Friday 28 October 2016

Western Australia Story 9 - Broke

The sign at the entrance to the Broke Inlet road said ROUGH ROAD AHEAD. 4 WHEEL DRIVE. Sarah had given us some clues and we were keeping a lookout for it. We were heading for Walpole for the night. I can pick you up at the highway entrance when you come, she'd said.
      Should be okay, the woman at the Walpole camp ground said. What are you driving the lady behind me said. I was down there the other day and it wasn't too bad. I was only doing 15k mind. I was looking for wildflowers. Corrugations, I asked? Someone else had said it was severely washed out with all the rain? Nah. Should be alright if you take it easy.
     I thought Sarah might be in town so I sent her an email. Thought she might be teaching. It was 2:45, well before school finish time so we set off to walk into town. Sun was shining. A track led away from the broad inlet through wildly flowering heath. Another thousand flowers. And I don't know the name of any of them. It's like meeting new people. Mostly a waste of time telling me your name. I won't have any memory of it three minutes later. So the wildflowers remain mute. Wisely. Doesn't mean I don't care. I love them all.
     The walk to town took much longer than the walk around town. When we arrived back there was a note from Sarah written on a scrap of paper. Howdy. Welcome to Walpole. Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. She'd arrrived minutes after we'd left.
     I'd never met Sarah. She was a face on a blog. Sarah Toa. Not even her real name. I fell in love with her blog a few years ago. It was by accident. I can't remember the sequence. Blogs are a little like life. Random. Hers is a beauty. She writes about the land she lives in and on and its characters. She's worked as a deckie for years with a crusty fisherman she calls Old Salt. They worked the inlets. Netting mostly for mullet or whatever was in season. Hard work. Early mornings, cold winds, rough weather. All in a beach tinny. Every day after battling the vagueries of nature she'd sit down and write about her fishing life. The stories turned into a book - Salt Story - under her real name, Sarah Drummond. We'd connected from time to time via comments each of us made about our respective blogs. Mutual complimentarians. Why not see if she's up for a visit from a complete stranger I'd thought.
     And here we were at the turnoff onto Broke Inlet Road. ROUGH ROAD AHEAD. 10:00 am. The weather was looking vaguely promising. Ranging between cloudy with hints of sunshine and the opposite of that.  The road was an example of shire councils protecting themselves against litigation. ROUGH ROAD translated to A FEW POTHOLES. No different, in my experience, from most unsealed roads. Always at the mercy of the elements with the capacity to grow ever bigger potholes. Never as big as those I've seen in PNG, as big as the wild pigs. There are even larger ones in Vanuatu where I swear they can be the size of small cars. It's all about the rainfall (and total neglect).
    Like I said, I'd never met Sarah. I knew she had a head full of wild hair. And I assumed she 'd have hands that could wrangle a monster fish in the dead of night. But beyond that all was a  mystery. Like pen pals meeting for the first time. I guess it can be a case or click or clunk. 
     We found the turn-in as Sarah had described. Just past the 1080 poison sign. The last hundred metres to her shack was the roughest piece of road in the ten kilometre diversion. A big smiIng face framed by rich brown hair emerged from a flyscreen door and waved a big wrangling hand greeting us warmly.
     Andrea had no expectations. She doesn't read blogs. She felt immediately comfortable with this no-nonsense woman. Almost kindred spirits. I was a little more apprehensive. I knew too much. Sarah seemed a little the same.
     Sarah lives in the house next door to the big house. The big house was built by the owners of this remote piece of real estate and bought this adjacent shack when it came up for sale to assure their privacy. Sarah knew them. Perfect match.

