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It’s often said that Perth is the most isolated city in the world, which only works if you define a city as having a population of at least one million, and if you ignore Auckland. Yet there’s no denying that it’s still a long way from anywhere, a distant and lonely place on the far end of the Australian continent, separated from the eastern states by thousands of kilometres of desert. Growing up in Perth, I always saw the eastern states as a semi-mythical place beyond the horizon, the headquarters of a nation where all the important decisions were made, dispatched almost absent-mindedly to our remote outpost. Even Adelaide huddles down in the south-eastern corner of South Australia, close to the warmth of civilisation.
This is one of many reasons I want to spend my life anywhere but in Perth. My current decision was to move to Melbourne, and Perth’s staggering isolation is also one of the reasons I decided to do this overland. Rather than jumping on a $150 Jetstar flight, I thought it would be much more cathartic (not to mention interesting) to drive to the east coast, to cross the Nullarbor, to watch the odometer roll over and Perth get swallowed up in the trackless wastelands behind me. Even without the move factored in, a roadtrip across Australia has always been something I wanted to do.
At this point in my life, however, the vehicle I own is a 250cc Kawasaki KLX. There are those who say that a 250 is not an appropriate vehicle to cross a continent on. To those I say: please lobby the Western Australian Department of Infrastructure to lift engine capacity restrictions on first-year motorcycle licenses.
Pretty much everybody I talked to said it was a bad idea. On Christmas Day I had nearly every member of my maternal family trying to talk me out of it. I didn’t see what the big deal was. I rode a 125cc bike across Vietnam and I can guarantee that was a hell of a lot more dangerous than anything Australian roads could throw at me. The Nullarbor in particular had everybody fretting. At the time I was reading Jupiter’s Travels, and found this passage to be quite apt:
The Crossing of the Nullarbor was a legend that died hard. People had been trying to frighten me with it for months… Australians in cities love to shudder at the merciless hostility of their continent. I wondered whether it was a sort of apology for betraying the national ideal, an excuse for not being out there digging.
Chris was originally one of the legion of naysayers, before changing his mind and deciding to come along with me for the hell of it. Suddenly the choir of disagreeable voices was quieter. Whether because they thought it was safer in a pair or because they thought I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my perpetual caregiver is debatable. In any case, we did a dry run by riding the bikes down to our annual trip to Collie, where much laughter was enjoyed by all as my KLX’s crappy mileage meant I ran out of petrol on the side of the highway ten kilometres short of the first service station. 135 k’s, including reserve. No biggie. I’d just need to carry some jerry cans.
Perth to Bunbury – 182 km
Ah, the first day of a voyage! We’d packed light – Chris was carrying his own two backpacks of clothes (one to wear and one to strap to the bike), as well as a sleeping bag, self-inflater and very compact two-man tent. I had two backpacks as well, plus a sleeping bag, self-inflater, and my Dad’s old saddlebags with a five-litre jerry can in each. I’d also borrowed my Dad’s old Rossi motorcycle boots, which he purchased circa 1980. Retro fashion!
We didn’t set off until about 3.30 pm, which was a slack start, but it really should have been just a quick ride down the freeway. Bunbury was a fairly modest target for the day, but I have relatives there we could stay with, and starting out a trip in comfort and familiarity is always a nice thing. My Dad opened the backyard gate for us, we pulled out into a road covered in schoolkids that had just let out, hit Reid Highway and were soon southbound on the freeway. The skyscrapers and the river came and went, a tiny slice of city separating the huge swathes of northern and southern suburbs. Goodbye to all that – snorkelling at the beach, swimming in the Hill’s pool, the cinemas at Innaloo, Karrinyup Shopping Centre, the shady patio out the back of Chris’ house, drinking at the Flying Scotsman with Sam, waking up at 5 am to the sound of Kristie’s dog screaming like an injured woman, driving along West Coast Highway on a sunny afternoon… a few days before we’d left, when I’d come home drunk from Terri and James’ engagement party at two in the morning, I’d stumbled across the road to my old high school. I walked across the oval and up the embankment, drawn by a demountable clasroom that had all its lights on for some reason. I stared in the window entranced by it for a while – I used to have Biology classes in that room, asking Mr. Hugo stupid questions like “can you drink lava?” or “do trees have souls?” More than twenty years of my life in this encapsulated suburban world, a thousand miles from anywhere, quiet and unimportant, the archetype of a generic city. Goodbye to all that.
After the ride to Collie and back I felt much more comfortable sitting on 100 k’s an hour. We stopped for our first refuel in Safety Bay, just outside Mandurah. “You be careful on those bikes,” a woman refueling her car said.
“Yeah, someone’s already flipped me off today,” Chris said.
“Really? What for?”
“I dunno. Riding a bike?”
In the same way that I took a photo of every bed I slept in when travelling around the world, I resolved to take a photo of every petrol bowser we filled up at.
