Everyone has one. This is ours.
The plane from Lockhart River returned us to Cairns via Arukun & Kowanyama, taking us from the north east coast of the cape across to & down the west coast, before once again cutting east back to Cairns. The long way round, giving us plenty of opportunity to see a lot of country from the air that we planned to see from the ground commencing some 6 to 8 weeks later.
It helped to change what had been an ‘idea’ long held into a reality almost close enough to now touch. For the majority of 4wd’ers driving up to the tip of the Cape is an adventure high on their bucket list, planned, sometimes for years, but often undertaken over a few short weeks including the return trek from the south (a minimum of 6000kms) by many. For us such a ‘race’ to the top & back held no appeal, but we understood that many have no option than to fit their adventure in between their work & family commitments, & whilst far too rushed for us, they still enjoy a ‘trip of a lifetime’. Our expectation was to be up on the Cape for a minimum of 5 or 6 months, & possibly longer if we happened to be able to find somewhere suitable to stay for the following wet season.
We have waited a long time for this, originally having planned to make the trip in the late ’80’s as part of an ‘around Australia trip’ with our then pre-school age son. He’s in his mid 30’s now. Our plan back then as ’new Australians’ was to finance a year or two ‘on the road’ by renovating the run down house we had bought & were living in & selling it at a profit. All went to plan, it was tough with a young child, & both of us employed full time as nurses, MrsTea working nights, & us both fitting the renovating into whatever spare time we could magic up. We did a good job to the ‘worst house on best street’ & had pride in what we achieved. To much pride as it turned out. If we had gone to auction just a week earlier than we did the plan would have worked, but I was intent on making the place perfect – both an attribute & a failing of mine. I wanted it properly finished before advertising it for sale.
The infamous Pyramid Building Society collapse happened (heralding the tough financial times around the corner) just days before our auction & house prices plummeted overnight …literally. We knew how much we needed to make on the sale, & that Saturday, with more than 80 people at the auction the highest bid was almost the exact amount we needed for the trip below the expected selling price. We received letters after the auction from prospective buyers begging us to sell to them, we had made a very desirable house, but without the funds to travel with we decided not to sell. If only we had gone to auction a week earlier we are certain we would have sold at the expected price. 4 years later we did sell, & still only got the same as the highest bid on auction day! They were tough times.
Eventually after half a lifetime we are able to travel as we dreamed of, but now just the two of us, which if we are honest is far better than doing so with a pre-schooler & a tent. Back then – ‘BC’ (Before Computer’) travel books fed our dreams of adventure exploring our new Aussie homeland & the very first we bought was a 4wd guide to Cape York by Ron & Viv Moon. And now with far more travel experience under our belts here we were just weeks off that dream finally becoming reality.
The approach into Cairns airport is over the sea & it is quite spectacular flying over the aquamarine reef laced waters to the tropical city surrounded on 3 sides by steep & impressive rainforest covered mountains. The car storage service was great, they were waiting for us at the airport when we landed, taking us the short drive to pick up our car, which we were relieved to find in good shape. A 30 minute drive north to Palm Cove where we had pre-booked our first ever AirbnB accommodation for the night. It all worked like clockwork, & the level of ‘luxury’ plus all the little unexpected extras made for an enjoyable contrast to not only our brief 5 weeks on the Cape, but to the past two years since we were last at home. Our booked house & pet sit in Clifton Beach was just a few minutes drive away, to commence the following afternoon, with the owners leaving to fly to New Zealand the next morning.
