Wittenoom – Pilbara Region, Western Australia.

Wittenoom – Pilbara Region, Western Australia.

Long Weekend Visit from Perth

The Matriarch, from New Zealand was visiting the Bro and Gemma in Perth, and so I came over from Sydney to join the trip to Wittenoom.

Wittenoom is approximately 1,409km from Perth. Driving time, just over 15 hours. Who, in their right mind, would drive for around 30 hours for a long weekend.

Happy to report that not being in my right mind resulted in a magical journey.

First day was to be a relatively easy drive. We were spending the night in Kalbarri, about 573km north from Perth, which took around 6.5 hours to drive. Kalbarri National Park deserves more than an overnight stop. At the time we visited, there were over 700 varieties of Banksia in the park, and numerous varieties of birds. The beach gorges rose dramatically from beach level. The soaring coastal cliffs towered above us to the east. Behind us, looking west, the Indian ocean lived up to descriptions of wild, with large waves smashing onto the shore. A few hardy people were surfcasting from the beach, sometimes barely visible through the spray from the surf.

Second day was to be a rather longer drive – 762km from Kalbarri to the roadhouse at Nanutarra where we were staying the night, before the shorter drive to Wittenoom next day.

The landscape changed quite dramatically, the further north we headed. River gorges, scrublands, dry riverbeds, lined with eucalypts surviving on the water below the surface, to remote mostly arid flat landscapes.

Carnarvon, the only “town” between Kalbarri and Nanutarra provides a green oasis in the desert. The Gascoyne River flows through the town, providing water for crops such as banana. The river was not flowing – apparently it only flows above ground for about 120 days of the year. The irrigation pipes and pumps lining the dry riverbed go below the surface into the river flowing below.

The views of the Murchison River gorge along the road north from Kalbarri required frequent viewing stops to admire the river gorge cliffs, bushland, and the river below. Since our visit, two skywalks have been constructed, which jut out from the top of a cliff. The views from the skywalks would be even more spectacular than those experienced by us, though I find that hard to imagine.

Nature’s Window – Murchison River below.

We had planned to stay at the Nanutarra Roadhouse a little south of where the road inland to Mt Tom Price and Wittenoom turns off the North West Highway. Disaster. We were about 15 minutes late, and unable to let the owners know, so they had sold our rooms on. We had to choose whether to abandon the trip to Wittenoom, and head further north on a sealed road, or drive to Wittenoom in the dark on a mostly unsealed road, in a vehicle with no kangaroo bars.

Wittenoom not marked, but beyond Mt Tom Price turn off. (Photo credit, Nanutarra Roadhouse)

We chose to continue on to Wittenoom. The pub there had rooms available, and it was that area we wished to explore, and to return to Perth on the inland highway, rather than return on the North Western Highway. Driving time just over 5 hours.

So the nightmare began. I have never seen so many kangaroos. They came in from the left, from the right, in droves. I still have visions of kangaroos taking over the world. The Bro had the misfortune to be driving. Passengers were the lookouts – to a point. “Kangaroo left – no another right – coming in from all directions. Slithering and sliding our way very slowly towards Wittenoom, we came across a man near the Mt Tom Price turnoff, sitting forlornly beside a dead car. He had hit a cow (ye gods, there were cows as well as Kangaroos!).

The forlorn one sat between the Matriarch and me. He perked up when he produced a bottle of whisky from his bag and proceeded to swig from the bottle. He did offer the bottle to the Matriarch for a swig. Although she was pretty partial to whisky she declined, on the basis that he need not share!

As we were arriving so late, we had anticipated waking “mine host” on arrival. Not necessary. The pub was easy to locate and was seething. We arrived as a huge fight was taking place between Western Australian road gangs, and Commonwealth Government road gangs. The latter were there during a period of huge road improvements financed by the Federal Government, which apparently annoyed the WA road gangs. As our whisky swigging passenger melted into the affray, the Matriarch staggered out of the car, saying she was totally discombobulated, and needed a bed immediately.

Mine host materialised out of the chaos, and the Matriarch was happily ensconced in her bed in no time.

Wittenoom was established as a blue asbestos mining town in around 1947. The mine closed in the 1960’s. It has been reported that asbestos contamination killed more than 2000 workers and their families.

When we visited, there about 100 permanent residents. The workers houses had mostly been demolished, although a few skeletons still existed. There was no sign of the road gangs when we left the pub to explore Wittenoom and the gorges surrounding it. Possibly nursing epic hangovers.

There was little left in the old Wittenoom township, other than the house skeletons, although there was an artist in residence we were told – from recollection, in the old cinema, or a building beside it.

