12 November 2020 - 30 November 2020, 350 km
It's day 2 and I have a complete meltdown. "I can't do this! I want to quit, go and find a new truck driver." Looking at the side of the truck being ripped open like a sardine can, I get this sinking feeling in my stomach. I'm not a truck driver, I don't even like driving, period. And now I committed to driving a big (10m) horse truck around Australia after selling the farm, packing up our life and setting off on this epic journey. It's REAL now.
The plan is to ride all the way around Australia. This is such an enormous enterprise (or mammoth task as one friend called it), that it's hard to grasp. So we do what we always do with a big task, we take it one step at a time. Before we started we broke the journey up in different stages. The first stage was to get to Albany. The area is still familiar, not too far from home (even though we don't have one anymore) and we can start on a dedicated horse route, the Blackwood Stock Route. This makes a couple of things easier. One, the route is set. Two, there are dedicated campsites with water. Three, there are steel horse yards. After that route we can then follow the Nornalup - Denmark Heritage Rail Trail and the Torbay - Elleker Rail Trail.
The next stage is to travel from Albany to Esperance, where we will do some work on the truck and prepare to cross the Nullabor into SA. Then the plan is to travel up the East Coast roughly along the National Trail, around the top end and back south to where we started.
Right from the beginning, we said that if we don't enjoy it we will stop, if we find a place we really like we will stay longer, even work or buy property and otherwise keep going all the way.
So day 2, I want to stop!
The first hurdle
I'm nervous to drive the truck. But if we want to do this, I will have to get to the camp sites. The first campsite is in Manjimup, our home town, at the back of the Equestrian Grounds. A place I have been many times. We checked out the site before and even talked about how to drive in and where to park. So putting my big girls pants on, I left the place of our friend where we stayed after the farm settled and drove to the camp. The entrance is off a quiet gravel road, so not much traffic about. I got to the gate to open it and check out the grounds. There were sheep in the paddock and it had rained the night before, creating boggy ground around the campsite. I had to get in without letting the sheep out, drive through the boggy bit, park along the yards and close the gate. Lucky the sheep didn't like the truck and they wandered off. I drove in and felt the truck slip in the mud, but it kept going and I was able to park it on some dryer ground. Hearth pumping, I closed the gate, looked at the deep tire tracks in the mud and felt a little proud of myself that I had done it!
Erwin rode into camp after a good first day, and we spent a lovely evening feeling accomplished that we were actually doing what we set out to do.
In the morning Erwin set off with the horses to ride to the next camp along the route, Muir Camp. I cleaned the yards, packed up and checked how to get out. I needed to go around the shelter, avoid the boggy area, go wide after the toilet block and out the gate. So far, so good until I got halfway out the gate. I felt resistance from the truck going forward, which I thought was due to the mud, so I accelerated to avoid getting bogged. The truck bucked and jumped, but we got through onto the gravel road. I parked and went to close the gate .... it was on the ground. The side of the truck was completely cut open where I had hit the fence post and it had ripped the top hinge of the fence off!
Picking up the fence and securing it as best as I could so the sheep wouldn't get out, pure on adrenaline alone, I drove into town to the fuel station. At the fuel station, usually pretty quite, the fuel truck was delivering diesel and the other bay was taken up by 2 cars. I bypassed it and stopped in a parking bay across the road, where it all caught up with me and I broke down in tears...
I rang a friend who came to the rescue. She tried to get me to fuel up, but I just wasn't up for it. Together we drove to the next camp and waited for Erwin. Being a good husband, he took the bad news well. Probably more afraid of loosing his driver, he repaired most of the damage and encouraged me by explaining what went wrong (turned the truck too soon) and by saying to get better at it, I just needed to drive more. He, by the way, had a beautiful ride through that area, especially going through lots of water because of the recent rains. He did loose a boot in the mud though.
Keep on going on
A little reluctant to leave me, Erwin rode off in the morning to the next camp site at the back of the Quinninup Eco Park. Because of all the emotions of the day before, I did not really enjoy the beautiful campsite we were at, so I decided to stay a little longer. Although I did appreciate my magical surroundings, the longer I stayed the more nervous I got about driving the truck again. To get onto the main road into town, I had to drive back via the gravel road we came in on. From experience I knew we went down some pretty steep hills (in my eyes anyway) coming in, which I now had to drive up. My worst nightmare is getting up a hill, the engine stalling and me rolling backward down the hill again! Anyway, I did get up, although some gear changes didn't go like planned. I remember the whole way I kept telling myself "You can do this, you can do this." In town I picked a different fuel station, without roof and easy drive through bays, and fueled up. That is, after having to ask a guy across the road to unscrew the fuel cap which was so tight even he had a hard time getting it off!!
