Memory Cove Wilderness Protection Area is a small bay within Lincoln National Park. It only has five camp spots, and access is via a key from the info centre and a skull rattling 4WD road in. Only 15 vehicles per day are permitted entry, in order to preserve the rare and endangered local flora and fauna, and naturally, fires are prohibited. Matthew Flinders named Memory Cove after eight of the ships company ‘unfortunately drowned near this place from being upset in a boat’. Flinder’s cat, Trim, made the right decision to remain on the barque Investigator, and continued on board for another year or two.
In preparation, we conducted a round of all the local oyster fisheries in search of the mythical $10 dozen. The oyster folk were obviously out tending to their stacks as sheds stood open and unmanned. We then tried the local IGA chasing another long tale that they sold oysters for $11 a dozen. Crestfallen, we went to the only place open at that early hour – the local bakery – and consoled ourselves with a pie for breakfast. “Sauce?”, the ill-humoured woman behind the counter barked, wielding a large upended squeeze bottle with intent, “Um, yes, that would be great thanks!”, I stammered a little too eagerly trying to lift the mood, upon which the pie became mercilessly impaled on the bottle and about 300ml of sauce delivered into its meaty heart.
The road from Smoky Bay to Port Lincoln follows the coast, but has just as picturesque vistas on the land side in the way of sweeping hectares of thriving agriculture. Every now and then brown signs signifying ‘photo opportunity’, ‘historical place’ or ‘point of interest’ will pop up and we randomly decide to check them out. Murphy’s Haystacks sounded like something worth a look, and the pink granite blobs formed 1500 million years ago were quite the oddity. They are on private land and entry is $2. A couple of caravans had camped overnight, owners and dogs emerging upon our arrival to leave a special kind of present for the next visitors. Which begs the question: Why do people choose free camps as an en plein air waste facility? Is this some kind of weird childhood rebellion?
By the time we reached Port Lincoln, the tomato sauce in pastry had faded from memory and seafood again burned in our brains. The Fresh Fish Place is a local art-meets-ocean-related homewares-meets 20 kinds of battered fish-café and supplier. I took my seat at one of the curiously baroque chairs paired with recycled boat wood tables and was immediately aware I was ruining the selfie for a couple seated across the cafe attempting to get a shot of themselves in the Italianate mirror behind me. They motioned for me to move and spent the next 20 minutes failing to nail the insta story. With about three kilos of smoked everything we could find, we made our way into the mythical Memory Cove, past large emu families and teams of boxing kangaroos.
The only other people at the cove were a group of seven guys aged between 18 and 35 who covertly told Waz about the snakes around. They didn’t want to upset the little woman and besides, they had killed the snakes, so it was ok. National Parks camp sites are incredibly cheap, some as low as $6.50 per person a night, so what people do is book in one person and proceed to jam seven people on a site. But that doesn’t work, so they spill over into the Conservation area around their site, then come sunset, they light a fire.
Early the next morning, a ute comes flying into the bay in the style of Dukes of Hazzard. It screams to a dusty halt at the edge of the boys’ camp site. Park Rangers emerge and a 30 minute discussion ensues. Somehow the boys had already dug in the fire and got away with it all, leaving soon after the Rangers. A woman soon arrives and sets up in their camp spot. She has come to Port Lincoln for a wedding and the bride-to-be handed her the keys to her 4WD, loaded up with a swag and camp supplies and pointed her to Memory Cove. Moments later she appears asking if we have any need for eight loaves of white bread liberated from their plastic bags, or ten kilos of onions. Or a bag to put them in. We spent the next 30 minutes adding egg shells and chocolate wrappers to the mix, digging bait bags out of the high tide mark and throwing 30 bait squid back into the ocean. I’m distracted by the big questions. Were the onions on special? Why don’t seagulls eat the bait?
I braved the extremely cool water in search of seahorses and weedy sea dragons. The weed was in beautiful shades of pink and green. A sea lion had popped up onto the rocks to check out Waz’s fishing results, so naturally I was expecting a Great White Shark to appear any moment. I stayed in until I went blue. It was time to head to Adelaide.
You meet the most interesting people out on the road. Like the guy with a buffalo’s skull strapped to his caravan.
While driving through the Gibb River Road, he stopped without warning, grabbed his tomahawk and dashed off into the roadside shrubbery. His incredibly understanding wife and curious kids stepped out of the vehicle momentarily to investigate, before immediately retreating, driven back by the halo of death in 40 degrees. A not inconsiderable time later, he reappeared carrying the head of the recently deceased and highly aromatic beast, and strapped it to the front of their car. When they made camp that evening, he proceeded to boil the head in the largest vessel he could craft to reduce it down to just a skull and horns. (I involuntarily gag at the very idea of inhaling four hours of boiling three day old roadkill, let alone the FOUR DAYS it took to get rid of the meaty bits). It is going straight to the pool room when they finally get home in a few months.
