« Fishing Camp (published in the Bulletin 1998) | Main | My Father's War (published Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend 1999) »

Heading West

Gate, Angorichina SA

Armed with a book called 'Free Camping in Australia' and towing a 6x4 box trailer behind our Commodore VH, my partner Jan and our three children; Felix 10, Fenn 8 and Matilda 4 departed inner Sydney in October 2002. We headed west, slowly. Jan's parents in Perth were celebrating fifty years of marriage just after Christmas and had promised to stay together till we got there.

It took us 28 days to reach Perth, although I didn't feel our crossing had properly ended until a few weeks later when we all sat sheltering from the wind in a limestone cave on the westernmost part of Rottnest Island.

In the weeks before our departure the blue and slightly rusty box trailer, bought from Trading Post, took up most of my energies (and the space in our small Darlinghurst backyard). I used all the timber that I'd hoarded for years to extend its height and make a beautiful lid for it - lockable, waterproof, dustproof and painted in gloss white enamel. I even used some lengths of 150 year old cedar given to me by my friend Euan. I primed up dozens of different sized wooden panels to paint on. Jan bought an old Super 8 camera and hard-covered journals for the boys.

When we took the kids out of school some of the parents said they envied us; 'it would be so great to do what you're doing', they said. Well yes, it was great. However there were times when the children really missed their playmates back in Sydney - the brief friendships struck up in playgrounds and van parks weren't all that satisfying. ('Have you ever made really big pancakes? My mum makes pancakes shaped like a squid!' said Fenn to a boy on the swings). And there were times when Jan and I felt like the sherpas to our children: the evenings when we tried to pitch camp and cook dinner in howling dusty winds, the mornings when the poured milk never hit the weetbix but blew off sideways towards the horizon; and the endless replays of 'Barbie Girl' by Aqua demanded by Matilda all the way across the Nullabor - enough to make the most steadfast sherpas drop their packs.

Here are some exerpts from my journal and some pictures of the places we passed through.

12/10/02 Two kilometres west of Gooloogong, fifty feet from the road to Forbes.

Our first night of camping on the big trip to Perth, listening to a crackling radio by the light of a battery lamp, swatting bugs. Felix and Fenn are still chatting in their tent. The moon half full, some angel wings of cloud passing by it.

We set up camp a bit too late as Jan wanted to see the Japanese Gardens in Cowra - described by Fenn as a good place 'for calm and condensation'. I'd also stopped to buy a longneck of beer from a pub at Mandurama - a young friendly girl serving, a bit 'goth', V8 car racing at Bathurst on the TV, two men looking up, mesmerised, as the car skirts skimmed the bitumen.

As we struggled to put up our tents and cook before it got dark , a farmer started shooting at birds or rabbits in the paddock opposite, random popping for about half an hour, a bit too close. Matilda's wheels fell off as she sat at the card table for dinner. 'I want to watch TV!' she shouted over her bowl of chops beans and potatoes. Then, between sobs, she hummed the theme music from The Simpsons. The shooting stopped and it was getting dark so I tried to light the mantle of our gas lamp. I hadn't properly tightened some new brass fittings on the neck and a wooosh of flames came out just above the bottle. I panicked. Jan calmly smothered the fire with her beloved woollen picnic blanket (a twenty-first birthday present from 1981).

14/10/02 Hillston (Western NSW).

I heard about the nightclub bombing in Bali last night on my campside radio in our caravan park near the banks of the Lachlan, after everyone else had fallen asleep in their tents, bugs tapping against my electric lamp. Sad faraway news.

Previously, after our meal, we had all walked down the wide main street of the town to buy an ice cream. First, we'd walked past the 'Exie's' club (so it's named on the town map) with its neat garden of roses and sweet peas, two men sitting down to a meal in the bright dining room, bryllcreamed bow-waves in their thinning hair. The sign outside explained that the club was in no way affiliated with the RSL. On the nearby war memorial I counted that about sixty from Hillston had been killed in the First World War and sixteen in the Second - a lot of death, I thought, for a quiet place like this.

The shops we passed were cavernous and sparsely stocked (compared to Sydney) except the crammed ag. supplies store which had a sign saying: 'I'm your bloke! Big enough to have what you want, small enough to care!'

