Back To The Modern World

This is not going to be an easy post to write, but write it I must. 

Moments before we left our home in the rainforest for the last time.

Thank you to those of you who have written to us recently, enquiring why we had not posted anything since last February & asking if we were OK, it is your enquiries which have pushed me to writing what I have been putting off. 

Two things have made writing difficult. Health stuff & the secret we are bursting to share but cannot just yet. I will explain, but first let me return to where I left off last time, in the Iron Range Rainforest, Cape York. 

We loved being there, 12 months in surroundings which few get the chance to experience in such depth. It was wonderful, but 12 months is finite & it was always going to come to an end.  The date for leaving was always going to be dependent upon the Wet Season, more specifically upon when river levels dropped sufficiently for us to be able to drive out. After a ‘standard’ Cape York trip to the tip stretched out to two years on the Cape , I think it’s fair to say that the Cape well & truly got into our blood.

Weather is of course unpredictable & a couple of weeks before our hoped for leaving date on the 8th May rain brought water levels in the the Pascoe & Wenlock Rivers up after they had been slowly dropping for a while. These crossings were some 60+ kms south of us, & we relied on word of mouth from folk in Lockhart River Community in addition to some online resources to determine what was going on. 

For a week we had been packing, putting 12 months worth of stuff back into the car (& Tvan which had been rescued from the clutches of jungle creepers & geckoes). The Tarp we had covered it with had done a good job, both of protecting the Tvan’s exterior & collecting an interesting assortment of rainforest creatures.

There had been some worry through our final couple of months. MrsTea had discovered some growths on the rear of her tongue & the Royal Flying doctor at the Lockhart Clinic had referred her to the ENT specialists at Cairns Base Hospital, an 800km flight away. The doctor had expected the referral to be a category1, meaning MrsTea should be seen within a max of 30 days. The concern of course was that it was cancer. A month passed & the hospital still hadn’t contacted us (& in fact still haven’t). We didn’t know how long it might be before she could be seen once we were back in Victoria possibly months, so we were able to arrange an appointment at a private ENT service in Cairns for 3 days before we were due to leave. Queensland Health Dept through the Lockhart Clinic booked & covered the cost of the return flight. They were excellent. We paid for overnight accommodation & the consultation fees. The appointment was to be a morning one, the day after she flew down & she would fly back to Lockhart River that afternoon.

On the morning of the consultation, in the middle of an online video call with each other whilst MrsTea was having breakfast at her motel I received a text message from The ENT clinic to inform us there would be no consultation as the specialist had called in sick!

By the time I collected MrsTea from the Lockhart airstrip late that afternoon she’d had a very long & emotional day, but was buoyed by my news that since I had spoken to her in the morning I had found a specialist back home in Ballarat, had the clinic send a referral to them & had arranged an appointment for a few days after we expected to be back home. Phew!

We also had a scheduled commitment to meet further south, about half way home, so similar to a year earlier, once again we gleaned what we could about water depths knowing we absolutely did not wish to drive through 800mm+ again, whilst also knowing if we waited too long it could rain again & prevent us making our appointment. We had a few days grace, but there was a deadline.

In the end we drove out on 11th May & crossed the Pascoe at a bit over 610mm.  At that depth it was still quite daunting, out there alone with no-one to help & definitely no phone signal if we became stuck in drifted sand mid stream. We had our satphone ready & waiting just in case. 

Looking at the width of water on the crossing I wondered how on earth I had managed it a year earlier when it was deeper & wider! I had even sent MrsTea walking across it to check on the first occasion. Now she wouldn’t even consider it since we had learned that this stretch of the river was the territory of a largish croc. Tales of someone getting stuck in the middle & climbing onto the roof of his car with the croc circling & showing interest in him had been shared with us at Lockhart!  As we approached the crossing, off to our right we could see the very top of a drowned 4wd just poking above the surface at a crazy angle. Someone had been washed off the crossing weeks earlier, possibly the chap who’d had a close encounter with the croc! 

