Into the Outback - Newman and Meekatharra, WA


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Oceania » Australia » Western Australia » Newman
December 10th 2018
Published: January 29th 2019
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I’ve developed quite a liking for deserts. When people asked me if there was any particular part of our trip I was looking forward to, ‘the Outback bit’ generally featured high up in the list. Deserts are generally hot, sunny, and empty so what’s not to like? Well, they can also be cold, bleak and empty so there’s that to consider. And then factor in the complete lack of communication in case of emergencies, the hundreds and hundreds of miles we were planning on doing and the bent ignition key in the car that we were still fearful might snap off at any moment and I wondered if perhaps we should have second thoughts but, hey, where’s the fun in that? I looked up the word ‘intrepid’ to see if there was an element of foolhardiness in there somewhere but couldn’t see anything so intrepid we became, following in the footsteps of the early settlers who managed to do it centuries ago though I suspect many of them paid the ultimate price for their fearlessness.

We filled up the boot of the car with bottles and bottles of water and ensured we had supplies of other things we thought might be useful (food, liquid, warm clothing) and tried to get rid of the last of the red concrete stuff around the wheel rims in case it interfered with the brake blocks (hark at me sounding as though I know anything about the mechanics of cars) and we did wonder at one point if we should be replacing all the water that the AC caused to puddle out beneath the car when it was at a standstill but that was a step too far. Is that normal? Where does it come from? Is there a now near empty reservoir somewhere that we should be topping up? Too hard ... There was not much I could do about the mobile phone which was losing charge much faster than normal, even with the brand new battery I had thought to pack, but mobile phone signals were likely to be a thing of the past anyway so we’d just have to rely on a passing trucker or someone equally as intrepid as us going by if we needed assistance. And, of course, we now had the bank robber flynets if we should need them ....

So, we left Port Hedland aiming for Newman as our first stop. ‘Why on earth ...?’ our Port Hedland hosts asked. Well, if we thought suitable and convenient places to stay were few and far between on our journey up the west coast, they were even harder to find in the Outback and Newman was the first place to offer anything remotely fit for purpose. In fact, I was hoping it would be more than adequate as this was literally the only accommodation I had found for us in our planning stages, travel arrangements being ‘Steve’s thing’, but Expedia, hotels.com and booking.com didn’t throw much up for him – I guess the demand isn’t there! We’d had to make direct contact with these providers. Our journey should take us about 5 hours to cover 280 miles.

We set off on the dependable Route 1 but quickly switched to the Great Northern Highway (National Highway 95). A LOT of mining takes place in the Outback and our fellow road users were mainly the huge 4-trailer road trains, most of them travelling in the opposite direction to us, hauling back the raw material for onward shipping. They were supported by smaller pickup-type vehicles that buzzed about everywhere and sported little orange flags on the top of poles on their rear ends, like happy, wagging dog tails. They were like a clan badge, as in ‘I’m in the support gang’ and I’m sure they had a purpose but I never figured out what that was unless it was to help find the pickup trucks if they went off road into a gully. We came up behind two ENORMOUS oversized vehicles transporting massive pieces of mining equipment, with escort vehicles front and rear, travelling very, very slowly up the side of a mountain. Fortunately, the wonderful passing lanes continued, even in the Outback, and we were able to squeeze by with no problem. The landscape was flat, then hilly, then flat again and was much, much greener than I expected. There’s a reason for that ...

The day was hot and sunny, and the temperature reading in the car said it was 44°C outside, the hottest we experienced in all our travels. Super. The landscape was varied and interesting and we were tootling along in ‘steering’ mode, no skill or thought required. Just past Mount Robinson the clear blue skies became dotted with white, puffy clouds. ‘Lovely,’ we thought, ‘how pretty.’ Those white, puffy clouds quickly turned to grey though, the blue sky turned pink (yes, really, the photos don’t do it justice) and the lightning started. Just a few flashes to begin with, as in, ‘did I just see a flash of lightning?’ to ‘Wow, just look at that!’ The rain, when it came, was a deluge of biblical proportions, the temperature dropped from 44° to 22° literally within the space of two minutes, and day turned to night. The driving conditions quickly turned from easy to hazardous and every bit of driving acumen we had was needed to negotiate the treacherous road conditions. We pulled over at one point as the window wipers couldn’t cope with the volume of water pouring down on us and I decided I would rather risk being drenched doing a swap-over than continue in the driver’s seat but we made the change quickly and continued as soon as we could reasonably safely do so as we didn’t fancy the thought of being caught up by the two oversized vehicles now hopefully some distance behind us, but gaining. It turns out that the Newman area is renowned for these electrical storms, which spring up out of nowhere, and the postcard I eventually bought from there is of such a storm lighting up the township, with brilliant streaks of lightning reaching for the ground. The plus side was that all the rain had washed away all the red concrete stuff on the car, though it had also exposed all the scratches and chips to the paintwork we had accumulated during our travels. We’d have to see if they would prove to be a problem when we handed the car back.

