16 July 2002
We packed up our Gladstone camp somewhat reluctantly and drove back along the dirt road to the highway. The landscape was sparsely vegetated: at Gladstone, the vast expanses of the desert end abruptly at the sea. Our next stop was Hamelin Pool, which I have wanted to visit for years. It was an unlikely World Heritage Area in barren and scrubby country too poor even to support a few grazing sheep. We parked the car and went to see the stromatolites!
A sturdy viewing ramp had been built so as to allow visitors to view these curious structures up close without disturbing their environment. They were built by cyanobacteria of a kind that inhabited the world 3.5 to 5.5 billion years ago. Their continuing existence has been vouchsafed by the hyper-saline waters of Shark Bay that are home to the largest meadows of sea-grass in the world. A tall stromatolite stands about 50 cm high and takes about 60,000 years to years for its inhabitants to build. Not only is Australia the home of the oldest extant human culture; it the home of some the most ancient ancestors of all life.
We walked along the foreshore for a kilometre in the pleasant, dry heat where blocks of compacted shell had been quarried from the dunes.
From there we crossed back into the caravan park past two lonely graves. One was a man who drowned after his boat capsized early last century. A modest shell-block headstone marked the spot. The second grave was a reminder of the high infant mortality of earlier times: it was erected for a boy who died of an infectious disease on the road from one remote settlement to another. The contrasting time-scales of human life and stromatolites weighed heavily on my thoughts. Little did we know that an even heavier encounter lay ahead of us.
The kids bought an iceblock at the shop and we drove further north along the peninsula to Eagle Bluff where we could see the mining town of Useless Loop across the water, marked by enormous piles of salt (or perhaps it was gypsum?) awaiting transport by ship. We had a picnic lunch up on the bluff and watched dolphins cavorting in the crystal-clear water below. The landscape was stunning. Denham was vaguely visible through the binoculars, about 20 km to the north.
Susie drove back to the highway along the track from Eagle Bluff and sampled the joys of sandy dirt roads. We were cruising along at about 100 km/h when we spotted an emu in full flight disappearing into the bush on the right-hand side of the road. As our attention was drawn to the magnificent bird, we failed to notice a second emu that was following the first. As it tried to cross the road on our left, Susie suddenly spotted it but it was impossible to take evasive action. I turned just in time to see its head hit the windshield. Instinctively I ducked, expecting the windshield to shatter, but it did not. Susie kept control of the rig, which had developed a wobble. We later understood that this was the result of the emu colliding with the trailer. We pulled onto the dusty verge as soon as it was safe to do so.
The emu was in a heap on the road a few hundred metres behind us. We noticed that our left-hand side rear view mirror was gone. To our horror, we saw the bird scramble off the road and sit with its head erect. I grabbed the camp axe and Susie and I walked back to where it sat on a shoulder of the road. One of its legs had sustained a compound fracture. The bloody print of its injury was visible on the surface of the road.
The emu was a huge, fully-grown adult. It would have stood about 6 feet tall had it been able to do so. Whenever we got close, it tried to escape in the direction of the road, propelling itself with its one good leg. So long as we stayed our distance, it stayed put. I wanted to put it out of its misery, but Susan reasoned that this might lead to a worse situation either with the bird on the road, where it might cause an accident with another vehicle, or one of us getting injured by the working claw.
Several vehicles drove by, ignoring the impasse. At that moment we were reminded of our temporary travel companions, Peter and Maureen, who carried a .22 rifle in the back of their Nissan Patrol to dispatch mercy in such situations.
Eventually we walked back to the car and left the emu to die where it was. This was a distressing choice, but the light was fading fast and we had to make a decision. The trailer was bent where the bird had hit the guard that shielded one of the water tanks. Susie reasoned that the bird must have sustained internal injuries as well as the broken leg, and that it would soon die in any case. I could only hope that she was right.
We drove back to the Overlander Roadhouse and set up camp in a dismal rest area that was strewn with gravel. On closer inspection, many of the stones appeared to be thunder eggs, and revealed beautiful quartz interiors when smashed open with the back of our camp axe. We collected some wood and built a campfire to try to take the edge off the cold and take our mind off the injured emu—to little avail. Susie was distraught. The roadhouse had a noisy generator, and it was bitter cold.
Susie and I stayed up late talking, playing the blues around the fire, drinking tinnies of the local beer which was called (I kid you not) Emu Bitter. The sunset was beautiful and the landscape desolate.
Somewhere up the road an emu lay dying.