42. West Coast of Australia: 80 Mile Beach to Pardoo
Leaving Barn Hill
On the edge of a tropical sea
On our third night in Barn Hill a cool wind snaps across the desert, replacing the hot breath that has wafted over us for as long as we can remember. It isn’t exactly cold, but it does herald the first sign of season change in a land where seasons barely change at all. In the morning we pack up leisurely and head down the red-dirt track that leads back to the Great Northern Highway. The washboard is rough, but if I drive fast enough we can hardly feel the shudder. Back on the highway, I pause for a moment to make sure we are heading in the right direction - out here, nine kilometres in from the coast, north and south look the same.
A few dozen klicks down the highway we discover that there is a turn off to another caravan park on the coast. Port Smith is 24kms down a hard packed gravel road and after the pleasures of Barn Hill I just have to make the detour to check it out. After five or six kilometres the hard gravel gives way to soft sand-drifts which cause us to swerve and sway precariously. I am secretly wishing we didn’t come down here. Eventually we reach Port Smith and immediately see that it lacks the charm of Barn Hill. There is a large caravan park, with no guests and the beach and lagoon are further along the road. We decide to give it a miss and get back to the highway. But first we must fill up our tank. The 18km Barn Hill detour plus this 48km round trip means that we will tap into our fuel reserves before we reach the next Roadhouse, a hellishly named place called Sandfire, a further 130 kilometres south. We can make it and we do have our spare fuel tank but I like to know I have lots of fuel, just in case. Remarkably there is a petrol pump here and an old lady emerges from the poorly stocked campground shop to operate it for us. It ain’t cheap but there you go - we are at the end of a dirt road at the edge of one of the world’s largest deserts - what can we expect? A fuel discount?
We chuck Winnie back along the dusty track to the highway at breakneck speeds and don’t breath easy until we reach the slash of blacktop that disappears into infinity in either direction. The landscape becomes extraordinarliy stark now - dead flat, hardly any vegetation, blurry mirages all around us. It is hot. This is like driving across the surface of the Devil’s anvil, if such a place existed. Half an hour later a ridge dissolves out of the distance and we eventually find ourselves at Sandfire Roadhouse. We don’t really need to, but I fill up again. Another 25kms down the road and we see the sign to Wallal Downs, yet another cattle station with a campground. This one is on Eighty Mile Beach which we have been driving parallel too for the last forty miles. It's at least 10kms away to the west, and hidden from our view. The Great Northern Highway, the so called coast road, doesn’t actually hug the shore as one would like, with ocean views to temper the ferocity of the desert. The reason is that it would soon be buried under drifting waves of sand if it ran too close to the long, uninhabited strand.
Eighty Mile Beach
The dirt road out to the coast is hard packed and wide, even so we leave a cloud of dust swirling in our wake. At Wallal Downs there are several other vehicles lined up in front of us checking in, and the site feels almost as busy as the Broome campground. After we check-in and park we walk down to explore the beach. It is a vast flat plain of sand stretching as far as the eye can see in three directions. The tide is out so the ocean is so far away that it may as well not exist. We walk down toward the tideline and see that the sand does have a film of seawater over it but the actual Indian Ocean - the sea - the place where you might swim or even paddle is over a kilometre further out. It wouldn’t make much difference if the tide was high. The sign at the top of the beach trail declares:
"The Eighty Mile Beach area is open tropical waters.
There is not a safe patrolled swimming area on this isolated beach.
The Management do not advise swimming.
Swim at your own risk."
To reinforce the warning, the sign is illustrated with a picture of a shark and a jellyfish.
So, No Swimming. Fine. What we do discover though are shells. There are shells everywhere - nautilus, conch, and cowry - all shapes, sizes and colours. We find some large specimens, mostly broken, and some that were once very large, also shattered. We end up spending over two hours scouring a short section of the massive beach and as the sun sets spectacularly over the sandflats we head back to camp with a sack full of great shells.
Winny meets a road train
That night the cool desert wind blows once again, making sleep an easy task after so many months spent tossing and turning through hot, humid nights. Morning, and we move on. There is nothing much here for us, even fishing is out of the question with the tide being out most of the day. A four wheel drive would take us along the beach to Cape Kedauren, 40 miles south, where we would, if we could get there, find more accessible ocean waters.
Back on the Highway and the unchanging desert scrub becomes our monotonous view once again, for the next 90kms, until we pull into the red dirt forecourt of sun battered Pardoo Roadhouse.
Take it from me, if you are planning on doing a road trip similar to ours, where you drive your own vehicle around the vast wilderness that is the Australian Outback, then it might pay to join the Campervan & Motorhome Club of Australia.