We made our way down to an ancient Milk Bar called 'The Golden Gate' which had been run by Bill Morgan and his sister for nearly sixty years. (I'd done a 'reccie' earlier on my bike). It was still open well after dark, the V8 races from Bathurst growling from a TV in the corner. Mr Morgan, a tall and aged man, sat behind a glass and chrome counter where bobby pins, styptic pencils and chocolate bars were on display. He shuffled out to serve us and wouldn't let the children take their own ice-creams from the slide-top freezer provided by the ice-cream manufacturer ( a sign:'no self-service!' in a shaky hand was taped to the perspex). When Felix and Fenn ummed and erred over their choice he got a bit annoyed and when Matilda coughed in his direction he stepped quickly backwards - 'Don't let her give me a cold!'.

15/10/02 Balranald Caravan Park.

A group of grey nomads set up a kraal of mobile homes behind us, all facing in on each other. The nearest van had an 'I love Country Music' sticker on its side and a movement sensitive security lamp above the door whose high wattage glare made me drop my toothbrush in surprise.

This morning in the van park washrooms a man in blue boxer shorts beside me at the basins (who I recognised as the country music lover) struck up conversation. He'd finished combing his dyed black hair was scraping away at his red chin with a razor. Without turning his head, but looking at me in the mirror, he said; 'Bad business in Bali!'. Then he stopped shaving, looked at me directly, and waggled his soapy razor up and down - 'Not just Bali. We'll be next! A well placed bomb in the Latrobe valley would cut off the whole of Victoria's power supply. They could do the same at Wallerawang... and blow up the dams too. You wait and see!'

We stayed a week at with Nicho, Helen and Geoff at Myola and Middleback Stations, between Iron Knob and Whyalla - a place I come to regularly to paint, once or twice a year. This was the first time I'd brought the whole family since Felix was a baby.

The Track to Myola ink & watercolour on paper 2011


25/10/02 Myola.

We went for a picnic up into the low ironstone-scattered hills eight kilometres behind the homestead. The wind was gusting randomly and it felt like rain. On the track up to the picnic spot (where Geoff and Helen have left a trailer loaded with a water tank) you pass a fallen windmill and the broken drystone surrounds of a well. Geoff said that there is an underground stream nearby and that his father could divine for water but only did it on his own land, not for anyone else. I told them how I'd been shown how to do it at Felix's age and, at the time, reckonned I had the 'gift'; but I hadn't done it since then.

So after lunch, while Jan, and the boys scrabbled for rocks and Matilda played with the working dogs, I suggested to Geoff that we try divining for the stream he'd mentioned earlier.

I needed a U-shaped piece of fencing wire as my divining rod (that was what I had been taught to use) and so I searched the fenceline until I found a suitable discarded length. The piece I found was badly kinked, but without pliers there wasn't much I could do about it. Slowly I started pacing around with the rough U held up against my chest, gripping the two serif shapes I'd made with my fist and thumbs. Geoff walked nearby holding out a forked stick. The voice of Yoda from Star Wars kept going through my head, 'Feel the force, just feel the force...' which made me laugh. I didn't feel the wire move at all near the well where Geoff said the stream should be, but about thirty feet away to the west of there and again on the track near where Matilda was playing with the dogs, the wire felt like it was being tugged strongly downwards.

And yet I wasn't quite convinced that my ability to divine for water had been retained after all these years - perhaps a sudden wind gust had disturbed my grip.

The sore red spots that soon formed on the inside of each thumb where I grasped the thick wire took me back to Mr Whitney's paddock at 'Bindah' near Mudgee - 1963, a grey sky overhead, pacing up and down, obsessed.

The rail line that goes west from the steel works at Whyalla to the iron ore mines runs dead straight as far as the eye can see through dry plains of saltbush. I once found a twenty dollar note flapping on the sleepers, halfway to Iron Knob. Geoff once found a watermelon growing by the line. Ripe and delicious, he said. You don't see many cars on that long stretch of road and so you get into the habit of greeting passing drivers by raising the forefinger of one hand from the wheel.


29/10/02 Pildappa.

This morning, when we finally left the Iron Knob road to rejoin the highway - Port Augusta to Kimba - I raised my finger to greet the first passing vehicle and the driver returned it with an emphatic 'up yours' gesture out the window.

I felt quite upset (despite consciously telling myself not to worry about it - we were back on a quite a busy highway after all).

'Why are people so aggressive?' I asked Jan, rhetorically.

It made me think of the beheaded kangaroo we'd seen the previous day, stuck by someone onto a fencepost beside the ore line. Helen says that the carrion eaters don't touch them when they're vertical like that and that these trophies end up almost embalmed onto the fenceposts. I guess the joke is that passing drivers hit their brakes, thinking them about to cross.

