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One hundred and thirteen days and counting

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. It has been 113 days since I started my new life on the road, unattached and unfettered, and the freedom has gone to my head such that I have not written as much as I should. Writing for me feels a lot like exercise – something I may not necessarily feel like doing at any given moment, but an activity I do for the feeling afterwards which is my reward. Right now, I am doing virtual burpees as I type this post when I would rather be reading. You see, the silence in this van of ours is so hard to come by thanks to two loud and crazy little men, that when the cloud of quiet descends upon me, it is all I can do from succumbing to the lull of rest.

As I type this, we are in Karumba. Karumba is a small town on the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland where the water is loaded with barramundi and banana prawns, where the ground is a pale, sandy gravel and the turquoise water stretches for kilometers. It is hot, very hot, and the flies are relentless. The people are friendly, the local café sells good coffee, and the owners of our caravan park will provide us with 1 kilogram of cooked prawns for the stately sum of $22.

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When I last posted, we were in South Australia and it was freezing. Our initial plan when we left Melbourne was to test-out life on the road for a couple of months before returning to Victoria in October for my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. After that, we would travel to Tasmania for a month before returning to Melbourne and beginning the journey north, along the coast.

That is not at all what happened.

By the time we got to Victor Harbor in South Australia, and had rugged our children up in more layers than we thought we packed, and had trudged them out to Granite Island to peer at penguins who had more sense than we did, and who hid in their burrows out of view, we accepted we needed to change our plans. So on a Sunday morning, as our boys played Lego at our kitchen table, my husband D and I looked at each other, uttered the immortal words, “Fuck this” and decided to head north to warmer climes.

We flicked through a random South Australia/Flinders Ranges brochure we had picked up somewhere, circled a sheep station that sounded nice, and called the Spirit of Tasmania to change our booking. Then, we spent a frantic hour in the Victor Harbor mall, buying all manner of summer clothes because we had packed none, such was our certainty that we would return to Victoria at which time we would collect our summer clothes from storage. Our boys walked out of Target with fake Crocs to replace their gumboots, wide-brimmed hats to replace their beanies, and shorts to replace their track-pants. My husband walked out with a couple of t-shirts. I left with nothing but excitement at encountering heat for the first time since March.

We drove to Noarlunga, where we visited the local BCF and bought swimming vests for children who were no longer going to be forced to crouch in wet tufts of grass to play as their parents gripped their jackets tightly and asked them to hurry up, but who would instead float in the thermal pools of Mataranka, the place in the Northern Territory that we pictured as an oasis on that cold, dreary day.

Then, we drove.

Through Adelaide, through the Clare Valley, stopping at Burra for supplies, a kick of the football and petrol, on we sped along the highway until we reached Almerta – the antithesis to our grey, drizzly days in the city and suburbs. Located in the middle of the Flinders Ranges between Orrorroo and Carrieton, we pulled up our van and the beautiful Shane – who essentially runs the entire station on her own as her husband travels for 7 months out of the year doing shearing/crutching for sheep across South Australia and New South Wales – pointed to our space on her sprawling property.

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We were the only visitors there, and it was incredible. We had no power, no phone reception, and limited water. For four days we rode our bikes through the red dirt, navigating stony hills and tufts of saltbush. By day we spotted emus, kangaroos, wedge-tailed eagles and cockatoos, played lego and cars in the dirt, and hiked around the property to explore the natural springs that emerged from the ground. At night we ate by the campfire, and when the boys were in bed, my husband and I sipped wine, placed more logs on to burn, and wondered why we hadn’t thought to do this earlier. The silence, the stars, the colours of the dirt and the sky. It was bliss.

It was bliss? Yes, it was. I can say that with certainty, even though for most of my life I have been a camp-phobe. Being raised by the elderly can do that to you. My grandparents were never going to sleep on the ground in the middle of nowhere, so my experience of childhood did not include this kind of pastime. My husband’s childhood was the same – his family owned a farm so disappearing for camping trips was not something workable or even desirable. D’s experience of roughing it came directly from being in the army, and until I met him, my experience of roughing it was staying in a 3 and a half star motel. This is partly why this whole experience of travelling on the road has been so educational for us, because we are repeatedly amazed at what we are discovering about ourselves in the absence of any outer influence. As it turns out, we do like camping. We like being offline for a little while and just appreciating being connected with each other and our kids. And we don’t even mind the dirt. Who knew?