We knew two cars had crossed on the 8th May when the water was still at around 1 metre depth, we had intended to go with them, but chickened out because of the depth. They had ended up being towed across by a grader on the southern side. When we arrived there was no grader, & no-one else there. We had met a single chap in a Toyota Prado who had arrived at the waters edge, had a look & decided not to risk it. He was returning to Lockhart & we stopped to speak to him when our paths crossed a few kms before the river. His decision was sensible. His car was lower & had no snorkel. It was also one of only two cars we saw on the road that day. Another headed north we met shortly after crossing the Pascoe whom we stopped to offer them advice about the crossing (as one does in remote areas). 

We had already crossed the Claudie River 3 times, plus Browns Creek & Garraway Creek. These had all been a bit deeper than we had seen them previously, but were quite manageable & had proved reassuring to me given that we had not undertaken any water crossings since I had become temporarily stuck in one of the Claudie crossings  earlier in the Wet Season, & had water inside the car. There had been a *lot* of work to fully dry out the cab & I had been over the car with a ‘fine tooth comb’ looking for any possible points of water ingress & sealed up all I could. The thought of driving 5000kms over 2 or 3 weeks with wet stinky carpet underfelt was not appealing, & we knew that the drying out period once the cab was stripped was a week to 10 days utilising electric fans. Time & equipment we didn’t now have. Those 5 creek crossings before we reached the Pascoe were deep enough to reassure me that the car was now watertight again. 

The Pascoe’s flow in the middle looked moderately fast, & with polarised sunnies I could make out where the drifted sand banks had built up. The sand couldn’t be avoided but it helped to have a rough plan to avoid the worst of it. Once in the car with the bonnet in front of us we couldn’t see the sand, but we could definitely feel it, sucking us down like boggy grabbing hands. 1st gear low ratio & as slow as we could manage without risking stalling, whilst maintaining sufficient speed to keep the necessary bow wave ahead of the tarp I had hung from the bull bar . You can see in the video below that at one point the car changes from a straight ahead line to a more diagonal line heading into the flow. At the time it was a ‘butt clenching moment’, I thought the Tvan behind us had started to float & was pulling us off line. In hindsight it wasn’t that. I had just come out of some sand, having been turning the steering wheel from lock to lock to gain traction & the front axle diff lock was pulling us straight ahead in the direction the wheels were facing when they got more traction on the concrete. 

We reached the southern side of the water with great relief, knowing we had got through the main impediment unscathed. 

The Wenlock crossing about 15kms further on turned out to be far less daunting, shallower & shorter.  We waited at the water’s edge for quite some time though, having found both front brakes exceptionally hot. Water dribbled onto the wheel hubs hissed & spluttered instantly. We worried about the cause & once across the river stopped frequently to check wheel hub temperatures until we reached our overnight stop at the Hann River campground. Our plan had been to wait until we reached a phone signal at Laura, some 70kms south of Hann River to phone ahead to Mareeba to ‘Mareeba Heavy Diesel’ who had worked on our car once before. However the brakes didn’t once get hot again so the plan wasn’t needed. Just as well as we realised somewhere between Hann River & Laura that it was a Sunday & we would have been out of luck in regard to contacting anyone. 

Cattle were a common on the Cape roads. Here one is getting a drink from a small water crossing along with a dingo.
Both moved casually aside to let us pass.

We think probably the deep sand of the Pascoe had jammed the brakes making them not release fully, & the Wenlock had cleaned them out. We monitored brake temp regularly all the way home to Victoria, with no further problem.

Hann River was a nice place to stay at, somewhere we would have liked to stay longer & to explore a bit more were it not for the schedule we had to keep. But it was almost nightfall by the time we got there, so we ate prawns we had got ‘off the boat’ in Lockhart with some hot chips from the Hann River Kiosk, with a Kitkat chaser for dessert….then bed, ready for an early start next morning.  The next few days were similar, long days of driving, overnight stop & repeat.  By the end of the second day we had reached Mareeba. We stopped for a few supplies & I briefly thought there was something else wrong with the car until I realised that the strange noise I was hearing was not us, it was other traffic in the town, not a sound we’d heard for 2 years ….. and the smell too. Not something most would notice unless like us you had been away from traffic for a lengthy period of time. 

