes and brutal looking machinery that gave the impression that everything in Coober Pedy was designed to destroy and damage the landscape.

We spent the day underground visiting an old opal mine and a model dugout home. In the evening Gabby and I climbed a hill to watch the outback sunset we had longed for. Like the machinery pictured on the postcards, the mosquitoes in Coober Pedy were brutal: industrial strength with drills for faces. When we came down off that hill our arms were bubbled and bobbled with itchy bites. It was worth it for that outback sunset though, which really was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Tasmania Photo Diary Days 7 & 8

Day 7: I drove back to Hobart stopping off at Ross on the way. I’d read in my lonely planet that the bridge was the third oldest in Australia and one of its most impressive. I wasn’t blown away.

Day 8: I went on a sculpture trail around Battery Point where I learned about the history of Hobart’s waterfront. The sculptures took the form of numbers – weights, measures, dates, quantities and distances – that were important in the development of the waterfront and were made of materials that recalled the eras described. It was very thoughtfully done.

Tasmania Photo Diary Days 4 & 5

Day 4: On our second day on the Peninsula Circuit we hiked over Mt Graham to Wineglass Bay. We’d been lucky with the weather so far but by the time we reached the bay, dark clouds were gathering overhead. It poured on the last stretch of the walk back to the car park.

Day 5: We detoured from the coast road up into St Mary’s and headed to the South Sister Lookout. As we climbed up the rocks to the summit I heard what I thought were pipes playing. The noise turned out to be a combination of the wind zinging through the telecommunications cables and the high pitched buzz from a radio mast at the top. It was dizzyingly high.

Back on the road to St Helen’s we pulled over to snap some black swans.

In St Helen’s we treated ourselves to some Tasmanian oysters before heading to a free campsite in Humbug Point.

Tasmania Photo Diary Day 3

Day 3: Driving up the east coast of Tasmania I frequently had to steer round dead wallabies on the road. We saw plenty of live wallabies at Freycinet National Park which were so used to humans they barely looked up from eating when we walked past. Please universe, may they never end up as road kill.

 

The Peninsula Circuit is a two day hike taking in some of Freycinet's beautiful isolated beaches.

It was a challenging walk where we sometimes had to scramble up slippery granite river beds or hoist ourselves over fallen trees. I had to laugh when we reached the campsite and saw this sign. Has anyone ever managed to get that far with a rifle tucked under their arm? Or a poodle for that matter?

This is where we set up our tent at Cook's Bay after completing the first part of the Peninsula Circuit. The love heart made of shells was already there when we arrived. I imagined a young couple had camped there before us and sat looking out over the sea as the sun went down. It was definitely a very romantic spot.

A Communication Mishap Part 2

It was early evening by the time Sag and I neared Wilsons Prom. Between Christmas and the end of January accommodation in the national park is completely booked out (you have to apply for it in July) so I got us a room in the nearest big town. The name Opal Motel made me expect faux-glamorous shabby lodgings (gold threads and cigarette burns in the bed covers, that sort of thing) but actually it was very clean and comfortable accommodation.

We checked in then got straight back in the car for a drive along the coast. You really do get a sense of how big and empty Australia is when you’re out in the countryside. The horizon swept around us in an uninterrupted circle, no hills or houses to break up the vast stretch of green-brown fields. We stopped at Eagle’s Nest, a rock formation in the sea between Inverloch and Cape Paterson, and got out for a walk. That area of the coast reminded me of Northern Ireland, which I visited with my family shortly before coming out to Australia.

It wasn’t late by the time we got back to the motel but since we’d decided (Sag decided and I reluctantly agreed) to get up at 6 the next day, we went about getting ready for bed. I wriggled in under my bed sheets, which were tucked in tightly under the mattress in typical hotel style, and lay there like a mummy with my arms pinned by my sides while Sag prayed. He asked if I wanted to join him but I declined. I wondered if I should leave the room to give him his privacy but I was wedged between the sheets and by the time I’d worked out what kind of ninja-like manoeuvres it would take to get me out of there, he was already finished.

“Good night,” Sag said, leaning over my bed to kiss me.

“Good night,” I said, turning my face so that his lips landed on my cheek. Then he lay down on my bed beside me with the too-tight bed sheets stretched taught like a sheet of cardboard between us.

“How about I just stay here tonight?”

“No!” I lifted my head off the pillow as much as my restrictive bed linen would allow.

“Please?”

“Absolutely not.”

“But I won’t do anything.”

“Either you get into your own bed, or I’ll get another room.”

“Ok, sorry, sorry!” Sag leapt up as though he’d been burned and went over to his own bed.

“Please can we not talk about this again?” he asked.

“Fine by me,” I said.

The following morning my alarm went off at 6 but I didn’t feel much like making life easy for Sag so I stayed in bed for another hour. We still made it to Wilsons Prom in good time.

It was absolutely beautiful; an impossibility of greens and blues. Even the areas that had been destroyed in the 2009 bush fires were dramatic and impressive looking: ash grey branches poking up through the pale green regrowth. We walked through rainforests and along beaches where the rounded quartz crystals in the sand made it squeak underfoot. I forgot about what happened the night before and just enjoyed being there.

In the car on the way back to Melbourne, Sag apologised and asked if I would see him again. Although that incident didn’t put me off looking for travel companions online – I went on an amazing road trip recently which was also organised through Gumtree – it did put me right off Sag. I had to say no.