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On the Scent of Red Dog: The Pilbara Wanderer

Posted by on May 10, 2015

Have you ever heard of Red Dog? Read the books? Seen the movie? If not, you should, but here’s the best part to bring you up to speed:

We’d inadvertently been travelling in Red Dog’s paw-steps since Darwin. He also travelled as far south as Perth and pretty much all the roads in between, and – if legends are to be believed – was even once spotted in Saganoseki, Japan. But it was after leaving Broome that we really picked up his trail.

We fueled up at the quirky Sandfire Roadhouse – one of Red Dog’s regular haunts and one of only a couple of small settlements for hundreds of kilometres (the other being Pardoo) in this arid, barren region of Australia known as the Pilbara – “beyond the 26th” (the 26th parallel, that is).

Then the Great Northern Highway runs parallel to Eighty Mile Beach – a 140 mile (220 kilometre) stretch of beautiful, unpopulated beach – though what they don’t tell you is that the highway and the beach never meet and are always separated by at least nine kilometres of unsealed road. Nevermind though, what good is 140 miles of beach anyway? And the region will always have a place in my heart, as Eighty Mile Handjob.

After Pardoo, you can either turn off to Marble Bar, Australia’s hottest town and where, according to Lonely Planet, you can have a drink with someone called “Foxie” in the Ironclad Hotel, or continue on the North West Coastal Highway through Port Hedland, where we encountered the first two-lane roads we’d come across in Australia, twisting and entwining with one another, built by the mining companies. Roadtrains and utes and other heavy vehicles were suddenly everywhere and an all-encompassing haze of reddish-brown cloud hung low enough to choke on for miles in either direction and we drove straight on out of there, wondering whether Port Hedland could possibly be like that all the time.

The first time Red Dog was shot, a bunch of the Dampier Salt guys rushed him the 400 kilometres to Port Hedland (the closest vet at the time). It cost them a fortune in fuel, pub food, drink and of course the resulting drink driving fines.

In the gathering darkness and dust and storm we somehow missed Whim Creek and ended up camping at the free, unsignposted Little Sherlock rest area, which, in case you find yourself in a similar boat, is just a dirt turnoff about 100 metres past the bridge over the river of the same name.

For the intrepid explorer, another route goes inland via the beautiful Karijini National Park to Red Dog’s birthplace, Paraburdoo, and back via Tom Price and Millstream-Chichester National Park, all of which were familiar ground to Red Dog and are covered in a little more detail by Wendy Gomersall here.

Red Dog was born a Red Cloud Kelpie (with a possible hint of Cattle Dog) in Paraburdoo in 1971. His name back then was “Tally-Ho” – “Tally” for short – and he had a restless energy that saw him run home 7 kilometres everyday from the airfield, where his “owner”, Colonel Cummings, would leave him. It was Cummings who took Red Dog to Dampier, thus kickstarting his life of travel, but Red Dog was known to return to his hometown many times, often hitching a ride on the longest and heaviest freight train in the world.

We read by lantern light as the storm rocked us gently to sleep, then woke to a clear day. The storm was long gone, but it had kept the van from getting too warm until about eight-ish. We ate breakfast with cows mooing away as they passed us…then almost brought it back up again as we drove out with the windows open and saw, and smelt, and tasted the dead cow, smashed off the road by a roadtrain, its tongue lolling out and eyes vacant. It had been dark when we’d driven in, so we hadn’t seen it last night, thank Fuck.

Old Roebourne Gaol (jail) and Visitor Centre, Pilbara, Western Australia

Old Roebourne Gaol & Visitor Centre

The North West Coastal Highway eventually rolls into old, historic Roebourne, where the Old Gaol (jail) is also now the Visitor Centre. When Rick Fenny did set up shop as a vet here in ’75, he didn’t know what was going on as Red Dog came in several times, but each time with a different owner.

Aboriginal street art in Roebourne, Pilbara, Western Australia

Aboriginal street art in Roebourne

Over the years, Red even started visiting the vet of his own accord (possibly for Fenny’s bitch) where he would chill out on the porch and brawl with the paying customers.