Eating out that evening & for lunch the next day was a treat we had promised ourselves. By now we were aware of a virus outbreak in Wuhan which folk were suggesting might be a bit of a worry & we watched with interest as a group of young Chinese girls had lunch a couple of tables from us. It was obvious some of the food was unfamiliar to them, like the ridiculously tall hamburger held together by toothpicks which needed deconstructing before it could be eaten. But it was also the hygiene measures they were taking, as though second nature, which interested us. First antiseptic wipes were taken out of handbags & hands cleaned, Then further wipes used to clean the cutlery they would go on to use. More wipes were put to one side & every so often during the meal would again be used for hands, but first face masks were removed. The young girls joking & giggling continued throughout like any group of young girls out together . The virus, to us, was just another news item occurring in a far off land. Such things have happened before. H1N1 Swine flu, Ebola, Zika etc. All terrible, but none with an impact on us. This Coronavirus just another to add to that list. We had previously visited the house & pets we would be looking after so had a good idea of what to expect. In comparison to other sits this one would offer a touch of luxury. Four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a modern kitchen looking out onto a lovely large & private covered outdoor area with high roof & large ceiling fans & views up & across rainforested mountains. Beyond that the swimming pool, all set in a beautifully manicured tropical garden, which we didn’t need to worry about as the regular gardening & mowing services would continue throughout our stay. . The two living rooms had large ’smart’ Tv’s, one of them larger that I had ever previously seen taking ‘half a wall. In front of it a large leather sofa with electrically adjustable head & foot rests, plus built in charging ports for our essential ‘devices’. The fully auto bean to cup espresso machine was fun too. Cupboards contained multiples of all cutlery crockery etc, making it unnecessary to switch the dishwasher on until it had been filled. Compared to life out in the bush in our Tvan it couldn’t have been more different. Megsie the dog seemed comfortable with us from the outset. She was a very smart dog who loved the daily walks we took her on, always finishing with a session in the pool. She wouldn’t let us forget that! Once a week the dogwash man came & disappeared with her into the depths of his mysterious van. She always went willingly & emerged with her super thick fur almost dry & becoming fluffy in the sun. The two cats, Jimmy & Princess didn’t test us, rather they somehow worked a little feline magic on us, or at least on me. I’ve never been a great cat lover to be honest, but it really wasn’t long before I came to appreciate the joy of having both cats spending time with me because they wanted to (as opposed to me trying to encourage them to). Their affection felt like a privilege bestowed, because it happened on their terms. I’m not sure I’d become a cat owner for many reasons, but the opportunity to spend more time with cats is something I’ll look forward to. It was a revelation to be in the presence of this little master & mistress & not suffer an allergic response (I continued the daily antihistamine tablets taken initially to assist with mosquito & sandfly bites). Discovering that cats don’t all stick their claws into me was another discovery which aided my enjoyment. All in all it was a comfortable & enjoyable place to be.
Within a few days of arrival however the impact of the virus was beginning to make it’s mark. Shortage of toilet rolls one of the first signs. We started thinking that we might start to see restrictions at some point, but our overall thinking, in hindsight, was still very naive. As Covid 19 & all it’s impacts grew ever more dominant on the Tv coverage, Clifton Beach seemed like a good place to sit out the crisis, & we thought that the owners would do the same in New Zealand. It never really occurred to us at that stage that it wouldn’t all be over within a month or two. At some point we did briefly consider the possibility that the owners might return earlier than planned, but dismissed this, thinking they would be happy & secure with family over there, & that they would return as planned. Even as international flights were being cut back we still thought that flights between Australia & New Zealand would continue, given the sibling like relationship between the two nations.
Our plan remained to finish this sit as expected in late April & to then drive as far as the weather would allow us up Cape York, sitting & waiting for tracks to re-open after the wet season if necessary. With the evolving virus situation we determined that somewhere on the Cape would be a good place to ‘sit out’ the virus, & even had discussion about that possibility with folk up in Portland Roads & felt confident following this that even if communities up there restricted movements in/out, that we could be ‘living’ locally by the time this occurred & would be treated as locals. Little did we realise how quickly things could & would change!
In fact closure of the top end of of the Cape, above the Jardine River was one of the earliest signs that something big was happening. Online 4wd social media users largely refused to accept changes to plans. Many still thinking it would all be over within a month & that ‘holidays’, long in the planning , could go ahead. The denial was strong, but we could see what was happening, although we still remained naive as to the timing. We thought it likely that all the other Cape communities would follow suit in closing down to visitors, but we that we would have time to finish our sit, & to get up into the Cape to somewhere we could ‘prop for the duration’ before all this happened. It still felt like something which was happening ‘somewhere else’ , not to us. We would remain safe & in comfort with Megsie, Jimmy & Princess until we could get ourselves back up to Portland Roads & Lockhart River. It was a plan. The idea of being ‘locked in’ up there appealed.
Over the next few days things around us changed at a rapid pace, far far quicker than we had expected. It was hard to keep up, let alone second guess what might happen next. More Cape communities went into Lockdown. (Aboriginal communities would be devastated if the virus got into them, due to much higher rates of poor health, combined with often poor & crowded living conditions). Closing down early for them was wise. The Pandemic was declared. State borders were being closed, even National Parks & State forests were being closed to the public. Tv began talking about social distancing, & about people being infected down south. We felt lucky to be in the north where population density was lower, & where we had a comfortable place to be, & little need to go out often. We went shopping for supplies – topping up our travel supplies ready for a dash up the Cape at the end of the ‘sit’, & enough for the next couple of weeks. We were walking distance from the local supermarket & shopping centre, & as well as feeling lucky to be where we were, we were happy to be self isolating there, & to follow government advice not to hoard, but to buy enough to see us through a couple of weeks until we shopped again. We even felt slightly smug & righteous about self isolating when we were not ‘required’ to, feeling it was the socially responsible thing to do, albeit it presenting no real hardship to us at all.
