The Pilbara – a Google-free zone

Kalamina Gorge – Karajini National Park
Pilbara wide load

When I started this weekly essay three months ago, I was aware that from late June it would tend to have the flavour of a travelogue, given that we were about to set off on a three-month expedition across remote parts of this magnificent land. Now at the half-way point, coming to the end of a three-day stop at a bush camp in Karajini National Park, I’m doing it the old-fashioned way: who, what, where, when and why, the basics salted with philosophical musings about why the world is the way it is. My writing method is to start with an idea or a theme and cross over to the Internet when I want to find out stuff or check facts. We have all become so dependent on Google and other Internet search engines (yes, there are others), and what is (at present) a free service. It is like someone taking a 99-year lease over your memory and maybe someday making you pay when you want to remember things.
Here at Karajini National Park in Dales Gorge (known in local dialect as Nyingbungwana) campground, we have neither power nor mobile signal and only enough water to last us until we get to Tom Price on Friday. There are people here who have satellite dishes sitting outside their caravans, so I guess if you could be bothered you could find out what’s going on in the world. Last time we heard a radio news bulletin it began with reports on three separate murders in WA and then went on to talk about a sex offender who had breached release conditions by being around teenagers (he was fined $1000).
So now, in this remote part of the Pilbara, I can imagine how it might have been for the monkish scribes of yore, scratching away with a quill pen on the most rudimentary parchment; or for our original inhabitants, painting their handed-down stories on rock walls.
So I’m hammering away at my laptop in the shade of a Cypress tree, aiming to keep on writing until Windows 7 warns me to plug in to a power source or risk losing work that has not been saved.
If that happens, I will revert to pencil and notebook. If it’s good enough for David Malouf, it should be OK for me.
Meanwhile the tree under which I sit interrupts to admonish me for calling it a Cypress.
“I’m a bloody Mulga, you ignorant tourist. Your botanists named me Acacia aneura – you’d think they might have asked the local aborigines if we had a name.”
“Oh, you mean like Mount Nameless,” I say (biggest mountain in these parts). “I’m told the local name for that is Jarndunmunha.”
“That’s outstanding,” says the Mulga, shaking his branches in excitement. “You’re spot on, even if your pronunciation is shite.”
Just then She Who Has Gorn Orf Newspapers puts her cool palm on my clammy forehead.
“You need to drink more water,” she advises.
Shade is good out here in Karajini. While the temperatures are nothing like they were in the Kimberley, it is still hot and dry and those keen on bushwalking are warned to drink a litre of water for every hour of walking. We had just returned from a day of two-hour hikes down gorges to waterfalls and back, some of it in the middle of the day, which might explain the talking bush.
Wednesday our walks took us along the rim of Dales Gorge and then to the steep descent into the gorge, where walkers can either hike to Circular Pool or have a swim under Fortescue Falls. Or you can go further on to the Fern Pool (Jubula), a beautifully serene place of significance for local Aborigines.

Once the party of people from South Australia who were talking about AFL moved on, it was indeed a special place with its cobalt blue waters and bright green ferns growing around the base of ancient native fig trees, clinging tenaciously to the rock face.
One’s sense of place and awareness of the spiritual nuances of the land becomes finely tuned when sitting in the midst of Western Australia’s second biggest national park. If I had the Internet I could tell you which one is the biggest. Maybe you already know?
We came here from Port Hedland, a strangely fascinating industrial town, dominated by the iron ore shipped out on giant ore carriers every day of the week. Every day except Monday August 4, apparently.
The Information Centre, the Museum, and every shop was closed and all pubs bar one were closed for Port Hedland Cup day. We wandered around the deserted town, following the self-guided interpretive walk. It was a quiet day in port too, with only a couple of ore carriers moored in the harbour, but at least a dozen sitting way out on the horizon.
So we pressed on, after making sure we had enough good water to last four days, to the ancient gorge country 263kms south-west of Port Hedland. The road to Karajini is between Port Hedland and the major mining towns of Newman and Tom Price, so road trains are frequent, as are wide loads.
We have no idea what the equipment is or where it was going, but we were happy to leave it parked at a roadside rest area while we went on ahead.
Karajini National Park was declared in 1969 (it was then called Hamersley National Park), but it part of it was excised in 1986 to allow a new mine to start operations. There is a constant clash of values out here, between the needs of conservationists, tourists and miners. The traditional owners have a lot of say in how the park is managed today, but the prospect of more mining in the park is ever-present.
Karajini’s majestic scenery was brought about when massive rivers gouged away at the mountains over millions of years, creating distinctive gorge walls – layers of iron ore-laden sedimentary rock. The gorges are particularly special at sunset when the rock walls turn molten red. No comparison to the Grand Canyon, as it is hardly commercialised at all. The only public communication is limited to one card-operated public telephone.
So, now we’re in Tom Price, having done the mine tour (“know your enemy” –Ed) to pick up some WIFI and send this out. And we still don’t know who won the Port Hedland Cup.




