I am writing this at 3pm in Derby on the coast of Western Australia. Two guys have just come into the Derby Lodge Motel – an old fashioned motel that is quite adequate for the traveller, with the communal barbecue – lugging a slab on one shoulder and a bagful of shopping in the other hand, and giggling, happily.
You guys sound happy in the service.
We soon bloody well will be, mate.
That sounded like a sensible positive attitude to getting Mozart and Liszt. I heard them offering my host a beer.
What sort have you got, fellers?
Just about every colour under the sun, mate.
Well, there is no point in getting full just to get unhappy or nasty.
Derby is a more blokey, laid back kind of place, with a few degrees of social separation from the more upmarket Broome, where you half expect to pass a Porsche at any corner. It is only about 210 ks from Broome, but the atmosphere is less confected.
As at Broome, there is a very good café on the wharf that Frank had recommended. The food was good – but it was BYO. This might be a symptom of the difference in the two towns, and I have no doubt that they might get choosey about who brings what in. I was to find that liquor restrictions vary greatly all along the way. In Broome, I had asked a copper what time the bottle shops opened – he gave me his best cheesy smile, and said noon. I said that I could probably make it to then, and that I would not leave town on that count alone. I would say that if you want to be a walloper up there, it would help if you had a sense of humour. The same would go for being in hospitality. Running a boozer would be a more trying task. You would require a high degree of mental and physical fibre. A very high degree. Not of the type you collect at university or the city.
Also at Frank’s suggestion, I visited a gallery just outside Derby that belonged to the local indigenous community and specialised in Wanjina paintings that come from this region. I have one at home, a very good one. There is that eerie round face with a kind of striated halo that might remind you of a Russian icon or a figure of Giotto – they have black eyes and no mouths. They partake of what some call primitive art. The gallery is on a reservation that has a sign saying no fighting or drinking. There is a wide range of work as you might expect, and I thought some of it flirted with the Wanjina image, which I had thought was closely guarded. A lot of the work looked a little pricey to me, not least when the secondary market in the South is very soft. Still, I was able to buy two small Wanjina paintings for my daughters at a very good price. Not the least of their charm was that they were painted by children, girls aged about nine and fourteen. I even got a photographic certification of authenticity, although without a photo of the artist.
That morning, I had picked up a backpacker from Prague, a very pleasant and bright young man. We discussed hitching here and in Europe – he had not done it there and it was nearly fifty years since I had. I was learning that backpackers supply a lot of the labour in the tourist industry out there – indeed, almost all of it right up the road. I was coming to terms again with how ridiculously long are the lines of straight road out there as we swapped travel stories. He was about my age when I hitch-hiked around Europe, and I fancied that he was getting as much out of his travels as I did from mine. I had the sense that he was acquiring knowledge as we spoke.
I recalled my one visit to Prague, a city in love with Mozart. I had hired a car and a guide to take me to the airport and then on to a little town called Lidice, which the Germans had wiped out in reprisals for the assassination of that swine Heydrich. I told the guide that Prague was a chocolate box city. ‘Yes – but you have not been out to the industrial estates where the skinheads are killing the gypsies.’ I wondered whether we were showing our underbelly out here.
At the rather too snappy boozer over the road from the motel, I recognised another guest. Dick was my age, but full of interest. Tall, skinny, long-haired with a beard and a soft voice, Dick was a bird-watcher, and a very serious one. He lives in Newcastle but spends a lot of time in the never never. He has surely seen more of Oz than most – the Simpson Desert, the Canning Stock Route and other deserts and parts far too remote for me. He certainly knows a lot about 4WD travel and I was keen to learn. At one time in high grass country, Dick was seated on the bonnet to indicate to the driver which way the track ahead went. That should satisfy most definitions of ‘off-road.’
We discussed how bird-watchers had to learn to hear as well as see. Old Jack had taught me this. Dick had hired a little Hyundai for a couple of days to get out of town a bit in search of one particular bird. Dick is a Subaru fanatic, and he explained how those kinds of vehicles worked – he said that mine should go better in this country because it was higher. That made me feel better. Then he congratulated me on doing it on my own. That made me feel worse. But then I asked him what was the point of having someone sitting beside me if – putting to one side altogether issues of sex – that person was as mechanically deprived and physically frail as me? My only strong suit – navigation, even on compass and contours and ordinance maps – was not an issue, and the only time you might get use out of a GPS was in the bigger towns.
Dick explained to me that what I had been told were eagles around Broome were ospreys, and that I should look out for Peregrine Falcons at Winjana Gorge. They perch on the summit, and I think he said that when they dive, they are as fast as anything else on earth.
Dick was leaving early the next morning – on the tide! – on a catamaran to go up the coast. There were to be ten on board for ten nights. They would dine on board but sleep ashore under canvas. It was fearfully expensive – I think $8K – but I could understand its appeal – especially for bird-lovers, and Dick was on a quest for one rare bird. I hope he found it. I have not met that many bird-lovers, but I have not met a bad one. They look to me to be people at peace with themselves and the world. It might be a useful indicator of character – how do I think that person might go as a bird-watcher?
Wherever you travel around the world, there is – obviously – always something more to come, something else to discover and come to grips with. I felt this all the time when I first travelled around Europe and the centre of Australia. This conversation with Dick, and the young man from Prague, reminded me what it is to be keen to learn. Both those men were good sharers.
