After a sad goodbye to the grandparents, we drove out of Broome and down 90 kilometres of a very bumpy dirt road and then turned off down an even bumpier dirt road, where we drove another 32 kilometres to the Aboriginal-owned land of Middle Lagoon.
By the time we arrived, something was rattling in the car and one of the doors on the back of the trailer had been blown open, the lock busted. Miraculously, nothing had fallen out.
And we were lucky to get a camp spot above the beach with panoramic views of the ocean—the most picturesque site we’ve had. In the evening the kids met up with a dozen other kids and made damns in the sand of the receding tide as the sun set and parents watched from above.
After sunset, a full fat yellow moon rose up over the camp. During home school the next day, K wrote in her journal:
Last night the full moon was so bright we had moon shadows walking to the toilets. We gazed up at the night sky to look for shooting stars. I saw airplanes and the Southern Cross, but no shooting stars. The moon was so bright we did not need a torch or a lantern to guide us!
The next night, after sunset and before moonrise, we turned the lights out and looked again for shooting stars. I showed K the Milky Way. “We’re going to miss this when we go back to Sydney,” she said.
“We can still go camping,” I offered.
“But we won’t see the stars like this,” she said.
And she’s more right than I would’ve suspected. The next day I happened to read an article in TheGuardian Weekly about light pollution around the world and learned that “99% of people living in the U.S. and the European Union” can’t see the Milky Way. And, with LEDs, the situation is worsening.
The night sky is the stuff of legends, creation myths, poetry. Milton described the Milky way as “a broad and ample road whose dust is gold, and pavement stars”.
We’re blessed that there are so many spots outside the cities of Australia that are free from light pollution. . . and we’re still waiting for K to catch one of those shooting stars . . .
After Middle Lagoon we drove to Koojaman, another campsite on Aboriginal land.
I’ve been reading a bit of history on this region, the Kimberley, which was the last place in Australia to pay their indigenous employees. Most of the stations here hired Aboriginals for no money, and “paid” them with bread and tea; it wasn’t until the 1960s that they began to receive wages.
These days things have changed. The Bardi and Jawi people have reclaimed some of their land, including both of the places we camped, thanks to the Native Title Act.
K and I took a cultural tour with a local Aboriginal man, Bundy, who told us about one of the stories from Bardi dreamtime, and how it connects to which foods are safe to eat in the bush. Then we went for a walk and sampled berries from various trees, and learned about the medicinal qualities of the bark and leaves of other trees. It was a humbling experience to listen to a man tell us about a culture—his culture—tens of thousands of years old.
R after the obligatory sunset camel ride on Cable Beach
Broome is a sleepy pretty little town a long way from anywhere on the north coast of WA. It has a population of around 14,000, but this quadruples in the “dry”, when tourists and travellers like ourselves visit. In the wet it’s so humid and hot that everyone stays inside the air-con. But now it’s dry and 31 in the day, 19 at night. At the local shops they’re selling mittens, gloves and fleecy PJs.
On the way to Broome we stopped overnight at Cape Keraudren and camped on the beach. The tides are massive in this part of the world—the biggest in the southern hemisphere. The difference between high and low tide can be as much as 10 metres.
After a sunset over the Indian Ocean, hundreds of little hermit crabs scuttled past our trailer on their way to the water, wearing shells of various shapes and colours. Magic.
There were also hundreds of sand flies. We all got covered in bites. Thankfully, for Lee and the girls, the bites just faded away the next day. Unfortunately for me, I was still itching a week later.
Then we had a night at Barn Hill Station, where they do a lovely Sunday roast dinner, BYO table, chairs, plates, cutlery, drinks–they provide everything else. There’s live music, a great Aboriginal band, and dancing. It was WA Day weekend and so there were dozens of kids on the dance floor; they had a blast.
The next day, on the 6th of June, we arrived in Broome . . . and so did the grandparents! They came all the way from the USA to see their feral little grandchildren. It was a happy reunion at Broome’s tiny airport.
A tour of Habitat’s gardens showed papaya (above), frog-leg croton and desert rose.
My parents have spoiled us rotten these past two weeks, putting us up in a resort. Ahhhh, running water, electricity, telly, air conditioning, a sofa! And my mom bought us each a tour. The girls went on a camel ride—what remarkable animals. Lee and I went, too, and after reading so much about camels in Tracks, it was wonderful to get to be so close to this oversized desert animal.