Not only does this respected organisation offer the sort of incentives, tips and advice that you would expect, it also provides a pretty good insurance policy that we found a godsend in our time of Automotive distress. This includes free towing (up to a certain amount.) This feature alone ended up saving us huge dollars as a 180km piggyback on a flat-bed truck from Pardoo to Port Hedland is NOT CHEAP!
A Liminal Experience
The first words that leave my lips when it happens aren’t really words. It’s kind of like “uh-oh”, except it sounds like I am choking. Sheila looks at me with fear written all over her face and asks “What is it Mick, are you choking?” I can only gulp in reply. We had pulled out of the Pardoo Roadhouse 10 minutes earlier, with a full tank of petrol and only 150kms to drive to Port Hedland, the biggest town on this coast. I sensed a subtle shift in the motion of the truck. A slight wobble, like a strong gust of wind buffeting our flank, then I hear - no, I feel - a snap. Not a loud definite crack but more a release of something, like the elastic going on the waist band of your speedos as you dive into a packed public pool. Then the engine revs loudly and ineffectually and changing gear is pointless as we coast along the ruler straight, pancake flat, desert highway. Like a floundering freighter we are dead in the water. We roll to a stop on the gravel verge and look at each other knowlingly. We are stuffed, and we both know it. I roll a shaky fag and stepped out on to the baking, windswept highway. The road tapers to a point in either direction and the silence is disturbed only by the hush of the wind blowing across the low scrub. I look under the truck and see nothing out of the ordinary. Sheila worked the gears while I study the linkage beneath. I might as well be studying the gyro of a particle accelerator on a space shuttle, such is the value of my mechanical knowledge.
“I think it’s the clutch, or maybe it’s the gear box, or something…” I say with total uncertainty. Breaking down so emphatically on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert is about as bad as it can get. We both know that. So what do we do now?
There is a glint of light on the horizon and heaven sends a big tipper truck down the road towards us. It stops, and with an off-hand “No worries mate,” the driver hitches up a tow rope and turns us around on the wide empty highway – a Winnebago being u-turned and towed by a tip-truck is a sight to see. Fifteen minutes later we are dragged, kicking and screaming and at the same time, extremely relieved, onto the dusty forecourt of the Pardoo Roadhouse. The girl behind the counter is sad for us and the old cowboy who runs the place is as sympathetic and helpful as an old cowboy can be. But they can't help us.
Heaven sends yet another angel in the form of a diesel mechanic who just happens to be working on a faulty generator out the back of the Roadhouse and after a tense hour waiting for him to finish his job, he comes over and has a look underneath our vehicle. “It’s not your gear box mate,” he says, “it’s your axle that’s broken.” Is that bad I wonder? Is it worse that a broken clutch or gearbox? Maybe not in the long term but for now we are going nowhere. Pardoo is our new home.
There’s a public phone booth at the Roadhouse from where I phone Pilbara Towing in Port Hedland. The quote to come and get us today, a Saturday, stings like a hornet. “Your best bet is to wait it out in Pardoo until Monday” says the friendly voice over the phone, “There’s nothing opened in Hedland until then anyway”. It makes sense to me, so at about three that afternoon the manager tows us onto a grassy pitch in the caravan park behind the Roadhouse. We plug in and think ourselves lucky that we are at least in a pocket of civilisation rather than 50 or 60 clicks further down that lonely desert highway.
I'm not kidding, on a road trip of this magnitude, you must be prepared to get your hands dirty
If you fancy doing it yourself, this may be of help
Road to nowhere
Film tour de force set in the Western Australian wilderness.
Read the book, watch the film. Doris Pilkington's real-life account of the epic outback journeys made by three young Aboriginal girls, victims of the "Stolen Generation".
Just in case you are not as lucky as us and have a 'Pardoo" to hand, these handy guides may be helpful
A weekend in Pardoo
So what is a roadhouse? To the mobile traveller, it is a place to stop, fill-up the tank, buy an ice cream or a bottle of water, and drive away from. For the weary traveller at day’s end, it is a convenient place to pull over for the night before moving on at the break of dawn. It is not a place to be static in for any length of time. Roadhouses are dotted along Australia’s remote highways, tiny oases of refuge in the vast wasteland. They appear on maps and so could be confused as being towns – they aren’t. They have names that are romantic, historic, welcoming or ominous - The Barkly Homestead, The Burke and Wills, Renner Springs, Three Ways, Timber Creek, Turkey Creek, Sandfire and of course, the limbo that for us is Pardoo.
Sitting forlornly under the shade of our awning I watch for hours as vehicles pull in, dust swirling behind. They come and go throughout the day. Never in great numbers, there just isn’t the traffic volume on the Great Northern Highway. Sometimes road trains just keep on going, their multiple trailers lit up by side lights as they roll relentlessly north or south. Others pull in for diesel in a cloud of dust, with air brakes sucking and squealing against the gravel. As the sun goes down it burns under our awning shade, then turns gold, silhouetting the spare, ghostly gums that mark the boundary of the roadhouse against the acacia, mulga and spinifex of the surrounding desert.
