Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Pilbara - History of Rocks

ODO 98,000 - that's 19k for the trip so far!

I'm on to the Pilbara now, having moved on from the Kimberly. The mighty Pilbara, heart of Australian iron ore mining, home of some of the world's oldest rocks.

It's a strange place, almost misleading. Everything is rocky and red. The iron-oxide stained pebble is virtually a substitute for soil - the latter of which, if you can find it, is guaranteed to stain the blackest of clothing rusty red. Riding through the hills here, though, its almost like being back in pastoral NSW - the spinifex matting is so thickly permeating that the area looks at first glance like cleared grassy grazing land. The trees are stunted and sparce - in no other area of the country has it been so impossible to find shade. In no other area, moreover, is it so difficult to find water - outside of the towns all you'll find is empty rest stops (virtually all NT and QLD rest stops have water as a matter of course), and wide red roads leading not to a friendly cattle-station homestead, but to a landscape-plundering mine. I spoke to a Japanes cyclist (a.k.a. nutter), whose sole source of water on the three-day 250km ride from Port Headland to the nearest roadhouse - the sole source of his most valuable commodity was the kindness of passers by. There is no planning out here, to ration your water to the next stop. Your only option is to drink when you need to and get it whenever you can. Due to prudent planning (born out of my trip down the Gibb River Rd - which proved to be more hospitable than I expected, and more hospitable even than here), I've had no concerns outside of constantly trying to get as much fluid into my stomach as possible. And that certainly is necessary - it is hot indeed. Not humid like the North, so it is frankly a pleasant change. But the dry, windy 40+ days (it was 43 in Headland when I left at 11am) drain you of your fluid before you even realise you've started sweating.

If Alice is in the 'real' outback of Australia, the Pilbara is the outback with an exclamation mark. The spinifex is more avid, the landscape is larger, older and redder. It is hotter (Marble Bar, hottest place in Oz, is just over the hill), and if it weren't for the odd cyclone blowing in from the hot summer seas to the north it may very well be drier as well. The centre is renowned for its sunsets - but so is the North West, and I can tell you the label is well deserved. Sunset over the beach in Broome (yes I Know that's not the Pilbara!) was astounding, but I've just watched the best of the trip so far. Incredible, amazing - bright and colourful, equally menacing, dwarfing my little camp upon a hill. It was even worth braving the flies (admittedly not the worst of the trip - but the second worst, by a wee margin) to admire - at least until my arms got too sore and I returned to the tent to start this. So here I am writing, waiting for the clouds to decide what they're going to do, and waiting out the flies before braving the evening air.

Once you get past the immediate and unavoidable treacherousness of the place, the Pilbara is wonderful, really and exceptionally.

As far as Australia is concerned, the Pilbara is probably too far away for virtually everything - except mining. All you need is a few good rocks, and all of a sudden you have money - and with money you can build the social structure of a region. (Not that it didn't have one before, whether European or Aboriginal - but 50 years ago it certainly wasn't like this.) The one abundand infrastructure item is public amenities - the mining companies pay for those. Nothing else can be built fast enough. You end up with towns like Port Headland and Newman with a weird feeling - almost as if they were built by communists. They look 'constructed', and probably efficient, but their character doesn't show that well through the incessant layer of iron ore dust. They are definitely lacking in shade - miners, it appears, though fanatical about keeping the grass green, are slow to realise the value of trees.

The area does have a curious pre-mining history, though, from what I can gather. The 1946 strike is a famous little bit of local history. It saw Aboriginal 'employees' from stations all through the region 'strike', and converge on Headland to demand pay (not equal pay, just pay!). I never really worked out whether it acheived all that much - Aborigines over here weren't granted a right to a minimum wage until 1968. But many of the strikers never did return to their stations, so if nothing else it was a slap-in-the-face response to their ill treatment. 1968 is a sad curiousity - the result in a large number of cases was that the Aborigines who ran the stations were suddenly too expensive, and were turfed out, kicked off their land, never to return. I haven't really found anyone to ask for more detail on all of this, but I suppose you could always go and look it up.

Broome has an even more remarkable labour history. Aborigines were originally used to collect pearl oysters (primarily for the mother-of-pear shells, rather than for the rare pearl itself), which collected along the beaches. As this resource ran out and they were forced to collect in deeper water they became increasingly reluctant (there are a range of dangers of the sea which made them naturally reluctant), culminating in slavery and forced labour. Aborigines were carted around locked up in chains and forced (women and children too) to man the luggers and dive for oysters. Pregnant women made for the best divers, apparently...

