Monday, July 29, 2013

Clear as mud... (and Super Exciting Amazing News #3)

to feel isolated when you live 110 kilometres from the closest small town – or even if you live in those small towns. It’s true that things like phones and Facebook combat the loneliness, solitude and other mental aspects of isolation. But as one of the 11percent of Australians who don’t live in “urban areas” - that’s cities and towns of more than 1,000 people, according to ABS - it’s still reality to sometimes feel as if you are out of sight, out of mind, and out of touch.

Of all the various issues surrounding living on a relatively remote sheep station, when ST and I first moved to Burragan I was most constantly anxious about the possibility of being “rained in.” There’s about 35 kilometres, give or take, of dirt road between the Burragan house and a bitumen highway, and although 35km isn’t much in the scheme of things, the thing about dirt is that when it rains it turns to mud. And the thing about mud is that it’s pretty much impenetrable by man… or woman. So when it rains you either get out quick (not always an option), or bunker down at home in preparation for a period of house and shed-bound jobs.

ST always alleviated my fear by telling me that if we ever simply had to get out after rain, we could take the motorbike cross-paddock to the highway. Over time my anxiety eased as I became used to this plan, and when people asked what happened when we were rained in, I simply answered, “We really could get out on the motorbike, across the paddock, if we needed to.”

In my mind this was acceptable. I would never be totally trapped. Obviously I hadn’t given it much further thought. You know, about, like, exactly what happens when we get to the highway and only have a motorbike to travel on and are still 80 kilometres from the closest town? Yeah, that bit… hmmm… interesting you bring that up… I hadn’t really thought about that bit.

So it was part traumatic and part wild adventure last month when we had 50 millimetres (that’s 2 inches for the oldies out there) of rain overnight and I was due to catch a flight out of Broken Hill. Then the true physical issues behind the motorbike-cross-country plan finally became clear… much clearer than mud – yet still with the exact same colour, consistency, and chemical structure. So yeah, pretty much as clear as mud – except actually clear. Are you with me?

I was due to catch this flight to Sydney because of my #3 Super Exciting Amazing News that I’ve been busting to tell you about for months now. I’ve been chosen as a 2013 Young Farming Champion to represent the wool industry as part of the Art4Agriculture and Archibull Prize programs! (Insert claps, cheers and wolf whistles here!!) If you haven’t heard of this, then let me explain…

Art4Agriculture is the brain child of Illawarra based dairy farmer Lynne Strong. At its heart Art4Ag aims to bridge the divides between food and fibre producers and consumers, through awareness and participation. Just one aspect of the program is the Archibull Prize, where participating schools are provided with a life-size fibreglass cow statue to decorate in the theme of a particular primary industry (think cotton, wool, beef, dairy etc). The Archibulls, along with blogs and video projects, are then entered in the annual Archibull Prize competition against all the other schools. Part of the program – and this is where I come in - is to train up young farmers as champions for their industry, and partner each school with its own Young Farming Champion to help inspire their themed Archibull entry, but also to teach students all about how fun, innovating and exciting Australian agriculture is as a whole. Doesn’t it sound great!!??

So, there I was, at home, due to catch this flight to Sydney for my very first meet and greet with this year’s fellow Young Farming Champions (there’s a few of us – check us out HERE) and our initial training workshop. We’d had a little bit of forecast rain the day before and the usual protocol here, when no more rain is forecast for the immediate future, is to hope for some warm and windy weather to dry out the roads. With 24 hours still to go before I was due to leave for my 4pm flight from Broken Hill, we decided to enact this kind of watch and wait plan. And while I went to bed hoping for a windy night to harden up the muddy track to the highway, ST, I’m sure, was secretly hoping for a heavy 5inch downpour to fill our drying dams.

As I lay in bed I heard the rains tumble down. In June.

Fifty-millimetres had fallen by the time we woke. And it wasn’t warm and windy and dry. It was cold and still and wet. ST was delighted. I was anxious… and a little bit peeved. And feeling extremely traitorous for not being delighted.

But everything would be OK, because we could just push out through the paddock on the motorbike, right? Right. Except, then what? Our bikes are only ever used on the property, so they’re not registered for use on main roads. It would be illegal, not to mention highly dangerous given the amount of fuel (and my luggage) we’d need to strap on for the trip, and too slow going anyway, to take the motorbike all the way to Town. And asking a friend for a casual old lift to the airport is just a fraction more than your average favour when the airport is 330km away.

Plan C? ST braved the freezing rain on his motorbike to check the state of all our roads, to see if there was any possible way of me making it out to the highway in the car. Now that is love; having one billion other things to do and dropping everything, to ride 70km through mud and slush, in awful weather, all to make his new wife hap… Hang on a minute – it has just come to me that all this time I thought he was doing something super-sweet, when really maybe that’s just how much he really, really wanted to get rid of me for a few days!? Hmmmm…

Anyway, ST returned two hours later bearing bad news. The road turned to soup closer to the highway and it was more than likely any attempt to escape by car would end with me stuck not only a long way from the airport, but also a long way from the house.

