170727 Hayes Creek to Pine Creek
Head 9km north along the Stuart Highway until the Fountain Head Road turnoff. It’s 20km until the (in)famous Grove Hill Historic Hotel. Then 62km along the Mount Wells Road tourist-route to Pine Creek. That’s the plan. 90km or so. 80km of which is along rough and very dusty gravel road. Generally I plan for 70km a day along gravel, so I expect it’s going to be tough to ride 90km.
The symbol of a Chinese man carrying buckets laden with mining gear hanging off a yoke slung across his shoulders for the Pine Creek mining tourism route is pertinent considering the contribution Chinese miners played in the Northern Territories early mining history. And indeed in all of Northern Australia.
Back in 1981 just after I started studies at the then WAIT (Western Australian Institute of Technology, today known as Curtin University) I came across a dude striding towards me with all the demeanour and clothes of a typical Australian, yet he was clearly ethnic Chinese. As we met he greeted me a wide smile and said in a broad Aussie accent “G’day Mate!”. His forebearers had come to Australia at the turn of the 20th Century chasing the Australian Dream and never left. He was 3rd generation.
I thought about him seven years later whilst working as a geologist on the Pine Creek goldfields. Ah Toy’s store was still in operation and the presence of Chinese endeavour was unmistakeable in derelict Pine Creek back in 1988.
The project I was investigating was called the Chinese Workings. Narrow tracks winding their way up imponderable slopes to isolated workings. After crawling up the hill I found I couldn’t turn the Toyota HJ45 around. Reversing back down was impossible. What was possible was pointing it down the hill’s slope and letting gravity work its magic. Oh, and don’t forget not to turn the steering wheel. The slope was well in excess of the HJ’s tipping point.
The fieldy failed to warn me of the gulley as I gunned the HJ and forced its backend up off the track and the whole vehicle went up on two wheels and wobbled dangerously. Fortunately momentum was with me and I rolled out of the gully before it rolled and now faced the steep slope nose down. In climbed the fieldy and awaaay we went.
Fortunately there were no large trees in our path and those that were were relatively soft and easily bowled over by the HJ’s brutal bumper and monstrous roo-bar. Still ranks as one of my more exuberant 4WD experiences.
The background work I did on the Pine Creek goldfields described the efforts, endeavours and discoveries attributable to the sizeable Chinese contingent who worked the field a hundred years previously. One of the reasons the Chinese were so successful at discovering new deposits was the hostile law of the day which forbade Chinese from owning or operating mines on a registered ore-field. A European person had the right to claim their discovers and kick them off. They then had to go and find another one. Or work for the white man.
It was sobering and chastising reading about the deprivations they suffered, even though they were invited because the Pine Creek goldfields were “no place for a white man” (http://education.abc.net.au/home?_escaped_fragment_=/media/522079/&_escaped_fragment_=/home#!/home). As workers – derogatorily called ‘coolies’ even in my time – they were “virtual slaves” suffering harsh conditions and appalling treatment at the hands of their European employers (https://www.weekendnotes.com/pine-creek-darwin/).
Today, the Chinese contribution is justifiably celebrated. But the dark-side is not mentioned. Sort of gentrifying history to appease the largely white tourists who like to hear about Outback Legend without being troubled by the discriminatory foundation much of those legends are built on.
I like that a Chinese miner symbolises the Pine Creek mining area today.
The go-slow approach to travel reveals details lost due to the speed vehicles travel at and the need to focus on the road. A little over half way along Fountain Head Road crosses a creek, glimpses of water visible but easily missed. Given it’s peak-dry season it’s a pleasant surprise to find delightful stretches of water under dense canopies of trees. A great camp spot, aside of the road right there, and that it’s just after 1000. I ride on.
Grove Hill is little more than a corrugated tin shed with a bewildering array of artefacts gleaned from the debris of exploration and mining which has being going on for more than a century. ‘The Biggest Gold Nugget’ sits on a plinth in front. It is indeed huge but I suspect it’s not real gold.
I enjoy a corn-beef sammy with pickles and a beer, ignoring the march of the day.
Ram and I drove this road a few weeks ago and I’ve a good idea what to expect. That doesn’t make it easy mind you, just allows for a bit of mental preparation.
Mount Wells Road has the usual Outback Aussies road attributes: long stretches of bone jarring stones, reducing me to walking speed. Deep gullies and potholes filled with the finest and finest quality bulldust which billow up in spectacular clouds of brown and red. Then there are the creek crossings. Foregoing the usual gentle descent, rocky creek-bed, gentle ascent, these are short and nasty. 20% or more declines, a scrappy excuse for a creek then a 20% or more incline. All of it smothered in thick layers of bulldust 20cm deep, more in the gullies.
The rocky substratum prevents the usual technique of steep declines-inclines – hammering it down and using momentum to get up. I can’t hammer it down, instead adroitly using low gear and pumping like mad to maintain momentum. I am eternally grateful I did not have to get off halfway up one of those slopes and wade through the bulldust humping Dreamer and Zi-biddi.
The Northern Railway parallels the road quite closely at some points. As I approach yet another gully, I notice one of these lovely flat bridges crossing my dreaded creek. Hmmm, thinks I, wonder if it’s possible to ride along one of those bridges, avoiding the gullies. I mean, I continue to think, what’s the chance of train coming at exactly the same time I’m crossing? Right at that moment a train comes along, putting an end to any fantasy about trying it out.