Great view. One more set of hills to cross to reach the ‘civilisation’ of Mt Molloy & Mareeba.
Apologies for the photo’s content. If there were an IQ test for access to the Cape it might prevent this sort of moronic & racist graffiti.

Re-entering a world with white lines, signs, noise ,street lights, traffic lights, roundabouts, pedestrian crossings, traffic etc & what seemed like a lot of people was far less traumatic that I had imagined it might be. I just slotted right back into driving on one side of the road only & following all the road rules, although I still wasn’t keen on taking the shorter & busier coastal route south. It helped that Mareeba was very familiar to us. 

After a night at a free camp between Mareeba & Atherton we left early to cross the tablelands with a view to travelling southward on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, an opportunity to check out some places we hadn’t been to before & moreso to drive on uncrowded roads. Just a few kms from camp an alarm in the car started screaming at me with the exhaust gas temperature gauge telling me something was terribly amiss! As soon as my contracted stomach relaxed enough to let me think clearly I determined the most obvious reason was unlikely to be a calamitous mechanical problem, but rather a sensor problem. 

Sure enough my hunch was correct. The EGT sensor screwed into the exhaust had come loose. The first time since I fitted it some 10 years earlier!  Spanners out by the side of the road in Malanda & it was fixed in a few minutes. That was the last vehicular hiccup of the journey. But there were more hiccups to come before we reached home still some 4000kms away. 

The southern part of the Atherton Tablelands put the Patrol through it’s paces with several climbs, some quite tight & twisty,  up to 1200 metres which it managed well, but it was nice to relax a bit as we dropped down into the more open & relatively flat country to the south west. Later that afternoon as we were getting closer to a spot we thought we might camp at for the night we passed a river (Fletcher Creek) with possibly hundreds of caravans & motorhomes camping & folk waving to us as we passed. It was obviously a popular grey nomad site & the waves were inviting us. We waved back & smiled, but our goal was what we thought might be a nicer spot a little further on, but we decided that if our intended spot was not that great we’d head back to the wavers for the night. As it turned out ’Big Bend’ on the Burdekin River was our best camp of the journey. Another place we would be happy to return to & stay for longer. To reach it we had to cross a smaller river, grinning as we did whilst remarking “Pah, we crossed the Pascoe, this is nuthin’!” & then needed 4wd & high clearance to negotiate some tight sandy tracks which we walked first just to be sure.  Nevertheless it was this smaller river & the tracks which ensured we had a beautiful spot, surrounded by more wallabies than you could poke a stick at, & no people. Just the way we like it. Silence (other than the howling of a local dingo pack nearby in the middle of the night & later a dawn chorus of birds. 

A lovely spot for the night at Big Bend
One of our many neighbours.

We passed through Charters Towers, first time we had been there. It looked interesting, very well kept country town with a well known private boarding school servicing many young people from outback stations further west. No time for stopping & sightseeing. Onward ever onward. On a mission. Down through Clermont, dicing it with all the mining traffic in foggy & wet weather, on sealed roads which were rougher than many of the dirt roads we had been accustomed to up on the Cape, to camp for the night at a large gravel pit. That description doesn’t sound very salubrious, but in fact it was very pleasant, a large site allowing us & half a dozen other rigs to camp in private little spots out of sight of each other & out of sight of the road. Camping out of sight of the road is our primary rule of thumb when selecting roadside camping areas. We are not paranoid, but it definitely feels safer to be ‘out of sight’.