As we pulled out of the servo I was cut off by a truck and didn’t see which direction Chris went in. I made a wrong guess, and ended up on Ellis Road. After some phone calls we eventually linked back up, but the traffic lights on Ellis Road and trying to find the right address in Bunbury (a larger town than many Perth residents assume) meant we didn’t arrive at the Gullottis’ house until sunset. I’d expected Uncle Tony to cook us SOME-AH SPICY MEAT-A-BALLAS, but instead he resisted satisfying our demands for a stereotype and gave us steak and some other exotic, highly delicious stuff. It’s always pleasant at Collie to drift over to the Gullotti camper around evening and smell what Tony’s cooking up.
After dinner we pored over some old maps and brochures of the South-West they had, to see if there were any decent free camping spots on our planned route. “Not that I think you guys haven’t prepared for this,” Tony said, “but isn’t this something you should have done earlier?”
“It’s kind of… hard to do, until you’re in the trip itself,” Chris said.
“Yeah,” I said. “You don’t really have the motivation for it until then. Or we don’t, anyway.”
Here is a photo of the Gullotti’s adorable puppy Indy. Chris and I spent quite some time trying to figure out what her goggly eyes reminded us of, before deciding that it was the humans in Half-Life 2, whose eyes would follow you around the room while barely turning their heads.
Bunbury to Busselton – 53 KM
A weak ride, but Chris had family friends in Busselton we could stay with, and the prospect of two beds in a row was too good to pass up. We lazed around the Gullottis’ all morning with Brett, who is quite eagerly transitioning into the lazy life of a university student. Ah, how I envy him, with three years of rising at noon and drinking as much beer as he pleases ahead of him. We talked about how neither of us were really feeling the trip yet; it always takes a while to get into it. Eventually, after noon, we started packing our bags and putting our gear on. Chris and Brett both mocked me for strapping my Leatherman to my belt.
“You look lik a gay ranger,” Brett said.
“Yeah, with the tight jeans and the boots and all,” Chris said. “You look like Woody from Toy Story.”
They had a point.
After a gruelling forty minute ride down the highway to Busselton, we arrived at the quaint little home, well, their names escape me, but they were two old friends of Chris’ parents. We had the rest of the afternoon to kill, so we went and walked the length of Busselton’s jetty, which is the second-longest wooden-piled jetty in the southern hemisphere – a merit that contains slightly too many qualifiers to be impressive. It is quite long, though.
We visited the underwater observatory at the end, which was pretty neat, considering all the fish you see are wild animals.
Afterwards we went for a quick swim, despite the brisk weather, and lazed about on the beach for a while. It was a perfectly warm evening, and when we returned home, our host cooked us a steak dinner. Beds and steak two nights in a row was more than we had any right to expect on this trip.
The South-West is such a pleasant region. It’s the kind of place I can see myself retiring to, pottering around with a garden and some writing projects, with a loving wife and a cat and a dog and our kids off at university.
I spent the evening perusing the maps in our road atlas, and noticed, with a tinge of white guilt, that Tasmania has no Aboriginal town names. I wonder why? Obviously Tasmania is the only state where we completely wiped out the Aboriginal population, but they weren’t greatly loved in the others states either, and those are still full of Manjimups and Wollongongs and Ngangaras.
Also, guess how many sealed roads there are linking western Australia with eastern Australia? Go on, guess.
There are only two – the Eyre Highway across the Nullarbor in the south, and the Barkly Highway between the Northern Territory and Queensland in the north. That’s it. Well, okay, technically the Stuart Highway connects the two halves because it runs from the west of the beginning of the Barkly down to the east of the end of the Eyre, but that would be a pretty roundabout route, and in any case three sealed roads is still a stunningly low number. And these aren’t huge highways – they’re just two-lane blacktop. Imagine if the United States only had two or three bridges across the Mississippi River. Australia – what a country!
Busselton to Pemberton – 232 km
This was our first proper ride, taking us off the highways in the Perth region and down into proper back-country roads. For some reason we decided that we needed to get up very early, which meant neither of us slept very well. I just can’t relax and sleep when I know I have to get up early, because I worry about oversleeping, and tense up every thirty seconds thinking “Did I fall asleep?! Did I oversleep?!”
We ended up leaving at a quarter to eleven, took a road past Dunsborough, and started the first ride we were actually looking forward to: the Caves Road, which hugs the coast from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the south. It’s a lovely little road, winding up and down hills, through karri forests, and past the snobby cultural sector of rural Western Australia – all wineries and craft stores and art galleries. We stopped for lunch at a hipster vegetarian cafe in Margaret River, and then experienced something I never thought I’d see this side of the 21st century: a service station with an actual attendant who came out and filled up our tanks for us. Very quaint, but wholly pointless – I can see why we don’t have them anymore.
South of Margaret River the road wound through pockets of karri forest. Is it karri or jarrah that we nearly wiped out? There seemed to be an awful lot of them.
