Friday, September 25, 2009

Port Hedland is Ore-some

For almost a month, we haven't driven though any towns at all. We covered 3,000 kilometers without hardly ever seeing a traffic light.

So we were pretty excited when we rolled up to Port Hedland, population 6,000.

“Guys, Port Hedland is so big it even has a suburb," Sara announced.
“No!” said Marilyn, the French girl.
“Oui!" Sara replied. "It's suburb is called South Hedland. I bet this place will have a McDonalds. Anywhere big enough to have a suburb should have a McDonalds.”

We were excited about this not because we love Big Macs, but because McDonalds has free wireless internet. Which, in the land of uber-expensive cybercafes, is the only way we can ever go online.

We pulled into Port Hedland, a mining town in which every building is covered in a thin layer of red dust, and a fair number of the cars have yellow reflective tape attached to their sides so they can be seen through the dust.

The first place we went was the visitors center, where we noted the internet was $6 an hour. “Is there a McDonalds?”

“Goodness, no, not in this town,” the lady at the desk said with a chuckle. “But there is one in South Hedland.”

“So what is there to do in this town?”

“Well, you could watch the trains go by. We have a nice viewing platform where you can take pictures.” She pulls out a piece of paper. “Now, here’s the train schedule.”

Hmmmm. “Anything else?”

“Well, you could go on a tour of the mines. We’re the largest ore mine in western Australia.”

"Wow, that's fascinating. Maybe next time. Thanks anyway.”

Despite the lack of entertainment, the visitors center was piled high with Port Hedland souveniers – it sold postcards of the mining operation, of the port, of the salt flats. It stocked illustrated books about how to avoid roadkill and how to cook in the bush. And it had dozens of t-shirts that read, “Port Hedland is Ore-some!”

We drove to South Hedland and spent the next several hours at McDonalds using wireless. After visiting the grocery store for produce, and after buying a bag of ice for a whopping $6.50, we figured we’d run to LiquorLand for a box of wine before heading out of town.

We pulled into the store at 6:20 p.m. The shelves of ‘cask wine’ were covered up, and a big sign in front read, “Cask wine sold only between 2 pm and 6 pm.”

“Why is that?” we asked the freckle-faced guy behind the counter.
He shrugged. “Thought it was pretty weird when I moved here too.”
“So this rule applies only to your store?”
“No, it’s the law in this town.”
“But you’re the only liquor store in town.”
“Then yeah, I guess we’re the only ones that need it.”
“Do a lot of people buy cask wine between 2 and 6 in the afternoon?”
“Oh yeah, tons. Cheapest wine there is.”
“And do a lot of people come looking for it after 6?”
“Nah, the locals all know when to get it. Only the out-of-towners don’t know, and we don’t get a lot of them.”
“So what good does it do?”
He shrugged again. “Like I said, I thought it was pretty weird when I moved here too.”

We decided to branch into a new topic of conversation.

“You like living here?”
He shrugged again. “It’s better than prison.”
“Do you get to get out much? On your days off?”
“Nah, there’s no where to go, really.”
We put two $5 bottles of Chardonnay on the counter. “We’ll take these.” Sara handed him a debit card.
“You want a flyby?” the freckled guy asked.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“That’s okay.” He rang us up. “How do you like South Hedland?”
I smiled. “It’s oresome.”

We camped that night in a little 24-hour stopping area some 50 km to the east, where a big sign said that the toilet facilities had been removed due to continuous vandalism. A small river ran nearby, which invited a torrent of mosquitos, and a herd of cows sat riverside. Their cow dung was scattered across the ground, and in the morning we could hear the occasional moo, over the sound of the millions of birds.

“Those birds! So loud!," Marilyn said through an angry French accent. "I want to take rock and” – Marilyn indicated a throwing motion – “put it on the bird.”

She was drinking tea out of a sandy cup. Scattered around us were dishes that hadn’t been washed in 4 days, since we left Exmouth. We are saving our water for drinking, so we wait for the remnants of dinner to dry, then wipe them off the plate or pot with a dishrag before using again.

Tracey, the British girl who is quite new to camping, keeps marveling at all the idiosyncracies of our lives.

“Dressed for bed!” she said on one of the first few nights, as she was going through her routine of pulling on jeans, two pairs of socks, a jumper and gloves before hitting the sack. “I’m getting dressed for bed!”

Now that its hotter, and we’re starting to stink more, she’s marveling over our unkemptness.

“I feel downright nasty,” she said in the morning. “I’m sweating everyday, covered in dirt and sunblock and red dust, and I haven’t had a shower in so long.”

“We shower soon before,” Marilyn countered. “In Exmouth.”
“That was 4 days ago,” said Tracey.
“Yeah, so not that long ago,” I said. There was a brief moment of silence, then we all started laughing.

Later that morning, as we were disassembling the bed and morphing it into shelving units again, Tracey noted our bedspread, looked at me, and said, “you use sanitary napkins as a pillow?”