Helen became so incensed by their reoccurence of this macabre practice that she used to stop the car on the way in to Whyalla and use a stick to heave the dead 'roos off the posts. One time she ripped the post right out of the ground.

5/11/02 Cocklebiddy (halfway across the Nullabor )

A bikie-looking bloke insisted on giving us 'driveway service' and filled us up with super (the most expensive on our east-west crossing).

'Where yer from?'


'Just around the corner, eh,'

'But Jan was born in Kalgoorlie,' I said, pointing to the inside of the car; 'We're headed there to pay homage.'

The man dropped his voice to a whisper - 'Let me give you some advice buddy. When you get to Kalgoorlie, leave the wife and kids at home and take yourself off to one of them tittie shows.'

Inside the service station office there were swirls of red dirt amongst the ripped old tyres and scattered tools on the workshop floor. I handed over my credit card. 'That'll be $69.60 buddy - special discount. And what shall I add on for the tip?' He winked.

There was a plump blond girl standing in the doorway behind the counter. 'When are we going for a ride?' she asked him. 'I'll take yer tonight, OK? We'll go for a ride tonight.' said the man, out the corner of his mouth, slamming the till shut. She stood there, hands on hips, a sad disbelieving look on her face.

We drove off down the straight flat road.

'I wish you'd stop telling people I was born in Kalgoorlie,' said Jan; 'You only do it to give yourself kudos with the locals'.

7/11/02 Kalgoorlie-Southern Cross

We returned from a morning of goldfields tourism to the sun-blasted Golden Village Caravan Park (no stars, no lawns). To one side of our cabin a man in a singlet was watering among his neat collection of garden gnomes and pot plants. The Eagles were blasting out from the caravan next door. 'Revenge' said Jan - we'd been pretty noisy ourselves before we'd gone out that morning. A lot of the men who lived here probably worked twelve hour shifts, night and day.

During the worst heat of the afternoon I went out on my bike and did some drawing near the railway line while the boys did maths and their journals, beneath the throbbing airconditioner. When we'd all finished I took them to the 'pool' - really just a part of the owners' 70s brick bungalow, separated by a screen of ochre shade cloth (you could see their brown silhouettes, sitting around having a few beers). A boogie board and a few noodles were floating on the pool when we arrived, so the boys invented a battle game, sitting on them, each trying to reach the opponent's side. I didn't feel very comfortable about the proximity of the brothers' excited yelping to this domestic scene. After five minutes a gate in the shade cloth opened and a solid woman came out clutching a toddler in tight T-shirt and disposable nappy - 'You can't play with that boogie board, it's Brandon's!' Ants had crawled out through the cracks in the red-dusted concrete and discovered the tender skin between my toes. I broke short the boys' water sports and hustled them back to the cabin.

Felix asked if he could go out for a cycle around the van park. The previous night he'd done circuits of the park with a bunch of boys, racing past the underlit vans and cabins, shooting the speed bumps. We said alright but to be careful, look out for cars. Fifteen minutes passed and we were just starting to worry about him when he returned on foot, an aboriginal girl twenty metres behind him, riding his bike. She was very dark, with thick tousled hair and she rode the bike slowly, standing on the pedals because the seat was too high for her. She said she was bored - her brother Calvin was in their van playing games. Her name was Rose and she was eight. (I'd passed her earlier in the day near the camp kitchen. She'd smiled shyly and waved at Fenn and I). There was a recent scar (it looked a bit infected) across the bridge of her nose. She explained that it was Calvin's returning boomerang that had done it, an accident. It had really hurt.

She played for a bit outside our cabin as I sat on the stoop peeling potatoes for our dinner. 'Can I go and get my brother?' she asked, and a minute later she came back with Calvin, who had 'Calvin' stencilled in white across the back of his black T-shirt. He settled down with Felix and Fenn on the bottom bunk, all looking at the Simpson's comic book, the big one we'd bought in Whyalla, with the brothers taking it in turns to read aloud. Calvin said he could only read slowly and told Felix he was a bit embarrassed about it.

Rose was interested in what I was cooking for dinner (lamb and potato curry) and said she didn't like spicy food but her brother did. She'd been doing painting with Matilda, perched on top of the trailer. She got me to paint an elephant for and after I'd done the outline she asked me to 'make it grey'. I showed the girls how to mix a nice grey from equal parts of red and green. It was a beautiful balmy inland evening with long shadows and warm bands of sunlight, galahs screeching amongst the fiercely pruned gums.