East of Augusta, we headed inland on the Brockman Highway, and suddenly the lush karri forests became dry, scrubby banksias. Much less interesting. The road wound through this parched bushland for about 75 kilometres, featureless except for some lizard roadkill and a few lumber trucks. According to the road atlas it’s not national park, yet it doesn’t seem to be put to any use at all. I’m not sure what’s up with that.
Eventually the Brockman led us onto the Vasse Highway, and the scenery returned to karri forest again – with far more of it this time, the trees taller and greener. We were testing out the jerry cans for the first time, since there didn’t seem to be any petrol stations between Margaret River and Pemberton. My ass was sore and my head was hurting from wearing the helmet for so long, but I knew I only had to hold out to 135 k’s, when my bike would run out of fuel. The fickle bastard lasted until 150.
In Pemberton, we located a caravan park and were violently robbed at gunpoint, being charged $30 for the privilege of a patch of dirt on which to pitch our tent.
Once that was sorted, we jumped back on the bikes and set off to hunt down the Gloucester Tree.
The Gloucester Tree is a fire lookout at the top of a 61 metre karri tree, which is accessible to the public by ladder. I was too young to climb it when I first visited Pemberton at the tender age of two, but when we returned some years later, I was determined to conquer it. Unfortunately I was then only five, which was still a little too young to manage it, and I chickened out. But now I’m 22, by God, and there’s not a tree on this earth too tall for me to climb!
It is quite an impressive tree – as you can see, I couldn’t fit it into one photo.
Here we go. This one’s for you, five-year old Mitch.
Before seeing it Chris had been ambivalent about bothering to, because he’d never heard of it before and had assumed it was some tiny loser tree. “I didn’t think they’d just let people do something like this in Australia,” he said, as we started climbing, before adding, “This is well dangerous.”
I’m not frightened of heights, but there was definitely a low-key anxiety about climbing up there. Theoretically you can’t fall out because there are wires to your right, but you could certainly slip and fall down the rungs, smashing your body to bits along the way.
But we made it. After many years, I FINALLY CONQUERED THE GLOUCESTER TREE.
Some impressive views. According to the visitor’s centre it’s still a working fire lookout, but there was nobody up there, and I’m pretty sure we have planes and satellites for that kind of thing nowadays.
The tree was first climbed in 1947 by forester Jack Watson, using spiked boots and a belt. Another forester, George Reynolds, built the ladder and the original platform. The tree was named after Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who was Australia’s Governor-General at the time, and who picnicked in the area, no doubt reclining on a tartan blanket and sipping tea while Jack and George took their shirts off and lopped branches off from a height of fifty metres, their sinewy muscles glistening with the sweat of honest labour. Under the quaint logic of British Australia, the Duke clearly contributed the most to the tree and thus deserved the naming honour.
I got it in my head as a child that the Gloucester Tree was the tallest lookout tree in the world, and was disappointed to discover that it’s actually only the second-tallest. Not only that, but the tallest, the Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree, is also located just outside Pemberton.
Well, whatever. Childhood goal accomplished.
We stopped off at IGA to buy some food to cook for dinner. Afterwards I had a shower, and then Chris and I fed some ducks for a while, since we had fuck all else to do.
“What time is it?” Chris asked, after we’d gone through half a loaf of bread.
“So we have… four hours to kill.”
The sun set, and we went for a wander around town, which was as thoroughly deserted as if a government evacuation order had been issued. Never before had I encountered such eerie silence in an urban setting. There were faint stirrings of light and life around the local pub, and Chris and I had an argument about whether to go in there or not. I held the notion that country pubs are full of Akubra-wearing, beer-gutted truck drivers who would rapidly sniff out and eliminate any interlopers. Chris’ position that this was ludicrous held the field, and we went to the pub, which was also almost deserted. We played a few rounds of pool, then went back to the caravan park.
“Good God, I’m bored,” I said.
“It’s just that… we don’t really have anywhere to be,” Chris said. Our tent was a one-man swag, with a diamond shape that meant we could just barely get away with fitting in two sleepers lying perfectly still. It certainly wasn’t a place where we could hang out.
We retreated to the caravan park’s cooking area, where the lights meant we could at least read, and cracked open the bottle of wine we’d bought at the liquor store. This was a cunning plan to assist in sleep; since we had only thin self-inflating sleeping pads and inflatable pillows, we both knew we were in for a very difficult night. I’d been texting my girlfriend, and at 9.07 she mentioned “I’m going to see the Getaway Plan tonight and maybe join Mike at the Court after.”
“This bears emphasis,” I said. “While we’re counting down the minutes until our night is over, Kristie’s hasn’t even begun.”
The lights were automatically shut off at 10 pm, and we retreated to the tent. It could charitably be described as cosy. I didn’t fall asleep until after twelve. At about 4 am we were woken by pattering rain, and had to scramble to grab our bags and gear and bring them inside the tent. Now it was even cosier! It took hours to fall asleep again, and then a flock of kookaburras woke us up around dawn. I didn’t even know kookaburras went in flocks.
