My First Summer Away With Willow

Warning: names and places have been changed to protect the innocent foolish.

I have a story to tell you about our first summer away. That first summer after leaving Tasmania for a new life of adventure on the mainland. That first summer when it was just Willow and I, before we found Steph.

I have shared lots of stories from our time away over the years. In the early days it was by starting an Instagram account, then writing a book, and building this webpage. Though looking back it’s glaringly obvious that the short captions under each of those early Instagram photos didn’t quite tell the whole story, nor of the people we met.

By October 2015 we had made our way up the East Coast, and back down again. We had seen the Great Barrier Reef, explored rainforests, and met many a hitchhiker. Summer was approaching and the thought of a dripping tropical wet season had us finding ourselves further South in the subtropical NSW town of Coffs Harbour.

Now, I have thought about that summer many times over the years and often wondered how I would share the story, or if there was even one to tell. But the fact that the memories of that summer still come to mind so many years later means to me that there is something to tell. Even if it’s just the recollection of a cat laying on an exquisite purple velvet lounge with a ramshackle cottage in the background.

Though, if I let my mind wander further I will remember the crazy people I met in those bush towns on the plateau above the coast, the permaculture expert, the strange things we found in the forest, or the blood I scrubbed from the floorboards.

And so it is with trepidation that I continue, for the people I am about to write about do actually exist, though surely do not wish to be written about.

So there we were in the town of Coffs Harbour – Banana Town. Okay, I’m not sure if anyone actually calls it that. We would park the van at the beach and I’d swim (or try to surf) while Willow slept on top of the roof rack.

When the evenings rolled around I’d take Willow for walks to watch the water dragons before settling in for the night. Along the beach were 5 star resorts and as I lay in bed with Willow by my feet I’d laugh to myself as I realised we were staying right on the beach for free while high paying resort guests had to walk hundreds of metres to the pacific paradise we called home that summer.

We received no hassles from the rangers or council workers that passed us by, though I should mention, free camping is a different game these days. Years later I returned to that same spot and woke up to a $300 fine the next morning. Sentiment towards van travellers has changed greatly in the past decade.

Over the summer we would return to that beach on numerous occasions as we used it to explore the area and breathe in that pacific air.

But this isn’t really a story about our time at that beach, nor is it a story about exploring the crystal clear cascades that adorn the foothills of the plateau.

I’d recently discovered a website called HelpX that puts travellers into contact with people needing help on their properties. It’s described as a cultural exchange – a traveller offers their skills or labour in exchange for food and accomodation with a local who knows the area.

A month before I had stayed with a couple in the Glasshouse Mountains who needed help in their garden. Over the week I got to work with my mattock digging up old tree trunks to make way for new garden beds alongside some French and Italian travellers. In the evenings we would sit around the dinner table and eat the most delicious home cooked meals, as I recall, lentil curries and roast meats that made the mouth water. We would all share stories about our lives and travels (though I had only been on the road for a few months!).

I was keen to replicate the experience on an interesting project over the summer. Then upon the HelpX website I found the most intriguing listing.

** I’m an architect looking for enthusiastic people who are interested in helping with an eco/art project and learning about self sufficiency. The primary aim is the building of a house from the materials on the site, ie. earth, stone and timber. We would like to showcase the project on a YouTube channel and eventually make a documentary to share our experiences and show people a better way of living. **

Let’s call him Scott.

I phoned Scott, a Sydney-sider who has recently purchased 20ha on the plateau. We chatted for a bit, and he invited me up to stay on the property. He had 3 other travellers staying there and it was looking like it would be a great summer. So, Willow and I left the subtropical paradise of Coffs Harbour and headed up onto the plateau with its towering tallowwood trees and endless forests.

On a late Friday afternoon we turned into Schooner Road, past the farms cut out of the forest, and up a driveway hidden between the trees.

A cute little house sat on top of the hill surrounded by garden beds lush with produce. The only problem was that it wasn’t the right house! A woman emerged from inside.

Are you looking for Scott? She asked.

I was. Turned out he was expected to drop in any minute now to collect some water. I was perplexed.

Oh no, there’s no running water up there, she said as she motioned across the hill. She offered me a beer.

Her name was Freya and had recently built the cute house not long before her neighbour moved in.

He’s an interesting guy, she said.

