Friday, October 18th, 2019 – Cocklebiddy Roadhouse, WA to Railway Motel, Kalgoorlie, WA.
Distance travelled 656 km (we have now exceeded 6000 km)
The question of what time it really was continued to cause us confusion. I mentioned previously that our iPhones normally picked up the correct time from the GSM networks. It was not so early that morning. Because the time is obtained externally, there is no way to “fake” the time on an iPhone. For that reason, I probably managed to take a unique picture before we headed out. Our two iPhones, side by side on the bed, clearly showed times that were 45 minutes apart. We did not know which one was correct !
That day, as almost every day, at first light, the weather looked a bit grey and forbidding. There was always a possibility of rain, that went with the nature of the trip, but up until then we had been supremely lucky. That morning was no exception. At first the sky in front of us, or to either side depending upon the actual heading of the road at that point, was grey. After a while, the clouds faded away, the sky became blue and once again a clear day followed.
We were not in the least surprised when, at our first refuelling stop in Caiguna, Richard and Heather were there. We were, it seemed, joined by an invisible bond. There was one of those cheerful omnidirectional signs, by the pumps, informing us that we were 2,539 kilometres from Alice Springs – and that it was still 1.091 kilometres to Perth.
Richard and Heather left first, but we refused to say goodbye to them because we were sure we would see each other in Norseman, if not before, Although they had left first, we caught up to them almost immediately because they had stopped, as we did ourselves, in front of another significant road sign. This gleefully informed us all that we had arrived at the start of the longest completely straight section of road in all Australia (147 km) and we also captured them in a photo there.
After Caiguna, the landscape began to change again and the number of trees and their height gradually increased. The road was indeed arrow straight and, for the most part, unrelentingly flat. Conceptualising that is one thing, riding it was another. Its total refusal to veer even a single degree from its course became a little unnerving after a while. So flat and straight is it, in fact, that there are specially widened sections that serve as runways for the aircraft of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). Concentration, even with the bush very close to the road on either side, became difficult. We made our stop to stretch and encountered a cute little roadside curiosity. The next roadhouse and petrol were still some way ahead, at Balladonia. In the parking area we chose, there were a large number of garden gnomes, grouped together, in front of a sign saying “BallaGnomeia”. Weird humour obviously thrives in Western Australia. I was taken by the fact that various people must have brought the gnomes there specially. They were not the sort of thing, after all, that you would “just happen to have” in your car.
Next we stopped for breakfast in the real Balladonia. Surprise, surprise, Richard and Heather had just finished eating. They must have passed us while I was posing for a photo with the gnomes. I am the (slightly) taller one, without a beard, on the right.
In 1979, the tiny speck in the middle of nowhere that is Balladonia suddenly became the centre of world attention. In a sensational event that grabbed global headlines, pieces of the American space-station “SkyLab”, totalling 77 tons in weight, fell from orbit and landed all around the district. We toured the local museum (which is the room behind the bar), where they still have a large piece of the “SkyLab” proudly sporting its “United States” logo. There is a mention in the “museum” that US President Jimmy Carter himself called the roadhouse to apologise for the inconvenience.
Balladonia marked the end of the long straight and the road became slightly more sinuous and undulating. Nothing comes free and, almost straight away, we came up behind a quite exceptionally huge load.
We were, by then, more or less used to the road-trains which, in Western Australia were allowed up to four semi-trailers. These behemoths mainly travelled by night, but the daytime running ones were not inclined to hang around. We were, most of the time, travelling at a steady 100 kph. We were not in a hurry and this was below the posted limit. As a consequence, many of these huge vehicles caught and passed us. Driving as I was in the centre of the road, I had learned to keep an eye on my mirrors and was usually well out of the way when they thundered by. The “bow wave” of displaced air was momentarily unpleasant but, as I was expecting it, easily handled. Road-trains coming towards us required similar caution.
What we now came up behind was actually a line of cars, the first we had seen outside of a city, trailing some enormous piece of machinery that required no less than three tractor units (two at the front, one at the rear). It was so wide that it almost blocked both lanes of the highway. To complicate things still further, outriding security vehicles (as if you would not see it !) with blazing light-bars were actively blocking possible overtaking if they thought it ill advised. It was unbelievable, we were in a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. Australian drivers are patient, but they are also pragmatic and it was made very easy for us to get to the front of the tailing cars. On a very slow uphill stretch, I was able to cruise easily by.