Pemberton to Albany – 243 km
Tired and aching, we packed up camp just before ten and had a quick breakfast of toast and baked beans. Over coffee at the nearby café we reviewed our route: down the Vasse Highway and onto the Western, through Walpole and Denmark along the south coast, before arriving in Albany where we had a hostel room booked. A hostel room with sweet, juicy, delicious, actual beds waiting for us.
It was grey and overcast, and though it didn’t look likely to rain, it was quite cold. For some reason I’d left my jacket lining at the bottom of my clothes bag, which was now firmly occy strapped to the bike. The ride was as beautiful as it had been the day before, winding through more enormous karri trees, but I was too cold to enjoy it.
We stopped to fuel up in a town called Northcliffe, which I had never heard of before, before passing a sign that said “Welcome to Denmark.” This was confusing, since I was pretty sure Denmark was 150 kilometres away. Since I also had no recollection of making the turn-off onto the Vasse outside of Pemberton, I began to worry. Was I suffering from a mental problem that erased huge swathes of my memory? Had I just ridden 150 kilometres without realising it? (It turned out we were actually just being welcomed to the shire of Denmark.)
We stopped for lunch in Walpole, where I finally gave up and dug the jacket lining out of my bag. In the carpark we met a guy of indeterminate European nationality, who lived in Harvey and was just about to complete the final leg of a round-Australia trip on his V-Strom. Looking at his comfy, comfy seat made my ass insane with jealousy.
Outside of Walpole we stopped to visit the Treetop Walk. I’d seen it before, nine years ago on a family trip, but it was pleasant enough to visit again.
There’s also a land-based boardwalk nearby, and I insisted we walk along that too, to get our money’s worth. “I’m pretty done with trees, dude,” Chris said.
“You won’t be saying that on the Nullarbor.”
Eventually I was satisfied with the ratio of dollars spent per trees witnessed, and we returned to the carpark. Here I did something I’d been doing an awful lot of: while backing my bike out, and twisting the handlebars to turn it, I got directions mixed up in my head and instead of pressing down on the ignition button I pressed down on the horn. Not as embarassing as dropping it in the Video Ezy carpark the day before we left, but close. Chris laughed at me, and we left.
We fuelled up in Denmark, where the day’s grey cloud cover was finally threatening to turn into actual precipitation. The final 50 kilometre stretch into Albany was freezing and windy and spotted with rain, and we flew along the road at 115 k’s an hour. The whole day I’d been keen for the ride to be over, eyeing the odometer like I used to eye the clock at work. When we pulled into the Albany YHA I crawled up onto the top bunk and had myself a good, long lie down.
Dinner was a bleak roast dinner at the local pub, where a nearby group of yobbos were loudly discussing their bitches and hos. “When you’re overseas,” Chris commented, “you don’t understand the language, so you don’t really notice… class, or dignity.”
“Shhh,” I said.
Albany is also a place I haven’t been to for about nine years, since I was a young ‘un. It seems a pleasant enough town, with lots of 19th century buildings and blustery weather and a strong nautical tradition. Sort of like New England or Canada’s Maritime provinces. Yes, I did just compare a place I’ve been to before with places I’ve never been to.
Albany to Esperance – 483 km
We set our alarms to wake us up at 7.30, but we both ignored them and slept another hour. Neither of us are naturally given to early starts. At 8.30 it began to rain. “Fuck,” I said, peering out the curtains.
“It’s days like these I wish we had a car,” Chris said.
We packed our bags and went about our morning routine in the hope that it might just be a brief spell, but it wasn’t. Shelled out a dollar to use the Internet and check BOM; both the Albany and Esperance radars were down, but the forecast for the south coast proclaimed shitty weather for the rest of the day. We decided there was nothing for it but to grit our teeth and wrap all our stuff in plastic bags.
We had breakfast at a nice little restaurant called Dillons, which had a vintage bike up on the staircase.
Half an hour later we were on the road out of town, stuck behind a piece of earthmoving equipment trundling along at 10 k’s an hour. How I loathe riding in such blustery, grey, bleak, overcast, miserable, drizzly weather. My legs were shivering and my visor was perpetually fogging up. At least the rain had lightened up a little, down to a light sprinkling.
From here on there were no more forests – just scrubland and a few farms, the southern fringe of the Wheatbelt, where sheep farmers eked out a meagre living at the edge of the continent. The first service station we came to, a speck on the map called Wellstead, had a sign announcing “Ammunition Sold Here,” which signalled to me that we were now well out in the country.
It also had a strange mural.
The roads were long and straight and featureless, and it was beginning to dawn on me that the boring stretches of this grand cross-continental ride would consist of much more than just the Nullarbor.
