The farming life for us!

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Answering the call from friends to look after the farm while they went away was not a difficult decision. The wet season was well and truly setting in as we left Darwin, and dry heat is much easier to handle than heat AND humidity!

You may not have realised that Paul used to run an alpaca stud many moons ago, and also spent time around horses in his younger years. Therefore the prospect of minding some horses (including trained brumbies), two calves, two alpacas, four goats, ducks and chickens, as well as two dogs, two cats, two parrots and two canaries, seemed like a straightforward exercise initially. The farm may well sound like Noah’s Ark, and many of these animals have been rescued from awful conditions, and now live a happy and healthy life in country Victoria!

Our friends headed off in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, and Kirstine set an alarm for 6.45am. It was wonderful to have a different purpose for getting out of bed, though the morning feeds were done without Paul’s assistance, as his medications make early starts very difficult.

How curious it was to find all the animals “waiting” at the front fences of their respective paddocks, for Kirstine to prepare the feeds in various tubs. Running through the mental checklist of “x” number of scoops for these horses, “x” number for these, feed them in this order, separate the girls to make sure they all get to feed in peace .. day one was a little overwhelming! Not in the least because Kirstine has not spent much time around horses, and found herself more than a little afraid to climb through the fence to move them around when the time came. “Don’t be silly Kirstine, they are more interested in the tubs of food you are carrying, than what you are worried about!”. A stern reprimanding of Self did the trick and the female horses were lead into separate areas to feed in peace for half an hour.

Next task, feed the goats, calves, alpacas and poultry. Goats are funny beings, and have no qualms in trying to mug you for the food you are carrying while you also try to close the gate behind you at the same time!

Within an hour, all the large animals had been fed and accounted for. Time for coffee!! It was incredibly satisfying to sit and watch the sun continue to rise, knowing that we are doing something important on a farm. In the evenings we put the poultry to bed, and spent time watching the horses interacting and enjoying the round bale in their paddocks. After making a list of other chores to do during our stay, we fell into bed exhausted but satisfied. Little did we know that in a couple of days, we’d experience first hand one of the harsh realities of life on a farm.

Making the feed rounds in the morning, Kirstine noticed that one of the calves, Mac, was not one of the usual mob trying to mug her for food when she entered the paddock. A quick hike around found Mac sitting quietly in one of the shelters, completely disinterested in food or trying to stand up. Kirstine got Paul out of bed for that one, and we both tried to get Mac to stand. Thankfully our friends had left a list of emergency contacts, and Kirstine started ringing them for advice on this change in behaviour. We knew that Mac sometimes got tummy aches (to put it in non-farming terms), so we rubbed his tummy, and tried some of the techniques we’d been given to help him feel better. We’d had to phone our friends, though they were in Western Australia, to let them know what was going on. Throughout the day our emotions ran from Hope (Mac has moved out into the sunshine!), to Concern (Mac’s lying on his side), Confusion (Mac’s moved again so he’d in the shade and he’s sitting up!), to eventual Despair, as this angelic faced little calf succumbed in the late afternoon to the snakebite which all emergency contacts agreed had occurred. His bovine paddock mate, Daisy, was confused and stayed by Mac’s side. Luna had even helped to try and get Mac onto his feet, licking his face and nudging his rump. We were with him as he breathed his last, and Kirstine spent most of the evening in tears, having had to tell our friends of the loss of this dear little fellow. Even the horses seemed to know that a family member had passed away, and were all silently standing at their fences to watch us and no doubt pay their respects. The tears flowed again as the truck came the next day from the knackery to remove Mac’s earthly remains, which is the standard practice in this area. A harsh reality (and necessity) even on a farm where animals are like family.

Life is never boring on a farm, and we took pleasure in bonding with the horses, watching a brumby foal gallop around after breakfast, Kirstine’s confidence growing with each day. Coralling alpacas and trimming their nails, opening the chook hut with an element of excitement – “will there be eggs today?”, and taking care of the grounds. Any excuse for Paul to use the quad bike!

A new little calf arrived to keep Daisy company, and should have been called Houdini! So quick was she to try and get between the wires on the fences, that Kirstine could only just grab the tail to keep hold of, while Paul ran for the roll of chook wire and fencing nails. It’s amazing what you can do when you really have to, and we escape proofed the small yard before bringing Daisy down to meet her new friend. Feeding an 8 week old calf from a bottle is a singularly joyful experience, shared quite obviously by the calf as her tail flew in circles like a propeller as she polished off the 2L of milky goodness.

A limping horse was the next concern, and thankfully another contact from the emergency list was able to come and have a look. A horse expert, he was confident in handling the boy with the sore hoof, and was able to extract a piece of fencing wire which was stuck in the most tender part of the hoof. Thank goodness!

