Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

81. Port Hedland

Two inches of rain fell during our first night in Port Hedland. In the morning the campground was a scene of total havoc. Karen and I were okay, because our tent is designed to handle anything that nature can throw at it, but others in the caravan park were not so well equipped. Almost every other tent had suffered some sort of water damage. Some people had set up their tents without a fly, while other people did not even possess a fly at all. One tent had been open and facing into the wind, while another not only had no fly, it also had a bloody great ventilation hole in its roof of about one square foot! Quite a few people had deserted their tents overnight to sleep in their cars.

Pretty soon the camp ground looked like a Chinese laundry with every available hanging space occupied by sheets, blankets, doonas, sleeping bags and clothes. One guy we spoke to was forced to take a day off work because all of his clothes were drenched. On this morning Karen and I were happy that we had invested a lot of money to get a decent tent.

While all our neighbours stayed in the camping ground to dry out their gear, Karen and I caught a bus into town to do tourist things. The caravan park at Point Cooke is about seven or eight kilometres from the centre of Port Hedland. We walked around the town, and I showed Karen the pub where I had stayed twenty two years earlier - it had not changed. We also picked up the replacement zipper pieces which Macpac had sent to the Port Hedland post office. Karen wanted to go on a tour of the local BHP facility, but we both baulked at the ten dollar cost. We settled for a two dollar climb of a twenty six metre lookout tower (eight storeys high) just behind the information centre, which gave us great views over the town and the port. Port Hedland is an ugly, purpose-built, no frills, frontier mining town, and it is very, very brown. Everything is covered in a layer of iron ore dust or rust. Even the pigeons are brown!

The previous evening Karen and I had shared a glass of wine with an instrument technician from the local mines who had told us about the town. He told us that accommodation prices were exorbitant, a fact we had already discerned from the fourteen dollars we had been slugged for a tent site. Rent for a cabin in the caravan park was somewhere around four hundred dollars per week, a three bedroom house in the town would set you back around six hundred dollars, and the actual cost of real estate was comparable to Sydney's prices! The only reason for people to live in Port Hedland was the mines, and because the mining companies subsidised their employee's accommodation costs, the local property owners had been able to jack up the prices. Poor itinerant cyclists like us got caught in the cross-fire.

Not that Karen and I were feeling too poor on this particular morning. We had been monitoring the price of some Coca-Cola shares we owned and had decided that now was the right time to sell some of them. Karen rang her father back in Sydney and he organised the sale of thirty percent of our shares. With the benefit of hindsight we now know that we sold right at the top of the market. We should have sold all our shares, because the price has never approached this level since.

We lunched at a small park near the water then walked the eight kilometres back to caravan park along the coast. At one point we passed a collection of buildings surrounded by a high, barbwire-topped fence. It looked a bit like a school, but then we saw a few uniformed figures patrolling the buildings and compounds, and thought it must have been a gaol. A sign soon informed us that we were passing the famed Port Hedland Detention Centre, notorious as the place to which all the boat people are sent.

The morning's walk around the town had exhausted Port Hedland's scenic attractions, which are iron ore, salt, BHP, brown-ness, big ships and big trains. Perhaps surprisingly, given the industrial nature of the town, its resident birds (apart from the brown pigeons) consisted mostly of White-plumed Honey-eaters and delightful little Zebra Finches.

With all of the shops a long way from Point Cooke, Karen and I decided to move to the South Hedland caravan park the next day. We had a dinner of sandwiches with real bread and real butter at our bench outside the office, and spoke again with the instrument technician. While we were talking, a sick woman in a dressing gown and slippers shuffled past us to the phones, coughing and sneezing as she went. She repeated the dose a few minutes later. We did not think it important at the time, but it would become significant later.

A heavy dew overnight forced us to wait around for the tent to dry, so we went for a morning walk down to the nearby mangrove creek that runs into Pretty Pool and then into the ocean. We saw no new birds along the creek or beach, but the sighting of a turtle made the walk worthwhile.

