Summer on The Solent

The sea was calm in the flooded Solent valley; soft and smoothe as chiffon. Ripples diverged from an arrowhead as an early morning swimmer paced between the groynes. The water was the warmest she’d known for many years. These exercise sessions had become a pleasure since the water quality improved, but now even the temperature was benign. Emerging into the pre-commute air there was no need to leap across the pebbles and wrap herself in the huge striped beach towel to stave off hypothermia. It was as pleasant as on a summer’s afternoon.

This was the prime time of day during the summer of 2018. By afternoon the air would suspend a humid 33 degrees. An on-shore breeze would churn the surface but not be refreshing, more like a full body hair-dryer. The waves would continue to deposit seaweed on the stony shore, the detritus of humankind reduced to an occassional piece of debris as light plastic glared from the deep greens and browns of the ocean’s foliage.

The grass adjoining the land-side of the promenade was scorched, parched, looked dead but usually recovered. Some people chose to sit up there rather than down on the unforgiving pebbles, more bodies this summer than ever before. Multi-coloured windbreaks stood guard, but for what purpose? Perhaps just a habit at the English seaside. Barbeques abounded and groups loitered until late into the evening, watching the sun set behind Fawley Power Station. The only time when it isn’t an ugly carbuncle on the horizon. What would Queen Victoria have thought of that blot on her view if she had spied it from Osborne House on the Isle of Wight?

The trees on the island appeared to have retained their various shades of chlorophyll green, high-lighting the straw coloured fields. The water dividing this outpost from the mainland provided a playground for weekend sailors in shorts and T-shirts. No need for so’westers in this tender climate as they dodged the overloaded container ships and towering cruise liners. Those holiday-makers may have been traveling to cooler climes. Not what they’d expected when booking their vacations in the sun.

But for how much longer would these Mediterranean conditions last? How long until the weather returned to normal? Until the wind splatters the rain onto the window pane? Until the blue sea turns to tormented lead? Until the grass resumes its verdant self? Until stoic souls walk the promenade under coats, hats and scarves? Until the gun-metal of Fawley Power Station blends with the skies, even at sun down?

Random Travels – Iceland

Icelandic Trek

35 years ago I took a walking holiday in Iceland. A disparate group of 22 strangers were guided by a delightful Frenchman who spoke minimal English, but we had an unforgettable experience. On the first evening I ordered a local delicacy: baked sheep’s head, in the salubrious surroundings of Rekjavik bus station. Dried food held a certain attraction after that. A recent BBC programme on walking in Iceland’s interior featured the type of mountain huts we stayed in but now as emergency accommodation. These days hikers enjoy electricity, showers and proper beds in wood buildings which defy the word ‘hut’. We used torches, smelt of sulphur after bathing in thermal streams and pulled our karrimats outside to sleep as we were cooked by the heating derived from the adjacent dinner-plate sized hot spring.


Rekjavik, Tjornin lake, Free church (Frikirkjan), National Gallery and Hallgrimskirkja church

Three of we four girls had our birthdays during this 2 week escapade, all Leos?! The melted mars bar, marathon and milky way birthday ‘cake’ was a gastronomic masterpiece. When crossing the bridgeless rivers each of us was escorted by two of the chaps, linking arms as we crossed the fast thigh-deep waters. We wore shorts as there was no point soaking our trousers, even if that did mean braving a blizzard on 31st July bare-legged. But we warmed up sunbathing on 1st Aug, before skiing down a hillside of larva dust.

Mature Seasonnaires

Lunch stop

Is this title a contradiction? No. Age is only a number, not a state of mind. If we are open to new experiences, prepared to be flexible and comfortable outside a routine then working a ski season can bring amazing rewards. We were in our early fifties when we swapped motorway commutes for ski boots and embarked on our first winter season as chalet hosts with a tour operator. This introduction was far from easy but we are heading off for our fifth consecutive season in December (not with that tour operator after the initial steep learning cliff!)

Le Spot to ourselves

I wont deny that there are challenges peculiar to more advancing years but also huge benefits. The winter world is a tough environment, the work is physical (I found being on my feet all the time was hardest – good work shoes would have resolved that) and the hours can be long (but are improving). Life experience can bring advantages, many relating to working practices: reliability, responsibility, commitment, punctuality and professionalism will be attractive to prospective employers. However, these can act against a conscientious employee but unscrupulous employers are being outed, particularly in France at the moment.