Our friends arrived home after an exhausting trip to Mundrabilla Station in Western Australia, where they had joined other trainers to complete a world record – training 70 wild horses from a neighbouring station in 7 days! They have each trained their own wild brumby, rescued from starvation or culling in the Kosciusko National Park, while studying the 4BP method of training in country NSW last year. They form such a bond with the brumbies that they train over the course of a week, that in most cases, the brumby goes home with the trainer. Joe Hughes, who devised this gentle training method, 4BP, has many ex-military/emergency services personnel who go and learn how to train wild horses as a means of coping with the challenges of PTSD and depression. As we’ve been told, once you step into the ring with a wild horse, look into its eyes on day one, and have it willingly following and trusting you, it changes you forever. It sounds phenomenal, and we’re hoping to go and visit Joe before we wrap up the trip. Our experience is with dogs providing emotional support, so it’s no surprise that other animals can do the same thing for mutual benefit.

When you’re on a farm and there is no access to town water, ensuring a constant supply can be a major stressor. It’s not just making sure you have water for a shower, or the washing machine, but also for the animals you are responsible for, and enough to fight a fire if that horrid event were to occur. Our friends went to collect water from a point in a nearby town, nearly every day once they got back. Temperatures were high and the animals were drinking more than usual. It was so wonderful two nights ago, to have significant rain fall overnight! It may have looked strange to have an ear pressed to a water tank, but to hear the strong inflow, was a real boost to the spirits for all of us.

So, we’ve had ups and downs, highs and lows, and a real appreciation for the work that goes into running a farm, even a small one. Are we put off by this? No. Are we already talking about maybe having our own farm once the trip is over? Yes! Do we have an understanding of the positive and negative effects that farming can have? Absolutely. In this respect, a relationship with neighbours, suppliers, customers, and contact via social media is so important. It’s no surprise to see that more and more farms are creating social media profiles for their business. It’s not just about promoting what they provide, but about documenting the difficulties and successes, and giving the outside world a view into the challenges of farming in Australia. Do a search on Facebook for some farm businesses and give them your support!

Panic at Pinnaroo

We’ve jumped the timeline to share the events of today, which had the potential to end the journey for Driving Oz with the Black Dog.

Enroute to Victoria to assist dear friends who asked for help at their farm while they’re away, we left Blanchetown and were due to arrive at the farm late this afternoon. Turning from Pinnaroo towards Bordertown, we encountered a South Australia Police officer, who had closed the road due to a truck having lost its trailer and accompanying oversized load. The option was, wait the anticipated 60 minutes till the road was to be reopened, or turn around and head back to Pinnaroo and detour. Paul and Kirstine made the decision to instead head back to Pinnaroo for lunch, and then retrace our steps to the Bordertown road which should have then been cleared.

Three kilometres back towards Pinnaroo, Paul swore and pulled over quickly. The wheel bearings on the driver’s side of the Cub Camper had failed, the wheel was on an angle and smoke was pouring from the wheel. For reasons of propriety we can’t mention the expletives that flew as we surveyed the damage. Even the kids got away with some language they aren’t permitted to use.

The stink from the burning bearing grease burned the hairs in your nostrils, and it didn’t take long to decide to unhitch the Cub, easy while the road was still closed, and find a mechanic in Pinnaroo to source the bearings we needed.

It was a tense 20 minute drive back to Pinnaroo, and the strain on Paul was obvious to Kirstine. He is a very skilled and thorough driver, accustomed to towing and using mirrors. Paul always checks the Clearview towing mirrors to ensure that the Cub is towing properly, and the tyres are functioning correctly. It was these Clearview towing mirrors that enabled Paul to see the smoke from the wheel, and pull over just in time. To elaborate on the gravity of the situation, had Paul NOT noticed the smoke and deformed wheel movement, the wheel WOULD have flown off as we were driving at 100km/h. This would have likely flipped the Cub, and potentially involved the Legend in the accident. It would have been a catastrophic trip ending event.

Kirstine googled the mechanics in town once back in range of internet and phone services, and we found a Repco authorised service centre, making a beeline there. Peers Motor Group was professional in all respects. Synon arranged for his father to meet us out at the Cub, load it on a trailer (a trailer on a trailer!), and bring it back for them to assess the damage. Paul expertly reversed the Cub onto the tandem trailer, and we saw it arrive back in town, before going in search of accommodation for the night. Clearly, we weren’t going to be travelling to our friends’ farm in Victoria today.

We pulled up at the Golden Grain Hotel, and enquired about a room for two adults and four children. They were happy for us to take their family room, and brought up a spare mattress and bedding. It was a relief to have somewhere to stop and relax while we anxiously awaited the report from the mechanic.

