Sep 28 2009

This week’s Tweets: 2009-09-28

  • leaving Lake Evella. Will miss the place, and our friends Daniel and Silke and Zoe #
  • dinner at the Borrolloola Pub. Long time between drinks, but soon fixing that #fb #
  • loves his holiday and his friends, but misses his girl. #fb #
  • after a week with no alcohol, beer is remarkably effective. #fb #
  • back on the bike for nearly 200km today. Feels like there’s a golf ball in my shoulder, but mending well. #fb #
  • – slowly waking up in Mt Isa #

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Sep 26 2009

Day 20


Maria Lagoon to Borolloola

We woke this morning to find that the cows had wandered through the middle of the camp during the night. They’d browsed through the rubbish, scratched themselves on the trailer, and (to Marco’s surprise) refrained from knocking over the Aprilia that they seemed so fond of the night before.

Those of us that didn’t find or brave the showers last night checked them out this morning. Cold showers have never felt so good as they did this morning. The shower I used was a salmon pink corrugated iron shed with a single shower head and no door, and no hot tap. the plug-hole was blocked, so the water simply ran out the door. Compared to the past few days, it was heaven.

We packed up, and a few minutes before we left, I ducked back into the shower for another go. Just as we were leaving I thought I might try my luck again, but the generator that had been running all night had finally stopped, as had the water pressure.

Today’s drive was a breeze compared to what we’d experienced over the past few days. We kept the speed down, and most of the time the bikes ran between the two four-wheel-drives. There wasn’t much breeze, and the dust from the vehicles hung in the air, making our little convoy about 3km long at times.

We stopped at the Southern Lost City, a beautiful rock formation with huge and improbable columns of rock which looked ready to topple over if the breeze ever picked up. We wandered, marvelled and photographed, then returned to the vehicles for some lunch.

I travelled in the front vehicle today (Bingo is his name-o), with Brad at the wheel. at About 4:00pm we had a series of events which were a little more exciting that any of us wanted. First, we had a couple of brumbies come out of the bush, one behind and the other in front of us. The one in front crossed the road within about six feet of our bullbar, and galloped off into the bush. Beautiful and exhilarating, but potentially disastrous. Thankfully Brad steered us through without any trouble. About a kilometre later, we hit a bulldust patch which looked about the same as any other sand or dust patch we’d seen. We’d approached it, reducing speed, hoping that we could cruise through it on the momentum we had. We soon found that it was rougher than we had expected. Brad slowed us down, but we hit a large bump and were thrown sideways. Despite leaning heavily to the passenger side, we came t rest without rolling, and without hitting any trees.

We were concerned that in the cloud of dust we’s created we were invisible to the other vehicles, We radio’d back a warning, and started to get out of the car, partly for our own safety, and partly to flag down the rest of the team.

At that point we found out that the left tyre on the bike trailer (now carrying food and fuel) had blown out… we estimate about 3 or more kilometres back. The tyre was all but gone, and the rim was almost square. Not good.

Soon we had everyone together, Jordy taking the other vehicle through a safe side-track (which we’d missed) right around the bulldust patch. It wan’t long before we had the wheel changed and the tyre pressure sorted, and we could be on our way.

This is as good a time as any to praise Andy for all the things he does in the group. He’s been riding my bike for the past couple of days, plus he’s the leader of the entire trip in every practical sense. He keeps the group together and informed of what’s going on, deals with group dynamics and politics where he has to, works like a trooper to set up and pack up, and keeps a smile and a cool head throughout. Today he had the tyre changed and ready to go in no time, with no fuss or panic.

We stopped in Borolloola, about 30km down the road, for fuel and iced coffee. We were meant to make Robonson River tonight, but the thought of a caravan park with showers and washing machines, not to mention a pub meal, was too much for us all, and we decided to stay.

As I write this, the rest of the crew are asleep, content after a good meal and a few beers. It’s been a good day, and we’re grateful to be clean, fed, safe and alive all at the same time. Tomorrow we’ll pass through Robinson River and head for Adele’s Grove, where we hope to spend the following morning paddling canoes though the gorge, before pressing on to Mt Isa.

