Two years ago today, a moving van sat outside of our apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and all that remained of our belongings were rapidly filling the truck. It was a moment filled with exhilaration, anxiety and confusion. Had we kept the right things? What would I wear tomorrow? Had we left out bedding to sleep that night? Where were we headed? What were we doing?!

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We had made decisions about how to live our lives in pretty conventional terms up until the moment a few weeks prior, when we had decided we would get on a plane, go to the other side of the world and give it a go camping around Australia for a few months. At the time, we figured we would give it three months and see how it went. Three months was based on the idea that if we did anything less than three months, it would be cheaper to rent a camping set-up rather than buy and then sell our set-up. We had made the investment, so we figured we should find a way to do it for three months. I add this detail because I think it’s reflective a pragmatic and externally focused, relatively random piece of data that we were going to use to determine the fate of our family. We used to make decisions that way often. How would the decision we were entertaining affect our job opportunities, school choices, retirement accounts, etc.

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Now we were doing something that sounded fun, adventurous and a bit crazy. Somehow a few late nights watching camper trailer videos bounce down dirt tracks on YouTube had stirred something deep inside me and this time I wasn’t ignoring it. My loving husband said, “let’s do it.” I am tempted to write that he jumped onboard because he loved camping, which is true, but more accurately he grabbed hold of the idea because he loves me and he was tired of the cycle.

Our current state wasn’t working, but for the life of us, we couldn’t get excited about the next move enough to seize it. We struggled to settle on a suburb in New Jersey that might suit us, and somehow living in a camper in Australia seemed the perfect solution. Unlike all the other options we entertained, this move was not a means to an end, but rather a radical break from the mindset of thinking we controlled the future.

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I literally could never have imagined how the past two years would have unfolded. As I write this, I feel tempted to use a phrase like “never in my wildest dreams” because that is how people seem to write about journeys like ours, but it doesn’t fit for me.

This journey has not been about living out a specific long held dream. Rather, it has been about intentionally living in the present and trying to fully experience it. The beauty, the joy, the fear, the loneliness, the connection, the missing, the accomplishment, the happiness, the uncertainty, the learning and the laughter. I am so grateful I had no clear understanding what was ahead. I wouldn’t have packed those boxes if I had known where we were headed for the next two years. I would have been far too frightened.

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Life plans are an illusion anyhow. We think we know where we are going, but in fact, life happens in between and if we end up where we thought we would, it is merely by chance. On the most important days of my life, both the wonderful ones and the deeply painful ones, I rarely knew that morning what lay ahead. Living our life in this manner is about accepting this reality, connecting with what is working in the present and being open to the paths ahead.

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The ‘me of two years ago’ still squirms at some of these notions. I would have read this piece and thought, “well good for them… couldn’t work for us, but isn’t it nice for them.” And if I allowed myself the space, I would picture these people as flighty, quite a bit out there and vaguely irresponsible. … But the ‘me of today’ knows with certainty that choosing to live our lives based on what works for us now and being open to new opportunities is far more satisfying to my soul than living a life totally focused on the future and my hopes for it while ignoring my quality of life in the present.

 

 

In September of last year we were camped at El Questro in the Kimberley, in the far north of Western Australia. We were traveling with a few other families and collectively we decided to do a 4 wheel drive up to a lookout for sunset. Jay was working, so the boys and I headed off in our trusty Land Cruiser, Cave Lion. We joined a convoy of 3 other cars – 2 of whom we had traveled with for several weeks and a new family we met that day.


I didn’t think much of going out on the track without Jay because the boys and I have done a fair amount of adventuring on our own while Jay is working. When we are on a solo adult adventure, I make sure Jay is clear on our plans, our timing and I confirm all of our emergency equipment is in order and off we go. And in this case, going alone was extra appealing because I love being behind the wheel on a good track and when Jay isn’t there, I don’t have to share driving time 🙂


On this day I was particularly laid back about going without Jay because we were traveling with other cars. The new family seemed a bit surprised to see me on my own with the boys on the track. I couldn’t help but wonder if they thought I was a bit out of my mind taking the kids on my own. This thought regularly crosses my mind on some of our more outlandish adventures, but that’s part of the fun. However, imagining other people thinking these things is generally unhelpful, so I tried to put it out of my mind. 


Off we went up the track. It wasn’t a particularly long drive but there were definitely some moments in the car where the boys and I were enthusiastically cheering on Cave Lion as the tires bumped and spun up the steep incline of the loose gravel trail. Lots of excited chatter over the UHF radio and we made it to the top. We were treated to a lovely sunset. 


Fast forward to this April and I received a message from one of our traveling friends. They had run into that same family who had joined us on the sunset drive. They crossed paths again in Karijini National Park, nearly 2000 kms from our first meeting place. Only this time, she was on her own with her kids. She asked our mutual friend to let me know that seeing me out on my own with the kids has inspired her to take her own (much longer, much bigger!) adventure with her kids. How amazing is that?! 

There are aspects of this type of trip that I struggle with at times because the broader redeeming value of it can be hard to pinpoint. I try to put a lot of effort into helping other families interested in similar adventures, but it’s always hard to know how much that matters. It was a real treat to imagine that our journey had been a tiny part of this woman and her kids off on an adventure to an amazing national park. Super cool. 


This weekend I had what truly amounts to an amazing travel event. We are camping a few hours south of Perth in the Margaret River region of Western Australia. It’s a bit off season and generally the campground has been a bit quiet. I was cooking dinner in the camp kitchen – taking advantage of the fact there is an oven (woohoo! for small pleasures) – making conversation with some other folks in there. 