Still Christmassy

But what this type of work delivers is a five month period of living in a beautiful environment, pursuing an amazing activity (ski-ing or boarding) whichever days you want (apart from changeover) so you can choose favourable conditions. We choose to only ski when the sun shines. Mix with a group of like-minded people, even if there is a significant age difference. The younger team members are a breath of even fresher air for us oldsters. Ex-pat business owners regaled stories of succeeding with alternative lifestyles, offering confidence that there is a viable alternative to the rat race. Meager salaries ensure that materialism is minimised. We gained maximum pleasure from the non-commercial benefits.

Morning commute after fresh snow

If you think you would enjoy this lifestyle but are too old, think again. Don’t hesitate to get in touch or read the blog/background if you would like to know more about how we turned our lives on their heads, without any regrets. If we can do it so can you. We are regular people who just wanted to try something different before it was too late. We would be delighted to provide any help we can to assist you explore your dreams.


21. Another Goodbye

imag4059We have left our final place, a little earlier than expected but not due to any adverse circumstances on our part. John, our boss, is leaving to find paid work. He was ‘managing’ the ranch for Ray who has gone off for some other work as well, so things aren’t working out there quite as planned. Ray pays John and our costs so we have no further food or fuel and one of the trucks has died so things are a little complicated and we thought it might be a good time to depart. We have had a very interesting time here. John has developed his own way of breaking-in and training horses which he has used for 45 years with a significant degree of success, albeit with some mishaps but perhaps that is just horses for you. We just couldn’t accept wearing flipflops around horses (not to ride in obviously!) in order to make one more aware of one’s foot position! He obviously likes his animals and trains them with tough love, Ray just appears to be tough.

Monday wondering why the gate is closed.

Monday wondering why the gate is closed.

Monday, the chestnut, is a case in point where he wants to allow the horse to use their own brain and personality; Monday has plenty of both, even if he is quite young, reminding us of a certain Freckles at Bodalla. We have left him with Jamie, who is a big help and Shauna, who isn’t! They will be continuing to pack John’s life into the storage garage but as John is fairly incapacitated and she is unable/unwilling to do anything resembling work it will mean that Jamie (who is as thin as a lathe) has a lot of lifting and shifting to do moving furniture, ontop of doing a double shift to compensate for her lack of productivity, which he does to ameliorate the hard time she’ll give him if he doesn’t. Perhaps that is another reason why we were ready to leave, coupled with the fact that she refused to talk to me for the last 2 days as I suggested that she shouldn’t be so wasteful with food when we were running out! i.e. not boiling the limited eggs and then eating only the white and chucking the yolk out to the hens when others would eat the yolk and the snakes or iguanas are eating the eggs before we even get to them! Heyho

imag4057There are a few things I wont miss, like the mouse in the bedroom, tucked behind the case and exposed on our final morning or the rather large cockcroach which materialised beside the bed (mattress on the floor, very comfortable and at least we didn’t need to check under the bed for beasties, they’d be in with us!) on our penultimate morning. Also the ants, which would swarm out from between the wall panels of the bedroom during the course of the afternoon. When we started to help clear out the sheds John was very insistent on us being careful when we opened any kind of container to check for snakes, none were revealed but this rat skeleton in an old washing machine tub is fairly illustrative! imag4050We were observed, throughout these tasks, by a little kooki which appeared most afternoons and although sitting on a fencepost, not an old gum tree, he did seem to keep a proprietorial eye on all our activities.

Roxy, Jolti and Ice

Roxy, Jolti and Ice

We will, as usual, miss our 4-legged friends. John’s very well behaved cattle dogs (apart from Jolti who would get too excited and come around in front of the herd and Roxy, who copied Jolti) but they were good when they were back in the yard. Also the yard paddock horses whose whinnying would wake us in the morning, but not too early.

Dallas, Omega and Monday

Dallas, Omega and Monday

Omega is the last of that blood line, hence the name and, whilst still in possession of his bits, not for much longer and despite being a good 2 years old is still unsure what to do with them (Pip, our little filly would tell him if she could!) Dallas is one of Ray’s horses, brought back here to finish his training and is lovely and friendly although we are not allowed to pet him when he isn’t working. John was very concerned that we may fall over a sleeping horse when we retired to our cottage at night in the dark. This seemed unlikely as horses sleep standing up don’t they? Not this bunch!