Worst of all were the cross-winds, requiring us to lean ten degrees to the right, and occasionally making a rapid shift which would unbalance me – an unnerving experience. Sometimes they’d force me quite close to the gravel shoulder, and I was forced to ride essentially right down the dotted line in the middle of the road. We were also encountering our first road trains, which would rush past us in the oncoming lane with a whoosh of displaced air. The trick was to slow down and duck your head down low, so the wind went right over you. It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be; certainly not as bad as the detractors of this trip had made it out to be, who seemed to imagine rural Australian truck drivers as being identical to the antagonist in Duel.
The headwind meant I ran out of fuel earlier than usual, at 115 k’s, just two hundred metres shy of Ravensthorpe’s petrol station. The jerries were full, so it was no huge hassle, but Chris and I had an argument about his conviction that I must be riding the bike wrong, rather than the fact that it’s simply a dirtbike with low fuel mileage, and a 110 k’s down straight roads into a headwind will use a lot more fuel than lower speeds along a windy highway near Pemberton on a still day. I always find it frustrating to explain to Chris (or to anyone) the problems and issues I face while riding, because so much of it is just feeling, that’s hard to articulate.
The final stretch into Esperance was very difficult on the ass and soul, with the wind still going strong and the skies as grey as ever. We caught a brief glimpse of blue skies when we stopped to fill up from the jerries.
We finally reached the town at dusk after 488 kilometres of leaning to the right, sore and weary. We’d booked another hostel, which was less flash but more expensive than the one in Albany. We’d originally planned to have a day off in Esperance, which supposedly has the best beaches in WA, but it was still cold and windy and showed no sign of letting up. Behold the wonderful beaches out the front of our hostel:
Unfortunately, it looked like we’d have to spend a day there for another reason – Chris’ chain had started sagging, and he’d need to visit a mechanic. Just like Vietnam all over again!
We had Red Rooster for dinner, and played some pool and chess. Some Danish backpackers were discussing the Internet with an English backpacker, who was using one of those satellite USB thingies in his laptop. “In Europe there is free wifi at all hostels,” the Danish guy said, “and we thought would be the same here, but always just computers and $1 for 15 minutes…”
“Oh, they’re backwards, mate, so backwards,” the Englishman said.
No arguments from me. I recall hearing a maxim that Australia is ten years behind the rest of the world, and WA is ten years behind the rest of Australia. So that would put us in 1991. Of course, Tony Abbott is right, we can’t build the NBN because it’s a great big fat waste of taxpayer money that could instead go towards a new detention centre for refugees surrounded by razor wire and patrolled by crocodiles.
Now that I’ve learned to use Windows Moviemaker EDIT, NEVER MIND, MUSIC COMPANIES ARE FUCKHEADS, THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS
Hey Mitch how was Collie this year?
Well, WE DID THE GREATEST THING THAT ANYONE HAS EVER DONE OR EVER WILL DO
…here are some photos of Collie ’09!
There aren’t many because we lost Dad’s camera quite early and Phoebe only took a bunch of photos of herself disking and everybody else is tardy with uploading things to Facebook. But it wasn’t a particularly good Collie for a variety of reasons so I suppose it’s appropriate!
Here is Chris walking across the campsite holding orange juice and giving me a stern glare.
Here is me setting a new trend. Watch out ladies!
Here is Chris and Lindsay and Dennis setting off on an expedition to scuba dive the lake. Not pictured: me off sulking because I can’t dive.
Here is me and m’bro Mike, who returned from an eight month trip working at a summer camp in New York and a ski resort in Canada. He brought back a bottle of tequila duty free and for the first time we were treated to the spectacle of Michael Hill drunk. It was more or less the same as the regular Michael Hill (flamboyant, exuberant, dancy) except he spent a lot of time falling over and vomited all over the Gullotti’s annex.
Here is Chris sitting in the naughty chair.
This is a photo of all the families, to send to my cousin Georgie who is currently working as a London-based QANTAS flight attendant. We also sent her a care package with little message cards in it from each of us. Mine contained a sketch of the Twin Towers burning and advice on how to avoid sharks if the plane ditches into the ocean (swim away from the wreckage because they’re attracted to curious noises. You’re basically fucked anyway though because oceanic whitetips are more likely to attack humans than any other shark, and you’re probably bleeding a lot).
That’s it for Collie photos, but I went and bought a camera of my own for Japan today (a Nikon Coolpix), so prepare to be treated to a lot of test images taken around my house!
I basically just walked into CameraHouse and let the salesman tell me what to buy. It’s certainly not a bad camera, but it suffers from the same problem as my Dad’s, which is that when I try to take a photo my hands shake imperceptibly and blur the image (this is a design flaw).
This is a picture of me in front of the bathroom mirror.
This is some of the assorted clothing I have bought for Japan on the living room floor. The flash is turned on to try and combat the blur issue but it still leaves it looking kind of… odd.
This is a photo of me that my sister’s friend took. Note the graininess.