Later this practice became illegal, so Asians of various nationalities were drafted over to dive - not only were they better than Europeans, but there was no requirement to pay them full wages. Eventually the Japanese became the dominant labour source, in the sophisticated and dangerous diving suits (you know, with the big metal fishbowl helmet and fully inflated suit?).

This situation continued more-or-less amicably until WWII. The ships were all commissioned, and the Japanese all locked up. The heart of Broome is Chinatown - the closest thing the place has to a town centre. What is less commonly known is the fact that until WW!! the area was Japtown - Broome's Chinese history is relatively minor compared to its Japanese influences. These days, the famous Japanese cemetary is locked up, due to (alleged) vandalism of Japanese graves by environmentalists taking issue of Broome's (former) sister city's dolphin catch.

So the area has a bit of a chequered past. And with the Pilbara's primary occupation being exhuming itself for export you could argue it has a chequered present as well. But enough about that - I find these things remarkable, but I'm not going to pretend you need to do the same.

All in all, the area does make a fabulous and memorable touring destination. The Coral Coast, just down the hill, is a famous tourist destination - the Pilbara though is much less travelled. Sort of sad, but then I'm happy to keep it to myself for the time being.

Hoping you're enjoying wherever you are, I'll be reporting from the Coral Coast sometime soon.

also (inc. Broome photos, and all the Kununurra and Gibb Rivers')


Friday, October 23, 2009

Formatting etc

Perils of slow internet.... I'll fix up some of that formatting soon.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cattle, Crossings, Lakes and the Perfect Pool - West into a sun setting on WA's Kimberly


ODO 96,000!

I'm back on the road again (no longer on The road, though I'll come to that). And the world is as it should be. I have a day to be in Broome (which I'm just outside), and I've done most of my chores. Not the ones that involve water (because I only have enough for me), but enough to derive some sense of satisfaction.

Going back, way back, to my last entry, I was in good old Katherine. I hung around Kath about two hours too long - which was perfect for setting the mood. The road out was warm, and with some good progress made a stop at Top Springs was definitely in order. On the map this place is a rather large dot. When you arrive you find a tiny roadhouse with $2/L unleaded. That says a lot about this stretch of land. It's not that there's nothing here (you don't have servos for nothing), but the roads all lead to cattle stations or indigenous communities, so it isn't exactly urban. Once you get off the main drag, that's what the NT is all about - that and the odd mine.

I won't go into too much detail, but I was heading out back to visit Dan and Alex (uni bike club) doing toadbusting research on a cattle station. The couple of days was a treat - despite some inexplicable antipathy for actually doing stuff (sorry Dan). On the Cox trip I was spoilt for volume of food, but here I was just plain spoilt. Thank whoever for their generosity. And it was great to get out and learn a bit about the bovine blood that feeds the NT. So the visit was more than just toads!

It would have been sad to leave had the road out not been so beautiful. So much so I was actually inspired, despite excrutiating heat, to take a few photos []. I headed North from Top Springs, past the Victoria River Downs station (the only life on the road for a couple hundred kms), where I duly stopped to top up the liquid of health (water!) and to ask about the roads. The track in passed three choppers outside a shed - with a fourth inside. Quite a few for one station - they're a maintenance depot, as it turned out. A couple of the guys came out as I arrived to say hello and check my insanity ("Well... there's probably been a couple of other roadbikes in my time here" - six years!), and work out what the bike was. Despite only dropping in for a two minute pit stop, I could not have been made more welcome. I was flattered at being offered coke and beer, while the slice I didn't say no to. Waiting in the shade for the sweat to cool off Hillke approached to ask if I wanted to accompany Tass - moving one of the choppers around the back! I didn't say no to that either! And didn't complain when 'moving it around the back' meant taking a five minute flyover of the main station! They're funky little things, mustering choppers. Just sitting in it and watching the startup procedure, the range of guages and instruments - thoroughly enthralling. So I was back on the road with a special little memory of Victoria River Downs - thanks to Hillke, Tass, Andrew and the Other Guy (75% is a pass), it was a stop I won't forget.

The approach to Jasper Gorge saw an increasingly beautiful backdrop to the quite solid dirt road, and I was on the lookout for a view to stop and record when I noticed an unscheduled campground by a billabong. Only when I pulled in and got off did I realise how rooted I'd gotten - less than 300km covered, and by lunchtime I needed a shower, bath, swim, steak, ice cream and 2.25L bottle of Gatorade. In reverse order. So out came the billy for a liquid lunch - and by that stage the place had obviously become a winner for that night's camp. I was in no state to continue on without some rest.