Time to think is cruel when you start to second guess yourself. Paul is regimental in checking the vehicle and camper before we travel, and after the Cub’s wheel bearings were replaced in the Northern Territory at a Repco Authorised Service Centre only EIGHT DAYS AGO, he still checks the wheel nuts and hubs. For these to have failed so quickly, had him wondering if he missed something, though Kirstine assures him he is far more thorough than many people towing campers/caravans.

Brilliant news came when Paul rang just before 5pm to hear the verdict. Sure enough, the bearings had completely failed on one side, and Synon had needed to cut the bearing brace off the stub axle. Thankfully, he’d been able to repair it, replaced the bearings, and repacked the ones on the other side with fresh grease. When we went to collect the camper, Synon told us how lucky we were that Paul had noticed the smoke and stopped before we lost the wheel. He gave us a spare set of bearings, and was going to speak to the NT service agent to resolve the matter under Repco’s service warranty.

Aside from avoiding a serious accident today, we heard from five people that our trip is very worthwhile and important. One shook their head as they told us that they’d read the statistics regarding suicides in the farming community. Another said that there needs to be more talk about mental health in small towns. One lady shared her story about her struggles with PTSD after leaving an abusive relationship, and how this was compounded when her small town circle of friends shunned her when she had a breakdown. Shocked and anguished, she relocated, and her dogs helped her through her darkest days, giving her a reason to leave the house when nothing else could compel her to.

Tonight, we enjoyed a hearty pub meal, and are all comfortable in our room, ready to leave tomorrow and finally reach our farm destination. Isolation is especially cruel when you are struggling with your mental health. Our friends need us. Thankfully we can now make it there, and Driving Oz with the Black Dog will continue, in no small part due to the fabulous assistance provided by Peers Motor Group in Pinnaroo.

Reptiles, Repairs and Respite


Quite appropriately, the idea of crocodiles elicits a significant fear response on a primal level. In the tropical north, it is simply common knowledge to (most) Australians, that you don’t go swimming in rivers or lakes, unless it is specifically signposted as safe. As for the beach, well, as beautiful as it is, there are plenty of things that will sting or snap and ruin your day if you encounter one. That said, we do love the Northern Territory!

Signs warning of estuarine (saltwater) and freshwater crocodiles being in the area of the Katherine Hot Springs made us think twice about going in the water, and we had been told that the springs were actually closed, though that is never signposted. We went for a look, thinking we could take some photos, even if swimming were out of the question. We were surprised to find each of the spring pools with humans taking the waters. “If they are in there and not getting eaten, it must be safe!” we thought. Paul was not feeling well, so we returned to our cabin to rest and rehydrate for the afternoon. The weather in Katherine felt more oppressive than Darwin. Here, the temperatures were high (37-38 degrees) and humidity high, but little breeze. You could almost feel the pull of moisture from your body as it tried to keep the skin cool through sweat.

New Year’s Day and we returned to the hot springs, and found that the lower pool was devoid of the human bait from the day prior. We have frequently struck it lucky and had natural pools to ourselves while on this trip, but sometimes it is unnerving to be the first into the water. Kirstine fought the fear and ducked her head under water, surveying the crystal clear depths for lurking crocodilians before allowing the kids into the water. Even now, she is fairly sure she would have found herself walking on water if anything unexpected had moved in her peripheral vision!

Joined later by a trio of ladies who invited us to bring Luna into the water with us, much to Luna’s obvious joy, and we heard that there has been a croc in the springs before, but it was when the Katherine River which runs on a lower parallel to the springs, flooded after wet season rains, and made it easy for the snappy reptiles to cross over for a visit. The freshwater crocs are generally docile and only snap if you annoy them. The estuarine crocs, however, are far more terrifying – partly because they are extremely intelligent and learn human patterns of behaviour.

The kids looked for fish in the clear waters, and used the natural waterfall as a slippery slide between pools. Luna had a great workout chasing sticks and swimming against the surprisingly strong current generated by the tumbling water over the small waterfall. Everyone was refreshed and cool as we walked back the Legend.

Nitmiluk is the indigenous name for the Katherine Gorge, and the visitor centre is well worth a visit. Many tours cease operating in the wet season, but the café and souvenir shop, as well as stories about the life of the Katherine Gorge, are fascinating. The kids had the opportunity to watch a well known local indigenous elder and artist work on painting a boomerang. The steady hand of these artists is truly enviable! The National Parks staff member greeted us and Luna, noting her assistance dog vest. She told us that her partner had been part of the Black Dog Ride out of Alice Springs, and she loved that we are travelling with such an important message. Paul had been the Coordinator for the inaugural Black Dog Ride out of Geelong in 2015, and it’s always a pleasant surprise to meet others who want to share the message about suicide prevention and mental health advocacy. Paul asked about the regulations for flying drones (RPAS) in national parks in the NT, and was thanked for asking! There is a blanket restriction on flying at Nitmiluk and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Parks, and permits must be sought from the Parks & Wildlife Commission for other areas. This wasn’t surprising to Paul, and the ranger explained that they had banned them after a couple of dangerous incidents with tourists crashing their drones near people. It is also important to note that at many of these indigenous sites, photography is banned in certain areas, out of respect for the specific sacred history. If you think about it, flying a drone over and videoing the flight, means that you can inadvertently record images of sacred sites in contravention of the rules. Hence, no RPAS in many cases.  