20. Bush fire!

imag4034By the time we left the yards on our way back to house, approximately 10km along a winding and undulating dirt track, it was getting quite dark. This wouldn’t normally be a problem unless, of course, your lights didn’t work! Added to this was the complication of very light drizzle and guess what? the wipers didn’t work either! We had set off in the ute, in front of John and the others towing the float (horse box) but with his lights shinning past us on either side, the road ahead was complete darkness so had to swap round. Following his tail lights wouldn’t have been too bad if we hadn’t had to lean out of the windows on either side as the windscreen was almost obliterated by damp dust! At any left hand bend Roger lost all view of the tail lights and I had to shout (because both windows were down and the engine noise was almost overpowered by The Who backing track which seemed to be stuck on a loop on the CD player) directions to stay out of the undergrowth until he resumed visibility.

imag4035As we neared the house we could see enough to notice the orange glow in the sky, not too far away from where the rubbish had been burnt the previous night. This had been eventful enough for the boys when some unspent cartridges, aerosols or other pressurised containers exploded. The dump is just over the side of the road about 2-300 yds from the house. When we had retired to bed that night I did wander around the corner of the garden to check the state of the previously towering flames, under the impression that all would have died down, only to note that the flames, which must have been over 10 feet tall, were still visible. The boys returned to throw some buckets of water on to it and all seemed to be ok.

imag403624hours later the glow had shifted along and after dropping everything off Roger and I went out with John to investigate. We jumped back into the ute but before going any distance both of them leapt out, leaving both doors open whilst John yelled at me to put the break on. I stupidly tried the hand break but nothing happened as I trundled towards the fencing! I should have remembered that it didn’t work as I’d nearly been run over by it previously when I’d had trouble opening some ‘gates’ which were actually just the join in 2 fence panels so John had got out to help me, not really noticing that we were on a bit of a slope until I was just about to be nudged into the panel by the front bumper!

Anyway, the starter motor had failed so they were fixing that before setting off to check the fire which transpired to have spread along the bottom of the gully and ignited a little copse of trees further along that track. We drove past, noting the flaming tree trunks adjacent to us, checked its furthest limits and returned, just somewhat hampered by 2 trunks which had fallen across our path in the few minutes we’d taken to turn around and come back!

imag4037We returned to the house and John rigged up a pressure tank with hose which worked off the car battery. As the wiring was a bit dodgy and the cable traversed the passenger side of the ute we 3, now joined by Jamie, had to stand on the back of the flat bed whilst we drove past the burning trees again! At least we were able to gain full advantage of the lovely aroma of burning eucalyptus!!

The plan was to set up a back burn i.e. burn off all the highly inflammable fuel (grass, weeds, etc) in the path of the fire by burning back towards the main body but damping down the edge where we wanted it to stop. I was to operate the pump switch from the passenger seat which I had to climb in to from the drivers side, without knocking it out of gear as that was the only breaking mechanism! As these trucks have long gear sticks it left me about 3 inches through which to wriggle my leg, (maybe once a long time ago!) Also I had to ensure that I didn’t cause it to stall as it probably wouldn’t start again. All this within a few feet of a blazing bush fire, headed towards me before I could reach the switch which operated the water pump! No pressure then?!

imag4038Somehow I managed it, but am still unsure quite how, then Roger jumped in beside me to drive up and reverse back along the advancing fire line which Jamie was exacerbating by igniting frequent bunches of dead grass under direction from John, who was soaking the front line from the tank on the back of the ute, powered by the car engine. Amazingly it all seemed to be working well, even though we were unbelievably close to the inferno, studying particularly burning tree trunks which would reach us if they fell towards us, until the engine stalled and died spontaneously!



John calmly said to wait 5 minutes and start the engine again by knocking the starter motor with a big metal crow bar as the key was turned. This happened 3 times in total with each engine sound becoming progressively more ropey with each restart. Finally John was happy that the fire was contained enough for us to leave it before the vehicle gave up completely and we returned to the house with me still trapped in the passenger seat. I had already decided that I would sacrifice the pump’s power supply if I felt in any immediate danger! We returned to the house relatively unscathed but after a long day in the saddle, up the hill, fencing and having our ‘lunch’ at 6pm, followed by a hairy drive with no lights through woodland and 2 hours fire-fighting I didn’t feel like waiting for an evening meal so collapsed into bed, after what had been a very eventful day in the outback. Thank goodness they haven’t all been like this!

19. Extreme Fencing!

imag4017Well this was quite an eventful day. We were going fencing, right up to the top and back of the paddock where we had previously looked for elusive cattle. So armed with our coils of wire slung over our heads and one shoulder and my trusty steed acting as pack horse with 3 different sets of fencing pliers in saddle bags, we set off. John had been a little critical of some ‘backpackers’, the ubiquitous term for us lot, (although some people do struggle with referring to ourselves by this even though I am using a backpack) having wrecked the horses by making them walk slowly instead of the purposeful rhythm they are trained to adopt. I ended up in front so was determined not to be accused of the same so set a decent pace assisted by my familiarity with the country. I was also quite chuffed to be the person who spotted the aforementioned escapees, despite having relinquished pole position to John by that time.