Plan D? Call all the neighbours for a road report on all possible access points through their properties – perhaps I could make it the back way? But as I rang around the neighbours, the time was a-ticking. With at least three and a half hours of travel between Burragan and Broken Hill I was going to have to leave soon, or risk missing the flight altogether. Of course, the neighbours were just was rained in as we were…

Plan E? Helicopter? Ours was still at the mechanic, being serviced. Damn! (Hahaha, I wish!)

Plan F? As it slipped passed midday and I lost my window of opportunity to reach the departure gate in time for take-off, I was left with no other option but to call the Art4Ag crew in Sydney and apologise in advance for missing my flight. I disappointedly began dialling.

Plan G? Plan H? Plan I, Plan J, PlanKPlanLPlanPlanPlanlanananannnnnnnnnaaaarrrggghhh!!! Plan Z?

There was ONE other option ST and I could come up with. Every night a bus stops at the local roadhouse on the highway about 50km away, journeying from Sydney to Broken Hill. If my flight could be changed to the following day, there was a possibility I could somehow catch that bus and make it to Broken Hill, stop over at a friend’s place for the night and be at the airport early the next morning.

It was going to be risky, first relying on the possibility of changing the flight at such late notice, then relying on the availability of seats on the bus, then being able to make it all the way to the highway on the quad bike – with my luggage – without being covered in mud by the end of it, and then the dilemma of making it a further 15km on the highway to the roadhouse, given the aforementioned dangers and illegalities of riding on the road. It would be a battle of determination and strength, a test of will and cross-country quad riding skills, a trial of friendship and mud-proof luggage wrapping abilities, a journey of epic proportions, a story of courage and undying lo… Oh, have I gone too far?

Following the all clear for the flight to be changed with the proof of road closures from the Road Traffic Authority (easy done!), I rang the bus company to see if they could make an exception for me and stop at our turn off on the highway. They said no. I didn’t argue the point. Instead, I calmly hung up and I may, or may not, (but most likely may) have cried at this point. It was beginning to look like the universe was trying to tell me something, and that I was not supposed to make it to Sydney.

But I had one final card up my sleeve, or more accurately, business card stuck to my fridge door. I phoned the owner of the local roadhouse and begged for a favour. If she wasn’t too busy, if it was not too much trouble, only if she had the time, would she please, pretty, pretty please be able to meet me at our turn off at sundown and take me back to the roadhouse in time to catch the bus? I’m fairly certain I heard angels singing in the background as she said yes.

And so ST and I prepared for battle, fuelling up the quad, donning 70 million layers of winter clothes, and wrapping my luggage in plastic bags, before setting off through the paddocks, highway headed.

True to her word, the lovely roadhouse owner ferried me to the warmth of the roadhouse, where she fed me delicious cappuccinos and hot chips as I waited for the bus for two hours.

And then I sat on the bus for three and a half hours while my feet numbed from the cold, arriving in Broken Hill around midnight.

And then I sat in the airport for three hours the next morning while my flight was delayed and eventually diverted via a longer route.

Oh Sydney, you tried to avoid me, but ain’t nobody gonn’ stop me! You can attempt to delay me for approximately 24 hours, but you will never evade me completely! I showed you!

So I eventually made it to Sydney, and loved my first training weekend alongside a fantastic group of fellow Young Farming Champions. I am really looking forward to my time with them and in schools across the country.

This is an opportunity I am embracing with both hands, not only to excite urban audiences about Australian agriculture, but also to break down the barriers between those who grow our nation’s food and fibre and those who eat and wear it…

To traverse that gulf, between you and I…

And to fade that feeling of isolation, for the 11percent. It can take us a little longer to make it to where the action’s at, but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying hard to get there.

I anticipate many obstacles along the way: rain, muddy roads, missed flights, inflexible bus company policies… But in the immortal words of Unique II (because I think we can all agree the original Matthew Wilder version is just a little too weird), “Ain’t nothing gonna break my stride.” And I warn you, I will take the motorbike cross-country through the mud, if it comes to that.

Are we clear?

Editor’s Note: Yes, I am aware the next line of the song is, “Nobody’s gonna slow me down,” and that that contradicts my previous statements about delays/interruptions/lags/minor hold ups etc… But for the sake of me really needing to end this blog, can we allow some poetic licence and let it slide?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dear Wilcannia...

Dear Wilcannia,

I had the sweetest experience of you last week.

Some long term medical issues had me doing the 110km dash to your hospital for my regular blood test (Don’t worry folks, I’m fine!). Usually I’ve been going to the Cobar pathology (400km return drive) for this, but I had visitors this week and didn’t want to miss too much fun at Burragan, so the Wilcannia hospital said it had an employee driving west to Broken Hill on this particular day who would kindly take my blood all the way to their pathology instead. Now that’s service!