The day after we shopped, (& it was a ‘big shop’ – we had not lived in our Tvan since the end of September, & during those five & a half months had used up much of our ‘travelling stock’ – so replenishing what was to last us the first 4 to 6 weeks up the Cape, plus what we needed for the next 2 weeks) we received the message from the home owners which sent us into a tailspin. We had seriously misjudged. They were advised by the Australian government to return home ASAP or risk being unable to get back in the foreseeable future as airlines were shutting down & international borders were being shut – even from New Zealand! At this stage we had been in Clifton Beach for a little under 2 weeks. Not only were the owners returning early, but once back in Australia they would be required to self quarantine at home, & thus we would have no choice but to leave. At some degree of risk to themselves (of not being able to get back before flights shut down) they gave us 4 days notice. The entire house sitting community throughout Australia was impacted with both current & future sits being cancelled at short notice. Looking back we were lucky to get 4 days notice, many didn’t. In a state of shock, with nowhere to go, & most free camping possibilities having been taken out of the equation we cast our very limited net to see what we could come up with. Without wanting to over-dramatise it was a traumatic time. The two obvious options were either to go home or to caravan parks where we might be for a long period. During those last 4 days at the house the escalation of restrictions & closures was like a steam train, speeding up & unrelentless. From hour to hour the impacts were developing at an exponential rate, almost too fast to keep up with. It was a case of ‘what next’? constantly. Our world, indeed The world, was turning upside down! The idea of a caravan park – if they were going to remain open, (this in itself was very uncertain as we already were hearing of many shutting their gates), was not appealing. Sharing facilities seemed like a risky & potentially dangerous option. It was also not a viable long term option for us financially. Some of the few caravan parks remaining open were offering reduced long term rates for travellers who were ‘stuck’, but for us even the reduced cost was far in excess of our budget. We prefer free camping in the bush for the freedom & closeness to nature it affords us, but also because it makes our travel affordable, especially for what would be an unknown timeframe. The second option was really no more appealing. Returning to our home base in Victoria, some 3000kms south would involve ‘running the gauntlet’ of potentially infected towns in addition to requirements of 14 day quarantine at State borders. It seemed that a ‘dash’ home might take us a month, a risky month, to be back living in a higher density, higher risk population in what would be the beginning of a cold southern winter with temperatures we didn’t even want to think about after the past couple of years in the tropics. To make it worse, we had all that food with no space to store it other than simply laying it on top of the bed in the Tvan, & moving it outside each time we set up camp. The ‘added bonus’ was 200mm of rain forecast over the first two days after we needed to vacate the house.
I kid you not, it was an uncomfortable & scary position to be in. The vast majority of folk struggling with the idea of lockdowns & self isolation would have had little idea of what that situation would be like for folk who had nowhere to be, & as became apparent over the following couple of weeks there were plenty in a similar position. Grey nomads & international backpackers in large numbers on top of the country’s already existing homeless & itinerant populations. By now small country towns were making it clear that strangers were unwanted. Our thoughts of simply ‘going bush’ & ‘hiding out’ whilst attractive on the surface were short lived. Everything was changing so rapidly we had visions of emerging from the bush to re-supply after a month or two, grubby but happy, to find an almost Mad Max-like society where as strangers we were viewed as dangerous & made unwelcome. We had already heard tales of travellers being refused service in small town shops – mainly a result of greedy profiteers & hoarders from the cities ‘ransacking’ rural shops for supplies which were already in short supply in the cities. There were even tales, 2nd hand & without evidence, (promulgated by a government MP) of travellers having their tyres slashed in a small country town. It didn’t ring true to us, but it did make us concerned about the way things were going. Two state governments closing down all the gun shops in their jurisdictions didn’t help our pessimistic fantasies fueled by Tv footage of people engaged in violent altercations in supermarkets & so many reports of selfisness. A few sources were trying to encourage a ‘We’re all in this together’ attitude toward what was happening, citing the ‘wartime spirit’, but at that time selfishness appeared to be dominating. The ‘me’ over the ‘us’. People’s potential response to the virus worried us more than the virus itself.
Now we like to think that we are a considerate couple who always try to do the right thing by others, mainly because it is the right thing to do, but it is not entirely altruistic. We do have a (non-religious) belief in ‘karma’. A sense of what goes around comes around. A fantasy that a good deed or a kindness will somehow furnish the same attitude toward us somewhere at some time in the future. The mechanism for this may, if we were pinned down to explain it, be imaginary, but it’s a nice way to live & it makes us feel good. And so, when some friends from Melbourne became aware of our dilemma, via my expression of uncertainty on Facebook, & offered us the use of their waterfront apartment on Cairns Esplanade for ‘as long as you need it’ it felt like ‘karma’. Like we were somehow reaping what we had sown …… somewhere. We almost couldn’t believe our luck. The 48 hour rollercoaster ride of uncertainty & worry was cut short by this act of kindness – it made all the difference. It gave us ‘breathing space’ & took the pressure off living outside in the forecast tropical storms off our shoulders. Our memories of this ‘rescue’ will always remain. Thank you again Jannette & Peter. In addition other friends, made via this very blog because they too have a Tvan (& a far more serious passion for birding than us) offered us somewhere to leave our Tvan rather than on the streets in Cairns. Thanks too, Lindsay & Keith.
