After two weeks in the interior we have now been in Kalbarri for a few days and will stay for the week. Kalbarri is a small town situated within a national park north of Geraldton. It’s a typical holiday destination and thus very well equipped without being in any way Benidormed. No high rises here but nevertheless many holiday chalets and three campsites. We were lucky enough to arrive in time for the annual Cray and Canoe festival.
Before raving about the beauty of Kalbarri, though, I must review the last two weeks as they had their own fascinations, challenges and delights.
Having spent a few days in Dongara, south of Geraldton, we headed inland to small towns and settlements (they don’t call them villages here but that’s what they are). First came Yalgoo then Sandstone, Mount Magnet and Meekatharra. We had a station stay and eventually spent a total of ten days in Morawa where I had my first outback teaching stint.
Yalgoo and Sandstone consist of a few streets each. Gold was first found here in 1894; the wide streets are testimony to the boom. Traditionally streets were built wide so that whole camel trains had enough space to turn around on them in one go. These places are inhabited by Aboriginals, miners and gold prospectors. Time is slow there. You will normally find one hotel, a cemetery and a dusty town museum displaying farming and gold mining equipment as well as stories of their early settlement and notable inhabitants – social history. The thing that struck me was that everyone asked us whether we were prospecting. I had previously thought that this was a thing of the past but, no, it’s very much alive. On each of these campsites we met people who travelled from over East each year for three months at a time – some with ‘the wife’ and some without – to stand in the singeing sun all day with their metal detectors and spades. Some had found $200,000 worth of gold and all had found thousands. Most use the gold they find to fund their hobby. Apparently WA is not as strictly controlled as the Eastern states which is why it’s worth the trouble. Even so, rules were tightened up here too but this should change again next year when many leases run out which probably won’t be renewed. This will allow prospectors to go on land without checks. One couple said it was like heroin – totally addictive. They talked about their hearts pumping when they hear the metal detector respond. Each metal has a different sound apparently and gold sings!
London Bridge near Sandstone
Most campsites in these small places are run by the council to provide accommodation for miners and tourists alike. On our second day the Polish woman who runs the campsite in Sandstone invited us and all other campers to a birthday party in the hotel. We slopped in there wearing our campers’ clothes and were a little bit taken aback to see that some others had dolled themselves up! Ooops! I suppose it was a birthday bash but you wouldn’t think that glamour could be achieved in this feisty environment. The people were friendly and everyone has a story to tell. We spoke for quite some time with a German woman, Ursula, who escaped East Berlin in 1957 as a 12 year old – before the Wall was built. She has never been back since and does not feel comfortable speaking German. When she arrived in Australia as a child she would be called a German pig if others heard her talk so she avoided speaking German outside her home. She told us that they had left their home in Berlin in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Their parents had planned this escape but not told the girls as they were afraid one of them might spill the beans. Taking suitcases would have aroused suspicion so that was not an option. They used to have beautiful furniture but left with nothing. For the 12 year old her, it was just an adventure but it was hard for her mother and Ursula always missed her grandparents who had been a big part of her life. She is curious about the Berlin of today, yet remains hesitant about returning to see for herself. Interestingly she is anti-immigrant now, as at least when she fled they “were white.” The paradox is glaring! I didn’t comment harshly but I did make the point that people in need are people in need. Odd, how such an attitude can develop in someone with a personal history of being a refugee.
Have I already written how great it is to have our bikes with us? It’s so much fun riding around towns and exploring! In Sandstone we cycled the heritage trail, which took us to ‘London Bridge’, a typical erosion of 350-million year old limestone that shapes a bridge like structure. Roddy didn’t feel like cycling the whole route so we split at this point and I did the circle whilst he turned back. It felt strange at first being all alone in the outback but it was fascinating. The trail led me to abandoned gold mining equipment, which was interesting but I kept looking for snakey hiding holes. Unfortunately / fortunately it is a bit too cold now for snakes to come out – they are sleeping under rocks until spring which starts in October. It did strike me that I couldn’t even hear birdsong during my cycle…, no kangaroos, nothing apart from flies! It was beautiful though, such a vast land of fascinating emptiness. Shame it’s not yet wildflower season. That will happen here during July and August – when the outback is ablaze with colour. I’m sure we will see it on our travels.