imag4024When we reached the back fence we commenced our ascent along to the left and soon rose to some giddy heights. As I/Quantum was tool carrier we had to follow John even to less hospitable places than the others, but she performed with the steadiness and steadfastness which is essential for stock horses in this country. We negotiated a basalt bluff rather tentatively, apart from yours truly, bringing up the rear with confidence in my 4 legged carrier. She did however make a huge stumble at one point but immediately righted herself with a  vigorous buck to release her back end, which is just as well as some stock horses get shot if they are prone to falling over on difficult terrain!

imag4023The fence damage was quite extensive and by 4.30 we had used up all the spare wire and most of the daylight prior to our return journey. As we had eventually set off at 11am, having breakfasted at 7.30, we were pretty hungry, as lunch was back at the yard! By 5pm we were starting our descent but John was continuing around the top boundary to check the condition of the fence further on. He arranged for Roger to trot all the way back to the yard, once we had reached relatively level ground, so he could grab the ute (utility vehicle) and meet him at the far end of the paddock. The remaining 3 of us were to take it steady as Shauna was riding poor old Bungee, who had toiled up the hillside with relative ease, despite her disgust at riding an old horse. She did however, see fit to keep whipping him all the way back even though he was keeping up! hmmm! That was in between comments akin to ‘are we there yet!’

imag4022We finally reached the yard paddock and I was able to open and close the gate from my saddle which I was quite pleased about (Roger had managed the same a bit earlier from Star) despite Jamie’s puppy-like eagerness to do everything for everyone. This time I had just managed to get it closed as he hit the ground from his dismount. Heyho.

18. Mustering

imag3986Fortunately this didn’t work out quite as hard as we thought it would be for 2 reasons. Firstly we managed to find most of the cattle reasonably easily and they came without too much trouble. They are trained to the dogs and horses when they are young, moved around just to  become used to it. Secondly we lost a horse so there was one less mount than riders. A gate was inadvertently left open the night before we were due to start so the working horse decided to explore new pastures and not come back nor be found. Consequently, on that first morning we offered to do half a day each, sharing our horse, as we thought we may struggle with the intensity of the riding.

imag3990So my first job was to bid farewell to Roger and the others as they set off with the dogs and sat in the shade of the Koolibar tree with my book. I was entertained by some beautiful blue kingfisher type birds with bright orange undersides to their wings, dipping and diving, possibly in a mating ritual, but flashing brilliant colours in the reflected sunshine. I was ‘serenaded’ by the indigenous kookaburra, now that we know what that is. We had become aware of the sounds in the trees resembling a group of monkeys ooh, ooh, ooh, ahhing to an ever increasing crescendo. At Bodalla we asked Rob what this ‘monkey bird’ was as we had managed to confirm that there were none of the aforementioned primates in the vicinity, only birds. He was rather surprised and amused at our ignorance of this Aussie icon as he explained it being a kookaburra and even after our description couldn’t hear the resemblance. We were reprieved by our compatriots thinking exactly the same as us before we enlightened them with our new found knowledge. It may sound a little bit like the laughter of a ‘merry merry king of the bush’ but he must be slightly hysterical or even maniacal.

Poor sweaty horse!

Poor sweaty horse!

At lunchtime on this first day Roger and I swapped our, at that stage nameless, mount who transpired to be called Bungey. He was an excellent horse, a fast walker which is very important and a real worker. This was fine apart from the fact that he could have been somewhere between 18 and 20 years old. I had been told not to take him up into the high country but thought that the slopes he negotiated, amazingly steadily all things considered, were too steep for him but I was apparently being too soft. imag4004We were trawling steep hillsides which were cut with even steeper gullies which we descended and ascended with increasing regularity, sometimes not even being able to see any ground ahead of us as horse and rider plummeted down the slopes before jumping across the ditch at the bottom and leaping up the seemingly vertical wall on the other side. I quickly realised that the best tactic was to let him do what he’s good at and just make sure I stayed on. I’m quite proud to say that I didn’t even need to use the sh*t strap, so called as its requirement is usually when one is thinking ‘oh sh*t’! Obviously though these were not really photo opportunities for a rider of my standard but I did just manage this one on an easier gully.

