We hadn’t made it to Broome but it was already time to start heading back south. I knew how the lush, green contrast of Margaret River would be a welcome end to our road trip for Livi whose never been fond of anywhere dusty. I had my work cut out to persuade her though, she had her heart set on the typical Aussie bucket list tick, a sky dive in Jurian Bay where you can land on the beach.
Our first week had been spent trying to out-run persistent rain so I persuaded Livi that it wasn’t worth the risk of the dive being cancelled given the prevailing weather as we headed back south. If we followed our original rout back and let ourselves get as distracted as we always do, we might not even reach Perth for her flight home! We had to take the short cut down the Great Northern Highway. To be honest, neither of us relished the thought of another long dirt-track road east to west after the journey to Karijini so the highway route home was definitely more tempting.
Mount Robinson Rest Stop was our first pause on the journey home. A sheltered area with toilets and BBQs, amid a tumble of rolling hills – Australian ‘mountains’. Our road had wound around their bases whilst the setting sun had cast distorted shadows across the scrubby landscape, patterning their magnificently, eroded slopes. In landscapes like this, where human endeavor has failed in any way to tame nature, you can see why the indigenous people believed that the land had been carved by ancient spirits. Features thrust up in the wake of a giant kangaroo who came to rest at the ocean; the hills erupting from the ground around his feet, which pressing downwards shaped plunging valleys. The shapes of the land don’t seem like the product of natural forces, rather they mimic the dots and swirls of Indigenous art: a lone hill rising steeply in a cone – a dot – a flowing ridge whose sides meander smoothly with the stroke of a painted finger. You can’t see these extraordinary hills and believe their form has been produced by the simple, predictable geological processes of layering and time; some joyous sculptor must have had their hand in too.
There is a path you can take behind the rest area, a 15-minute walk to the peak of a hill, where you can look out over the deserted planes. A view that confirms just how far you’re going to drive without any indications of human settlement; to the horizon and beyond…
The towns we eventually passed through were straight out of the history books of the Wild West. A long dusty road stretching through their feebly beating hearts, not a soul in sight, or maybe a pack of disheveled kids at most. We had entered mining country, the forgotten towns of the gold rush, still struggling to hold their own against the harsh lands that had once held so much promise. Their corrugated steel and clapboard shops whose grimy windows held ‘closed’ signs did nothing to persuade us to stop. We drove onwards for seven hours to Cue.
Cue seemed like just another of these towns, but with a little more history on obvious display. We pulled up as the shadows started to lengthen. For $20 we parked up in an unpowered site at the Cue Tourist Park, with access to deliciously hot showers and an actual kitchen. We froze about 20 bottles of water, hoping they might finally cool the eski down. Our neighbour was a fully kitted out Toyota that put Pea truly to shame. Owned by a scrawny bogan, missing a few teeth with pants held up by string: he was heading out for a couple of weeks in the deep bush gold prospecting. He tipped out a few nuggets from a Fisherman’s Friend packet in case we didn’t believe him, then tucked them back away, secure in a pocket somewhere in the folds of his oversized clothes.
An old jail with no roof, but still lockable cells and a couple of pensioners houses was all that Cue really had to offer. Turns out the pensioners huts had been moved here from some other location and we couldn’t get into them or even that close to have a look. History done, we wandered down the dead high-street looking for somewhere to eat. All the pubs looked closed. I really wouldn’t have been surprised to see a bowl of tumble weed drift by and a cowboy sat waiting for us at the end of town. We tried the door of the Murchison Club Hotel, which thankfully gave, and we stuffed ourselves with two Cue Big Burgers. Slightly too indulgent after a week of undercooked pasta, super noodles and tinned tuna. The place really felt isolated, people keeping to themselves at the bar, casting suspicious eyes around at the new-comers. Disappointingly, no bulging holsters, spurs or patched eyes though. The bar woman (another Brit and slightly more talkative) had moved here from Cape York and assured us looks can be deceiving; the place didn’t even class as remote enough for rural work. I remained unconvinced.
Big Bell and Walga Rock
We’d heard about a ghost mining town in a roadhouse on the way down to Cue and were keen to hunt it out before another long, drive south.