Then there’s the guy who had a substantial-looking metal detector. The minute a campsite is vacated, he does a whip around. I couldn’t help but ask if he had seen the wonderful BBC series ‘The Detectorists’, (he hadn’t). Judging me as a person unlikely to take up the detector, he cagily revealed that the best places are carparks, especially where people change, like at the beach, or caravan parks. Surfers, and cashed up types like Kite Surfers, and Triathletes are the best for dropping stuff like money, jewellery, watches.
The best haul was $60 in coins in 20 minutes at a place that would not be revealed, but average coin hauls came in at around $16-20 a car park. Beaches swallow many a wedding ring.
Which reminds me of a set of keys I found on the coral floor while snorkelling at Oyster Stacks in Cape Range, Ningaloo. When we got back to our car, a set of four slightly confused visitors from Hong Kong were standing at the car next to us. We enquired as to the whereabouts of their keys and their sun reddened faces lit up at once. “You found them?”. Well yes, but batteries and salt water do not a couple make, and the old style key you usually get hidden in the electronic case was missing. As they stood there in their swimsuits and cute reef shoes, clutching a yellow pool noodle and snorkel gear, without phones, wallets or mobile coverage, going pinker by the minute, we knew we were the ones to take them 40km back to the hire company to get sorted.
It transpired that the hire company was useless. We ended up buying them lunch, a new battery, fixing their key, and driving them back to their car. And this is when I learnt that what is obvious to me e.g. never swim with your electronics in your boardies, apparently is not obvious to all. So many lessons.
By the time we reached Ceduna, our self-administered starvation diet would end. When you cross the Nullabor, the border between WA and South Australia deprives your fridge of all that is fresh and good. If you don’t eat bread, or things in packets, the only thing you can find at roadhouses (a petrol station with souvenir stubby holders) is a menu released some hours ago from the burning embrace of the deep fryer. (To be fair, the roadhouses do make all sorts of fresh sandwiches and salads, and homemade desserts that were not in evidence that long ago. A time when you could buy DEEP FRIED LASASGNE. Oh, yes.)
But to Ceduna. We rolled up to the oyster shack just 30 minutes inside closing time, but things had changed. Where once you sat on the roof of the shipping container/shop in a roaring estuarine breeze, now they had expanded out the back, with flasher tables, chairs, and upscale cocktail forks. Upon sighting the $19/dozen price tag (a staggering 33% increase since 2015), Waz immediately cut the standard four dozen order down to two. These two dozen were gone in minutes, and a plan hatched to purchase more, direct from the oyster suppliers. “To Smoky Bay!”, the cry went out.
Smoky Bay has an immaculate caravan park with a kitchen and barbeque area the stuff of legend on Wikicamps. With our fridge offering nothing but eggs and UHT milk, we popped out to the General Store and found little that passed the paleo test. “No problem!”, said the lovely store man, “Have some whiting, and a slab of our own butter, and a tomato!” We repaired to the famous camp kitchen and were quickly joined by a collection of retirees, the number of which we had not encountered in one place on this trip. Bottles of wine came out, along with stories about all sorts of eyebrow-raising goings-on in Old Perth. Waz got very excitable, and taking an over generous draught of a Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon, proceeded to cough, spraying most over the woman opposite him, with lateral collateral damage to the rest of us. Reminiscent of an episode of Dexter, the spray left a body shaped mark on the wall and floor, but happily did not slow the nights momentum.
The next morning, we had to dig deep for our down jackets and beanie; it was strange to be cold. We were headed for Port Lincoln via every oyster supplier within a 25km radius and the promise of a magical place called Memory Cove. Memory Cove had just five small camp spots, entry was by key from the info centre, and the road rugged, deterring crowds. How romantic!
Whats on the menu at WOKA?
This is what happens when the Head Chef at WOKA stares into an unpalatable fridge and declares it Guest Chef Day.
Behold! the Salad of Fridge Remnants Curiosity: shunned red cabbage sauerkraut, almost soft sliced tomatoes and beans, wisps of coriander and spring onion tops forming a pillowy foundation for last nights Piggy Chook, salvaged with artisan Triple Cream Brie and a Dressing of Mysteries.
So how it is possible for an over-cleaning, hair curling/straightening, workout earring-wearing gal to contemplate any of this? It’s all about having the necessities – wine fridge, eqyptian cotton linen, and a Lagouile cutlery set. And a vehicle that can pull a camper trailer. Which is where Waz comes in. In the 14 days between Waz declaring we were to be on the road and departure, he avoided the distracting jobs like packing up and house maintenance, and applied himself instead to the purchase of a vehicle (bye-bye Telstra salary sacrifice and unlimited fuel).