Brian and Stephanie had welcomed us to Manbulloo Homestead and Station, providing us with a cabin for three nights over New Years. The kids were super excited to be staying in a stilt house, and the elevated verandah made for beautiful evenings listening to the birdlife and frogs. We noticed a sign on the path to the Katherine River, warning of crocodiles and not to swim. Stephanie told us that they had put the sign there, and not closer to the river, as they knew of people who had simply used the sign to hold their beach towel as they went into the water, without having actually read the warning. Mind boggling, but for tourists who don’t know any better, these signs are potential life savers. Just after we left Katherine, we read a story about a man who lost his dog to a croc while fishing on the Adelaide River. Heartbreaking, and yet, it could so easily have been the human. There is a database of worldwide croc attacks, CrocBITE, built in part by Charles Darwin University, which contains data from 150 years of recorded incidents. Saltwater crocodiles are at the top of the list for attacks, both fatal and non-fatal. Everywhere in the NT there are signs about being CrocWise, but at the end of the day, some humans will tempt fate or simply become complacent.

Brian took the children out to see the cattle and new calves on the station, and when we’ve checked the footage that our eldest son recorded with one of the Sony Action Cams, we’ll post it for you to see. These gorgeous floppy eared Brahmans just make us smile! Having a full kitchen complete with oven and new utensils was too much temptation for Kirstine, and she whipped up a wicked roast pork for tea. It was just about ready by the time the kids got back, all smiles and stories about cute calves, and riding in the back of the ute.

Paul had checked the trailer before we went out to Manbulloo, and with a sinking feeling, noticed that the bearings on one wheel were completely shot. We had had these serviced in Mount Isa before heading up to Cape York, so they were due for servicing. Timing couldn’t be more inconvenient though with New Years meaning businesses were closed. We had cautiously limped the Cub out to Manbulloo, and Stephanie offered for Paul to use their workshop if he needed to, to replace the bearings. Thankfully on the Tuesday morning after New Years, and our last day at Katherine, he found a business who agreed to fit us in for a service. This wasn’t a cheap exercise, but infinitely better than having a wheel fly off the Cub as we travelled at 110km/h down the Stuart Highway, with long distances between towns. Whilst the mechanic staff were friendly and interested in our travels, Paul was dismayed to find that the owner has unfortunate opinions about dogs when it comes to her tow truck – they aren’t allowed in the cab under any circumstances. Paul carefully broached the topic of it being illegal to refuse to carry a service dog, however the owner told him that she didn’t care. She was more concerned with being sued by someone who gets in the cab of the truck after the fact and has an allergic reaction to any dog hair. Paul didn’t point out the irony that she was instead risking a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, should she refuse a service dog access to the cab with its handler. We’ve learned to choose our battles on the topic of service/assistance dogs, but wonder how long it takes before this business proprietor learns a very difficult lesson.

We had emailed community groups about our trip, but as we found, many NT residents head south over Christmas/New Years, and stay away for much of January. A cyclone near Kununurra had already made us rethink our itinerary, heading south to instead cover the coast of South Australia and south west Western Australia, before heading north when the worst of the wet (cyclone) season has passed.

That night we felt the build up in the air as lightning danced through the clouds, and ominously dark clouds appeared on the horizon. We were excited to sit on the verandah at Manbulloo and watch the approaching storm. Paul took some great pictures, and it wasn’t until we retired to bed that the rain began to fall, and fall, and fall, with Brian telling us when we left the next morning, that 44mm was recorded at the homestead. We were grateful that it wasn’t pouring rain as we packed the Legend. No-one wanted to be soaking wet and travelling for hours in the heat. The sun was starting to make things humid again as we left Manbulloo, smiling at the calves that bolted as we drove past, their patient mothers seemingly unperturbed as they waited for their skittish babies to return once our big noisy four wheeled machine had rolled past.

The peak season for the Northern Territory is the Dry Season, or “Winter” as the southern states call it. Don’t write off the NT in the Wet. There is a magic to the north that we fell in love with, but not so much that we would go without air conditioning. We are originally from those southern states, and tropical heat takes some getting used to!