Come in. Cup of tea? No milk sorry. No worries we've got some in the van. And I bumped out the screen door with her dog Selkie paying me close and friendly attention. She was a bit like a seal. Slick and muscled and trying to turn me into a beach playmate or a fish she could worry.
     The bakery at Walpole is run by a Vietnamese couple but has little of what I assumed for a Vietnamese bakery. The ones back in the east show their French influence. This one specialised in giant vanilla slices and that's what I offered as my contribution to morning tea.
     Do you eat mushrooms? I had a moment when I wondered if Sarah was going to offer us some local hallucination inducing variety and I pictured myself trying to navigate the potholes later in the day. I thought I'd cook up some mushrooms and garlic for lunch, she said, and I saw the brown paper bag of IGA produce on the bench.
     Sarah's face was broader than I'd expected. Her face was that of a survivor. Someone who'd come into a tough world and taken it on. Her house was full of her. Books everywhere, fishing paraphanalia scattered inside and out and a rustic kitchen with an air of ordered chaos. Lovely. Apparently I was not exactly what Sarah had expected either. Thinner, she said. Well, you can't get much thinner than Steve, Andrea laughed.  I don't think I had misrepresented myself on my blog. I had posted a few photos but it's hard to capture 'bone nothing' as I was called in PNG. Nothing but bones.
     Walk she said? She showed us her fishing tinny tied to a tree on the inlet fifty metres from her back door.  This is where I fish these days she said. Not with Old Salt any more I asked? Nope. Just me for now, she said. The wind was blowing hard off the inlet down here. The tinny was full of water, with each next wave trying to finally drown it. What do you catch I asked? Whatever's in season. Mullet, bream, whiting. We walked.
     The inlet isn't all that far from civilisation but it feels remote. There's one way in and the same way out. The access to most of the fishing shacks is over soft sand and is definitely not campervan territory.
     It might stink down there the woman at the camp ground had warned. If the bar hasn't broke it goes rank, she said. It smelt fine to me. Briny. Salty. The outlet which connects the inlet to the Southern Ocean had broke only a week or so ago. The water dropped more than a metre overnight, Sarah  told us. Left my bloody tinny high and dry 10 metres from the waters edge. Had to get help to haul it to the water next day.       When the sand bar breaks it becomes a force of nature. Travelling through the narrow inlet at around sixty ks an hour or more. Sarah told us the iconic local story of the eighty year old fisherman who was last seen standing in his  boat as it sped towards the turbulent waters where the outgoing flood met the incoming waves. They found his body days later washed up down the coast. A fitting end perhaps.
     Some of the fishing shacks are occupied year round, others only in summer or when the fish are on. We met Ken who was doing a bit of repair work on his family shack. A sturdy low set rough timber and tin-roofed place. It's heritage listed Ken told us. Can' t make any changes without getting some bureaucrats bloody permission. Then the rain swept in and the walk was over.
     Over lunch we talked about books and Phds and the Iife of the writer. Sarah's Phd thesis is about early contact between the sealers (Canadian and others) and the local Noonga people. It tells the story of their treatment of the local women. A tough and tragic one and one not often told. The resulting book, The Sound, has recently been published by Fremantle Press. It's a beauty, full of rich research and memorable characters. And brutal. History is often not pretty. She's had to tread that fine line where historical fact intersects with imagination and character based storytelling. It's a powerful way to learn about those times and the history of Albany.

 Link to Sarah's blog

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Western Australia 8 - Walpole

