Alistair Caldicott

Into India, Out of Africa

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Wittenoom - The Town The Government Doesn't Want To Exist

I am woken early by the brightness and intense heat of the early morning sun before 6am.

We head back inside the empty vastness Karijini Park along some dirt tracks and walk down into some fine gorge scenery. We descend down to Circular Pool, which is a cool oasis of water shaded by rocks and overgrown vegetation. The water is beautiful to swim indulgently in and wash away the heated anger of my mosquito bites all over my body. The temperature is perfect and invigorating, before we conclude a hot trek to Fortesque Falls at the other end of the canyon.

There is plenty of climbing and clambering along rocky ledges trying to avoid the water before we are able to walk up the stepped rocks of the waterfall itself, so low is the water flow here at present. There are virtually no other people around.

We continue on in our small white hire car, which is not really well suited to the rugged and rough roads of the Australian outback and looks comically out of place. The unsealed roads are bumpy and dangerously littered with large rocks. There's the odd grind and scrape underneath. This would definitely not be a good place to break down. It would be a long way for the AA to come out for a rescue.

We reach the stunning Oxer Lookout where 4 deep gorges dramatically converge. Here you can walk down to Handrail Pool in Weano Gorge. The deep orange and red colours of the shear soaring rock faces are lit up distinctively by the afternoon sun. Giant termite Hills indicate the presence of underground watercourses, which rely solely on uncertain skies for replenishment.

Late in the day the clouds thicken and we bumpily rumble in the town of Wittenoom, which officially does not exist according to the Australian government. It's the sort of place for which the expression 'in the middle of nowhere' must have been invented. It is 41 degrees and cloudy.

Rather like Hutt River this proves to be another fascinating gem with a remarkable and very accessible story to be told. Arriving into the town on the very rough and challenging gravel track has an eerie, end-of-the-world feel to it. The surrounding land is dull brown and barren. There are plenty of big spaces where houses looked like they once stood. It is as if someone has simply picked them all up and walked away with them.

We sit down with the guest house owner Paul over a welcome cold beer from his fridge as he fills us in on some of the background and issues.

Since the mine closed here in 1966 the government has been paranoid about people suing it for asbestos related illnesses and deaths. This is despite the fact that the risk of actually contracting asbestos now in Wittenoom is virtually zero and even lower than several other supposedly safer places. For years the 20 residents of this near ghost town have continually battled the government's attempts to wipe them off the map.

Being in Wittenoom just feels like being a long, long way removed from the mainstream world, almost like being transported back in time. However the accommodation is comfortable enough and appreciatingly relaxing for its warm simplicity. There seems to be a refreshing certainty to being so far away from noise, people etc. We are the only visitors in what is really someone's home rather than a guesthouse. In major parts of Australia like here the emptiness is intimidating and forbidding. Yet in a strangely plausible way it appears to enhance the sociability of the people who live in such areas.

From the Western Australian outback I made my way back to Perth, then Sydney.

The take off ascent over Sydney harbour must be one of the world's most spectacular. Land, overflowing with white houses, juts in and out around the sparkling water and white slipstreams of numerous boats zipping around. The coastline further out is steep and rugged with tiny yellow beaches and white surf.

About three hours later, through heavy grey clouds vibrant green hills emerge. For a brief moment I thought I was coming home to England, but this was New Zealand and we were about to land in Auckland.

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