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The Rocks And The Water

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The Rocks and The Water

Distance: 342 km Approx. Travel Time: 3.5 hours

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This adventure starts on the rolling hills south-east of Northam towards York. The first part of the journey crosses some of the very earliest colonised country in Western Australia.

Barely more than a year after Captain Charles Fremantle had declared the Swan River Colony for Britain in May 1829. Ensign Robert Dale led a party of explorers over the Darling Range into the Avon Valley. They encountered lightly wooded, open grassland that looked to be good sheep country. This was the western edge of the 114,000 square kilometres Ballardong Boodja - the country of the Ballardong Nyoongar people - and the valley of a river they called Gogulgar.

What those first Europeans saw, was the result of hundreds of years of fire-stick farming that had thinned the trees in comparison to the dense jarrah bush they had just travelled through. This shaping of the ecology through carefully controlled burning allowed food sources like the wild potatoes, djubak and kara, to grow more readily. The burning also created a more favourable habitat for the animals the Ballardong hunted like the yongah (kangaroo) and tammah (wallaby).

Farming and land use have changed since those times. Depending on the time of year, you'll see the dry brown paddocks of summer, the almost neon bright green of the growing seasons or the gold of harvest time as we follow the Mortlock River south and skirt the east side of the Avon River Valley. We leave the Mortlock at Carter Road and shortly after you'll see the Avon River to your west as it winds its way through the paddocks, northward to Northam. We follow the Avon further south for a short while, before turning east onto the Goldfields Road and the route that carried many a hopeful prospector deeper into the interior. It was a migration that was to establish the economic fortunes of the state.

Charles Hunt mapped Goldfields Road. He charted a track between 23 waterholes from York, out to Gnarlbine Rock, south of what now is the town of Coolgardie. Like many of the great continental explorers, Hunt began his life as a navigator at sea. It was this ability to steer by the stars that served him well in the often-featureless expanses of what he named the Hampton Plains. He also had the help of a Nyoongar man, George Mundial, and a Njakinjaki man by the name of Tommy Windich. Hunt's purpose was to find land that might be suitable for grazing. He considered himself a failure though, and two years after the last of three expeditions he died of a heart attack at age 35. Never to see, 20 years later, his track being used by the first gold prospectors to reach Coolgardie. Those who have studied Hunt's journals say that he set up camp right on top of what have proven to be some of the worlds richest gold seams. If he'd bothered to do some prospecting it would be his statue, not Paddy Hannan's, in the main street of Kalgoorlie. Years later, the telegraph and eventually the water pipeline were also influenced by his route.

We leave Goldfields Road and turn south on Marwick Road to join the road east to Quairading. We don't leave the gold rush era though, because our first stop for the morning is the town of Greenhills, a short diversion up Greenhills Road.

Like the next such town along the road, Dangin. A place with a story that is an example of the fickle forces that shape the fate of small country towns. One of the first settlers in York was Stephen Parker. He selected the land in the area in the late 1830s. It was his son Edward though, who first began grazing sheep at a spring - named by the Ballardong for 'where Djanja (a type of needle bush) grows' - Dangin, in 1859. Edward's son Jonah acquired a further 1600 acres in the late 1890s, making Dangin Estate one of the largest farms in Western Australia at the time. Part of that acquisition was the land around Toapin Rock. Jonah had the base of the rock dammed to form Toapin Wier. The water from the weir supplied the town of Dangin that he had subdivided on his property. A private scheme like this was unheard of in the Commonwealth at the time.

Although formally gazetted in 1902, Dangin was still surrounded by land owned by the Parkers. The only access was through a gate. Parker, a Methodist, declared Dangin a 'temperance town' and banned alcohol. The Temperance Hotel that he built was an original pub with no beer (or wine or anything else intoxicating). When Quairading was gazetted after it became the next stop on the railway line, one of the first buildings erected in the new town was the pub. It remains Quairading's oldest building to this day.

Some say that, in the years after World War Two, Dangin declined because people preferred a town where you could get a drink; but that wasn't the only reason. Nevertheless, most of Dangin has gone now. The Temperance Hotel was used as building materials for Roads Board housing in Quairading. The school was relocated to Bruce Rock and became the kindergarten, and the town hall was demolished to be rebuilt into a house by a Mr Bill Flint in Quairading. The Quairading Golf Club took the piano.

Dangin is still an interesting place to stop and quickly stretch the legs though. A clearly marked heritage trail around the town will lead you past the sites of the former buildings whose emptiness somehow speaks of the time when this was the first town in the district; and of course, right at the top of the walk, there's a lonely church still standing.

As our journey continues east, and on to the beginning of the great plains of Australia's interior, we suggest another short stop before you reach the town of Quairading. The Quairading Community Nature Reserve includes Nookaminnie Rock and Nookaminnie Creek. The hike to the top of the rock takes about an hour and a half but will reward you with views stretching east past the nearby town.

If you don't have the time or energy to climb Nookaminnie, don't despair because we have plenty more in store. Nookaminnie is the first of several large granite outcrops, rising from the surrounding plains, that we encounter on this trail.

