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.
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.
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