Driving through Charters Towers

On through Emerald, another mining town, & us back to somewhere we had been before. From here we headed eastward & south again. Somewhere along that road was a something we had not encountered anywhere else. A roadside trivia competition!  A road sign with a question on it related to the area. A number of kilometres further on, shortly after we’d given up on getting the answer, another sign with the answer on it & a notice suggesting we keep a look out for the next question. We quite enjoyed it & were sorry when the questions ceased after about 50 or 60kms. We think it was a strategy for helping folk to stay alert.  Quite innovative. The previous day’s rain had cleared before we’d set up in the gravel pit, but had restarted during the night. Our first wet pack up in a long time had us talking about the reason for our appointment just a few days away . The rain stayed with us most of the day, but whilst the clouds remained the wet stuff stopped not long before we did. That night we had a roast dinner, a couple of beers & hot showers, whilst camped  in the paddock alongside a pub in the small settlement of Mulgildie. It was a very pleasant night with friendly folk. Never more than 4 or 5 folk in the pub (including us), and we were treated like locals. Folk would call in with ‘presents’ to drop off to be shared with others in the small community, & we were included. fruit & veg, including a bakers tray piled high with just picked strawberries. 

That night we reached the home of old friends who live in the even smaller settlement of Degilbo, where we relaxed & enjoyed each others company for 3 nights. A welcome rest from long days at the wheel which to be honest we weren’t enjoying too much. Just driving to get somewhere, without much in the way of stopping & exploring is not our usual style. It was the 16th May & we had covered around 2300kms since we left the rainforest on the 11th. At a younger age we would have driven faster & longer, at our age, & the speed we were driving on ‘back roads’ this equated to long days & the rest was very welcome. By now the temperatures were dropping at night times & we had unpacked the doona to sleep under (for the first time in 2 years). The wood stove in our friend’s house helped in the mornings until the sun warmed things up again. I had begun to feel stiff & achey & put this down to the cold & we talked about how awful it would be once home in Ballarat, renowned for it’s winter coldness which would make Degilbo seem positively tropical.The thought of wearing multi layers of clothes & arthritic pain were not something to look forward too. 

From Degilbo to Maleny was a short days drive, & here we were at what for us was an exciting & important appointment. 

Many readers will know that at times we have talked about changing from our Patrol & Tvan to a single vehicle which can provide us with a few extra comforts whilst still enabling us to travel in the way we have come to love. An off road truck based camper with indoor dining & kitchen. We’ve been looking for years & had a clear picture of what we wanted, & have been unwilling to compromise on the basics ie. excellent off road capabilities & sufficient storage to allow for extended periods off grid. The Patrol & Tvan has enabled us to stay off grid for up to 8 weeks at a time between resupplying & that ability is not something we were prepared to compromise on.  There are any number of truck based motorhomes out there, but by & large they are mostly compromised by being too long to take on some the tracks we’ve been on, or are as short as we want (max 6 metres) but with poptops (less storage) & with lesser 4wd capability than the Patrol & Tvan. We don’t want the harsh ride of a converted Japanese delivery truck. We like a vehicle that is much more capable than we are – it’s very reassuring when well off the beaten track alone. Regular readers will know we are not gung ho ’she’ll be right mate’ 4×4 drivers, & that generally if there is an easier path we’ll take it, but we do like to have a vehicle we can feel confident in if & when we come across a challenging obstacle on our route to somewhere. 

Finding the right vehicle (for us) was like looking for a needle in a haystack. We were beginning to think that when we eventually got home to Victoria we would have to start looking in earnest & be prepared to make compromises. This wouldn’t be great, but after 6 years & now both in our mid sixties canvas & zips with a daily set up whilst still manageable was wearing thin despite what remains undoubtedly the quickest & most flexible setup of any off road camper trailer. We knew it would be time to move on to a bit more comfort & convenience, and also to a setup which we could enjoy travelling & camping in colder southern climates.  A travelling ‘home’ which would enable us to to take on sitting or caretaking roles anywhere in the country at any time of the year regardless of whether accomodation was offered or not. Essentially providing us with much greater flexibility climate wise. 