The weight had only just been lifted from our shoulders when an email arrived. A reply from a farm owner who’s offer of a farm sit we had declined last year in favour of our ’sit’ in the Daintree. I had emailed her, a straw clutching exercise, the evening before we had been offered the lifeline in Cairns. “Of course I remember you” she wrote, “Come as soon as you wish, & stay as long as you need/want to”. Geez this karma thing is good! Here was an offer to live in a converted barn on 150 acres in a rural area about 120kms from where we were to ’sit the virus out’. We felt so lucky & thankful. The plan to go back up the Cape was by now dead in the water, had been for several days. The roadblocks preventing access to the Cape had been unambiguous. Here was a long term offer, an alternative to driving home, & about as virus-safe as one could be! Tucked away at the very end of a road, 30 minutes drive to the nearest town large enough to have a supermarkets, quiet, private & peaceful. Of course we said “Yes please”!
From feeling secure, to having our world turned upside down & back to feeling secure again (albeit with a bit more hassle than expected) lasted just under 3 days . We had time to do a last tidy up at the house, & to shop for supplies for the home coming owners who would be confined & unable to shop. We knew their time of arrival after they contacted us just before boarding the last flight leg of their travel – Sydney to Cairns , & left shortly before they arrived. A little later we did a ‘drive-by’ to ensure their car was there telling us they had got back ok, in order for us to know the animals would be ok before we drove to Cairns.
The few days at the beachfront apartment were welcome, almost feeling like a holiday, but we determined we would get ourselves out to the farm as soon as we could, fearing that to dally too long in the city could result in us getting caught up in a city lockdown for an indefinite period. Easter was not far off & we thought the authorities might block off the city exits to prevent residents from flouting the new restrictions. It didn’t pan out like that, but at the time it felt that it was entirely possible.
And so here we are ‘at home’ about 5kms from the settlement of Mutchilba, which has a primary school & a tiny general store/fuel servo/sub post office, 15kms from the slightly larger Dimbulah – a post office & 2 shops – a butcher & a hardware store, plus a pub, & 40kms west of the town of Mareeba. The farm is an ex Tobacco farm, surrounded on 3 sides by an open irrigation channel, as well as hills. Most farms which surround us are ex Tobacco, now cropping – Mango, Avocado, Pawpaw, Coffee & Sugar cane – all existing because of the irrigation Channel which runs out from Mareeba. The property was bought by the owners to be their retirement home. They run two cattle stations on remote country, each some six hours drive south of here, & six hours drive apart. The place has slowly been renovated & used as a temporary base whenever they need to come in to get supplies, so it didn’t look very lived in when we arrived, but it has all we need to be comfortable. There are 20 droughtmaster steers out in the paddock who pretty much look after themselves & 3 chooks to feed & water. Other than that mowing the grass around the house & sheds & providing security via our presence is all that is required of us. “Bring some veggie seeds out with you to grow” we were told, so we now have a small veggie patch in it’s early stages.
The list of birds seen here is slowly growing. Not the huge variety we have been lucky to experience elsewhere, but nevertheless an evolving list, & including two species we have not previously seen. The Pale-headed Rosella & the Nankeen Kestrel.
Blue Winged Kookaburras
Pale headed Rosellas
Blue faced Honeyeaters
Wedge tailed Eagles
Black faced Cuckoo Shrike
Bush Stone-curlews (heard every bloody night – pre dawn….. & more when the moon is full!)
Straw necked ibis’
Red Tailed Black Cockatoos
We have been here almost 6 weeks & still feel lucky. None of us know how long it will be before things get back to ‘normal’ or indeed what ’normal’ will look like. The days roll into each other even more than usual. We still hope we might get up the Cape next year, but who knows. It might depend upon a vaccine being developed & distributed first, but whilst that’s a hope we can’t be sure whether it will be possible. What the long term future here, or wherever you may be might become in the presence of the virus & no vaccination is hard to imagine. But for now we want to simply wish you & those you love a safe journey along this road to an unknown destination. A Michael Leunig cartoon comes to mind that hopefully he wont mind me sharing with you. It is one I have revisited many times over the past few decades because of it’s simple insightfulness at managing any adversity, & which is so obviously applicable to the situations we all find ourselves in currently.
To any of you who may have lost loved ones already to this bloody virus – we are sorry & wish we could just hold you tight & make it feel just a little easier.