The next day proved no less arduous, but I paced myself to handle it better. I hadn't planned it, but since I'd made such an early start I figured I'd turn right towards Victoria River (roadhouse and river valley). The decision paid off with some of the most beautiful surroundings of the trip []. It almost seemed a cheat - the only thing that would have made it better would have been doing it on a lonely dusty track, rather than a trafficed tarred highway. I was in Timber Creek in time for a lazy lunch - plan being to sit out the heat. The pub turned out uninviting, but rising cloud cover signalled an early departure for a quick trip into the (Western section) Gregory NP. Now I love [savannah woodland [], and the top end has so much of it, but it had never really hit the right note until travelling through it on a twisty little park track. The quality was pretty good - I didn't really get the '4WD Recommended' until shortly after one particular 'Dip' sign, reinforced later by a 'River Crossing' which talked me into turning back early - that and the increasingly ominous sky. Two days prior at the station (Camfield, not VRD), all the talk was of rains - which never looked like coming, and didn't while I was there. These clouds though, they definitely looked like coming. They had been gathering from quite early on, and by this stage in the afternoon they were well and truly present. Thing was, though, after really struggling in the sun for two days - more than I had at any time previously on the trip - I was willing to look past the inconvenience, and forward to the prospect of cool, wet relief cascading from above. The don't call this season the build up for nothing.

In the end, rain fell - but not on me. The clouds had proven as reluctant as those from earlier in the week, though through sheer weight they did appear to inundate the highlands a few kms to the south of camp. I'd set up camp just in time to catch what did come, but the few drops were little more than symbolic - the night was as stuffy as ever, and as usual I woke with myself the only soggy object.

The next morning was the last little trot into Kununurra. After an hour or two riding through escarpment-bordered valleys the WA border approached with a change of scenery as much as any man-made formality. By the time the border was reached the land had taken on a dryness so much more stark than anything else in the NT - only the country around the Gulf of Carpentaria had the same feeling. The whole of the NT was dry - but the plants seem resigned to it, almost happy with a restful parching. Out here though it feels like the country is struggling with it - even as the road got nearer and nearer the sea.

That is not to imply there was any less beauty in it - the rocky hills on the road to Lake Argyle would have overshadowed any lesser lake. But Argyle! I suggest you look it up on a map - the quantitative comparison to bodies like Sydney Harbour does it no justice. Check out [some of the photos I took []. You see before you a huge lake - what's amazing is that the water does not stop with the valley, but extends through headlands to left and right as far as the eye can see. The section the dam and lookouts overlook is about a quarter of a tiny section near the top - perhaps itself ten percent of the total surface area. It is classed, apparently, as an inland sea, and the moniker is not unjustified - if you didn't know better you might assume it extends out into the Indian Ocean. Perhaps the most startling fact is that this whole area was brought about by a relatively small dam on one modest river about fifty years ago. A river, no less, which would have been more or less dry at this time of the year (hence the need for a dam). Wow.

Kununurra proved to be quite a nice little town. One of the county's newest (built to service the dam construction, and then the farmland that it irrigated), it has many different faces for such a little place. It has a bit of the sunshine/holiday of the Gold Coast, the getaway/resort of Noosa, the community of Tennant Creek, the agricultural variety of Atherton, the laid-back feel of the NT and the culinary feel of Darwin (well, a tiny bit). And it's built right up against a national park which rivals Kakadu for sheer, rocky gorgeousness. If you wanted to drift away from it all you shouldn't have much trouble getting work in tourism through the dry ('winter'), or agricultural stuff at many other times of the year. It's one of only two places off the East Coast which I'd describe as 'liveable' - Alice being the other. The only downside is that with 5/6 thousand people it is, despite its many faces, far to small. No aspect is developed enough to really engage. But that said, if you like small - or just want to get away from everything else - it'd be worth a try.

The only place I could think of better to spend a weekend catching the Phillip Island GP is the Island itself - a couple thousand kms less of a journey and that's where I would have been. Stoner having duly won it - a blow against his critics as much as against his competitors - it was time to head off - down the might Gibb.