A woman came and joined us at our table and began… “You probably don’t remember me, but…” The same brave woman who had just run into our friends in Karijini was off on a weekend adventure with her family talking to me in the camp kitchen nearly 3500 kms from our first meeting spot. What a small, amazing world!

We were able to share stories of adventures together – both the victorious moments and the ones that were stressful and even a bit dangerous. She described to me how she approached her two week trip with her kids – like her marathon preparation. The preparation equated to training and then each day of the journey could be defined by just the immediate tasks ahead. It’s always a great analogy as a way to make massive feats seem manageable. (Side note: marathons definitely still seem impossible to me…)


I left our conversation energized and inspired. Learning about other people’s adventures has a way of making the “I couldn’t,” “people don’t,” “it’s not possible” thinking a little less believable and the “I could,”  “we can,” “it could be fun” a bit more approachable. Next time I am debating a bold step on my own with the kids, I will look to her courage as an example. 

Christmas: The Bali Edition

I’ve been busy worrying about whether our Christmas in Bali will feel like Christmas to the boys. Before I begin, I will say I am incredibly grateful to be on this journey and having our family adventures and I know we have chosen to be where we are for Christmas – please don’t misunderstand this post.   It’s just that there are some moments, where a teleporting machine really seems like it would come in handy.  Teleporting home to spend Christmas with loved ones is definitely high on the list of things for which I would use this machine.

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The lead up to Christmas in Bali feels decidedly un-Christmas like for my northern-hemisphere, “will it be a white Christmas” self. We are on an island that is 95% Hindu in a country that is predominantly Muslim.  The lead up to Christmas has largely avoided the incessant holiday music and commercialism, but it has also largely been absent the holiday festivities, fanfare and excuses to eat endless sweet treats.  It’s tropical, we are not near our family and we are staying in a hotel. Christmas is pretty different than the cold winter morning opening gifts around the tree at home.

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I have chosen to focus my Christmas worry / guilt on our lack of a Christmas tree.  Perhaps it is because the smell of a real Christmas tree is just about my favorite thing ever and I have been known to embarrass Jay by walking slowly down the row after row of trees smelling each one, intent on finding the strongest and most perfect smelling tree available. But I digress.

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Last year we were also traveling and we decided to make a big felt tree with homemade ornaments with all of our favorite holiday images and characters.  There were characters from our favorite stories, lions, tigers and candy canes.  While it was a departure from tradition, it felt Christmas-y.

This year, I simply have not gotten my act together.  We are in a hotel and we are new to the town we are in.  We have been busy looking for a longer term rental and among various travel related challenges, the tree fell to the bottom of the list.

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Tonight in a fit of maternal guilt, I asked the boys what we should do about presents.  Finn instantly suggested a treasure hunt to find the gifts.  The boys were jumping up and down and screaming about the excitement of their Christmas present treasure hunt.

Mama guilt alleviated (for the moment).  Christmas travel-edition here we come! Merry Christmas and everything else to all of you!

Tonight I am feeling incredibly grateful, which is a good way to feel on Thanksgiving.  We’ve had a lot to be thankful for over the last year.  The chance to spend more time with our kids, to explore the outdoors, and make so many friends with the incredible people of Australia along the way.  
We got to experience what I believe may be my dream travelers’ Thanksgiving. We are in Perth, Australia today – just about as far as we can be from our home (36 hours door to door, in fact, including transfers and layovers).  We are staying with friends who have generously welcomed our jet lagged family into their home upon our return from the U.S. earlier this week. (These friends, I might add, are friends we made camping over Easter weekend this year.)
Today, we were able to fully indulge in our combined Thanksgiving traditions. We cooked together, our kids played together, and we enjoyed a delicious feast. There was turkey cooked to perfection on the barbie, garlic mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry, peas, candies sweet potatoes with authentic American marshmallows, mouthwatering stuffing, and of course, pie. Pumpkin pie. Pecan pie. Whipped cream. But most of all there was friendship. We feel incredibly thankful for the friends we have made in Australia, and the warmth with which our hosts have included us in their family traditions.
Tonight we sat down with their extended family to enjoy a meal together. It was special for all of us to celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia.  When my husband told our son Finn that indeed we would be having turkey, stuffing and cranberry, he took three quick strides, leapt into the air, and threw his arms around him. Jay never even had a chance to tell him about the pies! So while we feel far from home, and we are missing our families, I also feel gratitude for the opportunity to sit down with another family and experience the connection between our familiar traditions and the adventure we are on. 

Will They Remember It?

After the usual questions and comments about how different “this” place is from New York City and after the “where have you been / where are you headed” discussion, conversations with strangers often include a question about whether we think our boys will remember “it”? When people ask me this question, I often don’t know exactly what they are asking. Are they asking whether my kids will remember that we came to Australia? That we traveled in a tent? This town? This rock?


I have no doubt that they will remember something about our journey in Australia, but beyond that I don’t know. In fact, the question ignites a bit of an existential question in me about how do we ever know if we will remember a moment. Will I remember it? Will they? But alas this question is probably not intended to start such a discussion as we stand next to our sites in the caravan park chatting.