Poor Bungey was given a reprieve the following day and Dallas had remained elusive. Ray’s daughter wasn’t joining us so we were still one horse down and guess who dipped out again as I had wanted to ride all day this time. I wasn’t too pleased at this as there were at least 2 other people, both complaining of aches and pains, who could have taken a turn to sit out but declined, so I missed the next morning’s ride. Fortunately Jamie went off with Ray to take the weaners in the truck back to his paddocks so we were back to the same number of riders as horses in the afternoon. I rode Quantum Leap who I should have ridden in the first place before it was determined that Shauna wasn’t quite as accomplished rider as she claimed to be. They were both experienced English style and arena riders but this wild/rough riding on stock horses was a very different method which Jamie has picked up quite quickly even if his cattle experience does only extend to 3 days unlike my 7 months! but that’s another story!

imag3995imag3998The cattle had to be sorted in the yards which Roger had done at Bodalla and in Canada last year but was new to Jamie however the 2 of them did seem to be able to take on a calf successfully! There was also a tiny calf who was struggling to feed as all 4 of mum’s teets had prolapsed and each was about the size of an udder, dangling rather close to the ground. The poor little mite couldn’t get low enough and certainly didn’t have a large enough mouth to latch on independently. This difficulty was compounded by the flap of loose skin these Brahman breeds have hanging from their necks, to aid heat loss, which is at the wrong end but suckling babies don’t seem to be able to differentiate back from front initially!

imag40083 days of riding, mustering, searching and driving were interspersed with the yard work so we are quite relieved to find ourselves remarkably unscathed, if just a little saddle sore. We had a super time on the last day when we spent nearly 4 hours checking a paddock where there may have been some elusive cattle hiding out. imag3994We didn’t find them but enjoyed the ride, particularly when we were sent off on our own to check 2 fence lines. On return from that we went straight out into another smaller paddock and collected 172 (I had to count them in the sorting) head, not including calves, from that and an adjoining paddock before finally stopping for a break and well needed water. Roger has been lucky enough to enjoy a few canters on his new, fairly inexperienced mount, Star, and now has another equine shape engraved in his heart. In tyring to keep the cattle fairly calm and steady one does have to keep the speed down. Chasing after them just makes them run away faster and the terrain is so rough that a horse tripping at speed could result in fairly nasty injury so the opportunities to canter are few but grabbed when possible.

Monday offering to drive!

Monday offering to drive!

After more sorting and worming we drove 75 of them back down the lane into yet another paddock to join the 8 bulls which we had brought in the previous day. John’s only precaution with these huge beasts was to get the hell out of there if 2 bulls were sizing up for a fight. Fortunately we didn’t have to take this evasive action but were on our guard anyway. I had taken over the herding of a cow and calf from Ray as he would be more useful elsewhere. This particular pair were rather slow as the the little one had been attacked by dingos, not uncommon unfortunately just more rare that he survived. However he had a big abscess on the side of his hip and a chunk out of the top of his rump. We were heading up slowly, quite well behind the main herd when they all turned to charge us down, or so it seemed. What was actually happening was that the dogs were keeping them in a group whilst others joined them. As the cattle wont stand still in these circumstances the dogs keep them moving back and forth as a complete mass. This was a little disconcerting as I watched over a hundred head running straight towards us, quite spread out so there was no way I could evade them at either end so decided to stand side on (bigger area) and hope that Quantum stayed still. Fortunately she is an old hand and never flinched a muscle despite my probable tension. Anyway my charges were swept into the mele and were only disgorged at the end of the day when babe became separated from mum and had to be taken to the rest of the herd by transport, having his abscess lanced with a penknife (causing Shauna to vomit!) before being released for mum to lick clean. We aren’t going to think about what will happen to the little girl whose mum has the swollen teets 🙁

17. Last ‘Resort’

We have been here at our final ranch for 5 days and are just chilling out in preparation for 4 consecutive, potentially long days in the saddle mustering cattle, up hill and down dale! Fortunately the horses have been trained to walk fast which is refreshing change for me as my lack of confidence usually puts me on a safe but slow plodder (sorry guys). We arrived as another helper was just leaving and were joined the following day by a young couple from…..Dewsbury, barely 10 miles away from home! imag3983They are both much more experienced riders than we are, having competed in show jumping but she made the mistake of extolling her ability which John quickly challenged on a demanding ride for anyone not used to stock horses/saddles and rough riding which is most of my experience now. He is a pretty good all round rider but may need some more padding on his bottom for the long hours mustering. They have both become quite excited at being able to collect tobacco leaves to dry for their roll ups. They were going to give up smoking at the end of their current pouch due to the cost and lack of availability as a result of our isolation; 44km south of Miriam Vale and 11km along a very rough track.