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Sep 26 2009

Day 17, 18 and 19 (I think)


We took our time a little packing up this morning. We needed fuel, and the local store (known as the “Take Away” though it’s doubles as a general store) that sells the fuel cards wouldn’t be open til around 9:30am, so we had some time. We’ve been granted permission from Bundi Bundi, the custodian of the land surrounding  Numblwar, for the bikes to travel through the land south of the Central Arnhem Road toward Roper Bar, but they still were not entitled to ride the 30km from Gapuwiyak back to the Central Arnhem Road itself. We refuelled the bikes from the jerry cans, so that they wouldn’t need to join us in town to refuel. We’d been advised to keep as low a profile with the bikes as possible, out of respect to the locals.

We worked out how to reload everything into just two vehicles, and remarkably, everything fit. We moved the main food tubs to the floor of the bike trailer, as well as the jerry cans for diesel and unleaded. The luggage was packed onto the roof racks, and into the free space in the food trailer. Even my djembe (a space-wasting luxury, in hind-sight) managed to fit.

We headed to Daniel and Silke’s, posed for some photos in front of the much-loved troopie, and headed to the Take Away. The fuel station is unmanned, and fuel cards of different values are available for sale at the store. We refilled the cars and the jerry cans, and left the remaining fuel credit with Daniel, since we couldn’t use it anyway. From there we collected the bikes and the other travellers, said our sad goodbyes, and headed off on our way.

The road south from Gapuwiyak crosses the Central Arnhem Road, and that was our route. The road was OK, though progress was not all that fast. Once past the “Balma Turnoff” (cunningly signposted as the “Balma Turnoff”) the tracks thinned out, suggesting less traffic passed that way. Later in the day we worked out that we’d strayed from the GPS directions, afnd were headed east to Jalma Bay rather than south. Andy took one car on ahead to find the bikes, while we turned our car around and waited for him to return.

An hour later Andy returned on Marco’s bike, with his car not far behind. While riding back, Marco had collected a tree stump with his foot, and the pain was too much for him to continue. Jordy again administered excellent first aid, though the bruising in Marco’s foot was pretty severe. It’s still difficult to tell if anything is broken, but he could wiggle his toes and put a little weight on it.

It was getting late, so Andy rode on ahead to find a camp site, By the time we’d caught up, he had a fire going. We were still on the wrong road, but we were back-tracking OK. We made camp, Lyn baked bread in the camp oven (yum!), I cooked chops and sausages, and soon dinner was served. It was a long, hot day, and a warm night, and no one went to bed late that night. One highlight of an otherwise bleak, burnt-out camp site was the play of three kites in the sky overhead, floating and swooping in the light of the setting sun.

The next day we back-tracked to where the GPS said our track should be. It was faint, but it was there. For the next 2 days we followed the course the GPS plotted for us, and slowly realised that the route we were on was not a vehicular track at all, but a buffalo track, probably picked up in a satellite photograph and mistaken for a road. For two days the bikes scouted, while Jordy and Jane navigated the vehicles between and over termite mounds, trees, shrubs and river crossings. We camped in a beautiful stand of strangely deciduous eucalypts the first night, and eventually found the real track in the afternoon of the next day. In three days, we travelled around 300km, if that.

Once we found the track we made camp in another stand of trees, this time surrounded by a graveyard of termite mounds. We felt reassured to be on a clear track again, but again we were all very tired.

The following day we made our way past Numblwar and on to better roads, headed for Roper Bar crossing. The bikes enjoyed the firmer, wider roads, and we made good time for the first time all week.

When we finally reached Roper Bar, the first 4WD, the two bikes, then the vehicle I was driving made their way across. It’s a 50+m causeway with water flowing over it, and it’s slippery. The 4WDs made it with no trouble, and the riders made it look easy. By the time I crossed, the riders were queued up to do it again! When they returned, I donned the helmet and rode across in my t-shirt and board-shorts. It was so good to be back on the bike again, even for just that short stretch of concrete!