One of the highlights was the station stay. A station is a farm but, as most other things Australian, it’s a huge farm. The one we stayed on was called Nalbarra station. It’s off the Great Northern Highway between Mount Magnet and Paynes Find, just south of Kirkalocka, another station (sounds Scandinavian, Lis?)
This is the link to the station http://www.nalbarra.com.au – it’s 321,000 acres big and runs circa 9000 sheep but you wouldn’t know it. Apart from a wee lamb that they kept near them – it was an orphan and its siblings had been taken off by a wedge tail eagle – and a few goats, a dog and chickens or chooks, the only evidence of animals I saw initially was a kangaroo’s dismembered tail on a block in a little tin hut. In there were various cutting tools, chopping boards and the air was as heavy as arterial blood itself – sweet and disgusting. We stayed in our motorhome but the station rents out their old shearers’ rooms to tourists and, during shearing time the workers are, no doubt, living there too, the little tin hut being their camp kitchen prep area, I suppose. This all sounds horrible but it was actually beautiful. In the bush you can’t expect a sparkly new anything and if you do, you are stupid. It has its own rewards: far away from a town, the night sky in the Southern hemisphere is sparkly, the Milky Way a clear ribbon weaving its path across the sky and the smell of the bush is quite intoxicating. There was only one other couple on site and we each kept a respectful distance from one another so as not to destroy the magic.
The next morning we were woken up by tens of thousands of red-tailed black cockatoos screeching and diving through the air! An amazing sight! We packed up and set off for Morawa where I had managed to organise six days of teaching at Morawa District High School via a Shenton College ‘gonnegtion’. Morawa is a small town, much larger than Sandstone but small nevertheless. There is an IGA (supermarket), one hotel, the council run campsite, a medical centre, which was to be a useful resource, the school which is Kindy to Y12 and the Agricultural College which caters for years 10-12, as well as a number of old-fashioned shops like the Drapers and a couple of petrol stations. Towns here fritter away strangely; one minute you are on a street and the next minute the streets trickles out into red dirt and suddenly you are in the bush.
We arrived late afternoon, set up and managed to suss out where the school was before it was dark because when it gets dark it gets dark!
My first dip into teaching in a rural school immersed me straight into modern Aboriginal culture. The school is very small. In Y7 and 8 there were only 14 kids per class and each class represented the year group! Y7 are taught by one main teacher for all subjects, much like in a primary school, with specialist teachers in art, PE and music. I was used to substitute mainly the Y7 and Y8 teachers and taught English, Maths and Science as well as Y11-12 English and Maths on the last day. I was a bit worried about senior Maths but I managed the 24-hour clock well enough. Attendance is the biggest issue addressed by the school and the kids were quite hard to motivate. However, I found the experience fascinating. I spoke a fair amount with an Aboriginal woman who was in some classes as an EA (classroom assistant). She was a real asset, as she knew the kids inside out and obviously the parents too. The kids referred to her as their Auntie but that does not mean that she is necessarily their relative; it’s a term used to refer to older women in the community. I had helped the Y7s to prepare a speech in English which was reluctantly tackled by two of the Aboriginal boys but I managed to get them to talk about their bush life with the help of the Auntie who told me that these boys knew everything there was to know about the bush.
So the boys talked about hunting lizards and kangaroos, looking for witchetty grubs as a source of food and water and about fishing with their bare hands. One had first only said that he liked fishing and when I asked him if he used a rod he looked at me strangely and said he used his hands, waving them about. They go to the bush for bimba, which is not some hot real-life barbie doll but sweet tree sap they eat as lolly (sweetie). I asked the Auntie if she could walk into the bush now and survive on her own; she said that, of course, she could and the boys could too. Even though the boys were showing no interest in academic education she was adamant that they were smart and had real skills. This was clear to me too and I came to realise that the culture, the skills and values, which each social set clearly possesses clash, and are not fully acknowledged and appreciated by the other group and that this is possibly what creates the huge and possibly insurmountable gap in Australia as far as White and Aboriginal cultures go.