The four of us occupy a separate house whilst John lives in the main house where we join him for all meals. He is Gary and Sue’s tenant here and then we travel to an adjacent property to work the land where he is a manager for Ray, although he does his horse-work (mostly other people’s) back at the homestead. Is that clear? It took us most of this time to get it straight.

imag3971imag3974The house is not bad at all and could be really nice if it was done up, the only slight problem is all the squatters. Spiders aplenty, but no serious ones. I wanted to get rid of all the cobwebs but they do collect the flies and mossies very effectively. The toads come out in the evening but are fairly quiet and don’t tend to come in the house so we just have to make sure that we don’t stand on them in the dark. I don’t think that they are the narcotic type that Murphy, the jack Russell at Bodalla, enjoyed so much. imag3973We have had a resident frog in the toilet who almost looked unreal, particularly as he matched the bin but Jamie had to evict him as Shauna couldn’t use the toilet when he was there. We have had a couple of ant invasions in the bedroom but only between the hours of 2 – 4pm. Normally we wouldn’t see these at this time but as the weather has heated up we have started early in the mornings, 5.30 and had a siesta after lunch, ant-time! The final resident has, fortunately, been quite elusive as he is poisonous; a brown snake lives under the bath. It does have a side panel so that should eliminate the problem, however, there is a 12-14 inch gap along the end where you can peer down through the floor boards into the basement. As if it wasn’t bad enough to view all the rotting wood, which is supposed to be supporting the over bath shower, I now find out that there is a venomous resident. Heyho, Australia.

imag3982We have a lovely little buckskin filly to train, Pip, a 2 year old, so quite mature compared to our little princess Frankie. She has been handled, mostly by children, poor thing, so we are having to start from scratch to assess her level of training and experience using quite different methods to those we learnt with Genine. We haven’t had to use a stock-whip (purely for sound) yet and do hope that we can inveigle some of her techniques to eliminate the necessity.

imag3977We have enjoyed a relaxing afternoon today and took to the kayak on the creek. It is just a little bit too reedy and still for my liking however the little cruise, with Roger on the paddle was very pleasant. The other 2 had taken it down the banking at the back of our house the previous day when we just observed.imag3980 Jamie was brave enough to have a swim but Shauna struggled to fish and row at the same time but at least they were able to lay the crayfish pot/trap, not that they will be big enough to eat but are in a huge, rather dirty (don’t look Theresa) tank. We could eat the eggs that are laid by the half dozen chooks but something is beating us to them! Possibly legless, i.e. snake, or could be a goana, name for iguanas in these parts. John said that they’d stopped laying but I found one egg the other day so collected it with glee. The following day there were 3 so I collected 2 and left one to remind them what they were meant to do. This morning there were none and no debris, so something is definitely taking them whole!!

Anyway, another early night tonight, bed by 9pm for an early start tomorrow and then some very sore bottoms for the foreseeable future!

16. Great Barrier Reef

We caught the 6.20am bus from Townsville to Airlie Beach. The temperature was already a balmy 24 degrees. The humidity had hit us on our arrival the previous evening. What we didn’t realise was that it would make trying to dry clothes, beach towels etc considerably harder, which is important just prior to packing. At Bodalla, the washing had been dry in just over an hour, jeans maybe 2. Here they never really feel dry, even after 24 hours. This temperature discrepancy was also highlighted in the ‘real feel’ whereby the degrees increased unlike in the UK where it always decreases; our first experience of this. I’m just glad that we didn’t buy any bamboo socks as, despite their excellent reputation, I’d already noticed that they took 2 days to dry in the best conditions.

imag3936Our taxi driver took us the scenic route from the hotel and gave us a little guided tour and potted history of Townsville before dropping us off at the terminal. We arrived in Airlie Beach at lunchtime, found our budget accommodation and caught the bus back in to town. By mid afternoon Roger was swimming in the lagoon. The following day we were particularly lazy and it was quite a treat to not have any alarm set (not even to enable us to change to a bigger room). imag3937Late afternoon we caught the bus for the short ride back into town. Walking might have been an option for the distance but pedestrians don’t seem to be too well catered for here, even in terms of access to the bus stops which is a bit weird, must be to do with the almost continual need for air conditioning. We headed for the netted beach, this is one with an area cordoned off for safe sea swimming i.e. no stingers or jelly fish, crocodiles and sharks are not a particular problem here but the jelly fish strike can put you in ICU!

imag3941We had booked an excursion out to the Whitsunday Islands for the following day so were a little perturbed by the orange storm warning for the next afternoon. Fully expecting the trip to be cancelled we were unsure whether to be worried or reassured when it wasn’t. An hour across the waves to the far side of an outer island took us to our snorkelling location. We were mesmerised by the coral reef just a few feet underneath us, not really expecting to see such magnificence as we hadn’t gone scuba-diving on the outer reef but there was no need. This was the outer coast of the outer islands so produced the same hard coral as the bottom growing reefs further afield as they were subjected to the strong winds and currents.

