Lake Ballard

Lake Ballard

Writing this back in the hills east of Perth but just reading or thinking the name evokes a huge expanse of white drifting out to a very blue, flat and big  horizon, muddy chocolate at the pan edge and increasingly bleached towards that horizon as the footsteps to the statues decrease with distance equating to an increase in heat and glare.

The morning I travel out to Lake Ballard sunrise has already peeped through  curtains and it is only 5am! Apparently sunrise is the best time to watch the light rise on Antony Gormley’s Insiders on the lake and have already missed that but hope to catch the long shadows and changing salty colour as the sun rises. Out in the lock up at the back of the Menzies Hotel where the car is parked a fellow pub dweller is perched in the cab of his van, smoking and reading a paper , waiting to leave for his day of road grading. A young lad, born in Sandstone…just up the road, only 250kms or so…. and he was here in Menzies when AG  came in to town on one of his trips, in mid summer and  ‘slapped on the back of the head by a bit of two b four’ by the heat…. Menzies may have been a bit of a slap on the head too.

What with breakfasts at the roadhouse, a little gem of a building clad with car number plates from all over the world and metal backed posters,  a meeting with a local Aboriginal elder who gave permission for the project to proceed and an insight into the area’s dreaming story and then the creation of the Insiders it must have been a remarkable journey. And that remarkable journey continues, just by driving into Menzies and having breakfast at the Roadhouse..Chris, who runs the place with generosity and incredible patience, has a rogues gallery of photos of a stream of famous and infamous who have ventured through the place..and then heading out on the corrugations and dust of 51 kilometres to arrive at the lake shore and the 51 insiders who now dwell there.

Lake Ballard is a large, ephemeral ‘sump’ lake  scattered with islands of varying sizes in deposits of salty sand, silt and kopai  (an impure gypsum) situated in the Yilgarn basin underlain by very very old rocks at least 2.5 billion years old. The islands are that of a women’s dreaming, the Seven Sisters the  stars in the sky (the Plaiedes??) who in this telling came across the lake and stopped here to play. The largest island, the one that greets those who walk onto the lake  is the oldest of the sisters and this particular story of the dreaming is that when they came down to play a man chased the youngest one and they hid in seven rock holes at the lake’s edge, coming  up through the lake where they  became the islands there. The Seven Sisters must be very important in this area and I see the story in art in Laverton and Kalgoorlie and hear different versions  though there is a thread that is common to all the stories.

I reach the lake shore with shadows still long and expecting to be there pretty much alone come across a little community of quiet beanied souls, sipping from thermal mugs having seen the moon set and sun rise. A great little camping spot and what a way to start any day. No mud and no wellies needed, it’s amazing what two weeks sun will do, and as I walk out onto the lake and follow the myriad of footprints, some crusting with salt lumping in little crystal domes and others the shape of boots and runners amongst a trail of real footprints, little and big and paw prints skittering in a pattern through the whole, the wind starts to blow and howl! A narrow, edge hugging mountain goat path leads to the summit where a stumpy tree clings to slipping rocks that tumble to scatter on the salt in an inky halo and brave little succulents hold tight in little pockets of earth. From the hill top the pan stretches around in all directions, the statues, tiny standing  matchsticks linked by trails of footsteps swirling across the surface. Without wanting to quote chapter and verse…thanks to RoadHouse Chris and her book on AG..on the whole concept of the Insider, in essence an Insider is a core rather than a skeleton and is to the body what memory is to consciousness. In an attempt to allow them to endure with time they are made of a base element iron…’the earth has iron at its core and these are like the cool and revealed magnetic load cores of the body.’

They are beautiful, elegant and raw weathering steel and iron rusting in the elements, their sex and age evident in form and set in a pattern where no Insider ‘looks’ at another. The furthest is 7km out on the lake and I meet a soft spoken couple who walked those seven kms out on the salt to the last, a little girl reminding the man of  a Tom Roberts painting of a child lost in the bush. Theirs were the only human footprints out this far and they crossed the prints of camel, goats and kangaroos crossing to who knows where.

