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Stranger #20 Unnamed at a bus stop

Due to our travel plans not working the way we had hoped we have found ourselves in Kalgoorlie for longer than we had envisaged.  Kalgoorlie is a small city of about 40,000 people. Located a full day's drive from Perth, four hours from the nearest bit of coast and in the middle of the desert, it is here because of the mining industry.  Most work in the city is related to mining or servicing the needs of the mining industry.  It is not a place I thought I would ever enjoy much.  The Superpit dominates the town with slag heaps, big trucks and many mining vehicles.  It is commonplace to see people in fluoro jumpsuits, vests and boots with steel caps; work attire for the masses. Stern notices on the pub doors inform customers how they can dress. The work there is predicted to continue until about 2035 with new workers recruited continuously.  The Superpit and other mining operations in the area draw workers from around the world.  Africans, Indians, Chinese and Europeans are all attracted by the big bucks and good conditions that mining offers.  

I have often joked: three things to do in Kalgoorlie, the Superpit Lookout, the Mining Museum and the brothel tour.  We have done them all on a previous visit.

It is not just the industry that I do not find appealing but the scenery.  Red dust everywhere.  The wide streets are not paved but have red dirt mixed with chips of asphalt between the curb and the concrete slabs for walking on.  The street trees are mainly gums with a very few deciduous trees.  The contrast to Canberra is sharp: the ACT has a campaign each autumn to clear up fallen leaves so they do not end up in storm water drains.  In Kalgoorlie I have seen one lone dried, yellowing leaf.  No piles for kids to jump in, no long streams of leaves covering paths to be tramped through.  It feels like a different country, even though the architecture and layout feel familiar.  We lived in Kyneton, Victoria for a couple of years, regularly visiting both Bendigo and Ballarat, all three communities that came into existence due to the gold rush.  The same wide streets, with Victorian buildings dominate the map in Kalgoorlie.  Houses made of weatherboard with tin roofs.  That bit is very familiar, but the flora and weather is all wrong.  

This part of Western Australia is now in what passes for winter.  It is sunny but the cold wind keeps the temperature low.  Mid 20 C are not uncommon. It gets dark, and cools down, very quickly at about 5pm with the sun reappearing at 7am.  The locals are enjoying the cool.  The number of black puffer jackets worn suggests they think it is winter.  I have been happy in just a hoodie or cardigan.  The temperature here most of the year is high.  They had a run of five days over 45 C during the summer.  People live in air-conditioning; it is the only way to survive.

I try to keep my mind open and be accepting of all difference, especially when travelling.  It is never a good thing to assume. Spending so much time here I have been given an opportunity to find out about Kalgoorlie and why people stay here.  The weather is not what I would like, nor the landscape or the main industry but there must be things that keep people here.

Our son and his partner landed here nearly 15 years ago.  They came on a whim and have stayed.  They both have good, well paid jobs: he as a driller, she as an officer manager at the community centre.  They have had two children, bought a house, made friends and settled.  Our daughter-in-law has spent more time here than any other place in her 45 years.  There must be something that keeps them.

I have heard this story before.  A woman in the local bottle shop told me she had come for three months and has been here 13 years.  A woman in the library told me she came here for a look, just few days, and has been here twenty years, finding love and a life along the way.  So what is it that keeps people?

As I stand at the bus stop waiting for my return trip to Somerville, the suburb in which we are currently housed, I strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger.  Dressed in a full length Drizabone, Akubra, Blundstones and footy shorts, he could have been an extra in an Australian movie.  His backpack with striking Fremantle Dockers logo on the front pocket gave me reason to ask questions about how his team was going, just to get my foot in the door.  The bus was late, we were both a little bored.  He told me he did not barrack for the Dockers but liked the backpack and had picked it up where he works at the Salvos.  He told me about how he was born in Sydney and had only returned there once as an adult to participate in the Gay Games.  He went with his mum.  He takes his hat off as we are in full sun and he is looking a little warm.  His shaved head looks shiny with sweat.  He grumbles about the bus and walks to the post to view the timetable.  He sits back down. He came to Kalgoorlie to do some work.  He is a photographer, now retired, even though he is only in his mid 40s.  He went where the work took him and that was mainly in the WA wheat belt.  He likes Kalgoorlie as he can get about without a car which he was forced to give up when he lost his license.  He can also do volunteer work to fill his time and catch the bus to Perth to see his mum, now that she is on her own, since his brother took his own life last year. He has friends here, a place to live in a share house which he likes as it is company, and people accept him as he is. He ponders why he had not done more travelling; pets, he says.  When he had money to go places he also had a cat and a dog that needed care.  Now he has no pets, has lots of time but has lost the inclination.  What could he possibly learn from other places that he could not find out here.  If he really wants to know stuff he goes to the library, where he spends time when not at the op shop.

