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41. Australian Road Trip: Fishing on Mars - Western Australia is out of this world.
In another world...
If it were possible to go fishing on Mars, it would, I’m sure, look much like this. The rocks and low cliffs behind the beach are blood red in colour and worn and tortured in shape. The unrelenting sun bears down out of a sky so blue and so crisp that it almost crackles; and the ocean laps the shore like liquid mercury, slowly oozing its way up to the high tide mark as the short Martian day draws to an end. Farther up the beach, twisted rock towers form an alien cityscape against the porcelain sky. The towers could be a kilometre away or they could be five - distances on Mars are distorted by the purity of the light. Far in the distance, along a beach unscarred by human imprint, red cliffs drop into the quicksilver sea.
This is my fantasy vision of Barn Hill; yet this soft damp sand, spongy beneath my feet, is very real indeed. On this journey to the outer limits of Australia, Barn Hill is one of the unknown, “perfect” places that I have been seeking. I spend most of the first day learning how to fish again.
Our camp neighbour, a sixty-something Vietnam vet and country music lover named Ray, has taught me how to cast a line, tie an undoable knot and set up a sliding sinker. In a couple of hours he has imparted only a tiny portion of his fishing knowledge to me, but I’m hooked. He leaves me alone on the Martian beach and for an unknown number of hours I am transported into a world that knows no future and no past. A world where even the present is difficult to determine, as it would be if I were, in fact, fishing on Mars.
Reading: Australia and the Vietnam War
View of Barn Hill in the middle of nowhere
We first learned of the existence of Barn Hill from Shorty, two months earlier. Shorty, you may remember, was the little Grey Nomad bloke we met in Red Rock, New South Wales. He had written down the name ‘Barn Hill’ as a place to visit in Western Australia, on a scrap of paper which I placed in our Rough Guide for future reference, then forgot about until yesterday. On most road maps, Barn Hill does not appear, and indeed, driving down the featureless highway out of Broome, it is easy to miss. The turn-off is marked by a white-painted tractor tyre, and the nine kilometre road that leads from the highway to the coast is nothing more than a desert track. A dead straight, nine-k slash of washboard and thick red sand, with three cattle gates to open and close along its length.
"And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended...
... And at night the wond'rous glory of the everlasting stars"
From Clancy of the Overflow by Banjo Patterson.
Barn Hill is a caravan park situated in a corner of a vast, working cattle station. It is rustic, isolated and unique. The nearest town is Broome, 134 kilometres to the north. Port Hedland is over 400kms to the south. To the east – The Great Sandy Desert (Pop. 0); to the West – Indian Ocean (Pop. Fish). Beyond this tiny campsite and the station buildings there is nothing. Standing on the low clifftop above the beach at night, I am amazed that I can actually see the faint glow of distant Broome on the horizon. Other than that almost imperceptible hint of human life, there is no other sign of the hand of man. The caravan park has a couple of feeble lights shining from posts and the scattered campsites and vans barely emit a flicker. But looking up I see the southern sky as I’ve never seen it before. The Southern Cross and its Pointers hang above like a chandelier; the Milky Way is draped across the heavens like a shawl studded with sparkling diamonds, and occasional meteors briefly dash across the sky before fizzling out into the blackness. It is what the sky might look like from Mars. The wind blows strangely and gently from the land - a hot, dry desert sigh; it sounds like the sea sucking on the sand – “shhhh-shhhh”. The sea itself is almost soundless, except for the hushed crush of tiny waves brought in on the night tide.
Just sit and think...
The campground at Barn Hill is beautifully minimalist with just enough simple facilities to ward off the surrounding wilderness. Most pitches are situated under the shade of small bushy trees that are also home to numerous species of birds. I love one of the two amenity blocks - it has no roof, allowing you to shower under the stars or ‘sit and think’ in the sun, while a resident herd of Brahmin cows graze casually around the campground. There is no shop here, you have to bring most supplies with you, but you can buy Bait and Ice from the caretaker and, curiously, there is a well manicured bowling green. The beach is near by, just a short stroll along a dust red trail and a clamber down a steep red clay hill, made easier by a rope handrail.
Despite its isolation, there are a couple of dozen people staying at Barn Hill; people like us who have been lucky enough to have heard of it, or to have randomly spotted the white tyre as they rolled down the featureless highway. As I fish, and as the lucky few walk slowly by against the heavy gravity of the sand, we all must feel like we are in some other place, on some other planet - a red planet. Maybe we are on Mars, and I am definitely fishing.
Notes on The Red Earth
Pindan is a name given to the red-soil country of the south-western Kimberley region of Western Australia. The word “pindan” was first mentioned in print in August 1884 in the Perth Inquirer. The term comes from a local language and applies both to the soil and to the vegetation associated with it.
Pindan country is geographically restricted to Dampierland, including the Dampier Peninsula and its hinterland, the area around Broome and Roebuck Bay, and a coastal strip extending south-westwards from Roebuck Bay adjacent to Eighty Mile Beach. It is semi-arid with a tropical monsoonal climate of hot, wet summers and mild, dry winters. The flat, or gently undulating, land lacks prominent landmarks and is easy to get lost in. The soils are usually red and sandy with a high clay content, low in nutrients, and susceptible both to drought and to waterlogging when wet.