Paynes Find: back in the Outback

15 April 2019, heading north from Northam towards Goomalling.
I got rained on! Err, yeah, as in drops from the sky.

I left Cob’s farm kinda late after a hearty farm breakfast of eggs, toast and tomatoes. Hilly terrain. Almost a tailwind. Hard to tell. A climbing day, not steep but relentless.

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Grain roadtrains abound as I head north from Northam

Kerry tells me it’s grain transfer season, which explains the frequent covered roadtrains transporting grain from silos to stations. I experienced them before in 2015 between Albany and Esperance. There’s a big difference between professional long-distance roadtrain drivers and these short distance local-heroes.

E.O.D (End of Day), Goomalling caravan park.
Knee held out, though I could feel it. Decided a short day was prudent. But each day shorter than the 65km I need to do means I’ve either got to do longer days. Or shall be late in Wiluna. Will see.

16 April 2019, SOD
Woke early enough, like 0600. The large flock of squawking corellas impossible to ignore. Drank coffee as the roadtrains fired up, competing with the corellas.

The Wilderness Equipment tent is great, for most of what Australia tosses at the traveller. It’s not so good at wet stuff. The heavy dew threatens ominously as the fly lies against the inner mozzy mesh. Now it’s raining. Not a lot, but rain nonetheless. Godda work out how to keep the fly off the inner-tent. Otherwise when it really does rain I’ll need soap to take advantage of the impromptu, and unavoidable, wash.

I rocket along, doing near 20kph moving average. The roadtrains drop off east of Dowerin, improving my ride considerably. It’s all very pleasant. Impossible not to enjoy. Knee’s OK, and the rain holds off though I can see showers dotted around when I get a view out over the plains.

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Track-snacks courtesy of some dude. Nice eh?

A car pulls up along side me. “Where are you going?” “Wiluna” “I’ll see you there” the middle-aged man says. “At the cemetery road I’ll leave you some lollies” and, with a cheerio, drives off. Sure enough, a small container of nuts and mint lollies awaits me. Thanks Mate!

16 April 19: EOD Wylkatchem caravan park
Isn’t Wylkatchem an excellent name? I love it, always have. Up there with Mukinbudin and Widgiemooltha for The Best Name for A Town. I buy a sticker, trim it until it says: ‘Wykatchem: strange name – beaut place’.

A romantic side of me enjoys the Wheatbelt, the idea of being a farmer, inherited from my father who remained his whole life a frustrated wannabe-farmer. But there’s a dark side to the Wheatbelt, as with most farming, ranching and animal-husbandry practices in Australia. It is unsuitable for Australia.

Australia began to break free from the rest of the world in the Permian, 298-250 MYA, in a process that took hundreds of millions of years. By the Tertiary, <65 MYA, Australia was an island. During various glaciations it was connected by land bridges to Papua New Guinea which may have been connected by other land bridges to other land masses in south Asia. Otherwise, Australia went about doing its own thing.

For up to 65 million years Australian biodiversity, from the soil, bacteria, fungus, algae, through all the various tiers of plant and animal life inextricably symbiotically evolved together completely independent from what was happening in the rest of the world. They got placental mammals. We got marsupials.

The arrival of Australian First Nations changed a few things, but not extensively.

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Wheatbelt Road. Maybe there’s a song in that … ridin’ down Wheatbelt Road …

Then we turn up and change everything. Dramatically. We introduce alien grasses and plants, herbivores, huge herbivores, and state-of-the-art carnivores and apex predators the likes of which Australia has never seen. To accommodate them we wipe out hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of vegetation and biosphere exquisitely adapted to Australia’s unique geology and pedosphere.

The Western Australian Wheatbelt slices the south-west of WA from Hopetoun on the Southern Ocean coast to Kalbarri a 1000km to the north. 150 000 km2. It’s a huge area. It’s not only wheat. Sheep, orchards and mining also occur.

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Western Australian Wheatbelt (wikipedia)

It’s a vast fucking desert. One that turns green and gets shorn when the rains are good. One which turns into fine dust blown in drought winds when the rains are not. There is no virgin forest of eucalyptus or mallee left, which covered the area previously. Tiny pockets of remnant vegetation are all that remain. No wildlife corridors, no extensive refuges. Unsurprisingly, it’s home to 11% of Australia’s critically endangered plants (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheatbelt_(Western_Australia)). It’s what happens when you wipe out a huge extensive unique biodiversity rich ecosystem. What’s left is ‘rare’.

The winds howl uninterrupted across it. I take lunch in a tiny remnant patch of eucalyptus, comfortably sheltered under 20m tall trees. What were we thinking?