My mom and I went on a boat and saw snubfin dolphins, native to northern Australia (photo from wwf.org.au).
Lee flew up to Cape Leveque and Horizontal Falls—the highlight of his journey thus far.
We visited the croc farm, which was terrifying. We’re hoping these—the crocs behind the fence—are the only salt water crocodiles we’ll see on our trip. A few days later, Cable Beach, the main beach in Broome was closed because of crocs. We stayed well away.Crocs at the croc farm, who see us as prey.
While here, my parents celebrated their 50thwedding anniversary. Whew.
We’ll be sad to say goodbye to Mootie and Pop on Tuesday, when they fly back to Atlanta and we head up a dirt road towards Cape Leveque. The kids don’t want to leave their grandparents. R doesn’t want to leave the resort. But the rest of us are itching to get back to the bush.
In the brightly lit aisles of Newman’s only grocery store you see miners in fluoro tops, trousers and boots, covered from head to toe in red dust. They walk through Woollies in a daze. Shifts at the mine are 12 hours, 6-6; the mine is open 365 days a year. Workers often work two days followed by two nights. The only time there’s traffic in town is just after six in the morning and just after six in the evening when the shifts swap over.
In Woollies I also saw the beautiful bored wives of miners making small attempts to reign in their toddlers. These young families have moved here so they can make enough money for a down payment on a house in a city or a town more liveable than this. They may stay a year or two before moving on to another mining town; they may stay until their kids are in high school.
During the boom some miners kept their families in Ubud in Bali and flew in and out of Indonesia. It’s relatively cheap there and the flight from Port Hedland to Bali is an hour and 52 minutes. The boom is over.
It’s a transient place—especially now that the price of iron ore has dropped. Houses in Newman were being rented out for $2,000 a week, two years ago; now they’re $400. The caravan park used to be $200 a night, and it may still be, but we didn’t find out because we got to stay with Lee’s friend from Wales, who has a beautiful house and garden filled with frangipani and papaya trees in the front garden and chickens and veggies in the back. Our friend, Andrew, likes Newman. He frequently volunteers for St John’s Ambulance and he’s well-loved in town.
Newman can reach temperatures of over 50 degrees in the summer months. There’s no cinema or bookstore. There’s no café, though they’re building one in the new shopping centre. They do have a library and recreational centre—sport is big here—and an oval and golf course. Radio Hill overlooks the town; it’s only small, but there’s a steep ascent and when Andrew was training to climb Everest last month, he’d hike up Radio Hill ten times in a row with a pack on his back.
And there’s the beautiful pool that Andrew manages. It’s quiet in winter—we were the only ones swimming—because it’s too “cold”. It was 30 degrees outside and the pool temperature was 25.
The town is cosmopolitan. There’s a Thai community, Pacific Islanders, Kiwis, Irish, Indians and of course the first people of this country. Some Aboriginals come down to town for a drink; they’re community, nearby, is dry. They wander slowly through the heat, gather in groups in the shade, sit on the grass and speak their native language. I wonder what they make of the massive hole in the middle of their country, and people like us passing through their country with a camper trailer. Newman is full of travellers this time of year. Some Aboriginals work in the mines, but they’re a minority. It’s much more common to meet a miner from New Zealand, some of whom are FIFO (fly in fly out).
K and R under an old mining truck outside the Visitors Centre in Newman
There’s a group of Aboriginals around the liquor store, “Cellarbrations”. Some leave their welfare cards with the cashier.
There are a lot of other ethnicities frequenting the liquor store, too. Newman has three pubs (Lee went to one–$12 for a pint of One Fifty Lashes!). And three churches.
Our friend tells us that they recently passed an ordinance here that Aboriginals are not allowed to buy alcohol after five p.m. But other ethnicities can purchase alcohol after five. I thought the days of different laws for different colours were over.
You can see the temptation to sit around and drink in the tropics. It’s just so warm. And there’s so little to do (unless you’re Andrew, training for Everest by day and rescuing people in the ambulance by night). No one moves fast here, not even the miners.
