You know that feeling when you've always thought, 'I'd love to do that, but it's just too scary/expensive/difficult/oh, you know,' and then you actually get to do it? I'm feeling like that right now. I felt the same after I'd done my first bungee jump in a pub car park in Essex. I felt pretty much the same after eventually getting round to having sex after all those years. I suppose I felt it when I landed in Sydney, having made the big decision to go travelling. And now I've done my first real week-long walk, and the feeling of accomplishment is immense.
When I was a kid – ignoring the debate on whether I still am one – I used to love the Moomin books. One of my favourite characters was Snufkin, Moomintroll's best friend, who was a strange sort of creature who played the mouth organ and who knew everything there was to know about the Great Outdoors. For when the Moomins hibernated during the cold Finnish winter, Snufkin would head off and travel for six months, wandering through the forests and fjords of northern Europe. The stories of little Snufkin camping overnight in the forest and meeting all sorts of wondrous creatures really caught my imagination, and strangely enough, this walk fulfilled that old, forgotten dream. It's funny how you remember little things from your early years when they strike a chord in later life.
Anyway, from Karratha I rang Scott, the ranger whom I'd met in Nambung and with whom I was walking, did some last minute shopping, and booked into a campsite to do some washing and freshen up after the roughing-it of Cleaverville Beach. To be honest, I don't know why I bother, considering the clothes come out just as stained as when they go in, everything I own has a dusty red hue, and as soon as I've showered my hair blows all over the place and I look as dishevelled as before... but it feels good to try, and it's almost worth paying the caravan park fee for luxuries like toilets, running water, grassy sites and all those other things you take for granted when you're not out in the bush.
I even explored the area a bit, between hanging out my clothes and trying – in vain – to clean the piles of dirt from inside the wheel arches of my car. I drove west of Karratha to the Burrup Peninsula, a north-jutting finger of land that contains Dampier, the main port for shipping the iron ore mined at Tom Price, and some pretty little coast. One particularly intriguing spot was Hearson's Cove, where the beach sloped so incredibly gently that it took me ten minutes to walk from the water's edge to where it was deep enough to have waves; by that stage it had got about ankle high. Because of the overcast sky and the angle of the sun it looked like I was walking on water, and apart from the strange-looking spikes extruding from the sand – some kind of odd sea dweller, I presumed, so I kept my thongs on just in case – it was a lovely place to swim. Or it would have been if I'd bothered to wade out to deeper water, but it probably would have taken me ages to get to knee height, so I contented myself with ankle-deep wave-hopping.
I drove back via Dampier, a forgettable place with a huge jetty out to a massive container ship where the ore is loaded. By all accounts the tour of Hammersley Iron's depot is interesting, but I didn't have time to go on the tour, so I headed back to camp, cooked, and turned in for my last night in comfort for about a week...
So here's a day-to-day account of my first genuine bushwalk, without a doubt the highlight of my journey so far, complete with snippets of the songs that were floating round my head as we explored the Pilbara.
Day 1, Sunday 14th, 4.5km
It rained so hard that morning
I could hardly see the road
The wind a-blowin' and the rain a-fallin'
'Highway 13', John Lee Hooker
Having met up earlier in the day, Scott and I decided to get stuck into the walk straight away. He'd drawn up a route that covered a fair amount of the Chichester Ranges, with about 65km of walking, so after checking our equipment, we headed out towards Python Pool. It was about 4.30 in the afternoon by the time we got to Snake Creek, the campsite I'd stayed in a week or so before, and we decided that although we'd only have about two hours of walking that day, we might as well start and make Monday's trip easier, so we drove past the campsite and ducked off the road down a dodgy four-wheel-drive track to a place called Narrina Pool. This was the last time I would see any trace of modern human beings for seven days...
We hadn't checked the weather report as it was slightly cloudy but nothing to worry about, so we donned our rather heavy backpacks, full of everything we'd need for a week except water, and trudged up the start of Narrina Creek for 4.5km, by which stage it was getting dark, so we pitched camp.