Until she said it, I had thought that was a normal and unremarkable choice. After all, a package of pads are quite soft and compact; they make the perfect pillow, really. They're far better than a rolled-up jacket, which comes unraveled as you toss and turn. And they take up far less space than a real pillow; a valuable trait, since space is a precious commodity in the car.

But the way she asked that question – the hint of incredulousness in her voice – clued me in that perhaps, laying your head on a package of sanitary pads was a creative thing to do.
“Uh, yes, its quite soft,” I said.
“Why, that’s a great idea!” she said.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Western Australia with our new 4WD Nissan Patrol

We're in Australia right now, and we've bought a red 4WD Nissan Patrol -- the big brother of the Nissan Pathfinder -- loaded it up with 2 spare tires, tons of extra water, dried foods, a spare 60 liter canister of extra petrol, camping gear, and a French girl and a British girl -- and are driving around western Australia.

A few anecdotes:

Buying the 4x4:
Because we’re buying the car from backpackers, we go the old-fashioned route and start looking at flyers in hostels. In addition to showcasing their vehicles – year, mileage, recent repairs -- the "car for sale" advertisements also noted they have a “roo bar.” Apparently, its de rigeur to keep a kangaroo bar attached to the front of your car to prevent damage when those lovely little creatures dash in front of your car on the highway.

Preparations for travel:
Consisted of lots of details that you don’t think of before you set off on such a trip. We’d need a can opener, wine bottle opener, and a cutting board. We’d need plastic plates, bowls, silverware, tin coffee mugs, pots, pans. We’d need a gas stove, gas canister, Tupperware of many sizes, and a table. We need a cooler. We need cardboard boxes – or preferably, empty milk crates – to store this all in. We need dish sponges, dish soap, a metal-wire scrubber.

Then, of course, you can’t venture hundreds of miles from civilization without spare petrol canisters, spare water canisters, at least 2 spare tires (including a spare wheel rim), a car jack, jumper cables, and a basic tool set – at least a wrench. Back at home, we have half a dozen old wrenches lying around in garages and tool sheds, but here they’re $10 at the hardware store.
Ditto with building the bed – we needed metal screws, yet another thing that everyone at home has, but here in a new country, we need to get it from the store. We also need a hacksaw.

First day:
I put food – gallons of canola oil, at least 15 kilos of dry beans, 2 kilo of oats, 4 of flour, 5 of rice, and a boxload of fruits and veggies – into cardboard boxes across the hardwood floor of my friend's living room in Perth. Some of the boxes are so heavy I can’t lift them, and spread out over the floor they take up what seems to be the entire center of the room. I wonder how we’ll ever fit this into the car.

I wander outside. Sara has strapped the 2nd spare tire to the roof rack, and it seems to take up half the space. She’s standing on the roof attaching camp chairs, a shower jug, and a soft-shell second cooler to the remaining roof space. “Shove the food in under the bed,” she says, referring to a narrow cube of space in the back. I go back inside and try to lift the heavy boxes. No can do. I drag a box across the wood floor. An edge of a plastic bag holding 3 kilos of bulk chickpeas snags on something, and the beans spill out over the floor.

Hmmm, I think, looking at a sea of thin, easy-to-tear plastic bags filled with beans and lentils. This could be a problem. I suppose I could line a cardboard box with a trash bag, and any bags that rip would spill into the trash bag. Then I could throw them all into a soup. But we don't have a plastic trash bag.

I wander back outside. Sara is still standing on the roof tucking things under the cargo net. She’s got a plastic net hook in her mouth. “Hey, I think we should get some ratchets,” she says, “so if we have to break hard for a kangaroo, all our stuff won’t go flying over the highway.”

Another $30, I think to myself. These trip costs are adding up fast.

The first week:
Our LPG (natural gas) tank is leaking. We know because we drive 140 kilometers with a full tank, and then stop to refuel; we fill 45 liters. There’s no way 140 km burns 45 liters. No way. So we pull into Geraldton at 3:30 pm and call a mechanic who specializes in LPG installations and repairs. By 4:40 he’s figured out what we need, a 1.5 hour service that can be done in the morning.

“Know any place around here to sleep?” Sara asked. “A camping ground, someplace free. We can’t afford the $25 a night camp sites around here.”

“Ah, well, you could drive 10 km out of the city and look for something,” the guy said. “Lots of brush in those parts. Or if you want, you could sleep here after we lock up.”


“Sure, you wouldn’t be the first ones to do it. We lock the gates at 5, so once you’re in, you’re in. But you can spend the night here, sleep in the office if you want, use our kitchenette. You’ll get to meet the dogs, too. They’re our guard dogs, attack anyone who tries to get thru the gate. but don’t worry, they’re real friendly.” large Doberman and Labrador. “Don’t let em put you off. They bark like mad. Bark at every little sound. They bark at their own bark.””

Sara came back to us with the plan. “What do you think, guys?”

“This place would be warmer than a tent,” the British girl said.
“And it has a kitchenette, with a real stove,” said the French girl.
“And a proper toilet,” said the British girl.
“And running water. We can wash our dishes. Get the sand out. They’ve needed to be scrubbed for two days,” I said.
The vote was unanimous.