It is easy to see why the remaining residents did not wish to leave. The scenery around the old township is magical – pools, ponds, gorges, with waterfalls, and beautiful tall white trunked eucalypts.

The Bro and Gemma, Wittenoom

We were keen to explore the Weano Gorge. This required a scramble over boulders, a walk through narrow passageways, with high walls of rocks towering above, and a climb down a knotted rope to the handrail pool. The Matriarch decided that she was definitely not going to do that. She was very happy to stay in the car, reading and knitting.

We got back to the car to find the Matriarch not particularly chilled out. “Do you realise how quiet it is, its kind of creepy. The silence is deafening”. She was even more spooked later to discover that there had been a sniper in this part of the world around this time.

The termite mounds around Wittenoom are huge. Insect skyscrapers.

Red dust is all pervasive when driving in the Pilbara region. It’s not too bad if you are the only vehicle on the road, or your vehicle is ahead of all others. We were doing OK until a truck overtook us. “Eat my dust” took on a whole new meaning. We not only ate it, but that red dust seeped into the car, and even into the suitcases in the boot.

We were returning to Perth on the inland Road, the North Western Highway. Meekatharra was our destination on the first night. A mostly flat desert landscape. We arrived in Mt Newman, wondering where the mountain was. It was no more, it was a sad hole in the ground. We were driving up a road to view the hole in the ground when we were accosted by “security”. “What are you doing here? This is a restricted area.” We were escorted out of the restricted area.

Right to left: The Bro, the Matriarch and Gma at Mt Newman

There are some very long straight roads along the inland highway. Huge road trains traverse the area, but if you lie down in the middle of one of these long roads, you can hear a road train coming from a great distance away.

Left to right: Gemma, the Matriarch and the Bro beside a long straight part of the road.

At dusk, driving along long straight roads from north to south, through flat countryside, we experienced the sight of a wall of darkness moving towards us from the east. It was quite surreal – a dark wall moving inexorably towards us.

Star gazing in the outback provides a whole new experience, illustrating how insignificant we are in the scheme of things.

We arrived in Meekatharra, our overnight stop, in the late afternoon. Driving into the town, we were stunned at the size of the police station – it was huge, and bore no comparison with the size of the town. The accommodation at the pub we had booked consisted of demountables in the paddock at the rear. The pub did not provide meals. There appeared to be nowhere to eat other than a pub that advertised Chinese food.

OK, Chinese food is fine by us. There is a food and wine menu, which looks promising. “Would you like X wine”, no could be see the wine list. Wine list produced. Everything on the wine list other than X was unavailable. Felt like we were part of a Monty Python “cheese” sketch.

Moving on to food. “Sorry, the truck from Perth has not arrived” was the response for almost everything we ordered. We ended up with various dishes which were not reliant on the truck from Perth. They consisted mostly of cabbage, and all tasted the same. Dessert. Well what can go wrong with fried ice cream? As it happens, a lot.

Back to our cozy demountables behind the pub. The matriarch and I have a frog in the toilet. We dealt with that, by scooping the frog out and liberating it, and retired to bed.

We then discovered the reason for the size of the police station. Meekatharra was alive with the sounds of drunken revellers, doing what drunken revellers do best. Driving cars with less than optimal exhaust systems, executing wheelies and screaming, singing and generally making a lot of noise.

Snug in our demountables, we were awoken on numerous occasions by patrons from the pub weaving their way to the car park, and lurching into our little hut.

The distance between Meekatharra and Perth is around 760km, the landscape moving from desert to wheat fields and finally the urban area of Perth. It was an 8 hour drive, and a time to reflect on the diversity and interest that Australia has to offer.

Wittenoom no longer officially exists. The town has been wiped from the maps. No signposts show the way to Wittenoom. In 2006, there were eight permanent residents when the electricity was shut off. Wittenoom was degazetted in 2007, struck from the records and wiped from maps. In 2019 five of the residents were forced out. There was one remaining resident refusing to leave but presumably he will ultimately be moved on.

“Wittenoom”, the place, does exist. The last permanent (white) residents may have been moved on. The aboriginal people of the area who worked in the mines were decimated, but the first peoples are still there. Hopefully this magical area may one day be safe to visit.

Visiting Chillagoe – Queensland

Visiting Chillagoe – Queensland

It was a beautiful spring day in the Atherton Tablelands when I set out for a weekend in Chillagoe, with Bron and Keith.