We lunched on the far side, refuelled at the Roper Store, and continued on. I little indecision saw us arrive at the Maria Lagoon at around 7:00pm, where we set up cam in the dark. It was only after we were set up that we started to see cows wandering past in the dark, at alarmingly close range. They seemed to take a liking to Marco’s bike, which unsurprisingly didn’t please Marco all that much!

The showers and toilets were rough to say the least, but they were showers and toilets, which gave them an edge over the accommodations of the past few nights. Some of us showered, and others waited til morning.

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Sep 26 2009

Days in Arnhem Land


It’s been interesting, listening to the stories and seeing the sights of the past few days. Silke in particular has a good grasp on what is going on in Gapuwiyak, and articulates is beautifully.

Gapuwiyak is a township which, like everything in Arnhem Land, sits on family owned land. The trouble is, the inhabitants of the town come from nine different family groups from around the area. They’re there because that’s where schooling, supplies and income happen to be. And it seems that this is the way the Government (both Federal and Territory) would prefer things to be.

The trouble is this doesn’t work, particularly for people so connected to their land. The best parallel I can draw is to an exiled population, like the Jews in the Old Testament, stuck in Babylon or some other land against their will. There’s an inertia to a place like Gapuwiyak that seems to be there simply because everyone is out of place. They’s sitting around waiting for something, cutting time til life can begin again.

Family land, or “homelands” are vitally important to the Yolngu people, but the tyranny of distance, bad roads, the wet season and government ignorance (or apathy, or perhaps intervention) make it very hard to for them to occupy their homelands in any significant way.

It has been encouraging to see MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) actively supporting homelands in their work in Arnhem Land. A two hour drive between communities can be replaced by a flight of as little as 10 minutes, and MAF offers flights at bare-bones rates so that family groups can occupy their own lands without suffering total isolation. They also go over and above, driving passengers into Nhulunbuy from the airport to do their shopping (as the taxi fare would be nearly as much as the flight). When the plane is at it’s weight limit with just the returning passengers, MAF will store passengers’ groceries and other items, and ferry them back to the communities on subsequent flights as space allows, at no additional charge.

As a Christian, the other exciting thing to see is that as a missionary organisation, MAF is not spreading neo-colonialism or white-man solutions, but actively supporting the richest parts of Yolngu culture, even when that puts them in opposition to Government strategies. They work with the local people, they fly planes owned by Yolngu organisations, and they take the time to care for and support the locals in practical ways, and in many respects they let the gospel speak for itself in that.

Eleven months ago MAF lost a young pilot up here, named Hadley Smith, He was 23, and died serving the Yolngu communities. MAF is a close-knit family, and his death was a blow to everyone up here, and a reminder of the dangers of flying small, single-engine planes for a living.

On Saturday, MAF opened a new hangar, a two year labour of love, donations and volunteer time. It will serve as a maintenance and engineering facility for Arnhem Land operations. The attached conference room will bear Hadley Smith’s name.

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Sep 26 2009

Long time off air


I finally have internet access again… stay tuned!

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Sep 21 2009

This week’s Tweets: 2009-09-21

  • in Elliot NT for a stop, wee and go. #
  • in Elliot NT for a stop, wee and go #fb #
  • slept under the stars last night after a perfect smart lamb dinner (he I do say so myself) #fb #
  • fuel stop at Mataranka NT #fb #
  • slept under the stars, woke to the sound of 1000 birds. Driving in to Arnhem Land #fb #
  • Sitting at Daniel and Silke’s place in Gapuwiyak, chatting to Amanda on Skype #fb #
  • just flown into Nhulunbuy, and the opening of the MAF hangar is about to start #fb #
  • walking to the beach at Nhulunbuy. They tell me there’s no crocs there #fb #
  • I smell Aeroguard… #fb #
  • Lazy Sunday morning at Nhulunbuy. Down to the beach this afternoon, with a fire on the sand and snags in bread for tea as the sun sets. #fb #
  • Back on the road again today. Shopping in Nhulunbuy, then back to Gapuwiyak for the night, where we’ll drop off the troopie. #fb #
  • fuelling up in Nhulunbuy. Hanging out for a milkshake and/or a latte #fb #
  • on top of a lookout on the tip of the Gove Peninsular #fb #

