* * *Langlo Crossing
I hear some noises outside. My heart races at the thought of what could be there. I edge over to the front of the van. I see that we are surrounded by passing cows. About 14 of them. A curious few can be seen licking and shuffling against the van. That’s what the noise is, I thought. Willow is sitting on the drivers seat unsure of what to make of them. I shake my head and start cooking dinner.One thing I have learnt is that if there are cows around it’s best not to leave anything out over night. They will lick it!
As night descends I take Willow for a walk down the track. It’s when it’s this quiet that I realise how bad my tinnitus is. Howling dingos are the only thing to break the silence as we fall asleep.
Water maketh not a lakeLanglo Crossing → Lake Dartmouth
We leave Langlo Crossing. It was only 50km to Lake Dartmouth and mostly unsealed. I stop half way to fly my drone and a ute drives by. It’s the postman on his mail run and he’s wondering what I’m up to. We chat for a bit before I continue the drive to Dartmouth.
The majestic Lake Dartmouth when full covers an area 5,600 hectares. In the back of my mind I knew it was a possibility. The landscape out here changes quickly and so can my tendency to believe staff at information centres.
I see the sign and pull up, ’Lake Dartmouth’.
What I cannot see is a lake. All to be found is a muddy puddle with some cows splashing around. I got out and launch my drone. From a height I might be able to see the lake.
I spot Ambathalla creek further West. Somewhat disappointed and somewhat dejected I drive to the picnic area to figure out what to do. A table, hut, and information board had been erected back in the early 2000s as part of a conservation program. Wondering if I can I actually hold out for 30 days here I let Willow out and have some lunch.
Willow walks up to the edge of the creek. Stares into the water and sits. She seems so at home, so quickly. She has everything she needs and so do I. I realise that I too will make this place my home.
I find a road and follow it through a canegrass plain about a half a kilometre up the creek just before a gate that reads ‘No Shooting/NoFishing. Trespassers prosecuted’. In places the earth is cracked beneath my feet and was surely covered in flood in the last wet. It was dry now and there was little chance of rain until next season. This would certainly do for a camp. Hopefully the station owners are somewhere around so that I can say hi.
Aging and contorted river red gums line the creek with their root systems exposed as if they are dipping their toes in the cool water. Coolabah trees offer shade. On one side was an open plain, the other an idyllic creek. The place is starting to grow on me.
The manner in which camp is made is as follows. A suitable patch of ground is found. A Good view is mandatory, water is always appreciated. The van is parked, engine stopped. The camp has now been made. I then spend time putting away groceries and making sure everything is organised.
The design of my van is such that everything is ready to go. It means I can pull over anywhere and quickly make a cup of tea, or even have a nap before driving on. When I do stay put, some camp chairs may appear or a shovel for a fire. Ease of setup is paramount when the process is a regular occurrence.
This gives me plenty of time to watch other campers fumble with their awnings and slide out kitchens, and curse each other whilst detaching caravans and making up beds. Of course there is no one around this time. We are alone, very alone.
On the 5th day I wake up after an 11 hour sleep, a now regular occurrence since going off-grid. I never sleep that well and will often wake during the night. Without fail Willow will make a racket at 4 or 5am. It’s her way of telling me she needs to go out. With bleary eyes I will put a jumper on, grab a torch, place her harness on, then venture outside.
Willow will lead me away from the van to a place of her choosing. If the ground is too hard I will take a trowel to till it up for her so she can do her thing.
Often I will not be able to return to sleep which results in me checking my phone. Now without such distraction I would fall back asleep with ease and wake up hours later.In the mornings I go for a walk along the cattle tracks and collect a few pieces of firewood. I don’t generally have fires but I figure it will be a nice way to spend some evenings – it’s also my favourite way to cook a steak. The defining essence of the outback for me is the smell. It reminds me of a mixture of blood and burnt coffee but with a certain sweetness. As best as I can understand this could be because of the high iron content of the red soils and maybe the wattle trees add to the mix.
It’s time to do some washing and being 100 kilometres from a laundromat means I have to do it by hand. I place my laundry in a waterproof sack with creek water and biodegradable washing liquid. I work the clothes through for 3 minutes, then pour the water out far away from the creek. The process is then repeated without washing liquid to rinse.