Other People’s Dunnies

Dunny near DerbySo I’m standing in front of a smeary mirror in an outback caravan park washroom having a shave when this old bloke walks in.
“Owya goin?
“Great thanks,” (continue shaving while Old Bloke goes into a cubicle nearby).
“Whereyaheadin?” says the voice from behind the door (rustling of clothing and clang of belt buckle as pants hit floor).
“Goin’ to Katherine then headin’ west to Broome,” I say, going with the flow of outback caravan park talk.
The conversation continues, punctuated with a few strained noises, the kind of which we all unconsciously make at one time or another in such circumstances. I nick my face, distracted by this curiously intimate dialogue and the steam on the mirror. Old Bloke finishes his ablutions and (good thing) washes his hands.
“Safe travelling then,” he says, disappearing into the starry night.
When you set out in a 12-foot caravan to ply the highways and byways of this vast land with nothing save the Thunder Down Under portable loo, it is a given that you will end up using other people’s dunnies. For my non-Aussie readers, dunny is Aussie for toilet (or WC, Washroom, Bathroom etc)
This bush toilet (top photo) at a roadside rest stop just before the turn off to Derby in the western Kimberley, is a good example of what we call “the long drop”. At Karlu Karlu (Devil’s Marbles) in the Northern Territory, National Parks provide a number of these unplumbed toilets at the unpowered camp ground. Each is a fair distance away from the camp ground.
If you go at night and switch off your torch when you get there, the night sky lights up with panoply of stars, the likes of which city dwellers rarely get to see. A torch is an essential piece of equipment when traversing even a short stretch of desert at night. Shoes are a good idea too. And when venturing outback and using these sorts of facilities, it is a sound idea to take your own preferred brand of toilet paper with you, as often there will be none, or worse, those small boxes with 200 wafer thin tissues (17.5mm by 11.5mm in case you were wondering).
This brings me to a persistent urban myth out here in caravan park land. Grey Nomads, we keep hearing, steal toilet paper. Yes they do, one woman insisted. They take their battery-powered drills into the loos, dismantle the dispensers and liberate the rolls. If author and folklorist Bill Scott were still around I’d ask him if he’d heard of that one (Bill wrote a book about urban myths called ‘ Pelicans and Chihuahuas and Other Urban Legends’).
I’m sure the loo roll-stealing granny is an urban myth (a fictional story re-told so often it assumes veracity). I mean, if you can afford a 30-foot caravan and a V8 truck to tow it, why would you flog $2 worth of toilet paper? That would be a selfish and tight-arse thing to do. (tight-arse being Aussie for cheap, overly thrifty, etc).
One of the joys of getting to use other people’s dunnies is that you get to collect examples of over-zealous sign-writing. The most common ones in washrooms and public loos are reminders about flushing, what not to put down the toilet and instructions on how to use toilet brush (and when). Some are ambiguous: “Please flush” and underneath “Water is scarce – be considerate.” Some are poetic: “Even if you’re in a rush, don’t forget to flush.” (and a coy reminder to flush twice to get rid of the evidence).
The inside walls and doors of some dunnies are festooned with philosophical and sometimes unprintable remarks from fellow travellers, some of whom one might guess are sorely disaffected. In 2014, with a mean-spirited Tory government beating up the poor as if it were their fault, a theme is developing: “Retiree bludgers with $100,000 fifth wheelers ripping off social security,” reads one. “Stop grey nomad welfare cheats,” says another. A socialist scholar urges us to “Subvert the dominant paradigm.” “Frankie and Donna were in this stinky toilet,” reads another.
Those Grey Nomads who travel all the time and have their own amenities have one pressing need when they come to civilisation: they need some place to empty their chemical toilet cartridges. Some towns provide a dump point, which is like a public septic tank. The oddest sight I’d seen for a while was in Emerald, where we’d stopped to admire the giant Van Gogh replica painting in the park. Four large caravans, each towed by a $70,000 4WD, drew up to the kerb one after the other. From these vans emerged men of retirement age, each carrying a long heavy metal box. They proceeded in convoy to the public dump point, rid themselves of the week’s takings and returned to their vans, having also had their exercise for the day. Did they stop to admire the scenery? Nuh.
In bigger towns which get swamped with backpackers and other travellers, it is not so easy to find a public toilet. Increasingly, service stations, libraries, information centres and cafes are keeping the keys behind the counter, in a bid to keep out the riff-raff. In Katherine, a sizeable town in the Northern Territory, a local shopping centre provoked some outrage and claims of racial bias last year after hiring a security guard to police the toilets and ask for a $2 “donation”. “That’s un-Australian,” I protested, as we went to the information centre instead. I often wonder what Riff and Raff think about being denied a basic human right.
Hi-tech dunnyTown Councils are increasingly installing smart toilets to help combat instances of people vandalising toilets or using them as meeting places for purposes nefarious. So far we have found dunnies like this one in Alice Springs, also in Armidale and Hall’s Creek.
When you press the green button, the door slides open then closes with a metallic swish.
“Door larked,” says a metallic voice in an American accent. “You have 10 minutes before the door will un-lark. ” Well thanks for that – now I can’t remember why I came in here in the first place. Ah, right, the curry.
“Door will open in one minute 30 seconds…”

