During the first night at Peak Charles camp the gusting winds bent our tents and rain hammered in a short deluge. In the morning I found everyone drying out clothes and gear in the patchy sunshine. The gusting winds continued to harass our big brunch cook up so I delegated two of the kids to serve as wind blockers by holding up my sleeping pad near the stoves. Somehow a delicious meal of bacon and eggs and diced potatoes with spices and baked beans and Turkish bread with ghee managed to happen despite the blasts.
Some parents and kids and "Super Gran" hiked up the foot of Peak Charles to Mushroom Rock, an oddly eroded chunk of granite that could serve as a shelter. From there we got our first view across the vast reaches of the Great Western Woodland, the largest area of Mediterranean forest in the world, the size of England. A short stubby rainbow graced the distant salt pans that are all that is left of an ancient river system.
Returning to camp we found that Paul had a hefty chunk of beef roast on a spit next to a roaring fire of wood he had gathered using his buggy. The kids helped to wrap potatoes in aluminum foil and place them into the coals. As darkness fell we dug them out and Paul sliced off strips of the roast. I pulled out Lee's guitar and reeled off a few of my standard covers, and then the kids began singing songs they'd learned in their school chorus. I tried to accompany them. Finally the marshmallows came out for the kids to toast, and after eating them they ran around with glowing sticks in an energetic fire dance. The Milky Way was absolutely stunning and I pointed out Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn before the kids were off to bed. Later Mars came up, and then the Moon, as Lee and I drank beers and discussed space and science and spirituality.
Happily I slept in the next morning, waking to the sound of happy excited kids on the other side of our camp. They had set up little "shops" among the bushes, had invented a currency using pretty stones, and were painting on paper with paint made of earth and water. Lee was there receiving a hair scrub using local plants called "pigface". I was offered a shoe cleaning and a complimentary painting.
Four of us adults made a scouting hike towards the Peak Charles summit but got stopped by rain and took shelter under Mushroom Rock until it calmed. We wondered how many people over the eons had also sheltered here. The way back down over bare rock had become treacherously slick. We picked our steps carefully and made it back without any slips. Paul had a Ziegler barbeque going and in no time was turning out thin crust pizza. Now we were definitely "glamping". The rain and wind kept hitting us, though, and took away much of the glamour.
Finally Lee and I managed to get an early enough start that we caught a decent window of weather and made the ascent of Peak Charles. There were a few sections that required using tiny handholds and a fall could have been serious. On wet rock I thought it would be impossible. So we kept going, hoping to beat the rain that we could see coming down in distant moving patches out across the expanses of woodland.
After about an hour we clambered up the final slabs and attained the summit, adding our own stones to a giant cairn that surmounts it. An eagle whooshed by in the steady wind, talons extended, feathers ruffling. Woodland stretched out in every direction to the horizon, flat as a great olive green ocean. Two smaller nearby peaks, like islands, were the only relief on the landscape, save for the chain of dry lakebeds remaining from the ancient river to the north.
"Happy 50th, Lee! Thanks so much for inviting me here!" I gave him a huge hug.
We could see the camp below and waved our arms until we saw little figures running and heard a distant cheer. We took our time making the descent and when we came into camp we were greeted as heroes by the kids. We'd brought them back pretty pebbles we'd found up high. They danced all around with the eternal excitement and love of life of children.
Finally it was the morning of leaving Peak Charles and packing up again was a real chore. It wasn't until after ten that we got going back out on that washboard road. Then Lee and his Mum both smelled something burning. The convoy stopped to check our van but the smell quickly went away. Off we went again.
When we reached sealed roads again we stopped to regroup and suddenly discovered the source of the terrible smell. It was not our van at all, but one of the wheels on Paul's trailer glowing red hot. And there was more bad news: Blue Viper's car would not go out of four wheel drive. We had a double breakdown on our hands, hundreds of kilometers from home in Perth.
Paul now got to show us his tremendous "bush mechanic" skills. He removed his wheel and replaced a burnt bearing, and in the process discovered that the axle had gotten out of true, so with Lee operating a "come along" strap anchored at the trailer hitch, Paul loosened the U-bolts holding the axle to the leaf springs and with a mallet rapped the axle forward a few inches.
Blue Viper got her car into "all wheel drive", which was suitable for highway driving, and we were off. At the historic mining town of Coolgardie we bought beans and more beer. Finally after dark we reached a caravan park in Southern Cross, ready to begin Part Two of Lee's Half Century Birthday trip into the outback.