Queen of the Sandalwood

GREG ROBINSON recently took his son and his son’s mate out on a camping trip in the Wheatbelt. It’s a trip they’re unlikely to forget.

LET me tell you about the day I met Norma Philips, WA’s Sandalwood Queen.

On April 22, I’d embarked on a journey with my 15-year-old son and his 14-year-old mate, leaving the comfortable confines of Bicton for a few days camping in the Wheatbelt.

We had a great night under the stars at Billibirning Rock, north of Beacon, on Friday and watched the sun set and the moon rise with spectacular colours.

Up with the birds on Saturday I drove north to Bimbijy station, then east to “the fence”. I’d been aiming for Malgar Rock, to show the boys the bush and some Indigenous culture.

We made it to the fence without drama and turned left to travel north and then onto the track to Malgar Rock — that was to be our demise. The map didn’t reflect the track: it was rough, it was tight and it soon became clear it also hadn’t had a vehicle on it for some time.


In the end it narrowed, then disappeared, and we were lost and driving on brittle bush sticks. Brittle is an understatement, as the branches are akin to road spikes. They punctured the front right tyre and slashed the right rear wide open. So there we were, 25 clicks east of the fence, in deep bush, with essentially no wheels.

The second realisation at this point was we’d just run out of drinking water. I rapidly changed the split rear tyre, trying to ignore the hissing from the front one.

Back in the car, I got the boys to direct me away from the spikes and we eventually found our tracks and got back to the fence and proceeded south.

We made decent progress but I just didn’t know how I was going to get back to the bitumen.

Five kilometres south there was an unmarked crest: the car flew in the air and landed on all wheels with force and, sure enough, the front tyre burst.

I drove until the rubber melted off the tyre, then stopped to refit the other ripped spare. This was going pear-shaped fast.

We got another five kilometres out of the last tyre and stopped.

For various reasons we chose to walk back to the last station or place where we knew there were people. The boys were worried but we thought the station was walkable with five oranges, a drop of milk and scooping water from the roadside.

So at 4.10pm on Saturday April 24 we started walking south down the fence to the Bimbijy gate. We walked until 9pm, possibly covering 17km, then pulled up on the side and slept, with two fires to ward off dogs and mozzies.

We got up in the morning, following dreams of waterfalls quenching a deep thirst, but soon realised our next fresh water source was unknown.

We packed and kept walking for two hours towards Bimbijy. I have to tell you I was desperately thirsty and worried, but almost a second later the boys looked behind us and said, “car coming!”

In that car was Norma Philips with four litres of cold rainwater, a bag of apples and her good heart. Her daughter Rebecca was driving and we were “saved”. Norma took us back to the bush camp. Fed us, shared everything she had, organised for the tyre to be fixed, cooked us burgers and a barbecue.

She even took us to some incredibly moving Indigenous sites, including ochre pits and rock art with hand prints, gnamma holes for water, explaining the background and importance of just about every plant we passed. For example, kite leaf is the plant they make 1080 poison from — “don’t even touch it”.

Many of you wouldn’t know about the Queen of the Sandalwood, but she runs a wonderful sustainable sandalwood harvesting company. She’d run it with her late husband until 18 months ago. It’s an amazing WA industry, worth millions to the economy, though my understanding is the WA government reaps a handsome price, while Norma picks up just a small portion.

It wasn’t always that way: for years there was no check on how many trees were taken, and as Indian sandalwood became more scarce and prices soared it attracted plenty of poachers.

We were lucky and very fortunate to come across Norma Philips and her family and, in the end, had an experience that was deep and unforgettable.

20 Paper Bird 10x3

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