When I walked into the bottle shop a little earlier, a blackfella was trying to buy a bottle of plonk. He was asked politely to show his car keys, but he had none, so the sale was declined. I had seen signs to this effect in a grog shop in Broome, and I was getting to the parts where, like in at least parts of Nevada and Arizona you either pay up front for petrol or leave your licence before the pump is activated. Although the conversation was as polite as it was short, the lack of comprehension at either end was clear. A lot of them do not understand us, and not many of us understand them.
From Derby (pronounced durby) it is about 270ks to Fitzroy Crossing if you go via Winjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek, and you go into Geicke Gorge. Only about 100 of that is sealed. The parts of the Gibb River Road and the tourist road that you go on are tricky and bone-shaking – and car-wrecking. This was one of the three parts of the trip where I needed the best kind of 4WD under me. There is about four to five hours driving, but a lot of it calls for maximum concentration, and by the end you are ready for beer – and a massage.
When they say Slow Down, it is a good idea to do just that. There was a big sign to that effect in the door of the Tourist Information Office at Derby. I read that sign carefully, but I still came off some bitumen a bit too fast in one area, and nearly lost the vehicle. I could remember having covered a lot of this territory before in a 4WD people-carrier driven by a woman, a professional guide, who impressed with the great care and patience that she took to modulate her speed. She slowed right down for dips and changes of surface or gradient, and rarely increased her speed where I, being ignorant, would have thought that it was safe to do so – and she was not frightened to floor it on bitumen.
The signs at both ends of my route said that the roads were ‘open to all vehicles.’ I would not have tried it unless I had at least an AWD, and I cannot recall seeing any orthodox 2WD. I used 4WD for all the unsealed part, but only had to engage, or thought I should engage, the Low 4WD once. I only had to traverse one deep floodway. I would never have attempted it with an orthodox vehicle, and I would have been even more nervous in a vehicle that was not as high as mine, or that did not have the snorkel to allow the vehicle to breathe under water – and I saw plenty of them on the route.
There are different types of terrain, and about four different types of road surface. You have to be careful to adjust to the change. The snaky parts have dusty spikes. You can lose it across those, or in the dips.
Another reason for caution is that speed increases the risk of blowing tyres. I would have great difficulty changing a tyre on this vehicle. The spare wheel and tyre looks very heavy. And they had sent me out in a vehicle that had lost its instruction manual. I had by then also discovered that the reserve tank was dry. When I had checked it, it had taken $55 of diesel in the reserve tank. It must have been bone dry. In this country, that could be manslaughter. And later on the road, I would meet a guy with his wife who had blown two tyres on one trip to Jim Jim Falls.
In the course of the morning – I left early with Dick to try to beat the heat – I did not pass much traffic. You may just be able to recognise the ones who are as serious as you – they wave back. It felt like a kind of communal self-congratulation. When I stopped and got out, I told the first bloke I ran into that I doubted whether all this might be called fun. He said that he felt rooted, a proposition that was rather tersely endorsed by his wife. It took me two Oscar Peterson CDs to get to the Winjana Turn-off from the Gibb River Road (on which you pass a sign saying that the next amenity is 300ks up the road) and the first and sixth symphonies of Beethoven (conducted by Klemperer) to get from Tunnel Creek to the main highway.
I had been there before, but Winjana Gorge is majestic. This country reminds me very much of our Grampians as seen from Victoria Valley. It is real blackfella country. The rock faces, colours, and trees – gum or boab – are what people come here for. It is somehow Australian. If you were born or just live in Australia, and you do not feel like that you belong here, you might face what are called issues. This is about as close to God’s country as we get.
The sign at the gate helpfully says that the pythons are not venomous, but that it is not a good idea to upset the crocodiles. These are freshwater crocs and relatively small, although one looked about two meters, and they are not man-eaters, having a different mouth structure to the salty killers. They also look decidedly lazy, but it is best not to get them between you and the water – or, I would suggest, to descend to their level. Winjana Gorge was my first real ‘sight’, and it was a blinder.
Tunnel Creek was the scene of an uprising. There were montages about it that put the blackfellas in white hats and the whitefellas in black hats – to the point of appearing to condone the shooting of a white copper. I wondered what government put those signs up.
Geicke Gorge is not far from Fitzroy Crossing. You can do boat tours and see plenty of crocs there. You can certainly take tours into there from Fitzroy Crossing. I doubt whether they would go into Winjana. You can certainly cover those spots on three day tours out of Broome – or, at least, I did that fifteen years ago, when I spent one night at Fitzroy Crossing.
It is not much more than a staging post, but I was interested to see for the first time black men and women being served beer at the bar. I do not think I ever saw a blackfella behind the bar. A black lady came into reception, obviously deputed by her husband, to ask reception for half an hour on the Internet. He then joined her, and they had to ask the staff to start them off, and later correct an error – as they would have had to do for me. The black people were not much younger than me, and God only knows what blackfellas of that age make of the Internet – although it is common to see them nursing iphones as determinedly as young white people.
I visited two service stations in each of Derby and Fitzroy Crossing – all the staff were either of Asian extraction or European birth. The backpackers do supply the labour, and the Irish emigration is very evident all around here. It is a real mix, and an attractive one.
While I was having a beer and a decent pie for lunch, while unwinding after a grinding drive, a big tour bus pulled up, and disgorged its withered contents. It was described as a Seniors’ Tour. In the name of God, I am a senior, and was just then a grey nomad, but please God, not that kind of tour for me – not now; not ever. It must be like a mobile jail, or daytime TV – that some idiot thought should play in the bar I was eating in. That way madness lies.
If I could offer some advice, it would be not to leave it too late to come out here. I have been going to Europe or the States each year, having at the back of my mind the notion that I could leave this kind of thing to my dotage. I was dead wrong, for more than one reason.