This isn’t a question I began the journey thinking about, but I have tried to make myself consider it given the frequency that we have been asked. It came into sharper focus the other day when I was asked about it twice in one day and then I read this article about a family traveling through Europe with young kids. I was taken aback when reading the comments with the ire with which people expressed that the children will not remember “it”. (I realize that reading the comments was my first mistake…)


So I will say now that I have zero concern about whether my boys will remember a particular location on this trip. I have never traveled for the memories, I travel for the experience.  I didn’t bring them on this journey to help them memorize a snapshot in their mind of various sightseeing locations.

I have hoped to share something different with them on this journey. I wanted to share a love of nature. My hope was that my city boys could learn to play freely and comfortably in nature, the same way they would confidently captain their scooter down a crowded urban block.

My hope was to teach my boys that it was ok to be unsure and not to know. As they have watched Jay and I both stumble and succeed in so many new endeavors, my goal was to share the thrill of the unknown and to teach them it is ok to learn as you go and try new things. Sometimes it leads to amazing experiences and sometimes it leads to a terribly burned dinner, but it is ok to try.


I wanted to teach them that big changes are scary, but good especially when things aren’t working. And it’s ok to change again as we figure out what works better.
And lastly, I wanted to spend time as a family. Not to show them and teach them, but to learn from them and with them and to share and to enjoy together. We never know what the future will bring, but we have choices we can make now.


So I don’t worry about whether they will remember this place or that – we have plenty of pictures. And I also believe that many of these lessons will be imprinted on them as they grow as they have on us. I deeply believe that we have all learned lessons that will unfold from this journey for years to come in ways we can’t plan or anticipate. And that’s what makes it an adventure.

Wait! If you haven’t yet, check out part 1 and part 2 of our journey through the Tanami Desert

We left Billiluna far later than we had planned. The adrenalin was pumping after two near-setbacks, and we (finally) started making good time on the dirt track to Alice Springs. It was late in the afternoon. The shadows were long and the dirt was red. Our trusty Cruiser Cave Lion fell into a nice rhythm.  We were gliding over the dirt.
The conditions of the Tanami Track were much better than we expected. The corrugations were there, but they consistent, with only a few unusually rough patches. We’d lowered our tyre pressure to about 30psi before leaving the bitumen –and of course our Cub Camper Siberian Tiger had a brand new shock – so the going was pretty smooth for a remote Outback track.


In the new tradition of 21st Century travellers, we decided to put our quality family time in the car to good use: we binged on podcasts. In this case, we listened to a series about the trials and tribulations of fledgling online dating business called Dating Ring in the second season of the podcast StartUp.

I don’t know if I’d call it a mistake to drive on into the night.  It’s definitely something we don’t normally do, but this wasn’t a normal day.  The thing is, beginning at dusk, you really shouldn’t be driving anywhere in Australia outside of the cities. It’s the animals, and kangaroo in particular.   The lovable roos, they like to hop along the side of the road, in the same direction you’re driving, just outside the peripheral range of your headlights. They seem to take you in, correctly recognizing two tons of steel hurtling down the road as a threat. But then, inexplicably, they throw caution to the wind and dart across the road right in front of you. Out here, in the Tanami Desert, on a road so isolated we hadn’t seen any cars outside of Billiluna, who knew what we might run into?


By now, it was sundown, and we knew we should probably set up camp. But, Dating Ring had just suffered a major setback. The founders would have to decide whether they could accept an investment with unsavory strings attached, or reject the money and keep their dignity. Even though night was falling, we pressed onward.  Just another episode….

The blood moon rose on the horizon, filling our windshield and illuminating a dirt track that seemed to stretch across the desert forever.   After taking it in, we pulled over onto a side track to make dinner and camp for the night. We were a couple miles off the Tanami, hidden in the bush, having what was quite possibly the most remote family dinner in history.

We were just about to call it a night. And that’s when we saw the first (moving) cars on the Tanami. Trucks, actually. And, actually we didn’t see them; we heard them on the UHF radio.   The talk wasn’t the colorful truckie banter you’d expect. It was about bush fires. My ears perked up.  This time of year, in this part of the country, bush fires are a serious topic.I can’t really explain this, but I just had a bad feeling in my stomach. More than likely, it had to do with hearing the trucker say he really ought to report that bush fire. Miranda said to trust my instincts, so we packed back into the car and headed back to the Tanami. It wasn’t three miles before we saw the blaze. Seemingly out of control, spreading through the dry brush – and on the same side of the track where we had been about to call it a night. Miranda and I looked at each other. Whew!

Fires are not totally uncommon driving out here, and the general rule of thumb is that if the fire is on both sides of the road, turn around and drive away fast. If the fire is just on one side of the road, drive by carefully.   By the way, this advice was not conveyed to me firsthand by Smokey the Bear, so please don’t rely on it in a serious situation.  After we passed the first group of fires, there was clearly another bigger group coming up. What was not clear was whether it was on one side of the road, or had spread to both. I downshifted to turtle speed, ready to turn around if necessary. In the back of my mind I was hoping we didn’t have to turn around. What if the fire behind us had made it across the track, too? This was not going to be a day I’d forget any time soon.   As we got closer to the bush fire, we saw it was contained on one side of the road, and that it had only looked like two sides because of a bend. We hurried past.


At this point, I did what any father would do. I told Miranda about the secret stash of licorice I had hidden under her seat for just such a crisis. We dug in. The boys slept. They’ll never know about the secret licorice.

Given that it was now deep into the night and the Tanami was ablaze, Miranda and I decided to put some distance between us and the fire. We drove for about an hour without seeing or hearing a soul and pulled off the track. We made coffee while I refilled our tank with the jerry cans.