And yes, there is more…beneath the surface of this expanse of salt are billions, nay trillions and probably whatever the multizillions equates to in numbers are briny shrimp, lying dormant and waiting, and there are very long waits, for some serious water to fall for shrimp eggs to hatch providing a gourmet feast for knowing birds. The birds in question are Banded Stilts, the flamingos of Australia, whose breeding habits were a bit of a mystery until 1995. Cyclone Bobby dropped 380mm of rain in the Goldfields and before the rain had stopped Banded Stilts had arrived from 1000kms away on the west coast and decided this was the place to be with shrimp feeds, shallow warm waters and islands to nest on. 5000 nests were scraped in the rocks and sand, the first eggs appeared within 12 days and within weeks 70,000 birds had set up camp on Lake Ballard. Babies hatched and collected into crèches, parents teaching the babes from very early on to feed on the shrimp…all this a very special event as in the 200 or so years of ‘settlement’ the nesting habits of the Banded stilt had only been recorded 20 times.

As well as birds landing some ‘lady pilots’ involved in a cross Australia flying event, The Powder Puff Derby…I kid you not… crash landed on the lake, in the late60s early 70s perhaps??, when they decided to follow the railway line and followed the Leonora line rather than heading south. They were rescued by a search crew and one of the hapless rail followers was the President of the NSW Flying Association who promptly resigned. A neighbour remembers the PPD which was a big deal at the time.

Back at the Roadhouse for a well earned bacon butty and Menzies is coming to life with a procession of vehicles fueling up. An ancient, rusting jalopy creaks in disgorging a trio of Aboriginals who make an art form out of squeezing a couple of dollars of fuel out of the pump drop by drop while having a long conversation with a gaunt, stubble chinned man I had met the previous night in the bar. Well ‘met’ perhaps not the right word as he had sat at the other side of a table where I munched fish and chips, swaying, clutching a beer bottle surrounded by bags of frozen meals from the previous three or four nights that he had ordered and forgotten to eat. He wanders in , still swaying, to greet Chris shuffling change onto the counter and swaying out again.

“A sheila travelling alone’…yes the next part of this story…says the bloke at the other pump and so comes the invitation to visit a gold mine, back out past Lake Ballard and another hour or so further up the track. Arrive at the mine camp, quiet and deserted, buildings shimmering in the heat while air conditioners buzz away and telephones ring unanswered. As I decide to leave a stocky, akubra wearing fellow strides down from a separate building hand waving and irritable. A tad miffed that Ray, of sheila fame, would offer this invitation to visit while he was heading in the opposite direction, courtesy demands of this perky 73 year old I should be offered at least a cuppa having travelled all this way. Very reluctant to say much and hearing the word geologist doesn’t help, however  some shared experiences and a cuppa later and a  chat with a couple of  geos who have returned to camp Marie Celeste we load up into his truck and head off to discover the old workings and sites of Copperfield. Didn’t feel I could take the camera along as not really sure where we are going so it’s memory pictures rather than digital ones that record a fascinating couple of hours.

Rumour has it Copperfield was named for  Dickens’ David Copperfield in the pack of a prospector in the area. A shrug and rolled eyeballs indicates John thinks perhaps not…the area has a heap of copper! Doh!! In the old townsite, still standing in collapsing metal panels and wild growing gardens, he shows me one house, the back of which is literally an old bus outside of the town confines and built by one of the miners who had married an Aboriginal woman. This in the times…not that far gone… when Aboriginals were excluded from town limits after curfew hours and considered part of the’ flora and fauna’  so although she participated in town life during the day her curfew required they lived outside of settlement limits. John shows me their garden still evident in the green peppercorn trees, clumps of succulents and lumps of quartz outlining now scrubby, red dirt beds. The house, like all those in the area, is collapsing, strewn with tumbleweed , bleached  bones and dust that has blown in over the decades. We visit some old mine workings, an impressive steep sided hole in the ground  bottomed with pea green water and a windmill site, now a pyramid of rusting metal lacking its revolving blades, cattle pens and the willow like pepper trees and I see the first group of chocolate brown, white blaze faced donkeys, fat and comfortable grazing on the rough stubbly pasture. A group of big red kangaroos rest and stand tall and strong under a broad spread acacia and as the 4pm deadline arrives and time for me to head back to Menzies we return to camp, stopping en route to talk with a lean bodied, shy eyed prospector returning to his camp after a day of scraping earth from one of his licences. He drives a big bulldozer towing a Landcruiser and will the following day return to his patch of earth.

