Our fellow diners - two well worn fellas, having simple meals - were perhaps at the same time surprised, delighted and wary - when the four of us, three women and a guy - asked if we could share the worn out wooden table to sit with under the early night sky. We had left over canned tuna, instant noodle soup and ten days of being on the road when we got social with two prior strangers as if we were at a pub. Two individuals who taught me a lot in under an hour of conversation.
So how did we landed up here that evening? We had driven out of Karijini, out of the southern Pilbara region which is better known for its mining, road trains, dirty red sand dusted trucks, occasional camper vans - and headed to Perth, in a more benign and lush corner of south-western Australia. I had been advised by the owner of Miss Nuggets, a fiesty small sized doggie with not much fur, to be more mindful of our belongings in this hub of Meekatharra, which has a population of not more than 950 permanent residents. We had booked this caravan park from the internet, not knowing enough that there are other accommodation options in Cue, another place a hundred kilometres south. Meekatharra, which in Indigenous Australian, just means a place with little water, had, on us arriving, a small Chinese eating place, a rather silent main street and a pub in an old heritage building from Victorian English days. I had looked for a wee wee spot there in that pub hotel, on a nippy evening at the start of the cool season, and found the indoor facilities very satisfactory - and clean.
A place with little water - to me, it also lacked progress, as if it had been abandoned. It was a transient place, a dot on the map along the inland highway mid-west of the state of West Australia, a settlement on the edge of a vast desert and depending on the extraction of resources. We had arrived seemingly furtively under the cover of a clear cloudless night sky - where are the Indigenous people? I saw worn out and dirtied mine workers sitting around the pub counter - and mind you, there were only several people in the rather large indoor space. Every thing can be relative in impression - and after being in the unique Woop Woop further north, in another place, our accommodation at Meekatharra seemed heavenly, with attached bath, toilet and small kitchen. There was even a central facility building with hot food, television and clean eating tables. Mind you, there was no coverage from Optus, no wi-fi, except if you hang around the central facility and the whole place still dark enough to fully appreciate the stars.
Back to the two rather interesting elderly men at our make shift picnic table. The two of them must be catching up on a regular basis daily. There was a bond between them. I was curious but dared not ask - how did they come to be here? The more friendly one asked me instead, where have you all been? Karijini! He replied, what and where is that? This National Park, which just meant "a hilly place" is around 700 km north but he had never heard of it. Polite conversation then led to what do they do there to pass the days. It turned out to be gold prospecting, but not the kind the movies put into my mind about panning in creeks in Victoria or in California. Here the elements are as hardy, cruel and dry as the rocks - and we learnt about fossicking.
The cynic in his mate got this other guy to blurt out that gold searchers are very patient or stupid or both. With his big eyes in a placid look, he was truly convinced of his statement. The more chatty fella ignored this and came back to show us some small pieces of gold nuggets on his right hand palm. There, nestled upon a rather worn hand, were hints of gleam under what needed to be brushed and properly cleaned of. They were smallish, but could possibly fit into ear rings. As he spoke, the gleam in this fella's eyes increased in the dark evening ambiance. He took special effort to show these to the women, as if he was behind the counter in some Amsterdam goldsmith shop. Every one must have a passion - whether it is sport, work, fitness, love or looking for gold.
In the eighties, I am told, when we were wee laddies, there was a gold rush in the region around Meekatharra. I felt as if in some future scenario, we had landed in some dusty outpost in the Silicon Valley, with tales of the cyberspace rush from where back when. Now this place looked so forlorn and remote until the mention of its gold mining history. It is still an important centre for the Australian Flying Doctor Service, which I first got to know from the Tv series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. Our motley group of travellers did notice a road sign to Paddy's Flat - and that was where the last serious gold rush occurred nearby, around twenty years ago. So the dream is still being kept alive.
The rail tracks did play a significant role to keep Meekatharra alive and grow in the past. So there was a way to transport out all those natural resources from the ground. Not many visitors take the Central or Great Northern Highway in Western Australia - maybe only adventurers, mine workers and natives. There are wild flowers wowing people who come in the correct season, late winter or early spring, but these are mainly from the Perth area. We had our first significant rainfall south of Meekatharra, during the early afternoon when we were almost close to Perth via New Norcia. It has been a dry start to the southern Hemisphere winter. I suspect the area is more affected by the behaviour of the monsoon cycles playing out in the Indian Ocean a thousand kilometres away near to Broome and Exmouth. Then I realised that this was not even in the dry season, which usually occurs between August and November for Meeka.
The second chap asked for forecast minimum temperatures for the coming week. Mary, who had wisely invested in a Telstra SIM card, could get the information from her mobile phone.
The next morning, I had a spring in my step waking up, looking forward to the hot bacon and egg roll I knew was sold in the central facility bar. This was after a week or so of canned tuna sandwiches, I reminded myself. Oh yes, and there is also the wi-fi - my social media withdrawal phase was going to be soon over. This day I was going to cover so much territory, not just going back to Perth city centre, but flying back across the Great Southern Land to the Big Smoke of Sydney, located in a different time zone and five hours by flight away. The Man withe the Nuggets on hand was already up, perhaps already having his breakfast on the very same table my group and I met him and his buddy last night. I waved to him and he did likewise. It was 6 am - the birds were beginning to chirp but the sun was still asleep.