Sheilas (Marie Javins)
Blog Words : Wander Woman | 05 May

Staying connected in a Western Australian desert

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, on the challenges of staying juiced up and online in remote Western Australia

I'd been so tired after my day of hiring a car and tracking down cheap camping gear in Perth I'd been fast asleep, in my little orange and olive-green tent, by 10 at night. Which was good, since the sun comes up early in Western Australia. I was out of bed and in the camp showers by 6am.

Mmmm, warm private showers. The ablution block didn't have women's and men's sections. Instead, there were eight little cubicles, each with a shower and toilet.

Rain was still drizzling on and off, so I broke down camp quickly. My cheap tent was quite similar to the cheap tent my Aussie ex and I had carried across the USA in 2003.

But I'd forgotten one problem with camping in the rain.

Wet tent.

I stuffed the fly into my huge-blue-dollar IKEA bag I'd impulse-purchased at the register yesterday and threw it in the back seat. The tent itself went onto the floor of the passenger side. I remember the Aussie ex once instructing me to stop later in the morning to find a place to dry out the tent, so it would be fresh for the evening, but first, I had another mission.

Finding a place open this early that would give me coffee and wi-fi. I had a deadline, and while I'd written my material in my tent last night – I hoped it made sense given my state-of-mind when I was typing – I had to get it off my laptop and into the gears of the "cloud". I knew now I should have paid more attention to the friend who’d been telling me how to use my iPhone as a hotspot, but that wasn’t going to help me here.

I pulled out of my campsite just as more rain started. I was glad I hadn't tried to make my own breakfast this morning in the camper's kitchen.

I’d picked up a bargain SIM card for my phone at the Sydney airport when I’d changed planes, so was able to use online maps to find a suburban Australian shopping mall, located about ten minutes away. These are small compared to US malls, but large by local standards. In non-urban Australia, malls might contain a few large supermarkets, coffee shops, dollar stores, and Kmart, as well as the usual clothing and electronics shops. So everyone might end up in the mall frequently, just to do the family grocery shopping.

The mall I found had both a KMart and a coffee shop. The KMart provided me the $11 extension cord I'd missed the night before (for charging my phone and computer as I camped) and the coffee shop gave me a place to sip my coffee while using an open wi-fi signal.

By the time I pulled out – deadline met – the sun was shining for my six-and-a-half-hour drive north to Kalbarri.

I had no power left in my laptop by now, and my phone was almost out of juice. I had to call tonight’s campground to book a spot, so I plugged my phone into the USB port on my hired Hyundai's dashboard, letting it charge up.

And as I drove into the broad open sky of the western shore of Australia – down the small two-lane road that passes for a highway here, with scrub brush and multi-trailer trucks (called road-trains) alongside, keeping an eye out for errant kangaroos – the car stereo kicked into gear.

And startled me by playing the music I'd loaded onto my phone back home, almost a year ago, then promptly forgot about.

My phone warbled me on towards the horizon. I laughed at myself. I’d almost forgotten about music during this round-the-world journey.

Hours later, I stopped in Kalbarri, set up camp, ran my new extension cord from my laptop through a crack in my locked car window and over to an outlet, and went for a wander along the atmospheric seaside. I admired the panorama as the sun went down.

In the morning, I realised I seemed to be making a habit of getting a late start. Constant reorganising of my campsite into my car wasn't helping my natural inclination to putter in the mornings.

But there was breakfast to make and camp to break down. I caught on to get just-add-hot-water breakfasts for camping as there were always camping kitchens at the caravan parks I was frequenting, and I had a cheap IKEA pot for heating up water. I’d bought instant oatmeal, a coffee press, banana bread, and strawberries. And then I’d go back to camp to take apart my house after doing my dishes and showering. I remembered my Aussie ex getting frustrated with how long I always took when we'd break down camp. Maybe that's why he made my coffee every morning though he didn't drink it himself, because he was bored while waiting for me.

The campground staff was already doing its daily cleaning by the time I left, sweeping off the nice green mats that marked the sites, and taking out the trash. I pulled away, stopping by the town information centre to buy my Australia national parks pass. For $40, I got one good for a month.

I headed up the coast and turned right, out of Kalbarri the town and into Kalbarri National Park. This is known for scenic river gorges – I'd just left the cliff gorges of the coast. I'd drive down little access roads and stop, follow a trail while being hounded by persistent flies, take in the view, then go back to the car and drive to the next cool panorama.

After an hour, I slowed down to pull onto the main north-south highway that goes along what they call the "Coral Coast." This is seriously unpopulated damn-hot Australia here, brutal and beautiful.

I had to laugh. The T-junction to the main highway dumped me out onto a two-lane road. This was the main highway.

Australia, you know I love you, I thought. Please don't take my snickering personally. I know you have big highways in your cities. I just saw a giant one in Perth.

A huge cheddar-cheese colored sign alongside the road warned me to keep an eye out for stray animals. A dead kangaroo lay in front of the sign.

I pushed the air-con button. Man, this Aussie sun was brutal. My mascot – Red the blue stuffed dog – and the Hyundai and the songs on my iPhone zoomed north, into the grey ribbon of asphalt surrounded by desert wildflowers.

We continued this way for hours.

Towns on the map turned out to be single service stations. Rest stops were empty sand lots with a few trees and some drop-toilets.

This was remote: Mad Max territory. Nothing but me, some "Wicked" brand camper-vans driven by young German tourists (bearing ridiculous spray-painted murals), and the road-trains, massive trucks hauling two or three trailers.

Just as I was getting tired, I arrived at Overlander Roadhouse. I thought this would be a bit more legendary given its size on my map, but Overlander Roadhouse was a petrol station with a fried food section and some toilets. I bought a coffee – a flat white, which is a specialty item outside Australia. It’s similar to a latte or cappuccino without the foam – and turned west to head out to Shark Bay and Monkey Mia (pronounced my-uh, not me-uh).

And then I stopped again. First, to see something called stromatolites. These are sort-of like stalagmites under the water. They're mushroom-shaped bacteria-rocks. I hiked a few kilometres to see them, then headed out to see a beach made of sea shells. Today’s monotonous driving had left me a little spaced-out, but I was quickly brought back to earth by Eagle Bluff, a stunning viewpoint over the ocean, where I could see all the way to the bottom and even saw fish or dolphins swimming along below.

I headed east before the town of Denham and passed a wind farm, two emus or ostriches or some type of large bird, and headed to Monkey Mia.

Monkey Mia is home to dolphins. That's what I had driven all the way up here for.

I paid my $8 admission fee, my $15 tent-camping fee, set up camp on a grassy field, and headed straight to the laundry. My clothes needed it.

And then, after a quick look at the fried fixings on the menu at the bar, I forked over $28 for a chicken-and-vegetable meal at the fancy restaurant in the resort. Australian food prices and petrol prices were a shocker, but in contrast, the housewares and camping goods had been fabulously inexpensive. I knew I shouldn’t be spending so much on dinner during an extended round-the-world trip.

But a gal's gotta eat and I'd had greasy food last night in Kalbarri. So chicken breast it was.

And tomorrow, I'd see dolphins.

>