Huddled in Room 7 of the Norseman Hotel whilst a savage south-westerly threatens to tear my Hillebergs Soulo apart as it dries on the spacious balcony. The Norseman Hotel dates waaay back to when Norseman was a booming mining town making it a somewhat incongruously glorious building standing out from the far more sedate structures which reflect more sober and lean times.
It’s cold. Well, cold for this part of the world. Low teen temperatures made to feel even colder by relentless chill-winds no matter whether they blow from the north – “How can a wind blowing in from the deserts be so cold?” queried an exasperated Rob yesterday as we slogged into a north- north-easterly – the south, the west or the east.
Departing Esperance a couple of days ago we decided to forgo the ‘large hill’ just out of the city by taking Fisheries Rd before turning left on Dempster and finally another left on Gibson Road, bringing us to the small settlement of Gibson on the Coolgardie-Esperance Highway. Easy if long incline, according to the GPS elevation plot. Worked great until we turned on to Gibson which runs due west-east, where we ran smack into a strong headwind and a looong incline. Past vast fields and numerous dead tiger snakes, one killed but 100 m in front of me by the 4WD which just passed me.
Our little plan kinda backfired. Instead of the ‘large hill’ we got over an hour of solid headwinds whilst climbing continuously and an extra 15 km on top of what we would have ridden.
The weather was kind to us. Not too hot and not raining. Our westerly along the Gibson Road swung around a bit into a south-westerly and we flew along chewing up the kilometres as we cycled to Salmon Gums. Lunched in Grass Patch where Rob commented that he’s not done 100 km before lunch before.
Salmon Gums lies about 107 km from Esperance. We rode 122 km due to our ‘clever’ diversion. A record for me this trip.
Had a great time at Salmon Gums. 122 km is a long day and our ‘diversion’ added an extra element. We were in no mood to cook and be domestic. After setting up tents and a hot shower we made our way to the Salmon Gums Hotel where I had the best pizza since arriving in Australia. Actually, it was my first pizza since arriving in Australia. And it was delicious. As was Rob’s.
Chatting with the Hotel manager/owner, picked up on the local news, found out that Carlton Dry is the most sold beer in the pub and otherwise enjoyed their large fire. The TV mused about Australian football and the imminent final’s playoffs about to begin.
Craig, the Caravan Park caretaker, is an early-mid-30s dude from Sydney who gave up his lawn mowing job to travel to Perth. He never made it. Just shy of Perth someone stole his car leaving him seriously bereft of everything we take for granted: identification, clothes, equipment, everything. Robbed of his dream of hitting Perth he starts to hitchhike back to Sydney. He makes it to Norseman where he gets offered the job of caretaker for Salmon Gums’ Community Caravan Park.
Tucked in behind the town over the railway it’s a delightful spot. Craig’s found he quite likes the simplicity and solitude, mixed with the diversity of the daily influx of random tourists and their stories. He makes a fire which draws the human moths and so the stories are told. “I’ve never been out of Australia” he says somewhat plaintively. “It’s my first time in WA too.” Eyeing up the bikes and chatting to Rob and I he continues “I’ve never thought about travelling around Australia by bike”.
I suggest that he starts small on a simple bike and see if it’s for him, pointing out that if he really likes the slow-lane, cycling is a good way to travel. And all the travails, the heat, dust, cold, wind and rain “ … you just get used to it, working out your own way of dealing with it”. We leave him thoughtful and somewhat content with his fire his caravan park his simplicity and hit the sack.
The last day of August was clearly a return to the Good Old Bad Old days of the very not so long ago … All morning the clouds built up whilst a strong north-north-easterly blew straight into our faces. We take turns every ten minutes to take the lead allowing the rear rider a chance to rest, in a relative way. It’s hard riding not the least because of the 122 km we did the day previously.
Sometimes waaay ahead, sometimes waaay to the east or the west we see the fine grey misty opaqueness as rain falls. Ever the optimists we encourage each other by saying insightful things like “It should pass in front/behind/to the side of us” or “It’ll be long gone by the time where are there”.
Unfortunately the weather forecast stated “100% chance of rain”.
