Discovering the rest of the Stuart Highway

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If you recall from a couple of posts ago, we had skipped ahead in the timeline to let everyone know about our close call at Pinnaroo when the wheel bearing failed on the Cub Camper.

Going through the rest of our photos from our journey down the Stuart Highway, we realised we had some pretty awesome ones to share with you!

Heading south towards Alice Springs, we stopped to see some wonderful sights. Fuelling up at Elliot Roadhouse, a local indigenous man stopped to talk with the children and show them an artwork he had produced. The kids recognised some of the animals, and Johnny Devlin (as we came to know him) told them the names of the animals in his own language, explaining that when he and his family get hungry, they go out into the bush and hunt the animals like the ones he’s painted. Johnny offered to sell us the painting, and we were more than happy to buy this wonderful piece whose story we had just learned. The best part about this purchase – the money went straight to the artist’s pocket, not just a royalty as happens when you buy from many galleries.

The kids were raving excitedly about their experience at Elliott, as we rolled in to see Karlu Karlu/Karlwekarlwe, the Devils Marbles, after an overnight stop at Tennant Creek. Four local Aboriginal peoples of the Kaytetye, Warumungu, Anmatyerr and Alyawarr have strong connections to this sacred place.

Taken from an information board there, this story is haunting and timeless:

The dreaming is still here

Aboriginal people believe that people from the dreaming at Karlwekarlwe live in the caves under the rocks here.

“They’re real people like us. You can see them. A long time ago I went with my billycan down to the creek here to get some water. One of these secret people came out and started playing with me. I couldn’t go away.

My mother came and got me, saved me. After that we never camped at this place again, never. They’re kind these secret people, but they can make you mad. They can change you into one of them. They can say, ‘Follow me’, and you can’t go back.

It happened like that for my cousin. He disappeared. The old people made a big ceremony, singing the ground and the rocks to make them let my cousin come back. We’ve lost that song now. We’ve got no song to bring children back.”

A Senior Traditional Owner

After reading this, and from our perspective as non-indigenous people, standing at those rocks, listening to the wind and watching the shadows underneath beckon to us to explore, we wouldn’t at all have been surprised if someone had appeared from a cave!

Next stop was only a short trip down the road at Wycliffe Well, also known as the UFO Capital of Australia. Well, didn’t the kids have a ball here, with all the alien merchandise and photo opportunities. Inside the roadhouse, there are walls covered with newspaper articles about UFO sightings and alien abductions. Regardless of whether you “Believe”, there have been some fascinating close encounters reported in the Australian outback, so be sure to stop at Wycliffe Well, have your photo taken with the space ship and green alien, and grab a feed while you read up about visitors from another world.

A quick photo stop at the Tropic of Capricorn, marking the official start/stop between the Desert and the Tropics, and we pulled into Alice Springs. We had contacted the Big 4 MacDonnell Ranges to ask about staying in a cabin for a couple of nights instead of setting up camp in the heat. They were amazing, and gave us a special rate for our stay, airconditioned relief from the heat of Alice in the summer. As much as we love camping, staying in one of these beautifully appointed spacious cabins was a real treat. A shady carport for the Legend and our Cub, bunk beds for the kids, comfy bed for Paul & Kirstine, and great kitchen facilities.

We only had one full day in Alice Springs and decided to travel part of the Red Centre Way, to explore some of the famous gorges. The West MacDonnell Ranges are unique and utterly beautiful, and even the kids enjoyed the drive. Our stops in the West MacDonnell/Tjoritja National Park included the Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, Ochre Pits, and Glen Helen Gorge. Swimming in a gorge in the middle of the desert, is a sublime experience, which should absolutely be on your Bucket List. The kids had their goggles and were on a mission to find the native fish in the waterholes, and they did!

Home in time for the kids to have a few rides down the waterslide, they fell asleep that night with smiles on their faces, exhausted from the day’s adventures. Sometimes our travel itinerary appears not very kids-friendly, but we always make time for them to have fun and be kids. It is a joy to have them appreciate being able to have free time, rather than expect it and drive us nuts asking!

We had been due to stay for two nights at the Voyages Ayers Rock Campgrounds in a cabin, but realising we had miscalculated a day on our itinerary meant that we had to leave after one. We are very grateful to Voyages for their support of our journey! Our eldest son was amazed at the size of Uluru and Kata-Tjuta, though we didn’t have enough time to go and visit up close and personal. With the high temperatures, many of the walks were closed or had to close by 9am for safety reasons. There is more to explore at this beautiful place, so I think we’ll be back!

We splurged and booked an underground stay again at Coober Pedy, with our eldest son having missed that experience earlier in the trip. The apartment at the Comfort Inn Coober Pedy Experience, is spectacular. Super spacious, it’s basically a house underground! Paul and Kirstine actually think it would be great to live there. Whilst we didn’t take photos, we did take some video, which we’ll put up when it’s been edited. The kids noodled for opals next door at the pit outside the mine, and we had some very tasty pizza for tea. It’s surreal climbing into bed underground. The lighting in the apartment highlighted the stunning colours and cut in the ceiling and walls. It’s dark, it’s quiet, and it’s peaceful, everything that many city dwellers would find disconcerting, having become accustomed to the noise and light pollution that goes with dense populations.