Fearing death up Ship Creek, Waz made multiple trips to ARB, the mecca for 4WD enthusiasts needing gear ‘built for the harsh conditions of the Aussie outback’, and spent hours pouring over 4WD accessories from the eastern states. Faux necessities like a ‘snatch strap’ and random hitches were purchased, and a custom drawer/fridge slide fit-out ordered from Queensland. The vehicle was a no-brainer because it had a snorkel (what is it with guys and snorkels?) and UHF radio (listening to the truckie channel), cream sheepskin seat covers (already but a shadow of their original selves), dual batteries, rear coil airbags, one of those little mats on the dash, and a bull bar (OK, he had a point, that looks cool) with a rack of extra LED lights.
From Exmouth we were headed East, via Perth, for installation of the custom drawers. These drawers are felt lined, lockable, come with a sneaky pull out table (that I cannot bring to use because it is the only thing not ruined by travelling so far), and a slide out thing for the fridge with renders access to the fridge only available to those over 180cm.
We like to do the 1300km trip in two days, usually 900km in the first and a fast run to Perth the next morning. Hours in the car are not spent in deep and meaningful dialogue, rather, we listen to true crime podcasts. I provide feedback to the podcast with things like “Why are you not checking under the swimming pool??!”, “Well, duh! Of course it was the husband!!”, and Waz says “SSSSShhhhh.”
Driving into Perth after only a few weeks away seems a little weird. Familiar, yet not home. After 24 hours in the big Western smoke, a stellar install of said draws by the immensely practical Geoff, and we were on the road again, and dreaming about oysters at Ceduna. We dropped in for a cup of tea and sponge at the farm of some lovely people we met at the Landor races. He has a transport business, so when I said we were leaving Perth, he said “Righto, we’ll see you at 2pm then.” We got there at 1.54pm. He also suggested a great little free camp up the line at Boorabin. Never mind wikicamps, Truckies are your goldmine for road trip nuggets.
I’ve crossed the Nullabor seven times now, and it almost passes in a blur, except for the game of counting down to oysters. The other thing is that people tell me they imagine it is an arid desert scape. Not so! Vegetation and wildlife abounds, and free camps a plenty. We pulled in at dusk at Madura Lookout and after 30 minutes driving around and around, tempers fraying just a teeny bit at the edges, we gave in to the idea that stunning views were only possible with a night of flapping canvas.
For all of my commentary on millennial backpackers, they have my respect. A very small 2WD car pulls up and four adults get out. They set about erecting a tent 1.5m x 1.5m suitable for five year olds camping out in the backyard. They then pull out two camp chairs and shelter from the relenting heat in a two square metre patch of shade. The others sit on the ground snacking on a bag of potato chips. At night they magically evaporate into thin air, then reappear in the morning. It is an eternal mystery to me. WHERE DO THEY SLEEP and WHERE ON EARTH DO THE COLD CORONAS COME FROM?
For those people who cannot conceive of a life without comforts, I’ll let you into a secret. It’s pretty comfy. Our home is an Aussie Swag Camper Trailer. They were the gold standard Aussie trailer, locally made and thoughtfully designed, until foreign imports forced them out of business in February 2018. Waz bought ours one week AFTER we did our last four month trip in 2015. I drove to Brisbane to pick it up and it only took 48 hours before I started talking out loud to myself.
The Swag has a 60 Litre fridge, queen sized bed, raised hard floor (try getting up there, snakes!!!), kitchen sink and four burner stove. It also features a massive pull-out draw under the bed for your clothes which I attack with a constantly critical Konmari eye. As the weeks go by, more and more clothes are relocated to a giant suitcase in the car – Items Not Suitable For Camp Life – and basic utilitarian kitchenware is replaced with beautiful (Waz: “It’s an egg flip. WHY do we need a different one?”) utilitarian kitchenware. A gas hot water system means I get a shower of sorts. We have our Alessi coffee pot, retro enamel cups. It’s not exactly roughing it.
Until I am beset with flies, mosquitoes, sandflies, midges, ticks, no aircon, defiant 37 degree heat, 40km winds, permanently damp clothes in 80% humidity, and feet that require a savage scrubbing daily. Then I remember, you don’t get our day-to-day from the comfort of home.
BONUS SEGMENT: Whats on the menu at WOKA?
I am reminded that when you think you know something, you know nothing Jon Snow.
About six years ago at Osprey Bay we went for a snorkel to the right of the boat entry point and saw nothing but sea grass and three fish. We declared the area barren and religiously snorkelled a small circle to the left every year since.
And then there’s my dodgy underwater filming (nod to The Blair Witch Project for unintended style inspiration)…y
This trip we had a chat with an American couple who said they had seen 40 turtles to the right. Say whaaaat? I figured that if I divided that by ten, it would be about right. Off we went, and presto! proceeded to bang into eight turtles more interested in sea grass than us. You literally had to swim around them in one metre of water. It was mating season and they were fuelling up for what appeared to be a game of turtle Stacks-On* at sunset.