It was midnight on the Tanami. We were on the move. Dating Ring was having money problems; one of the founders left the company.

Then Miranda screams.

“It’s a giant white horse!”

I punch the brakes. It wasn’t a unicorn. It was much, much bigger. You know how they’re always saying the kangaroos in the Center are so big they’re like a different species altogether? Well, that is apparently true for wild camels roaming the Center, too.


I slowed Cave Lion to a stop and we were face to face with the largest, most muscular camel I have ever seen. Unfazed by our brights, he stared down at us through the windshield.   A kangaroo hopped by. The camel didn’t move.

I inched the car forward. The camel stepped aside. Then he started running – fast – right next to us. He looked over, issuing the challenge. I accelerated just enough to keep up. The camel found another gear. By this point, Miranda and I have lost it. We are in full on guffaw mode. Our son Lake wakes up. He wonders aloud why there is a camel running next to us in the road.  Does he know he’s not dreaming?

Do I know I’m not dreaming?

An update to this.  Shortly after we finished the track the Tanami was closed temporarily due to bush fires – yikes!

If you haven’t yet – check out part one

The shock was down. The bushes on our shock, in fact, had completely disintegrated. I turned to Miranda and gave the universal sign for dismay: thumbs down.

This was not a life threatening tragedy, but also not something we wanted to leave until after crossing the remaining 950kms of the Tanami Desert. Also consider, that I thought the only meaning of the word bushes was the shrubbery kind, until very recently.  We took a moment to process the situation at Wolfe Creek Crater, trying to keep our heads.

I slipped an Oreo out of our emergency supplies.  I took a bite.

“I think we have a spare shock in the wayback,” Miranda said. “You just need to take off the old one and put it on — and we’ll be good to go.”

I could see a gleam in Miranda’s eye similar to the other day, when she rewired the fridge in our car. Or the time when she fixed the key fob with a soldering iron.  “This is going to be a real bush mechanic situation!” she said, enthusiastically.

Me, I thought to myself: What happens when I pull apart this shock and then can’t get the new one on, and then we’re stuck at Wolfe Creek Crater at night under the blood red moon.   Did I mention this was the night of the blood red moon? Then I ate the rest of the emergency Oreo. The die was cast.

Deep in the recesses of our “wayback”, I pulled out a toolbox and a spare set of shocks. (Thanks again Vic Widman, this time for recommending we bring extra camper shocks into the bush).

Well, we had to pull out every inch of the boot, but we did have an extra shock - thanks again Vic for your sage advice!

Well, we had to pull out everything in our Cruiser to find it, but we did have an extra shock – thanks again Vic for your sage advice to bring a set!

Now all I had to do was figure out how to get the new shock onto the camper. Amazingly, a fellow traveller rolled up.  He came by to see if I needed a hand. Seeing that we had the extra shock, he said: “She’ll be alright” – apparently not aware of the fact that the only things I have built in the last decade are spreadsheets and ramshackle smokers. He stayed to make sure I could do it, talking photography with Miranda and lending a hand when I needed. It was another example of the friendliness we have encountered throughout our travels in Australia. An hour and another picnic later and we were on our way.

this good samaritan didn't even scare us with wolfe creek movie quotes while lending a helping hand

this good samaritan didn’t even scare us with wolfe creek movie quotes while lending a helping hand… there’s kangaroos all over the place… like tourists

As we left Wolfe Creek Crater,  our heads were still in the right place, and Miranda and I looked at each other with a sigh of releif.  Well, that was an adventure we weren’t expecting! We returned to the Tanami and headed into the desert in the afternoon.   Another hour or two passed, and the long stretch of the track with no fuel was quickly approaching. We consulted our handy dandy HEMA Map, and turned to turn into the last town on the track with fuel, Billiluna.   Our map showed the fuel station at Billiluna was open from 8-11AM and 2-4PM on weekdays. It was 3PM, and Monday, so we were maybe behind schedule but otherwise looking good.

Cave Lion and Siberian Tiger back on the road!

Cave Lion and Siberian Tiger back on the road!

Now, you have to remember that we were still a little on edge from the shock, and the main thing going through my mind was anxiety about successfully getting fuel.  A few days before, in Purnululu National Park, a ranger had told us he thought that the stretch of no fuel on the Tanami was more like 1,000kms, which, if true, would have meant that Miranda, Lake, Finn, and I would have to turn around and drive all the way back to Halls Creek, buy a few more jerry cans, and try again. We really, really did not want to do this.

The first thing Miranda and I noticed as we headed into Billiluna was abandoned cars. They were plentiful. Some on the grass. Some on the side of the road. Some in ditches. They were so numerous, in fact, that I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe there was a chance there wasn’t fuel here anymore, after all. Maybe all these cars were left by travellers like me. Travellers who headed up the Tanami with their handy dandy HEMA Maps, riding on fumes as they arrived in Billiluna, their last hope. And then maybe they realized there was no fuel, cried softly, turned, and simply walked slowly away into the desert….

Another observation adding to our growing wariness: the abandoned cars were not in good shape. Most were rusted. Some had scorched scars, apparently having blown up, crashed or set on fire. Some were set on cinderblocks.  I get that it’s a remote community, and what are you going to do – call a tow truck a thousand kms to the nearest dump, but since we were already anxious about the fuel, it was still a bit unnerving . As I drove past one car on cinderblocks,there was actually a guy sitting in it, and I started to wonder… Maybe this guy is just waiting for the day a tyre truck rolls into Billiluna on fumes, only to be abandoned with no hope for diesel. Then, jackpot! I’m back baby!

