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.