Perth to Cue: The Outback
April 6, 2005
I am at the Queen of The Murchison Bed and Breakfast, sitting on the second floor terrace, potted plants all around the perimeter and many more hanging from the edge of the angled roof that protects me from the afternoon sun. The Great Northern Highway bisects this town called Cue, pop.300 - nearby gold mines and mining town architecture. Basically, I am in the middle of nowhere.
Newman Western Australia 7 April 2005
I am sitting at the small kidney-shaped swimming pool at The Seasons Hotel in Newman, pop. 3600. The hotel is quite nice with palm trees and gardens and expensive motel rooms. So I took a small, basic room with just a bed; the "facilities" are downstairs. A place for the local mining workers.
It's very quiet. I am still in the middle of nowhere. Well, not quite. There is a town centre, schools, a tourist information office, travel agency, and I am typing this letter at the library.
I arrived in Perth on schedule on 31 March, in the evening, confronted with winds and cold rain. So, after a full day in my hotel room watching more rain and wind; and after a day of strolling around downtown Perth, taking pictures of the few extant 19th Century brick and stone buildings sitting all spiffy and confident among the tall steel and glass towers; and after a Sabbath dinner with Peter and Debra, and their three grown sons, Adam, Nathan and Julian, and Peter's mother Faye; and after a day with two new friends, sisters from Taiwan, Chiung Wen and Gin Fong, who are attending English language school - we attended the Thailand Sonkran Festival at The Hellenic Centre- I taught them how to say "Hello" in Thai and "Let's go" in Spanish; and after a day hiking up the hill to Kings Park and The Botanical Gardens with spectacular sunlit views of the Swan River and the Perth skyscrapers; and after picking up my Avis Rental car at 5:00 pm, I finally hit the road at 6:30 the next morning to avoid the modest rush hour traffic, remembering that aside from my three lessons in Thailand, I have never, ever driven on the left hand side of the road. I was so anxious that I tossed and turned for a couple of nights until I calmed myself down by visualizing my satisfactory performance at the Thai driving school.
I nearly "chickened out." I reserved a seat on an "Easy Backpackers" tour. Then I visualized that I would be seated with a couple of dozen kids too young to be my children, loud music on the bus and who knows what they do at night? I retrieved my Master Card and headed for my adventure with Avis.
"Splendid" is the word to describe the 700km drive from Perth to Cue and the 550km drive from Cue to Newman.
After my brief, competent encounter with city and suburban traffic, I passed through three distinct ecological zones.
The first was the Swan River Valley. On both sides of the road are lush, green vineyards. Check the labels at your local wine emporium and try some. It was a little early to stop for a "tasting."
The second zone was the western edge of the Wheat Belt - an agricultural area extending hundreds of miles from West to East. Since it's autumn "Down Under," the fields were brown and bare and impressive. I passed through Bindoon, New Norcia, Miling, and Dalwallinu where I stopped for petrol. Then Wubin. As I left Wubin and continued northeast, I passed a sign saying "Welcome to The Outback."
What a place!
The sky is cloudless, the sun penetrating.
The earth is hard and red.
In a few places the earth is bare and flat.
In many places, very small shrubs hug the earth.
In most places, short trees and large bushes cover the earth. A few trees are bright green. Mostly they are a dull grey-green.
The vista: unbroken, flat, harsh, empty.
Occasionally, low black hills will suddenly appear in the distance. Shortly I will pass through them.
Hour after hour, hour after hour, hour after hour the narrow flat paved runner urges me through this unique land.
Besides my overnight stops, I pass through tiny Paynes Find, Mt. Magnet, Meekatharra, Kumarina and Capricorn Roadhouse. Yes, I have crossed the Tropic of Capricorn.
At each spot, indeed, a 'spot,' I fill up with water and petrol...average price is $1.35 a liter. Coffee is free for drivers.
When I entered The Outback, I sped past one of those diamond shaped warning signs, the ones that have a black cow or deer silhouetted against a yellow background. Here, naturally, a black kangaroo.
As I cruised across the desert at about 120-140-160 kpm (I know that to my German friends this sounds like standing still, but for me it was warp speed), I saw one lizard crossing the road and one emu at the side. Sadly,I saw not one kangaroo. Not one live one anyway.
Quite frequently I flew by a conference of carnivorous crows and the other large carrion eater, wedge tail eagles, consuming the carcass of a poor creature that, the night before, did not get across the road ahead of a remorseless Road Train.
So, what's a Road Train, then? Picture a long American or European "semi" tractor-trailer and add another trailer as we do on The Interstate. Then, add another trailer. All together - three! Aptly named, Road Train. Maximum allowable length: 53.5 meters. Almost 59 yards long.
Road Trains can be made up of normal long boxes carrying goods, or ore carriers, or flatbeds carrying equipment or a combination of them all, or liquids with the sign HAZCHEM. When I first spotted HAZCHEM in Perth, I reckoned it to be a Middle Eastern meeting place or restaurant. It took me a few sightings to understand that HAZCHEM is Australian for HAZMAT.
All the trucks and all the local SUVs and 4WDs have a grid of fat, steel bars on the front. I thought of the "cow catcher" of early American locomotives. Here, the 'roos get "caught" in the headlights.
Traffic is light on The Great Northern Highway. I may drive for a half-hour or an hour and not see another car or truck in either direction. You can imagine the eerie feeling...just me and my small Mitsubishi Lancer and some dried fruit and some water and I hope enough petrol to get me to the next spot. There's not a sound, not a movement, just endless Outback.