Duh-ni-neh-nuh-neh-nuh-neh-nuh-neh-nuhhhhh…

The other thing I noticed was a healthy dog population. Dogs ruled the road here. And rather than thinking the obvious thing – dogs are man’s best friend, and probably help alert people in a remote community to the presence of outsiders or threatening wild animals – I let my brain continue down its leery track. Apparently since there is no fuel here, the dogs of Billiluna have no fear of being run down.

We circled Billilluna twice, slowly, attracting the stares of several locals. We were looking for the fuel station, but couldn’t find it. Anxiety was starting to build at this point.   All that stuff I just thought about there not being any fuel here, and the dog comments — I was just joking about that. Surely there was fuel, right? We were pretty far away from Halls Creek, and had just enough fuel to turn around, but there was no way we could make it down the Tanami without fueling up at Billiluna. We had to do something. Finally, I saw an old lady sitting on her porch.  She seemed friendly enough, so I got out, scratched her dog behind the ears and asked, “Excuse me, ma’am, is there a place to get fuel here?”

She took a breath and looked around, like she wasn’t exactly sure herself.  I let my anxiety imagine she was thinking:  Fool. There hasn’t been fuel here for years. Why do think there are all these cars just sitting here rusting? But instead she smiled and pointed out a house down the block. “Station’s closed,” she said, adding helpfully “Guy who owns it lives there. He’s home.”

So we moseyed on over to the guy-who-owns-it’s house.

I walked up to the door. I knocked. I waited. No sound. I turned back toward the car. Then, I heard some movement. A bare white chest carried a head that peered out of the shadows.

“How you going?” I asked. A standard greeting. “Sorry to disturb you, but I heard you might be able to help me with fuel? I’m looking for diesel.”

Silence. Then I was informed that the station was closed. I squirmed. Eventually I got out that I’m sorry but I thought it was open from 2-4 on weekdays?

The man looked at me with a hard stare. I took a breath. He took a breath. I considered offering him an Oreo.

Duh-ni-neh-nuh-neh-nuh-neh-nuh-neh-nuhhhhh…

“Today’s a public holiday,” he said, looking very ornery.

A few moments passed as this sunk in.

Public holiday.

Monday.

Today.

Oh,

Crap.

Synapses flashed in my brain. What holiday was this? Do we need to camp here and wait for tomorrow? I was about to turn and break the bad news to Miranda, but then I remembered a conversation over a beer a few days ago.  This upcoming weekend was among the biggest of the year for Aussie football fans.   If there’s one thing that’s universal everywhere we go, it’s a love of sport.

“Think West Coast will win The Finals?” I asked.

They were magic words.   I smiled hopefully, sensing his guard falling slightly. Yep, Grizzly Adams likes the footy.

“No. But if you can pay cash I’ll fill you up. Meet me over there,” he said, pointing out the station I had been unable to identify in two laps around Billiluna.

This was a fantastic development and another unexpected stroke of Australian  hospitality and good naturedness.  We had seriously lucked out, and this gentleman, who seemed ready to eliminate me just moments ago, was now doing us a huge favor.  I realized he hadn’t looked ornery because he hated outsiders. He had looked ornery because Grizzly Adams had been knocking on his door, waking him up from a nap on his day off.

As I drove over to the station, Miranda and I dealt with the new pressing problem of the moment: calculating the exorbitant cost of filling up our tank at outback, prices by cash (I think it was something like $2.75 per liter – that’s well over $10 per gallon). We found ourselves scrambling for change.   I asked for $70 at first to see how much more we needed, and meanwhile Miranda is sorting the change from our laundry bag into $5 stacks.   Taking this scene in, our host was now grinning ear to ear as I emptied my pockets to give him about $35 in change ranging from $0.20 pieces to $2 coins…

We headed out of Billiluna pretty quickly after that, trying to remember to Google what public holiday had nearly foiled our desert crossing as soon as we got service. It would not be until well past midnight when we would learn that it was the Queen’s Birthday, which was also celebrated on June 8 – go figure! But things would get even weirder than the Queen having two birthdays for Cave Lion on the Tanami. Stay tuned!

Things got so weird on our trip down the Tanami was that Miranda grew an extra two feet just in her shins

Things got so weird on our trip down the Tanami that Miranda grew an extra two feet just in her shins

Part 3 and the final installment to come tomorrow!

Sometimes I am told my caveman beard and Grizzly Adams look can be a bit intimidating – perhaps even scary. If you know me, of course you also know that not only do I lack the skill and stomach for fighting, I am also so slow that I can’t even run away if things take a turn for the worse. But, alone in the outback, looking like you might have the ability to transform into a wolf has its benefits.   Take, for instance, the other day when we set out to travel from Halls Creek, WA to Alice Springs, NT, on the famed and dusty Tanami Track.

Alice Springs or Bust

Alice Springs or Bust

By now Miranda and I have grown confident in our ability to venture into remote places.   We regularly carry heaps of water (read: 200+ liters), plenty of food, and other necessary emergency gear, such as Oreo cookies.   The Tanami was our most direct route to The Red Center and also offered a chance to see some beautiful remote outback areas as well as the infamous Wolfe Creek Crater.  Although water, Oreos and other emergency gear are important, the key to tackling the Tanami for us would be fuel planning.   The track is about 1,100kms long, from Halls Creek to Alice Springs, and our lovable Cruiser Cave Lion can travel about 650kms towing on dirt roads. We have two jerry cans that, collectively, can provide an extra 200kms.   There’s a stretch of the track that is about 700kms with no fuel, so filling up our tank and jerry cans at the right places along the track would be essential.