We chatted to another couple who said neighbouring Sandy Bay was great snorkelling too. Back when we knew everything, we wrote it off as all sand and kite surfers. Apparently not. It teems with amazing coral and abundant fish-life just waiting for us; Moray eels, stonefish, and octopus a plenty. The strong current means crystal clear water at hightide, and very few other people with adequate kicking power.
I’ve always been super jumpy with fish over 1.5 metres like sharks, sting rays, and even manta rays, no matter how many times I’m told they are harmless, but by this stage I was spending five hours a day in the water. The nerves had to go; it was time to make friends with the reef sharks.
At dawn and dusk, Waz would generally fish while I would tour the coral. There were always reef sharks hanging around with intent, circling me with their beady Mona Lisa eyes. I settled on a new strategy: to swim toward them. And thus, my love of sharks was born.
The well-kept secret that is Ningaloo is showing signs of a security leak, thanks to WA Tourism’s successful campaigns in Europe and Asia. If you fancy a bit of fish time or simply white sands and turquoise water, go soon. While it is more difficult to access than the Great Barrier, it is already much busier than it was six years ago, and of course the ever present threat of global warming means every year is precious. You won’t be bothered by President T either (only The Orange One would give himself a nickname), who will be kicking back at Mar-a-Lago safe in the knowledge that the phenomenon is a hoax invented by the Chinese, and dead when Florida and Mar-a-Lago is underwater.
An absolutely awesome young teenager from the camp across from us was travelling Australia with her family. She loved the water as much as I do and appeared every time I got the snorkelling gear out. Despite the worst goggles in Christendom, and just a bikini (I’d turn white and feel nothing after 20 minutes without a wetsuit) she never tired of it. She was handy with a loom, (everyone with a child aged between eight and 15 would know what this is) and sold key rings in AFL team colours to campers and gave me our camp mascots.
She also had her own fishing gear and knew all the fisher person speak. She, along with many other camp kids we meet, is going to be an amazing adult.
For those travelling to Exmouth to see the Whalesharks, Cape Range offers fantastic snorkelling from the beach:
Oyster Stacks – most variety, tidal limitations, and a bit of current
Turquoise Bay – the most instagrammable
Lakeside – has the big things
South Mandu – an amazing drift 20 metres from shore
And now, for everyone’s favourite segment: What’s on the menu at WOKA?**
Bug and grass fed Chicken, tenderly embraced by prosciutto that once roamed the same pasture, kept company with chargrilled vegetables – a Symphony in Yellow – and finished in Spanish spice.
*A game where one person is ‘it’, someone yells “Stacks ON!” and everyone else jumps onto the person that is ‘it’.
**WOKA – Wazza’s Outdoor Kitchen Australia
Exmouth is the town you go through to get to Cape Range National Park, which is fringed by Ningaloo Reef, one of the largest fringing coral reefs in the world. It was once a naval base for US intelligence during the cold war and the ghost town still exists with its extra wide roads for the American cars they imported so the families would feel at home. It is the gateway to my favourite place in the world.
Once upon a time you had to line up at the entrance of Cape Range National Park at 6am to get a campsite at one of several camps. You would sit there until 8am when the ranger arrived, and like a nightclub at capacity, would be allowed in as campers left. Generally, the vacated campsites all ran out within 12 minutes, and if you had joined the line too late, you would learn your lesson and be back the next morning at 5.45am.
These days you can book up to six months ahead online, which suits those with a solid schedule and a vision. Like a Taylor Swift concert, people all over Australia set their alarms for midnight Australian Eastern Standard Time and feverishly refresh their browsers to snag the oceanfront sites. Waz decided he was that guy, and he wanted to win. At 12.14am he announced triumphantly that we were headed for Cape Range in May 2019. This was one of a number of signs he was becoming too comfortable with having no job.
And now for a Massive Anecdotal Generalisation. After a solid ten years of camping outside school holidays, I’ve noticed a sizeable shift in camper demographics. Before, you could rely on the following:
75% grey nomads chasing the sun
10% young families on the great Ozzie Roadtrip #homeiswhere thevanis
10% European backpackers
and 5% everyone else.
The grey nomads would book sites for 28 days at a time. The backpackers would drive in after dark and out before 7am so they could avoid paying the ranger, leave tomato sauce and tuna tins in their wake, fill the air with Gauloises cigarettes, and (if local businesses are to be believed) the french steal stuff off washing lines and communal fridges. The families would have adorable barefooted children bike riding laps of the camp area well after dark.
Fast forward 2018:
65% are young families travelling Australia for up to three years at a time. The children are the same, with more creative names like Axel and Shayelar. Seven year olds bring their own fishing kit and school you on local fishing conditions. Two year olds called Summa and Raiyn run barefoot across sharp rocks chasing lizards and snakes. The dawn chorus is no longer strains of Slim Dusty, but rather, the sound of a baby massacre as the Under Twos wake up and realise it’s UHT milk again.
