That Time I Lost Willow For Three Days

10 weeks have passed since we arrived at Ticoba Blueberry and Avocado Farm on the Comboyne Plateau. The berry picking season finished a few days ago and we now have some free time.

The berries that are left on the bushes are getting soft and are not fit for the markets, but they won’t all go to waste. After dinner Steph and I will walk down the aisles and pick the tastiest berries to go straight into our mouths – the most perfect dessert.

Today, we are enjoying some quality time with Willow. The old timber deck adjoining the camp kitchen was beautifully constructed a decade ago and overlooks the avocado orchards. It’s a spectacular outlook and the perfect spot to start the morning, especially with blue skies like today’s.

In my arms I carry Willow from the van around to the deck so she knows what our plan is for the day. She spends a moment doing a quick perimeter check as cats will do, sniffing at any new curiosities that had been placed there, and even inspecting under the deck. After good 10 minutes of careful inspection Willow returns and jumps up onto the wooden table.

Steph is starting a new crochet project while her bread is in the oven and Willow gives her approval before lying down to rest. The summer day is mild and the breeze light as we sit on the old wooden benches that have seen many a picker before us. Willow enjoys watching the birds and sometimes it seems their calls are the only sound we can hear.

Willow is happy and I can tell because she does that slow blinking at nothing in particular thing. Days like this seem too perfect. Willow could explore the whole farm if she wanted to, but instead she chooses to spend her time with us. Today, I am relieved that I don’t have to chase her through the orchards making sure she is safe.

Willow, and many others, have redefined what it means to be an outdoor cat, and the line between indoor and outdoor cat has become blurred. With their owners, cats around the world are discovering that outside adventures aren’t just for free roaming cats and aren’t about being let out – for their humans are realising that a lot can be said for joining their cats on their explorations, be it backyard or further afield.

These days, Willow is only allowed outside when under our supervision, whether it be off-leash or on. Yes, this is a time consuming endeavour but I consider it this way – it’s also the greatest gift to spend our time together this way.

But I wasn’t always this careful. In fact, there was a time I lost my cat.

Horror on the Murray

Those of you who have read our book will know this story but I’d like to share this extract for those who haven’t. In our previous life back in the suburbs Willow was a free-roaming cat and this extended to the first weeks of our big adventure around Australia – until one night.

* * *

In 2015 Willow and I had just left Tasmania on our circum-australis adventure. The nights were cold as we passed through Victoria. On the Murray River, we camped under towering gum trees. We passed houseboats moored on the opposite bank and fishermen angling the prized Murray cod.

Before we left, I’d bought a radio frequency tracker that attached to Willow’s collar. The tracker would tell me in which direction she was and how far. Then at each place, I had to make a choice: keep her on a leash or set her free to explore. It all depended on whether it was safe for Willow and for the environment. The decision to let her free was never one I took lightly. But, just like humans, Willow wanted to be free to wander and play. To discover and explore. So sometimes, I’d take a risk.

One afternoon, about a month into our adventure, I let Willow out to explore as I cooked dinner.

But then she was gone. I’d lost my cat.

I turned on Willow’s radio frequency tracker but couldn’t get a signal. So I walked through the campsite and into the night.

Still I couldn’t pick up a signal. The temperature dropped to freezing. Finally, at 2 o’clock in the morning, I gave up and went to bed. Perhaps I’d wake to the familiar sound of her sliding down the windscreen.

I woke up feeling sick.

Who takes their cat camping? Let alone around Australia? I berated myself. I’d been a fool.

Rugging up, I set out again. This time, I systematically expanded my search, and eventually crossed the highway. I must have walked 15 kilometres that day before darkness descended on another freezing night. As I walked down yet another track, moonlight reflected in the puddles.

Then I heard a beep. And another. The tracker lit up in my hand. I hurtled through the bush, waving spider webs out of my face. My imagination took over: what if she’s been eaten by a river yowie and I’m being lured into its lair!

Then the beeps stopped.

Perhaps I’d scared her away. Either way, I’d lost the signal and any hope of holding her in my arms that night.

I returned to the van. Inside, it was 4 degrees Celsius. I left the door open again all night, but no Willow.

The next morning, I made a plan. I’d figured that Willow must have crossed the road when it was quiet but became too scared to cross back when the traffic picked up. So I moved the van close to where I last received a signal from her collar. But I was running out of batteries for the tracker – it was my last chance.

Of course, a cat is not easily persuaded, nor can a cat be placed, set or positioned. Only a fool would attempt to change the will of a cat.

In fact, there’s no such thing as a lost cat, only a cat whose notion of where it should be differs from your own. Such is the will of a cat.

Still, I figured that Willow would most likely sleep all day. So, that evening, I headed back out again, stepping quietly with tracker in hand, before sitting down to wait, shivering in my coat.

I heard a beep. Then another! I kept calm and stopped myself from running to her. ‘Willow, Willow,’ I called softly.

The lights on the tracker turned from red to orange. She was coming closer. ‘Willow.’

The lights were now green. I shone the torch down the track and saw two eyes reflected back at me. I was shaking, but Willow strolled towards me before sitting down and wrapping her tail around my leg.

I picked my cat up with tears in my eyes, holding her so tight.

I realised one thing that day. Willow and I have a bond. An unspoken agreement. She will always come back to me and I will never leave her behind.

* * *

That was nearly six years ago but the thought of those lonely nights without Willow sends shivers down my spine to this day. How could I have been so foolish? I clearly wasn’t watching her closely enough. But, I will forgive myself. In the first month travelling with a cat around Australia I didn’t have the resources and knowledge I have now.

Needless to say, I thought long and hard about how I would manage Willow’s adventures going forward and some hard truths rattled through my head.

Free roaming cats have significantly shorter lifespans than non-roaming cats. Free roaming cats are at great risk of road traffic accidents, fights with other cats and animals, and poisoning. Free roaming cats can cause severe damage to our native wildlife.

I love Willow AND the environment so the choice was simple. It is my responsibility to always ensure that she is protected and supervised, whether we are in the suburbs or out in the bush.

Now, whenever she is outside enjoying Australia as we love to do, we are right by her side to ensure she does it safely. She always has her tracker on and I always have a supply of batteries.

Cats are independent creatures, but they need our guardianship. But you know what? I think that’s where the silver lining is – more time spent with our furry friends.

It’s now lunchtime at the farm and Steph’s freshly baked sourdough has cooled enough to slice. I’ve been experimenting with some homemade pickled cauliflower and onion – a perfect accompaniment along with way too much butter. We are already onto our fourth cup of tea.

Willow is asleep next to me when Steph places the breadboard down on the table which she is quick to get up to inspect. Luckily, I have a bag of cat treats here so she doesn’t feel left out.

Soon, Willow is back asleep on the bench and as I try not to think about that time I nearly lost her, I know I will never forget the lesson I learnt.

* * *

Thanks for reading! Right now our days left at Ticoba farm are numbered as we plan our next adventure. Did I say plan? I mean, make it up as we go.. Oh how hard it will be to say goodbye.

I wanted to know, do you keep your cats inside? How do you manage their outdoor time?

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