Exhibition title: Oasis of Fire – The Roadhouse
Artist: Helen Norton
At Monsoon Gallery, Broome, September 2009
At the top end of West Australia, the Great Northern Highway connects the Pilbara with the Kimberley. Sandfire Roadhouse, the intensely practical fuel stop dream was speared into existence by the late Eddie Norton, his piano loving wife Kath, sons and daughters four decades ago. A rest stop in the middle of the barren six hundred kilometre journey between Port Headland and Broome. What culture grows in such places, what tenacity nourishes such a fate, a landmark, a pioneering icon little considered as other than a roadhouse in between here and there? Six hundred kilometres of dirt as Eddie drove it in his trucking days with no air conditioner or radio, and a complete dependence on the goodwill of another traveller, or his giving of it to you, should you break down. Such a great journey it was in a great desert. Now a snaking black bitumen artery branded by mans rules with a white painted punctuation, a dotted divider down the centre separating the difference of your destiny and the approaching car - are you going up or coming down? North or south - your low beam is all you say to the oncoming traveller.
“Sandfire Roadhouse: Ten million and three hundred miles from either end of anywhere where you will tear off your sleeve and suspend it from the roof with the rest of them at about 11pm in the pub. Triple road-train magnet – we’ll fill up the belly tanks – you cannot serve yourself; the temporary stuffer and saviour of fates where drunk birds and travellers sit in a bar of strange isolated initiations. Famous for a night, with bad women, thirsty ringers, lovelorn truckies and no mobile phone reception; Stumpy Jack will bite your heel and Pop will cuss your lemonade - have a decent drink; you are exposed to the most raw elements. Sandfire will leave men to their own viciousness or goodwill. So bloody far away it more so becomes a destination, not a way station – not some half baked service centre for your convenience; this thing has its own mind and intent. It grew from a hard shell, a 44 gallon drum of fuel cracked open by the piercing drive of a vision. Caravans crease in between helicopters, horses, camels, triples, dollies and prime movers. Pansies and ice creams melt, unanchored souls blow like unpegged sheets into the Great Sandy Desert, as cyclones and fires generate now and then from man or nature – take your pick. Shift changes go over like gears on the open bitumen at 110 km an hour as one lassie passes another from down the back in Sleazy street and let me remind you, that ‘everyone here is dispensable’.”
Helen Norton (Fremantle 2009)
I of course did my years stint as a roadhouse chick at Sandfire Roadhouse and of course was introduced to a large degree of my fate with the 'Nortons' (Tony Norton ended up my husband and father of my two sons).
It is an amazing institution that has probably gone under the radar as an incredible cultural landmark in Aust pioneering/entrepreneurial history - in a very rough and tumble sort of way, an Eddie Norton kind of way ... (the brain child of it all). His mad dream came true.
When I arrived at Sandfire, I used to dabble in art but had no inclination to be an artist. I preferred to write for my creative outlet, and I did so a lot.
I am compiling a sort of vignette on paper here; a checklist if you like. A glimpse in phrases that come to mind of my experience of the 'WILD Sandfire'... the twister of fates - out there exposed to the most vicious of elements and leaving men to their own elemental decisions in so many ways!
NOTES from the studio
SANDFIRE Roadhouse – Location: Great Sandy Desert, northwest Australia
- nearby there is of course a "Lost River" (with no water naturally)
- Dogs were allowed
- Everyone was dispensable
- The tip was a gold mine
- The bar an oasis
- It was a ‘destination’ (to the initiated only)
- It was so bloody far away you had no options but to take the options on offer
- The lunch special was corned beef, overboiled cabbage, carrots, beans and mash
- Eddie, Kath and sons made it – on a mad whim of inspirational genius and a few drums of petrol with a hand pump
- It was a great idea
- They got blown away in cyclones over and over and over, and got up again and rebuilt
- It got burnt down – a number of times (but so what, when there isn’t much to lose you just build it again)
- Cockys got drunk and ate chocolate crackles at birthdays
- Violently ripped off sleeves of the famous and infamous hung from the bars ceiling (initiation)
- Drinking water, tea or soft drinks in the bar was banned – by Eddie
- Camels were nurtured
- Women turned bad
- Men got lost
- Overweight truckies were seen as Adonis
- Roadie chicks were always Venus
- Helicopters went down and also landed safely out the front
- Prices went up
- Boiled eggs were burnt
- Trucks rolled over
- Caravans rolled in (and over)
- Alcoholic but kindly yardies were the the saviours and counsellors of the weeping young deflowered virgins of Dianna
- You could NOT serve yourself
- Roadhouse girls were hired as long as they were not 'too rough'.
- It was blown and burnt down
- It stands today as does Ken Norton (Eddies son) in it, having been offered ‘millions’ by various oil companies over many years to ‘stand aside for great reward’, he has continually declined.
If a place can be a man, then this man is this place.