Perhaps a foolhardy adventure to embark upon but am a great believer in going with hunches and first impressions and this seemed just an occasion to do that. Big, empty and impenetrable country for those who don’t know the way around and who knows in another time and place could have ended up another lost soul floundering about in a pea green lake, but not so this time. Back at camp and fortified by more tea and a plate of nibblies, John and I part company. He to catch up on the business of the two hours he has spent guiding me around yet another special pocket of the Goldfields and me to return on the corrugations to Menzies, a cold beer and hot shower, a giant plate of steak, salad and chips and a conversation with Rusty and his mate and the treasure map they give me to discover some rubbish dumps on the next part of the trip.

Southern Cross to Guildford

The final day of travelling and rather indulgently, the last stop before heading home and only 30 minutes from Lesmurdie, have a night booked at the Rose and Crown in Guildford, one of WA’s historic pubs and a bed awaiting in the Emerald room, piled high with a plethora of cushions opening onto a balcony and yet another  steep iron staircase which I’m encouraged to use ‘if arriving back late’ to avoid setting off bells and buzzers of the alarmed front entrance. Travelling on the tar…yet more traffic and passing not only road trains but overwidth vehicles carting everything from trucks to bulldozers and half houses moving to goodness knows where. Again a reminder of the impermanency of town sites and camps that blossom around new finds of minerals and no different to the old stories of tiny settlements of hessian and iron that grew with people into brick buildings that within a short period of time vanished to  leave only glittering piles of old bottles and rusty metal and  cemeteries that in very few headstone words tell the story of these settlements.

Stop off at a ‘servo’ and fuel up the vehicle and me with a coffee and goggle at the hot bar stuffed at 7am with hot and deliciously smelling ‘heart attacks waiting to happen’ bacon and egg sarnies, pies and pasties, chips , deepfried crispy things and chiko rolls an Australian institution which contain…according to the labels…meat products and vast amounts of corn and carrots. Exquisite hangover food and no doubt well patronised by the beer and skimpy brigade in the morning. Do resist this time having scoffed a tub of mango slices in peach juice in the very quiet confines of the Club Hotel bedroom.

Am back on the pipeline route which  follows a trail of old abandoned embankments of rotting sleepers peppered with heavy iron nails, museumed steam powered pumping stations and clusters of derelict houses, the vibrant green of pepper trees hanging with bunches of green and reddening berries that smell of pepper when crushed, kurrajong trees and clumps of succulents sprouting flowering spikes that announce, wherever they are found, an endeavour to make life more hospitable by creating a garden in the red dirt. Most of the towns, some tiny and just a pub, shop and sometimes operating fuel pump define their existence to proximity to the pipeline or water source, either the soaks of Hunt’s explorations at Southern Cross, Boodalin and Doodlakine or the water collecting walls and reservoirs built around the ‘rocks’, inselbergs or ‘isolated mountains’ rising from the plains like an island in the sea . Small walls were built around the base of these rocks channelling rainfall through culverts and channels to reservoirs  and dams and provided the areas with their only water supply until CY O’Connor and his pipeline. There are the ‘Rocks’of  Karalee and Moorine, Totgadin, Merredin and Kellerberrin and the towns around them, Moorine Rock boasting a beautiful cream and maroon painted hotel dating back to the 1930s now for sale and a sign stating,’ Beware of Ducks’ and others, such as Merredin, which still thrive having survived because of other activities or being administrative centres.

