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

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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!