The clothes are wrung and hung on a line between two coolibah trees. With the arid outback air they don’t take long to dry. I am happy with the result. They smell perfectly clean and I’m left wondering why I had been so reliant on laundromats.
On the 7th day I hear a ute pull off the main road. I get out of the van and wave as it approaches. I always wave when someone drives by. You never know when you might need someone’s help, or when they might need yours.
It’s the postman I had met days earlier. He introduces himself as Raymond and we chat about life out here. About his days in the shearing sheds and his 420 kilometre biweekly mailrun from Charleville to the outlying cattle stations.
He says he spotted me from the road, recognised the van so came over to say hi. I thought that was very kind. I imagine that for those living on the stations out here, his smiling face might be one of the few they see during their time between town runs.
I tell him that I hadn’t seen the station owners pass by. He was on his way to the Ambathalla homestead and said he would let Barbara know I’m around.In the afternoons the cows make their way to the creek to drink and the galahs arrive in a flurry of squawking. After the sun sets we sit by the fire and I realise that more aeroplanes than cars have gone past today.
Why am I even here?
In that first week I was somewhat conflicted as to how to make those 30 days meaningful in some way. It would be a shame to spend this long somewhere on wasted time. I’m not the kind of person who can spend 4 days in Ubud and claim to have reached enlightenment but I didn’t want to come to the end of my time and not have learnt anything.
I could sit there and wait for some ancient wisdom to be imparted upon me by the night sky. A forgotten secret of the universe made known only in the rustling of the leaves of the red gums. The meaning of life even.
To find out that one thing that makes it all worth it. To enter camera left, lift my chin up and say I Richard James East have learnt something here today and for those precious words to be set upon the screen before the credits roll.
But there was nothing.
I get out my tools. Rummage through my box of offcuts and find the perfect piece of lumbar. 6 equal faces are cut. Edges mitred and glued together. A perfect cube now to be cut in half.
One side a base, the other a lid, delicately fitted, sanded, and oiled. I took a step back and look at what I had made. That old piece of wood now a box, for surely if wisdom comes, it shall be contained.
I find another piece of wood and repeat the process. Another box. Akin to the first but with variances in design not by consideration but by whim.
And another, then I sleep.
As the days passed the boxes stacked up on the table. I would stare at them as I cooked dinner – the fresh food nearly used up. Then a thought was had. I will sell them and give away the money. There shall be my meaning, my purpose for these days.If you would like to have one of the 30 boxes for yourself use coupon FightMND to donate all proceeds to help find a cure for Motor Neurone Disease. Browse the boxes here.
People, I am here!
My routine was established. I would try not to sleep in too late. Eat. Set up my workshop and get to work. After lunch I would take some photos and try to meditate. I returned to work and continued until my body ached. Dinner was cooked then an evening spent sipping rum or homemade cider whilst reading and watching TV episodes I had downloaded.
Tomorrow is Tuesday which means that Raymond is due on his mailrun. I was comforted by the fact that I had this link to the outside world so I write a letter. I realise that my address book is in the ‘cloud’ and that I only have one friend I could write to. A good friend in Melbourne.
I write of my time thus far spent over the past 11 days and ask him to pass on to family that I am in fact alive and well. Paper folded, enveloped, and stamped. The letter placed on the table.
The next day there is no sign of the postman.
Oh! Willow, my companion! You know not of the challenges I face without internet access. Not of the despair of being unable to find out the actor in The Oyster Farmer whose name escapes me. Not of the turmoil of being unable to check the weather forecast every hour. And surely not of the desperation of being deprived of funny videos of goats doing ridiculous things.
But when I really thought about it I didn’t need those things. Instagram likes, facebook updates and so on. Though when I was using my laptop, I would sometimes subconsciously open the internet browser and start typing reddit.com. Obscuring necessity there was habit, but habits can be broken.
What hit me the most was one simple thing. If you take our modern lives, the technology that comes with it, and you throw away the unnecessary, you’re left with a powerful tool that connects people. A tool that reinforces friendships, shares love, and reminds you that you are not alone in the world. This is what I missed most.
