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Published: January 31st 2019
Our route today took us once again onto National Highway 95 to commence our 330 mile journey. The skies were blue and cloudless, the roads were clear and red and the temperature was 33°C. The landscape itself was changeable but mainly flat and we passed one house in a place called Tuckanarra. Yes, one house and the place merited a name! In fairness, I think it had shrunk from its glory days as a mining town.
We stopped in Cue, which my little book of useful information told me had a population of 550. It was a really pretty place, despite only having the main street running through it, and I spent ages there, exploring. It had retained its buildings in their original style, had a wonderful rotunda in the middle of the wide, wide road (wide enough to turn camel trains on, in the past) and a memorial to the one soldier from Cue who had lost his life in one of the wars. It had a lovely Visitor Centre where the smiling, chatty, young assistant gave me a very warm welcome and lots of free things that might come in useful for camping (tongs, waste bags, cigarette butt
holders, fire information, camp site venues, etc) even though I told her we were travelling by car. I bought a roll of Cue wrapping paper and some postcards, just so I could contribute something financial, and we sat on the bench outside just soaking the atmosphere up. It was wonderful. We were thrilled when two emus crossed the road in front of us just outside the town as we were leaving.
We continued on Highway 95 as far as Mount Magnet (pop 600) but the Visitor Centre there was closed. I wasn’t surprised as there wasn’t much to see. We turned left on to the Mount Magnet-Sandstone road, breathing a sigh of relief to see it was a perfectly normal tarmac road and not an unsealed red-stuff road that car hire operators forbid their cars to be taken on, and which Mrs Miserable of Meekatharra had said it was. Phew! There was a bit more roadside fencing and a lot more grids, which just appeared without warning and rattled our bones if we didn’t slow down in time. Some cows managed to evade these safety precautions, though, and paid the ultimate price.
Steve had warned me that tonight’s
accommodation might be slightly below our usual standards but it was this or a night under the stars, given the remoteness and lack of choice. This was another booking we had made direct with the provider and had received a somewhat confusing, and possibly drunken, reply of confirmation. We were going to be staying in a ‘donga’. ‘Sounds OK,’ I thought, imagining some quirky, Outback idiosyncrasy. ‘No, no,’ said Steve, ‘think more along the lines of metal shipping container ...’. Mmmmm – not sure about that one, but we’ll see.
We arrived in Sandstone in the early afternoon. It was a tiny place with a few streets running off to the side of the main road but still merited a bypass to divert all the heavy road trains from running right through it. It took us a while to find the Outback Accommodation, where we would be staying. Well, we actually found it more or less straight away but decided it couldn’t be the place we were looking for when we saw the ramshackle yard with a shed in it and drove straight back out again. Ten minutes later and we were back again, noticing a fenced off area
to the side and a building declaring itself to be an ‘office’. Two snarling dogs barked at us through the gates and a man in an Eagles tee-shirt and a beard that would merit him the fourth place in ZZ Top appeared. ‘Are you the carbon men?’ he asked. Do I look like a carbon man? ‘No, we have a reservation for the night’ we said, less than confidently. ‘I’ll get the wife’ said Mr Beard.
And you know how sometimes you just take to some people and places? Micky (the wife) appeared, all rough and ready round the edges but with a warm welcome and a friendly, smiley face. The dogs were all bluster, she said, and we were quickly introduced to Saffy, the blonde American Staffie, and Diesel, the black and white English Staffie, who became our constant companions during our stay. Saffy was a refined, reserved lady who loved people but hated other animals and Diesel was divvy and daft and fell in love with Steve (two of a kind??!). Diesel trashed any toys and balls given to him within seconds so he played with unripe lemons which he picked himself from the tree in the
garden, then ate when he’d had enough of them. Steve was covered in lemon juice from playing fetch but I was never deemed good enough for a carefully selected citrus fruit. Our room was in half of one of three dongas, all of a metal, ridged construction and was tiny, with a minuscule bathroom, but it was en suite and clean with a TV that didn’t work and no wifi which wasn’t a surprise as there was no wifi to be had in all of Sandstone. As it turned out, we had our own entertainment ...
We mentioned to Micky that, according to our Book of Useful Information, Sandstone had a population of 105 and therefore this was the smallest place we had stayed in. ‘That’s not right,’ she said. Apparently, when it became too hot in Sandstone (like now!) half the population went to relatives in the cooler south and Sandstone currently had a population of 42. Our arrival boosted it to 44!
Micky and I immediately hit it off. She showed me round the lovely garden and swimming pool area and warned me to duck when we walked past a bird who was nesting and attacked
people who got too close. She pointed out one of her chickens who was brooding a pebble beneath a bush. We inspected her septic tank which was a much grander affair than ours at home. She showed me their water supply arrangements which were now much cheaper since they had bored a well and saved them thousands of dollars a year. She told me about the visiting nurse (twice a month) and the visiting vet (once a flood) and how she had made arrangements to get deliveries from Amazon. They did a monthly ‘big shop’ trip to Geraldton, about a 350 mile round trip. Her husband, Chris, worked one-week-on, one-week-off in the mines at Leinster and he generally picked up anything they were running out of there. It all sounded perfectly idyllic to me and I was surprised when she said they were selling up to move to a farm closer to Geraldton when Chris retired. I guess there’s ‘small’ and then there’s ‘too small’ and 42 people in the middle of nowhere possibly verges on infinitesimal.