Ask anybody that knows it and they'll respond with an understanding nod and a smile - the Gibb River road has an aura about its name. Part of that aura is the treachery and the challenge - the boss at Kununurra bike shop (cheers to Neville for letting me use the drill outside working hours!) declared in no uncertain terms "yes, you'll be breaking levers on that thing". A random ex-biker in Tennant Creek is still watching the news for the crazy biker from Sydney lost in the Kimberly. I was told even before I left that there is no way I should do a round trip on an SV, "because you will have to explain when people ask, why you didn't do roads like the Gibb."

For other people (mainly in 4WDs who've just done the journey), the first thing they tell you is about how amazing the trip is, how it's the most beautiful country in Australia. How it's hot, it's hard - but it's worth it. How you won't forget it - presumably, like they won't. And these are the people that tell you it's not as bad as others might say. "A roadbike!?" they might exclaim - but "brave" is their assessment, not "suicidal".

It doesn't take long to realise the assessments of 4WDers need to be taken with due respect to the their looking glass (a big metal cage with four drive wheels which won't fall over if you hit a big rock at 30kph). But they had one thing right - the road ain't that bad. 80% of it is rough, but easy going. 19.99% of it is rough as guts, but not dangerous. The other 0.001% is the Pentecost.

There are two crossings of this river. One into El Questro Gorge (resort, cattle station, and more importantly - source of fuel), and one on the road proper. I got into El Questro without drama. The crossing is long, wet (25cm) and rocky, but after two laps getting the boots nice and soggy I'd developed a plan which worked better than expected. On the way out... lets just say making it once doesn't mean it will be easy with 15kg more fuel (including a 6kg jerry perilously strapped), 5kg more bag - while vainly to keep your boots dry. First thing in the morning. No one factor would have been terminal, but as [they say;], accidents are all to often result of a set of seemingly innocent factors.

In the end the only real casualty was my bag of rice (although there's a fair chance it wasn't just the heat which cooked my mobile battery a couple of days later), and I actually picked myself up out of the water with more cheer than I'd gone in. It was annoying, but it's still funny when a bike ends up in the river, no matter whose it is. (Especially when the exhaust fills with water!) I guess I was pretty lucky, I had a lot of things which shouldn't have gotten off so lightly.

As it turns out, the main crossing of the Pentecost wasn't anywhere near as bad as it could have been. The rocks are worse, and it is probably a good 100m wide, but there was actually no necessary water crossing - everything had either evaporated by this point, or flowed underneath the rubble. The footing was boulderous by 4WD standards, but as solid as it was intimidating - I'd dropped it earlier because smaller loose rocks shifted while I was trying to steer around a big one. A bit of calm planning and cowboy throttle control (less is not more, more is more!)

If I wasn't so happy about having dominated the worst the Gibb had to throw at me I'd have stopped to take a photo - but as it was I thought that was just the beginning. In a sense, it is - the Pentecost marks the 'real' beginning to the Gibb, like a gateway that demands for you to prove you're serious before you pass. But in another way, the Pentecost is the only real hurdle to the Gibb. Any half-abled road bike with some sort of tyre (no canvass please!) would be able to do the rest, at some level of comfort and speed. It really isn't a 4WD track like some will have you believe (and like I was looking forward to, to be honest...) - it's two and a half lanes of flat, dusty, corrugated road. If they paved all the crossings you could do it in a hatchback or on a scooler. You might have half your bolts rattled out (I actually lost none!), but as long as you were expecting it you'd be fine.

But you want to hear about the Gibb River Road!? Well it is charming, and it is beautiful. As good as the road is, though, it is neither a back country track, nor a walk in the park. You need to watch it all the time - watch for rocks, sand, gravel, livestock... And it didn't have the momentous sense of adventure like a real track does - like the road should.

Once you get over the road not being the highlight of your time on the Earth you realise how much there is to appreciate. We all know I love savannah woodland, and it has it in spades. The far Eastern End (before the Pentecost) is absolutely stunning, as it cuts through the King Leopold Ranges at one tip of their crescent. Most of the middle is plains (/valley - but a big one!), and really pleasant country if not rivetting. When you get back into the King Leopold Ranges once again (and their foothills) the real charm of the Kimberly comes out. Mt Barnett River is nice, Bell Gorge is lovely, but Manning Gorge is heart rendering. This is exactly what the Gibb - nay, the whole Top End - is about, at least as far as the nature thing goes. It's so far from anything it's a miracle to be able to get there, and it has the perfect mix of swimming-spotted campground, with walk to even more astonishing higher pools - palm fringed, rocky or sandy as you choose, shady or sunny, with goannas, cormorants, fish, even a selection of warm or cool water! If I had known I'd have a day to spare I'd have spent it up there, walked it a couple of times, lounged by the various pools... As it so happens, it's the one I didn't get any photos of : ) I spent all my time there enjoying it so much, I'll just have to let you go and do the same. Go on! It'll be worth it.

