Three Years on the Road
by
Brett Davis


84. Across the North-West

Karen, Mihkala and I cycled out of Karratha at noon the next day. We had spent the morning making final travel preparations, mostly shopping. Although we could use the Kombi to store our gear, Karen and I felt that it would not be right, so we continued to carry all of our own stuff, only using the support vehicle for water. Actually, one item we were not carrying was our only tea-spoon, which I had accidentally left on top of a wall near the campground sink. For a long time we would make do with plastic spoons borrowed from roadhouses.

Peter passed us in the Kombi just as we reached the highway. He drove on to a free campsite by Miaree Pool on the Maitland River, about thirty kilometres away. We caught up with him a little over an hour later, the Karratha easterlies we had grown so accustomed too during our stay now pushing us along at a good clip. Because of our late start, and also because the next river was almost eighty kilometres further along the highway, we decided that our riding had finished for the day and set up camp. We had lunch and later walked around the pool looking for birds, seeing surprisingly few species, but plenty of Star Finches and Clamorous Reed Warblers.

Mihkala woke up sick the following morning - too sick even for driving - so she and Peter rode in the Kombi while Karen and I cycled alone. We hit the road at a very leisurely 8:55am, our next scheduled stop at the Fortescue River only seventy seven kilometres away. It was a great morning for riding, with the perennial easterly winds at our backs pushing us along at a twenty seven kilometres per hour average on the flat going. Later, the road swung further and further to the south through a succession of hills over low ranges and down the sides of the intervening wide, flat valleys. Our average speed dropped back to the low twenties.

We arrived at the Fortescue River at lunch time. The water and surrounding hills provided the best scenery we had seen in a long time, but the camping area was fenced off, preventing Kombi access, and it was also a long way from the river. In addition, a big sign saying "Please do not camp here" was prominently displayed. I had a bad feeling about the place. It seemed too open, too visible from the road, so I talked everyone into going forty three more kilometres down the highway to the Robe River after a couple of fellow travellers at the rest area told us that it was a really good place to camp. Karen was not rapt in the idea of further riding, but she grudgingly agreed. She does not really like long days very much, and the extra kilometres would give us a one hundred and twenty kilometre day.

While Karen and I resumed riding Peter climbed the scenery to take a few photos while Mihkala slept off her illness in the back of the Kombi. We stopped briefly at the Fortescue River roadhouse where a female traveller recommended the Booloogooro station south of Carnarvon as a possible overnight stop. We tucked the information away for the future and rode on for two more hours. The kombi passed us mid-way through the ride. The only real highlight of the afternoon was the sighting of our first Western Australian emu. We clocked it at twenty three kilometres per hour as it ran along beside us after we had startled it from its roadside browsing.

We found Peter and Mihkala at a lovely campsite right on the river about sixty metres up from the bridge. Karen and Peter and I had a swim and wash in the river, then discussed our plans for the next day over a lovely dinner of curry and dhal. The extra distance we had added to the day had been a bit of a shock to our systems. With Mihkala still not recovered, and given the excellence of our campsite, we all agreed that a complete day of rest was in order. After dinner Peter and I went for an investigative walk over the bridge and found a circle of caravans in a campsite diagonally opposite from ours. A large group of people were sitting around a blazing campfire, singing, while in the background a small generator puttered away to provide power for an electric organ which accompanied them. A strange cult? A weird rite in the desert? A geriatric choir on tour? A travelling church group? Who knows?


Our Robe River campsite

Despite the strange people across the way, the night passed quietly except for one incident. A small herd of wandering cows came walking down the river in the dark. One of them tripped over the wire remains of a boundary fence which ran down to the water near our tent. If the cows could trip over a fence, Karen asked, what would prevent them from tripping over our tent? She got out of the tent to usher the cows away and managed to cause an immediate stampede. Coming across Karen in the dark in the middle of the night would scare the shit out of anybody.