The millennial backpackers have swelled to 15%, half still flirting into the night, littering cigarette butts and low on hygiene factors, but no longer driving offensive Wicked Campers, which have gone covert (thanks to collective Australian/NZ blowback). The other half are a new breed of cashed up ‘camping’ internationals, driving Winnebago’s, and sporting one-piece mask-snorkels.
The grey nomads have been chased out by the well organised internationals and families, making up only 15% of the campers. They also taken their solar off the grid to free camping.
The remaining 5% are the same; people like us and newly married older couples “avoiding their families”.
Arriving at Osprey Bay at the witching hour of 3pm (full sun, long day driving), I unpacked a camp chair and a palm sized Wolf Spider flew out and made a bid for my foot. Ten year old Atticus from next door, magnetised by my shrieks, ran over and begged to deal with it, declaring the arachnid pregnant and in search of a nesting site.
Atticus visited frequently over the next two days and proudly told us innocent stories of how his Dad grabbed a turtle and went for a ride, “the turtle didn’t mind”, and his Mum proudly relayed how they had played with a squid until it “inked” them, how he grabbed a python in the Kimberley and how his Dad, despite many attempts, failed to get his hands on a fresh water crocodile at Windjana. I had no words.
Which brings me to the next massive generalisation. All of a sudden, the boom in young families who sell the house and hit the road are a different breed to a few years ago. They are outdoorsy enough to leave the comfort and security of a mortgage and organised sport, yet somehow missed the lesson about NOT TOUCHING THE WILDLIFE. Is this the Steve Irwin generation?
I took to the water. Osprey Bay was as good as ever, but this time it was turtle mating season. One large turtle had a very long tail. A neighbouring camper queried, “Do you think the tail is something to do with arousal?”. I had no words.
With all aspects of ourselves, equipment, and belongings freshly laundered, we headed north toward Exmouth and Cape Range National Park. I described Cape Range as “my favourite place in the world” to a man who said, “The world? The world is a big place.” Awkward silence as the gravity of that statement lingered in the air.
The road to Exmouth is paved with Wedge-tailed eagles snacking on deceased kangaroos, and roadhouses selling diesel at $1.90/litre and outrageously priced dim sims (according to RollinRob57 on Wikicamps).
But we only had eyes for the Minilya Roadhouse and its homemade sausage rolls. Talk of these sausage rolls began 250km before touchdown, so by the time we got there we were ready to eat every one they had. They sell around 60 per day and, it turns out, sell out by 11am. I must have looked suitably distraught as the lovely woman behind the counter fossicked in the freezer and nuked the last two in the building.
We decided to make Giralia Station on the Exmouth Gulf our interim stop for a couple of days. Checking in and grabbing the required portable loo at the homestead we drove an hour into one of the beach camp sites. Essentially 4WD, it was slow, but roads like this tend to mean awesome sites are vacant on a drop-in basis.
We set up and the loo looked incomplete. It had been strapped to the trailer with the lid opening to the front, so, fed up with its role in life we surmised it had flown off. Waz drove back in the dark, happily engaging the extra LED lights (that came with the UHF radio, snorkel and other ‘necessities’). The forlorn lid was exactly where it had made a bid for freedom, an hour away at the gate to the homestead.
Meanwhile, back at base, I kept noticing specks of dirt appearing on my legs and arms that stung. I blamed the wind.
Overnight, the black specks turned out to be microscopic midges that had bitten me on every exposed piece of skin. How something around 1mm in size can deliver such irritation defies logic. I couldn’t even run into the ocean for relief thanks to the ever present shark risk so I could only gaze out at the pods of dolphins chasing fish with ferocity, and lean into the wind thankful that midges appear to dislike wind as much as I.
The calm dawn inspired Waz to get the rod out and a while later returned with his catch; a small green turtle. To the collective trauma of Waz, myself and the turtle, she had inadvertently swum past the lure and hooked her shoulder. Do not despair! The lure was swiftly removed and as Waz carried the heavy wee turtle back to the water, she flapped her fins like she was swimming and took off without pause. Waz added fishing pliers to the list of things this Off Road Life required.
Although this beach was populated by five couples widely ranging age and origin, we were all very similar. Which explains why we were all headed to the same bay next.
Looking like we had a communicable disease and a nervous tick, we set the GPS for Exmouth and Cape Range National Park. We swung by the homestead to sign out, along with an earthy looking departing visitor (ignoring WA gun laws) who enquired as to where there may be goats he could shoot. “Side of the road anywhere?”.
What’s on the menu @WOKA* ?