It was also Fenny who managed to convince the local council that Red Dog belonged to “the people” and so the shire paid his vet’s bills.

Roebourne saloon bar & bottle shop, Pilbara, Western Australia

Roebourne

From Roebourne, swing a right on the Point Samson-Roebourne Road. Red Dog is buried in an unmarked, bush grave somewhere in these parts. Another right will take you to the ghost-town of Cossack, where a six kilometre Heritage Trail leads around the Northwest’s first port, abandoned by the ’50s. On to Point Samson and its Honeymoon Cove, which is supposed to be good for snorkelling. It didn’t look good for snorkelling, or a honeymoon, but we swam. Again, all these towns, and Wickham, across the road, were Red Dog territory.

Back on the highway, a right on Karratha Road leads to Karratha Visitor Centre, where – should you so desire – you can buy the Red Dog DVD, movie soundtrack and some album called Red Dog: A Dog’s Tale by Brian Boyd, as well as Red Dog patches, postcards, stubby-coolers, and even a stuffed Red Dog (toy). There’s also a big plaque on the wall with newspaper-clippings and so on.

The Visitor Centre also has a machine outside offering 50 litres of precious drinking water for a dollar. Be careful, as there’s a time limit, as I discovered only to turn around and find Ruth washing her hair from the containers we’d just filled up.

From the Visitor Centre, the Yaburara (or Jaburara) Heritage Trail leads 3.5 kms over the scorched Karratha Hills, past Aboriginal sites, rock engravings and panoramic views of the city, and ends up at the Karratha Leisureplex, where you’ll also find the Moonrise Cinema. The only problem is how the hell to get back

Head left on Dampier Road and you’ll pass Karratha Community Library on the left. Here they have all the books on Red Dog, plus a big old lever-arch file packed with collected newspaper clippings relating to the hound who got around – though, somewhat like Van Gogh, Red Dog’s widespread fame came too late, so of course almost all of the clippings are from events after his death, such as the statue – and some beautiful photos of him.

Red Dog photos at Karratha Community Library, Pilbara, Western Australia

The real Red Dog! Photo at Karratha Community Library

Even in that day’s newspaper was a piece about Red Dog’s collar and tags – inscribed, “I’ve been everywhere, mate” – being returned finally to the Pilbara.

Photo of Red Dog at Karratha Public Library, Western Australia

Photo of Red Dog from Karratha Community Library

The first book on Red Dog was written by Nancy Gillespie in 1983 and collected the various stories and anecdotes from those who knew him, which now make up the Red Dog legend. It is now out of print, but Perth Library also has a copy.

A decade later, in 1993, Beverley Duckett put together another book – actually little more than a pamphlet – to keep the stories alive. It also featured Red Dog-inspired poetry by Lloyd Reynolds, Pauline Saddler, Pilbara writer Valerie Laughton, Doris Carroll, W. A. Green, whose poem “The Nameless Dog” is one of my personal favourites, and others. One of the best was by Lisa Middleton, aged only 14 at the time, which sounds crazy, but then I thought back to when I was 14 and realised it’s not five and that I’m pretty certain I was smarter at 14 than I am now.

I wrote my own Red Dog song whilst on the road in the Pilbara, but I won’t publish it here as I realised that it was basically just lyrics from The WandererThe End (The Doors) and Maybe Tomorrow (the theme-tune for The Littlest Hobo by Terry Bush) speckled with some Australian vernacular and to the chords of Rockin’ in the Free World, wind noises, a bit of token didgeridoo and some drumming designed to sound like a trembling chassis rolling along the rough Pilbara highway…oh, and with a killer guitar riff and imaginedly sung by X Factor Australia runner-up, Dean Ray. So, in short: great song, not mine at all.

Here’s Maybe Tomorrow and my favourite TV ad of all time, which, since it features a dog, seems almost relevant to this post.

Around another decade later, in 2002, Louis de Bernières – that guy who wrote Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – caught wind of the Red Dog story and wrote another book, beautifully illustrated by Alan Baker. This one you’ll be able to get hold of at home, and there are usually multiple copies in just about every library in WA.