Continuing east, we pass through the town of Quairading where you can see the century-old pub that allegedly caused the downfall of Dangin. Near the town hall, you may spy 'El Toro', the four-metre-long, half-tonne Jordan Sprigg sculpture of a Spanish Fighting Bull. Despite being made from old tools, machine parts and farm scrap, El Toro looks alive and ready to charge right down the main street. In the Information Centre housed in the old railway station, you can find an exhibit of natural sculptures by the late Ian Wills. Like many local museums though, it is staffed by volunteers, and opening times may vary.

The road just east of Quairading crosses over Pink Lake, which, depending on the time of year, will live up to its name. A certain type of bacteria and algae known as Dunaliella Salina (the same algae found in the dead sea) both thrive in the salty environment. When the conditions are just right, they'll secrete a carotenoid red pigment. Somehow, at Pink Lake, this tends to impact the water on one side of the road more than the other. You may drive across with bright pink on one side and lighter pink, or even blue, on the other.

Just over eight kilometres past Pink Lake we take a turn north on the Kellerberin Yoting Road, towards the Granite Way. The trail ahead takes us off the bitumen road for just over 30 kilometres. So, if getting red streaks up the side of your car is a concern, you may wish to continue to Shackelton. Another bitumen-only option here is to drive the 15 kilometres to Mount Stirling, where you will still see these giant granite outcrops rising from the plains, and return the way you came before continuing to Shackelton and Bruce Rock. The gravel section of the Granite Way is well maintained though, and easily navigated by a standard two-wheel-drive car. The Shires of Bruce Rock, Quairading and Kellerberrin all cooperate to keep the road graded, but, as always when travelling the bush, if you have any concerns, then contact one of these shires for an update on the road conditions.

Our second giant rock for the day will appear at about 15 kilometres on the right as we head north towards Kellerberrin from Yoting. We are leaving the country of the Ballardong people now and into the 31,000 square kilometre territory of the Njakinjaki.

We cross paths with Robert Dale again here too. Continuing his expedition from York he named the northernmost rock Mount Caroline (after the wife of Colonial Secretary Peter Broun) and the

As you leave Mount Stirling behind and head south-east it won't be long until you see the third largest monolith in Australia looming in your windshield - Kokerbin Rock. Where there are rocks, there's water, and on the west side of the rock at the first turnoff, you can see a well. Its deep, dry-stone walls built by hand in the 1900s. The walls are an impressive example of the many springs and gnammas that were enlarged to provide a continuous water supply for livestock and people throughout the Wheatbelt.

Wave Rock isn't the only rock in Western Australia with a wave. The feature is quite common in the Wheatbelt granite. Sixty million years of water flowing over the rock to deposit in the soil at its base slowly decomposes the granite into sand and clay. This flow of water creates the smoothly flared and quite beautiful, wave-like overhangs. You can see Kokerbin's wave just a short walk in from the car park on the east side of the rock. There are also walking trails past many different rock formations like the Devils Marbles and various caves. The path will take you to the top if you have the energy.

There you'll be rewarded with views of the vast plains in every direction.

The popularity of Kokerbin Rock as a campsite forced the local shire to encourage camping further away from the rock, and this is our next destination. Charles Hunt recorded the name of another nearby granite outcrop, Qualyin Hill, on an expedition in 1864, but the town of Kwolyin didn't come into being until the railway came through in 1913.

Kwolyin was once a thriving town with shops, houses, a hall, a school, and a hotel. However, in 1916, after the Goldfields Water Scheme reached Shackleton seven kilometres away, some landowners objected to the pipeline continuing to Kwolyin through their land. The scheme was abandoned, and businesses slowly moved to Shackelton. The pub burning down in 1992 was the death of the town, and all that is left now is yet another lonely church. The remains of the cricket ground are now used as a campsite for visitors to Kokerbin.

Shackelton too has its glory days well behind it. The gradual switch from rail to road transport has left this town with a population less than 100. It is home to what was claimed to be the world's smallest bank though-a tiny three by four-metre building that stopped serving customers in 1997. There is also a sculpture trail around the town, and Steve's Studio is an art gallery full of interesting steel sculptures. The studio may or may not be open as is custom with small-town museums and galleries.

Towards Bruce Rock, you will notice the road flatten and straighten as we enter Australia's vast interior and the full territory of the Njakinjaki. Originally called Nunagin, Bruce Rock was the location of a spring that became a well where settlers travelling east from Doodlakine and south from Kelleberin would meet to camp overnight.

Around the time the railway came through, when the town was gazetted, it was decided to change the name to avoid confusion with towns like Narrogin and Nungarin. The first Europeans to inhabit many areas of Western Australia were the sandalwood cutters and the monolith to the east of town had come to be called Bruce's Rock after John Rufus Bruce, who had worked in the area in 1879.

When you stop in Bruce Rock, you may hear the soft strains of classical music drifting down the wide main street. This music will be coming from the 1200 seat amphitheatre and sculpture park. There are two museums within walking distance of the amphitheatre: a machinery museum and, housed in the former bank, a museum that, if you are lucky enough to find a volunteer that has opened it, will transport you back into the past like few others can.

The main chamber has artefacts from settlement, through to the post-war era. In the yard, to the rear, there is a faithfully restored settler's hut. In the back corner, there is a blacksmiths workshop that looks as if the blacksmith finished hammering his last horseshoe, downed tools and just waIked away.