A Man's Best Friend


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Published: March 12th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

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Here's where the shoes come off!
What’s your favourite animal?

Not a question I’ve been asked in quite a while.

Back as a kid it seemed of endless fascination to any number of girls. They’d sidle up next to you completely uninvited, conjure a mechanical origami contraption and promise to tell your fortune. This they did by requesting your preferences over colour, numbers, or best of all, animals, desperate to discover any clues to the inner workings of your mind. Should you accidentally answer appropriately they’d promptly unfold their paper oracle to reveal something called a love-heart, or else claim you’d marry them and have eighteen children. While you were busy trying to work out what the hell was going on they’d move in for a sneaky peck on the cheek and promptly run away.

All-in-all a most harrowing experience.

The girls had totally failed to grasp that my deepest wishes revolved entirely around how to stay up as late as possible, how to wangle out of my parents the next expensive toy, and more immediately how to avoid being beaten up by Nicky Van Hagen, the strongest boy in the year, later that same day. This last point was the only one
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Don't Panic... its only a skink!
I ever satisfactorily solved: the answer, it turned out, was to make friends with him.

A little lesson there for all of us somewhere, I think.

Unfortunately for me, by the time I developed any appreciation at all for the charms of the opposite sex, they’d miraculously lost any interest in my future whatsoever, unless it involved pissing off. I’d never learnt origami, and there seemed no equivalent one-liner that would allow me to kiss them on the cheek, let alone anywhere else, without risking an almighty slap in the face.

In any case, I’d always thought it had been a pretty dumb sort of question.

Favourite for what?

To eat? To ride on? To have as a tattoo?

Much more telling would be to ask for your least favourite animal, a peek through the curtains to your deepest fears.

I’m guessing your answers would include a good number of rats, snakes, spiders and sharks, all of which are present in hefty numbers here in Oz. The weird thing is that each one of them will also attract a number of die-hard fans, who idolise them or fancy keeping them as pets. Admittedly
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Deb in the Paperbarks
they probably also paint their fingernails black and listen to more than a healthy amount of Marilyn Manson, but then for all I know so does Nicky Van Hagen; a second lesson is that friendships based primarily on self-preservation rarely last the test of time.

There’s one animal I’m prepared to bet was on nobody’s list, but which is undoubtedly the least popular wee beastie of all time, and Debbie and I have just stumbled upon it’s global epicentre. It’s right up there with smallpox as most people’s favourite companion, though sadly we’re nowhere near eradicating this little critter. Yet it attains such universal loathing despite a relatively innocuous nature.

They don’t eat you, they won’t even bite you. They don’t sting or smell or scare, and are as unlikely to trample you underfoot as they are to crap on you from a great height.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me present to you the humble housefly.

I’m not hearing much applause.

Let’s face it, not even Marilyn Manson likes a housefly.

Though just why it is we hate them so is curiously difficult to explain.

Their annoying buzziness doesn’t help, coupled with their
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Hammersley Gorge : A Living Geology Lesson
near total inability to find their way back out of an open window. But I suspect it’s their distinctive culinary habits which seal their fate.

They taste through their feet, apparently.

Nothing wrong with that in itself, though I’m not sure I’d be fond of lacing up my trainers of a morning. Probably do wonders for shares in Odor Eaters, though.

It’s what they choose to taste that we don’t like.

They’re particularly fond of a nice slice of poo.

This is just as well for us, as without them we’d be wading knee-deep in dog-shit by now, so we should be thankful for them really.

No, what really gets our goat is their varied tastes, more precisely their habit of flying directly from said poo to alight on whatever it is we might fancy for dinner, trampling all over it with their tiny brown-stained feet.

It’s difficult to go downhill from there when you think about it, but the fly manages an exemplary coup-de-grace by choosing thereafter to vomit up its stomach contents, before greedily slurping back most, but never quite all, of this delicious food-poo-vomit cocktail. Not something ever likely to
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They call this one the Spider Walk!
go down well at my mother’s dinner table, no matter how many times I give it a go.

Western Australia, and particularly the Pilbara, where we find ourselves this week, is ideal fly territory. It never gets really cold here, rains only once in a blue-moon and there’s no shortage of poo to go round. Fly heaven, basically, and therefore hell for everyone else.

The Australian fly is slightly different from its European counterpart. It’s smaller, even more intensely buzzy, and has a great fondness for sweat, which is plentiful round these parts. It’s also more than happy to miss out the middle man and fly directly from poo into any bodily orifice it can find: ears, eyes, nose, mouth, penis (or is that a fish in the Amazon?) and even arse, which is a bit coals-to-Newcastle, surely.

Round here it’s present in the gazillions and makes every exit from the car a waking nightmare of buzzing and swatting. It really is Grand Fly Central, not the best place to be when you’re the only people for 100 miles around and sweating by the bucket-load, transforming yourselves into veritable fly-magnets.

There is no escape.

Despite
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Deb surveys Knox gorge.
clear-blue skies you are constantly surrounded by your own personal cloud of whizzing electrons, and as with their atomic counterparts, they faithfully obey the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and are impossible to pin down, appearing at all times to be everywhere and yet nowhere, rendering your swatting efforts completely useless. That’s bloody quantum mechanics for you.