Teaching a variety of subjects was fun, although I am not sure how successful my teaching was, but I covered fractions, the 24-hour clock and using it to interpret bus timetables, the digestive system and the endocrine system. I started off the unit on the circulatory system, taught some Banjo Paterson bush poetry, helped them to prep for their speeches and did a demonstration in home economics on how to bake apple muffins, which was probably my most successful lesson! This happened without any prior warning whatsoever: I was handed an apron, a wee fetching hat and a recipe and told to demonstrate. I loved it! So all in all I am sure I learned more than they did but that’s fine with me.
The staff were great. There are only about 20 odd teaching staff plus the same number of clerical staff, cleaners, EAs and the gardener. Everyone works together and I felt no sense of hierarchy at all but, of course, I was only there for a short time. The six days taught me that doing relief is fine – I was ‘on’ every period plus one supervision duty, either recess or part of lunch, or I was on duty twice and then had one period off. The days were full on, therefore, and presented me with a multitude of challenges, but at the end of each I could walk out of the door and had nothing more to do. The periods are short, only 40 minutes and on Friday afternoon the whole school decamps onto the oval for games – sounds like a lot of people but it’s not! So now I am curious to find out how this experience will compare to my next teaching stint but I’ll have to wait and see; I have nothing lined up at the moment. At least I know now that I can do this and that it’s a lot of fun too. I made new friends and met people I would normally not get in contact with that easily. Working in a town immediately makes you feel part of the furniture and you get to know the country so much better than when just touring. It was fun meeting kids outside of school, recognising me. One Aboriginal girl had called me the big bad N-word on the first day when I tried to get her to participate in PE as in, “I don’t do PE, N*****!” I was so taken aback as it came out of the blue that I laughed it off, saying that no one had ever called me that! I almost died laughing actually. She spotted me one afternoon and shouted from across the street that I was her favourite teacher ‘cause I had a sense of humour. You gotta roll with the punches.
The unfortunate event alluded to earlier happened when we were setting up in Morawa and Roddy attempted to lift down a camping chair from the attic as we call the bit above the drivers’ cabin – we use it for storage. The chair didn’t come down easily so, instead of checking why, he pulled hard. This caused the round, 4.3kg heavy tabletop which had lain underneath the chair to dislodge and fall from circa 2m height down on top of his right foot causing an instant, massive swelling on and underneath his foot as well as causing two breaks in the skin. It was sore, I can tell you. He took the pain out on the chair and boxed it furiously for quite some time, causing two more skin wounds on the back of his hand. I put on some frozen peas, which brought down the swelling a bit but he was in agony for a long time, feeling quite sick. I advised him to go to the local doctor’s the next morning in order to check for a break and potential development of a blood clot due to the huge amount of swelling but, as any woman knows, a man always knows best and he chose not to go until days later when he felt a pain running all the way from his heel to his groin. There is a medical centre in Morawa, which was lucky as this service cannot be taken for granted in all towns. The Doc there advised him to go to Geraldton to have a scan in order to rule out, guess what, BLOOD CLOTS and FRACTURES. I offered to cancel school for the next day but, again, Roddy insisted he would drive the 200km drive himself, which he did in the end. No clots, no fracture but at least now we know. There the Doc prescribed antibiotics as an inflammation had set in and he was given a nerve pain medication which sounds quite full on when you read the leaflet but it does help a little bit. So, that’s where we are now. He still has pains up his leg mainly at night and is taking a second lot of antibiotics.
Summa summarum we have learned that, as dwellers in a motorhome, we must always ensure that our manoeuvres are deliberate and executed with thought and care as things become dislodged whilst driving and many cupboards are overhead. An injury can be difficult to deal with if you are far away from medical services. I too have had a coffee jar fall on my head and trapped my fingers in hatches – you live and learn.
Now we are in Kalbarri and I am just about to go fishing but that’s for another blog.