Red Dog illustration by Alan Baker in Louis de Bernières book

Red Dog, illustrated by Alan Baker

Louis de Bernières Red Dog pages 22-23

I’m probably infringing some kind of copyright law here… Maybe it’ll help Louis sell a book or two.

With all this in front of me, I was able to see how the stories had gone from memoir to fiction, embellishments added, characters and chronology changing to suit plot, until the movie – which I still love – bears relatively little in common with what we know of the actual events. What I’m trying to do here is bring all the facts and locations together so that future Red Dog fans can make this journey, whether in person or vicariously through this post.

We hit the “Brey” (Tambrey Tavern) looking for a friend of a friend, and the “Tav” (Karratha Tavern), recommended by Jim, whose daughter worked there, only to discover it was a skimpy bar. Not sure what to say about that…

Be warned, the Shell garage on the main highway no longer allows free camping, so we parked up discreetly outside the public library…amidst an oddly large number of other cars. We were about to brush our teeth for bed when the car park erupted with activity, which then lasted over an hour. There’d been a performance on at the theatre next-door and they’d just kicked out.

Hearson Cove beach, Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula), Pilbara, Western Australia

Hearson Cove…

Just before Dampier, you can take a right on the Burrup Peninsular Road, then again at the Hearson Cove turn-off, then again about 2.2 kms up the road onto a gravel track…only we missed the gravel track the first time so had the pleasure of getting sunburnt at Hearson Cove, where the road ends literally right on the beach and the beach is made of shells.

Van parked on Hearson Cove beach, Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula), Pilbara, Western Australia

…where the road ends literally on the beach.

Back on track, you can park at the end of the aforementioned gravel track (one other car was there when we arrived) and follow the “short walking trail” to the Aboriginal petroglyphs (rock engravings) of Deep Gorge, Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula).

Broken thong (flip-flop) at Deep Gorge, Western Australia

My attempts to fix the flip-flops with grass and twigs only lasted a few steps at a time…

We walked several kilometres through the baking hot gorge, no respite from the sun. Both my thongs broke on the jagged rocks, too hot to walk barefoot and everywhere else needle-like spinifex. I gained a new respect for the Aborigines, and for the kangaroos, of which we saw four. My attempts to fix the flip-flops with grass and twigs only lasted a few steps at a time, and we made slow progress. We were getting burnt alive. Stories of foolish backpackers lost forever in the Australian wilderness came to mind. We crested the gorge and could see the brilliant blue sea in the distance on both sides, and still no rock art or petroglyphs.

Deep Gorge, Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula), Pilbara, Western Australia

We crested the gorge and could see the brilliant blue sea in the distance…

Then I spotted one, but only one. We had to admit defeat and turn around, Ruth eventually running ahead to the van and running back with my other shoes.

Fake petroglyphs (rock engravings) at Deep Gorge, Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula), Pilbara, Western Australia?

Fake?

Sunstroked and about to drive away, we saw the real path. That fucking car had been parked in front of it! We ran over and scaled the mountains of giant rocks, everywhere ancient carvings of people, kangaroos and other indiscernible blotches.

Aboriginal petroglyph (rock engraving) at Deep Gorge, Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula), Pilbara, Western Australia

Aboriginal petroglyph (rock engraving) at Deep Gorge, Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula)

I’ve never been so likely to die in a rock-slide, as I climbed the blood-red rocks that have wobbled and teetered there, high above the gorge floor, for thousands of years. Nobody was anywhere to be seen. Very few people have set foot here. No plaque or road-sign indicated the site’s presence, let alone any health and safety implementation. Love it!

Mountains of big red rocks at Deep Gorge, WA

Scaling the mountains of giant, blood-red rocks

Drinking in the gorge was another kangaroo, “with joey”. It bounded up the rocks and over the gorge with ease, putting me to shame.

Kangaroo at Deep Gorge, Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula), Pilbara, Western Australia

Where’s Skippy?