I agree with him that the library appears, as an outsider, to be one of the best places in town.  Large, newish, well stocked, and with very friendly staff.  They are celebrating their 50 year anniversary this year and are proud of the work they do in the town.  The days I have been in there it is quiet but with a number of people, both local and visitors using the facilities.  The room with children’s books has a regular stream of parents and children with prams.  The Young Adult room, bright with pictures and information even has a meeting room for work or homework to be done.  We agree how important libraries are to communities.  My new friend gives me a list of books he has read this year and what he got from them. He tells me novels give him an insight into the inner life of others.  Travel books, with pictures or not, show him other landscapes.  Having spent most of his life in dry, arid areas he is captivated by tropical lushness, but knows he would hate living there because of the humidity. 

In his article for National Geographic, Eric Weiner argues that travel should be an essential human activity: we are hard-wired to find out about others. Weiner tells us that Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived and died in Samoa, wrote ‘The great affair is to move.’  (Stevenson moved to the South Pacific for his health, but wanted to emulate his home in Scotland.  The house he had built included study with a brick fireplace, which has never been used).  The article goes on to quote Pauline Frommer, a travel expert and radio host: ‘One of the great benefits of travel is coming into contact with other people and other points of view.’ Travel grows us.  It makes us adaptable, it gets us out of our comfort zone, and exposes us to new things.  And things we plan do not always go according to expectations.  And those journeys make the adventures and stories more memorable.

I asked a friend of mine why he travels.  And he travels a lot.  So far this year he has been to China, the US and Canada and he is has plans to go to South Africa in the not too distant future.  Overseas trips have already been booked for 2025 including to Antartica and Iceland and Greece. The list he came up with for reasons for travel included:

To learn about new cultures (not just from travelling but also from detailed pre-trip planning and research),

To experience new cultures and experiences,

To visit bucket list sights like the the Pyramids/ Rio/ Machu Picchu etc,

To enjoy the delights of foreign cuisine, including the exotic,

To meet and befriend fellow travellers ( who are inevitably friendly and relaxed as they are on holidays),

To experience the delight of returning home (It’s great to reunite with family and friends at the end of a trip  and I inevitably return with a much greater appreciation of the really important things in my life that are located at home)

To escape less favourable weather at home (eg Canberra mid-winter)

The reason that intrigued me was the one about returning home.  I am already longing for my own bed.  It is not to say that this is the most important part of my life but the feeling I get when I curl up in my space, in clean sheets is so comforting.  Something that is only truly appreciated when I have been away.

A bus turns up at the stop.  It is one of the other two circular routes that rotate daily, once an hour, but not on Sundays or public holidays.  The driver asks what bus we are waiting for.  He tells us it should have been to pick us up half an hour ago.  We knew that.  He gets on his CB radio to find out what is going on.  My companion is a little agitated, moving from one foot to another.  I tell him these things happen and it would not be late for no reason.  He stands still.  The driver of 861 has found out the 863 has mechanical difficulties but it is one its way.  I check this on Next Three my trustee bus app which seems to work wherever I am.  To pass the time I share knowledge of the app with my fellow passengers, who now number five.  None of them knows about this and they are all impressed, saying they will download when they can.  The 863 finally arrives with the driver telling us all she is so sorry the bus broke down and had to be fixed.  It could not have been very serious as it is only 45 minutes late.  We board and get on our way.  My friend gives me a friendly wave as he leaves the bus before me.

As I reread the article by Weiner it resonates with me more strongly.  Wiener was writing in 2020 a time of forced travel shutdown across the world.  He was finding it hard to stay in one place and could not even plan to travel. I am in a place I never expected to be in for so long.  I am finding ways to entertain myself, but also to slow down and appreciate what is here and what is in my home.  The people and the stories in Kalgoorlie surprise me.  I also know that I will not be one of the people who stay.


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