Three Years on the Road
by
Brett Davis


83. Karratha

I suppose we could have asked for a refund from the caravan park and not forced ourselves to stay in Karratha for a week, but Carnarvon, the next town along the highway was over six hundred kilometres away, and if we chose to detour to Exmouth we could be looking at over seven hundred kilometres. In addition, we were still in no hurry to get too far south too quickly. The northern Dry was fine and warm in July, but the south-west would be gripped by winter.

Another alternative was to wait around for ten days and then take the tour to Karijini. This had its attractions, and we could afford the time, but Karen and I realised that we would one day pass this way again to see all the sights we had missed. Up the centre we had bypassed a few scenic attractions because of the difficulties which came with travel by pushbike. Chambers Pillar, Gosse's Bluff and Mount Zeil would all have to be included on a 4WD trip around Australia some time in the future, and we had already missed the Wolf Creek Crater, the Gibb River Road, Marble Bar and Mount Meharry, so we would have to do the west coast too. We could visit Karijini at a later date as well.

Of course, the third alternative was to ride to Karijini ourselves, but as this would entail almost one thousand kilometres of dirt road and a logistical nightmare to organise water and food, it was really no alternative at all.

We spent our first two days in Karratha doing a lot of maintenance things, like clothes washing and cleaning the bikes prior to putting them into the shop to get the new parts fitted. We walked into town one day to buy a new watch for Karen and a transistor radio for the both of us. The tranny was mainly for news, weather and sport. Karen and I were getting a bit sick of the old news found in discarded newspapers and magazines.

The weather in Karratha was characterised by a cool wind which sprung up every morning and died at every dusk. Days were warm, nights were cool, and any spot out of the wind was beautiful.

Our nearest neighbours in the caravan park were Jo and Erin from Perth. Erin was a chef at a restaurant in Dampier, twenty kilometres further along the archipelago. They were living semi-permanently in a large tent, and had all the usual car-camping gear. Jo said we were free to use their stove, lights, table and chairs when they were away, and Karen and I duly obliged. We asked Jo and Erin about the attractions of the area, and they recommended the drive-in theatre which was currently showing an Australian movie called "The Castle". Karen and I had been wanting to see this movie for quite a while, mainly because its female star is the daughter of a friend of Karen's mum. We could not find anybody who was going to the drive-in, so in the end we were forced to ride there ourselves. Jo and Erin had told us that the drive-in is a hoot because nobody stays in their cars. Everyone piles out onto a grassed area in front of the screen, bringing their own chairs, or mats and sleeping bags. About half a dozen tables and numerous plastic chairs are provided by the management, and two large speakers on either side of the screen provide the sound.


South Karratha - note the drive-in

Elle and Mel were only fitted with tail lights, so we taped our torches onto our front racks to act as headlights and rode off into the night. We wore all of our warm clothes and took a sleeping bag as well. To provide extra warmth, two of our water-bottles were filled with lambrusco. We rode the four kilometres into town then turned off towards the highway and climbed up and over the range. The drive-in is nestled amongst the hills a bit over two kilometres outside of town.

The drive-in was a real experience, exactly as Jo and Erin described. Karen and I arrived early and grabbed a table and two chairs for ourselves, at the back of the grassed area right in the middle, a prime position. Pretty soon the cars started showing up, their drivers and passengers congregating on the grass in front of us. Karen and I shared a typical movie dinner of corn chips and chocolate-coated nuts, washed down with liberal quantities of our cheap, red wine.

The movie was pretty good too, though perhaps our perceptions were distorted by the alcohol in our systems. This could also have affected the ride back to the caravan park too. It was absolutely surreal, similar to reality but strangely distorted. A bright moon helped us find our way, and our lights made the landscape around us move and flow like a sixties drug trip. It was one of the weirdest feelings I have ever experienced. Karen saw and felt the same thing, and she had far less to drink than me.

When the alarm went off at 7am the next morning I switched on our new radio to listen to the news. The first item talked about government spending on aid to Cambodia and the rescue of Australians in that country, the second item concerned the foibles of politicians, the third described a police chase and car crash in suburban Perth. I turned off the radio before the fourth item because if the news editor considered it even less interesting than the other three items then I did not want to hear it.