We were in an area flanked by a particularly pungent type of eucalyptus and, freed from the accumulated exhaust fumes of the traffic, for the next 200 km we were accompanied by a wonderful scent and some beautiful scenery. It was the most scenic part of that day’s journey. Of course, nothing is quite that perfect. The road then seemed to be mainly downhill and, one by one, the vehicles that had been held up with us appeared in the mirrors and then passed us. Eventually, the exceptional load itself appeared in the mirrors. It was still a long way behind, but the favourable slope meant that it was probably now going somewhat faster than we were. I realised that if we took our stretching stop, which was by then due, it would pass us and the circus would begin again the next time the road took an upturn. Luckily, we came to a slight upward incline on a long straight stretch while we were still in front. I literally sped to the top and we parked right beside the carriageway. I took my brisk stroll up and down the road and, whilst Lucie gasped on her cigarette, I actually encountered something living, a small lizard ! I could, by then, see flashing lights approaching quite rapidly. We remounted and zoomed away again when that huge transporter was less than 500 metres away. Phew !
The road was still fringed with numerous warning signs telling me to watch for kangaroos and, more ominously, for camels. I did see more than one cow, with its calf, lurking beside the road and, at one point a mother emu and two half grown chicks did sprint across the carriageway in the near distance, but that was all, There were still plenty of dead kangaroos though, some so ripe that even the scent of eucalyptus could not compete. The more closed in nature of the bush/road combination obviously made it harder for the raptors to spot their lunch. Then, on the final run-in to Norseman, we came upon our first dead camels. It was a mother and calf pairing and, my goodness, what a size they both were. They were undoubtedly Bactrian camels, the bigger, sturdier and stronger Central Asian cousins of those we had seen on a trailer all those days before. These, with their Afghani handlers had been the transportation mainstay of the mining industry until the coming of the railway. Summarily abandoned, they had thrived in the bush and it is estimated there are may tens of thousands out there. The dead mother was huge. Adults can reach a weight of 500 kilograms and I would have easily put her corpse at that. The baby was smaller, but not really much so, it still looked enormous. The word was that the road-trains never brake. Essentially, trying to crash stop would be futile anyway and there were no tyre marks, whatsoever, on the road. The road-trains have huge crash bars on the front and these just brush everything aside – even, it seems, close to 1,000 kilograms of camel. Sadly, my knowledge of physics was insufficient to even start calculating what the inertia of the road-train must have been to do that and then just simply roll on.
The great thing about an Australian highway was that the need to make a decision was a relatively rare occurrence. But, as we came into Norseman, a decision was required. There was actually a T-Junction ! It is amazing how quickly something so mundane becomes something almost rare and precious.
In truth, even then, there was no decision necessary as our pre-booked accommodation was off to the right. This was a by-product of our need to have somewhere to go to – and we had managed to reserve a place in Kalgoorlie. The A1, the Eyre Highway, on which we had arrived, was the turn to the left although, at that point, it became the Coolgardie-Esperance Highway, but remained the A1. The right turn was also the Coolgardie-Esperance Highway, but, until that point, it was Route 94.
Norseman actually gets its name from a horse that was, unsurprisingly, called Norseman. In 1894, the owner of the horse, one Laurie Sinclair, left it tied to a tree while he poked about in the vicinity looking for gold. When he returned, he found that Norseman, whilst pawing at the earth, had uncovered a huge gold nugget, That sparked a gold rush. I knew there was a statue of that luckiest of ponies and rather surprised Lucie by wanting to go and see it. We found it, easily enough, it is in the backstreets, but it was not hard.
We were taking the usual corny photographs when we heard a toot – and looked up to see Richard and Heather, driving by. We had known they were in front of us and we had known that they were going to be taking the A1 south to Esperance before reaching Perth, so we had not expected to see them again. We must have somehow passed them en-route. There had, admittedly, been two golf holes on the way, but for them to be in that tiny road at that very second was spooky ! We messed around with the camera and decided that we would try and get some “non-roadhouse” food before moving on.
We drove to the centre, where there was a line of several eating establishments and chose one offering “Oriental” cuisine and that had 3 Harleys parked outside. Inside, as bikers do, we had a quick conversation with the owners of those bikes. They were pure, hard-core, bikers, with only worn biking gear, bed-rolls and groundsheets and, in fairness, not the best configured Harleys for a long trip. They were on their way to Uluru, 3,000 kilometres away. From there they would go to who knew where. Darwin was mentioned but a plan was seemingly absent.