We spent the next day near, on or in the river. I tried a bit of fishing in the morning, with some success. Using my lightest line, smallest hook and no sinker, I attempted to catch some of the tiny fish we could see near the bank, hoping to use them as bait for something larger. My morning muesli was the best bait I could find. After no luck with individual oat flakes I switched to sultanas and had immediate results. In quick succession two little fish were lifted from the water, the second just to prove that the first one was no fluke. I released the second one and cut up the first, baiting up a heavier line, larger hook and small sinker. All of this effort was rewarded with only one fish, a fifteen centimetre monster which was soon released. Still, I was happy with my ventures, having successfully demonstrated the viability of the technique. Maybe one day I would catch something edible. (Sadly, I never did.)

Mihkala was feeling a lot better and she joined the rest of us for a birdwatching walk up the river. Our list of species sighted included zebra finches, painted firetails, diamond and peaceful doves, corellas, white necked and white faced herons, black fronted plovers, magpie larks, spinifex pigeons, a brown goshawk, willy wagtails and an Australasian grebe. The rest of the day was spent swimming, lunching, fishing, crocheting, cross wording, and talking to people as they made use of the rest area.

A cow-less night left everybody refreshed. Mihkala had fully recovered and rode with us first. Peter soon passed us in the Kombi, but a little while later we caught up with him amidst a scene of carnage. A roadtrain must have ploughed into a mob of kangaroos on the highway overnight. Carcasses were everywhere. Peter was dragging dead kangaroos off the road, clearing the highway for safety. He had almost completed the job by the time we passed. We met him again at the Red Hill turn-off. He was holding a baby kangaroo.

Female kangaroos are almost always carrying joeys who often survive when their mothers become roadkills. Peter had seen the pouch moving as he was dragging a female kangaroo off the highway, and had reached in for the joey. He had given brief consideration to the idea of keeping the cute joey as a pet, but reason overcame emotion and he had decided against it. Before we arrived he had flagged down a passing police car which had been travelling towards Onslow. The policeman had agreed to pick up the joey later in the day on their way back to Karratha and transport it to a Wires site (Wildlife Rescue) in the town.

Early hills soon disappeared into typical Australian flatness. The weather could not have been better - a cloudless day with temperatures in the mid twenties and a gentle easterly breeze which helped at first but later swung around into our faces. When Peter handed over the driving and the joey to Mihkala at the forty kilometre mark, our average was around twenty two kilometres per hour, but the wind pegged this back later.

Peter put in a good fifty kilometre stretch with us until lunch. The highlight of this section was a sign pointing to a distant lump, proudly stating the mountain's height at a lofty two hundred and twenty five metres! We would have needed supplemental oxygen to attempt to scale that monster! When we reached the Kombi, Mihkala told us that the police had picked up the joey. All of us wondered cynically if the poor little bugger ever reached the Wires shelter. We will never know, but at least we did what we could.

Mihkala once again climbed onto her bike for the final thirty kilometres into the strengthening southerly wind to the Ashburton River. The last five kilometres of the day were over a horrible detour road due to major highway reconstruction. When we arrived at the roadhouse near the river, photographs displaying the latest flood provided graphic illustration of why the reconstruction had been necessary. The Ashburton had burst its banks and spread out over the countryside, eroding away large sections of the road surface. At its height, the flood had covered the roadhouse floor and reached a couple of feet up the petrol bowsers outside.

We rode about a hundred metres down to the river where Peter directed us to a site he had occupied high on the riverbank. It was hard to reconcile the shallow, rocky stream below with the monstrous flood shown in the photographs at the roadhouse. Karen, Peter and I quickly had a swim before the warmth of the sun disappeared, finding the water cold and only a couple of feet deep.