Sure enough, not 20 minutes later, an old ’98 land cruiser hurled up the driveway and from it emerged an english backpacker, a young german couple, and a clean-cut man in a blue pinstripe shirt.

I introduced myself as he filled up jerry cans from the back of the cruiser. We said goodbye to Freya, and drove next door.

Gumtrees had engulfed the dilapidated cottage that sat on the topside of the property. The bush around it was dense and impassable but there was a track that lead down to the creek and a clearing which would be the site of the new eco house.

Tools and an oddment of building materials lay strewn across the grounds resembling the later stages of a bad garage sale. The cottage was clearly owner built many decades earlier, and what they lacked in construction knowledge they had clearly made up for in enthusiasm. The cottage lay propped up against an old tram carriage that had mostly succumbed to the elements.

Jürgen started a fire in the homemade brazier while Scott made some dinner preparations.

Once we restore the cottage work will be started on the new house, he told me as he poked around the foil wrapped lamb pieces in the fire.

So what exactly needs doing? I asked, confused as to the practical implications of the task bestowed.

We’ll figure that out tomorrow, he said as he inspected the now burning lamb pieces.

The next day we started work. I say work, though I cannot actually recollect what that involved. In fact, looking back, on it, very little productive, useful work was undertaken by any of the 5 of us over the course of that week.

Scott moved from incomplete task to incomplete task. Some of us swept leaves (akin to shuffling snow in the antarctic), while others moved things around in the ramshackle outdoor kitchen. The kitchen consisted of a plastic table and an old wood stove with a wobbly chimney propped up with string.

Now, I’m not averse to roughing it. There is a distinct charm in getting back to basics. But as I looked around the place I thought to myself, what on earth is going on here.

Anyhow, Scott’s excitement was brewing. That afternoon a permaculture expert was arriving from the Hunter Valley.

English backpacker Dean was at the end of the driveway, rake in hand, rollie in the other. A beat up station wagon slammed on its brakes and a bushy old man with a bucket hat unwinds the window and drawls, that’s not tobacco is it?

Dean hesitated, then handed him the item in question at which point the man huffed down the remainder, flicked the butt over a bewildered Dean’s left shoulder, then continued up the drive.

The permaculture expert had arrived. Peter.

My assumptions that a thorough survey of the site would be undertaken, soil samples taken, and a report drawn up were quickly dispelled. Scott had a dream – to create a permaculture wonderland with symbiotic tree plantings, grazing goats, and an abundance of produce. Unfortunately, Peter wasn’t the herb expert Scott was expecting, and any symbiosis of the land would be limited to the human compost on the side of the hill near Scott’s tent where he had been shitting.

Alas, a reprieve was needed and we all bundled into the land cruiser for a tour of the nearby forests where my concept of personal space was challenged greatly.

The car bumbled and rattled over the corrugations in the dirt road and on the way back part of the roof rack fell off.

Could you run back and put that in the boot thanks Jürgen? Scott asked.

We have to get back to the cottage because the man for the internet connection is coming.

The next morning Peter rolled up his swag and headed off. Oh, and there was also a gas leak in the cottage.

The gas bottle precariously perched atop an old refrigerator had been damaged and was spewing out butane. We closed the valve and noted the defective regulator. Though, at this point an almighty explosion would have been the ultimate ending to this tale. Unfortunately, you’ll just have to deal with this story simply fizzling out.

What a great team we have forming here, Scott said as we gathered around the fire that night.

What on earth was he talking about? Everyone here is fucking useless (myself included!), and I had just discovered that the others were planning to leave in another week.

The week was wrapping up, and for our architect friend, Sydney was calling once more. In building a new life in the country Scott had not quite left his old one behind with his time split between the two locales. We drove the hour and a half to Coffs Harbour airport where Scott handed me the keys to the land cruiser and $450.

You seem responsible, can you look after this lot for the next week? He asked me. The last time he returned to the property he was met with 4 emaciated goats and a bathtub of drowned chickens. I hoped we wouldn’t meet the same fate!

We picked up a new gas regulator and some groceries then headed back to the cottage.

So it was just the four of us and a cat around the campfire that night.

Do you think he’ll ever build a house here? I asked.

I don’t think so, said Dan.

We visited Freya to get some more water. As we left she reached into her pocket and held up a sandwich bag full of green nuggets.

Did you boys want any of this? She asked as Dean ran back to get it.