We drank shit-loads of water and got back on the Dampier Road, past the vast salt fields stretching along on either side, to the Dampier Mermaid Hotel (hotels are pubs in Australia) – Red Dog’s regular haunt back in the ’70s. Though it’s changed a lot since then, with recent renovations costing several thousand dollars (and it’s now a skimpy bar too) it was easy to imagine him in there, eating scraps and entertaining the guys with his latest rebellious antics.

The Dampier Mermaid Hotel skimpy bar, Western Australia

Red Dog’s regular: the Dampier Mermaid Hotel

I asked the Swedish backpacker behind the bar in her underwear about Red Dog.

“Who?”

After a while of this one of the guys sitting at the bar chipped in and explained to her who the red dog was on the stubby-coolers and other memorabilia on sale right next to her. He turned to us and told us that, yes, this was the place.

“The pub in the film’s somewhere in South Australia. A lot of the movie was filmed in SA.”

The Dampier Mermaid Hotel pub, Western Australia

Drinking at the Dampier Mermaid

We had a beer.

The background music sang out:

“…the last thing that I noticed as that old train came around was the city burning golden as the sun came sliding down and I sat there still but in my mind I screamed goodbye, farewell to my hometown. I’m not coming back…”

- Husky

Red Dog roamed all over the Dampier area. He would show up everywhere. Whenever anything was going on – football, cricket, barbies, fetes, showings at the drive-in cinema – he was there. He hung out on Dampier Back Beach, stealing steaks and snags, in the Dampier Shopping Centre, having stubbornly thwarted all attempts to remove him, and in the caravan park, where no chains or fences or rules could keep him out. The caretakers, with their “NO DOGS ALLOWED” signs, promised to have Red Dog terminated.” That night they were run out of town.

Dampier Back Beach, the Pilbara, Western Australia

Dampier Back Beach

However, Red Dog’s real calling was hitching rides. He hitched rides in road-trains, freight trains, company utes, private cars, the water truck, and even the Hamersley Iron company buses, and that’s how he met his only real owner, a bus-driver for Hamersley Transport Section, called John Stazzonelli.

Red Dog would hang around the single men’s quarters and it was here that he first got the name “Red Dog” or “Red” and became “a paid-up member of the Transport Workers’ Union.”

Red would get into parked cars, wait at the roadside, at bus stops, chase down buses ’til they stopped again and even jump out in front of familiar cars to stop them. He was known to be choosy about who he rode with, and often had a specific destination in mind, refusing to get out until his driver had got the right place. Sometimes buses had to detour from their route for him.

However, on the 23rd July 1975, John was killed in a motorcycle accident. Red never settled down again. From here on in he became known as “the Pilbara Wanderer,” travelling further and for longer than ever before, scratching on doors to announce his return, but never stopping anywhere for more than a few nights. This life I know.

On his travels he got dusty and dirty, ill and old. Heartworm took its toll on his stamina, his heart, lungs, blood, coat and other organs. He lost weight and developed a severe cough. Luckily, Fenny caught the symptoms in time. It was decided that the only place to quarantine him was the dog pound, but when the guys at Dampier Salt Ltd (more friends from his travels) found out he was in the pound, they busted him out in the night. However, Red returned the next day of his own free will and made a full recovery.

At Dampier Salt he was called “Blue” or “Bluey” – a common Australian nickname for the red-of-hair – and was made a special member of the Dampier Salt Sports and Social Club and the Metal Trades Union, had a bank account created for him at Wales Bank and was registered with the local shire under the name, “the Dog of the Northwest.”

But not everyone was a Red Dog fan. Midge Sullivan wrote, “It is disturbing and surely an indictment against our society that an appeal for a monument to an animal engenders more public support than the annual Red Cross Appeal…needy children in our state have not rated the publicity nor the financial support accorded a stray animal.”

Obviously what Red Dog’s story represents to the Pilbara, and why it resonates in the hearts of travellers like me the world over, has gone over Midge’s head.

Sadly, like most itinerants, during his lifetime Red had a lot more enemies than friends. He was frequently wounded, in fights, with cats and other dogs, shot at, shot, saved and finally poisoned.