Me (looking tired) with Peter and Mihkala at the Ashburton

Afterwards, we sat around our table and discussed the day, and the future. The last section of rough, dirt road had convinced Karen and I that we should avoid the shortcut road to Exmouth in favour of the sealed road further on. Both of us were keen to visit Australia's most north-westerly town, Karen because of the Cape Range National Park and the Ningaloo Reef, and me because of the Elle Macpherson connection with the Neil McLeod tour. After a bit of discussion, Peter and Mihkala decided they would skip Exmouth and head directly for Perth where they would try to get some work. They could feel that their touring days were almost over, and they wanted to buy a property and put their new found knowledge to use on their own land. We would travel down the highway with them to the Minilya roadhouse where our paths would diverge.

Peter and Mihkala explained that part of the reason they were cycling with us was to prepare themselves for similar distance work in the future. The property they would buy would probably not be very close to the nearest town, and they wanted to avoid using a vehicle if possible. They needed to test their riding legs to see if the cycling alternative was viable. From what Karen and I had seen, they would have no problems. Of the one hundred and twenty kilometres we had covered during the day, Peter had done fifty kilometres in one hit and Mihkala had done seventy kilometres with a break in the middle. They had both ridden strongly and neither of them seemed to have any difficulties. It must be nice being young.

After a dinner of dhal curry, we all adjourned for ice-creams to the roadhouse where I managed to watch the Swans beat the West Coast Eagles. The southerly breeze of the afternoon had dredged up a lot of cool air from the south, resulting in our coldest night since leaving Darwin. Karen and I were forced to keep both ends of the tent closed to retain some warmth.

In the morning the breeze had swung back to the east, the cool cross-wind making riding uncomfortable. Even so, we were still in the tropics, and the day warmed up delightfully. Peter rode with us for the first thirty eight kilometres to morning tea at our support vehicle, with Mihkala riding afterwards. The road trended more westerly as the day went on, and flattened out a little from the earlier curves through the hills, one of which Peter climbed to take a photograph of the three of us as we rode by. The vegetation was still mostly spinifex in red dirt, with wattle and stunted shrubs dotted here and there.

We reached the Yannarie River shortly after midday, to find it mostly dry - only a couple of pools in the sand. With the next river over a hundred kilometres away, we decided to camp and set up in the shade near some tables and chairs. The Yannarie River was the site of the old Barradale roadhouse, but all that was left of it now were a few concrete slabs and a sign. The damned elusive red browed pardalote was singing away somewhere along the river, but an extensive search failed to locate the bugger. I was beginning to doubt we would ever make a confirmed sighting.


Karen and Mihkala riding through the hills

A guy in the rest area asked to borrow my bike pump because his caravan tyre was flat. Because my pump was slightly cracked I did not want someone else using it, so I volunteered to pump up the tyre. By the time I got its pressure up to thirty six pounds, I was absolutely knackered. Next time I will just say no. And to make matters worse, John, the owner of caravan, talked to me the whole time I was working on the tyre, and he was a leading contender for the most boring person I have ever met. I wish I could relate all the things he talked about, or what he looked like, but I cannot remember him at all!

We all played scrabble during the evening and Karen and I were treated to a candle-lit, nachos dinner courtesy of our support team. It is their speciality, and bloody excellent. Karen and I also had a minor celebration, with the day's seventy two kilometres taking us to three and a half thousand kilometres since Darwin.

I had heard that the Hale-Bopp comet had swung around the sun and was now on its way out of the solar system. I rose early to search the pre-dawn easterly sky, but found nothing. Maybe I would see it tomorrow. Peter rode with us first, through a succession of long, straight sections of highway interspersed with red sand ridges and spinifex filled hidden valleys. A good easterly tailwind helped our speed, which improved still further when the country flattened out later.

We met Mihkala at the Burkett Road - the shortcut to Exmouth and Coral Bay - but decided to travel on a bit further to our morning tea stop in order to divide the day into two sections of about fifty kilometres. We eventually stopped at a parking bay at fifty seven kilometres, having covered fifty point six kilometres during the first two hours. Our average had dropped below twenty five kilometres per hour by morning tea though, as the wind swung around to the north.