A couple of points before going on. First, the route went vaguely like this: imagine a square map, with north at the top, and three parallel rivers, each running from south to north (that's up and down the map); from west to east (that's left to right on the map) they're called Narrina Creek, George River and Pillinginni Creek. We started at the north end of Narrina Creek, headed south upstream, cut east from the south end of the creek to the south end of George River, then east again to the south end of Pillinginni, then northwards down Pillinginni, before turning west to cross the end of the George and head back to the end of Narinna, giving a vaguely square route.
Second, life on a walk like this isn't luxurious. 'Making camp' means finding a vaguely flat piece of whatever is to hand, laying out your roll mat, chucking on the sleeping bag and sleeping out in the great wide open. We had no tents, but we both had waterproof sheets in case of dew, which can appear at about four in the morning, as it gets pretty cold at night. We drank water from the creeks, washed in the rock pools, and the only food we had was what we had brought with us.
So we set up camp by the side of Narrina Creek, on the bank, and decided to erect a bit of a shelter, just in case it rained; you never know in the outback, though the Pilbara is one of the driest areas of Australia. The shelter consisted of my flysheet pegged into the ground at one end and held up on sticks at the other, so we could slide under and put the packs in with us and keep some space above our heads.
We cooked up – a soon-to-be familiar meal of packet rice, the sort I've been eating for ages on the road – and settled in for the night, gazing at the stars in the clear sky. No wonder we didn't think it was going to rain. Bad mistake.
The first drops appeared about ten o'clock – you retire early when you walk – so we nipped under cover and tried to sleep. But the rain wasn't just a passing shower, it meant business, and it wasn't long before my flysheet showed its true colours; waterproof, my arse, it leaked whenever you touched it and rain ran down the inside almost as much as is ran down the outside. At about two in the morning Scott made a brave attempt to prop up the sides with sticks to try to direct the flow of water down past our feet, but it took a lot of willpower not to get up and head back to the cars; we were extremely wet and water was dripping on our faces in a kind of self-inflicted Chinese water torture. It wasn't terribly pleasant.
It wasn't exactly an auspicious start to the trip. It didn't feel much like the driest part of Australia, that's for sure...
Day 2, Monday 15th, 10km
Oh, a storm is threat'ning
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away
'Gimme Shelter', The Rolling Stones
It stopped raining at about seven, when we got up. It wouldn't have made a great deal of difference if it hadn't, seeing as both our sleeping bags and our enthusiasm were totally dampened, but I cooked up some porridge for myself while Scott had his usual breakfast of muesli bars, and before long we'd decided that although the weather was lousy, we were already about as wet as it was possible to get, so we might as well press on and try to find a cave where we could shelter. It was pretty obvious we weren't equipped for rain, so it was up to nature herself to provide shelter.
We walked for 10km through patchy but heavy rain, stopping for lunch halfway up the creek. That was when the powers that be smiled on us, because about five minutes after lunch – a sodden affair – we found the perfect spot for shelter. Imagine a vertical cliff with jutting overhangs about four feet from the bottom, with further outcrops above. We spotted the area because the ground was so dry near the cliff, the first dry ground we'd seen on the trip; the rocks we'd been clambering over had been dangerously slippery in the creek beds we'd been navigating.
We didn't waste much time setting up camp, mainly because we needed to dry out our sodden sleeping bags and roll mats. Typically it stopped raining just as we found the shelter, so we thought it would be a good idea to head up to the top of the hill opposite to try out the radio that Scott had brought along in case of an emergency. The problem was that the handheld unit we had brought with us needed to trigger the main transmitter at Millstream, and it simply couldn't do it when we were in the river gorges; then again, it didn't have any luck on top of the hill either. We did manage to get totally soaked in the attempt, though, so it didn't take much convincing for us to go in search of firewood to warm up proceedings.
The fire did the job; we managed to find enough dry wood to smoulder our way to dusk, and the beds were almost luxurious after the dripping of the night before. Quite why that night the heavens above decided to throw the worst rainstorm of the last few weeks at us, I'll never know. Despite being protected from the elements on three sides out of four, the rain managed to blow into our dry areas enough to make it totally uncomfortable, and the only solution was the Clint Eastwood approach: zip up the sleeping bag, lie on your back, pull the drawstring around the head of the bag tight so it covers everything bar your face, with your dry clothes squeezed inside it as a pillow, and lie there, with your face covered by your hat. Comfortable it wasn't, but after one wet night and a day's walking through a creek bed, it's amazing how tired you can be.