*Waz’s Outback Kitchen Australia
The Eastern Gascoyne Race Club is located at Landor Station, 60 km from Mt Augustus and 350km from Meekathara. It has two meetings a year on the WA long weekend in September/October. It’s station jockeys on station horses, or as explained to me, fat blokes on bush horses.
The Annual Meeting cost $60 entry per person for the weekend, including camping on the property – on the rails if you wish – and three days of events for all from Two-Up to Tug of War. We rolled in on Friday and the lady at the entrance immediately recommended the chips and gravy and to avoid the left-hand side if we didn’t like doof doof. The road in revealed a wide open space, dotted with water tanks feeding corrugated toilet and shower blocks, and several early starters who had obviously been before, claiming the few shade giving trees and structures.
Lisa’s Country Kitchen, an iron shed with chandeliers, turned out such delicacies as freshly made pulled pork with coleslaw, slow cooked lamb with rocket salad and perfect chocolate brownie, yet the chips and gravy remained the steadfast best seller.
When the bar opened at 7pm for Two-Up and Crown & Anchor I wish we had packed our stockyard shirts in block colours of blue and pink (purchased in a surge of admiration for station style on our last trip). Drinks were cheap (beers $4.50) and the crowd already your good mates. Unrepeatable stories of intrigue and family dynamics shared, then onto dancing to live music from Leather and Lace commencing at 10.30pm, about 90 minutes after we would normally have retired.
Saturday was the AFL Grand Final*, and given Collingwood (Waz’s team) was in the Grand Final, considerable forethought had been given to whether this would be televised at the races and therefore whether in fact attendance was possible. Hallelujah! It would be on the Big Screen in the bar, with the added bonus of nipping the other side of the Big Screen to watch Barrel Race Time Trials and the other races.
Collingwood (Melbourne) was playing the West Coast Eagles (Perth), so given we were in WA and Collingwood supporters are the subject of significant ridicule and generalisation (missing teeth, mullets and so on) it transpired that there were precisely three Collingwood supporters at the screening;Waz, myself, and another person smart enough to attend undercover.
Two hours before kick-off we were first to the bar and determined the front row. I felt wine with aeration in it was required. I was furnished not only with an $18 bottle of Methode, but a wine bucket and plentiful ice to rest it in. The wine bucket being an actual bucket. Genius!
Collingwood lost in the last quarter. Brutal, but there were races to attend, and winnings to gather. On Saturday, five horses won seven races, and I’ve invited guest blogger and Colourful Racing Identity, Waz, to summarise the results below.**
Sunset drinks led to the ball. I broke out my new RM Williams boots and a top with a horse on it. Apart from wearing it inside out (the hazards of dressing in a dark tent), it blended sufficiently, and despite the ball not starting until 9pm, we were caught up in the theatre of it all and gazed with wonder upon the amazing hairstyles and massive ball dresses the gorgeous young gals materialised in. How the heck do you put that together in a ute and a swag? As strains of music from DJ Rev reached our tent at 2am, the nocturnal stickability had to be admired.
Sunday dawned and the gymkhana was on. Competitors as young as two and up to 14 were incredibly adept. The commentator sat in the stands with limited visual range and kept up a dry and highly entertaining report. “Looks like we have the young Miss…not sure who that is…Is that…? Gee. Look out. She’s missed that pole. She’s going to have to go around again. That’s thing with this event, you have to keep hold of that pole…I don’t want to guess who it is or there will be an angry mother and disappointed father coming at me …It’s a good turn out this year, been a good breeding season…”. As the day goes on, he gets funnier which is almost more compelling than the all comers Tug of War.
Monday, the ladies turn out in their racing best “Just because it’s the country doesn’t mean we don’t have fascinators”, and an evening of more Two-up (who said it only happens on Anzac Day) music and dancing until midnight. In 2021, the event celebrates its 100thyear and I can confidently predict it will be a cracker. Who’s with me?
We intended to head west to Kennedy Range, but “the miners have wrecked the road” and it was closed, so back we went and straight to Carnarvon, with an extra passenger of around 40 kilos of dirt. We chose a caravan park with a giant car wash and lost the next two hours of our life to a sponge and spray gun. Well, I got the elbow grease jobs involving foaming brushes and cleaning door frames and mesh windows. Waz got the stand-back-and-spray-the-bejesus-out-of-everything job followed by important matters of the iphone. By the time I had finished, dinner cooked by someone else was required, and judging by my expression, Waz had selected Sails, the fanciest place in town. Driving up to the 1970’s architecture I had shrimp cocktail on my mind. I was to be disappointed when presented with an amazing French inspired menu, lots of fresh local vegetables and a decent wine list, for about the same price as a pub meal in Perth***.
*An Aussie Rules Football season finale many Australians build up to all year. Home Opens, Auctions, Weddings and other significant things are purposely avoided on this weekend.