It almost goes without saying that, as we moved into the restaurant, who should be sitting at a table, but Richard and Heather. Now that was spooky squared ! It is the reason why people buy lottery tickets, I suppose. So we ate together for one last time as our routes were definitely about to diverge. It was almost a sad parting and, although it did not happen, if we had met them in Perth I do not think we would have been surprised at all.
Full of spicy noodles and with the Harley full of petrol, we headed north towards Kalgoorlie on Route 94. This was more rugged, but equally lonely territory and, to our right for quite a distance, the waters of Lake Cowan shimmered through the scraggy trees. A couple of times, we noted trees whose trunks had been painted a vivid blue in the bush near the road, but there was no indication as to why this was.
We made a refreshment stop at the Widgiemooltha Roadhouse. It broke the final leg of that day’s journey almost in half and we were keen to have a quick “pre-inspection” as we were scheduled to stay there on our way back. It was a very lonely and more than slightly dilapidated establishment whose staff seemed to be mainly composed of cheerful teenagers. Our snack was surprisingly good but the whole place had a tired air about it. This was not in the least alleviated by the shimmering of yet another vast body of water, this time Lake LeFroy, that were clearly visible through the bush. We knew that, when we slept there on our return, it would be a few levels down from anything we had seen so far.
A short distance further north, we branched off onto the Goldfields Highway which cut off the corner of the longer 94 route. It curved east around Lake LeFroy before swinging north again to Kalgoorlie. This was a broad road indeed. It was constructed for the mighty lorries that shift huge loads of ore from the goldmines to the railway which, in turn, delivers it to the crushing plants. Sadly, the road was mainly contiguous strips of pre-cast concrete and not that smooth. For the first and only time on the whole long and arduous trip, Lucie’s bum began to hurt. Our intercom was still not working, so I only found this out retrospectively, but I could not have done much about it anyway.
We made a brief diversion to Kalgoorlie’s “Super Pit” (see below) before locating our hotel in the maze of streets of what was quite a significant town.
As a consequence of the ongoing and strange shifts in time, we arrived in what, from our point of view, was the early evening, only to discover that it was only half past four. Finally, though, after days of uncertainty, we were clear about the time and it would remain constant for the next few days. The combination of time-zones that had varied by fractions of an hour instead of whole ones had been a continuous, background, distraction. In addition, Western Australia’s rejection of “daylight saving time” meant we had also moved back from summer time to winter time only two weeks after doing it the other way around.
Luckily, our motel was most pleasant and we passed the time until dinner resting and showering.
Nearby, in the town, we did a little shopping (more biscuits and chocolate) and then found an authentic Thai establishment where we enjoyed some delicious food that was a long, long way from anything to be found in a roadhouse.
We finally had the internet again and did a little research on Perth before dropping into a well earned sleep.
The Kalgoorlie “Super Pit”
There are a number of “urban legends” about which products of human activity can be seen from space. The Great Wall of China is often quoted, but I have heard, several times, that in reality, it cannot be seen. One thing that can, irrefutably, be seen is an enormous gold quarry, in Kalgoorlie, called the “Super Pit”.
On the outskirts of town, we followed some small signs and decided to take a look. There is a lookout point which is up a steep road with the kind of surface not really suited to a heavy motorcycle – but our cautious ride up there was well worth it.
At the risk of sounding over-philosophical, although men built it, it serves as a reminder, upon observation, that we are merely ants.
The scale of the hole is so breathtaking that normal points of reference seem not to apply. It is over three and a half kilometres long and one and a half kilometres wide. When we were there it was something over 600 metres deep and it is still being excavated. The bottom was, even then, scarcely visible.
A track winds around the walls and a string of trucks could be seen descending empty and laboriously climbing back up again filled with loads of ore. I held my hand in front of my face and those distant little Tonka toys were smaller than the nail on my little finger.
The lookout point contained a few thought provoking items, one of which was a tyre from one of those apparently “tiny” vehicles. The width of the tread was as tall as Lucie at 1.75 metres and the diameter of the same rubber monstrosity was about 4 metres. The truck would obviously have been to scale. I wondered if the guys in the space-station could see the trucks too.
There was also the bucket from a loading digger displayed there. To complete the air of total surreality, this alone weighed 68 tons, was at least 5 metres high and about 7 metres wide and could hold 32 cubic metres of rock. The bucket, stated to cost 1.3 million AUD just by itself, was a comparatively small part bolted onto the front of a much larger vehicle that cost 18.5 million AUD.
Big business indeed !