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Sep 18 2009

Healing in Public


It’s been an interesting experience over the past 10 or so days, mending in the company of friends. If I were at home, I’d expect to run into people and have them ask how I’m doing, but here, there are 11 people who collectively notice every groan and wince, and keep tabs on my progress. Sometimes the’ll have a feel of the protruding bone or check out a bruise. Sometimes they’ll offer to help, only to find that in the last day or so I’ve been able to do things I previously couldn’t.

I’m not sure if the pieces of bone have connected yet. There seems to be a hard mass of new bone around the break, as though the two pieces are growing toward each other and creating an interface. For a few days I felt as though they had connected, only to have a sneeze, a shock or a sudden jolt knock them apart and have me clicking again.

Last night I slept on a softer bed (as mine had gone on the flight to Bremmer Island with Andy and Lyn), and managed to sleep more comfortable, and more on my right side. Today things feel tighter again, and so far, between yesterday and today, there has been no great shock or jolt that has left me feeling “free”.

My not so secret aim is to ride my bike back into Melbourne on the last day. The way things are going, I think I might be sneaking in a few stretches of tarmac before then.

To all the people who have commented here and on Facebook, who have sent well wishes and thoughts, and who have been praying for a swift recovery, thank you. Every time I have blogged or tweeted about another milestone there have been happy and excited comments from friends at home, and the encouragement has been wonderful. And to John, Amanda and others who urged me to go on when I really wasn’t sure, thanks so much. I had to come to the decision myself, but you guys helped me to see and consider all my options.

Nick was commenting just before as we floated in the local water hole that it was not so long ago I was looking for flights home. To think what I would have missed out on.

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Sep 18 2009

Day Thirteen


It was good to have at least a bit of a sleep in today. As usual, Dad got up before everyone else, and did whatever it is he does when we’re alls till asleep. I remember having a particularly pleasant and vivid dream. I remember hearing the zip on my side of the tent opening and dads’ voice saying, “Would you like a coffee?”. Since all I really wanted to do was get back to my dream, I answered, “No thanks,” then heard dad say, “Oh, there’s gratitude for you…”

What I’d failed to pick up on (with my eyes closed) was that dad was not so much offering to make me coffee as offering me the coffee he’d already made. Needless to say, a few minutes later I was fully awake and drinking coffee in bed.

Breakfast was pancakes and fried eggs, and I had one of each. Mandy and Marco had told me that the place where the track crossed the creek a little downstream was a good secluded bathing spot, so I grabbed a bucket, my toiletries, my towel and a change of clothes and headed down there to take a look. Nice spot! The water was warm and clear, and it was the most relaxing bath I’ve ever taken standing up. There’s something liberating about getting your kit off in the middle of the bush, and keeping an eye out for crocs and water buffalo just makes it all the more exhilarating. I returned to camp clean and refreshed, and with my clothes washed.

Our friend Paul in Nhulunbuy makes a weekly trip to Bremmer Island, where he spends time with the people there. The island serves as a youth detention centre, and is operated by the elders there. By all accounts it’s a preferable alternative to conventional detention, and offenders usually spend around a year there before returning to their communities. Paul was able to offer 5 seats for members of our party to join him today. It was decided that Andy, Lyn, Jordy, Katy and Brad (all members of the same family) would go. They deft us at before lunch to drive the two and a half hours to Nhulunbuy. We’ll see them tomorrow night when they return.

