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.

 

 

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

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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!

Tropical festivities in the NT

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With word that our eldest son would be arriving into Darwin two days earlier than expected, we had some longer days of driving to get there from Alice Springs. The Stuart Highway north of Alice is a lovely straight stretch of road, and had been cleared a few metres back from each side of the road. The dressed up cathedral termite mounds were very entertaining, and the fresh green growth after the rain added to the kaleidoscope of colours in the landscape.

We didn’t get away from Alice till nearly lunchtime, so the 500km trip to Tennant Creek had us reluctant to set up camp when we arrived. A cabin stay was called for, and the airconditioning was a relief that meant most of us got some sleep.

Tennant Creek to Daly Waters was another 400km stretch, and with longer days of driving combined with heat and humidity, Paul & Kirstine made the decision to use some of their meagre savings to have the family stay in cabins. It took the pressure off needing to set/pack up camp in difficult weather conditions, and meant we could enjoy the journey despite the hours being spent in the car to get us to Darwin in time for our son’s arrival.

The Hi-way Inn at Daly Waters was truly enjoyable. The staff hadn’t had a service dog stay before, but one of the managers was totally up to speed on the law, and expedited our check in process. The new cabins were beautifully appointed, and the tree frogs came out to feed from the insects attracted to the outside lights after dark. Thoroughly entertaining!

Katherine was the destination for a couple of days, and by comparison to the longer days we’d had to drive in the lead up, 300km was a pleasant change!

The Knotts Crossing Resort were so welcoming and didn’t question Luna’s presence at all. Very professional staff! The family rooms have two queen beds, a set of bunks, and a kitchenette. Perfect for us. We were told that this time of the year in Katherine is also known as “suicide season”, not only because of the build up to the wet season rains, but also Christmas being difficult for many in town. Seeing security guards at the supermarket and police at the liquor stores, was an eye opener but sadly nothing new to us after our visit to Alice.

When we left Katherine for Darwin, it was with a sense of excitement and anticipation. It was a destination that everyone had been looking forward to, another city so far away from the heavily populated areas of Australia, that it’s easier to fly there than drive.

Darwin didn’t disappoint. Beautiful infrastructure, clean and tidy, and quiet (due to the mass exodus of government staff over the Christmas period), we explored and marvelled at the lush gardens, and coloured waters of the Timor Sea. Our accommodation for the stay in Darwin made a serious dent in our savings, but was very worthwhile. Hidden Valley Tourist Park is delightful. Quieter in the wet season, there were still a few families in the villas for the festive season. Front verandah, lounge, kitchen, kids room with 2 sets of built in bunks, and a king sized bed in the master bedroom, it felt thoroughly luxurious. We effectively “moved in”, and settled on the verandah to watch the the rain that started just after we move in the last bags.

Eldest son arrived just before midnight, and the kids were super excited to wake up the next morning and find him in his bed.

We’d already decided to step back from the pressures of the trip for a bit and enjoy being a complete family again. Visiting the amazing Darwin Military Museum and its Defence of Darwin exhibit was so worthwhile. The Museum’s Cyclone Tracy exhibit was surreal, and the kids first experience with a natural disaster. The photos, the sound booth with actual recordings from the cyclone, and a huge twisted metal girder that once stood tall and straight till Tracy’s landfall, were confronting but fascinating. Darwin has obviously rebuilt, and grown in population, but it remains the smallest state capital in Australia, with a population of only 146,000 (round figures).

Crocosaurus Cove was a treat for us all. Paul had been determined to see a saltwater crocodile in the Northern Territory, and this was a safe way to ensure that this happened! Luna was welcomed without question. Some of these prehistoric creatures are leviathan in size, and truly marvellous as well as inspiring fear on a primal level. Having one open its eyes to look directly at you with its toothy maw open, is a singularly spine chilling experience! Luna wasn’t sure what to make of them, but was fabulously well behaved, even in the reptile house where every inhabitant was wide awake and active! Had she been allowed, she would have jumped in to swim with the kids in the tank next to the juvenile salties too. It would have been interesting to see her reaction to them being close to the kids, albeit separated by a massively thick piece of perspex.

All too soon our stay in Darwin was over. We slept long and late, we rested, we played tourist, and enjoyed every tropical storm that arrived in the afternoon. We fell in love with this resilient city, which has risen from the ashes of World War II bombings by the Japanese, one of the worst cyclones in Australian history, and has bounced back. It is inspiring, stunning in the warm wet season rain, and completely worthwhile visiting. We’ll be back!

North into the Territory

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Departing Marla just after 9am, we crossed the border into the Northern Territory (NT) and discovered that we arrived before we’d left! Confused? Us too! The NT has yet another time zone, and we wound the clock back an hour. It certainly makes things interesting, keeping track of all the time zone changes along the way.

Kulgera Roadhouse also houses the pub, known as the “first and last pub in the NT” depending on which direction you’re travelling. We topped up on fuel on the drive north, but there are no BP service stations before Alice Springs on the route we were driving. These remote fuel stops are very expensive!

The Big 4 Macdonnell Range Holiday Park showed their support of our journey by providing us with a powered site AND ensuite for our stay. Everyone was lovely, and so excited to meet Luna whenever we visited the office. The kids spotted the waterslide as soon as we pulled up of course, but they know we have the rules that setting up camp and schoolwork must be done before any leisure activities. After setting up the camper, we checked the temperature at the campsite, and read the air at 47.2 degrees Celsius. Yep, it was hot! We decided to go for a drive to get a feel for the town, get some groceries, and enjoy the airconditioning in the Legend.