Unfortunately it's at times like this that your mind casts around for something to occupy itself, in an attempt to keep itself thinking random thoughts long enough to drift into sleep: nostalgic thoughts of friends and family, the good bits of old relationships, important events in life, the warm feeling of eiderdown... little things that help sleep come quickly. The problem is that thoughts often stray to the day before, as it's the most recent time for inspiration. For example, strained backs, aching feet, spinifex-slashed hands and all manner of muscular problems, they all haunt Clint's dreams. The fire we'd lit to dry our clothes spattered into a grey, wet puddle, and eventually I woke up to a clear day, with a dry sleeping bag and limbs that protested from the solidity of the bedrock.
After the night under the cliff, which kept most of the rain off us, sleeping in a ditch in Glastonbury seems like a walk in the park. Except we were sober, an unlikely event at Glastonbury...
Day 3, Tuesday 16th, 13km
I need to laugh
And when the sun is out
I've got something I can laugh about
I feel good
In a special way
I'm in love and it's a sunny day
'Good Day Sunshine', The Beatles
'You only appreciate something when it's gone,' they say, and they're right. Tuesday awoke to a blue sky and warmth, little things that those with roofs take for granted, but which can make a day feel really beautiful to those who've lived through the ravages of a storm. It didn't take much effort to get brekkie, get those packs hoisted and get moving.
As we headed south up Narrina Creek, it gradually widened out into smaller tributaries, eventually drying out altogether, so we could walk right along the creek bed. Luckily there wasn't too much growth along the way; because creek beds are often the best places to find water, white River Gums and all sorts of strange plant life spring up in the creek itself. This is useful for a couple of reasons: first, you can tell which way a creek flows even if there's no water, as the trees lean with the current, and debris gets deposited on one side of the trunk only, the upstream side; and second, the vegetation in the creeks is greener than the surrounding scrub, so you can tell where creeks are by looking for lines of green, which is useful when there's no water to try to spot.
Halfway up the creek we stopped for lunch by a little sloping waterfall, where these tiny fish were desperately trying to swim upstream, presumably to breed. It was quite entertaining watching the little buggers flipping around madly, trying to swim up this gush of water, made quite strong by the recent rains. And soon after lunch we disturbed a wild dog and her pups, and when she'd run off we got a good look at the litter; cute little things they were. We were obviously not alone...
After a while we reached the top of the creek, and struck east in search of the start of the George River. Unfortunately we'd gone a little too far south down Narrina Creek, so when we did reach the George, we were quite high up it and had to hack our way through serious undergrowth for a few hours to reach our destination. The George River has a much higher catchment area than its neighbouring creeks, and as a result it was huge, flowing fast and wide, leaving little room between the water and the surrounding forest, and making it impossible to cross. But our dedication was worth it, because when we'd battled through the worst of it, we got to the waterfalls.
Apparently I'm lucky to have seen the George in full flow, because even in the wet season it doesn't flow constantly, and when it's raining in the summer, you don't tend to go walking for fear of being whisked away. But our downpour had raised the water level to make the waterfalls flow quite dramatically, and it wasn't a hard decision to camp right by them. We found some reasonably flat rock, and spread sand around in the gaps to make a relatively flat bed, albeit pretty damn hard, and settled in for the duration.
The waterfalls consisted of lots of little falls, followed by a colossal one that fell into a huge, deep pool. The big one was too dangerous to fool around in, but the little ones were great, and before long we were washing away the grime of the journey in cool, flowing water; it was beautiful, and well worth the grief of the rains to have them flowing so much. We set up a makeshift shelter, because although the skies were clear, we didn't want to take any chances. Indeed, the night started out as clear as a bell, but soon enough a cloud front had rolled in and was threatening to repeat the performance of the last couple of days. Luckily it held off and the sky cleared again, looking great as usual, but the excess moisture and cool temperature brought down some seriously heavy dew, so we woke up on Wednesday with soaking sleeping bags anyway. Was there no escape from the water?