Karen still not totally recovered from whatever had hit her at Point Samson, so we sat around in the sun doing crosswords and talking to fellow travellers. When Karen had called Kevin to let him know we had arrived in Karratha safely, he had told us that Peter and Mihkala were also staying here for a while. They had obviously been in touch with Kevin too, because they rolled up on their pushies in mid morning. We spent an hour catching up with each other's news. They were staying with a friend of Mihkala's in town, but would soon be heading off again.


A bird sitting on a galah

At 11am Karen and I rode into town to check whether the parts for our bikes had been delivered, and learned that they would arrive the next day. Our bikes would go into the shop the day after tomorrow. A little while later we met our doubles again, Pauline and Gary, outside the TAB. Gary liked the occasional flutter. They planned to leave Karratha in two days and were hoping to get a lift to Exmouth along "The Shortcut Road" which detours from the highway about two hundred and sixty kilometres north of Carnarvon. Karen and I were considering the same option, although we had heard that the dirt road was pretty bad. Exmouth can also be reached via a sealed road which leaves the highway just north of the Minilya Roadhouse, but this would involve an extra one hundred and sixty kilometres of riding. The Shortcut Road is obviously well named.

On the way into town we met another cycle tourer, a guy named John who was staying at our caravan park. He invited us back to his cabin later in the afternoon for a cuppa and a chat. He lived in Bondi in Sydney, was almost sixty and had been a regular tourer for years. From the stories he told us, Karen and I figured John was fairly well off. He was an ex-lawyer who now dabbled in real estate, and he was also a partner in a bike shop in Sydney. His bike and gear were state of the art, and his mode of travel spoke of money. Whereas Karen and I carried everything including the kitchen sink, John carried a bare minimum and a credit card. He invited us to dinner the next night, offering to buy all the food if we did all the cooking. It sounded like a very fair deal to us!

I shaved off my beard the next morning. It had been growing since Darwin, eighty five days, so it was quite well established. I snuck away early in the morning, hoping to surprise Karen with a smooth, fresh face a little later, but the whole operation took much longer than I had planned. By the time I had finished hacking off the long whiskers with the scissors on my Swiss Army Pocket Knife, and scraping back the resulting stubble with a disposable razor and soap, I had been gone so long that Karen had guessed what I was doing.

Later in the morning we walked up to the small range of hills behind the caravan park. From the top we could see inland to Highway One, the turn-off and the nearby roadhouse. Looking north, we could see the township of Karratha to our right, the ocean in front of us and the Burrup Peninsula away to our left. The ridge to the east looked interesting too, so we pencilled it in for a walk in the near future.

After lunch I listened to a couple of footy games - the Swans beat Essendon by a point and West Coast beat Port Adelaide - and Karen and I both did some crochet while waiting for John to give us the nod to cook dinner. Hunger eventually got the better of us and we walked over to John's cabin to find that he had decided to cook the dinner himself. We had a round of pre-dinner drinks, also supplied by our host, a Spanish white wine named Vina Sol. Dinner was topside steak with mushrooms, honeyed carrots, and snow peas, with a side salad of coleslaw, bean shoots and mayonnaise. When the Spanish wine ran out we dipped into a two litre cask of Traminer Riesling. The meal was finished off with multiple servings of chocolate mud-cake. John dined well when he was on the road!

Our conversation centred around cycling, and was dominated by John's health problems with his heart and legs, and his latest business plan to start a tour business for old ladies, especially rich divorcees and widows who want to cycle around Australia. John could talk the hind leg off a dog, but he would still have a lot of trouble convincing us that the project could ever be viable. Still, stranger things have happened and he might one day prove us wrong.

The usual cool, breezy morning greeted us the next day. We shared coffee at our table with Trevor and Catherine, a similar aged couple to ourselves, who were on holidays from Perth. They gave us their address so that we could contact them when we eventually reached the south-west. Their nephew, Rohan, lived and worked locally, and when Karen had seen him on one of his visits, she had quickly added him to her list of the best looking guys she has seen. I had to agree with her.

