(...or "Back Out into the Outback, with Some Backing Out")
10.06.2017 - 13.06.2017 21 °C
Soundtrack: Selections from The Cure, INXS, Matthew Good and Depeche Mode. All done by me by my campfire. Horribly.
The fire is choking through its last moments, the stark desert chill raining down and draining what little warmth the land is holding on to. A full moon comforts me, peaceful and nurturing. The arrival of night is absolute.
This is Australia. This is what I came here for.
This morning found me already at a cross-roads, a decision with repercussions no matter which way I chose. Directly ahead of me as I leave the Cocklebiddy Roadhouse, just on the opposite side of the Eyre Highway, the canonical road that will lead me through Arubiddy Station to Rawlina and the start of the Connie Sue highway. This route however is notorious for deteriorating into a labyrinth of unmarked and unmaintained station tracks, the likes of which can greatly slow the navigation of unprepared travellers. To the right of me, approximately 11Kms to the east lies the entrance to the track known as the Haig Track that follows a more direct course north to the rail line, allowing the use of the Trans Access Road along the rail track west back to Rawlina. By all accounts it seems the Haig route is the preferred way; even the woman at the roadhouse stresses this when I inquire about Arubiddy; "yeah, but why go that way when the Haig Track is just up the way?" she remarks with certainty.
By the time I'm facing the permanent choice in front of me, I'm still undecided. I do something I'm not accustomed to - I try to toss the thought from my head, evict all psychological council arguing the pros and cons of each possibility. I let instinct take the wheel for the briefest of moments...and it turns me east to the Haig Track.
A short time later I am pulling over and reversing my way to the Haig Track entrance - it isn't marked and flies by in a single blink. The gps program is insisting this is the right road, so I place my fate in the hands of hope and begin to follow the track.
It begins off like any other small, unmarked, you-probably-shouldn't-be-here Australian Outback road - as a winding dirt pair of tyre tracks leading to nowhere. Things very quickly go downhill from here. The track is riddled with rocky outcrops, razor-sharps stones, deep wash-aways and ruts where it was obvious people had forged through during wetter conditions.
What I foolishly believed at first to be something of a 'shorter' route with regards to time instead robs me of about four bone-jarring and stress-soaked hours of my life. I'm fairly certain it is not supposed to take that long, but I suppose I'm out of practice and take it decidedly easy and slow. Safe for sure - if not ridiculously drawn-out.
The track provides no mercy - every time it feels as though perhaps conditions may be improving, the road twists and collapsed into a rocky mess with little or no warning. At points, it is like driving on the moon but without a cool moon buggy...and at times, no oxygen either.
The Nullarbor is strutting all around me, what few trees there are happen to be either in the very far distance or really no more than 3 feet tall. But the alien landscape is at the same time serene and fulfilling. Often, I find myself driving along side herds (packs? troupes? bunches? committees?) of kangaroos hopping along as if racing me. Despite repeated requests, none stop for a good photo opportunity.
The horrific conditions of the track are exuberated by the countless station gates I have to stop for, get out, open, drive through, get back out, and close. I count somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000. The first couple are an experience, the following 17,998 are just a pain in the ass. The only positive takeaway is many of them provide nearby dead wood to collect as I am stopped.
A deep sense of relief grips me when I reach the railway, but the sun has already crested and started towards the western edge of the Nullarbor horizon. This doesn't bother me as much since I don't really have a destination in mind. I would have preferred to be farther by now, but that is just because I'm excited to get on to the actual Connie Sue.
Soundtrack: Mike Birbiglia Comedy stand-up; I am eased by humour right now.
The Trans Access Road that runs parallel to the railway on the south side is a dirt freeway and I blast through the 60 or so kilometres. The road is boring a featureless save for a pack of emus I spot in the distance - my first to date. My brisk pace - and theirs - deter any photo opportunities.
By the time I reach the tiny and seemingly deserted community of Rawlina every shrub, building and fence are casting increasingly tall shadows. I will need to consider soon when to start searching for somewhere to set up for the evening.
I get momentarily off-track in Rawlina trying to find the entrance to the Connie Sue but thankfully there are only so many roads to choose from here. I'll either end up on the Connie eventually or in a mine pit.
I finally find my goal - a road that doesn't really improve my situation any. Much the same conditions as the Haig Track - except narrower.
In truth, the road does get easier to navigate, fairly straight though with some lengths of sand and a couple of wash-outs, sometimes I recognize immediately the diversion track to follow, other times I have to reverse out of an impassible section and take a closer look. But the landscape is breathtaking.
There are no destinations of note within any reasonable distance so once the sun reaches a certain angle, the first opportunity to stop will do. On the cusp on twilight I find a clearing that someone has marked with a tire by the road; within the clearing are the remnants of past campfires. I have found my home for this evening.
I could not have asked for a better place to camp tonight. The sunset was a fiery glow that burned the western horizon and faded out just in time for the almost equally bright full-moon to rise from the east, lighting my dinner table.
The evening was spent enjoying dinner, a campfire, and strumming the guitar and singing - to no one (the best audience, really). I am at peace, in total and complete serenity, alone, with only an empty road beside me and the deafening silence around me.