In the end, that spare day I ended up with (today!), was because of an unexpected closure - I was pushing on to get through an elongated route down to Fiztroy Crossing when I hit a 'road closed' sign. Bushfires - just my luck. And that more-or-less meant the end to my Gibb River adventure. (All the more sad because it was just hitting the heat of the day and I was already ragged - very appreciative to come across a wonderful specimen of grotesquely beautiful Australian flora - giant, shady boab!)

I didn't complain when I'd filled up in Derby and discovered my economy calculations were spot on - I'd have made my original plan, I think, but if I'd gone another 15km down that road before hitting the closure I wouldn't have made the nearest servo. So my luck hadn't deserted me, just transmuted itself into a convenient ending.

I spent a pleasant enough five minutes in Derby - discovering a little something about WA which I sort of always knew... but that will wait for another time.

So today popped out of nowhere (I'm in Broome tomorrow and for the weekend, as MotoGP heads to Malaysia) - free of charge - and I suddenly have too much time to put off updating the blog. (I started writing entries four or five times, but I was always too tired to get beyond the first paragraph.) That ain't so bad. It's been a long week and a half. You've missed a lot. Me, I'm happy enough to sit down and relax.

Speaking of which.


Monday, October 12, 2009

News - Onto the Long Way Down

I look back and think off all the things that I've done and it seems I have a lot to talk about - but at the same time I don't feel that I have anything to say. So, generic news it is!

I'm in Katherine at the moment - my rear tyre is finally being changed, way-way overdue. I was in Kath around two weeks ago, from which I headed north to Darwin. Darwin didn't offer that much charm, not that I could pick up... the hostels were exxy, and there isn't much to do that doesn't involve spending money. Frankly, Darwin feels like Sydney, but slow and tiny. Too tiny to offer any of Sydney's advantages. Oh, and hot, of course, don't forget the build-up weather!

I wandered down through Kakadu, quite a nice area - and once again quiet. I think everyone is waiting for the rain to hit! Saw some birds, and some interesting rock formations at Ubirr. The free park-ranger talks at various sites were pretty good, and offered a good extra level of experience to the sites, and a window into the Aboriginal history of the area. Aboriginal/Nat Parks collaboration in the NT works really well.

I had picked up a commitment to return to Darwin for the next Monday to do that volunteer work - I ended up shelving plans to hang around Daly river and returned to Darwin for the weekend, primarily to catch the MotoGP. My justification for the expense of returning to town was the opportunity to earn a few dollars wagering on the GP, and that I duly did (after a disasterous qualifying result, and race nerve-wracking if not otherwise exciting).

The week of volunteer work was good, though it didn't necessarily tick the boxes I had hoped. It was mid-way between a good week's work and an eco-tour, but without offering the full benefits of either. It was a good week's relaxing, and the good company of the rest of the crew was a bonus, it was also really good to get the work done and have something to stand back and look at. But it was much too relaxed to offer the busy occupation of a working week, nor the constant activity of a tour. A good holiday week (in luxury I'm not used to), except - I'm on a five month holiday as it is, and normally doing nothing is free!

So arriving at the weekend I don't need to kick back and relax - quite the opposite. I'm weighing up the various 'cultural' tours as they pop up, and thinking about where down the road I might be able to line up some work (I'll give Broome a shot). Once in Broome I can scale back the pace of travel another step - while Broome isn't out of range of the wet, as long as I have tarred road ahead of me I'm not that scared of the prospect.

Next time I'm hit with something worth writing about I promise I will.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Photos - For goodness' sake!?

Is that how far I am behind on uploading my photos, really? Have I really not uploaded anything since Brisbane!?

I am making amends now - starting at the end, instead of the beginning (as all blogs should - when they're behind at least).

My 'photostream' on Flickr can be found here

I have been considering writing info and comments on the photos themselves rather than attempting to work them into blog entries (which obviously hasn't been happening) - I think I will give that a try.

Don't ask how convenient it will be for the viewer, I don't have that much experience with Flickr. But I encourage you to try it out! There's some photos of wonderful places in there.