Defending our sovereign borders – Hoo-ah (0oRah)

US Marine convoy NTI was sitting outside a remote Northern Territory roadhouse in the sun, enjoying a Mars bar, musing on the whys and wherefores of life when I was somewhat startled by the appearance of a troupe of US Marines. I know we’ve been out of touch for a while, but surely this was a ‘friendly’ force…
They had stopped off at the Victoria River Roadhouse to buy snack food, use the latrines, saying y’all and howdy and that. She who reads Facebook when she can’t buy Newspapers said she encountered a few Marines coming out of the ladies loo. Neither of us was aware there were women in the US Marines, but there was the evidence right in front of us, wearing attractive salmon pink fatigues, faces already pink from the relentless northern sun. It wasn’t the first convoy of the day. A variety of road vehicles rumbled by, including a low loader carrying a grader, supply trucks and several armoured vehicles which I lack the technical know-how to accurately identify and describe.
The locals say the US Marine presence is building up. Private Nonamenopackdrill (Ms) from Oklahoma told our investigator they were bound for Bradshaw. Our reporter said “I don’t know where that is” and the private replied “Neither do I” and they both laughed – having a moment.
The Bradshaw Defence Area, 8 kms west of Timber Creek, is a training camp owned by the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The Bradshaw Defence Area is what Kevin McCloud would call ‘vast’. The ADF bought Bradshaw Station from private owners for $5 million and generously allowed the former owner to keep his cattle, on the proviso that he cleared the 990,000ha property of livestock. So Bradshaw then became a defence asset, sprawling 8,700 square kilometres in all directions, with rivers on two sides and pastoral properties on the other boundaries.
The first thing the ADF did when it bought Bradshaw was to spend $10 million building an all-weather bridge across the Victoria River.DSCN3138 Citizens are not permitted to cross the bridge, although it is quite the photo stop on the route that takes in historic monuments like explorer Augustus Gregory’s monument and a big old Boab tree thoughtlessly carved with the dates it was “discovered” by white explorers.
Most of the information about Bradshaw comes from the US-based Nautilus Security Institute, which keeps track of all things military. The Nautilus Institute says it is used by Australian, US, and forces and those from other countries (including Singapore) for infantry and armoured formation manoeuvres, ground and air live firing and bombing.
We got a bit more personal run-down on Bradshaw on a sunset river cruise 35 km down the 800 km long Victoria River, while being expertly piloted by skipper and tour guide Neville Fogarty, a long-time resident of the nearby town of Timber Creek, population 300, including four Aboriginal communities. This is one of the longest permanent rivers in Australia, named after a then newly crowned Queen of England, after Captain J.C Wickham sailed up the river on the HMS Beagle in 1819.
On our three-hour sunset cruise Neville regaled us with stories of crocodiles taking on Brahman cattle when they come down to the river to drink. Even though Bradshaw was destocked, about 40 head of unbranded cross-breed cattle, descendants of those that were shipped elsewhere, still run wild on the property. Apparently a bold croc will lie in wait, just under the water, and then lunge, grabbing the beast by the nose, dragging it into the water. The drowned beast is left to decompose some and then ripped up later by one or more crocs. Lovely.