Remember those kangaroos we came to Australia to see? We still hadn’t seen any living ones, despite our constant scanning of our
surroundings. Well, the Marvellous Micky also ran a bit of a wildlife sanctuary and she had raised many joeys which usually returned in the evenings for a drink from the supply of water she provided for them. ‘Just sit here this evening,’ she said ‘and they will come, I guarantee it.’ Just try and stop me!
We went for a drive around the small town to buy some supplies for our evening. No eating out for me tonight! The small pub had a Christmas tree in it and also doubled as the general store where we bought some tinned stew and some bread, cheese and beer. I know, we really live the rock ‘n roll life but Kangaroo Watch was my priority this evening! The town had some old wrecks of cars displayed about the place as ‘objets d’art’ but really I think they just didn’t know how to dispose of no longer working vehicles so they put them on display instead. One was quite old and I had my photo taken in it.
We went out to explore a nearby area recommended by Micky. Unfortunately, this necessitated us travelling for miles and miles on one of those
unsealed, red-dust roads that the car hire people absolutely forbade us from using. We did it very slowly and at least it was dry so we hoped we wouldn’t have any of the dust-concrete problems we had previously. We visited the remains of the Old Brewery which consisted of a cave with a flue-type thing carved into the roof, the Town Battery which was too secure to investigate too closely but looked to have the remains of some large guns in it and London Bridge, a red, sandstone/granite formation which bore no resemblance to London Bridge at home but I can confirm that it was falling down. Given that it is 350 million years old that was no surprise. It took us ages to explore the area, with no other vehicles or people in sight, and when we came across the Contradiction Well I could only surmise that its isolated location had forced people away. I just loved the area and our time spent there, feeling at one with the surroundings which were really evocative. In a different part of town we visited a cemetery and I found the first burial, of a baby. I spooked myself when I became
convinced I could hear a wailing coming from the grave and hurried back to Steve, waiting in the car, telling him the flies had driven me away. I later came across a quote on the back of a postcard. It read ‘Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.’ (John Muir) This dirt road had certainly been a magical experience for me.
We returned to our lodgings where Micky and the two dogs met us to check we had everything we needed for our evening vigil. She showed me where things were in the kitchen (not that a can of stew takes much sorting) and turned on the lights over the seating area which attracted loads of crickets until we dimmed them. The two Carbon Men arrived and checked in but quickly took off again for a drink in the pub. Good. We want no noisy Carbon Men at our party! Steve and I ate our tea in the gloaming, all eyes pinned on the water trough, and we waited. And waited. And waited ...
After about two hours of nothing a sudden commotion started behind us, in the private
area where Micky and Chris lived. We had heard them quietly talking to each other and the dogs but now there were shouts, swearing, barking and yelps. What the ...?! Loud thuds and bangs were followed by screaming and ever-louder expletives. It sounded like a murder was taking place. Before we could decide what to do Micky came running round to explain that they had just been visited by one of the most deadly snakes on the planet and Saffy, who was perfectly able to deal with it, was ‘helped’ by Dopey Diesel who just got in the way and made things worse. She thought Saffy may have been bitten but Chris was drenching her in the shower and could see no obvious bites, but she would be dead by morning had she been. Micky was hugely apologetic that there would be no kangaroos tonight, given all the commotion, but that was the least thing to worry about in our book. Poor Saffy! Dippy Diesel just smiled and wagged his tail .... We all went to bed wondering what the morning would bring.
The next morning I ventured out into the sunshine to see the two Carbon Men (what
do Carbon Men do?!) drinking coffee in the shade. They had missed all the furore so I couldn’t ask them if they had heard any news. I went to the kitchen to make coffee for us and a black and white face carrying a lemon appeared through the fly curtain. Oh dear, just Ditsy Diesel then. I sat on the kitchen step to greet him and round the corner came Micky ... and Saffy, looking none the worse for her escapade! Yay!
We were told to take our time checking out, there was no rush (no being turfed out of here at 9 am sharp!). It gave us time to chat with Micky and Chris about the perils of living in the remote Outback. Micky had ensured she knew how to identify all the venomous snakes in the country and what actions to take if anyone were to be bitten, though these could often not be life-saving. She kept her First Aid box and knowledge current, given the time it would take to get proper medical attention. Chris kept a loaded shotgun to hand and he said he would have used it on Saffy, to save her suffering a
painful death, had she been bitten. There was no other option and it was a way of life to him. He was scared of snakes himself and hoped they had frightened off the visitor last night, which had disappeared down a mouse hole after he had taken a swipe at it with a spade, but there was no guarantee. He told us of a neighbour who had used some flame-thrower type equipment on a snake once, but had set his truck on fire instead so that was not something he contemplated using himself. Maybe that truck was one of the randomly scattered vehicles around the town! I wished we could stay longer with this interesting couple in this wonderful place but we needed to move on. We eventually left with tons of photos, fond memories and a lily Micky picked for me. We left behind some tongs from the free camping pack from Cue and the 3” cricket that had tried to hide in our suitcase. Steve smelled of lemons ...
There’s something special about some places. They don’t have to be expensive, offer the best cuisine, have stunning scenery on the doorstep or hold a special significance in
your family folklore. They don’t have to be places you expect great things from. In fact, usually the opposite is true and these unexpected gems take you by surprise, grab you by the goolies and serve up an unanticipated delight. Sandstone was such a place for me.
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