A fifteen kilometre ride took us to the South Hedland caravan park. It was great, with a table, chairs, light, barbecue, and hot and cold running water at two sinks! Heaven! We walked to the supermarket and splurged on some non-essential items - some fishing gear, crochet hooks and patterns and cottons. The fishing gear would hopefully help to augment our food supplies as we made our way through the rivers to the south, while the crochet stuff would help to pass the spare time we would have between major destinations. In the late afternoon we sorted out all of our gear in preparation for the next section of roughing it.

We were now well into July, the middle of winter, and as we had progressed south the days were becoming cooler. We had also been travelling westward as well, which meant that the position of the sun and the time of day were now about the same. The combination of later sunrises and cooler weather allowed Karen and I to return to our normal start times for riding. We rode out of South Hedland at 8:30am on a windless, cloudless day into almost flat spinifex country similar to the Great Sandy Desert except for occasional crossings of wide, sandy and mostly dry rivers like the Turner, the Yule and the Peawah.

After morning tea at 11am at forty five kilometres in a parking bay, we crossed the totally dry eastern branch of the Peawah and came to the equally dry western branch where we lunched in another parking bay just off the highway. It was after two o'clock by the time we finished lunch, and with eighty kilometres under our wheels we decided to call it quits for the day. The parking bay was fairly bleak, but it did have a table and chairs, a couple of fireplaces and some bins. There was no water tank, of course, so some water in the river would have been nice.

We spent the afternoon reading the previous Monday's and Tuesday's papers which we found in one of the bins. We also met a couple from Perth, and it was the type of meeting from which nightmares and Hollywood movies are made. A nice, white van had pulled into the parking bay and showed no signs of leaving, so Karen and I went over to say hullo and to check out the new arrivals. A man greeted us and introduced us to his wife who was sitting in the back of the van. She was weird, probably dying from a disease like Parkinson's. Her head was lolling around, her eyes were rolling in their sockets, her speech was slurred, and there was foam on her top lip, possibly from the beers that her husband was continually getting for her, but possibly not as well. It was difficult to tell where the drunkenness ended and the disease began.

The guy seemed normal, apart from a slight foreign accent. When I saw him get out of the car later I asked him if he was interested in cricket, trying to get the latest score from the third test against England. Apparently his hearing is not very good, because he walked over to find out what I had said. He was obviously lame in one leg, and he could not walk real good on the other one either.

When evening fell we set up our tent on the stony ground, ate a meal of lentils and rice, and hoped for a quiet Saturday night. We were probably safe from the people in the van. Admittedly, they were strange, but neither of them looked like they could put up much of a fight, and the presence of their van would hopefully help to deter even stranger people from using the parking bay as well.

Karen woke me once during the night to tell me there was a lot of traffic on the highway, but apart from that the night was uneventful. We were both surprised to see a second van in the parking bay when we rose the next morning. Neither Karen nor I had heard it drive in - another example of just how vulnerable we were.

Cirrus clouds sweeping in from the west heralded a change which was not long in arriving. A gentle south westerly breeze quickly increased in strength throughout the morning, making riding slow and difficult. For the first time in ages the person in the number two position actually needed the shelter provided by the leader. We continued to swap leaders every five kilometres.

The initially flat road soon led up through some pretty hills onto a small range, providing the first decent scenery for ages. At twenty six kilometres we arrived at the Whim Creek Pub, where we bought two cappuccinos at a whopping two dollars and eighty cents each from a stone-faced manageress who did not smile the whole time we were there. A sign informed us that camping was free at the pub, and the facilities looked pretty good. We had stayed away from Whim Creek yesterday afternoon to avoid Saturday night revelry, but this was probably a bad decision. Not only would we have been in better surroundings than at the Peawah, but we would also have been able to reach the next town a day earlier. The current headwind would force us to camp out for yet another night.