And to cap it all, I cut my foot badly on the rock when walking round in the dark, a big gash on the underside of my left foot, just behind the middle toe. God, it hurt, and proved to be rather uncomfortable for the rest of the trip. But, hey! Nobody said it would be easy...
Day 4, Wednesday 17th, Rest Day
River, oh river, river running deep
Bring me something that will let me get to sleep
In the washing of the water will you take it all away
Bring me something to take this pain away
'Washing of the Water', Peter Gabriel
Rest days are important, especially when your body feels like it's been put on the rack. Besides, discovering a beautiful waterfall system and failing to make the most of it is a capital offence, so we lounged around all day, swimming, exploring and sunbaking.
At least, I was sunbaking – Scott preferred the shade – and it turned out to be a mistake. Yes, I burnt my shoulders ever so slightly, but when you're carrying a backpack, burnt shoulders aren't all that comfortable. Still, I didn't notice until the next day, so the rest day was just great. I went for a wander down the river after lunch, and discovered some Aboriginal rock carvings; in the Pilbara, the art tends to be scratches on rock rather than painting, and I found a rock covered with stick men with big phalluses, like a kind of Aboriginal Picasso exhibition.
Further down the river was a stepped waterfall, a gentle slope of running water with convenient steps all the way down, which had been created by the water wearing through the sedimentary rock. The afternoon sun was pretty hot, so I stripped off and sat in the middle of the falls, looking at the view as the river cut through a gorge with red cliffs lining the sides, huge rockfalls all over the place, and all manner of strange trees hanging over the rock pools. It was bliss.
But the best was yet to come. When I returned to camp, Scott had discovered that if you kept your socks on, then walking around the creeks and down the waterfalls was much easier than in bare feet, so we set off in socks and swimmers in search of the perfect massage. We found it, just before the big waterfall, where water was gushing down right onto perfectly formed seats in the rock; it was just what the doctor ordered. It's amazing how the aches and pains of walking for days just melt away under a water massage.
That night we constructed dew covers for our sleeping areas, and lit a fire overlooking the river. The sky was dreamy, the smoke kept getting in our eyes, and life just couldn't get any better. Scott kept me entertained with his stories of caring for the dunnies you get in National Parks; they're called long-neck dunnies because they're simply a bowl with a long neck that leads down into a rather unpleasant drum, which simply gets dragged out when full, and replaced by a new drum. Take the example of the huge goanna that got stuck down one of the long-necks for a few days, and managed to scare enough people to make action necessary. The rangers managed to hook it with a circle of wire attached to a pole, but of course, when the shit-covered goanna came out into the light, it did what all sensible animals would have done in its place; it shook itself. So it wasn't just the goanna that was covered in shit by the end of the operation, but a whole bunch of suddenly much wiser rangers too...
Or how about the tool used to push the contents of the drum down when it's getting full, but not quite full to the brim? It's a metal disc welded to the end of a pole, and it's delightfully called the 'poo poker'. Or the Irish girl who asked the ranger what it was like inside bush dunny, so he took her video camera, attached it to a rope, turned it to record, and lowered it down inside one. Unique footage, you might say.
There's something really special about sitting round a campfire, miles from civilisation, and talking into the wee hours...
Day 5, Thursday 18th, 14km
I've seen the needle
And the damage done
'The Needle and the Damage Done', Neil Young
Neil might have been talking about a different kind of needle, but I reckon if he'd gone walking through spinifex, he'd have written the same lyrics all over again. Spinifex is a bastard, and if I never see it again, I won't complain. However, seeing as it's as common as mud in the outback, I think I'm going to be spending plenty of time in its pleasurable company in the coming weeks.
Spinifex is a type of grass that grows in clumps. It looks nice enough, but closer inspection shows the clump to be made up of seriously sharp spikes, as thin and as dangerous as needles, and when you walk through the stuff it lacerates your legs. The points aren't quite tough enough to puncture leg skin, but they scratch, and if you accidentally fall and use your hands to stop yourself hitting the ground by grabbing a nearby clump of spinifex, you too will have the delightful job of trying to get hundreds of little splinters out of your hand for the next few days. I'm still trying to find them all...