Even now as we write this, there are cyclones moving around the north-west of Western Australia, and Northern Territory. By the time we get back up north, the worst of these will have subsided, but then we’ll have tourist traffic to contend with. You know what? Bring it on – more people = more conversations = more people spreading the word about mental health. There’s method to our own Madness!

Changing lives in Clunes

PTSD

Here we are in our second week in Clunes. It’s a beautiful part of the country, with rich gold mining history and family history for Paul!

The Legend is receiving some love and attention as part of an overhaul at Peter Stevens Motors in Ballarat. While we wait, the kids are making the most of their new swags and catching up on school work while we have internet access.

It’s been an eventful time here so far. We’ve befriended a retired truck driver, Mr D, who stopped by on a walk with his old dog to ask about the Black Dog reference on the Legend (before she went to the workshop). Paul and Mr D got talking on that second day here, and Mr D has been a regular visitor to our camp every day since!

Mr D is an intriguing character who’s had a hard life and has some fascinating stories to tell. He’s travelled many of the same roads that we have over the course of his career as an interstate truck driver and has seen sights that continue to play on his mind in the quiet of night. Long hours alone and away from home are not conducive to positive mental health, let alone seeing accidents or being the first one to discover one, and the accompanying dread of approaching to see if anyone has been injured.

Perhaps it’s because of these experiences that Mr D has found a kindred spirit in Paul. The two men often go and sit away from camp, ostensibly because Mr D smokes and doesn’t want to do so around the children, but there is a genuine bond between Mr D and Paul, and Kirstine sometimes leaves them to talk. Share. Provide support. Mr D has friends who also suffer from depression and/or PTSD, and he makes sure to visit or phone regularly to check on them – the hallmark of a good friend.

Mr D invited Paul to go to the Men’s Shed in Clunes. Paul agreed to go, and Mr D arranged to come and collect him the next morning. When the morning came, the idea of turning up to a meeting with strangers, albeit a casual “coffee and cake” type one, without Kirstine’s presence, had Paul extremely anxious.

“I can’t do it. I can’t go” he said.

“Why sweetheart? It’s only for a cuppa and to look at their projects. You might even meet someone who knows about your family”, Kirstine replied.

Silence.

Mr D arrived, and noticed straight away that Paul was not having a good day.

“You a bit rough this morning, Paul?”

Paul nodded.

“He reckons he’s not up to going with you Mr D, but I think it would be good for him”, Kirstine said.

Paul got up and put his shoes on, changed his shirt, and prepared Luna with vest and lead.

“Oh, you’re going to come and be sociable then are ya mate?”, Mr D offered, trying to lighten the mood.

Paul left, but couldn’t look Kirstine in the eye as she gave him a kiss goodbye. He was angry at her for being part of making him go. She felt guilty, but knew that sometimes she needs to support Paul by pushing him outside his comfort zone, ready to catch him when he returns.

Two hours later Paul returned with gifts of homegrown produce – vine ripened tomatoes, crabapple jam, and a gorgeous red cabbage. He also had stories to tell from his visit to the Mens Shed.

Currently they have a tram carriage, sans running gear (wheels etc), which was donated by a New Zealand company which only need the running gear, not the body of the tram. The Mens Shed is waiting on approval to do some work on the carriage, and turn it into “something” of use for the community. There were about 10-15 men at the meeting, and most had brought baked goods, jams, produce etc from home, to share with the group.

Paul was utterly inspired by talking with Don Vale, an octogenarian who has trekked the Kokoda Track four times, up and back twice in other words. Considering that in 2009, at aged 83, the first year that Don completed the Track, four Australians younger than him had perished while on the trek, this speaks volumes for his stamina, fitness and determination. In 2012, Don completed the arduous and gruelling 130km ONE WAY trek again, twice! A humble figure, Don told Paul that he did the journey for his best friend, who died during WWII on the Kokoda Track while serving in Papua New Guinea. His friend, part of the Stolen Generation, had lied about his age and name in order to enlist, and was only 16 at the time of his death. Don is believed to be the oldest person to have completed the Kokoda Track, the fact he has done it multiple times is a separate feat of resilience and dedication.

The Men’s Shed blokes told Paul that our trip is important, encouraging men (and women) to talk, share their problems rather than bottle them up.