From Almerta we continued north, stopping overnight at Wilpena Pound before another random and unexpected win when we stumbled across the tiny, deserted town of Farina. Farina was once a thriving community and many of its local sons fought in World Wars 1 and 2. We know this because we stood in awe as we read all about Farina’s history on a monument that was a couple of kilometers from the highway, surrounded by dirt, but which lead towards a huge clearing complete with trees, hills, and families of emus huddling close to each other. We rode our bikes around, chatted with the grey nomads whose language we are fluent in, and taught J about war, about soldiers, and even about the Coat of Arms, and that yes, it’s true, emus and kangaroos cannot go backwards. Neither can we.

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From Farina we headed further north, along the Oodnadatta Track. This wretched patch of road is considered a highlight for some – for me, who had elected to share driving right at this very spot – it was hellish. For four hours I white-knuckle gripped the steering wheel and endeavoured not to slide our 4WD and 22ft van into a ditch. The corrugated dirt did a number on our van, with our shower screen door falling off the rails (but not shattering, fortunately) and a kitchen cupboard being loosened from its hinges and snapping off. The landscape was eerie and lunar-like – no towns for hours, few cars passing through, just a flat expanse of blue-grey that melted into the sky such that using the horizon as a reference point became impossible. By the time we slid into William Creek, we could not get to the pub fast enough.

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The next day at the crack of dawn we headed west to Coober Pedy. Without offending the local townsfolk, I can say with certainty that our one night there was well and truly sufficient. The mines, the holes, the life underground…well, it just isn’t for us. I’m not even that big a fan of opals. But kudos to the local supermarket and its impressive range of goods, including lemon tarts in the adjacent café that kept our boys quiet while we enjoyed a much-needed hit of caffeine.

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From Coober Pedy we continued up the Stuart Highway to finally – under drops of rain and a grey and ominous sky – cross the Northern Territory border. For one cramped and uneventful night, we hunkered down at the Kulgera Roadhouse. It is essentially a petrol station with space to park a van and connect to power. We left in the morning, heading towards Yulara.

Yulara is the home of Uluru, and the enormous rock in the middle of Australia did not disappoint. It is a special, sacred place, but what I found the most beautiful thing was not the rock itself, but rather, the prevalence of a small ecosystem on the rock’s periphery. I had imagined Uluru to be a big red boulder in the middle of nothing, but I was wrong. It is home to a huge number of plants and animals who have all made this space their home. We took photos of flowers as we rode our bikes around the base, J pointed out lizards on our way back to the car, and we spotted tadpoles swimming in puddles close to caverns. We felt so blessed to share in seeing such a special place which has for centuries been an important part of Indigenous Australia, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t angered and ashamed of my Caucasian roots when I watched incredulously as tourists mounted the rock for photos. At one point I may have shouted abuse in the direction of a pack of oldies wearing Queensland State of Origin shirts and who were not content with viewing the rock’s splendour from the ground and who instead hoisted their loud, entitled asses off the ground for a better photo opportunity. “Always speak up if you see something that isn’t okay,” we told J. “Sometimes you have to be the person who says something.”

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We stayed at Yulara for 5 days, including a day of hiking through the Olgas, a somewhat ambitious activity given that we had to carry a child each for most of the way. During our time at Yulara we sold our house at auction. A stressful, harrowing Saturday morning was spent with my husband on the phone to his sister who was in attendance at the auction, and me entertaining the crazy children with dirt, cars, and a football. But it sold, we got a good price, and finally the freedom that comes from having fewer responsibilities and assets became closer to being realised.

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From Yulara we detoured to Kings Canyon for a night. I have heard many people speak glowingly of this place but with two young children, a prevalence of dingoes and walking tracks that require more sure-footedness than my 2 and 4 year old possess, it was not a place of magic for us. We headed back to the Stuart Highway the next morning, heading towards Alice Springs where we made our home for 4 days. It was nice enough and I was grateful for the chance to clean out our van, do loads of laundry, and visit the local Flight Centre to book a quick sojourn to Bali.

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We continued north towards Mataranka, but the lure of the Daly Waters pub drew us into its grasp and soon we were drinking jugs of beer under heavily worked fans, while our children slurped ice blocks and coloured in their free activity books. The next morning we arrived in Mataranka, home of the aquamarine thermal pools. Our little N was not a fan, but J and his dad swam for ages spotting turtles and fish and relishing in the tepid water’s gentle current. Although it was a magical experience, my dislike of algae swimming against my skin freaked me out somewhat. The Bitter Springs pool was more child-friendly, and both boys had a ball, at least until J got swept over the waterfall’s barrier and remained upright only due to his strength at holding on to the rocks, and my own strength at hauling him one-armed back to safety.