SW Western Australia -  sunny one minute, blowing a gale the next then dumping rain on you to finish you off.
      Which brings me to Walpole, population maybe four hundred. Somewhere between Cape Leeuwin lighthouse and Albany, not far from the Frankland River there's a series of large inlets which sit behind the wild southern coastline. The Albany Highway pauses for a few hundred metres and invites you to fill up with petrol or get some supplies from the IGA and then speeds on. It's good fishing country - remote, unspoilt, protected. Good mullet, bream and whiting here. On the the surface it's unattractive. No protected surfing beaches; it's out of the main winery belt, a one pub town where, above the main bar hangs a whale's penis in all its four metre glory. 
     The bar is populated by crusty regulars sheltering from the cold, waiting for the weather to settle so they can get back to fishing. The barmaid is in a state of high anxiety. There are people wanting to order food AND drinks. I'm freakin out she says in a broad Manchester accent. Its 5.30pm. The rain is belting down and locals and tourists alike are seeking refuge. The fire is blazing.
     What's your house wine I ask? I don't know, comes the answer in that broad accent and a look of panic enters her eyes. We've got some red I think and pulls out a half full bottle of shiraz. Have you got any cab sav I ask? She looks blankly at me. I'll have to get the manager she says and disappears. A young fellow returns and is no better informed. We've got shiraz he says and unscrews the cap from the half empty bottle, sniffs it and pours it down the sink. He goes to fetch another bottle. I'll have a shiraz I say, accepting defeat.
    How long have you been here I ask the Manchester girl? Since last Thursday she says. How long have you been in Australia I ask? Three weeks, she says. I love it. I never want to go home. I worked in a bar back home but things are so different here, she says. In Manchester we only have three types of wine. Red, white and rose. It's so confusing here, she laments.
     Margaret River, the wine centre of the west is only forty minutes up the road and this pub has only one variety of red wine! They've recruited the right girl for the job. She'll be on top of the three brands of wine they stock in no time.
     More people begin to arrive. Tourists. They ask for the menu. She can't answer any questions and confides to us that the cook tonight is actually the bar manager. It's the chef's night off. Which explains why the cook is steering everyone to the sirloin steak. I suspect it's the only thing he can cook. In between pulling beers our Manchester girl is trying to slip outside for a quick cigarette, but every time she gets close to the door someone new steps up to the bar or walks in the main door. I need a ciggy she says. I'm stressed to the max.
     The local, thin as a stick with long grey hair, who has been camped in front of the firesince we arrived,  makes a move to head home. He's already had his fill but Manchester girl, against everyone's better judgement offers to pour one him more whiskey. What's the tab he asks, pays and slips off into the Walpole night.
     To be fair to any Walpole readers, there is a gallery in town which delighted us. The best little private gallery between Perth and Albany we reckon. It's run by the wife of a local farmer. She's got a good eye.
      We decide to risk the rain but not the sirloin steak and head for our campsite at the western end of Nornalup Inlet.

Friday 21 October 2016

Stories from the Wet West 7 - Ways of Seeing

Ways of Seeing. The title of a book by social commentator and philosopher John Berger. His book was an early version of a graphic novel in that there were more images than text. He was exploring how our social and cultural experience influences how we see the world. He used art as his reference point in pursuing his thesis and , as a Marxist (as I recall), he was deconstructing the lens through which we see the world.
     Sounds very deep. It was an influential text for its time. Don't expect a femininst or Marxist treatise in this blog. Expect something much simpler. How art can make us see differently. A similar but simpler theme.
In Northcliffe in SW WA there is an art trail. In nearby Pemberton, we were asking questions about what we should see in the area. The attendant was quite helpful, singing the praises of the her home town and guiding us to a bush campsite that turned out to be magic. When I said we'd  be heading south the next day I asked about our next port of call, Northcliffe. What was there? Nothing much was her reply. One pub, one shop. Nothing else worth mentioning. So as we entered Northcliffe there they were, the pub and the general store. She'd not mentioned the cafe with terrible coffee. For that I forgive her. She had also not mentioned the award winning pioneer museum and the Sculpture Trail. Being a bit drawn to arty stuff we followed the signs which promised this art trail. "Understory" proclaimed the signage. A clever play on words that I myself might have dreamt up in my days in arts project management and been proud of, unaware that it was way too subtle fot the busy tourist with multiple competing slogans and clever titles to wade through.
But we'd heard a Iittle about it so we paid our money and went for a walk. Forty minutes later Andrea and I were both in raptures. Without any shared conversation we had had the same experience. What began as a wander along a meandering path with the work of sculptors set in the landscape became a walk where everwhere we looked became sculptural. It sounds corny but I became convinced that natural pieces were in fact deIberate sculptural works. Part of this response was influenced by having to look to find each of the pieces so I was tuned into sculptural forms. They were everywhere. In branches, in the way native grasses suddenly appeared and disappeared, in the shapes of trees against the sky, in root formations. It was quite astounding. Many of the artists works appeared in different guises at unpredictable and subtle points along the track. The result was that you were alert to the possibility that at any point there might be another face hidden in a burnt stump in a blackened tree or a minitature figure in the landscape, or a piece high up in the canopy. We were "looking and seeing" rather than merely being in the landscape. I was blown away. We both were.
It was one of those rare moments when something really new happens and your consciousness is altered. I remember having many of those moments when i was young and first discovering art and theatre and music - my first encounter with Ray Hughes Gallery on Enogerra Tce in Brisbane - John Olson, Rosalie Gasgione, Davida Allen; a visit to the Musee d'Orlay in Paris featuring Monet and the impressionists; my first visit to the weatherboard cottage that was La Boite Theatre in Hale Street Milton, where the stage was the tiny living room of the house and the audience sat on bench seats around the perimeter of the room. I watched actors up close, so close I could see their spittle. It was Thomas Keneally's 'O'Halloran's Little Boat'. I'm not a big fan of classical ballet these days, but my first experience of Swan Lake as a teenager at Her Majestys Theatre was unbelievable. I fell in love. My aesthetic sense was awakened. What possessed my working class parents to take me to see that, and in the same year, the Sound of Music I can only imagine. I guess they were never quite the stereotype of the struggling working family that I still think of them as.
     It happens less nowadays.