Wheat fields open out on each side of the road, yellow gold in the morning air, huge flat hectares interrupted only by small islands of eucalypts and suddenly a sign saying ‘Westonia, more than a facade’. How intriguing and a few kilometres along a corrugated, unsealed road a cleared patch of dirt with  four little shop fronts, as someone described them today, ‘a bit like the bathing huts at Brighton’. Along Wolfram street and suddenly there is the town of Westonia,  Regional Tidy Town winner of 2009 and just lovely and very unexpected. The centre median is ablaze with petunias and flowering shrubs and named for Alfred David Weston, a sandalwood cutter and spare time prospector who discovered gold near Boodalin Soak in 1910, started mining and in yet another story often repeated created a goldrush. In 1911 another prospector applied for a mining lease just north of the townsite and named the mine for his aunt Edna May. By 1915 Westonia was THE most prosperous mining town in WA with a population of 2000 and today has a permanent population of 70 and a mining camp population of around 120 with the reopening of the Edna May Mine. An old town photo with clear images of all the original boomtime businesses inspired a creative, enthusiastic and above all dogged shire CEO to apply for funding grants to rebuild the facades of the old businesses on the current main street buildings and a huge success it has been and quite inspirational…and all this in a town and shire that boasts and permanent population of 150 folk….but wait there is more!!! Sandalwood trees have been replanted in a small plantation as a potential cash crop returning some of the original vegetation and with accommodation on hand in the refurbished Edna May Tavern it is surely an example of a community working together for each other and survival as they would have done a hundred years or so ago. As always, the cemetery tells a tale of life and death and ‘the plague’ of 1918, the Spanish flu, or the ‘Spanish Lady’ as it was locally called, took the lives of several Westonia residents.  The streets in Westonia are named for resources, wolfram, gold, kaolin as the streets of Southern Cross are named for constellations and stars..oh and there is a Masonic Lodge Astronomy Centre in SC!!!! The mind boggles and as it was locked up when I wandered past it is still a mystery.

The rabbit proof fence…another Australian icon…began its life just east of Burracoppin and is the world’s longest fence clocking it at a mere 1837km!!!! Starting at this point in 1901 heading south to Esperance and completed in 1903 and then north to Port Hedland, through Jigalong, as in the amazing story The Rabbit Proof Fence, completed in 1907 it was built to keep out the trudge west of rabbits brought in by the early colonialists to provide hunting sport….mmmmm. In its various incarnations, there have been three fences in total which covered 3256 kms in total and have protected the state in some form from wild dogs, kangaroos, feral animals and emus. Talking of emus driving back to the Great Eastern Highway a couple of emus dither at the side of the road fussing in a fluffing of their dowagers feathers. Unlike the African ostrich  that makes definite eye contact and dares you to proceed these Aussie girls flutter like a couple of old girls en route to a tea dance, all Mantivani strings, cucumber sandwiches and moustachioed would be beaus waiting in the wings and then flutter across the road in a flurry of feathers and anxious glances.

So it’s onto Merredin via the signposted pet cemetery.  Being an animal tragic it is impossible to bypass such a place and these little graves are a symbol of how incredibly close the bond is between man and dog in particular. A few tears shed(what a woos!!) and then a delicious BLT at the Post Office Coffee Shop, a wander around the Railway Museum where I stumble into the Fine Arts Group in the old refreshment building (black and white posters of beehived girls and sideboarded chaps drinking pints and sipping petite glasses ) where there is another flurry of activity with the group preparing for a show in Perth his weekend. Part professional artists and part TAFE..their tutor is a very blonde, black clad, bejewelled fellow who must cause yet another flurry in farming Merredin..they meet regularly in this building amongst the paraphernalia of a restored railway station and create some very different art. From here it’s onto the site of the Military Hospital which relocated from Torbruk  ( not Gaza, unless I am a complete history moron and there is a connection)…amazing as that may sound…, at the base of Merredin Rock and while a LONG way from the battlefront, it was relocated here because of the invasion potential of Northern Australia by Japan. The rail junction enabled the transfer of patients and tents, a large operating suite, kitchen and resident dietician, no less, were all in place and 500 patients were cared for. The records talk of kitchen and ablution blocks being prepared in a day!!!! Mud being a problem in a very wet season and the nurses wearing wellies and within eighteen months with the prospect of invasion being over the hospital was again relocated this time to Port Moresby.

