45. Australian Road Trip - Port Hedland to Exmouth - Dust in the Blue Desert
This is the West
Hot, Hot and Damned Hot.
Leaving Port Hedland: We skirt the salt mountains at the edge of town and fly past the peripheral grasslands of the airport. We follow the line of razorwire-topped chain link fence that marks the perimeter of Wedgefield industrial estate; we curve around the edge of the South Hedland conurbation with its water starved trees and red brick bungalows. We pass the “Thank You for Visiting Port Hedland” sign and a green highway sign that informs us that the next town is Roebourne, 199kms away. We are once again on the road, alone in the wild, wild west.
Halfway to Roebourne we stop at the Whim Creek Roadhouse. This is a rambling old establishment that includes a two story, colonial-style, tin pub. The area around here is pock-marked with exploratory mining camps so it is no surprise to see several company Hiluxes and numerous hard-hatted workers hanging around in the shade, out of the midday sun. We grab a cold drink and head off into the emptiness once more.
Roebourne, 100kms further south is a really old town, by West Australian standards at least. There are several 19th century stone buildings and a prison which I suppose must be one of the more remote lock-ups in the world. We stop at the BP servo for a top-up. They have a sign in the window that says
“Long Range Weather Forecast:
Hot, Hot and Damned Hot.
Last Rain: ………………
Last Snow: Last Ice Age
Point Sampson faces east, hence the apparent phenomenon of the sun rising over the sea on the west coast
When west is east...
There is a turn-off at Roebourne that takes us out to the coast. Beyond the little port of Wickham is the holiday resort of Point Sampson. This is where we were planning to spend a night or two, three weeks ago - we broke down at Pardoo instead – how fate plays tricks on you. The landscape here is flat salt marsh in between low mesa-topped hills with glimpses of the blue sea offered at the crest of every subtle gradient. Point Sampson is a clean, modern little holiday town with some old established houses along the picturesque seafront; there's some beaches, rocky headlands and a couple of campgrounds. We are lucky to secure a pitch for the night as the campground is almost full. I ask myself – where the hell do they all come from, considering we hardly ever see anybody during our endless hours on the road?
The Rough Guide recommends the restaurant at this Caravan Park and after all we’ve been through, the last thing we want to do on our first night back on the road is cook in Winny’s tiny kitchen. Let’s treat ourselves! The seafood is OK I suppose; I won’t remember it fondly in years to come but it is nevertheless a meal out. We eat, then have a couple of cold ones in the bar upstairs, before retiring early. I think we are mentally exhausted after our first day back at ‘sea’. It was a stressful journey from Hedland to here. Every creak, groan, squeal, squeak and click that the truck makes has me clenching my buttocks like a vise in anticipation of the thing breaking down again – such is the stress level. Now I’m knackered and so is Sheila, and tomorrow we plan to drive over 600kms to reach the next viable town.
In Point Sampson the sun rises over the sea, despite us being on the west coast. The town is on the eastern side of a little peninsula and looks back across a huge bay with no land in site, giving the illusion that we are on the east coast. It is a bit disconcerting because it also means that it is dawm and we have to get up and hit the bloody road. Once, we might have chosen to stay here for a few days - it’s an OK place, though it's not worth us staying any longer now. We mentally need to get many miles away from Port Hedland before we can relax.
We are out of there by 8am and are soon barrelling across the salt flats toward the highway, later stopping at Karratha to top-up the tank. Karratha, a few dozen kilometres down the highway is a modern town, built and expanded between the 60s and now. It possesses an air of suburbia despite being miles from anywhere. In the distance we can sea the salt mountains of Dampier, another huge Iron Ore port (operated by Rio Tinto I believe) spookily reminiscent of Port Hedland. I turn away.
We stop for bacon sarnies at the Fortesque River Roadhouse, a dusty outpost on the banks of a dry river that had been in flood only a month ago. We fill up before leaving, of course.
Winny’s engine has a comforting drone to it. It is a sound that hasn’t really changed for the entire journey - so far. It is the most reliable thing about this old truck, the one thing I do have confidence in. On these long, open highways - like grey rivers that flow across the golden spinifex plains - Winny is a faultless performer. I steer with one hand on the wheel and one foot resting on the dash. My right hand holds my ‘rolled-while-steering-with-my-knees’ Champion Ruby roll-up, and my elbow is slouched out the window where my arm is being microwaved by the western sun. The road, the road! It is perhaps for me the most important section of road I have yet driven. I don’t know why - why now. After all the wilderness, the cyclone, the floods, the lonely and rugged expanse of the Kimberleys, the Savannah Way, God bless it; nothing compares to this moment. Out of the flat golden plains there occasionally rises red hills, flat-topped and golden haired. We grind past them sometimes an hour after we first see them on the horizon. Then we arrive at Nanaturra Roadhouse. The most expensive petrol in Australia is probably sold right here. We stop and eat a hamburger anyway. Here is where the road to Karijini National Park is picked up. This is one of the ‘must see’ west coast attractions and we have to miss it because the road there is long, with corrugations and washboard, so I am told. Here also is the road to Onslow, an old seaside settlement some 80kms to the west, which is nowhere. We now have about 300kms to go to reach Exmouth, that's about six more hours at the wheel. It's a big drive.
The blue desert ocean
A Trail of Dust at the Edge of the Blue Desert
We are now on the Great North West Coastal Highway but 100kms further on from the Nanaturra Roadhouse, we turn right onto an insignificant road that heads west to our next destination - Exmouth. There are emus running wild in the scrub beside this road. There is no traffic of course, only us and the emus. There is some contour to the land here, even a few broad sweeping views across small valleys of scrub, nothing really, but then we come to the crest of a hill we didn’t even know we were on. The vista causes me to stop and photograph it. We are looking across an immense expanse that seems to taper down to the sea. Beyond the spinifex and low grey-green scrub there is a deep blue sea, the Indian Ocean in all its glory. But it can’t be. I look at the map to confirm my mental geography. That is not the sea; that is the desert.
Then, as if on cue, a thin streak of dust appears in the blue area that we mistook for ocean. It slowly moves across the vista, its tail dissipating into the air like the dust of a comet. Through the binoculars I can see that it is a far off vehicle racing along a dirt road, leaving a trail of dust like the wake and spray of a jet boat. But the scale of distance is unfathomable, that vehicle could be 20kms away or it could be five; distance, time, space, is halted here at the edge of the blue desert.