If you can appreciate the analogy, amphibious apex predators patrol the banks of the river, making sure no rogue beasts cross their borders, while on dry land thousands of soldiers play war games, ostensibly for training purposes, but ready to repel boarders.
There is a long tradition of border patrols up here in the Territory. After the Japanese bombed Darwin and other NT locations, an Army unit, nicknamed ‘The Nackaroos’ kept vigil, patrolling the northern shoreline on horseback, aided by local aboriginal guides. It seems a futile task, given the vast expanse of shoreline across the top of WA and the Territory. Nevertheless, the Bradshaw pastoral lease is doing its bit to protect our sovereign borders. US Marines took part in exercises last year that involved the strange-looking Osprey, a tilt rotor aircraft with both a vertical take-off and landing and short take-off and landing capabilities. It is a bit hard to bring aircraft like that into the remote NT without people noticing.
The 2011 decision to allow a US Marine battalion to set up camp in northern Australia raised fears that it makes us more of a target than we were when it was just Pine Gap and other US-linked bases around the country. Nautilus says the main reason the ADF chose Bradshaw is the abundant space, a long, long way from large-scale human habitation. Despite the growing popularity of the Kimberley as a tourist destination, the area around Bradshaw is sparsely populated, not counting the 2,500 single accommodation units on Bradshaw.
US Marines last ‘invaded’ this part of the world back in September last year for full-scale military exercises. There is much speculation that exercises will be held earlier this year, with September in the Territory maybe a bit on the hot side for the Americans. Now most of you would know that there is a battalion of US marines permanently based in Darwin. It was controversial at the time and it still ought to be. We can put this one down to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard cosying up to the latest Sheriff of Washington, but we doubt Tony Abbott has plans to change this arrangement any time soon.
As the latest batch of marines milled about in the hot noon-day sun at Victoria River Roadhouse, a tall black man with the bearing of someone in charge shouted something that sounded like “H’okay. Move’m out.” The response was a chorus of “Hoo-ah” or maybe OoRah, a common Army and/or a US Marine response to command which apparently means “anything and everything except no”. “Hoo-ah” is also said to date back to the 19th century British army acronym for Heard, Understood and Acknowledged. Again, it could have been an appropriated from Indian (ie American First Nations’-ed.) chant.
On the other side of the Victoria River from the Bradshaw Defence Area lies the vast (there’s that word again) Auvergne pastoral holding, once owned by the listed Australian Agricultural Company and now owned by a British group. I once had shares in AAC but sold them after discovering the extent of that company’s involvement in live cattle export. In that sense, a big wide river separates our ability to stop funding something on ethical and moral grounds, while on the Bradshaw side of the river, our tax dollars ($29.2 billion 2014-2015) are put to work, with no right of veto.

