The owners of the Southern Cross caravan park thought it a funny joke to install pop-up lawn sprinklers, set to go off at 4 a.m., in the grass tenting area. Luckily I had put the rain fly on my tent. I hung the soaking thing on the Hills Hoist to be dried by the rising sun.
Lee's sister Kelly and her partner Darren had driven from Perth to join us and arrived in the wee hours. As they had packed in a rush there was a great amount of repacking all morning and our convoy, now four vehicles, didn't get underway until after noon. Some in the party were rather unhappy about this.
Happily, though, the red earth track, which began at a small town named Bullfinch, was so well graded that we could zoom along at highway speeds. The track was graded for the mining operations in the area, the ones that were threatening to encroach on the banded iron formations we were heading out to see.
We had to search a bit to find the smaller, rougher track that led into the Helena and Aurora Ranges. These are low hills but they stick up prominently from the enormous green sea of trees and brush that carpet the world here from horizon to horizon. At one point along the track we stopped for a pee break and Lee stood on an ant nest. Angry ants quickly climbed his legs and began to bite. He was still swatting them after we got driving again, causing him to swerve, nearly missing gum trees.
There was a crackle of excited voices on the walkie talkie. The cars in front of us were on the tail of a wild camel trotting down the track! The poor beast was too nervous (or thick) to realize that it should just cut into the brush and let us pass, so it kept trotting, soon frothing at the mouth, with four cars in slow pursuit. Finally at a junction it went left and our way was to the right.
We zigzagged through the gum forest as darkness fell. Lee was trying to make out the camp site he'd selected from his memory of being there years ago. We finally found a large flat space and circled our wagons. Someone lit a central fire and tents started popping up under trees all around.
In the morning we got the first real look at our surroundings. Low hills rose above tree tops to the southeast. Children sang near the smokey campfire: it was Paul's birthday. He had backed his Can-Am buggy off the big trailer last night and today we went for thrilling rides up bumpy tracks and impossible rock slides. The stones were striped bright red and black, the banded iron exposed, along with occasional quartz crystals.
In the evening Paul and Sarah treated us to a damper baked in an iron kettle in the fire. It came out perfect: crunchy on the outside, hot and steamy and soft inside. Paul put a shovel full of red coals under each of our camp chairs to warm our back sides as we sat around the fire.
The next day a few of us adults took the kids on a hike up the nearby hills. They picked up beautiful stones as we made our way up a dry creek bed to a shady clearing with views out across the enormous forest land. The kids were getting along splendidly. Not so much the adults: bickerings over trite things had begun. Who put the gloves in the wrong place? Why wasn't the pork roast ready yet? After sunset the brilliant stars and planets overhead should have reminded us how tiny our problems were.
Morning came and I made my instant coffee. Declan made a sundial using an upright stick and stones placed at the tip of the shadow every hour. Paul packed several adults and kids into the buggy and took us up a track to the top of the range where there were many caves to explore. The kids climbed around like monkeys on the steep rocky slope. Later, back at camp, they entertained us with a dance show set to music from Paul's stereo. They had limitless energy.
The next day I felt like having some time alone in the bush so I hiked a couple hours down the main track to a rock monolith we'd seen standing at the top of another hill in the range. I had a walkie talkie with me and helped guide the others who came later, just in time for sunset, when Nipple Rock (as they decided to call the monolith) glowed bright red.
On Thursday two vehicles left: Paul and Sarah took their three kids, and Elma took her two. The camp, now down to two vehicles and six people, suddenly felt quiet. Lee and Chia and I hiked up the range until we got mobile phone signal and checked messages and the weather forecast. It looked like decent weather would continue so we came back and informed the others we'd stay another night. In the evening, around a smaller campfire, the guitar came out and we sang many songs, looking up to marvel at one more night sky of Milky Way so bright it seemed you could reach up and touch it.
On Friday the 13th we packed up. Clouds had come in and a bit of rain fell, turning the red earth into sticky clay. There was much grumbling as we tried to stuff the dirty gear back into the vehicles. Our attempt at an early start saw us leaving at 11:30. An hour down the bumpy track we passed a large mine site and the village of "dongers" housing the workers. The road was paved after that and the ride was smooth. We took a break at a dry lake bed and walked out onto the playa. Then we started the four hour highway drive home to Perth.