We were thrilled and transfixed to glide over these amazing structures. I suppose the colours were more muted than I’d expected but the shapes and structures were so much more intricate and varied. Some resembled the convoluted surface and shape of human brains, others were a series of short tubes, there were huge mushrooms, floating plates, cauliflowers, blankets, boulders and trees. The beautiful pale blues, greens, pinks, lilacs and oranges were interspersed with flashes of vivid, almost neon blues, greens and purples.

The fish were not to be outdone even if some did try, very effectively to disguise themselves in the  camouflage of rocky brown. However the blues, greens and turquoise of both tiny and quite large, up to 18 inches, marine life gave the whole area a luminescence. Tiger stripes and flashes of silver swam lazily beneath our intent gaze. I don’t have a waterproof camera so no personal photos but there is plenty to google. I think we may be on a few other people’s pictures as we tried to see as much as possible in the hour given, despite getting a little chilly, even in our stinger suits. The problem was that we were doing a lot of floating around, just gazing at the multi-coloured light show displayed below and not much swimming. We had rejected the offer of a buoyancy aid or noodle and found the sea to be very salty and so had no need of any extra assistance.

Sadly there were areas where the coral had obviously died, grey and brown segments cluttering the seabed. I wondered if this was the effect of man and tourism on this very delicate eco-system, to which we would be adding. On enquiring, I was relieved to find out, from Capt Matty, that it is part of a natural process and the destruction is the aftermath of the cyclones which hit these parts most years. The ‘stones’ on nearby beaches are almost entirely comprising these battered corals. The delicate nature of this reef, and presumably all others, made it a little difficult to come upright in the water for fear of kicking and damaging some wonderful structure beneath so we developed a kind of rounded tuck when directing each other to another amazing ‘plant’.

imag3945imag3944Our next stop was a lookout at ‘swirly sands’, we were told. It sounded a bit of an anti-climax after the reef but was an amazing view of the changing depths and shifting silica sandbars. We could see Whitehaven beach on the left side of the spur, our final and lunch stop. We were supposed to be able to spot stingrays as well but when, after about 10 minutes, my fish hadn’t moved I had to concede that it was, in actual fact, a submerged rock.

imag3963Another short boat ride and we disembarked onto the pure white beach of Whitehaven. Beneath our feet the sand was as fine as icing sugar and even squeaked when you walked (or fell!) in it. Fatal for cameras apparently and has become so engrained in the seams of our bags I think we may, inadvertently, be bringing some back home, despite adhering to the adage ‘take only photos, leave only footprints’. The shoreline was strangely scattered with what appeared to be autumn leaves, adding an amazing colour dimension to the blue, white and green of this tropical paradise.

imag3956We ate lunch at a picnic table in the shade along the tree-line adjacent to the beach. A lace monitor, about 2 feet long with an almost equivalent tail, decided to join us, no doubt looking for scraps. A group of Chinese didn’t seem to know whether they wanted it to stay or go as feeding it and shooing it away at the same time must have been quite confusing for the poor thing! As we returned from our short walk along the shore, Braydon, our deckhand, was expertly handling a 2 metre long carpet python which had been snoozing at the base of a nearby tree. They, like all pythons, are not poisonous but are known to have quite a vicious bite. We were quite relieved that we actually shared our lunch space with the gentle little bush doves before the crows swooped in to clear up any debris; they don’t change. Our meal wasn’t spoilt by being 2 plates short when we were supplied with the lids of the Tupperware containers as alternative platters.

imag3965All too soon, although not for a rather sunburnt face, (a first after all this time!) we were hailed back to Big Fury for our return journey. The sea was a little rough but we were relieved to find that the storm had not materialised, not in our vicinity at least. The ride back was almost as bumpy as Genine’s truck trip back from the caves and we were most impressed by Braydon’s ability to serve a platter of cakes and biscuits in this heaving sea without appearing to drop any. The storm appeared to have passed inland if the foreboding clouds, which greeted us as we re-entered the harbour, were anything to go by.


We are now entering our final stage of this Aussie adventure with fairly limited wifi so apologies for the, even more sporadic contact!