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Would they do it the same now if they know what we know?

As climate change speeds up we are going to have to confront our choices and behaviours. The Australian bush has survived countless variations in extreme climate and weather. Wheat hasn’t. Nor have sheep and cattle. Not in Australia.

I stock up in the Wylkatchem store. There’s only one more north of me, in Koorda, until I get to Wiluna 700km away. Can’t get wraps. The manager doesn’t know what they are! How can he not know what wraps are!? I’m shocked and buy rolls instead.

17 April SOD
Very heavy dew this morning. Tent’s soaked. Almost like it rained (it didn’t).

A climbing day. I’ve been climbing since Mandurah. Looks like I’ll be climbing all the way to Wiluna. Looong ups, with short unfulfilling downs. Rarely more than 3%, but still remorselessly up.

Stocked up at Koorda’s tiny shop.

Wind’s kinda tail, with a good dose of cross. Dies off as the afternoon progresses.

Ended up at Rick’s gnamma hole: a hole in rock where water collects. Dry this time of year. Expansive views out over Rick’s property. Did well today, nearly 90km. Getting used to it. Again.

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Rick’s gnamma hole camp

Late afternoon, standing on the road, map in hand, wondering where to camp. It’s isolated, little traffic. I could camp in the corpse adjacent the road and not be troubled. There’s a camp ground at Mollerin Rocks, but that requires a substantial detour and since there’s no water there’s no point.

A car pulls up. Rick owns most of the land around here and tells me I’m welcome to camp where I want. A far, far cry from the prevailing Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted and Penalties Apply mentality I’m usually dealing with.

“Right down Chapman” he tells me, “200m, through the gate on the right, a couple hundred meters further is a gnamma hole”. I’m offered a shower too but that’ll require a 16km round trip. Rick tells me he’ll be in town “only a short while. I’ll pick you up for a shower when I return”.

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Pretty good kitchen view

Instead I enjoy the expansive view as I cook dinner. Thanks Rick. Wonder if he’ll pick me up. Knowing farming and outback folk, they are keepers of their word.

Tomorrow is the Outback. The Wheatbelt ends and the Outback begins. Mouroubra Station lies about halfway between Koorda and Paynes Find. Via Facebook Mat tells me I’m welcome to drop in for some water. Saves me carrying like 10litres or more.

By the time Rick does turn up I’ve been asleep two hours. I thank him again, he wishes me well and I return to my tent.

18 April 19. EOD, a wild camp 40km south of Mouroubra Station.
Tough day. Barely 60 kms. Loooong climbs, headwinds, cross-headwinds, gravel. Welcome Back Max, you’ve missed this. No wheatbelt no more. Mallee and eucalyptus scrub. And fences lining the road. Welcome back.

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Nasty damned things

Started the day with a flat. A double-gee. Scourge of the bush. An introduced pest, brought in for or with cattle, from South Africa where huge herbivore with impenetrable feet don’t even know they exist. My poor, poor pitiful, thin walled, non-kevlar armoured, non-Double-Defence Snake-Skin sidewall protected non-high-tech-fibre-breaker-stripped Surly Extraterrestrials are a poor substitute for whatever monster evolved with the 2DG. Tire’s flat, 2DG sticking out of it. Lovely start to the day.

Without water the hole is too small to find. A needle in a flat matt black haystack. I replace the innertube and hope I find a cattle trough or something before the next flat.

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Fortuitous tank with puddle. And a tap

A leaking water tank provides enough of a puddle to fix the flat before turning north off the asphalt onto the Mouroubra Road.

As the day turned to Find A Campsite time, enviously I watched the fence lining the road, the other side of which countless beautiful camp sites pass me by. Viscous fantasies of wire cutters flash through my mind. Eventually whole sections of the fence lie flat and I ride over it and find my campsite.

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We have a flyapocalyps. Fortunately I am prepared

This is what getting cycling fit is all about. Tired legs, a dull ache in the muscles. I can’t eat enough to maintain weight or energy levels. I’m losing weight gaining tone getting fit. Love it.

There are zillions of flies. I retreat under my flynet to get some peace. Dozens get trapped between the inner tent and the fly. A symphony of flies ping-pong between the fly and the inner, sounding for all like rain. Black rain. Fly black rain. Strange sound.

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The wheatbelt (sort of) ends here
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The Outback begins here. Next asphalt is in Halls Creek 2500km north

19 April 19. EOD Paynes Find
What. A. Day! 112km, all on gravel. Tailwind. Rocket of a tailwind. Great. But … yeah, there’s a nasty but …

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Wild Camp Mouroubra Rd

Went to bed very early last night. Woke for the first time to discover it was … 1945! Next time .. 0330. And the next time when the rain started at 0500. With a lot of wind. Coz I was in the tent the wind didn’t actually affect the tent but it did make is seem like I was camped next to a roaring river.