**Raconteur Waz says: The first day saw Rock River and Rodinia salute the judge twice with Jessamy Walsh taking the riding honours with four wins. Second day saw Centipede win twice with leading jockey Natalie Burke riding four winners including the two aboard Centipede. Rodinia, who came into the carnival a maiden won three from three making her the Landor “horse of the year”. NB: Landor has one annual carnival with many of the horses not racing many or any other races. Jessamy and Natalie shared the Landor jockey premiership with five winners apiece. From a punting perspective Biara Flyer was the shortest price winner (day 1) as well as the shortest priced losing favourite over the 1800m Landor Cup. Both times at $1.30 and in his last race came 4th as a drifting $2.00 favourite.
Thank you, Waz!
***When you live in Perth you get used to extending your mortgage simply to stick your fork into a parmigiana, so you are perpetually delighted by the Parma Price anywhere else.
The road to Mt Augustus from Meekatharra is unsealed. In the rear view mirror I could see billowing clouds of dust enveloping every crevice of the unloved camp chairs and brand new ‘pub bike’ we bought for this trip, strapped mercilessly uncovered to the trailer. It was Wednesday, Day 4. Around 75km from Mt Augustus we saw a sign for annual Landor Race Meeting at the East Gascoyne Race Club, kicking off Friday. Count us in! Darned if we were going to miss another compelling sounding local event.
But first Mt Augustus.
I kind of expected Mt Augustus to look like Uluru, but twice as big at eight kilometres long, and older, clocking in at 1650 million birthdays. Well, it has a lot more trees and what-not on it, so it is nothing like it really. The rock is so big you cannot actually get a photo of it in entirety. I even drove around the short ends of it, and, nope. So here’s a partial image.
Mt Augustus is known as Burringurrah by the local Aboriginal Wadjari people. The main dreaming story associated with it tells of Burringurrah, a lad not enjoying his initiation into manhood instead electing to take off, breaking tribal law. Punishment came in the form of a tribesman’s spear through his leg and a finishing off by the women wielding fighting sticks. If you look at the mountain along the long side, you can see his prostrate body and the broken-off spear. I can think of a few men that have avoided transitioning to adulthood, and who appear to have been lucky they weren’t under Wadjari law.
As a working station covering 1,250,000 acres, running over 100 windmills and bores, and a hard to count number of cattle, Mt Augustus offers travellers a campground oasis of lawns and sprinklers, 100% groceries in the fridge (yep, even the potato chips) and a bar specifically prohibiting ‘dickheads’ and open when deemed appropriate by the extremely genial and unintentionally humorous tourist park managers. If you are prone to dickheadery, avoid.
There are numerous short walks or drives to lookouts from the base of the Mount, doable for small people, and featuring magical rock engravings you can walk right up to. There are so few places in the world you can stand right in front of 30000+ human handiwork without a security rope and cctv. I love Oz.
The pinnacle activity for most is to climb the 12km return, 700m ascent Beedoboondu Summit Trail. The general guide says to expect a 6-8 hours climb, and that it boasts some savage radiant heat, that along with the terrain, tests the unwary. The day before we arrived, a woman had to be transported (a four stage several hour process) to Royal Perth and the bar manager said earnestly while pouring a chardy with ice, “I had to grab some people that looked like you to carry her down from the top”. We did a quick calculation and retired with a view to kick our walk off at 4.30am.
When the sun warmed our duvet it became apparent the alarm had been set for a time other than the appointed (4.30pm- not looking at anyone in particular!), and we were an hour behind schedule. Undeterred, we stormed up that hill like the undead from seven hells was upon us, and cracked a sub four hour return. I think the compelling feature for Waz was that someone told him you could get Telstra coverage on the cairn at the top.
With days north of 35 degrees in September, Goolinee (Cattle Pool) on the Lyons River offers surprisingly chilly respite in the noon day heat.
But this morning we were not dilly-dallying. We got back and packed without pause; we had a country race, of which we knew little, to attend.
There is some kind of M thing going on in Wildflower Country; Moora, Mingenew, Morawa, Mullewa, Mt Magnet, Mt Augustus, all wildflower hotspots. The exceptions are Cue, Coorow, Carnamah, and a host of others I’ve left out because they don’t suit my theme. It is striking how inventive and creative these small towns are, from murals to museums, and thrilling sounding events that we would miss like The Inseminator’s B and S Ball and Ute Muster, The Menzies Rodeo and Ute Muster (‘Have yourself a bucking good time’), and Mt Magnet’s Astro Rocks Festival.
Meanwhile, at Coalseam Conservation Park, a foggy morning greeted us, which you don’t get much of in Perth, and as some of you know, I do love a tree in mist.
I had done a little more research by this stage in snatches of mobile coverage and had a solid plan in mind that would not involve driving back down roads we had already covered. Part of Warren’s no work zen outlook was to stop the car and turn around as many times as I requested, without the veins in his temple exploding, but I didn’t want to fatigue that new muscle.