Eventually I arrived in Quinninup in the poring rain and set up camp next to the horse yards, instead of in the caravan park itself. At the end of the day Erwin and the horses arrived bone tired. The ride was about 33 km, but very hilly and the horses had a hard day. Knowing the country side, Erwin contemplated deviating from the route and taking a short cut, which in the end he didn't do, but wished he had. A good lesson for the long journey ahead; don't just follow set routes, still make your own adjustments to what you and your horses can handle on a particular day. The hot shower and beautiful meal at the Quinninup Tavern lifted our spirits, but we still needed an extra day to recover from all the emotions of our first 3 days on our journey.
Following the rest of the Stock Route we slowly got a little used to our new life. The Stock Route ends at Broke Inlet but after Shannon National Park there were no camps any more. We knew this and had picked a spot, at the end of Deeside Coast Road, to set up camp beforehand. We also knew that Deeside Coast Road is one, looooong gravel road. After a day of lots of gravel Giles his hind legs were pretty swollen. He and Tonto wore boots most of the time, and whereas Tonto was perfectly fine with his boots, Giles had trouble with chafing. We decided to stay a couple of days at our new camp to let Giles have a rest and try to reduce the swelling. Putting local cool clay on his hindlegs really helped him. We managed the get rid of the puffiness but kept having problems with chafing. Because of his build as a reining horse, Giles puts his hind legs very far underneath himself, having the top of the boots dig high into his pastern. During a long part of our journey we kept battling with this. We tried different brand and sizes of boots, bandaging, socks, gaiters, salves, going barefoot, and not riding, with mixed results.
Another consequence of having no permanent camp set up are the horse yards. For the first time we had to try our own set up. Giles and Tonto shared a big paddock before we started, so we yarded them together. Until..
6am in the morning we heard a big racket outside. Erwin jumped off the bed in the luton and was outside before I could register what was going on. Following him out we were met with one of our worst nightmares, Tonto ran through the yards, got stuck in them and had ripped open his hind legs. Lucky Giles was still in there. Erwin grabbed Giles and I caught Tonto who got loose and was walking away from the camp. He was shivering all over his body and had a panicked look in his eye. I calmed him down, while Erwin fixed the yards for Giles. One panel was completely ruined, but the rest survived. Inspecting Tonto's wounds, they luckily were only superficial. Well that woke us up fast!
We stayed a day extra for Tonto to recover and for us to come up with a better yarding solution.
It was only day 10 and we already had 2 horses injured. What else could we expect? What about a bush fire!
Leaving Broke Inlet Road going towards Walpole we came up with a route that Erwin was going to take and a possible campsite that I was going to check out. Erwin and the horses left camp in the morning and set off on a beautiful ride along some nice sandy tracks into new country. After packing up camp I drove towards Walpole. Along the way I started noticing that all the side roads into the bush Erwin was riding in where taped off, no access. The sky turned an eerie color and I knew there was a fire. It was a prescribed burn in the area Erwin would have to ride through. When I got to Walpole I tried to warn him and come up with another route and campsite. Unfortunately I could not reach him as he was out of phone range. I send him text messages and voice mails with the new plan. He did not respond.
One of the things we looked into before we started was how to keep track of each other. There are lots of options, but non really a 100% what we wanted. In the end we decided on the Garmin Inreach. It features and SOS button, but also has a tracker and location share function. As long as I have internet access, I can see where he is. Lucky I had internet access in Walpole. Erwin was still travelling the route we decide on before. He was past the new turn off point and kept going. I could see he was riding into the effected area, but I could not contact him! Anxiously I kept tracking his progress and was ready with the truck to go wherever I needed to meet him. In the mean time I arranged a set of new boots for Giles, filled the truck up with water, did some shopping and kept an eye on Erwin's progress. Early afternoon I saw he started backtracking, and then later on heading north! This was completely opposite to the new route I suggested. I had no idea where he was heading and how long the track would be for the horses. Usually we ride around 20 - 30 km per day depending on camp sites and how the horses are doing. This was getting close to the max we had ridden so far. Finally I get a phone call from Erwin, he was heading towards North Walpole road and look for a campsite there. I drove up from Walpole and we found a spot at a former school site. It was a little tight for the truck but I managed.
Erwin had a great ride through some spectacular country. The fire was almost out and he followed the outside boundary thinking he could get through. He ran into the fire authorities and they advised he needed to head north around the top of the burned area as it was still too dangerous to continue. Which he did, luckily not adding to many km's to his ride. We found a new camp that actually put us in a better position to resume our trail. It was also a good test of our communication and how to handle situations like this. Hopefully there will not be many, as I found it quite stressful!