After Merredin decide to drive straight through to Guildford..another time to really explore the area and find more places to stay on what would be a shorter journey kilometre wise but with threads that lead onto other threads and so it could continue. Already I have discovered there are more ‘ways’ , if it’s not the Golden Pipeline it’s the York to Goldfields Way and then of course the routes, The Canning Stock Route, Gibb River Road, The Wildflower paths…and so they go on !!. A 4wd Campery type thing would be the way to go as a starter! A reluctant tent dweller but when passing or seeing the caravan haulers trundling up and down the roads and wandering how far off the beaten track they may get, a tent, or even better a swag, may be a great option.

Esconsed in the Emerald Room after a curious book-in with a huge trek around the building only to end up walking into a door 20m from where we started. Daunted by the prospect of schlepping bags and stuff yet another long haul take a short cut through the pub and up a final set of stairs for this trip and unpack in very posh surroundings and not a skimpy in site.

It feels strange being back in the big smoke, or at least close to it. Traffic is dense and impatient, patrons in the pub are banging on about new cars, mortgages and wether European wines still have corks or screw tops.

Welcome home!!

There is more to come. Photos, Lake Ballard…hang in here..and Sheila Travelling Alone 2

Kalgoorlie to Southern Cross

Kalgoorlie comes to life quietly in the morning and when I head out to the old  Kanowna settlement bins are being emptied and the roads are generally quiet but start becoming busier as I guess the shift change out to the mines takes place.

The old town of  Kanowna was a thriving community between 1893 and 1907 when the mine produced one million!! ozs of gold and though nothing is left on the ground to show how big the townsite was, signs indicate where the banks, school, pubs and hotels, workshops and shops were laid out in the grid pattern used by the old goldfields towns . A story that’s been repeated this whole journey…towns that supported literally thousands started as a few ramshackle tents , sprouted hotels, shops, schools and stock exchanges  and then disappeared, often in  matter of a handful of years and as the riches became harder to dig out and a new field found favour the buildings were moved, lock, stock and corrugated iron. In some instances brick pubs were deconstructed and reconstructed brick by brick some distance down the road and then on they moved again.  The old cemeteries, which didn’t move, as always tell the stories in very few headstone words and Kanowna is no different. Three headstones engraved with Japanese characters tell of a Japanese prostitute, Osarno, from a Kalgoorlie brothel who fled to Kanowna to the protection of a Japanese man after a failed relationship with a laundryman Chomatsu Yabu. Yabu was somewhat miffed and  headed to Kanowna where he shot  the two and they are now buried side by side in the red earth of Kanowna cemetery. Must have seemed like a long way from home in the red dirt of the goldfields and the stories as to how they came to be in such a place would be fascinating.

The temperature has been fierce today, already warm at 6ish and galloping to 35 by mid morning boosted along by a  wind rattling the trees and gusting across the road. And the flies, eeeek, an Aussie tradition with a time honoured associated  salute and these the sticky little bush flies small enough to be F1 fast and  overly friendly hovering around all the moist parts on your face….delightful. The fly net, sort of a widow’s veil that hangs handily over any conceivable type of head ware is not just a fashion statement but an insanity protector….did not have one, note always carry one!!!!   Leaving  the Goldfields of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and heading  in to  the Yilgarn District which before being developed as an important goldfield in its own right had a life in agriculture and the mixed uses of the region have no doubt helped it survive.  Now the Yilgarn greenstone belt  is mined for gold, iron ore,  gypsum, mineral sands,  nickel and salt (the pink cooking gourmet salt flakes amongst them), sandalwood is still ‘pulled’ some 150 years on from when the first sandalwood was collected  and driving through the country, wheat grows in enormous paddocks dotted with treed islands as the goldfield country transitions through to wheatbelt.

Water again a huge issue and Charles Hunt, explorer and traveller who opened up the track from York to Hampton Plains discovered a number of soaks, originally Aboriginal waterholes and campsites, one of which is the Koorkoordine Well near Lake Koorkoordine. These soaks, and a ‘line’ of them traverse this area, providing a watersource before the pipeline was completed and considering lake K is one HUGE salt pan whipped up today into a white salty mist by the wind which is stirring willy willy mini cyclones along its length it’s amazing this little well sated the thirsts of bullocks, horses and men at all.