Red Dog statue at Dampier Town Info Bay

The Red Dog statue at Dampier Town Information Bay

On the way out of Dampier we stopped for some surprisingly emotional photos with the Red Dog statue, which is on the left as you come into town, only 100 yards or so down the road from where John died in that fateful motorcycle crash, and is now also the site of the Dampier Town Information Bay.

Ruth at Red Dog statue, Dampier Town Information Bay, Western Australia

Ruth and Red

With Red Dog statue, Dampier Town Information Bay, the Pilbara, Western Australia

Me and Red

Drinking Traveller at Red Dog statue, Dampier Town Information Bay, Western Australia

Surprisingly emotional…

Red died on the 21st November 1979, according to the plaque. (Some sources say the 20th – coincidentally, the same date Ruth’s dad died.) He was killed deliberately by strychnine poisoning (a.k.a. dingo “baiting”) – one of the worst ways to die imaginable. After being found on the 10th, he suffered violent convulsions, permanent brain-damage and a level of PAIN I hope I’ll never know, enduring all this in a semi-conscious state for twelve days.

Red Dog The Pilbara Wanderer died Nov 21st 1979 erected by the many friends made during his travels plaque on statue

The plaque on the Red Dog statue

As I’ve mentioned, he was buried in an unmarked grave, out bush, though accounts vary wildly as to the exact location.

Red Dog statue by Meri Forrest, Dampier, the Pilbara, WA

Red Dog statue by Meri Forrest

The Pilbara is not a place people tend to stay in for their whole lives and as people moved away, the news of Red Dog’s sad death spread throughout Australia, and the world, and with it his fame. He has become a part of Pilbara history, coming to represent the region like no human yet has.

It’s funny how a dog who liked to ride in vehicles has gone on to inspire a story that touches so many people.

One thing’s for certain: it could only have happened here, in this wild Outback landscape, where the distances are so long and the people so transient.

A Red Dog Festival and Relay is held in the region every year around May or June.

We spent that night at the Barradale Rest Area, for one of the most incredible sunsets of our lives.

Sunset at Barradale Rest Area on Yannarie River, Western Australia

Sunset at Barradale Rest Area

Red travelled this road to Perth at least twice in his life; the first time with John. The second time, the people who took him lost him in the city. They searched everywhere, and drove back feeling terrible…only to discover that he’d made it back to Dampier before them.

Red Dog statue from behind, Dampier, Australia

“Can’t stay for long, just turn around and I’m gone again…” – Terry Bush

We set off again, bound for Perth, where our Red Dog journey was about to be laid to rest, but where it turned out an old friend I hadn’t seen in 13 years was waiting…

3 Responses to On the Scent of Red Dog: The Pilbara Wanderer

  1. G G

    I do not know how anybody can afford to travel and particularly drink alcohol in Australia.
    We have the most over priced of everything here in this country.
    Hotels, motels, backpackers accom, beer, spirits, restaurants, airport fees, you name it.
    Its a total ripoff.
    Australia is only good for two things, the free medical system, and cheap wine.
    I do two 8 week trips overseas each year, and live like a king while there.
    I use excellent 3 star hotels in SEA for from $25 a night.
    I drink Cocktails in Siem Reap for $1.99.
    I buy 700 mill bottles of gin in Siem reap for $5.90.
    Example of world wide comments from the press lately:

    Its cheaper to get a hotel in New York than in Sydney!
    Australia will lose tourism because of the high airport charges to airlines. [Quote from Mr Fernandez, director of Air Asia.]
    It goes on and on!

    • Roy Duffield

      Completely agree. I don’t understand why so many backpackers come to one of the most expensive countries in the world, spend $25+ every night to live in the cheapest, shittiest dorm in Australia, plus hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars a week in beer money, when they could have an infinitely better lifestyle in Laos, Cambodia or pretty much anywhere in S. E. Asia for a few dollars a day.

      Working here is the trick.

  2. azard khan

    I watched this last night and I remember my own dog who lived with us he was 14 years soogie

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