Lonely Planet called for submissions of travel writing to its annual anthology and Carmen and I had a go at putting together long articles for entry. Unfortunately, we weren’t selected – but it’d be a shame to waste all that work, so here’s my entry, about the Gascoyne River and the WA wilderness. (Carmen’s will come soon).
The Returning River
The middle parts of Western Australia are often dismissed with that pithy phrase Americans use to describe the cinched belt of their nation – flyover country.
Mile after mile of flat, hot, sandy earth running from the furnace of the Gibson Desert to endless ghostly beaches of the Indian Ocean. There are no mountains or waterfalls or towering forests – millions of years of wind and rain have hammered this immense landscape down to a stub.
To most of the state’s inhabitants, it’s wheat-growing country. Hardy farmers have transformed formless scrub into a food bowl of golden fields unremarkable for their fly blown sameness. Needless to say, it doesn’t get many tourists, and they seldom stay long, just those passing through on their way to the northern tropics.
And from my comfortable ocean side office at the Golden West Network’s bureau in Geraldton – the major city of the region – I was content to leave these wide-open spaces well alone. As the network’s sole local journalist, my responsibility was to drum up daily television reports on whatever stories were happening in a patch covering over half a million square miles.
As a city boy, I didn’t want to stray too far from civilisation. Yet the first time I was forced to leave my comfort zone and travel to the very ends of the earth within my grasp, I found that to fly over this country is to miss everything.
Inside the city walls
I grew up in the suburbs of Perth, Western Australia: the most isolated capital city in the world. From that perch in deepest down under I came to see the world as a place that was far, far away, like a mirage on the horizon. I had the good fortune to travel with my benevolent grandfather through several grand tours of Europe when I was in my teens, but aside from these brief experiences, my experience of the world outside my suburban home was limited.
All of this was to change when I got my first proper job after university: Reporter, Golden West News, $31,000 per annum, Mid-West assignment. After one week’s training at network HQ I was driving up the gun barrel straights of State Highway 60 to the remote fishing community of Geraldton.
The wind. That’s the first thing you notice in Geraldton, after the flies and the heat. Mornings are always calm, with barely a flutter in the air. Then at midday as if signalled by a gun the sea breeze claps in and drives everyone mad: howling through windows, slamming doors, raising tempers; so strong that trees lining farmers’ paddocks are bent sideways.
“Two stories a day,” the network editor told me. “Bare minimum.” Finding them was sometimes akin to nailing jelly to a ceiling. I’d scramble through the first hour of the day, calling everyone in the phone book till I got a lead. Then I’d dash about in the work car with Luke, the 18-year-old cameraman who was as green as I was, driving from location to location, interview to event, shooting and talking and writing scripts in the car to make the daily deadline.
It was frenzied work, but we soon found a comfortable groove. Local sports teams were a gold mine, so were local councils, bake sales, farmers growing strange things, police promoting road safety, changes to fishing regulations, the port installing a new grain elevator.
The sunburnt map on my office wall told me the boundaries of my responsibility stretched from Jurien Bay in the south and up to Carnarvon in the deep north. But I saw no need to see the length and breadth of the country. If something happened far away I could just telephone the locals, get some quotes and slap something together in the office.
By staying inside the city walls, life was easy.
Out of the comfort zone
The woman’s body was found by bushwalkers just outside the town. She hadn’t died well, from the looks of it, and she’d been dead a long time. The duty officer at Carnarvon police station told me over a crackling telephone line that volunteers from the local emergency services had been looking for a missing woman for five weeks and the mystery of her disappearance had been solved. Now the hunt for a murderer was underway. And not for the first time, a dark killing had come to the middle parts of WA.
The area just before Geraldton is called Greenough, and driving past it on my way to the first day on the job, I shivered as though it were winter. A decade prior, something called the Greenough Family Massacre happened there, an axe murder, three children and a woman killed so brutally the sharper details of the case have never been made public. Meanwhile, off the shore, out to sea, you’ll find the Abrolhos Islands, where the infamous Dutch ship Batavia ran aground in 1629. The survivors fell under the thrall of a mutineer named Cornelius, who incited a mad frenzy of murder. When rescue finally came, the killers were put to the gallows immediately.
These two violent chapters bookending Western Australia’s state history were seared into my mind: taught at school and seen on the television news. So the new murder up in Carnarvon fit the pattern for my city mind. The flat endless land, the burning sun, lonely beaches, the wind howling over a place of boredom – a background for death, best left alone.
Reluctantly, I told my editor about war had happened in Carnarvon. “Great yarn, great story, we want it,” he said. My orders were simple: drive up to Carnarvon and cover it, talk to the cops, get the buzz of the town, bear witness to a grim tragedy and find something else while I was there.
“Two stories a day, son, remember?”
A place of murder
A cyclone was battering the far north of the state and sending tendrils of weather down the coast, downing power lines and felling trees. I went to sleep with the wind howling through palm trees outside my bedroom window, rain lashing the creaking roof, lightning and thunder growling over the wild, wild sea.
The morning dawned with the bleakness of a hangover and we drove out of Geraldton on roads soaked jet black after the deluge. Reaching a white road sign with a circle and strap – no speed limit – Luke the cameraman pushed the accelerator, hit 140kph and steered us onto Northern Route 1 to Carnarvon. North to a murder.