Last Friday Paul and our eldest daughter had been helping Mr D fix his tv antenna to his caravan, when the weather changed suddenly. Lightning forked across the sky as they came back to camp, and the wind picked up. With no sign of rain in any forecast, Clunes was caught by surprise by the mini tornado event which swept through, wreaking havoc in its fierce presence. Thankfully we’d closed up windows and chairs, and put additional ropes on the awning in case of high winds, but the ferocity of the winds blew cups and plates from the sink, and spilled everything from the shelf onto the ground. The rain was horizontal under the awning, and the kids retreated into the camper while Paul and Kirstine remained outside to observe the storm. The kids swags were drenched by rain, and we fervently hoped that the seasoning we had done on the farm with some of our stale water, had done enough to seal them. The awning canvas bowed under the pooled water at each end, and we had to push up on it to release it four times during the storm. As suddenly as it had arrived, the tempest was over, and we surveyed our campsite as we heard the sounds of emergency services sirens begin to wail in the aftermath. Damage – none, mud and water – plenty, swags – dry inside! We were so relieved to find nothing more than a trickle in each swag, mainly from the water splashing against the zip under the front window hood.

People had close calls during the storm, and one man’s life was changed forever. A large branch from a tree had collapsed, crushing part of his caravan underneath, and piercing through the hard annex roof of a neighbouring van, in which a lady was sleeping. No-one was injured, but the residents of the caravan park rallied around their friends as the realisation of the extent of the damage became evident, and the shock set in. It was heartening to see neighbours embracing each other, bringing chairs for those affected, as they looked in disbelief at the carnage. The SES from Ballarat were soon on scene, and worked for a couple of hours to try and secure the area. Park management staff came to check the campground to see if any of the trees near us had similarly collapsed. Paul spoke with them at length about what had happened, and told them what the SES would try to do, speaking from his past experience as a Unit Controller. He also told them about his experience with the ambulance service and fire & rescue, in the context of guiding them through the recovery process ahead. Paul went to check on Mr D, who had missed the commotion, having taken his hearing aids out and wearing headphones to watch tv! He was so incredibly grateful that Paul thought to come and check on him. Briefly watching the SES crew begin to work, Paul later found himself experiencing flashbacks to his SES days, where his emergency management career began, but also where his first emergency related trauma was experienced.

Fast forward to yesterday, and the tree is still in situ. The SES crew from Hepburn arrived in the later afternoon to continue the work in trying to remove the heavy branch, nearly equivalent in size to an actual tree trunk. Kirstine was working on tea, while Paul was in the camper sending some emails, when a member of the park management team came over asking if Paul was available, saying they needed someone to help with a medical emergency. Mr J, the man whose new caravan had been crushed by the tree, was having a possible heart attack. The staff remembered Paul mentioning his ambulance officer experience, so they hurried to fetch him. The kids were busy with school work, and were told to stay at camp. Kirstine followed Paul, concerned for his welfare after being thrown into a frontline emergency response role again.

An ambulance was called and was 20 minutes away in Ballarat. The SES crew asked what they could do to help, Paul sent them for the town AED (defibrillator), and Kirstine to fetch aspirin and Paul’s Nitrolingual spray (both of which Paul had used to treat patients with chest pain during his career with the ambulance service). His anxiety was suppressed as “ambo” Paul stepped forward & managed the situation, administering the medicine to Mr J and keeping him calm and talking. His clinical but human approach was inspiring, and when the ambulance arrived, he was able to “talk the talk” and give them all the information they needed about Mr J’s condition and treatment thus far. As one of officers said, “you’ve done our job for us mate! Thanks for all your help”. Impressively, Mr J’s pain scale had gone from 7-8, to 0 by the time the ambulance arrived, though he still had to go for a ride to Ballarat for more testing.

Paul stayed to watch the SES crew work, an excavator having finally pulled the tree from its inconsiderate resting place. He bantered with the boys, and the park residents all came to shake his hand and thank him for taking care of Mr J. One even said that the management team need to make sure there is accommodation available for us when we finish the trip, so that the Clunes Caravan Park has its own ambo as a resident!! We may have to look into that!

The aftermath for Paul of being pulled suddenly into an emergency and having to manage the crisis, was complete mental exhaustion. He fell in a heap back at camp, utterly spent by the evening’s events. His self doubt and anxiety returned as he replayed the situation, seeking faults in his actions and his handling of things. There was no denying how relieved the ambulance officers were to find one of their own in control when they arrived. It made their job easier. The SES crew were amazed to find that Paul had been a Unit Controller for the Geelong crew. The park residents found confidence in having Paul available and willing to help one of their own.

As Mr D later said to Paul, if the Legend’s overhaul had already been completed, we would have been gone from Clunes, and Mr J’s turn may not have had a positive outcome. This delay, as with the others in the past, has happened for a reason. Kirstine hopes that one of those reasons was to show Paul that he is still capable of using his skills and helping people in need. He has always excelled at that, and though the thought of being in those situations nearly paralyses him with anxiety, his decades of training enables him to push through when he is called upon. We’ll work through the stress, fear and trauma when the trip is done. There is a light far off in the tunnel that is PTSD and major depressive disorder. Hand in hand we’ll keep taking steps forward till daylight is our Today, and that tunnel is part of our Yesterday.