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We began our journey by rolling into Halls Creek (pop 1000) early Monday morning and pulling into a dusty fuel station. Closed. The sign actually read: “Closed Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday 🙂 ”  Hmmm, thinking maybe it would be a bummer to arrive in Halls Creek on Thursday.   We did eventually find fuel elsewhere and headed out towards the first landmark on the Tanami, Wolfe Wolfe Creek Crater.

Wolfe Creek Crater really and truly is in the Middle of Nowhere, Western Australia.   It’s actually so remote that it’s the kind a place where a 50,000 ton giant meteorite can smash into the earth and white Australians don’t notice until an aerial survey in 1947.  Wolfe Creek is maybe 200 kilometers from Halls Creek, 170kms of which is a corrugated dirt track and the last 30kms is a super corrugated dirt track.

Scientists know the Wolfe Creek Crater from its creation – a giant meteorite that struck the earth 300,000 years ago. Australians, though, are far more familiar with a horrific murder that took place here some years ago, and was retold in Texas Chainsaw Massacre fashion.   The basic plot: some backpackers go camping near Wolfe Creek Crater and meet a madman who doesn’t take to outsiders; he then acts on his feelings.  It’s hard to describe the fascination among some folk we have met with this movie. The closest comparable film from home is Deliverance, and even though we were thousands of miles away from Tennessee, I couldn’t get the famous chords from Deliverance out of my mind as we headed down the long, dirt track to Wolfe Creek.

Duh-ni-neh-nuh-neh-nuh-neh-nuh-neh-nuhhhhh…

Running towards a crater, going wherever it leads (Finn)

And so we headed down the corrugated track to Wolfe Creek Crater, and, not surprisingly, that’s where our trip started to get weird.   After a picnic during which Lake and Finn absorbed all possible scientific information about meteors, meteorites, comets, craters and the cosmos, we prepared to leave. That’s when Miranda noticed the shock on our camper appeared to have met a horrible end. I crawled under the camper and did what any outsider stranded in Wolfe Creek would do: I gingerly tried to place the shock back where it should be, closed my eyes and hoped it would just stay, and we could drive away. No dice.

Duh-ni-neh-nuh-neh-nuh-neh-nuh-neh-nuhhhhh…

Take me to Part 2 

You know you’ve been on the road for awhile when:

  1. More of your beauty products come from the food section of the grocery store than the makeup counter. (Hello coconut oil!)
  2.   Packing up the inside of the camper trailer together with your spouse while your kids read in the car feels kind of like date night.
  3. You find yourself excitedly recounting the beautifully clean showers of a caravan park to a stranger.
  4. You find yourself idly day dreaming about finding another one of those showers.
  5. When people say everything you carry with you should be multipurpose, the atlas comes to mind due to its mapping ability as well as an ideal surface for constructing sandwiches.  
  6.    When the red dirt stains on your clothes and car are no longer from the most recent stretch of the trip, but realistically from a few months ago.
  7. Meeting another owner of your camper trailer brand turns into a 90 minute conversation where you eagerly dash around the trailer talking about zippers, washing hooks and proper greasing techniques.
  8.   You find yourself offering to help those stopped on the side of the track with a flat tyre, not just to be nice, but because you actually know what to do.  
  9. You find yourself explaining to someone that an area is not really remote even though you will not see a grocery store for two weeks, there will be no mobile signal and there is only a single place to get fuel… Because, come on, there will be other cars occasionally. 
It has been four years today since my dad passed away from pancreatic cancer. When he was first diagnosed, he was given a few weeks to live. He lived for 13 months, and in that time he taught me an extraordinary amount about living and about dying. I have been thinking about those lessons as I approached the anniversary this year. 
He focused on:
Spending his energy on people, places and concepts that were meaningful to him and that he loved. He continued to learn throughout this period. 
Taking each day as it came. During his palliative care, he never knew if it would be a good day or a bad day and remained open to how it unfolded. This openness seemed to allow for more days falling into the “good” category than may have otherwise been possible. 
Being grateful for the time he had. There was never bitterness about the short diagnosis he was given, but rather a commitment to make the most of the time he had with the highest quality of life he could muster. There was no more waiting and putting off that which he wanted to do.  
Taking care of his body. My dad was a competitive skier as a young guy and he continued his athletic endeavors throughout his life. He could proudly list the new sports he learned after age 45 and 50. It was quite impressive and he continued through his illness to do tai chi, to jog, to walk in the woods and even to ski. 
Above all he was brave. He did not fear what was ahead. He focused on the present and handled it with grace. 
In his death, he taught me a huge amount about how to live my life. On this fourth anniversary, I take great comfort and pride in knowing that in this past year, I have taken huge strides towards living my life more aligned to these lessons than in the previous three since we lost him. 
I learned more than I could ever articulate from my dad, and I am grateful that I continue to benefit from his wisdom. 

I posted a video a few days ago on our Facebook page sharing our day’s adventure swimming with the whale sharks.  Whale sharks appear at the Ningaloo reef for several months every year.  They are the largest fish (and shark) in the ocean and many people travel to Exmouth to swim with these immense creatures. They grow up to 12 meters. Our video included all the visual highlights of the day (at least until our GoPro battery gave out), but as I thought about it, I realized the biggest part of the day was not represented at all.  I wanted to share a little of that story here.