Tuesday 18 October 2016

Stories from WA 6 - Whineries

Caravan Parks
     There are some awful caravan parks in Australia. The ones where they've chopped down all the trees so the grass grows green and unimpeded. The notion of shade and protection from the elements is sacrificed in the name of smaller camp lots and more income. WA has its share. The best ones are still in the hands of local councils and offer waterfront views AND trees. Augusta has two. Both on the water and both old school.

     Back in Margaret River, the young girl at the tourist information bureau understood our needs and that's why she had recommended the Big Valley sheep property. Strangely she steered us away from Peevelly which turned out to be a beauty. She was right about Big Valley and she was right about her recommendations of wineries. Yes, it was a bleak day as we packed up and bad the bleating sheep goodbye.
     It was 10am and Andrea was definitely not interested in wine tasting at that hour. She was much more enthusiastic as the day progressed. So I tasted and she browsed at the Stella Bella winery. We weren't being served by Stella but the next best thing. Donna knew her stuff. And since we were her first and only customers for the day she gave us her full attention. I was invited to taste anything, any vintage while she patiently explained vintage and climate and grape variety to someone who had heard it all before but forgotten it each time before he got to the exit door of the cellar. Cousin Vince had said: taste everything but don't buy it at the cellar door. Buy it at BWS in town at discount prices. How unscrupulous. It's like downloading music and bypassing the musician. I had to buy. Was it because I liked the wine? Was it guilt (payment for twenty minutes of informed conversation)? Or was it a compulsive shopping addiction?
     I felt much better about my purchase at Stella Bella than I did later at Voyager Winery where they ask you to pay by the taste (25ml) and then offer you it back if you buy a bottle of their wine. Of course you buy a bottle of wine. After investing $15 in sips you want to cut your losses. Its a like the roulette wheel - you just hope that you can take something away from the disastrous experience so that you don't feel so dirty. So stupid. It's a form of blackmail. On the other hand the wine was quite nice. Probably better than most. But I did spend more than I would have at any normal wine outlet. Stupider and stupider! (at $4 for 25ml, that would make a $50 bottle of wine worth anout $120 to them! That's just greedy. And here's the rub. Voyager wines was started and is still owned by a very very wealthy man - it's really just his hobby.)

     The fish at the Augusta Cafe was cooked by a young Sri Lankan boy who worked for a Frenchman who had come to WA via South Africa and New Caledonia. The coffee at Yallingup was made by a Spanish girl who worked for the cafe owner who was from Italy. The waitress at Watershed Winery where we had lunch was Italian from Roma. She spoke Ittle English and as a result the orders became totally confused. She was lovely. She'd come to WA and lived the first three months with an Italian family who never spoke any English. The girl who ran the Prevelly caravan park and complained about the cold weather was from Estonia. Everywhere, young European migrants/bacackers are running the tourist industry. I felt like I was in Europe. I couldn't figure out if these were low paid jobs that only backpackers would take or if these young entrepreneurs just saw an opportunity to make their way in this sunny climate and took it on. I think the latter because there were so many of these voices in so many places it was impossible to not conclude that something special was going on. And many of them weren't the dogsbodies but the owners or lessees.
     Getting used to gray cold days. At least it's not raining.