I hadn’t realised just how important it was to me. When my time over the last few years has been spent primarily alone that connection to the world was vital and necessary to live the life I live.
But still, around me are the things that reminded me of those connections. Photos and postcards I have stuck to the wall. My brother’s chilli sauce and mum’s apricot chutney. The treats my sister and Steph packed for me.
On the 15th day Raymond drops by and I am able to hand him the letter to post. He tells me of the Rodeo in town and the fireworks just been. I day-dream of getting a corndog and a bucket of chips.
The weather is cooling down. At the start of my stay the nights were mild and the days in the mid to late twenties. Now the day time temps are barely hitting 20 and the nights near freezing. A doonah, a blanket, and a sleeping bag make the nights toasty. The solar shower which consists of a bag you fill with creek water and lay in the sun all day is now useless.
I know it’s cold when Willow jumps up on the bed and looks at me expectantly. She will walk right up to my head and wait for me to let her under the covers. Any cat owner will understand the efforts not to rouse a resting cat no matter where they shuffle during the night. My body bent and contorted, so not to disturb the peaceful slumber of a little black adventure cat.
On the 19th day I have a visitor. A guy doing some shooting for the station drives up in his ute.
‘You know you have been here quite a while. It might pay to drive up to the homestead and introduce yourself.’, he says.
He has a point. My intention of making contact with the station owners had been put on hold as I fell into my routine. So the next day I drive the 10km up Ambathalla Rd.
I am somewhat nervous about approaching the homestead unsure of how they will receive me. I park up the car and walk towards the garden gate when I see two people exit the nearby paddock.
I wave, walk closer and realise that one must be Barbara, the ‘matriarch’ of Ambathalla station. She is carrying a bucket of feed and closely followed by a lamb and mother, and a calf. She introduces me to Peter, and I let them know what I’m doing on their property.
They are very welcoming and even offer rain water for the rest of my stay and use of their satellite internet. I politely decline as tempted as I may have been and say that’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid out here. They let me know what radio channel they use just in case there’s an emergency and I return to camp.
The days not spent making boxes were filled with other tasks. I cleaned up some electrical wiring in the van and did some reorganising. The front sunshade I bought in 2015 was falling to pieces so I got out the sewing machine and made a new one with some heatproof fabric.
I made sauerkraut, flat breads, tended to my sprout garden, and had a small yoghurt disaster. After putting the yoghurt mix with warm water in a container I wrapped it in a towel and then covered with a plastic bag to put in the sun.
This technique works well when the weather is cooler. Somehow the container tipped and when I went to check it in the evening the whole contents had been absorbed by the towel! Not to be deterred I made a new batch the next day foregoing the towel.
And then they arrive. 30, maybe 40 of them. Making their way along the creek. Bounding over fences and generally being adorable. As if the internet gods knew exactly what I needed in that moment. I was living my very own funny goat video.
Reconnecting..Ambathalla Station → Adavale
The last week flew away as fast as the startled ibis’ on the banks of the creek. We were ready to come home. Home? Where is that? Don’t tell me that my idea of home is wherever there is internet access… We were ready to leave Ambathalla station.
I pack up camp. Put away the camp chairs and table, put the shovel in the back of the van, and untie the laundry line. Willow is ushered into the van and we set off for the bustling metropolis of Adavale, population 20, pub, phone reception.We reach the top of a rise and as far as the eye can see is the Adavale basin. My phone beeps. I pull over and check facebook.
I was never very good at living in the modern world. If I was, I probably would still have a house and my old career. What I do know is that like everyone, I have the modern world and I also have my own world. I get to choose where one ends and the other starts. Maybe now I will be little bit wiser in where I draw that line.
Technology is powerful. It connects us with others and that’s what we humans do best. But there needs to be a reprieve, time to recharge and reprocess, time away from all those alerts. I like to call it notification demarcation. For me, maybe it is as simple as turning off my notifications or spending more time away from reception. Even for just a night or two a week. The important things in life become clearer when you have that breathing room. Knowing when to be connected and when to switch off.
But I think Willow already knew that..Next: A cat walks into a pub..