Sand dunes. Spinifex. Wandoo. Salt lakes littered with skeleton trees. Roadhouses. Trucks and four-wheel drives. Blinding, chromatic sunlight and grey clouds. Swollen rivers. Flooded red dirt tracks. All of it flying past, blurred together, the land changing from dry hot Wheatbelt to sweaty humid tropics. The road signs counted down 470 odd kilometres of straight and narrow and sharply curving two lane highway.
We reached Carnarvon around midday, knifing along the main street of single storey shops, single storey houses, a single pump at a gas station. In sunlight the place would be pretty with long rows of tropical palms on the foreshore, corrugated iron roofs with purple and pink and white bougainvilleas. But the cyclone clouds hovered low and made the neat ordinance menacing and surreal.
The cop shop on Robinson Street was a squat white building built to withstand such heavy weather. Inside, the duty Sergeant welcomed us to town and agreed to do an on camera interview beside a tall palm tree around the back. Who, what, where, when, why? His answers were black and white words sounding rehearsed and robotic.
The place the killing happened was unremarkable too. The Sergeant drove us out to an expanse of flat ground near a rubbish tip, dotted with scrubby trees and bushes, the soil congealed together like a clay tennis court. “That’s where the bushwalkers found her,” he said, pointing to a crude fence of star pickets wrapped in crime scene tape. “She was just dumped there. Open to the elements. Amazing it took so long to find her.”
Luke set up his camera and tripod and panned left to right, zoomed in and out, recording this grim scene. I stood with the Sergeant, not knowing what to say, both of us waiting under leaden skies, dark with returning rain.
The rest of the day was a blur of work. We took shots of the town, shots of the locals from the waist down, shots of the waterfront and the highway and the police station. I composed a piece to camera, threw on my suit jacket and tie and said the words. “Carnarvon police are now appealing to the public for any information…”
Night came quickly. Luke and I checked into our motel rooms, grabbed a bite to eat on the expense account and said goodnight. Alone in my room, I looked out the window, across the road to the little harbour where fishing boats were being fixed with acetylene torches, sending showers of sparks onto the black water. I feel like I was entering a darker world, somewhere right out on the perimeter.
A place of life
The morning was perfect gold. Cobalt skies. Clear and wide. So wide you can see the curvature of the earth on the Indian Ocean’s flat horizon. Early morning sprinklers clicked around and around, soaking lawns and pavements, filling the air with the smell of shimmering heat.
I called my editor and checked in for the day, telling him about the police interview and the crime scene footage we’ve secured. He wanted to lead that evening’s news bulletin with the story, meaning we’d have to drive back to Geraldton that day to make the deadline. Oh, and I still needed another story to justify the expense of the trip…
Luke and I rushed over to the police station to check with the Sergeant if there’d been any major developments. Nothing to report. But he leant over the counter and nodded at the front window. “The Gascoyne River is down that road,” he said. “Rumour has it that it’s going to run today. First time in years on account of the drought. The cyclone rains have brought the whole region to life.”
We said our thanks and drove over to the edge of town where the Nine Mile Bridge spans the Gascoyne River: Western Australia’s longest river, snaking over 800 kilometres from the inland Collier Range to drain in Shark Bay. The river is the bringer of life to the town, the region, and its people.
The bridge was modern and flowing with traffic, while the river bed below looked ancient and utterly dry, the colour of burnt gold. All along the steep riverbanks people were coming to have a look. Cars were doing laps of the bridge, motorcycles thrumming and braking in the side roads, men with beards and tattoos squinting in the sun, peering down the river bend, watching for the water. There’s electricity in the air, a thirst for cool water, clear water, running and flowing for the first time in many hot years.
We stood in the sun for an hour, then two, and there was still no sign of water. It must have been forty degrees Celsius. Eighty per cent humidity. The glare blinded us even behind sunglasses. And every passing minute brought me closer to the murder report’s deadline.
Then as if by magic a thin trickle swelled around the bend and shot beneath the Nine Mile Bridge, crazing and crashing along the dry riverbed.
The golden sand popped with movement as millions of insects felt the return of the water and sprung up from their muddy hiding places. Birds called out and flew in from all around the compass. Fish appeared somehow, thrashing in the shallows spreading wider and wider. Soon the middle pylons of the bridge were knee deep and the depth gauge was wet at its lowest mark, rising and rising, wider and wider. People on the bridge cheers and hugged. Drivers honked their horns as they crossed from one side to the other. The air became cooler and pungent with the smell of fresh water evaporating in the midday sun. Life had returned to the Gascoyne River, returned to Carnarvon.
I found myself cheering the water, my heart rising as fast as this sudden tide. I had come to Carnarvon to see death. But I saw pure life as well, divining through the course of a dry river, bringing hope and light, connecting the desert to the sea.
After the deluge
Soon after that trip, police charged a man with the murder and after a Supreme Court trial he’s now behind bars. And in the years since my visit, the Gascoyne River has flowed many times, sometimes cruelly, causing damage to properties and businesses.
But it always brings life with it. And maybe that’s the lesson – that though there is darkness in every place, all you need is a little rain and the goodness comes flooding back.
That trip was the first of a great many voyages I made across my half million-kilometre patch to search for the heart of the place, whether good or bad, to understand and appreciate the unique beauty and character of the land and its people – to see the rivers of its life running strong.
It was flyover country no more.