 The trip to swim with the whale sharks is a full day boat outing in the ocean beyond the coral reef.  Spotter planes find the gentle giants from sky (they’re that big!) and then call to the tour boats to alert them to the location and likely trajectory of the sharks. Visitors suit up in wet suits, masks, snorkels and fins and then wait in the open water hoping to be aligned just beside the path of the sharks as they swim by.  For the comfort of the whale sharks, swimmers must keep a four meter distance from the sharks and stay out of their direct path. Once the massive pectoral fins pass the group, it is permissible to swim like mad to keep up with them for several minutes.

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We made the decision many weeks ago that this tour would be our big splurge on the west coast and we talked about the upcoming trip for several weeks with the boys.  Snorkeling has been a regular part of our routine as we have made our way up the coast.  We hoped all the time in the water would help our city boys feel comfortable in the water and snorkeling before our trip to Ningaloo.

The big day approached and the boys were apprehensive about swimming with the whale sharks.  There was lots of discussion about their eating habits – they eat like baleen whales, not like great white sharks.  There was pondering whether the sharks would be visible from the boat – hard to know in advance.  When asked, the boys were regularly saying “I’m staying on the boat.  I am not getting in.”  I decided to stop engaging the conversation and discouraged it with others because I didn’t want my boys feeling like they had to stubbornly defend that position even if they changed their minds at a later point.  We shared that we were excited about the trip and different pieces of information we learned about the trip to help get them interested without pushing the issue of whether they would swim with them or not.  The whale sharks had been around in the Jurassic and Cretaceous tie periods, for instance, making them real life dinosaurs (sort of).

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A couple of days before the trip, we met up with a family we have known for several months and their five-year old had a great time swimming with the whale sharks. He talked to the boys enthusiastically about the trip primarily focusing the big box of lollies that was given out at the end of the day. I began to feel hopeful that the boys may decide to do it.

The morning of the trip our boys suggested a reward that they thought they should earn if they swam with the whale sharks.  I have mixed feelings about bribes / rewards with kids.  On the one hand, of course, I want our kids to learn, stretch and grow themselves for good of the pursuit and not for something else.  On the other hand, it sounds a bit absurd to assume that it would be enticing to ask the boys to do something entirely unfamiliar to them (go out on a boat, swim in the deep ocean with the largest sharks in the ocean for the joy of seeing them) for an unknown benefit.  I asked them what they had in mind and “iPad time” was the request.  It seemed reasonable enough to me. A handshake each and the iPad deal was on.

We all suited up on the boat, bending ourselves into wet suits, cleaning our masks and pulling on fins.  The first stop was a chance to test out all of the snorkel equipment at the coral reef before we headed out into the deeper ocean.

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The initial entry to the water, jumping in, got Finn flustered.  The waves were rolling around the coral and the current was strong.  He got water in his mask and he had a new large scrape on his knee that burned in the salt water. This was not a good start. He wanted out instantly.  I tried for a few minutes to help him settle down, but it was clear to me that he needed to get out of the water before he would calm down.  Jay and Lake swam off to the coral while Finn and I went back to boat to get reoriented.

We skipped the rest of the coral snorkel and started talking about getting in just to see the whale shark once and not needing to do it multiple times.  Lake thought this was a great idea.  One trip in and done. Finn was still not sure that he wanted to go in again.  When we got the call to jump in with the first shark, we improved our water entry, but Finn was still overwhelmed in the water and missed looking down as the shark swam by.  We weren’t very well positioned so no one was able to swim along with it after the initial sighting.  Lake did see it and announced he would not be getting back in the water.  He had seen it, met the criteria of the reward and he was done.

The crew made the call for our next opportunity and Finn was crying on the deck.  He didn’t want to get back in, but he desperately wanted his prize. Lake had shed his PFD and was settling into a book on the deck. Sniffling Finn entered the water and I felt terribly conflicted.  Was I pushing too hard? Was this too much?  He had loved other snorkeling and sharks are his favorite animal and I was so worried about him missing out, but he was miserable.

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This is an adventure with wildlife and unfortunately, that trip into the water was a false alarm.  The whale shark dove — and when they dive it is always unclear if they will come near the surface again.  We came out of the water and Finn insisted another trip into the water was far too many.  He would not be doing it.

I knew we had done all the pushing that we should do.  For the next two swims, Jay and I ventured into the water offering the opportunity to join us and met with an energetic “No” from both of them.

The next opportunity, Lake suddenly said he wanted to do it again.  We quickly got him ready and he jumped in.  We got a wonderful long swim with the shark and Lake came out of the water beaming.  He told Finn all about it and my heart was simultaneously proud for one boy and breaking for the other.  Finn looked forlorn.  I felt terrible for setting up a situation where Lake would be rewarded and Finn wouldn’t be.  What was I thinking?  How could I have not anticipated this possibility?

Amazingly, we got one more call to swim with the whale sharks.  Lake said he wanted to go again and as we pulled on his gear, Finn came over and said he wanted to come too.  I was surprised, relieved and praying that the whale shark would show up.  Lake paired up with Jay and Finn and I gave it another go together. He was much more relaxed in the water and we were perfectly positioned as all of the nine meters of whale shark came into view.  We both kicked furiously to swim along side the shark.  I picked up my head periodically to make sure Finn’s face was in the water and he was seeing this magnificent beast.  Each time I saw him mask down, kicking along.