Last November (2022) such a vehicle came onto our radar, not perfect, but ticking most of our boxes & with some extras we hadn’t considered, but which would be very nice to have. It was for sale, but had not yet been placed on the open market. We spent from November through to May talking to the owners about the vehicle & our potential purchase of it, even though we were unable to actually see it until after we had left the rainforest. Previously we had a failed purchase which had involved a number of air flights & a lot of decision making pressure in a short space of time. It was not a process I enjoyed & we were keen not to repeat this, plus we had made a commitment to the owners of the rainforest property to be there. The vehicle owners live in Maleny & that was what we were there to see, before they took it elsewhere for a bit of work to be done to it. We arrived a week before their deadline. The owners were 5 star hosts, & we stayed for 3 nights, sleeping in the vehicle (in very cold weather but in complete comfort).

All of our communication prior to this had been via email, but nothing beats face to face. It was a great visit & we loved the vehicle as much as we hoped we would & a deal was struck & hands shaken.

I’ll remain coy about saying any more about the vehicle for now though. It’s a complex sales process with a lot of trust involved, aided by both our face to face meeting, & by the fact that they & us have a longstanding mutual friend whom we all trust completely. Suffice it to say that that we are not expecting to actually have the vehicle until the end of 2023 , possible early 2024.  I certainly hope that to share all the details of the vehicle which we expect to be our travelling home until such time as we cannot travel any longer in a future post not too long away. . 

The cold weather at Maleny was affecting me quite badly, or so I thought. Many joints feeling stiffer & hurting – it didnt bode well for winter in Ballarat. 

After leaving Maleny we visited other friends, an overnight visit, where my physical woes continued despite staying in a warm house, I felt lousy & was probably a poor guest.  

Over the following days my condition deteriorated to the extent that by the time we had crossed into New South Wales I was finding driving very difficult. I could no longer lift my outstretched arms more than 30 degrees from my waist, my wrists were very painful & I could only move my head about 10 degrees from side to side. I could lift my arms to hold the bottom of the steering wheel by keeping my elbows tight against my body, & MrsTea became my eyes at every junction as I was unable to turn enough to look myself.  

We couldn’t miss that we were in NSW Cotton country.

We headed diagonally south west from Maleny & continued this direction once across the NSW border, sticking to country roads & occasional small country towns, all with minimal traffic, eventually crossing the Murray river into Victoria at Echuca Moama after several days.  From there it was a few hours drive to home. 

Arriving back in Ballarat it was as friends had described it. “Much busier & you’ll hardly recognise it”.  Both true. In 5 years housing estates have multiplied, new roads, changed junctions etc. We needed to use the GPS navigator to find our way home, having forgotten the names of many streets. Stopping at a new  shopping precinct on the way out of town to our place, I had just turned the ignition off, & a familiar face knocked on the window. Cameron had recognised the car, aided by the fact that he had only recently discovered this blog. He was the chap who took me out in 4wd’ing in his car to practice what I’d learned on a 4wd course with a local club before we started our travels. And here we were in what seemed like a very unfamiliar location. It was so nice to be noticed & remembered. 

So we’ve now been home around 4 months. We had had the power put on before we got back, & it was suprisingly easy  to set up  in our home-base. Turn on the gas for the instant water heater, reconnect the water tanks & light the fire. Everything just as we left it, in large part down to our good friend Jack who not only kept an eye on the place whilst we were away, but also gave our living quarters a good clean prior to our arrival 

The Ballarat winter has been remarkably mild, a few frosts, but nothing like as awful as we had expected. In that respect we’ve been very lucky, & our quarters are very warm & cosy.  