This is what I came for. This is Australia.
The morning blows by as though I'm standing still...which I am. By the time I have eaten, washed, and packed up, it is past 9am. The sun is already racing me across the sky. The days here in this part of Australia at this time of year are discouragingly short, though typically dry, cool, and sunny.
The track to no surprise has not improved at all overnight. I travel about 10kms from my camp to find an access road leading to a place called Premier Downs. Yesterday, I had the idea that this might be a good stop-over, it being an apparently abandoned homestead, and in a moment of potentially careless spontaneity I decide to travel the access road and check out what I thought may have been my camp last night.
The narrow and overgrown track eventually leads to a station that consists of a windmill, a flattened foundation that once may have been a farmhouse, and dozens of what must be at this point feral (maybe?) cows, calves and bulls.
I take some pictures and then following what I thought was the track leading out I find I'm instead in the middle of what was effectively an open paddock, in the centre of the herd.
All of my bovine friends around me are staring, somehow making me self-conscious like I just walked into the wrong bathroom. Which is a weird feeling...because they are cows. I crawl precariously through the grazing area and head out on what I initially take to be the exit track, to then discover...it is totally not the exit track - this one leads east to God knows where. According to my gps the road is several metres to the west, where after carefully driving though grass and rocks, I find absolutely nothing. Only a single trail that *seems* to lead in the direction back towards the Connie Sue.
This can't be right...can it? I hunt around looking for a more obvious road, worn tyre tracks, anything...with the cows still staring at me in wonder and probably judgement. According to the gps I'm in the right spot. So...what now?
I see two obvious choices (I immediately discard the idea of following the unknown road east to my probably doom) - I can go back the way I came through the herd and hope that one of the bulls doesn't decide he doesn't appreciate me being here anymore and charge the truck - or just press on in the direction the gps suggests, following the single trail. I choose the latter after which follows about 30 very tense minutes of driving through an open field with no road - over hidden rocks and through sharp shrubs and bushes, just hoping to find my way back to the road before something *really* bad happens.
With forced calm, I slowly navigate my way back to the road and proceed to swear off any further spontaneous ideas like that one again (this resolution will no doubt not survive the day). I also give thanks to the stars - out loud over and over again - that I did not hold out the night before and try to find a camp at Premier Downs.
Soundtrack: My Revenge on the World by Ayria
The hours melt away faster than the distance, the Connie Sue Highway a challenging offering of wash-aways and rock patches. After a couple of hours, the track merges with an access road to one of the remote Aboriginal communities in the area, and at this point I'm back on a dirt freeway for about 100Kms, managing to pick up some speed and time though again I do not have any particular destination or mileage count to target.
The Connie Sue veers back north away from the access road at the junction with a water tank, and after a brief lunch I continue to find the road once again narrows and becomes a decaying Outback track, but perceptually it seems to be in better shape than the previous rocky stretch. It leads through long stretches of soft yellow and red sand; there is still the occasional obstacle and diversion track and some back-tracking but nothing too surprising. I take one detour off the road (see how well I learn?) along a much rougher track to see a place called the Neal Breakaways, an area of mountainous outcrops that feature a dazzling display of kaleidoscopic rocks, crags, and cliffs. I read somewhere that the traditional land owners consider this area sacred and may attempt to prohibit access in the future - I'm not even sure I should even be here now. Just in case I don't linger, I observe the area with quiet appreciation and head back out onto the Connie.
The day is aging but it looks like at this point I have a very attainable goal, a place called the Neal Junction which is supposed to have sort of an official bush camp set up with wide sites and a drop toilet (no digging holes for me tonight!). I reach the junction which is where the Connie Sue Highway crosses with another track called the Ann Beadell Highway which runs 800Kms to the east and another 500Kms to the west.
Both these roads - as well as the Gunbarrel and Gary Highways - were built by Len Beadell and his crew in the 1960s. The northern section from Warburton to Neal Junction was built in August to September of 1962, the southern section completed in September to October of the same year. The Connie Sue Highway was named after Len's daughter, the Ann Beadell Highway after his wife. Having driven much of the Connie Sue at this point, I'm not sure how much of a compliment this was.
At the junction, there is a sign that states "Camping: 200m West". I pull onto the Ann Beadell Highway for the shortest of short stints (can I say I've driven it now as well?) I find the campground and pull in...to find people. A fair number of them.
I get a few curious glances as I drive in; I open the window and greet everyone as I crawl by. This, of course, narrows down my nationality immediately to a choice of two.
I find a spot where I'm not encroaching on someone else and then proceed to get out and go around and introduce myself to a few of the folk. It is little time before I am invited to their fire for the evening.
The entire crowd was one group, fifteen travellers in perhaps six or seven vehicles. They had just come off the eastern section of the Ann Beadell two days before - right before the route was closed for annual military arms testing (!) and were recouping before heading north up the Connie Sue. By all accounts, the section of the Ann Beadell they had travelled was not much different than what I had found on the Connie Sue. They point out that one of them is towing a trailer and it would be in my best interest to pull out before them in the morning.