The parking bay was located in the middle of nowhere, with flat, spinifex covered cattle country as far as the eye could see. Two totally incongruous structures were situated nearby, a brick building signposted as the Winning Telephone Exchange, and outside it a public telephone box! While Karen phoned Kevin to catch up on all the latest news, I took a photograph to preserve the absurd situation forever.


The Phone Box in the Middle of Nowhere

Mihkala took over from Peter for the afternoon's riding. The northerly crosswinds which had slowed us down before morning tea freshened, but the road turned towards the south and we breezed along. A series of good, flat stretches bumped our average back up over twenty five kilometres per hour at three hours with almost seventy six kilometres covered. We kept this up almost all the way to the one hundred kilometre mark until Karen decided to do some birdwatching. I was aghast! With new one hundred kilometre and four hour records almost within our grasp, my wife wants to look for birds?!

All was forgiven when Karen's insistence on stopping resulted in two new birds for our list - the white-winged fairy wren and the chiming wedgebill - and we still set the new records anyhow! One hundred kilometres in three hours, fifty seven minutes and ten seconds and a four hour total of one hundred and one point zero eight kilometres at an average of twenty five point two seven kilometres per hour.

The recent cool nights has effectively demonstrated our inexorable progress southwards, but a more specific confirmation soon appeared - a sign indicating the Tropic of Capricorn and our passing from the tropics to the temperates. This was the third time that Karen and I had crossed this imaginary line on bikes. Our first crossing had been at Rockhampton on the east coast leg to Cairns. The next had been north of Alice Springs on the Darwin leg. Both the Queensland and Northern Territory authorities had erected impressive structures at these locations to commemorate their significance. Not to be outdone, the Western Australian Main Roads Department had done likewise, but where Queensland and the Northern Territory have monuments, Western Australia has a garbage bin! We photographed it anyway.


The Western Australian Tropic of Capricorn sign

Just after starting up again, Karen, Mihkala and I saw a lone cyclist and his dog approaching - Peter and Mac! They had travelled ahead to our next overnight campsite, then cycled out to join us. The five of us rode the final few kilometres to the Lyndon River together. Our campsite was on the south-western side of the river's sandy course, a couple of scattered waterholes enough for us to wash in later. After setting up, we had lunch and read Friday's and Saturday's papers which Peter had found in a rest area bin. During lunch we watched an emu and its chicks on the bank across the river, Port Lincoln ringnecks in the river gums around us, and two striated pardalotes as they prepared a nest in a narrow knot-hole above us.

Halfway through the meal I heard the call of a red browed pardalote. This time the teasing little bastard was not going to get away! I grabbed my binoculars and stalked around the rest area in search of the phantom, hearing the calls moving from tree to tree and catching an occasional movement. My persistence eventually had its reward, a definite sighting which was subsequently confirmed by Karen - our third new bird of the day!

Peter and I went for a bird watch in the scrub along the river later in the afternoon, but apart from a good sighting of a seldom before seen Pallid Cuckoo, nothing new was added to Karen's and my list. A refreshing wash in a river pool in the evening was followed by a cultural blend of recipes for dinner - an Asian inspired meal of sweet and sour tuna, followed by the traditional Australian outback fare of damper, butter, golden syrup and mugs of hot tea.

The Minilya roadhouse was only fifty kilometres away, so there was no urgency in our activities the following morning. It was almost nine o'clock by the time Peter, Karen and I started riding. Not long afterwards we all stopped to clear the road of five metal pallets plus a lump of four by two which must have fallen off the back of a truck during the night.

The terrain was initially flat but we soon came to the familiar series of sand ridges and hidden valleys, similar to those of the preceding day but lower and not quite as distinct. At a break to remove our sloppy-joes, we glassed an Australian hobby and followed the sound of a chiming wedgebill into the scrub, hoping to give Peter his first sight of it. We narrowed our search down to a single bush, but it was so thick we could not see the bird.