By the time the shark swam ahead of us, I was panting and Finn was thrilled.  He loved it.  His enormous smile filled my heart as we made it back to the boat. 

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Everyone got dried off and changed for lunch and an afternoon over the coral reef.  Finn and I stood on the deck looking out at the water.  We had a lull in our conversation and he told that swimming with the whale shark was a much better prize than the iPad time.  (Although he did quickly clarify that he still wanted the iPad time.) He felt victorious and I am sure that the experience will live on for a long time in him.

I have been thinking about it a lot over the past 24 hours.  It reminded me of how many times on this trip, I have joined the kids in their fear when they are pushing their boundaries.  I have felt the moment of panic as I wonder if I am asking too much of them and setting them up for failure.    When they are given the opportunity to step outside their comfort zone, they have struggled initially.  In each of those times, the boys have risen to the occasion and surpassed my hopes and expectations.  They are teaching me a lesson in providing them the opportunity to do big, brave things and to allow them to struggle in order to feel the power of their own success.

I told Finn I was writing this post and asked him what he wanted you to know.  He said, “Tell them I loved it.  I was scared at first, but I loved it and I got the best viewing of the shark!”

When we had a flat tyre on our way to Coral Bay last week, we decided that caution was the order of the day.  So we turned around and drove back to Carnarvon to get the tyre sorted out.  Instantly, we had help from our friend Vic and Coopers Tires, who were super responsive in helping us get back on the road.


When we returned to caravan park that we had just left in Carnarvon, it felt like Old Home day (does that reference translate)?  We were warmly greeted by fellow traveling families that we had gotten to know over the previous week.  We also got a wonderful surprise when a family we had met in Tassie walked into the camp kitchen that night.

The wait for a new tyre turned into a few days of fun for our boys with the opportunity to play with other kids from daylight to well after the sun set.

After an entertaining and (very) late farewell evening with the adults in the group, we headed off to Warrorra Station with one of the families in hopes of connecting with other friends.  We ended up with a picturesque camp on the beach.  Once we settled into camp, we were disappointed to find that one of the wheel bolts had sheared off the wheel on the same wheel as our newly replaced tyre.  Several interested fellow campers came by to check it out and the consensus was we were in reasonable shape (4 of 5 is ok, less than that is bad) and could repair it once we made it to a town with a service center.

The next day we discovered this was not the case when we started hearing a bad sound from the car that turned out to be two loose wheel nuts.  After a consult with a tyre shop, we jacked the car up and retightened all the nuts, we began a very slow trek back to our camp.  
  
We were stopping every 1-2kms and discovering that the nuts loose at each stop.  One snapped off during on of those stops and we were dumbfounded as to our next move. The Land Cruiser only has 5 wheel studs. We were on a dirt track and it was about to get dark (due to our very slow progress back to camp).  Panic set in for a moment as we were unsure if we would damage the car further by driving on it.  That’s when the fun started.  

Friends who we thought had already returned to camp appeared behind us on the track.  Huge sigh of relief.  We weren’t alone and we would not have to settle in on the side of the track for the night. Just knowing they were there edged the panic out so that rational thought could take over and we could start to figure out next steps. By some miracle of miracles, we got a bar of mobile service and quickly sent off a note to the most amazing 4WD mechanic, Justin Cooper, who we met in Tassie.  He responded instantaneously and asked us to call. Jay had a quick conversation and we had a game plan in place.  Our friends took the kids and me back to camp, which was about 5kms away and fed us dinner.  At the same time, the men from two other families got back on the track in the dark to make sure Jay made it safely back to camp.

We had a great evening around the fire recounting the days exctiement that night after the kids were in bed.  All the activity picked up again in the morning.  One family lent Jay their car so he could drive to the top of a sand dune to get mobile reception and call for roadside assistance. Endless negotiation with the roadside assistance resulted in a plan to meet us at the bitumen road to tow us the 200kms or so to the nearest service station.  This was not an insignificant feat as we were 25kms in on a dirt track and we needed to get our car and our camper to the road. 

Travelling families rallied around us yet again as one family watched the kids while Jay and I frantically packed up and another family volunteered to tow our camper out for us both to ensure we made it safely and to reduce the strain on beleaguered Cave Lion.  We made the long trip to the bitumen slowly as I cringed watching our wheel wobble from the trailing car.  Everyone felt huge relief as we came over a dune to see the flatbed tow truck waiting for us.  

Cave Lion was loaded onto the tow truck and then Siberian Tiger was hooked up to the truck and towed behind us.  We bid farewell to our friends as we set off in the truck. Our tow truck driver couldn’t have been friendlier and we got a great history lesson on the area as we made our way north.  The town truck pulled us into our camping spot before the car was taken over for service.

Our day was capped off with yet another act of generosity as one of the travelling families who also made their way to this caravan park, invited us for dinner as a treat after our long day.  Everyone had a great time.

The last several days have certainly brought some stressful moments, but I am struck so much more by the kindness, generosity and team spirit shared with us. There is a real feeling of “we are all in this together,” which for so many defines the Aussie spirit. We came to this country 10 months ago and began this journey so completely outside of our element and experience without having met anyone in the country.  

Our car woes have reminded us how many wonderful relationships we have formed and how far we have come.  This is all part of the adventure and I am so grateful that it has allowed us to connect with so many wonderful people.

(For those of you wondering, we have had the wheel studs repaired here in Exmouth and some time in the next week or so should get the replacement tyre and then hopefully this chapter of our car woes will be behind us.)