Our accommodation this evening was in the Newman Tourist Information Centre chalets, a select cluster of detached buildings within the confines of the Visitor Centre. The lady who checked us in said she had been trying to ring us to confirm we were on our way and when I checked my mobile it had no signal and very little charge. That’s now a piece of redundant technology, then. The Centre had lost internet access and had no wifi but their landlines still worked so there was still some connection to the outside world. Our chalet, No 6, the Weeli Wolli, was named after some local area and was fully equipped with everything we might need for a comfortable stay. It was also the disabled chalet and the bathroom was enormous. The grounds had a mini-museum of mining equipment, enormous pieces of machinery, and I was chuffed beyond measure to see that some of it had been manufactured in foundries in England! They also had a time capsule in the grounds and an anchor of all things. They reckoned if it had somehow found its way to inland Newman it deserved to stay! The compound was secured when the Visitor Centre closed and I managed to initially lock us out of our chalet and then we couldn’t get out of the compound so it could have been disastrous without a bit of ingenuity that saw us getting in and out eventually. A HUGE yellow tipper-truck type vehicle was parked in the car park as the town emblem, near the Muzz Buzz coffee shack which was popular with lorry drivers who parked up next to it and left their engines running while they drank coffee and watched TV in their air-conditioned cabs until the early hours.

Newman has really embraced being a mining town. The big mining corporation there (BHP) has invested in the area and they provided the funding for the visitor chalets. There is a population of about 7,000 and I can tell you that many of those were in the local pub when I stuck my head in to see if it was a suitable place to eat. Most of that population seems to be male though, and I did a quick about-turn when I saw that I would be the only woman in the place. I can talk to anybody and mix in with most communities but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to integrate with a pub full of truckers and bad-ass male iron ore miners! We ate from our mobile larder and managed to break a glass bottle which sent shards everywhere. We were still finding them the following day but were sufficiently confident we’d got them all to not feel obliged to confess.

After checking out of the chalets the following morning we drove up to the lookout point at Radio Hill which gave us a wonderful view of the town and Mount Whaleback, from where the iron ore is mined before being transported by rail to Port Hedland on trains over 2 kms long. The town itself is built in a functional style to support the mining industry and is not pretty as such, and I was amazed, as I constantly am, that in a country with vast amounts of space the houses are crammed so close together. We stopped at another big yellow dumper truck on the outskirts of the town and explored the interesting information display about different types of ore.

We had chatted to a couple who had parked their caravan in the car park of the Visitor Centre. She said they rented out their house in Perth, lived a nomadic life in their caravan and drove around the country, stopping where they felt. They were on their way to visit their daughter in Tom Price but would then move on to where-ever they felt like going. They had been doing it for years and loved the freedom this enormous country provided them. I was looking forward to exploring more of it myself.

The next stop in our journey was a place called Meekatharra. At least now the names of places were unique which helped to make them distinctive in my mind. (I had started to roll all those beginning with the KA sound together in my memory - KAlbarri/KArratha/CArnarvon.) We were straight back on National Highway 95 (there’s generally only one road in and out of these places!) and recrossed the Tropic of Capricorn shortly after leaving Newman. This time a nearby settlement was handily named Capricorn so we couldn’t really miss it! The road was very, very quiet and the terrain was mainly flat. The weather was again hot and sunny with many more red-dust twisters which threw the debris heavenwards and gave the sky a pink hue.

We arrived at the Auski Inland Motel in Meekatharra in the mid-afternoon. We were greeted by a rather grumpy woman who asked what we were thinking, visiting Meekatharra. Not a great welcome. We had to ask for a town map, which was eventually provided. She pointed us to a menu for the Motel restaurant but it was incredibly expensive. Yes, I do get that all the food has to be transported many miles and deliveries can be infrequent but, y’know, we can’t blow the budget on a couple of meals. There was really not much choice but the local shop, Farmer Jack’s, provided all the basics for a much cheaper meal and we bought stuff there instead which probably didn’t endear us to Mrs Miserable. I tried to start a conversation with the husband owner on multiple occasions when our paths crossed in the garden area but I gave up after too many monosyllabic responses. The motel dog, Charlie, was easily the most friendly resident. We were allocated to Room 11 which was spacious and fine without being anything special. There were kitchen facilities but without too many provisions and I had to wash up with shampoo. We went to the Visitor Centre where I got an ambivalent reception but I was given a free postcard! We drove up to a lookout point and investigated the town’s historic walk but it was nothing to write home about. Apart from that, Meekatharra had nothing much else to offer, which was a shame given that we had booked two nights there. However, it did have wifi so that was something and meant I could post out some blogs on e-mail, given that I still couldn’t get the blog site to work, and we spent most of our time there relaxing, catching up on admin and writing the blogs.

The Auski had a 9 am checkout time, which was unusually early. We were determined not to ask to leave later so we set the alarm on the phone (which still worked as a clock, if nothing else, but only if it was kept plugged in) and got ready to leave. I went to hand the keys in at reception but could find no-one there to accept them and no-one in the immediate vicinity. In the end, I left them on the desk and we left, quietly. We didn’t even have Charlie to see us off!

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