Everyone was a bit lethargic, so it was good to see the Kombi after twenty five kilometres. The cuppa went down well, as did the sighting of yet another new bird - the chestnut-rumped thornbill. It is not a spectacular bird, but a tick is a tick. Much refreshed, we rode quickly to the Exmouth highway intersection where we had a stretch break and checked out the information boards at a covered display before remounting for the final seven kilometres to Minilya.

About a kilometre from the roadhouse we came upon a jogger headed south - Mihkala. Like Peter had done previously, she had left the Kombi at the rest area and come out to meet us. We rode on to Minilya and had filled all of our water-bottles at the roadhouse when Mihkala trotted in. We set up at the rest area, about three hundred metres away across the bridge on the south side of the river, then walked back to the roadhouse for a lunch of pies and chips.

The river was dry so Karen went for a shower at the roadhouse during the afternoon, returning with some interesting information. She had learned that the mail for Exmouth, Coral Bay and properties along the way is picked up daily from the roadhouse and delivered to its destination by a guy with a mini-bus and an enclosed box trailer. He arrives sometime before midnight, sleeps under a loading ramp at the front of the roadhouse, then leaves at dawn to make his deliveries. The big news, however, was that he not only takes mail, he also takes passengers and their gear. Karen also reported that the roadhouse would look after our bikes while we were away for only two dollars per bike per night.

At 11:30pm Karen and I walked over to the roadhouse to await the arrival of the "mail man". While we waited we spoke to the night manager who told us that "looking after" our bikes actually meant they would be leaned up against a wall outside the roadhouse in full view of all passers-by. They would also be unchained - unless we supplied the chains!

The mail man arrived at 11:45pm. He told us that the cost of the trip would be fifteen dollars per person, whether we were going just up the road to Coral Bay, or the entire two hundred and twenty kilometres to Exmouth. In addition, we could take Elle and Mel for free! We booked a lift for the morning of the day after tomorrow, going all the way to Exmouth so we could take the Neil McLeod tour, and visit the Cape Range and the Ningaloo Reef. Tomorrow we would say goodbye to Peter and Mihkala, and spend the rest of the day at Minilya.

We were up at 7am for a final cuppa with Peter and Mihkala and Mac. It had been a pleasure riding with them, and the use of the Kombi as a support vehicle had turned a potential nightmare into an enjoyable adventure. Before they left we arranged for them to drop some water for us at the Edaggee Rest Area - eighty kilometres south of Carnarvon. That was the only other stretch we were concerned about for the rest of the highway south to Perth.

A short time after Peter and Mihkala had left the rest area, our twins, Gary and Pauline, arrived. They had taken the shortcut road to Coral Bay, stayed for a few days, and were now headed south again, having stayed the night at the Lyndon River rest area on the Exmouth road. Throughout the day we spoke with them at length about their travels, and even played a game of Scrabble (which we won). For the rest of the day we made preparations for a quick exit the next morning. We would have to be up at 5am - two hours before sunrise - for a 6am exit.

An overcast day turned a bit rainy in the evening as we prepared a dinner of rice, cashews, peas, onions and dried vegies on the rest area's wood fire. Eventually we had to don our rain jackets but we managed to cook and eat our dinner without resorting to the tent. All four of us touring cyclists adjourned to the roadhouse for a bit of shelter, plus an icecream dessert for us and coffees for them. We talked some more and took our time as we watched the rain falling on the driveway outside. During a lull in both the conversation and the weather, we quickly returned to our tents to listen to the lovely sound of rain on the roof for the rest of the night.

Before falling asleep I predicted cloud cover all night for warmth, clearing at 5am for a dry, moonlit pack-up. I was rather surprised the following morning when the weather worked out exactly as I had planned.



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