This is my bedroom – again, note the graininess. I can’t recall how much of this is due to squeezing it down to fit inside my WordPress template, though.
This is my Asus eee netbook compared against some common household items for scale. It’s slightly larger than a paperback book, which I’m sure will be good for travelling, but which is a bitch to type on.
And this is a photo of my bookshelf, which I think is the grainiest/blurriest of the lot. I guess I’m going to have to fiddle around with the settings and such and see if I can fix that, or hire a guy with surgeon’s hands and have him follow me around at all times. I’m definitely not taking it back. The only reason I went and bought a new camera was because the one I ordered from Dad’s work had the glaring problem of being powered by replaceable AA batteries. Since this is not 1998 I do expect that my camera be rechargeable, rather than having to buy a pack of batteries every 200 photos. So the moral is don’t buy a Canon Powershot A1000 IS.
As Chris pointed out, I was stunningly negative in my last post, especially considering that I was talking about a location that I travel to for at least two weeks a year and spend the rest of the year thinking about. I feel I have done it a great disservice.
So I’m going to tell you about my happy place.
Stockton Lake is an institution of my childhood. I have been camping there, along with an assorted oddball crew of friends, family and relatives, for literally as long as I can remember. It was there that I had my first kiss, learned to ride a motorbike, and overcame my fear of water – which, for an Aussie, was truly crippling.
Several kilometres outside the coal-mining town of Collie, deep in the verdant forests of Australia’s quiet south-west corner, Stockton began life as an open-cut mine in the 1960s. After pillaging the landscape as much as they deemed economic, the local companies shut down the mine, and some benevolent power – public or private, I don’t know – had it filled in with water to serve as fifteen hectares of aquatic playground. Although the trees have long since grown back, the marks of the mining era are still visible: black coal strewn across the shoreline, steep cliffs surrounding most of the edge, and a nearby slagheap (dubbed “Quartz Mountain” in antiquity, and seeming to grow smaller with every passing year) peeking over the treetops to the south. Signs warn that we shouldn’t go in the water for too long, since “due to previous mining activity Stockton Lake is highly acidic”, and the university academics concur, but we spend the fortnight in bathers and wetsuits and have noticed no ill effects yet. My uncles Lindsay and Tony, old Stockton hands who have marked their territory here since the early ’80s, once scuba dived to the lake bottom. At least sixty metres, straight down, into a dim world of knee-deep silt and rusting bulldozers. The place is popular among locals, other campers from towns in the south-west, and the nearby “city” (snort of laughter) of Bunbury, but as far as we know we are the only regular Perthites.
We are a jumble of friends and family, a collection of tribes and clans with old bonds of friendship, who together make an annual pilgrimage to a dusty grey campsite next to an unremarkable lake. The Hills have always been the backbone of the community; Lindsay, his devoted wife Liz, and their three children Terri-Ann, Michael and Dennis. I recall one distant trip, when I would have been about eleven or twelve, when the Hills were called back into the city for a family emergency, leaving the rest of us rudderless, lonely and depressed for the final week of the trip. As a child that was unimaginable, and terrible. Now it seems to happen every year; Terri has left university, and rarely comes anymore; Michael, too, is moving on in the world, with work and travel commitments. Other families are also important – the Robbins, the Muirs, the Gullottis, the Schneiders – but as time has gone by, people have faded away, and sometimes entire surnames have disappeared altogether. My own family, the Edgeworths, has begun to rise as the largest clan following the recession of the Hills. My father, my sister, myself and my close friend Chris, who was absorbed into my family not only in Collie but practically in Perth as well. With the various friends my sister hauls down added to the mix, along with my father’s new girlfriend, our sheer size means we shall soon reign as the new god-emperors of this tiny patch of land.
Traditionally we all go down in January, about a week after New Year’s, taking the south-west highway out of Perth, a three hour drive through Pinjarra and Mundijong and dozens of other tiny towns with unpronounceable Aboriginal names. We roll into that muddy grey clearing with grins on our faces and happiness in our hearts. This is our annual respite from the real world: sixteen days of camping.
The lake is the drawcard. Originally only the Hills had a speedboat, an orange 1970s model that we spent many happy hours being towed behind, endless counter-clockwise circuits, listening to rock bands older than the lake itself rattle from the tinny speakers. When I say we, I mean the other kids; my aforementioned fear of water meant that I didn’t even dare try anything until I was thirteen or fourteen years old. As a result I was usually asked to be the obby, sitting at Lindsay’s right hand and watching the other kids get thrown around in the biscuits with riotous screams of laughter, trained to immediately bark out a name if somebody fell off, so the boat could whip around and retrieve them. After the ride, we would all gather round the campfire for warmth, me fully clothed, them dripping wet and wrapped in towels, talking excitedly about all the fun they’d just had. As one might imagine, this eventually spawned a feeling of exclusion inside me, and I was forced to overcome my fears and join them. It was probably one of the best decisions I ever made.