Newman is located 165 kilometres west of Jigalong, a place familiar to anyone who’s read Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence. If you haven’t read it, go out and buy a copy now. The girls in the book were from Jigalong. It’s the story of the most remarkable journey in Australian history. Three Aboriginal girls with white fathers and Aboriginal mothers were kidnapped and taken to a prison-like school just north of Perth, where they were trained to become domestic servants. Shortly after arriving, these three girls escaped the prison/school at Moore River and travelled on their own, by foot 2,400 kilometres home to Jigalong. They escaped numerous attempts to capture them.
The story is both inspiring and heartbreaking. The post-script explains how one of the girls was abducted again by white authorities, as was her child. They were part of what is now known as the Stolen Generation.
I find the journey of Molly, Daisy and Gracie especially remarkable when read alongside histories of early white explorers like Burke and Wills, grown men from a “civilized” culture, who had all the money and gear and no clue how to get through the middle of this rugged country. Many of them died before they were able to get home. These three indigenous girls whose story is told in Follow the Rabbit-proof Fence had more brains, knowledge of the land and stamina than most (if not all) of Australia’s famous male white explorers of the 19th century.
K and I went on a tour of the mine, which was remarkable. The pit used to be a mountain, Whaleback Mountain. “Pit” is a rather small word for the massive tiered crater dug out of red earth.
The numbers are staggering when it comes to mining. We saw the tyres they use for the huge mining trucks–$40,000 a piece, and they only last nine months!
Whaleback Mine is the largest open pit iron ore mine in the southern hemisphere. It’s mines like this that are responsible for Australia’s prosperity in recent decades.
When I stood in the hot sun and looked down at the big trucks dwarfed by the size of this massive pit, I had mixed feelings. There are jobs and other financial, as well as practical benefits that come from the steel made from this mine. How many homes–apartments in high rises in Beijing and Shanghai–have been built from the iron ore that used to be Whaleback Mountain? I wondered if the steel in the foundation and floors of our own unit back in Sydney came from Whaleback?
But I shuddered to think of the environmental impact of the mine–they use six million litres of diesel a month at Whaleback.
A week ago we left the turquoise waters of the Ningaloo Reef and drove inland, into the Pilbara, a region in Australia’s northwest that is more than 400,000 square kilometres.
I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of this varied landscape, so different from anything I’ve ever seen. Tufts of spinifex grass, golden yellow in the late afternoon light, dot the red earth. Sometimes it’s flat and desolate; other times there are rolling hills, or plateaued red mountains. We drove past mines and Aboriginal communities.
We drove and drove and camped by the side of the road near the banks of a dried-up river bed, where the girls collected iron ore rocks, smoothed by running water during the wet season. All the rivers and creeks that we passed over were dry.
The next day we drove some more and finally arrived at Karijini National Park. The traditional owners of this park are the Banyjima, Yinhawangka and Kurrama people, who have been here for over 30, 000 years. It’s places like this that remind me how odd it is that Australia’s national anthem begins, “Australians let us all rejoice, for we are young and free” when Australia is home to the longest continuous culture on earth.
This park was the highlight of our trip thus far. It’s filled with dramatic red gorges that lead down to cool, green fresh water pools: perfect swimming holes. In summer, the temperatures can get above 50 C (over 122 F). But now in “winter”, it’s only 29 (84 F).
On our third day we walked down the steep descent into Hancock Gorge and arrived at a place where we had to walk with water up to our shoulders. And that was the easy bit!
Then there was the narrow Spider Walk where we climbed over running water with hands and feet on either sides of the narrow gorge. At the end, we got to Kermit’s, a green pool, cooled by the shade, and plunged into the cold water. K did the Spider Walk twice, the second time with no hands.
We spent four amazing days in Karajini, camped in a lovely bush setting with no wind and hardly any flies! Our neighbours were a freindly young couple, who came over for drinks one evening. Shane was an electrician, luckilly; he fixed the connection between our solar panels and the batteries used to power our fridge and lights. Thanks Shane!
Another highlight was swimming at the idyllic Fern Pool with pygmy perch who nibble at your toes, black bats hanging from the trees above and loud squawking corellas flying overhead. The pool is cool, but the waterfalls feeding the pool come off the hot rocks and they’re warm, creating a natural shower.
Next, it’s on to the mining town of Newman, to visit a Welsh friend.