The next afternoon we took the land cruiser to the river where we swam in the cool water. We lit a fire on the rocks and talked about our lives while we cooked damper. How did we find ourselves here? Strangers brought together by the dreams of a wayward architect.

The situation was bizarre. Is this.. is this what travelling is? A year earlier I was locked behind a desk in the IT department of a multinational corporation, the sound of computer fans whirring from the server room and frenzied voices. Now I just heard the flow of a river over rocks and the space between sentences of our conversation.

I think I like this, I thought to myself. If anything ever felt too crazy I would hide in the van with Willow where I received plenty of snuggles.

Another week passed and the backpackers felt it was time to move on, maybe the bed bugs from those old mattresses were getting to them. The plan was for Dean to go to a nearby farm and the Germans to drive the land cruiser the one and a half hours down to Coffs Harbour. They would leave the car parked in the street for when Scott returned from Sydney, before they caught the bus down the coast.

We spent one last afternoon at the river together then I gave Jürgen the keys to drive Dean and I back to the cottage.

Jürgen pulled onto the main road with a clunk, the car jolting forwards.

Are you sure you’ve driven a manual before? We asked.

Yes of course! He replied.

We continued crunching our way down the road to the cottage as I wondered if any of this was really my problem.

We said our goodbyes and took a silly group pic before I dropped Dean off at the farm.

So there we were. Willow and I, all alone in this strange place.

I didn’t light the fire that night. Instead, I cooked dinner inside the van with Willow purring on the bed. I wondered what I should do. I planned to stay here the whole summer but I was disappointed with the thought of wasting my time with someone’s misguided dream.

A message came through. It was Jürgen.

Car.. it’s broken, it read. Oh, bloody hell.

It turned out that Jürgen couldn’t actually drive a manual and that they hadn’t even made it to the next town before the clutch wore out. A friendly farmer gave them a lift to Coffs Harbour and the next day the car got towed to a local garage.

I looked around at the cottage and the mean old gumtrees that leant over its roof. The old tram was covered in moss and lichen with holes punched in its siding. The weather boards on the cottage were rotting and parts of the eaves hanging.

I think I want to leave this place, I thought to myself.

How do you know if you are underestimating someone or if their dream is just stupid? Maybe it’s not for me to say. Maybe he is capable of building that house one day. But you know? I like to think that he never came back. That the cottage continued to rot. That the track down to the creek overgrew with bushes and those weather boards returned to nature. That the forest won and no one remembered that a misguided architect who had watched one too many YouTube videos had even discovered the place

There are dreamers and doers in this world. There’s dreamers that do, and dreamers that don’t.

Willow and I left the cottage and wondered what we should do next, what we should do with our first summer.

We explored the forests and the strange things contained within. The dumped cars, old mine shafts, and the teddy bears nailed onto trees that begs questions that no one is around to answer.

I saw a notice asking for volunteers at the local community centre. It had been broken into and needed cleaning up. I headed along and introduced myself.

The place was a mess and someone had cut themselves on the window glass. There was dried blood all over the floor. I picked up a scrubber and got to work with some others. It was there, scrubbing those boards, that I met Ben.

Ben had moved to the area from Sydney 4 years ago. He bought an old property where he had cultivated produce gardens and raised cattle. He was a real doer.

He listened to my story of those past 2 weeks just as you have here today, and he invited me to see his farm.

It was beautiful and over the course of the summer I spent my time drifting between there and our beach camping spot in Coffs Harbour. On the farm I got to work planting crops, digging the soil, and helping to build a giant netted garden.

I had finally found what I was looking for, but whenever I drove past the mechanic in the little town I’d see the land cruiser waiting to be fixed and I’d think about those crazy two weeks. I’d think about the city life I’d left behind and I’d ask myself again.. this.. is this travelling?

* * *

Thanks for reading about our first summer away in the van. It feels good to finally get this story down in words as it’s been swimming around my head for nearly 6 years. I’ll never forget the contrast of the dilapidated cottage and its high speed internet connection, the image of Willow on the velvet lounge in front of it, and of course Scott’s immaculate blue pinstripe shirts.

I’ve left some additional photos below that I didn’t quite fit into the story, including a photo of Willow and I with a firetruck on Christmas day. You can see one of the veggie patches I worked on at Ben’s, and some of the waterfalls we discovered. Thanks again for reading.

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