Spinifex is also the reason for controlled burning, as practised by the Aborigines for thousands of years, and more recently by park rangers. After about four or five years spinifex gets too tough for kangaroos to eat, so if you burn it in a bushfire, it starts growing again and the roos can eat it for the next few years. It's called 'firestick farming', and it works; I found that the areas where there had been recent bushfires were much easier to walk through.
Still, we'd known this leg of the walk would be tough, as it took us over the hills of the Chichester Ranges, which roll around without any real distinguishing points for miles. We spent most of the day guessing where we were on the map, and we cut north too soon, heading for a creek that we though must lead to Pillinginni Creek, only to find it was flowing the wrong way and obviously led back to the George again. Damn!
Never mind, we did manage to get radio contact for the first time in the trip, being on the top of the range, so it wasn't too worrying, but it took longer than anticipated to find the start of Pillinginni Creek. It also turned out to be a very overgrown creek bed, with loads of gums, bushes and nasty plants with sharp bits, so by the time we reached water and cliffs, we were knackered and pretty lacerated.
The problem was that Pillinginni Creek, in its beauty, is very rocky, and its vertical sides are very close together, reducing the number of campsites to, well, zero. We ended up sleeping on a silt bar on a corner of the creek – quite a comfortable spot, as it turned out – and after a refreshing dip in the creek, we turned in for the night. By this stage sleeping on the ground wasn't much of a problem; it's amazing how you adapt when you have to.
Day 6, Friday 19th, 18.5km
Do I love you, my oh my
River deep, mountain high
If I lost you would I cry
Oh how I love you baby, baby, baby, baby
'River Deep, Mountain High', Ike and Tina Turner
Pillinginni was a pretty little creek, but it was pretty nasty to walk down. One time we got to a dry waterfall, which we had to navigate by me climbing down, Scott then handing me the packs, and then him coming down. The only problem was that the climb down, a good few metres, required you to get a hand grip on a crack, and then effectively jump off and let yourself dangle, as there were no footholds; only then could you drop to the ground.
No problem, I thought, and in my reckless disregard for personal safety that a sure foot and a climbing background give you, I hopped down. Scott, however, was seriously scared of heights, and it took some persuasion to get him to swing out. He made it, all credit to him, but it just shows what a pain some of the terrain was. It took us some time to get to the wider parts of the creek, and then we started to pick up speed, heading for a waterhole at the bottom of the creek, where we'd meet a four-wheel-drive track, camp the night, and then have an easy but long trek back to the cars.
That was the idea, anyway. The only problem was that the waterhole we were going to camp by turned out to be completely dry, so we had to make a decision: walk back to the last one, or push on down the track to the bottom of the George River. We opted to push on, making very good time, and by nightfall we were camping 10km from the cars, on a silted area right below the foot of the Chichester Range. The river was still flowing, the swimming was excellent, and the hues on the red cliffs as the sun set were just amazing.
Day 7, Saturday 20th, 10km
Homeward bound, I wish I was homeward bound
Home, where my thought's escaping
Home, where the music's playing
Home, where my love lies waiting silently for me...
'Homeward Bound', Simon and Garfunkel
We covered the remaining distance in no time, at least compared to the hard going through the creeks and spinifex. Apart from a kilometre through the scrub it was all road, and according to some warped tradition of Scott's, we ran the last 50m to the cars, which were a sight for sore eyes.
We packed up the cars while being devoured by a nest of meat ants – big, red ants with a particular craving for meat, dead or alive – and parted company after exchanging addresses and taking photos of us holding up the map in victory. He was a top man, was Scott, and I'm in his debt for providing me with an experience that people would pay serious money for. It would be worth every penny.
So, that was the walk. I then drove straight to Whim Creek, the nearest civilisation in my direction; it's basically a pub in the middle of nowhere, and I couldn't think of anywhere else I'd rather be. I feasted on beer and burgers, watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics, and wondered at the beauty of it all. A very happy drunk, I was.