On Sunday I upped sticks and headed off towards Millstream-Chichester National Park, this time actually getting there. On the way I passed through Yampire Gorge and Wittenoom, site of one of the worst industrial disasters in Australian history. The area is home to seams and seams of asbestos, and between 1947 and 1966 these areas were mined, well before asbestos was known to cause cancer. A lot of Aborigines were used as cheap labour – remember that Aborigines were only classed as citizens from 1967, and were only given the vote in 1972 – and a significant number of Wittenoom's miners have since contracted asbestosis, giving rise to the mother of all court cases.
The area is now pretty deserted; Wittenoom is almost a ghost town, and Yampire Gorge, site of a lot of asbestos seams, is full of signs warning you to stay in the car and keep your windows closed, although the risk is relatively minimal. Still, there's an added thrill to driving down a dirt road when you know that if you break down, not only will it be a long wait, but you might get asbestosis in the meantime; I made it through, but I wasn't surprised to find that they'd built an alternative route to avoid further trouble.
I arrived at Millstream, the western half of Millstream-Chichester National Park, to beautiful weather and the school holidays. There were people everywhere, or that's how it felt after being totally alone in Karijini. I pitched by the Fortescue River (the same river that flows through Karijini) at a spot called Deep Reach Pool, under the trees and right on the bank. I amazed myself by actually swimming in the river; not just dipping, but swimming right out into the brown, flowing water. It looks like I might be slowly getting over my phobia of dark water, but the weather was so hot and the water was so cool it didn't take much persuading.
Later that evening a new crowd turned up to camp next to me, and before long we were all sitting round the barbie chatting. Robin and Barbara, with their kids Sam and Tara, were from Useless Loop, a tiny town of 35 families out beyond Denham, on the second peninsula in Shark Bay. And they were great company, so along with another family we whittled the night away with idle chat, sitting by the campfire and watching an amazing night sky unfold. I stayed up a little once they'd all gone to bed, and sitting there by the fire with just the stars for company was just idyllic.
Robin the Bushman
The next morning we all set out to do the only notable walk at Millstream, a trek from the homestead to Crossing Pool, and with four young kids and five adults it turned into quite a family outing. Robin – a bit of a bushman, it has to be said – surprised us all when he spotted a flock of emus, and got us all to crouch down. Meanwhile he'd grabbed the hat off little Natalie, one of the other couple's kids, and was waving it around for about five seconds, then hiding it, and repeating the performance. After a couple of minutes the flock of emus walked over towards us and passed right by; apparently they're incredibly curious birds, and if you wave anything brightly coloured but hide it, they can't resist coming over to investigate. It was a neat trick, and the kids loved it.
When we got to Crossing Pool, we all went for a swim, but this time it was a real swim, right across the river to the other side. I managed it with flying colours, and even enjoyed the sensation; the water was murky but I managed to swim across without losing my cool. On our return to camp, Robin set up a rope by the river that we could all swing on to land in the water, which added quite a bit to the creek-dipping experience.
That night I entertained the crowd. They'd spotted my guitar in the back of the car, so I fished it out and performed a couple of songs for the ensemble, the first time I've ever played guitar and sung together in public. It wasn't exactly high quality, but I stumbled through The Beatles' 'Rocky Racoon' and The Senators' 'The Girl I Adore' to a noisy response, and a reward of copious sherry to see the night through. Another roaring fire, another starry night... it made me think I was in some magical wood, with elves and goblins lurking in the shadows, and all manner of mysterious beastie moving through the undergrowth just beyond the circle of firelight.
The Camel Track
On Tuesday I drove north to the Chichester end of the park, stopping at a spot called Snake Creek. Just nearby is a wonderful rock pool called Python Pool, which marks the start of the Camel Track, a 16km round trip from Python Pool via McKenzie Spring to Mt Herbert and back, tracing the track used until 1892 to herd camels from the farms of the Pilbara to the ports on the northern coast. I tramped along the track for most of the day, getting hopelessly lost a lot of the time, but eventually getting to Mt Herbert after an hour and a half.
The problem with following the track was twofold: first, the markers were tiny yellow triangles which were very hard to spot, and second the spinifex growth made the entire landscape a labyrinth of possible tracks, only one of which was right. Spinifex is a bastard: it's a very tough, very sharp grass that rips your legs to shreds, but the view was just amazing and well worth the raw calves. Imagine mountains with concave slopes – as if they've been scooped out – but with tops that look like they've been chopped off flat before the summit. 'Tableland' and 'plateau country' might be the words that describe it, but to me the views were quite fantastic, as in 'like fantasy'. I could easily imagine huge armies and great citadels in this landscape, like something out of The Lord of the Rings.
When I got back after 16km of walking, Python Pool was perfect. I jumped straight in, swimming right across the dark, murky water, and it was bliss; swimming in rock pools can be habit forming. Snake Creek turned out to be a very friendly camping spot, though primitive and almost empty, and the two elderly couples there were excellent company, especially Ted and Rosemary, who had lived in Stafford for 14 years at one stage in their very varied life, not far from where I grew up. They plied me with tea and cake as the sun came down and the stars put on their display, which was all the more captivating because there was no moon. We all stood around for about an hour searching for satellites, which appear as twinkling lights that move slowly across the sky, getting brighter and dimmer as they rotate and catch the sun's rays; I spotted one and the others saw a couple. It's amazing to think that they were put there on a rocket and that you can see them from the ground; it adds a whole new dimension to the night sky.
Another thing you notice about the sun going down in the clear-skied bush are the silhouettes. The gum trees are especially weird, with their gnarled trunks and branches sticking up from barren earth, black against the sunset-red sky. The whole scene reminds me of books we had as children, which were illustrated with pictures made up of silhouettes against psychedelic painted backdrops – the books were by Joan Aiken, with illustrations by Jan Pienkowski. I loved those pictures, and for much the same reason I love desert sunsets. Sunrise is a similar event, but I don't seem to experience that quite as much...