MrsTea saw the ENT specialist & thankfully that turned out ok, not cancer, and not anything of great concern

Unfortunately my physical woes have continued, adding rheumatic like swelling in various parts of my body, not all at the same time but it has been a ‘moving feast of pain’ which has slowed me down considerably & put me onto a medical ‘merry go round’. After seeing an unknown GP at one those modern mega clinics who diagnosed Polymyalgia Rheumatica (PMR) I thankfully rediscovered my old GP – a rarity these days – single GP practice, thorough, never rushed & always bulk billed. And someone easy to talk to. The PMR diagnosis came with a lifetime sentence of steroid use. Thankfully Rod thought differently. We are yet to get a definitive diagnosis, but it appears to be either a ‘Reactive arthritis/Arthralgia’ resulting from some unknown tropical infection or more likely an EIM (Extra Intestinal Manifestation) associated wth my Crohns Disease. I hadn’t known that such things existed, but if it is that is an autoimmune thing. Whilst that may not sound great, it is actually ‘promising’. The EIM ‘Peripheral Arthritis/Arthralgia mimics Rheumatoid arthritis in many ways, but is not degenerative. So the current ‘flare up’ could be a one-off, or it could be something that comes & goes over time, but when it’s not ‘flaring’ the affected joints return to normal. Unlike Rheumatoid arthritis.  

In between the demands of the medical merry go round  (Multiple X Rays & Ultrasounds, frequent blood tests, US guided Steroid injection, Physiotherapy, Hand therapy, & still to come appointments with Gastroenterologist & Rheumatologist, & to cap it off the dentists too for a tooth extraction) I have good days & bad days, but there has been a fair bit of improvement overall. I now have pretty much full arm movement again & the swellings & pain seems to be slowly reducing.  At the height of these problems we had to make a decision about the new vehicle. To make a part payment to confirm the deal. We knew we wanted to, but at that time I would have been completely unable to climb up into it’s driving cab, let alone drive it long distances, so we wondered if going ahead was wise. Our life for the next 10 years or more (hopefully) was tied up in this decision & we decided that despite the risk of buying something we couldn’t use, an expensive ‘white elephant, the thought of not buying it & then later wishing we had would be worse. Either way a gamble. With my condition improving we still think we made the right decision to go ahead. If down the track I experience further flare ups whilst ‘on the road’ we will just have to stay put for a while if I am unable to drive. Staying in one place for an extended period in the vehicle wont be difficult, at least no more difficult than being at home & we both know where we would rather be.

On better days I have been beavering away at refurbishing the car & the Tvan in preparation for putting them up for sale. 

The Tvan is finished & is looking very shiny, minus the desert’s red patina & with the bent battle scars replaced & faded painted parts repainted.  As good as new, not bad after 5 years in deserts & the tropics. 

Inside the Patrol’s canopy has been refurbished, the humidity of the tropics had affected some of the painted ply I used when building it, making it mouldy & delaminating it. I’ve replaced it with what I should have used in the first place – white aluminium composite panel. The fridge which ceased working just four days short of home has a new life with a new printed circuit board (we used ice in it from Brewarrina to home -was surprisingly effective), & a tap which failed at the same time has been replaced. A bent mudguard from the Cape’s Old Coach Road has been straightened & all it needs now is a good cut & polish on the outside, a new windscreen & the sub tank fuel tank operation to be working again (suspect a failed float sensor in the sub tank) – those last two things will be farmed out to professionals.

We also need to buy a small car for getting around locally before we sell the Patrol . Thinking a Suzuki Grand Vitara might suit the bill. 

So there you have it for those wondering why there hasn’t been any new posts for a while.  The next post will likely be an ad for the Patrol & Tvan which we are hoping to sell together as a ready to go, everything included, remote area touring outfit. We can separate them though as the Patrol is set up for touring without the Tvan, albeit with less comfort & less storage than the combination. 

Fingers crossed that it wont be too long before we can spill the beans on the new vehicle (once it is registered in our name). We are already planning a shakedown trip in it to familiarise ourselves with it. A trip along the length of the Murray. A relaxed trip without being too remote whilst we learn to trust it. The Patrol, without doubt has, of all the vehicles I’ve ever owned, been the one I have trusted the most, but it takes a while to establish that sort of trust in any vehicle.