Sunday 16 October 2016

Stories from the Wild West 5 - Not Spring

And then spring came to a screaming halt. A south westerly blew in, the sea turned to a washing machine blue. Every time we stepped out of the car we had to turn back for rain jackets and every time we took rain jackets the sun forced its way into the picture and we lumbered along carting heavy jackets for no purpose.
     It wasn't all bad news. We found some great camp sites beginning with the Caves at Yallingup. Then Big Valley, a working sheep property of 2500 head which stood naked on either side of the road as we drove in.  There we met Steve and his three vagabond mates. All four were unemployed and semi-permanent residents of the camp ground; survivors in a world where unskilled labour has become the province of the poor. Steve had his issues but soldiers on. Another had once been a photographer doing corporate work, but when his marriage collapsed twelve years ago he took to the road and now spends nine months each year free camping in the Kimberely. God knows how he survives. I thought Steve might have been part of the shearing gang which had just finished the big shear that day. But no he's just finished working at a local dairy and is "between jobs". He was the fire meister - getting the communal blaze going and managing it closely. His other two mates were younger. One loved his tucker and was the cook - local fish he'd caught; the other was a young surfie with blonde dreads, tanned skin and bare feet. They all had that weathered Australian look. A long time in the sun. Front coming through tonight, they told us. Should pass through about mid-night. And sure enough it did, the skinned sheep bleating for respite from the cold in counter point to the wailing of the wind.
     Prevelly was next. Tucked away behind the foredunes in a grove of trees. We walked to the beach but got blown back. Even the sea gulls were giving it a miss. Prevelly is famous for its big BIG surf break which is saying something considering the dozens of headlands and surf breaks along this stretch of coast. It's home to the Margaret River Bombie, a wave that forms over an off-offshore reef in certain conditions, and rises up to 8 metres before it crashes onto the treacherous reef system below. The local lifesavers are adept at rescuing people in ten foot waves and are often required to attend to serious injuries. We saw only the wild fury, not the "perfect" Margaret River tubes.

     The Margaret River flows to the ocean here. Tea tree brown mixes with the turquoise Indian Ocean. These places (Yallingup, Prevelly, Gracetown) are home to wealthy Perth based families, but fifty years ago were only visited by surfers searching for that next BIG break. The houses here are definitely not beach shacks. That's not to say better roads and the occasional coffee shop hasn't made these beautiful wild places accessible, but there is a certain irony in the obsessive need of local councils to tidy them up with manicured lawns and giant children's playgrounds (Hey! Isn't that a beach with sand down those steps) and beachfront carparks for hundreds of cars. Thankfully, as soon as you step onto the beach the sand dunes obscure all that.

     It's blowing a gale as we bunk down for the night. Another miserable day tomorrow and we might be forced to spend it cruising the local wineries.

Friday 14 October 2016

Stories from the West 4 - The Beginning

The back window taped with  black plastic to make the van look like a hearse we had a day to fill in. We felt a little vulnerable as we pulled into the Cape Naturaliste car park. Signs warned us to 'Beware of Thieves". "Look Lock Leave" they advised. So we did. To the lighthouse, then a forty minute walk around the headland towards the whale watch point. And there they were. In spades. A way off but when the wind dropped we could hear them blow. The wild flowers along the track looked marvellous any the van was still there when we got back. Good start to what I had expected would be a bad day.
     So far so good.
     The water in the bay was turquoise under the pastel blue sky. The sand was blindingly white and the sea calm. I plunged in. Silly really. We're close to Antartica here so why wouldn't the water turn my head into an ice cube. It did. And I held my breath with the belief that intense pain is generally only temporary. That once shock sets in the body no longer feels the cold. And it proved correct. I survived and stayed until I was dangerously close to hyperthermia. Wow! It's great to feel so alive when death could be so near.
Yallingup, a few ks distant proved to be Paradise so we made a plan. Get the glass fixed in Busselton (we decided not to go there for the second time - strangely the Busselton Bypass is the way into town) and head back to Paradise; arriving in time to see a sky blazing orange as the sun set over the sea.
     I believe the holiday has begun.
     Andrea was in hyper-alert mode most of the day and suffered a series of PTSD moments  triggered by my selection of reverse gear. She was sure there were more trees ready to launch themselves at us.