Later this morning we intended to head to the cultural centre where Silke works, but unfortunately it had been closed down for the morning due to a visiting dignitary, and we wouldn’t be able to go. Instead we spent some time reading down at the wash spot, and after lunch (just as we were planning our next attempt at getting to town) Silke and Zoey arrived with two local women: Daniel’s adoptive mother Lucy, and Rudy. They took us to a popular sitting place (just near the wash spot, it turned out) and showed the women how they make baskets and string bags. Men aren’t allowed to join in, I found out… only watch. After watching for some time, Marco, Nick and I headed back to the wash spot, where there is also a small but deep swimming hole. The water is cool and clear, and dotted with small waterlilies, and below the surface at exactly the right depth is a perfect log for sitting on. What a way to spend an afternoon.

Around five-ish we followed the ladies into town and finally checked out the cultural centre, where artworks by Lucy, Rudy and other local women were on display and for sale. We bought some supplies, and returned to camp.

After tea, Daniel, Silke and Zoey returned and spent some time with us by the fire.

Good day all ’round.

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Sep 18 2009

Speeding Ticket


When Andy bought the troopie back in January, he managed to transfer the registration straight into Daniel’s name, using his own address so that any correspondence would come to him, and Daniel would remain in the dark.

Around the same time, a tradesman friend of Andy’s offered to rent the vehicle for the months until the trip, and keep it in good repair. This was an obvious financial help, but also gave Andy some long-term insight into how the vehicle was running, and what work might need to be done.

The guy who had rented the troopie was pretty certain he’d picked up a speeding ticket a couple of months back, and he and Andy had been waiting for the ticket to arrive in the mail, but hadn’t seen anything.

Tonight we learned that speeding tickets don’t go to the registered address of the vehicle, but to the registered address of the owner. Daniel revealed that he had received the speeding ticket and had disputed it, saying it was not his car, and that he was nowhere near Ocean Grove when the offence had occurred.

So, our cover was almost blown, and it was only the fact that the number plate of the troupie was similar to an old car of Daniel’s that stopped his suspicions from being aroused.

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Sep 18 2009

Day Twelve


I’ve said it before: drugs are good. The previous night on the Stuart Hwy I’d given up my front-seat bed in the car so that I could sleep under the stars, and as wonderful as the experience was it was not the best night’s sleep, and I woke up with a pretty sore shoulder. Last night I took a couple of ibuprofen before bed, and had a much better night’s sleep. According to Jane, that meant I snored, which in turn meant that her night’s sleep was not so good.

The small wallabies around the Katherine Gorge camp site are cute and fairly tame, and they also like rummaging in the rubbish bags at night. Dad managed to disturb one at 2:00am and salvage the rubbish from being scattered all over the site. Nick and Di both had close encounters with wallabies munching right near their heads as they slept.

I awoke this morning to the sound of birds… many, many birds. The first to make its presence felt had a solo call of long, mournful notes. The sounds was beautiful. Soon after there were flocks of birds overhead, and the noise was spectacular. I didn’t want to get up, but eventually I grabbed the camera and the good microphone and set it up just away from camp to capture the sound of the birds.

We packed up and were ready to roll by 8:00am. I’d decided to have a shot at driving, after working out the night before that I could change gear OK with my left hand. I figured I would be able to handle the bitumen section at least.

The bikes were off the trailer, and Nick took command of my trusty ride for the day. That was a bittersweet moment for me. I would have hated the thought of the bike being on the trailer today, but it was still sad to see my baby off with another man.

We set off and fuelled up back in Katherine. A five-minute detour into Woolworths to find an iPod adapter for the radio somehow delayed up by about half an hour, but before long we were rolling.

The road out was great, to the point of making me even more jealous of the riders. After around 60 kays the bitumen came to an end, and was replaced by a well formed dirt road. As with any dirt road around here there were patches of sand and corrugations, but we were happy to be holding 75 km/h. It would mean a late night getting in to Gapuwiyak, but wed get there. We wound up following a raod train, which we might have been able to pass, but decided not to try. The dust it kicked up was incredible, and we were able to establish that he’d be turning off before to long. We dropped our speed a little and kept out of his dust.