The water is, in the high-thirties heat of an inland summer, blissful. Combined with the sheer fun of being dragged around at high speed on an inflatable tube, or plastic kneeboard, or wooden disc, or whatever you could really think of, it becomes paradise. My father bought a speedboat of his own several years ago, a slick 90s model with dazzling paint and an inboard motor. Subconsciously I interpreted it as another challenge to the throne; though I really should note that I do so for my own entertainment, and no such rivalry actually exists. The greatest thing about it was the fact that an inboard motor’s wake leaves a much higher ridge for jumping.
Experiments with jumping on biscuits dates back to 2004. The boat throttles along the water in a snake-like pattern, constantly dragging the riders back and forth across the wake. As you approach the wake, you simply hunker down on all fours, grab the handles and jump. Once the technique is perfected, impressive amounts of altitude can be reached. In the years since we learned this, we have mastered not only the jump, but the jump-entirely-over-another-person, the barrel-roll, and the barrel-roll-over-another-person. Exhaustive searches of Google and Flickr leave me convinced that we are the only people in the world who do this. In photographic terms, I could easily fill an entire album with images that make me sneer at other people’s wretched attempts to have fun on a biscuit/donut/tube, and have therefore done so.
But biscuits are not the only thing we spend time on behind the boat. There are other ridiculous inflatable devices…
…good old traditional kneeboards…
…wooden discs, which float against all expectations…
…and skis, which I personally find to be quite dull.
On particularly hot days a few of us will take the windsurfer board out, minus the sail, and paddle to the white cliffs on the other side of the lake. There’s a spot where erosion and water run-off have formed gullies leading up to the clifftops, so one can climb up and promptly jump back in again, from a variety of heights. Occasionally the rest of the camp will see what we’re doing, pile into the speedboats, and roar across the water to join us. Liz and Kerryn, ever mindful of posterity, take photographs while we jump and dive and backflip into the void.
But the lake is not all there is to Stockton. Although the practice has waned as we have grown and matured, in years long gone we would spend hours out in the bush. We would cross Quartz Mountain, ford mosquito-infested wetlands, discover stagnant lakes and build forts out of branches, paperbark, stones, and tyres filched from the motocross track that borders the western edge of the lake. Wars would be fought between the children of rival clans; the conflict between the Schneider-Muir Pact and the Edgeworth-Hill-Robbins alliance was particularly fierce around the turn of the century, with the battle lines sometimes splitting families in two, brother against sister. Territories would be claimed, and when the unseasonal rainstorm would keep us confined to our tents, we would draw maps and form battle plans.
Traditionally, caravans were the favoured form of shelter for the elders of the family, with the children relegated to dome tents that clustered around the main camp like the distant suburbs of a city. In past years this has been replaced by a trend of camper vans, half-tent, half-caravan, dilettantes who cannot decide what they are. Not for my gruff, ambitious father. He bought an old bus second-hand from a Muslim girl’s school, painted it, touched it up, ripped the seats out and replaced them with beds and cabinets. A vehicle and a home in one – ingeniously groundbreaking! Just inside the sliding door, under the shade of the passenger seat, a mound of keys and wallets and phones and sunglasses accumulates with every passing day, blocking out a faded sticker detailing safety instructions in curly Arabic. Dad barks at us for going inside it to get changed with damp wetsuits, leaving footprints on the linoleum floor, but never takes any firmer action to stop us.
Deep in the bush is Devil’s Gate, an old stone archway leading into a mine that has long since collapsed. One year we arrived to find that it had been painted white and retouched by the local council, who obviously do not understand the allure of a ruin. Our response was to sling mud all over it.
Graduating from the pre-teen school of child warfare came the era of off-road vehicles, which dominated the middle years of the decade. The Hills had always had a tiny Honda Zed, but when they bought an XR-80, things snowballed. The Gullottis purchased a dirtbike, as did the Robbins, and my father made do with a dune buggy called a Honda Odyssey, which in retrospect was adorably insufficient. Nobody except the fathers had the strength to pull the Odyssey’s ripcord to start it, and so we were confined to the dusty grey area around camp, for if we ventured too far and the engine cut out we’d have a long, embarrassing hike back. We were quite happy with that, driving back and forth, doing doughnuts and kicking up dust, until eventually the Odyssey’s engine troubles overcame it and it finally died (though not before Chris had a chance to plough it at seventy k’s an hour into a tree on an unrelated trip up north, with a crack that sounded like a gunshot). As a replacement, Dad bought a quadbike, which was cherished.