Anzac Hill in Alice Springs is absolutely a beautiful memorial, to our military participation in overseas conflicts, past and present. The drive up the hill is lined with iron signs, marking in chronological order, the wars that Australia has been represented in. The views from the top of the hill, to the Macdonnell Ranges and over Alice Springs itself, is very special.

Paul was taking some photos from Anzac Hill and noticed that there were spots on the images – dirt on the sensor that couldn’t be wiped clean externally. While Kirstine was grocery shopping, Paul contacted Camera House and found the owner more than happy to clean our Sony DSLR for us, free of charge. We dropped it off and left it with him overnight. Picking it up the next day, he told Paul that there was “quite a bit of dirt” in the camera, but said that was to be expected after the remote roads we’d been driving. It’s so great to have the DSLR clean again – thanks Camera House!!

You can’t visit Alice Springs and not see the indigenous groups relaxing in the shade in the grassy public areas. Some of these are visitors to Alice Springs from outlying remote communities. We’d met a few fellas on their way into town, who’d run out of fuel. Paul always stops for people who are trying to flag down passers by. Whilst they needed unleaded fuel and we were only carrying diesel, we were able to refill all their water bottles while they waited for assistance from other vehicles. We’ve read that the Aboriginal Mens Council in Alice Springs has issued rules for indigenous visitors from outside communities, asking them to respect the sacred sites in town, the women and children, and not to drink too much alcohol or gamble excessively. They also suggest that visitors don’t stay more than a week or two, like a holiday. From what we’ve read and seen, being “on country” is important for our traditional owners. The more that connection is lost, the more lost the individual becomes in a town society that seems to see more of the negatives than the beauty of our indigenous cultures.

The Big 4 Macdonnell Ranges Holiday Park had given us wifi access, so we were able to work on our itinerary and blogs, while the kids caught up on school work. The heat during the middle of the day made it difficult to concentrate, so we found ourselves working in the morning, and then running messages in town for a couple of hours, while sipping on a cool drink.

Our friends at Clearview had suggested we contact one of their suppliers to organise a set of Rock Tamers for the Legend. RV Towing Solutions in NSW jumped on board and organised for us to pick up a set from their Alice Springs supplier. These Rock Tamers are an adjustable and removable mudflap system, designed to defect road debris from damaging what you’re towing, or your tow vehicle itself. After our experience on the Strzelecki Track, with an errant rock smashing one of the rear windows, Paul contacted Clearview to see what the options were. These products are so popular that they can be hard to find. Paul fitted these the next morning, and had a park staff member stop and ask about them while they were being fitted. These Rock Tamers look MEAN on the Legend!! We’re so grateful to have these. No more taping a tarp onto the rear windows while driving remote roads!

Paul had noticed some issues with a loss in storage capability in the second (accessory) battery in the Legend. He contacted an automotive electrician business in town, explained our situation, and they agreed to have a look at the system that very afternoon. These guys are so busy that they’re booked out till Christmas, but they made time for us, to help keep our trip running smoothly. As it turned out, the Redarc BCDC system was operating as it should, protecting itself from overheating due to the excessive heat in the engine bay whilst in the outback. The boss wanted to help us out, and fitted a Redarc Smart Start Battery Isolator to replace the BCDC until Paul can refit it in a cooler part of the vehicle. This was two hours of work for a business already working under pressure towards Christmas, but the owner saw the importance of our trip and wanted to help. This man was humble and wasn’t wanting any recognition, but AutoSparky in Alice Springs went over and above at a super busy time of year. The entire staff loved Luna, and we highly recommend you contact them if you need any work done in Alice Springs!

Eventually the heat got to us and we went to cool off in the pool. Paul runs the rule that if it’s too hot for us to walk barefoot, it’s too hot for Luna. We put her rubber soled booties on to protect the pads of her paws, and she actually seemed happy to have them on! Kirstine had broken a toe, and limped her way to the waterpark. The kids had a complete ball on the waterslide, Luna desperately wanted to be in the water with them, and even tried to climb the stairs to the top of the slide! We made sure Luna got some water play with the hose once we got back to camp, but our last trip to the pool was amazing.

We met Ms M, who’d brought her son to the pool to celebrate the end of the school year. Ms M adored Luna, and was intrigued with how Luna works with Paul. Ms M has a friend, ex military, who also suffers from PTSD and now has an assistance dog to help him with the stresses of life after exposure to the harshness of war. This dog has changed his life, so Ms M was thrilled to meet another canine with the same role. Ms M has a difficult role, negotiating the problems associated with interpreters who assist with victims of violence giving their statements. These interpreters listen to the victim, and have to tell the story in the first person, for official court records. Ms M is concerned with the trauma that these vitally important people may be suffering, as they tell a story that is not theirs, as if it were. The legal reporting aspects of this role are being reviewed, and it is an important discussion.

Another gentleman joined us in the pool, after making friends with Luna. He admitted to being enlightened by Paul’s story of his journey with Luna, and we discussed the fact that dogs are still underrated in Australia when it comes to assisting with medical conditions. There are many groups attempting to change the perspective of the population in this respect.

Alice Springs is a place of contrasts. A town with cultures which clash, sometimes within their own. Natural beauty and a sprawl of human habitats. Do visit, but don’t do it as part of a tour where they only show you the bits you want to see. Talk to people, read the local news, look beyond your initial impressions. It’s an iconic part of the country that is worth visiting and trying to understand.