Karen and I toured the pub's aviaries while we sipped our cappuccinos. An interesting collection of red-collared lorikeets, red-winged parrots, cockatiels, king quail and some exotics was augmented by a poor, lone Kori Bustard. They were not a very happy bunch of birds. We filled all our water-bottles and a wine cask bladder in preparation for another night out in the sticks, then rode out into the wind again. We eventually arrived at the Sherlock River, which was not running but did contain a large waterhole a couple of hundred metres long.

Our Sherlock River campsite

We had only covered fifty five kilometres for the day, but as this put us halfway to Roeburne we decided to stop for the night at an unsignposted rest area beside the river. Karen was complaining of tiredness, and we could not resist the sheltered table and chairs which make life on the road so much easier. Despite the lack of signs, the rest area was visited by a couple of groups during the afternoon. We spoke to two bikers from Karratha and Perth and watched a family stop to give the kids some exercise to kill their boredom. Late in the day Karen and I both had naked washes in the river under the bridge as the traffic passed by overhead.

The headwind died at dusk. It had blown away all the clouds, and over another dinner of curried dhal, Karen and I watched the stars, planets and satellites of the clear, outback sky. We were again undisturbed during the night. Indeed, Karen actually slept through our watch alarms. She was still tired when we began riding, and thought she had picked up a bug, possibly from the woman in the caravan park in Port Hedland.

At the George River the terrain turned into a dead-flat spinifex plain rimmed by hills on the left, and a shimmering mirage to our right. We passed lots of zebra finches, and spotted a couple of painted firetails and star finches as well. The wind reappeared during the morning, a light, southerly cross breeze which did little damage to our speed. After three hours of riding we arrived in Roeburne and headed for the tourist information centre, where free coffee, biscuits and a tour of the historic gaol awaited us.

Brochures at the tourist bureau suggested that Point Samson would be a good place to visit, but reports that the caravan park was full prompted Karen to ring and make sure we would have a campsite when we arrived. Initially we were told that there was no room for us, but when Karen explained that we were on pushbikes the caravan park manager relented and promised us a site on a lawned area near their shop.

As we were riding towards the company town of Wickham to shop at Woolworths, we met two cyclists coming the other way. Gary and Pauline were the two cycle tourers that Karen and I had just missed on the De Grey River, and who we had been mistaken for in Derby. We could understand why. Like us, their panniers were blue and red, although theirs were mixed whereas Karen and I were fully colour coordinated. Like us, they rode identical bikes - both identical to each other and identical to us - we all had dark-green Gemini World Randonneur tourers. And like us, the female was clean shaven while the male sported a full, red beard. With helmets and sunglasses on, it was difficult to tell us apart.

Gary and Pauline were from Melbourne, and they had been hearing just as much about us as we had been hearing about them. We swapped cycling histories and plans for the future. They were headed just down the road to the home of a friend in the village of Clevesville where they would be staying for a while. It was likely that we would meet up with them again.

After finishing our shopping, Karen turned left coming out of the car park instead of right, and started heading back towards the shopping centre again. When I commented on her typically abysmal sense of direction, Karen shrugged it off by saying that she was not feeling well, and that she had not eaten recently. I must admit that she had a point, because it was after 3pm when we arrived in Point Samson for a very late lunch of fruit and yoghurt at a beachside table. Afterwards we rode over to the caravan park to pay for our site, set up the tent, and have some very necessary showers.

At 6pm we returned to the beach with a large bag of hot chips and a wine cask for a triple celebration. The day's seventy seven kilometres had taken our total since Darwin past three thousand kilometres, our total since heading south from Sydney past ten thousand kilometres, and our grand total since the very beginning of our cycling odyssey past thirteen thousand kilometres. It was not much of a celebration, however, with Karen sneezing and blowing nose with monotonous regularity, the bug in her system now rampant.

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