We dropped our bikes at the shop to get them fixed then visited Peter and Mihkala at the house where they were staying. Although they had already cycled with us from Derby to Broome, they completely surprised us when they asked if they could cycle with us from Karratha. I thought their initial experience with us may have deterred them from further cycle touring, especially as Peter had struggled to keep up with our pace, and had also suffered in his nether regions. He explained, however, that his bike and not his fitness had caused his previous problems, and that it was all my fault anyway! I remembered having difficulty positioning his bike seat after swapping it with Karen's seat in Derby. As I had twisted the seat tube back and forth to force it down into the frame, I had apparently created lots of metal filings which had fallen down the tube of the frame into the crankshaft to which the pedals are attached. Peter had been grinding away at the filings while he rode, severely limiting his performance. He had cleaned out the crank in Broome and was confident his riding problems were over.

Karen and I could not have been happier to have Peter and Mihkala riding with us along the next part of Highway One. Both of us had been apprehensive about the stretch from Karratha to Carnarvon because of the distances involved and the lack of civilisation along the way. With Peter and Mihkala along, we would have the safety net of a support vehicle, with no need to rely on strangers for water drops.

After picking up Elle and Mel from the bike shop, Karen and I returned to the caravan park two hundred and thirty dollars lighter. A little while later we started walking to the start of a track which snakes its way along the ridge to the east. A guy - who had recently moved from one of the caravan park cabins to a tent in the corner of the camping area - offered us a lift, and we accepted. We had been watching the antics of this guy for a couple of days. His cheap tent had progressively fallen apart under the pressure of the daily Karratha breeze. He had a huge moustache and a truly awful body - sway-backed and pot-bellied - and he obviously thought his moustache and his body were fantastic. He dropped us at the start of the walk.

The views along the ridge were similar to those we had seen before, but our trail notes informed us that good examples of aboriginal carvings could be found along the track. Unfortunately for us, Karen was navigating, so before long we were temporarily geographically embarrassed. We eventually found a trail which took us to the Information Centre we had visited when we had first ridden into Karratha. The staff directed us to the water tanks on top of the ridge where signs would indicate the track to the carvings. By the time we climbed the hill and found the track, dusk was happening, so we gave the aboriginal carvings a miss and walked down the hill to the town to buy some chardonnay and have dinner at a Chinese restaurant. This was followed by a four kilometre walk in the dark back to the caravan park.


Karratha

We killed another day with a visit to Dampier for a Hamersley Iron tour. A solid easterly pushed us along the twenty kilometres of road out to the company town where we stored our bikes in an office just before the tour began. We were given an introductory spiel, then shown a good video before being loaded on a bus for a tour of the site. Iron ore is delivered to the port from the mines of the Pilbara. It is sorted, crushed, assayed and stored before loading onto ships for internal use and export. The tour was only average, as we spent most of the time on the bus or at lookouts and never got close to any machinery.

The highlight of the day, however, happened after the tour when we retrieved our bikes and rode to a nearby company café. A stack of toasted sandwiches had been left over from the breakfast rush, and the leftovers were going cheap - only fifty cents for either a bacon and egg sandwich, or chicken, cheese and mayonnaise. I had a couple of each while we watched the Sale of the Century on the café television. What a bargain!

Afterwards we rode east and north into the stiff wind to the Woodside Gas Visitors Centre which overlooked the plant. We watched a couple of very good videos, read some equally good displays, and tucked away all the information into a corner of our brains for later use. One day in the future we would make quite a tidy profit on Woodside shares.

The ride back to the caravan park was okay, with the persistent, tiresome wind offset by our unladen bikes and the relatively short distance. Our week in Karratha had come to an end, so we spent the rest of the afternoon preparing for the road. In order to lighten our load, during and after dinner I was forced to finish off our traminer riesling cask, our lambrusco cask, and three cans of Emu Export beer which Erin had donated. While I hit the tent to sleep off the results of my labours, Karen stayed up until late to finish reading "The Power of One".

I think she was hoping it would help her during the long haul ahead.



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