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The iron snake

Northam-Camp — 2000-05-23

Waking up this morning Tanja and I are very reluctant to leave our warm sleeping bags. It is unpleasantly cold. Still we want to try and stick to our schedule, we put on some warm underwear, get dressed and crawl out of the tent. For the first time this year, the thermometer shows minus one degree Celsius. The early sun casts a deeply golden light over the bush land. The sky is light blue and the barometer promises another beautiful day.

We leave camp at 10:40 and march in direction of the town of Northam. Earlier than expected we reach the place where we intend to spend the night some kilometres from the town. After a short rest we decide to cross Northam before the end of the day. From now on, we must lead our caravan alongside an active railway line. Jo, Tanja and I know what that means. None of our camels has so far made the acquaintance of the big iron snake, and we are prepared for the worst.

While Jo leads the animals, Tanja and I form the early-warning system. I run ahead with Rufus, our dog, to check the trail for broken pieces and other rubbish that could be dangerous to the camels. Tanja follows to warn Jo against the iron monster. The movement of the animals makes the pack-bags sway back and forth and causes all different kinds of noises. The constant scraping and squeaking is so loud that the person guiding the caravan can hardly perceive any sounds from outside. A car, road train or even a train would, therefore, totally surprise Jo and naturally the camels, too. Although our ships of the desert have quieted down considerably, they are still frightened easily by the slightest unfamiliar sound. It has happened more than once that the whole caravan panicked because the last person for some reason wanted to pass them. For a situation like this, Jo has taught us that it is always good to talk to the animals. For example “Hello, camels, it’s me. Don’t be afraid, I’m coming now. I’m going to overtake you!” Of course, it’s not a matter of what you say to them but it is important for them to hear the familiar voice and not get scared. To explain I must mention that each animal is tied to the saddle of the one in front of him by the nose leash and this way has no opportunity to turn around and see what’s coming up. Now if a train approaches from behind, Jo will be warned by Tanja and will then be able to steer the entire caravan in a curve to make all the animals stand in the direction of the train and see what comes towards them.

According to Jo there is a chance with this action to prevent the animals from panicking. In the course of the next weeks we might lose our anxiety, but at this point in time we are still at the training stage. Suddenly I spot a whole bunch of old and tangled telephone cables on the way. “Stop, Jo!” I call and signal to her that I have to clear the way first. Such cables are extremely dangerous, because a camel can easily get his foot caught in one of the protruding loops, panic and sweep the others along. I clear the ground and we can continue, but a little while later I stumble again over countless long wires of this sort. Only now I notice that above our heads, the trees and shrubs are also covered with this old stuff. Apparently the telephone company has cut off all the cables from the poles and simply dropped them. The further we go the worse it gets. Meanwhile I have to cut a tremendous number of the wires with my Leatherman. We decide to continue our march on the other side of the tracks, and cross them. Luckily there is a way on either side of the tracks here which is, though unpaved, in relatively good shape because the railway company uses it to maintain their track system.

At 3 p.m. we reach the outskirts of Northam without encountering the feared iron monster. We leave the tracks at this point and follow some quiet side roads around the town. Here we attract the attention of the town’s friendly population, people just come up to talk to us and have a little chat. Many of the people living here have read an article in the Western Australian or seen a film report about the Red Earth Expedition on one of the television stations. We are pleasantly surprised at their positive attitude. Some of them even invite us for tea or coffee, which unfortunately we have to decline for reasons of time. The Northam Ranger and some policemen we meet wish us good luck. A lot of school children are standing by the wayside looking amazed and waving at us. Towards the end of what seems like never-ending Throssel Street, a friendly sports teacher accompanies us to show us a safe way to cross some main streets. Then we cross the busy railway line connecting the west to the east of Australia and follow it. It is 4:30 p.m., we are dead-tired and Jo jokes about the train that is about to approach. I laugh at her irony, because if that really happened there would hardly be enough room here to turn the caravan. Approximately 5 metres to our left, there are some buildings surrounded by a wire mesh fence, and only a few metres to our right is where the tracks run. But in the middle of our laugh, I suddenly hear Tanja’s alarming call: “Train! Train! Train!”. “What did she say?” asks Jo. “A train is coming, quick, turn the caravan!” I reply, and before we know it, the huge freight train comes into sight. In the last second Jo somehow manages to turn the animals around, and then it roars past. Extremely tensed up, Tanja and I watch to see how our animals are going to react. Jo holds Sebastian’s head very close to her face and keeps talking to him in her soothing voice while one goods wagon after the other rattles over the nearby tracks. All the camels have their eyes wide open and look horrified at the huge, seemingly endless monster, but they remain calm. I cannot believe it and happily dance for joy, while the end of the train is still thundering past. Suddenly, the nightmare is over and the train disappears behind a long-stretched curve. In spite of the strain of the day, Jo, Tanja and I are lively and happy. Ever since we’ve been walking next to the tracks we’ve been very tense and prepared for anything, and now look what happened! Only a short while later, we find a wonderful site to camp near a little river. Today we have proved to ourselves for the first time that despite the starting problems we are able to cover some distance. According to my calculations, we have made 27 kilometres today.

Day: 12






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