The Club Hotel( and have realised today ‘Club’ is for the playing card the shamrock) sits on one of the corners of main street of Southern Cross  a thriving little community with shops and pubs, golf course and a residential area that spreads back from the main street. Named by a couple of prospectors who believed the evening  compass of the Southern Cross constellation guided them on their nighttime travels it has survived the peaks and troughs throughout by being an administrative centre and serving a population that mines, farms and wood cutters. As a stop on  the Goldfields Railway it is constantly being maintained ( like the Sydney Harbour Bridge it’s a revolving maintenance thing) and updated and camps of blokes of two weeks on and one off occupy a good deal of their off time visiting one of the waterholes in the town. My room is on the first floor…yet another schlep up a huge flight of stairs, the fire escape this time leading to a door demanding it be closed at all time as it is a cat thoroughfare if not. The girls share a bathroom inside the building and the boys on the outside veranda . No 8 is big and spacious, has two beds and a huge array of furniture, enormously high ceilings, at least 12 feet?? and a fireplace that perhaps hasn’t been lit for a while…oh and a telly that MOMI would be proud to own. In these past few days regardless of the nature of the room, there is always a beautifully and intricately folded towel, soap and shampoo arrangement at the end of the bed and The Club is no exception.

 The bar downstairs is big, wooden, horseshoe shaped and reinforced…dancing does happen apparently…and beautifully controlled by Jules, the manager, and two Irish girls, cousins from  Belfast whose first experience of WA was Marvel Loch, just down the road where they incredibly have a relative. They’ve been been working in the bar at the Club for two months and will continue to do so until Christmas when Sydney and New Year beckons. They are on a global mission to find a place to settle and Australia is first on the list followed by Canada and the USA…Belfast in particular is not an option. They know all the customers by name and what their drink is and as the blackboard outside announces ‘Skimpys’…it would appear there is no avoiding them…. after a shower and change into something a little less red and dusted head off down to the bar through a throng gathered around horse racing on the telly..the pub is a TAB too…and around the lads thick at the bar as the girls…not that skimpy as it turns outwearing both tops and bottoms out are ‘flat out like a lizard drinking’ opening cans and bottles. The girls are clad in black, boots, bikini top and little frilled short type things, rather like the frilly knickers tennis players wore in the 70s!!  I wonder if there is a Skimpy Training School..the bar as usual is quite high and these girls ( a duo as it happens, there is usually just one apparently),  a blonde girl…pierced and tattooed… and a brunette who has an accent, French perhaps??…. have to tiptoe and rest their arms on the counter to lean over and hear the order above the juke box, telly and racing which is all competing for space with the fellas . Apparently it’s about bringing in the punters, and having a quick yarn with Irish Rachel as she eats her dinner of curry and I mine there is a new ‘skimpy’ each week, arriving on a Monday and leaving on a Friday and depending how successful they are the pub population waxes or wanes during the week. Considering these blokes live in camps for two weeks before going home for a week it’s pretty wild west terrain with, as one chap tells me who has been doing this for 15 years, keeping the balance between enticing the lads to the bar and full out chaos is a keen balancing act.

Heading around the bar and finding a spot to check out what I need to do re keys etc in the morning a blue clad dusty youngish bloke takes my hand and introduces himself announcing he’s had a shit day and am I a good girl. He must be pissed!!!! and his eyes seem to work independently of each other, crossing with alacrity with one returning equally quickly, keeping a gimlet eye on the blonde skimpy with her mysteriously vanishing tattoo while the other focuses in and out on his, now two hands, gripping mine. Assuring him I am a good girl it’s through the still watching race goers, past the increasingly vocal and would be bar dancers and tucked into bed the ‘doof doof’ beats through the floor.

The pub is silent at 6 this morning and lie in bed listening to the metal roof creak as the day heats up and what sounds like a secret knock tapping gently on the door of room next door. No breakfast here so it’s back down the metal stairs with bags…still no sight of the cats…and off to ‘the servo’ for a bacon sandwich ,coffee and a car fuel before leaving gold country further behind and travelling further through the Yilgarn Shire  motto for which  is ‘Good Country for Hardy People’.