The dirtbikes ushered in a new era of exploration. Like the Iberian sailors of the 15th century, new technologies opened up new vistas of discovery for us. No longer confined to our feet or our rusty pushbikes, we were free to travel as far and as fast as we could, ranging from the distant bush trails and sinkholes beyond Devil’s Gate to the edges of the railroad track on the other side of the lake. A new tradition was formed – whenever we heard or saw a train approaching, we’d drop whatever we were doing, scramble to our motorbikes, fire up the engines and race around the eastern edge (gravel roads, bridges, gullies) to the train tracks, where an ugly yellow locomotive would be hauling thirty carriages laden with coal. We’d ride alongside it for a few minutes, signalling for the driver to honk his horn, before eventually giving up chase as the train entered mining land with an ominous NO TRESPASSING sign. These were happy years, but unfortunately they came to an end when the local branch of the Department of Conservation and Land Management employed a particularly uptight ranger who stuck firmly to the rules about offroad vehicles on CALM land (i.e. they are not allowed). Curiously, this only applied to us, and not to the local hooligans who’d roar up and down the nearby road on four-wheelers every night at 3 AM. We shall forever curse the name of Bev Gardner.
Other locations are scattered round the edges of the map, each one a firm fingerprint in my mind – sights, sounds, smells and memories associated with it. The Zip is an old chalk quarry with a pond in one corner where we used to delight in splashing through the reeds and catching frogs. The pine plantation is an eerily quiet forest Chris and I discovered in ’02, where we would walk around regaling each other with spooky tales of Mothman, the Bloop and the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. The water pipeline is a long, concrete line running straight as an arrow, and down over the hills, which once sprang a violent leak that we happily poured detergent into in order to have a bubble fight. The sandpit is a bare expanse of dirt and dead trees where we used to take our bikes and the quad; now it is the windswept domain of Chris’ four-wheel drive alone, with an old couch in a rusted silo that is perfect for photo ops.
There was once a pine tree on the edge of the cliffs that leaned out at a steep angle, one of those ubiquitous examples of how stubborn the plant kingdom can be. I would climb up it despite the protests of my sister and girlfriend, shaking the branches around and watching pine needles tumble down into the water, confident that it was completely secure. After all, it had been there for as long as I could remember, and if it could hold on for that long it wasn’t going anywhere soon. In 2008 we found it at the bottom of the cliff edge, a dead brown colour, rotting to nothing in the water.
People have gone too, over the years. Our friend Leigh slipped away as gradually as he did in Perth. The Gullottis rarely make an appearance anymore; Tony and his son Brett are the only really committed ones. The Muirs disappeared entirely. There are few permanent newcomers. But the old guard are still faithful, still determined to keep coming with every passing year.
And so that is Stockton. We get away for long weekends whenever we can, but the true beacon of hope is the two weeks every year in January. Two weeks of jumping and barrel rolling biscuits, being flung headfirst into the water as soon as you strike a bad ripple or lean too far to one side. Two weeks of lying in the sunlit hammock reading; I have a tendency to flick through the latest Terry Pratchett I am obligated to receive for Christmas, while Dennis Hill will devour entire fantasy cycles. Two weeks of playing chess on Dad’s old magnetic set he got for five bucks at a pawnbroker, eating lunch with the other hand, Chris inexplicably kicking my ass every game without fail. Two weeks of Liz and Kerryn and Sheryl cooking up a roast dinner for the entire camp, burying their cast-iron cooking pots in the embers of the campfire, and lining up the plastic tables in a row so that we feel as though we’re in a medieval feasting hall. Two weeks of watching Dad set up fireworks by the water’s edge, lighting the fuse with his cigarette and then turning to run, a comical figure with a beer in one hand, his thongs flapping and scraping while the sky blossoms green and red. Two weeks of driving out into the bush to collect logs for firewood, with the kids (yet we are now eighteen, nineteen, twenty) riding on the boat trailer as tradition demands, screeching as Lindsay takes the car right through a puddle and splashes us with mud. Two weeks of standing around camp during the gaps between boat activity, with our wetsuits peeled down to our waists, reading the paper or cooking lunch or discussing the year to come. Two weeks of lying on our backs at night and spotting as many satellites drifting overhead as we can, easy to see in the sky so clear and sharp compared to the light-polluted air above Perth. Two weeks of taking the entire population of the camp on four-wheel drive trips out to the nearby mine, marvelling at the torn-up expanses of yellow and brown earth, at the trucks so large they have staircases up the grille. Two weeks of riding my bike around to the concrete toilet block on the east side of the lake, then emerging to find that Michael and Brett have inflicted some hilarious practical joke on it – covering the seat with detergent, removing the front wheel and taking it back to camp, or (impressively) placing it upside down on the roof of the toilets. Two weeks of reading in our tents by torchlight until well after midnight, sleeping in as late as we please in the morning. Two weeks of bacon and eggs sizzling on the barbecue for breakfast, and Subway or Chinese food from Collie when we can’t be bothered cooking dinner. Two weeks in a place that would seem odious to most, but is heaven to us. Two weeks of perfection.
Went camping over the weekend. Cold and rainy, excessively so, even for autumn. Spent most of time feeding damp wood and wet leaves into a smoky campfire. Tent now drying in sunlight on side gate.