We stopped for lunch just past the remains of the Manirou Store (after catching up to the road train again), just after our first river crossing. Both the riders decided to open the throttle on the way out, and both of them nearly lost control as their back tyres slipped on the slimy causeway. By now we were approaching the permit-only Aboriginal land, so we decided that it was time to load the bikes back on to the trailer.

As the day progressed the road only got better. Our average speed increased to 95km/h or so as we continued on. It was sandy a lot of the time, and occasionally the corrugations got pretty rough. There were floodways, wash-outs and a number of river crossings (with actual water in them), but we kept the radio communication going to warn each other of what was coming.

We saw the foliage change and the termite mounds grow and change colour as we travelled along. We saw the occasional wrecked car (don’t take a RAV4 to Arnhem Land, and if you do, be sure to take the sweeping left-handers nice and slow), a water buffalo and assorted other wildlife.

Radio communication was interesting all day. When Marco was on the bike and in the lead, he could be heard consistently by Mandy in the last vehicle, usually by Andy in the front vehicle and rarely by me in the middle vehicle. If Andy spoke, he could be heard by everyone, but could only hear Mandy at the back. So for Marco to warn Andy that a car was coming, Marco would speak to Mandy, and Mandy would have to repeat what Marco said. Occasionally I would then have to relay the message again. It took us 20 minutes to tell Andy that we were looking for a lunch stop, and when he finally replied, he said, “Why are you stopping?”

Another vehicle who passed us (and could pick up everything) thought we were hilarious.

We reached Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) at around 5:30pm, and I’d managed to drive the whole way. It left me with a fair sense of achievement, all things considered, and went some way toward making up for not riding the bike.

When we turned in to Daniel and Silke’s street, Silke and Zoey were standing out the front of the house. There was so much going on for all of us at that moment – we’d arrived at one of our key destinations, we caught up with old friends, we’d kept a promise made years before to come visit, and we were promised the chance to just simply rest and be for the next few days.

We made coffee and sat in the yard while Silke told stories of what they had been up to. It was so good to see her again, as beautiful and funny and sassy as ever. For those of us who knew Silke already, it was as though no time had passed since we’d seen her last. And the others in the group seemed to feel right at home, right away.

Silke told us about their old, green Land Cruiser with the open sides and the canvas top, how that day she had put another hole in the roof, and how it was starting to finally wear out, and how she was too often having to use it for work and community activities. As we listened, we smiled quietly to each other.

As it got dark, Silke led us about 5 kays out of town to a camp site in the bush. As we arrived, the clutch in Silke’s old green Cruiser gave out completely, and she stalled in the middle of the campsite. Andy the wonder-mechanic took a look, and was able to top up the hydraulic fluid for the clutch, and get it going again.

We set up in the dark, and despite good weather, most of us opted for tents this time. For me, it was the glittering eyes of the wolfe spiders in the bush around us. I can’t speak for the others (though I did mention the glittering eyes to one or two as we made camp).

After we set up we started to make dinner. As dinner was being served, Andy and Silke took the Troopie back to town to collect Daniel (after telling Silke that the clutch was still dead in her own vehicle), who had been out hunting for the day. Silke drove, and commented to Andy how much she would love to replace the old Cruiser with a vehicle like that. On the way back, Daniel also remarked on how well a troopie would suit their needs.

When they returned to camp, and we’d all greeted Daniel, Andy gathered us all near the campfire. Without any fanfare, he told Daniel and Silke that the troopie that they’d both just ridden in was actually theirs to keep. He told the story of the last 12 months or more since he’d had the idea to find a vehicle for them, and how the previous owner had looked after the car, and even reduced the price when he learned what we were doing with it. Naturally they were thrilled, and we were all pretty excited at that point.

And we were all pretty tired. My shoulder was starting to remind me just how much I’d put it through that day, and I was first to bed. What a day of blessings: incredibly good and quick roads, in a place where we could only expect the worst, reunions of old friends, and the joy of seeing a gift purchased 10 months ago given at exactly the right time to exactly the right people.

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