The evening is spent around the large campfire chatting and exchanging cultural irregularities. They make several crude Kiwi-and-sheep jokes, I apologize for Canada's part in contributing to Boxing Day Sales. As it would turn out they are travelling pretty much the same route as me between here and Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, but likely a touch slower due to the trailer. This is somewhat reassuring, knowing these hardened, intrepid Outback campers will be very likely no more than a day behind me. As we talked about our route the subject of the Gary Highway comes up, since we are both intending on taking it. "The Gary, it isn't too well travelled," one of them remarked. I had this impression because there was not much information about it that I had been able to find during my trip research. This makes knowing these folks should be following behind me a greater comfort.
As usual, the conversation turns to why I'm doing this alone, and I explain my reasons - both the logistical, and the I suppose 'spiritual', and they seem to get it. They are generous with the advice - though much of it I was already aware of, but I continue to nod my head and welcome each tidbit with gratitude. I fear I may have come across a bit eager to win their approval with how much I knew and how prepared I was, somehow trying to prove how I was part of their club or something equally pathetic. I will need to check this attitude going forward.
In the morning as they advised I pull out ahead of them, all of us agreeing we'll probably run into each other again. I stop to sign the visitor's book at the junction, and then proceed to tackle the next part of the Connie Sue Highway.
Soundtrack: Jen Kirkman stand-up comedy. I suppose these don't make much of a 'soundtrack', do they?
The road is pretty good, at first. I take time to stop and take plenty of pictures of the vibrant red sand of the road meeting up with the pure blue sky in the distance. Like clockwork however the road deteriorates into a dog's breakfast, massive wash-aways and gullies, overgrown in many places (scraping the hell out of the sides of my truck), and long stretches of heavily corrugated red-black sand. I've reached the point where none of this is disappointing anymore - it will take me as long as it does to carry through to the end of this road, and I'm coming to enjoy every second of it, painful or not.
I take a single detour to see a place called Point Lillian, which is yet another massive rocky outcrop, this one a deep copper red pitted with small holes and caves. It is only a 4km road off the main track, but it takes me about 10 minutes of rough driving each way in and out.
As I approach the Connie Sue on the way back out I see a vehicle careen by. Apparently, my friends from Neal Junction have made good time catching up. Or, more likely, I tarried. I pull back on the road to find I have joined the centre of their Grey Nomad convoy as they are both ahead of me as well as behind. A couple stop to let me by, but they were going about as fast as I was so it really didn't matter. We all caught up at one clearing where I stopped to eat, a bit self-conscious that I was, at this point, being a bit of a cling-on without meaning to. So, I finished eating quickly and said my goodbyes (again) so that they didn't think I was trying to tag along uninvited. They claim they are heading straight through to Warburton (a change in their plans apparently), but I'm hoping to stop up the track at a place called Waterfall Gorge for the night...so this means they'll now be ahead of me. But as I'm pulling away I see one of the vehicles heading back down the road. Listening in on the UHF radio I hear that they may have run into some trouble with the trailer on the track some way back. I hope everything is ok. But this will slow them down and I doubt they'll make Warburton tonight.
More twisted road, now very reminiscent of the Gunbarrel. Huge sections where the track is simply not there any more, countless diversion tracks around problem areas - with the occasional regroup and rewind on my part - and particularly bad corrugations.
I reach the turn off to Waterfall Gorge early in the afternoon, which is a good thing because I had planned on doing some hand-wash laundry. But the traditional land owners have closed the area, with a large drum on which was spray-painted "No access, no camping, no photographs." I think they conveyed their point well enough.
I carry on further, as there are still a few points of interest that might provide good camping. But in the end, there were none -- nothing but more road.
I keep pressing through, knowing that even if I wanted to, getting all the way to Warburton before the roadhouse closes for the evening would be fairly much impossible.
I find a pull-off on the side of the track about 70 kilometres from Warburton - the Connie Sue Highway all but done. It is a nice area that has obviously been used for bush-camping before, but the sun is starting to set at this point and taking with it what sunlight and heat it provided. I still do my laundry, but it isn't going to dry tonight.
I'm not quite in the moment as I should be, sitting beside my campfire for the evening. Perhaps it took only a single night to grow accustom to other people. The only sounds are the wind through the trees and bushes, and the fire wood cracking down to coals. Perhaps I may have over-estimated my ability to keep my own company for long periods of time. I'm almost forward to morning at this point. Maybe it's because the moon hasn't crested yet, and I was counting on the accompaniment.
I just turned off the UHF radio. The convoy never made it through, for whatever reason. If fact I might not hear or see them again. And the wind is picking up, so maybe I shouldn’t leave my drawers hanging from the clothesline overnight...just in case.
Tomorrow I'll complete the Connie Sue Highway and move on through Warburton and onto my old nemesis the Gunbarrel Highway, and then the Gary Highway. A road "not well travelled" apparently. I reserve any hesitation; tonight, despite the unsettled mood I am still at peace and proud of the fact that even if the entire trip were to end now that I have accomplished something truly amazing.
Starting tomorrow, I'll see if I can top it.