Despite an hour or so of rain the inner tent remained remarkably dry. May have underestimated my Wilderness Equipment tent.

Any concerns about the wind evaporated once I started. A rocket of a tailwind on a great road with few corrugations. Roared along.

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Mouroubra Rd

Forty kilometres from camp lies Mouroubra Station, a known water supply. Handy, since I’ve not seen any other supply. If the wind was like yesterday this would be a hard ride. Instead, with a screaming tailwind I make it well before lunch.

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A lick of paint and bit of TLC and she’ll be fine, at the Mouroubra Station turn off

I nearly ride past the turnoff. It looks deserted, long drifts of soft sand obscuring the track. No tire prints. I check the Montana which is pretty definitive. It is the turnoff. I take to riding through the open scrub to avoid the worst of the soft sand. I see the windmill first, then the house. Lush green grass, a late model 4WD parked out front, some dongas, the usual large open shed full of gear. It doesn’t look abandoned. It has to be the Mouroubra Station. The sand on the track? Testament to the wind that’s howling around, I guess (hope?).

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Mouraboura Station and water

No one’s home. The glass sliding door is open, with only the flyscreen stopping me. I don’t go in. I walk around calling out. No one answers. I don’t like this, furtively sneaking around someone’s home, invading their privacy, their world.

I try the tap in the middle of the green lawn. No water. A pump needs to be on. I come across the rainwater tank with a tap. Beautiful water pours out. I return with all my bottles and fill up, drinking deep, filling, drinking, filling until I can’t drink anymore. I write a note and leave it on the table telling them I was here.

The silence starts to get to me. Vivid images of butchered people assail me. Where are they? The wind whispering conspiratorially doesn’t help.

Spooked, I jump on Troll and retreat my path back to the road and keep riding north, powered by the wind.

190420 Paynes Find 18
Salt pans, some with water, start to appear

I make spectacular time through an isolated ancient landscape. Beautiful.

I’ve not seen a vehicle for over 24hours. Given it’s Good Friday and it’s a great road to avoid the dull busy industrialised monotony of the Great Northern Highway, I’m surprised. An hour north of Mouroubra two pass me heading north. Neither stop or say hello, though I get waves. A vehicle coming towards me emerges from the dust. Three vehicles in five minutes. What are the chances?

It slows and stops. A 30-something guy with a big smile and a cowboy hat asks “Max?”

I have a wonderful chat with Mat, owner of Mouroubra and another guy, woman and a boy who’s names I just can’t remember. “Did you get some?” “Yes” “From the rainwater tank?” “Yes. I left a note.”

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Matt (in hat) and friends. Great to meet them

A very pleasant mid-road conversation. Shame I missed them at their homestead. Had I I’d have enjoyed coffee and a shower. Even now, Mat is prepared to run me back to the homestead for a shower, then return me here! Best of Australians. Thanks guys.

Parting question: “Are you going to ride to Paynes Find today?” “No” I answer “50km to go and it’s already 1300. Too far I reckon”

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Proof it rained not too long ago

But I hadn’t factored in just how strong that tailwind is. As the kilometres zip past I recalculate. Keep up an average speed of 20kph I’ll be there by 1630. Why. The. Fuck. Not? I’ll still finish earlier than the 88km from the other day. Take a room. Buy a meal. Perfect plan. What. Can. Go. Wrong?

Hmmm …

Double-Gees, that’s what.

1600, 12 kilometres from Paynes Find. Not one, but two 2DGs. One in each tire. I backtrack 200m to a fortuitous puddle at the side of the road, strip Troll, turn it upside down, remove the tires, remove the inner-tubes, find the punctures, fix, reverse the entire procedure. Consider: should I stay or should I go? Twelve kilometres.

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2 more, smack on dusk and 4000m from Paynes Find

I go, pushing north. 4000 metres from Paynes Find the hum of pressurised rubber on hard track has abated. Not one but two in my rear tire. In the last eight kilometres I’ve had more flats than in the last eight years, including 14 000 km of Epic on Dreamer.

It’s 1745, smack on sunset and the light’s fading fast. Fuck!

Strip Troll down, flip it over, remove the tire, replace the inner tube, replace, repack, reload, ride. It’s past 1800 and it’s really dark.