Rocking up to the nurses’ station I was greeted by SIX smiling faces… two nurses, two third year medical students on their rural rotation from University of Sydney, and two nursing students. Like many rural hospitals, there is no full time doctor in Wilcannia. Instead the hospital is serviced by fly-in fly-out clinics from the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) three days a week, while local nurses hold down the fort the rest of the time, 24 hours a day.

One of the med students was keen to have a go at taking my blood, so I offered up my best veins for her to drain. I’m quite the regular pathology goer these days so although I do stare intently at the opposite wall, make awkward conversation, and try to drift off to my happy place, I am ultimately at ease with the process and was happy for the med student to use me for practice.

Unfortunately my veins weren’t cooperating as well as usual, so the local nurse came to the rescue. Half way through draining my other arm she tells me, “I’m your neighbour actually.” Suffice to say I was surprised. But yes, it turned out she lived “just down the road” from me and although we’d never met in my 2.5 years at Burragan, she recognised the name and address on my pathology form and knew who I was. “You’re not like what I imagined you to be,” she said honestly.

“Oh!” I replied taken aback, “What did you imagine me to be like?”

“I’m not sure really. You’re a journalist, aren’t you?” she queried.

Was that what she’d imagined me to be like? Some stereotypical, preconceived notion of a journalist? What is that stereotype anyway… that we’re all blood-sucking, story chasing, pompous, alcoholics? I’d like to think only one of those descriptions fits me… and it’s the only one involving scotch whisky.

“Well, yes,” I said, “but I don’t do a whole lot of that these days. Mostly I’m just out in the paddock with ST.”

“LS (another mutual neighbour) tells me you’re a writer. She speaks very highly of you,” she continues.

And as the conversation went on I realised there’s a lot to be said about reputations in rural communities. Obviously I’ve gained myself a bit of a preconceived persona which walks into the room ahead of me. I’m sure some people assume that persona is anything from naive and bitchy to… well… I can’t come up with any nice words right now without also sounding pompous, but feel free to add your own in here.

But like anyone, the truth is the real me probably lies somewhere in between. I’m wouldn’t say I’m naive, but I’m not afraid to admit when I don’t know or understand something. I don’t go out of my way to be a bitch, but like most women I sure know how to turn it on when I want to. I’m not out to get anyone, not out to be the new person in town who barges in trying to change things, not out to big note myself, or pretend that I’m the most hard done by woman in the world. I’m well aware there are people out there living in far more isolated areas than me, working twice as hard to survive, and doing far more exciting and interesting things than I. But I am not those people; I am me. And I enjoy writing, and appreciate honesty in writing. So that is why I do what I do – reputation, perceptions and assumptions be damned!

The thing is Wilcannia, you too are fighting a reputation you’ve gained over the last 30 years, which doesn’t really represent the real you. It would only be honest for me to say that you and I don’t always get along – but last week your inner good shone through in way that deserves a little piece of your negative persona to be chipped away.

As the blood finished pumping from my arm and it was approaching time for me to leave the hospital, I began feeling light headed, my vision was blurring and my hearing fading. Quietly concerned I would faint if I stood up, I clutched my water bottle and asked my Neighbour/Nurse if it was OK to sit for a few minutes before heading off. She immediately offered me a cup of tea and delivered it shortly after, along with two Arnott’s biscuits. She pulled up a chair, sat down with me and started chatting about writing, nursing in country hospitals, gardening and living out of town. In 15 minutes I was feeling buoyed and uplifted, and actually impressed with the service Wilcannia could deliver.

From the hospital I made my way to the general store…

And from the general store I made my way to the small coffee shop in the main street. The owner’s grandkids were visiting for the school holidays and I helped them set up the chairs and tables out the front as their Gran warmed up the coffee machine for me. Their beaming smiles and the friendly conversation with their Gran, along with the aroma of fresh coffee, continued my good mood for the drive home.

The difference between us though, Wilcannia, is that I can pick and choose the details of what I let out into the world, while you are stuck at the mercy of what others do and say about you. I’ve heard you used to be a thriving major centre. And judging by the gorgeous heritage buildings that line your riverbank it’s unfortunate the current negative reputation is continuing to hinder your grand potential. From what I see recently, change is a comin’ in Wilcannia. Historic sandstone buildings are being renovated and re-purposed, tourism ventures are making their way back to town, and caravaners are pulling up for a coffee rather than driving straight through.

I think you know you’ve got some issues, just as I know I’ve got issues too. But ultimately our success lays in finding a focus on the good points, and hoping the rest of the world likes that and runs with it while we work away quietly in the background to improve the bad points.

Lovely locals, a great health service and nice coffee are a good start.

I think you and I might end up liking each other after all.

Until next time,

Editor's Note: Want to find out more about Wilcannia or thinking of stopping by next time you're in the region? Check out the Wilcannia Tourism website HERE.