Our goal was Mt Augustus, the kind of place you choose to go because it is not on the way to anywhere and far from everywhere. You go there to see the ‘World’s Biggest Rock’ – yes, more than twice Uluru – to view carpets of wildflowers, intriguing geology, and enjoy some working cattle station hospitality.
Mt Magnet is en route to Mt Augustus, and although small, jam packed with history and pride in the success of past and present residents, all gathered in one sizeable place called the Mining and Pastoral Museum, within the visitor centre.
I have to say at this point that all small towns have their version of this. Country visitor centres are worth visiting simply to meet the warm and enthusiastic volunteers ready to spill the beans on what’s hot, recent celebrity sightings, movie filming featuring all the locals, and recommend where we could get a good cuppa. For us, it was the swimming wall of fame in the museum and one of Mt Magnet’s accomplished sons.
Coorow is another example of community pride and spirit. The local community owns and farms land for community benefit. Coorow Farm is home to the first homestead built in the area by William and Sarah Long, who raised a family of seven without, one would assume, any medical attention or intervention. A self-drive 6km wildflower trail offers point of interest, with walks of 250m or 1.25km, which apparently was 1km too far for the occupants of the other four vehicles.
By 4pm, Waz called stumps and we looked for a roadside stop. If you are not all over it, Wikicamps is a goldmine for finding paid and free camping and the voluntary commentary spares no detail. If there is rubbish, mosquitoes, flies, bees, generators going all night, crap hosts, or it looks like a scene from Cocoon*, TomTrukka or Ben1983 leaves no mystery. There is also an element of ‘this is too good to put on Wikicamps’, where you don’t want a good thing ruined by great unwashed tourers, so you and the other 100 people who know about it remain shtum.
A spot in the Gascoyne riverbed is such a place. Astoundingly, Waz did not create a massive fire, which is why he camps, but instead Waz’s Outback Kitchen Australia (WOKA) turned out free range chicken enveloped in similarly liberated prosciutto, atop a gathering of rocket and micro herbs accompanied by seared sweet potato. Just because we camp doesn’t mean it’s all two minute noodles and anti-bacterial wipes. I’ll go into why this whole camping thing is even a concept for one most comfortable in order and freshness in another post. Yes, city princesses and princes of Bel Air, you too can do this.
*Dang. There I go alienating my Millennial audience.
Our first day was pretty short by usual standards. It was simply enough to be on the road, and having not made it to the supermarket we only had the remains from our home fridge with us; a jar of red cabbage sauerkraut, leftover jalapenos, two lemons, one orange devoid of skin (denuded for Waz’s gin), and half a packet of bacon. Like a vision, the welcoming Watheroo Station Tavern loomed in the dusk, offering free camping, hot showers and home cooked food! Bonus offer – the Watheroo National Park was just down the road. Yes, yes, and heck, yes.
Which brings me to my latest project: I’m going to visit every National Park in Australia. I thought it would be a great way to spend the four months. Then I discovered there were ‘over 500’. The husband of a friend said “But that will take ten years!”, which is probably on the money, but in my defence, I do my best work when there is a list to attack, and I do not like list items mocking me for too long.
So to Watheroo National Park. An amazing array of wildflowers (in season), echidnas and rich wildlife, areas of water and walking tracks, it covers over 44,000 hectares and is home to Jingemia Cave, and the biggest mosquitoes I’ve had to take an entire palm to.
Sporting around 50 bites despite industrial spray, I was ready for the Watheroo Station Tavern dining room for some excellent offerings from the kitchen ladies. Lamb shanks, fish in butter and caper sauce, salad and vege. Washed down with an $18 bottle of wine. A bargain night for $58. It’s a must stay!
The next morning I had the wildflower trail maps open, with an eye out for the ‘extremely rare’ yet seemingly common wreath flower. Any local info/visitor centre is happy to hand draw specifics on a map : “They are near this cross road, before you get to the big tree, under the fenceline, and behind the bush…”. The rest of the morning was a a zig zag around taking in wildflower hot spots: Carnamah, Morewa, Three Springs, Mingenew, and winding up at Coalseam Conservation Park (surely this counts as a National Park?!).
While the East Coast may have the Big Pineapple, Western Australia’s wildflowers are the biggest collection on Earth – with over 12,000 species, 60% of which are found nowhere else. If it appeals, make a date to self-drive the many trails from July to November.
By this stage Waz had that strained look. He had gone above and beyond with the driving back down roads he had already been, and blood sugar was plummeting alongside his sense of humour. Picking up the pace we set up camp at Coalseam Miners Camp. The result of a spirited exchange in a radiant 36 degrees abuzz with clouds of flies about whether site nine was better than four, and where north was.
Next: Mt Augustus and dust. So. Much. Dust.