Stories from the West 3 - Windscreens to Go

It didn't start today either. We drove south to a spot Andrea promised was renowned for wildlife and wildflowers and walked for an hour through nondescript scrub; past one big roo asleep under a tree, a couple of ducks and a bunch of cormorants (a flap of cormorants? a clothesline of cormorants?).
   Uninspired we drove south through some passably nice country - wetlands, forests, rolling dairy country. We by-passed Busselton and set our Tomtom for Dunsborough. It had a nice ring to it and it might have been on the coast. Wrong. It was shit. One of the worst caravan parks ever. 
     The place was wall to wall permanent caravan sites, every one onf them vying to be uglier than their neighbour and all of them empty. It was a ghost town and we were the only residents. And then I backed the campervan into the only tree in the park and listened to the sound of the rear window go pop!
    The windscreen people said: 'we can fit you in next Tuesday (today was Wednesday)' 'We were hoping to be in Albany by then,' I said. I heard her pause and I knew she was softening - 'What about Friday? ' she said. 'Jesus!' She heard me. 'I'm sorry, we have to order that rear window in from Perth.' Silence from me. ' Well I don't have an option' I guess ' I said. 'We're sleeping in the vehicle you see and the weater is predicted to get bad again ............' And a voice from the distance said 'Tell em to bring it in last thing today and we'll fit it in.'
   Helleluya. My belief in a divine being was vindicated.

Stories from the West 2 - When does the Holiday Start?

Fuckit. It didn't start today. What dreary country between Perth and Bunbury. Thank heavens for Bunbury Art Centre and the lemon meringue mini cakes.
     The day was saved at the last minute by an uninformed decision to turn off the highway and find the little peaceful gem of Binningup. A nothing village by the sea with a windswept beach and untouched dunes and a walk on the foreshore alone. Lovely.

Thursday 13 October 2016

Stories from the West 1 - Perth

Bloody hell. I flew to Perth for a spring awakening and found myself in a virtual snow storm. Unseasonally cold is the phrase I've heard more than any other since arriving. Thank god cousins Vince and Rita who live close by each other in the Darling Ranges east of Perth gave us a warm welcome. Otherwise we might have turned around and flown straight back to the east where we know that Spring is not to be messed with.
     In an effort to beat the approaching cold front we rushed into Prrth central to experience Kings Park. Wow! What a treat. Wildflowers from every corner of the state, views over Sydney Harbour - no wait a minute, that's the Swan River. Beats our beautiful brown Brisbane River hands down. Whip it. Whip it good! And then back to Kalamunda and the mountains as the freeze rolled in. Thanks cousin Rita and husband Josef

     Saturday. Miserable. Let's go for a drive, says cousin Vince. Or sit at home and feel sorry for a wasted day. The Swan Valley -vineyards, villages, rolling hills. It was a nice way to watch a day wash by. Thanks cousin Vince (10 years my senior - and now the senior teller of family tales)
     Fremantle in the wind and rain is not the Fremantle of folk tales. The story of the Dutch ship the Batavia is great but better read than experienced in a museum - just my preference. The fiabled fish and chips was a bit like trying to get a meal on the doomed Batavia expedition. Too many people and too few ships, er sorry chips. The Fremantle Arts Centre in a disused convent was a revelation, however. Convents make great galleries - we found another one in Bunbury (even better than Fremantle). Perhaps the Catholics would have been less troubled if they had concentrated on modern art rather than church hierarchy.
     And to finish the weekend pizzas with Lachlan and Caroline and the hyperactive Izzy - who makes her father look like a zen master.
     But when does the holiday start?