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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.