The Pittsworth Solution

Afghan Mosque Alice Springs
Afghan Mosque, Alice Springs

Here’s a radical plan to help rejuvenate small-town Australia and send a message to the world that yes, we do have compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. The Pittsworth Solution (I just picked a small town at random), calls for all 2,017 detainees on Manus Island and Nauru to be re-patriated to Australia to live in rented houses in small, affordable towns like Pittsworth. This is not an ideological plan; it is about economics, humanity and giving people a fair go.
In March, Australian management firm Transfield Services won an A$1.2 billion contract to run the country’s two troubled Pacific island immigration detention centres. The centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island together house about 2,107 asylum seekers (January 2013 figures). Transfield’s contract runs for 20 months, which works out to a weekly bill of $13.86 million, or about $6,600 per person per week. About eight times the cost of keeping someone in jail in Australia. The offshore detention model demonstrably does not work: it is broken and should never have been created in the first place. Nothing happens in these centres except boredom, despair, riots, suicides, mental illnesses, assaults and abuse. If this was a town of 2,107 people in mainstream Australia, the government would have declared a Federal Intervention by now.
My back of an envelope scheme envisages about 200 detainees repatriated to 10 small towns throughout Australia to live in rented houses, paid for by the Federal Government. The former detainees would receive the Asylum Seeker Allowance, (a fortnightly payment not unlike the dole, which lasts until the asylum seeker’s claim is heard and assessed). The Government would pick up all the basic costs, rent, bonds and utilities. After the maximum two-year period has elapsed, those whose claims have not been heard are automatically given a two-year visa extension with the same conditions. Once the asylum seeker’s claim has been assessed, he/she is either sent back to the country of origin, or given permanent resident status. Free market rules apply from that day on.
This subject was expertly canvassed in The Age last month by prominent barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside. I concur with his summary that the alternatives are more effective, humane, and less expensive than our present approach. The regional solution, as Burnside calls it, should restore our reputation as decent people – “something which has been tarnished and degraded by our behaviour over the past 13 years”.
The best part of any such regional solution is that the Federal Government money invested in a more humane scheme would be spent in local communities. While Burnside does not name specific rural towns, the National Farmers Federation says there are more than 90,000 unfilled jobs in rural areas. Asylum seekers would no doubt pick up work and everyone would benefit, if such a scheme was ever approved.
Even with a proportion of these small communities resenting the new Australians, it is surely a better option than locking up people who have not been charged with an offence or proven guilty of one. The 200 or so temporary residents moved to each of the towns would spend their allowance in local shops and, good grief, some of them might go to English language lessons and work on their plan for permanently settling in Australia.
Last time I looked, a lot of rural towns were doing it tough. A scheme like this could contribute about $6.5 million a year to struggling local economies – the kids could go to local schools, and if jobs were not readily available, the Asylum Seekers could be offered a scheme not unlike Work for the Dole, which would get them out into the community.
Now that Iraq has once again flared as a world trouble spot, there will be people saying that we don’t want religious zealots in our country, stirring up trouble. From what I read, the people stirring up the trouble don’t want to go anywhere else – they just want to run their own country according to their religious and political beliefs. The asylum seekers are the people who don’t want to know about sectarian violence; they want a better future.
This is not so different to the people from Belfast, Killarney and Carrickfergus who fled Ireland during the Troubles to settle in Australia. The Pittsworth Solution (or the Maleny Solution if we want to be even-handed about it), has a bit more going for it than the current model, which is to “Stop the Boats”, incarcerate the ones who got this far outside our sovereign borders, then sit on their hands and wait for the next government to come up with something better.
It is hard to believe that a year has passed already (July 19) since the Abbott government introduced Sovereign Borders. Shame on the Labor Opposition for failing to vote in the affirmative to close Nauru and Manus Island.
This issue has been clumsily handballed by governments of all creeds for far too long. It’s time to show some compassion and at the same time breathe some new life into rural communities.
It all comes down to one thing: what are we afraid of and how can we overcome our apparently entrenched xenophobia? Take a wander through any suburb that has been tagged “ethnic” and you will find a colourful slice of life that deserves to be shared by all. Here in Alice Springs, where I’m finishing two of these essays to email before we set off into the NT/WA outback, there is an Afghan Mosque. It is not so surprising (though not widely known), that Alice Springs has an Islamic Society. It dates back to the pioneer days of the 1880s when thousands of cameleers from Afghanistan and Pakistan served as the railway of the outback. The Afghan Mosque is a modest building, nestled in a corner of the suburb of Larapinta with the McDonnell Ranges as a backdrop. It looks like it belongs there.