Big Bell only closed up in 1955, but it barely qualifies as a ghost town with what’s left of it 68 years later. Most of the building materials were taken away and what was left has been pillaged; the Australian bush reclaiming the land. Here and there you can see foundations of the lost buildings or courtyard areas. With little information on the couple of poster boards, the reconstruction is largely left to your imagination. Roam the intriguing site and you’ll find a building still standing here and there: the vast Big Bell Hotel, a small chapel, one or two houses.
We snuck through the chicken wire fence into the hotel, skirting rooms where the floors had collapsed and dodging piles of stone and metal perfect for hiding snakes. In the corner of one room, a ragged tail dangled from a crevice where the plaster had come away, opening up a passage into the walls interior. I dashed round to the other side of the wall hoping to catch a photograph of a feral, desert cat but by the time I got round it had disappeared without a sound.
Walga Rock isn’t far from Big Bell, maybe another 20 minutes into the middle of nowhere. It’s the second biggest monolith in Australia (after Uluru) and has a huge gallery of Indigenous art along its base, shielded from the occasional visitors by just a rope. Despite the lack of protection, it hasn’t been abused or defaced, a stark contrast to the usual lack of respect shown towards the Indigenous people here.
The rock had a surreal calm; an intimidating presence. Its outer layers were cracked into bricks of a blistered skin that looked ready to slough off and leave a fresh, raw red, reduced monolith beneath. It’s easy to understand the significance that monoliths like Walga Rock in indigenous peoples lives; magic happening at their bases as the sun set, setting their skin on fire.
On top of the indigenous paintings and dream time stories is a more contempory, mysterious two masted ship. Was it painted by some colonial sailor, shipwrecked and lost, who had made it inland and wanted to leave some evidence of his existence? Or was it drawn by an indigenous hand, documenting the ships they witnessed, heralding the end of their way of life?
New Norcia was our last stop on the long road south, before we hit Perth. A seven hour drive after the late start detouring to Big Bell and Walga Rock. Livi had wanted to keep driving through the night, but New Norcia had been cropping up in conversations for a while. I wanted to check it out.
Night had taken full hold of the town by the time we got there and the check in for the campsite was closed. Our options were another half hour drive south to a free campsite (would we have bothered coming back again in the morning?) or pull up somewhere illegally and hope no rangers picked us up. We headed into the New Norcia Hotel for some dinner whilst we made our mind up. It turned out we could pay at the hotel and get the access code for the camp site. We also got to try to the monks local beer and the famous New Norcia bread at the hotel; win win!
Illuminated in the morning, New Norcia was like nothing else in Australia. It could have been transplanted directly from Spain along with the monks who came here in 1846 to ‘teach’ the Indigenous people the skills to integrate into colonial culture. Barely a town, it’s a scattered collection of buildings on the banks of a river: a mediterranean style monastery, various collages and orphanages for children of different ages and a handful of houses for those living outside of monastic life.
The Benedictine Monks to this day claim their effect has only been beneficial, and have displays within the Educational Centre to demonstrate this. But many of the children who grew up in their ‘orphanage’ weren’t orphans; they had just been plucked from their indigenous communities in order to give them a better shot at life. You can imagine the harm this caused. Wandering around the buildings you try to piece together the real history from the tit-bits spun for tourists on the information boards around the town.
The road house, where we filled up to leave the town, had fresh baked fruit bread which we munched on as a second breakfast; much more delicious than slightly stale cereal with slightly warm long life milk. I’m fairly ashamed to say that half an hour later we stopped for breakfast number 3 at Bindoon Bakehaus; the best pies in Australia. Being English I have high standards when it comes to pies: these were great, but you just can’t beat a Weighbridge short crust pastry lid! If you’re passing through though, stop for a bite! We also stocked up on some Eccles cakes, something I’ve seen nowhere else in Oz so far!
Somewhere outside Perth, getting back into the swing of having other traffic around, a road-train pulled up next to us blasting his horn and bashing on his window. Livi cranked Peas window down and he shouted to us that we had some pans sliding around on our roof, and not in the roof box. They must have been on our roof for a fair few hours, our road tripping playlist blaring as loud as Pea could go, we were deaf to any metallic bashing! Lucky they’d not slid off and through someone’s windshield!
Bypassing Perth, and 17 hours south of our most Northerly point, we’d soon be back where it all started for me; Manjimup.