Atherton is situated in rolling green landscape, with rainforests, waterfalls, volcanoes and lakes nearby. Chillagoe is around 160km from Atherton and is described as being in “Australia’s outback”. I was looking forward to travelling from this lush food producing area to the outback in such a short time, with a minimum of effort. In my case, no effort at all. Keith drove, I enjoyed the drive through rapidly changing landscape.

Leaving Mareeba, we travelled along the Wheelbarrow Way, named for the miners, who in the late 1880’s travelled on foot, pushing a wheelbarrow containing their possessions, looking for work. There are statues along the way depicting the miners pushing their wheelbarrows.

One of the statues along Wheelbarrow Way.

Driving along Wheelbarrow Way, we passed through farmlands – mango, banana and sugar cane, cattle country, savannah and lots of red dirt and termite mounds.

Driving to Chillagoe along the Wheelbarrow Way.

The immensity of outback landscape with the seemingly endless horizon, huge sky and the silence invoke an almost spiritual experience for me – though not in the sense of there being a god who created heaven and earth. As we approached Chillagoe, the landscape changed quite dramatically – vegetation becoming sparse, generally smaller trees, more and more red soil and larger termite mounds. Limestone rock formations became more frequent.

The chimneys of the old smelter are the first signs that you have arrived in Chillagoe village. The smelters ceased operation in 1943, and other than the chimneys there is little left.

Chimneys on the edge of Chillagoe, part of the former or smelter.

First nation people lived in this area for thousands of years before European settlement in the 1880’s. They were forced from their traditional lands, some were massacred, others worked on the stations. Settlement of this area historically then, can be said to be thousands of years old rather than pretty recent.

There are a lot of birds around this area. Too many for me to list here, but the area is apparently a bird watchers paradise. Suffice it to say that the evidence of the number of birds manifested itself around dawn. The dawn chorus was more an ear shattering screeching. Having been woken by the birds welcoming a new day, I went outside to see what they were. I almost felt I was in the Hitchcock movie – every power line was packed with birds – cheek by jowl so to speak and they were challenging each other for space in the trees. I was so busy watching them that I forgot to photograph them. Bron and I recall that they were Apostle birds – aka happy families. The jousting for position at dawn exhibited behaviour not conducive to happy families.

Chillagoe is situated on a belt of limestone, created millions of years ago, when the sea covered the area. The dissolving coral reefs have formed majestic and extensive caves underground, and above the ground the limestone outcrops form many fascinating shapes

Limestone caves are endlessly fascinating. My early experiences visiting the Waitomo glowworm caves when I was growing up, laid the foundation for my interest in visiting caves. I tend to prefer the cathedral type spaces, where the stalactites and stalagmites look like the mighty pillars in huge cathedrals. Listening to an opera singer in one of these cavernous caves in Waitomo and in a huge cave complex in Vietnam was a sublime experience.

We had no opera singer with us when we visited the Chillagoe-Mungana cave system. We did however have an aboriginal guide, who was very knowledgeable and pointed out various different types of limestone formations, including one he called the “Limestone Cowboy”. Why a cowboy in this part of the world? It took me a while to realise it was a play on Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy. Didn’t look much like a cowboy to me.

We visited part of the Royal Arch Caves, one of around 600 caves in the area. There are 11 separate caverns, some being semi open, with numerous passageways and steps. The Royal Arch caves contain several varieties of bats who use echo location to navigate the caves. Spotted pythons eat the bats, locating them by sensing their body heat. I was willing my body to get rid of its heat, in case a python was looking for a change in diet. I must have been successful, as no pythons were sighted.

Having all the lights turned off could have the effect of bringing on a panic attack – remember those pythons. I didn’t want a bat, mistaking me for a stalactite and trying to roost on my head either. There were also the colonies of snails to consider, and beetles. It was a relief when the lights came back on.

An old bank vault is one of the remaining historical buildings in the village. Not sure what happened to the rest of the bank, but the vault still stands. It reminded me of of an occasion when someone tried to blow open a modern day ATM. The Bank building was partially demolished, but the ATM was not breached.

The remains of the Bank of Australasia.

Historical vehicles are not generally of much interest to me, but the Tom Prior Ford Museum was an unexpected delight. Keith knew Tom, and we were “right royally” welcomed. There are a large number of restored vehicles under cover, and dozens of rusting old vehicles outside. The 1925 Model T and the 1928 Model A were fantastic. I fell in love with the 1965 Shelby Mustang. There were old jeeps and trucks, my favourite being an old carriers truck, with the sign on the door “Tom Prior, General Carrier, Phone 8”.

As a person who used to say that Australia was around 24 hours flight from anything historically interesting to me, this adventure proved me wrong.