The only solution is surrender. Experience tells you that flaying around only encourages the little buggers, and the only way forward is to completely ignore them and let them get on with whatever they wish. Should you manage a Zen-like state for a full minute or so, both you and the flies will discover they don’t want to get inside of you after-all, and are just as happy to hitch a ride on your back and sup up all that lovely sweat.

Flies, it turns out, are no different from Nicky Van Hagen. They may at first appear to be the enemy, but really they just wanna be friends.

Thus Debbie and I spent a week in the Pilbara accompanied wherever we went by our entourage of insect chums, looking at first glance to have been spattered with a thousand tiny ink
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A young dragonfly pumps up his wings after crawling from the waters. Handrail Pool
dots. Every so often the 40 degree heat would prove too much and our trance-like state would be broken in a spectacular hissy-fit of flailing and wailing, but for the most part, we bore our burden well.

What I hadn’t previously realised is that this is an entirely modern phenomenon. Before the white-man arrived and populated the whole place with bovine crapping-machines , flies were no more common here than anywhere else. Just one more thing for the aboriginals to thank us for, I suppose.

The Pilbara is, for the most part, and endless plain covered almost entirely with clumps of Spinifex grass, which dot the landscape like giant green meringues, interspersed every so often by the odd stunted spindly tree. The two main draws here are a couple of small but exquisite national parks, parked one on each side of the Hammersley Ranges, which rise up to split the plain.

The first is Karijini, which broke new records for remoteness when we managed to drive the full 200 kilometres in without seeing a speck of evidence that any other human life-form had existed now or anytime in the past, excepting the road, which itself seemed so
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Dale's Gorge : Time for a dip!
super-smooth and shiny-new that it surely must have been laid down by aliens overnight.

The feeling of solitude was reinforced on arrival by the almost total absence of other visitors, despite this being a nationally famous beauty spot. Here the Hammersley River cuts through the ancient rock to form a series of small but perfectly formed gorges, through which we now happily clambered in awe.

Karijini feels older than the earth, older even than time itself. It’s a living, breathing geology lesson, the processes of erosion, sedimentation, stratification and upheaval carved out before you in unlikely hues of orange, pink and red. The whole place has the feel of a long-abandoned theme park which never quite got off the ground, and you half expect to stumble round a bend and come across Olde London Towne, Pirates of the Caribbean or a Haunted House. The illusion is reinforced as you scramble past nameplates for The Amphitheatre or The Spider Walk, before finishing with a refreshing dip at Kermit’s pool, relieved to find no sign of Miss Piggy or Fozzy Bear, who must be having the day off. The Muppet theme reveals, despite the ancient vistas, just how recently the
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Honest and Faithful Right Up to the End.
area was opened up. Had it been discovered a couple of hundred years earlier I imagine it would have prevented a good number of powerful arguments at The Royal Geographical Society, and Darwin and his pals might never have felt the need to swan off to the Galapagos and study finches’ beaks.

A little way beyond Karijini lies the Pilbara’s second gem, Millstream-Chichester National Park, a little frequented oasis despite its idyllic reputation. The reason for this became immediately apparent on our departure, as the hundred or so kilometres between the two are absolutely bone-shaking, and involve passing through the little town of Wittenoom, population 6, which somehow scrapes a living on the back of tourism. This is understandably a struggle when your only claim to fame is a government recommendation that the whole place be permanently evacuated due to sky-high asbestos levels from the now defunct mine. The official line is that it’s safe to drive through as long as you keep the windows closed, air-con set to recirculate and ignore the locals’ pleas to stop for a cuppa, waving you over with their six-fingered hands.

We arrived at the Homestead at Millstream with our lungs still
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Lazing among the palms
apparently intact to find nobody at all around, not even the Ranger. This was something of a disappointment as there’d been vague promises of ice-cream in the park brochure. It is here that the Fortesque River wells up from crystal-clear springs, its sparkly-clean waters transforming the barren scrub into stands of palm and lushly forested river banks, all with not a croc in sight. There are an abundance of birds and dragonflies, the latter a particular boon as they gobble up nearly all our fair-weather friends, allowing us for once to relax unencumbered.

We putter around to the campsite at Crossing Pool, and have the place entirely to ourselves the whole day, so perfect you could pinch yourself.

Alas, plans for a midnight skinny-dip are scuppered at dusk when a twin Landcruiser rumbles in and parks on the other side of the site, the faint melody of European accents drifting across the cooling night air.

The following day is spent strolling the surrounds, lazing in the hammock, and taking a relaxing swim or three, as realisation slowly dawns that this is the last stop on our overland adventure before starting the long, long trek back home. By
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Deb scales a rare peak through the spinifex.
tomorrow night we’ll be Broome once more, and from there retracing our steps across the Savannah Way all the way to Cairns. Fortunately there’s plenty of cask wine to polish off before tomorrow’s resupply, and as the evening wears on our spirits rise once more as we reminisce over our past few months’ wanderings.

It’s way past the witching hour when the last dregs of wine are squeezed from the bag, and before long our Dutch friends are rudely awoken by the sounds of two unusually large fish splashing in the river. Glancing out warily they’re amazed to find the reflection of not one, but three full moons, glinting cheekily back at them from the glassy surface waters.


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