And so the clouds built. Dark heavy foreboding. But also south and to the west of us, and we are combatting a solid north- north-easterly wind. Should miss us.
Then Eugene and Val pass me and I realised then we are doomed. Eugene and Val I met at Pallinup River. They have travelled from the East and claim the rain has resolutely followed them, and acknowledge that they are Rain Gods. And they came from the south. I knew then that we were gonna get wet.
Hoping to eat before the rain hits we stop for lunch. It starts raining before we even get off the bikes. Lunch becomes a stand up affair cowering under Mallee bushes. Crammed into my hands are a tomato, cucumber, lump of parmigiana regiano, salami and dry biscuits. Since it’s not possible to sit anywhere and create wonderful combinations of these sublime ingredients on the biscuits I bite huge chunks out of each in turn and munch my way through lunch. In the rain. Under a Mallee bush. Wonderful experience.
Rob reckons the rain will stop anytime soon. I figure if I’m gonna get wet I may as well ride. It doesn’t stop and we ride. The wind has not only dropped in intensity, it’s also swung around to a west- south-westerly. Small mercies. Perhaps not. The wind keeps the rain an even pace with us. It gets harder and we ride on counting the kilometres in pouring rain, glad that a warm dry destination awaits us.
An hour later the rain finally ends. The wind remains fickle but not as strong as in the morning.
I used to live and work in Norseman. Back in 1983-84, for Norseman Gold Corporation. My first ‘professional’ job, my first paid exposure to the mining industry as a nascent geologist. During the summer. It was blistering hot. I’ve seen plenty of the large salt-lakes in the area. Blinding white under intense blue skies. Now I can attest that they really are salt lakes. Each one is full. And the water very saline. The sky is not intense blue. Quite a change.
Legend has it Norseman is named after some dude’s horse, not errant Norwegians who got seriously lost.
Our accommodation choice is the caravan park, where we’d have to tent. The Hotel, with its grand balustrades. Or the Motel, with its art-deco styling. Precede each with ‘Norseman’. We will be tenting pretty much every night for the next two to three weeks. The Motel is pretty full and can offer cabins only for 60 AUD. At the Hotel we get a room each for 40 AUD with shared amenities. Suits us fine.
The evening is calm, dry, and beautiful as we sit on the large balcony and muse about pretty much everything. I crash ridiculously early, worn out by two hard days riding. I don’t want such energy demands and riding styles when crossing the Nullarbor. I want to ride comfortably with my daily milestone driven more by the number of hours ridden rather than the number of kilometres which must be ridden to achieve a milestone.
Early in the morning the rain hammers down. Brutally. It wakes me up and all I can think of is … Thank God I’m inside tonight. Today the south-westerly is strong. If we were on the bikes we may complain about the chill of the wind but we’d be damned enthusiastic about its strength as a tail-wind.
Winter riding may be great from that Australian pet paranoia – dying from heat stroke or frying yourself to death or general death from dehydration and lack of water. But it sucks in terms of comfortable riding days. There must be some magical time of the year between winter’s petulance and damp windy moods and summer’s brain-frying-skin cancering-body and soul dehydrating-exuberance, when the riding is under clear Australian blue-skies yet the sun in mild and wind tame.
I wander Norseman. Back to where I worked and lived, past the impressive tailings facility which dates waaay back a century or so now. Still not reprocessed, still not revegetated either. My ‘donger’ – temporary quarters – where I lived has long given way to more salubrious accommodation complete with air-conditioning.
Two things stand out as I walk Norseman’s main street, Prinsep Street. One, it’s wide. Wide enough to turn a camel train to turn around. A necessity in the days before trains and road-trains when goods and equipment was carried by huge camel trains. The other … that Norseman continues to be a town which perpetually has seen better times. Many buildings boarded up, shops shut down, vacant plots going to weed, peeling paint and an almost limitless other indicators of dereliction. And still the mine is in operations.
Today is Final Preparation Day. Final shopping for food and water supplies. For mentally preparing ourselves. For …
Tomorrow is The Day.
Tomorrow we start the ride across the Nullarbor.
Norseman, 1 September 2015