15. Final final chapter

imag3889So much seems to have happened in the final few days, not least the ladies from the clinic getting their breakers saddled and ridden in the arena and then out on a short trail ride. It was a massive achievement in 2 weeks and all credit to them, Genine and Robert. Others had the added complications of trickier horses and/or their own physical and emotional constraints to overcome as well as the learning curve to scale, but still accomplished significant milestones. We didn’t go on this ride as it was a special  moment for the students but had taken Myrte with us on a beautiful ride the previous day into an unvisited part of the station including an excellent canter along the creek bed where I finally started to get my rhythm sorted out.

imag3904We were able to take a slightly slower pace than the first 3-4 weeks, work with Frankie, absorb the sessions the ladies were undertaking and even have some downtime after lunch when the temperatures started to rise and rise. We were still responsible for the horse feeding which gave me the excuse to visit the kindergarten twice a day at least. Emy-Lou is growing rapidly and all her charging around, bucking and rearing on top of mounds, has taught her how to kick! This is going to be sorted out very soon. The little fella has the paddock name of Zen but is still to receive his full title. Historically the names have to begin with RE so we had an ever-increasing list of ideas and wait patiently to see what he will be called. He has been a super little chap, very friendly and inquisitive, possibly assisted by Mum’s initial indifference, unlike Jaz’s protectionism, but also from my initial contact perhaps ‘imprinting’ on him.

imag3862When I went to say goodbye to him and Lily (my soul sister/daughter) he was even more curious than usual and I got covered in mud rubbing and scratching him. We had had a short burst of torrential rain and he must have rolled in a puddle or slipped up because his coat, fortunately quite muddy coloured naturally, was caked in it. It didn’t stop me though because it was such a precious moment when Lily was in labour and came to me for reassurance, of which he was the product. I will never forget that experience and look forward to seeing him (via facebook) grow up into a very handsome lad.

imag3902This was his and Emy Lou’s first rain and when I say rain I don’t mean British miserable cold incessant drizzle. I mean a deluge, sufficient to block internet access via the satellite which can’t penetrate, even moderate, cloud. Whilst we, in the UK, often despair of rain, here in this and many other parts of Australia (although not all as there is bad flooding in South Australia) it is welcomed with open arms, sometimes literally as they can be so pleased to see it. Its not really cold and you dry off again very quickly, unless you get absolutely soaked going to look at the crystal caves!

img_476011431927085The rain had stopped, although the sky still looked very threatening. We had not managed the visit to the caves earlier in the programme as the ladies had been too keen to keep working the horses but the morning trail ride had been the finale so the afternoon was free. 2 trucks were loaded up with most of us in the back as there were only 3 seats available in each cab and 15 people. We used the noodles, most people would recognise these as the long foam cylinders from swimming pools, as seats and back rests. imag3907As we approached the area the heavens opened again, this time with a distinct temperature drop and no-one had any waterproofs. We ran across the country and clambered down quite a steep rocky, sandstone so very uneven, hillside and under the bluff. We wedged ourselves into the crevice just as the rain filled torrents started to pour into our shelter. Depending on where you stood or sat, there were some eroded ledges, you could either stay dry (although all clothes were soaked by now) or have a shower. No-one opted for the latter, intentionally. The ground was littered with lumps of pure white quartz both inside and out but we were more interested in the rain tipping in to the caves over the edges of the ground above illustrating exactly how they are formed.

After running back to the vehicles we had a bit of a white knuckle ride back along the dirt tracks at some speed, taking off over bumps, with those of us in the back leaving the bed of the truck by several inches. We had a loose tarpaulin to cover ourselves but this required holding up so that we didn’t suffocate. We were able to put the noodles to yet another use, albeit a bit feeble, when they were ‘erected’ as tent poles. Their lack of rigidity made this fairly unsuccessful so Krystal and Simone had to hold up the tarp most of the way back. I managed to get clobbered on the shin by the only one which could have been used as an offensive weapon as it had a carabina attached to one end. Back at the house I emerged from the tarpaulin soaking wet and somewhat battered and bruised. People pay good money for that kind of ride at an adventure park!

imag3931imag3927The following day we departed beautiful Bodalla at 6.30am for a stop off at the Texas Longhorn Ranch on the way in to Charters Towers, the first of its kind in Australia. It boasted the longest set of horns, tip to tip, until recently on JR (Johnny Red) as well as the oldest and heaviest beasts of this type along with water buffalo and bison. The highland cattle didn’t even get a mention but I felt very sorry for them in their thick coat in these 30+ degree temperatures and its not even summer yet.

imag3721We said our farewells in Townsville from where the ladies were flying back home. We were, very kindly, put up in a hotel room and enjoyed the room facilities but unfortunately didn’t have time to make use of the pool outside our door. The humidity had hit us when we got out of the car at this coastal city and even at night the temperature only dropped to 22 but still so sticky. It had been very difficult saying goodbye to the animals, particularly Frankie and little Jack Russell, Odi, but when it came to Genine and Robert words were totally inadequate. They have given us an amazing and totally unforgettable experience with so many highs we couldn’t really explain but we hope they know. Love you guys xx