In the early evening three or four caravans pull into the campground. We don’t try to get to know the people. It’s pointless. We spend those evenings in the cursed Winnebago, as much to stay warm in the fresh desert night as to hide our misfortune and our unfortunate choice of holiday destination from the more astute travellers who never breakdown in their Landcruisers, Hiluxes or Pajeros. A sharp wind blows in from the vast desert interior of Australia, a reminder of the approaching winter.
In the bright, optimistic morning, the wind still blows cool but the sun beats down with unrelenting intensity. We are either hot, or cold, or both at once. There is no easy weather at Pardoo.
On Sunday afternoon, to relieve the boredom, I decide to ride my bicycle somewhere. There is nowhere easy to ride to but across the highway from the roadhouse there is a turn-off to a gravel road that goes 14kms out to Cape Kedauron at the southern end of Eighty Mile Beach. I cycle to the edge of the highway and look north then south. The road vanishes to a pinpoint in either direction. The red gravel road to the Cape beckons so I set off along it. It’s a wide, well maintained road but the washboard surface is rough on a bike. Fortunately, I find I can cycle along the smooth, hard packed verge. With the Easterly tailwind I peddle easily along, ducking occasionally to avoid a face swipe from the bordering acacia bushes. Tiny goanna-like lizards appear in front of me as I go, scuttling along at high speed like miniature clockwork dinosaurs, until they suddenly dart at right angles into the spinifex. At one point I stop to drink from my water bottle and my attention is drawn to a loud rustling in the bush beside me. A large red kangaroo appears then bounds out of view. I call to it but it either it doesn’t understand English or it is deaf, and it’s gone.
I ride on toward the west. The sun bears down on me but the stiff breeze at my back keeps me cool. The road undulates, along barely noticeable gradients, seemingly forever, in a dead straight line. Ahead, in the distance I see a glimmer of reflected light and a faint cloud of dust. A 4x4 approaches from the coast and rumbles past me. I wave and the air-conditioned occupants stare in wonder at the funny looking guy in a straw hat on an old bicycle, in the middle of bloody nowhere.
I pick out a point at the top of a crest, far in the distance and decide to continue to there, hoping to perhaps catch a glimpse of the sea. I reach my goal and see the road tapering to yet another distant point - enough is enough. I’ve ridden over 7kms I reckon, and my arse is getting sore, my water is half gone and I’m bored with the scenery. If it was cloudy with no sun to differentiate east from west, and I were to perhaps fall off my bike and be slightly disoriented I would find it difficult to know which way to head in – the landscape is identical in either direction and only the lowering sun in the west gives an indication of direction. It is a scary thought that one could get lost so easily. Heading back to Pardoo, I find the going tough. The tailwind is now a headwind and the downhill bits aren’t really downhill at all. I can see how one could easily perish in the desert. There’s a fearsome quality to my surroundings. Totally devoid of human life; hot, dusty, and bristling with dragon flies and lizards.
Things to read and watch while broken down in the middle of nowhere
Tim Winton's novel of love and adventure is set on the rugged Western Australian coast with passages set in Pardoo, Cape Kedauron, Broome and the Kimberleys - a must read for anyone with an adventurous spirit and some time on their hands.
I labour back to the highway, check for non-existent oncoming traffic and cross the hot blacktop to the roadhouse entrance, marked by a stack of truck tyres. I spend the remainder of the afternoon and evening reading. My book of choice is the fabulous Tim Winton Novel, Dirt Music. It is a tale of a woman, the bored wife of a Western Australian Lobster fisherman who falls for a sad and damaged musician who is also a lobster poacher. He is forced to go on the run, north from Geraldton where the book is initially set. On his picaresque journey through the great western outback he comes to Pardoo and walks the 14kms to Cape Kedauron where he is befriended by a pair of Grey Nomads, an old couple knocking on death’s door who are on their final, terminal journey to Broome*. Reading a book about a place as wild as this, while you are actually there is an inexplicably satisfying experience, it gets me through the night and well into the next morning while we wait anxiously for the tow truck to arrive from Port Hedland.
(*Don't worry, I haven't given any plot twists away)
The truck from Pilbara Towing arrives on Monday afternoon, the driver is a cheerful, rough and ready old WA bloke who is wearing the tightest pair of blue work shorts Sheila has ever seen. He expertly winches the Winnebago onto the flat bed, we pile into the cab beside him and set off south, out of Pardoo, destination Port Hedland. We finally leave limbo with a great big useless dud of a truck to deal with, and I ask myself "where are are we going now? To a heaven or a hell?" Only time will tell.