Troll’s Edulux Light isn’t adjusted right and doesn’t shine forward enough to plan the ride. It doesn’t spread wide enough either, to see the sides of the road. I ride fixated by a puddle of bright light a paltry few metres in front of me, relying on my peripheral vision to avoid running off the road. Strange experience.

Without further drama I make Paynes Find where a heavily tattooed, pierced and accented woman charges me 110$ for a long-worn out room, tired from years of hard service. It seems a lot of money, but I pay it without hesitation, for I am not camping tonight.

20 April 2019. Paynes Find, rest day
Paynes Find is/was a gold town. Thomas Payne found gold-bearing ore here in the first decennia of the 20th century, hence the name. Its heyday was in the 1930s when some 500 people lived here. All that remains now is a roadhouse and, oddly, Western Australia’s only working gold battery. And lots, and lots and lots and lots of broken glass, wrecked cars, decaying metal and whatever other residue of nearly 100 years of prospectors believing somehow that all their garbage will somehow disappear into the environment.

110$ may seem a lot for a tiny tired donga room, albeit with ensuite, and, I must say, spotlessly clean, but just out the back is the, err, euphemistically and somewhat optimistically called ‘campground’. A large expanse hard-packed and covered in gravel, brutally blasted by a sun not even remotely challenged by any tree, where the relentless sound of the massive diesel generators washes over it, smothering everything in a not-so-dull roar, accompanied by roadtrain lullabies.

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The, err, campground. Not inspiring for a small tent

220$ is not a lot of money to avoid a lengthy jail sentence for setting fire to Paynes Find’s generators and an even lengthier stint in a secure psychiatric hospital after losing it to the dust, the stones, the flies, the sounds of the roadtrains and whatever else a tiny tent fully exposed to the brutal truth of open blasted ground suffers.

Everything got a clean. Tent, sleeping bags, clothes. Nothing takes long to dry in Western Australia.

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Clean and dry day, outside my donga in Panyes Find

The staff relented their Tough Chick personas and showed me where to get all the rainwater I needed. In my donga is a fridge. In the fridge is a single 500ml single-use bottle of water. I drink the bottle and think Now What? I go to the roadhouse where I’m met with a woman who’s become unnaturally tough having had, I believe, to deal with the prevailing patrimony. I ask about water. She looks at me like a very sharp knife considers lean beef. “There’s a bottle in your room” she tells me. “And when that’s finished?” I ask, unperturbed. I rarely eat beef and knives don’t frighten me. She stares at me a moment. The knife is removed and put to one side and she takes me into the restaurant area and shows me a ceramic filter with a small tap. “You can get water here.” “Thanks, but I’m on a bicycle. I’ll need like 20litres when I start for Sandstone” We both look at the ceramic filter. It’s not up to it.

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The rainwater tank. Much appreciate being able to fill up from it

William Creek, on the Oodnadatta Track, insisted I pay for water. It was more expensive than petrol or diesel. The water from my room’s ensuite is borewater. Calc-rich and mineralised, it’s not potable water, but it is good enough. But I want to see what they’ll do here. 220$ I’ll be spending on accommodation. Electricity, bedding, TV, kettle, microwave, fridge, bedding, hot shower, you know there’s a lot included in the 110$ per night. I wanna know if potable water is.

A small smile appears on the side of her mouth. “I’ll show you where the rainwater tank is”.

And thank you very much for doing that. The water was great and appreciate being able to have it.

Tomorrow, I start the 240km to Sandstone. I’ve tried to find stations along the route, particularly in Youanmi but to no avail. 240km at 1:20 (ltr:km) is 12 litres. At 80 km per day, it’s a full three days, two nights. Per day, say 2 litres cooking and hygiene: 6 litres. 18 litres in total. I’ll take 15 and see how it goes. Depends on winds, terrain, road condition and temperature. So far, 15 litres would see me through.

I confess to some anxiety about this, struggling with conviction and confidence in my water management strategy. Despite all my experience I still fret. Worse Case Scenario? I’ll be scrounging water from vehicles. Hardly life-threatening. Still I worry. I’ve analysed to death what I’m up against – 240km. Against water consumption: <1ltre per 30km so far + cooking & hygiene. Twelve litres would do it. I know this. Still I fret!

Temperatures OTH barely make 30C. 2016 I rode for 3 months each day far north of 40-45C OTH. Terrain is up. But like 200m over 240km. It’s not exactly mountainous. The winds are Easterly but not strong enough to reduce me to 8-10 kph moving average. I’ll get 80 km per day. Three days. What. Is. My. Problem?

No idea. Tomorrow, with 15 litres of water, I ride.

Now, time to enjoy a bed …

Max
Paynes Find, 20 April 2019

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