Topography is, more or less, easy, but it’s taxing nonetheless. And daylight is rapidly diminishing. I think about camping wild. One look and the impressive skin-obscuring layer of bulldust on my legs reinforces my resolve and I carry on determinately.
Evidence of mining abound: tracks to obscure mines, warnings of mining vehicles, glimpses of infrastructure through the trees, old settlements now little more than a information sign overlooking overgrown land largely indistinguishable from the rest of the bush. It must have been hard at the tail end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. It’s hard enough by highly sophisticated bike knowing there’s a town with all the mod-cons I could ever dream of just down the road. Back then this would have been seriously isolated.
Mount Wells gives way to Frances Creek Road not long after crossing the Northern Railway, still in operation, and another information sign telling of the station which used to serve some settlement or other. Another road to another derelict mine heads the other way, warnings about entering.
The warnings about visiting old mining sites are well intentioned. Scarred lands where the industrial facilities used to be (if they are decommissioned and removed), various steep-sided and unstable pits filled with water (at least up here), old mine equipment left strewn around. It’s hardly what one could call safe and stable. And then there’s potential for heavy-metal contamination in pit waters, the old tailings management facilities, indeed in the very dust and ground of the site itself.
So, they warn you not to visit. I wonder though, for how long can they sterilise huge areas of land because they haven’t cleaned it up and returned it to a condition conducive to re-vegetation and indeed re-use. The industry’s argument is largely economic: it’d cost a fortune to do all the post-closure clean-up, landscaping, rehabilitating and remediation necessary to not warn people. The government buys into this short-termism by accepting their argument. Afterall, they are often in the middle of fucking nowhere. Why bother?
Bother comes from considering – and assuming – multi-generational change in land use and public behaviour. Assuming we’re gonna be around for generations, warning people to not enter these sites is unacceptable, especially considering a handful of investors got pretty rich off the operations and have left society to pay for the damage.
If the cost of rendering a site permanently safe and secure makes the project uneconomic, then the project is uneconomic and should not go ahead. Australia is a long way from adopting such a society-centric perspective in mine-project development. Many other countries too.
Still I peddle on, getting more and more tired and dusty. Surely, I think to myself, the asphalt’s godda come soon. Surely. Peddle peddle peddle …
Finally, at 1730, the asphalt turns up. I’ve three kilometres to Pine Creek. And a shower.
I have to be honest here. I don’t check-in at reception. Instead I head to the unpowered sites area, pick a spot under the trees and set up camp. I’m quite familiar with the Lazy Lizard Caravan Park where, previously, I’ve had very pleasant stays. But this time it’s peak season.
The unpowered sites are surrounded on one side by powered sites and on the other by a phalanx of cabins. Tonight they are all occupied. Bright fluorescent light floods the area rendering night into a vague impression of day. People gather, drink beers and talk late into the night. I hear every word. It’s not that they are hammered or talking loudly. Just that a still outback night is quiet by definition and sound travels preternaturally. It’s late before the park is quiet and I get some decent sleep.
I’ve another night here so next morning I tour the far reaches of the park well beyond the cabins and the crowded sites at the front of the park. There I find an open area with afternoon shade well away from the crowds. But there’s a catch. It is reserved for Outback Tours. I’m a risk taker but even I shy away from the thought of pitching my dicky little tent only to find 12 Euro-tourists rocking up during their outback tour.
I go to reception and explain my dilemma. They empathise. They check their bookings. “One night you say?” “Yeah, one more night” “We have no bookings. Yeah, go for it”.
Relieved I return and set up camp, building an outdoor kitchen to deal with the wind but otherwise enjoying a peaceful night.
170728 Pine Creek
Today’s goal is to be a pedestrian tourist and wander around Pine Creek. I spent months here over the wet season between 1987 and 1988. Resolutely I made my way down one side of the menu in the motel and back up the other side. Several times. The humidity ensured that I’d wake at 0530 and go for a run at 0600. Any later and the ‘wet bulb temperature’ effect would have killed me. Just getting out of bed sent cascades of sweat pouring off me. I had to sleep and use the room with the airconditioning off to keep me acclimatised to the heat and the humidity. During the day I was out in it performing reasonable hard physical labour. Being conditioned to it was imperative.
Pine Creek today is unrecognisable to what it was yesteryear. The Stuart now bypasses it. The Lazy Lizard and the Pine Creek Railway Resort didn’t exist. Come to think of it, I don’t think any caravan park existed back then.
The town was derelict, abandoned by the gold boom sweeping the rest of Australia. Until a few companies began to sniff around and I was sent up to report on whether it was worth spending money on detailed exploration.
The rains would start 1500 on the dot. I’d be in the field desperately trying to finish whatever I was doing as the rains marched across the landscape towards me. Water was E V E R Y W H E R E pouring down the rocks and into gullies, leaching out of the ground itself in large sheets, pools in every depression, the roads and tracks veritable rivers and pools causing no end of adventurous driving.
Frilled-necked lizards raced around, huge goannas and three-metre long olive pythons entertained me no end. As did the zillions of mosquitoes.
It was an eclectic and electric time and I enjoyed myself very much.
The motel still exists but bears no relation to the place I stayed.
The rest of the town I don’t really recognise.
Today an open air museum presents technology used back in the halcyon days a century ago and well worth wandering around.
I enjoyed my day.
Tomorrow I start the Kakadu Highway back to Jabiru.