Finding camp sites
We could hear a car stop and somebody getting out. Looking at each other we hoped they weren't coming to tell us we couldn't camp here and we had to move. We were parked up at the Tingledale Hall, out of the way, but still very visible from the road. I got out of the truck and a lady was getting out of her car. I thought the best defense is offense, so I'll get in first and said 'hi, are you the caretaker, is it ok for us to stay here for the night?" "Oh yes, no problem, I just came to warn you because we are concerned for the horses." "Oh?" "We have the property around the back here and they are going to shoot some kangaroos tonight. Will the horses be ok with that or will they spook?" Our horses are fine with that, so no worries there. It was so kind of this lady to come and warn us though. We are still getting used to travelling and prepare for or expect the worst. Isn't it sad that we actually have to get used to the kindness of people? Which would even be more demonstrated the day after.
Sometimes it's hard to settle on a definite camp as there are a couple of options, but we are not sure which would suit best. Consulting Google Earth we found a dam site in the bush and a camp further up the road. But first we were going to have lunch together at the Bow River Roadhouse and ask about our options there. At the roadhouse we saw the lady from the hall yesterday having a coffee. We said hello and asked about possible camp sites. The dam was on private property, a bluegum plantation with all gates locked and the campsite was Ayr Seilean which was abandoned, but we might be able to camp there. Turned out not to be the case when I drove there. I had driven into a small gravel road to get to the entrance which was locked so I had to turn the truck around on the little road, which was a big feat and left me drained and emotional. I called Erwin and we met up. Erwin had already done quite a few km's and he didn't want to go much further. He went ahead and checked out a bush track that a customer at the roadhouse had told us about (no luck) and I drove to the Kent River, were we knew there was a roadside stall with parking lot. This was our last resort. When I rocked up at the roadside stall, Jo the owner took one look at me and said: "I think you need a hug, how can I help?" After telling my story she invited us to stay with her in her paddock out the back. Saved! Later we learned her ex-partner had passed away that day! It should have been us comforting her.
From Kent River we were in an ideal location for Erwin to start riding the Nornalup - Denmark Heritage Rail Trail just up the road. Our first campsite was arranged at a private property not too far up the trail, which was great after the extra km's from the day before. Erwin took his time on the track and let the boys enjoy the green grass along the way. We were running low on hay and needed to find some soon.
In contrast to the Warren Blackwood Stock Route, the rail trail didn't have any overnight facilities. Not wanting to get caught out again without a camp I turned to Facebook. I was lucky enough to find somebody who sold small bales of hay, but didn't have any luck finding a camp site. The options of the Dog Exercise area, Pony Club Grounds, Ag School or private property all didn't turn out, after days of back and forth. So no camp again... I picked up the hay (which was an adventure in itself!) and some horse pellets in town and once again headed out to find a camp. Late afternoon I ended up at the Hay River. Apparently there was a big parking lot that we were recommended for camping. I missed it and ended up at the actual river, where I parked on the boat launch area. Erwin rode 39 km that day, the weather was miserable, he had to go through the river because a bridge was missing, over another 2 bridges, along the ocean and to finally arrive at camp. A long but rewarding day for Erwin, as the ride was beautiful.
The travelling was getting to me.
Getting out of the road at Hay River, I hit the verge with the back of the truck, which bent the whole frame around the tail light. I didn't see this until I got to Young River when I fueled up. Feeling down with again no set campsite, I waited for Erwin at the General Store to catch up and have some lunch. I spoke to the lady from the fuel station who told us the Bornholm Hall that we earmarked has a meeting on that night and Cosy Creek Camping would be full on the weekend with school leavers and it could get rowdy there. But she did suggest we could stay on the parking bay at the Oval, which we decided to do.
The next day we had a bit of luck as we stumbled onto the Torbay to Elleker Rail Trail. The trail provided a campsite and float parking area at Elleker. Having winged it for some time we really needed to have a break. I found a cottage that offered accommodation for us and the horses close to Albany. I rang: "Hi, I'm Monique and I would like to book Karriview Cottage for the weekend." "How did you get this number? I haven't been offering accommodation for 8 years. We are renovating the cottage at the moment." Oh no, not again, I thought. Talking to Anita she got interested in what we were doing and offered us the cottage anyway. So lucky!
We stayed 5 days. Helped a little around the cottage, enjoyed the luxury of having a shower and bath, ordered take away pizza, took the horses to the beach, borrowed electric bikes and went for a big ride around Albany and the coast and had fish and chips at the Yacht Club.
We did it. Stage 1 done. Was it what we expected? Yes and no. Before going on a trip you try to imagine everything that can happen and to be prepared for any possibility. Living through it is a different story. When you feel tired, or dirty, anxious and emotional, things become real. If you look around at the horses, landscape or people along the way, there is beauty and generosity you can't imagine. There is a bond that starts growing and deepening every day, with the horses, us as a couple and within yourself. That's why we are doing this.
So yes, mission complete. Rested and recharged ready for the next Stage, onward toward Esperance.