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From Mataranka our next stop was Katherine, where we stayed at a sprawling property covered with shady trees, and where a large proportion of our days was spent in the shade-sail covered pool. We liked Katherine’s uniqueness combined with its quirky charms – J was amazed that the entire town had flooded so severely in the 80s that crocodiles were swimming through the middle of the shopping centre, and D couldn’t speak more highly of the lovely lady he met at the Tourism Centre, who not only guided him as to the most child-friendly spots to visit in Kakadu, but who also advised us to purchase Solicite from the Chemist to help with our sensitive little N’s reaction to mosquito bites. I too was impressed, albeit mistakenly, when I was asked for identification at the bottle shop. Apparently this has nothing to do with my appearing younger – it is a request asked of everyone buying alcohol.

Before we left, we took a trip on a boat down Katherine Gorge, marvelling at the rock formations, and the next day we left town via Edith Falls where the boys swam and I drank Coke Zero on the grass.

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After Katherine we drove to Litchfield National Park and for two nights we stayed in another green expanse of grass and trees, and where our neighbours had three boys who were all Port Adelaide supporters. J was thrilled to have met some like-minded souls and played with the boys constantly when we were at camp. We took day trips to Florence Falls and all around Litchfield, swam in clear waters and smelled the scent of the ground being quenched with an afternoon downpour. The tropics – oh how we missed you after our six years of living in Melbourne.

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Finally – after weeks since our decision in Adelaide to head north – we reached Darwin. We fell in love almost instantly – the heat, the sunsets, the seafood, the mangoes, the laid-back lifestyle, the existence of Casuarina Shopping Centre which but for a lack of a Myer/David Jones has pretty much everything someone who has been deprived of a shopping centre for weeks could need, our caravan park’s epic pool and the bar’s $20 jugs of Pimms, our proximity to the Palmerston library where I retreated to complete online job applications…Darwin had it all. We became regulars at the Mindil Markets of a Thursday night where we ate a smorgasbord of food on our leaf-strewn picnic blanket before heading on to the sand to watch the sun set over the water. We were in Darwin for over a month, and although we did spend one week of this time in Bali and another week in Brisbane (N and me, for a wedding and a job interview) and Melbourne (D and J, for D’s mum’s 70th birthday and to clear out our house prior to settlement), we could have stayed longer, and we were sad to say goodbye.

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Bali was of course as one would expect from Bali – relaxing and invigorating – but what was even better about our short vacation was that it planted a seed for a life we might be able to pursue now that we are free from material attachments. Why can’t we relocate there for a period of time and just enjoy life by the ocean, teaching our kids about different cultures and lifestyles? Why is that out of the realms of possibility? It’s not, not now anyway. And what does that mean for our kids? Maybe it means they get to see the world through another’s eyes.

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One night after we were walking back to our hotel after dinner, a woman begging on the ground reached up towards J with an outstretched arm, her hand gesturing for money. He asked us immediately why the lady was on the ground. This prompted a long discussion about poverty, about the act of begging, and about being grateful for the kind of life we have that means we do not need to ask others for money. J seemed to understand, but when we stopped off just before our hotel to buy water at a convenience store, he burst into tears and asked if we could buy that lady a lollypop. She doesn’t have any money for a lollypop and i want to give her one. The poor lady.

He cried and cried and cried.

And although I was sad to see my son distressed by what he had witnessed on the streets of Kuta, I was also grateful. How can I teach him to be thankful for the life he has if it is in a vacuum, if he has no context? If he has not seen that there are people in the world who are poor, who do not get a chance to become educated, who do not have the privilege of clean water and nutritious food, and who for whatever reason find themselves on the pavement of a thoroughfare asking strangers for spare change, how does he learn about them? That night, he learned something powerful – that the world is not just limited to his protected circle and that there are many other people living very different lives than the one he knows. I dropped to my knees and held him close to me, and I told him that he was a beautiful and kind soul for feeling sad about the lady he saw. I told him feeling sad about her situation means that he cares. And that sometimes caring hurts, but that having a caring nature is one of the most wonderful things in the world.

I will stop my recount of our adventures there – 3000 words is quite enough for one blog post. Suffice to say that after 113 days the experience has been unforgettable, the lessons learned innumerable and the connection with my boys even stronger than it was 4 months ago.

The journey continues.

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