They stayed on for dinner after running back to their van with Felix to check if it was alright. 'I love my mum.' said Rose, out of the blue. 'But she won't let me go to the supermarket on my own.' Over the meal Felix and Calvin talked about pocket money and Calvin said that sometimes he gets $50. 'Wow,' said Felix, impressed. But Rose said that's only when they go and see old Aunty Alice and she added that up at 'John's place' where people do lots of drinking they pick up heaps of money off the ground, but that John has dobermans to 'keep the sniffers away'.

'What are sniffers?' asked Felix.

Calvin talked about his uncle who drives them to Perth sometimes 'in five hours, like a racing car driver'.

'Cool,' said Fenn.

After dinner they wanted Jan to walk them back to their van as they said they were a bit frightened. Calvin pointed to one van on the way and said that they'd lived in that one for a while but they'd had to move, it was sort of spooked. he pointed to another van, telling Jan, 'You've got to watch out in this place. The fella in that van over there, he's always looking at me auntie.'

We woke up and packed the trailer to drive on to Coolgardie and Southern Cross. It was already hot. Felix kept asking what time it was, because he wanted to go and say goodbye to Calvin and Rose and give Calvin a Simpson's comic. We'd said he couldn't go over too early. He had his disposable camera with him and wanted to take a photo of them. We discouraged him from doing that, saying it was probably a bit intrusive. At 8.15 we let him go and he sprinted off. Five minutes later he came back, panting from his run, smiling.

'How did you go, Felix?'

'Well, I said goodbye and gave Calvin the comic and I asked if it was OK to take their photo and their mum was really encouraging. She said: Come on youse! Stand up straight for him.'

We got the photo back a few weeks later: outside a 70s caravan, Calvin, bent over looking down at the open Simpsons comic, Rose looking away from the camera, up in the sky, squinting.

10/11/02 Coolgardie to Southern Cross 

Coolgardie, 39 kms. from Kalgoorlie. We lunched in a park where the grass was unnaturally luxuriant and green. I put my head on the ground and drank eagerly from one of the brass garden taps. There was on old ornate shed in the far corner, built into the boundary fence, with a Chinese style roof. I guessed it may once have sold food to park-goers. I pictured them in their hats and waiscoats fetching hot water for billies and pots of tea. As we left the park I noticed three yellow signs staked into the ground: 'Do not drink from taps - Treated Sewage'.

In the 1880s Coolgardie had 16,000 residents, but now there were only a few hundred. No Kmart or skimpy barmaids here. The city's goldrush past was to be seen in the stately public buildings scattered down the main street, like teeth in a gummy old mouth.

We paid a few dollars to the Tourist Information volunteer and wandered unsupervised through the old courthouse, now a museum. We creaked in and out of numerous antechambers filled with exhibits, put together it seems, by different people at different times, mostly the work of enthusiastic amateurs. Red dust had penetrated some of the cabinets in which objects were displayed above red and blue embossed Dymo labels. (I remember my father bought a Dymo machine in the 60s and soon we'd put labels on everything: desk drawers, a leather camera case, vinyl LP covers, tennis rackets, Globite suitcases.)

There were exhibits about water, how hard it was to get, photos of huge wood-fuelled condensers which de-salinated bore water. One room dealt with transport. A photo showed a family in a sailboat with metal wheels on a dry salt lake.

In the high-ceilinged central chamber there was a great surprise: the Waghorn Bottle Collection. Three long walls were covered by upright cabinets containing thousands of bottles, of all shapes and sizes - the lifelong obsession of May and Frank Waghorn. Each cabinet was backlit through frosted glass, creating a contellation  of transparent colour - like jellyfish floating in space. This was the old courtroom, with a mezzanine for the public, and hand-adzed floorboards.

Earlier in the day, halfway from Kalgoorlie, we'd seen a bearded thin aboriginal man in faded workclothes, riding a ten-speed bike slowly along the highway. As we left the Bottle Museum I saw him again, in the afternoon heat, pushing his bike through the meagre tree shadows.

We had asked the Tourist Information lady if there was anywhere nearby where we could possibly swim.

'They're re-filling The Gorge. You could try that. It's just two miles out of town. we all learnt to swim there and then it got drained by the mines.'

The Gorge was a hundred metres of muddy water in a half-full reservoir. At the far end a black poly pipe held up by a forked stick gushed water down onto a yellow plastic tarp that lay semi-submerged on the bank.

to be continued...


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend