Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

77. Life on the Farm

Karen and I had no idea how long we would be staying at Birdwood Downs. We were only there because Peter and Mihkala were there, and they were unsure themselves how long they would be staying. The skills that Peter had picked up while woofing, combined with Mihkala's country upbringing, made them a valuable couple to have around. Robyn had offered them full time positions, with the payment for their work being a small section of the five thousand acre property on which they could do their own thing. They were unsure whether to accept the offer, or move on. We were quite happy to remain in limbo with them until they decided, having fully embraced the "go with the flow" travelling philosophy.

A shortage of help prior to our appearance had seen the maintenance of the grounds around the main house, sheds and huts neglected in favour of more essential tasks. With our arrival, however, and with an imminent influx of additional woofers, more time could now be devoted to the removal of the jungle which was threatening to engulf all the buildings.

Early in the pre-dawn morning after the scenic flight, Karen and I were dazzled out of our slumber at five o'clock when our hut's light suddenly came on. We quickly realised that it must have been left on from the night before when the generator had been turned off, so we switched off the light and went back to sleep for another hour. After working in the watermelon patch all morning, trying to fix the ill-conceived watering system, Karen and I set to work on resurrecting the grounds.

The huts were laid out in two parallel lines of six, with a long central pathway from which small paths branched off to each hut. Bougainvilleas and other plants, both exotic and native, had been planted around each hut, with the entire area well grassed. The lack of attention had allowed the climbers to overrun the buildings, with shoots invading roofs, walls and windows. The grass was knee deep, the breeding ground for the swarms of mozzies which had become our constant companions, even in full sunshine in the middle of the day.

For three days Karen and I attacked the undergrowth. First we hacked weeds and grass from the stone paths so we could access all the buildings easily. We trimmed the bougainvilleas from the roofs and walls, and also cut away excess growth from near ground level to give decent access for a whipper snipper and a lawn mower. Each plant was supplied with water via a reticulation system similar to the watermelon patch. We had to be careful to expose all of the black, plastic hoses to ensure we did not destroy them with the powered machinery.

One night Karen and Robyn prepared a dinner of lentils, curried vegetables and corn. On other nights Peter and Mihkala, or some of the other woofers cooked a meal. On another occasion, Robyn received four hundred dollars from the police for a shotgun - part of the buy-back scheme instituted by Prime Minister John Howard after the Port Arthur Massacre - and she celebrated the windfall with cheese, bikkies and wine for everyone. By this time our numbers had swelled to nine, with Robyn and her son, Peter and Mihkala, Karen and I, and three girls, Yuki from Japan, Yvonne from the Netherlands and Nortia -pronounced "naughtier" which always made me smirk - from Switzerland. The two European girls cooked a very spicy vegetable dish and a really nice night was had by all.

Me riding the tiny ride-on mower

Once the area around the huts had been cleared sufficiently to allow access, it was set upon by me atop a tiny and decrepit ride-on lawn-mower. I spent one entire, frustrating day mowing around the huts, having great fun playing with the drive belts on the mower which fell off at regular intervals. I persevered with the mowing, but when the belt started falling off every ten feet, I pulled the cutter blade drive assembly to pieces and found a really dodgy repair job. I inverted the drive wheel, added a spacer and a washer, and the mower ran trouble free for the rest of the day. In fact, the mower ran perfectly until the day before Karen and I left Birdwood Downs, when a combination of the original problem, the subsequent bodgie repair job, and the changes I had made - equally bodgie - caused the drive shaft to snap, severing the cutting plate from the rest of the mower. A fix by an amateur like me was impossible, and I suspect that even a professional technician would have thrown in the towel. What the mower really needed was a decent burial.

After we finished the grounds around the huts, Karen and I began work on the main buildings. I was whipper-snipping an area of undergrowth between the main house and Robyn's office when a Western Brown Snake crawled out of the grass and slithered lazily across the road and lawn to disappear into the banana plantation behind the shower block near the huts. It was not a great feeling to realise that one of the deadliest snakes on the planet had been only a few feet away from where I had been working. Half an hour later a legless lizard scared the shit out of me when I spotted it hiding in the grass. And a huge blue-tongued lizard did the same shortly afterwards. By the end of the day I was so jumpy that a discarded piece of garden hose almost gave me a coronary!

Life on the farm was not all gardening, mowing, edging and weeding. A couple of incidents helped to pass the time. One afternoon Karen and I joined Peter and Mihkala in Robyn's Landrover when they drove out to the northern boundary of Birdwood Downs to pick up John, a neighbour that Robyn had contracted to bulldoze firebreaks along the fences. Ever anxious to learn new skills, Peter was given a short lesson in the operation of the bulldozer's various controls and levers and was then left to his own devices for about ten minutes to see how he went. The results were not impressive. Rather than scrape the ground smooth of scrub, Peter managed to dig himself into a big hole. If John had not intervened, the bulldozer might still be there today.

One afternoon Mihkala was out on her regular afternoon run when she heard, located and brought home a dumped kitten. It was an ugly, unhealthy little blighter, and could hardly stand up. When it did, it stumbled around like a drunk. It did not look like it would survive the night, and if Robyn had had her way, it wouldn't have. Although Matt took an instant liking to the new arrival, because of its condition Robyn secretly tried to gas the cat with car exhaust and a plastic bag. It passed out, and Robyn thought it was dead, but it later revived better than ever, and improved with every passing hour. Robyn decided that a creature with such a fighting spirit deserved a chance at life, and the kitten became part of the household.

After three full days of work, Karen, Peter, Mihkala and I rose at 6:15am one morning and began packing the Kombi for a two day jaunt up the Gibb River Road to Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek. At the same time the three other girls began packing too, hoping to leave before Robyn returned from town. None of them could stand the mozzies, and they had all decided to leave together. We were not impressed by their attempts to sneak away without saying goodbye, but Robyn came back from town early and they were forced to confront her and explain their motives. Robyn took the setback in her typical, laconic stride. A few woofers more or less was not about to worry her too much.

Mac had to stay behind because dogs are not allowed into national parks, so it was only Karen, Peter, Mihkala and I who set out along the Gibb River Road shortly after 9am. After fifty kilometres of sealed road we reached the start of the dirt near a huge wetland. Birds were everywhere. Jabirus, herons, egrets, stilts and ducks paddled around in the water, while almost every one of the sprinkling of termite mounds was topped by a kite, surveying the territory for a meal. The wetland was as good as anything Karen and I had seen in Kakadu and Arnhem Land.

After turning off the Gibb River Road we stopped for morning tea at the Windjana camping area. I was surprised to see that camping was no longer allowed next to the river as it had been when I was last at Windjana in 1975, but when I later walked down to the water I could see why. The former camping area was a wasteland of vines and noxious weeds - probably the ugliest sight I had seen in over two years of travel. At the camping area we spoke to a tour bus driver who had just come through from Tunnel Creek. He assured us that the road was passable for the Kombi. The recent rain had closed the road on a number of occasions, and a fresh fall was likely to do the same again. We decided to get to Tunnel Creek and back while we could, and soon headed off.

Tunnel Creek is exactly what the name suggests, a tunnel formed by a creek. It runs right through the middle of a small range for seven hundred and fifty metres. When the level of the creek is low, it is possible to walk through Tunnel Creek from one side of the range to the other. I had been to the entrance on my previous visit, but flat batteries in my torch had prevented me from venturing inside. This time I was better prepared. All four of us had torches, and we were soon wading through the surprisingly mild water of the creek as we made our way into the bowels of the mountain.

After a succession of pools and sand banks, we came to the first major feature of the tunnel, a roof collapse about half way along. Light poured in through a large hole in the ceiling, illuminating the colourful rocks below. Tree roots groped down from surface trees near the edge of the shaft. Karen and I were reminded of the Undara Lava Tubes, but the addition of the creek flowing through the mountain made us think that Tunnel Creek was an even better attraction.

We travelled further into the tunnel and back into the darkness. The sound of falling water alerted us to the most beautiful formation in the cave, a large flowstone projecting out over the water, its base a metre above the surface. Both ends of the formation were coloured a rich caramel, but the section in the centre was pure, crystalline white. Water from a spring had eroded the limestone in the wall behind, creating the formation as it flowed over its surface to drop into the deep pool below. Because of its distance from us and the lack of penetration of our combined torch lights, the entire structure seemed to be suspended without any visible means of support. It was amazing - another one of those features we found totally surprising because we had not suspected its existence.

The Tunnel Creek formation

At one point, with Karen, Mihkala and I hanging back, Peter charged into a pool and was soon in water up to his waist. A large tour group coming the other way passed him only a metre away in water only up to their knees. We chose the way the tour group had come, after we had stopped cacking ourselves. Soon after we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, which was a similar size and shape to the entrance at the other end. After photographs, we retraced our steps, again marvelling at the flowstone waterfall and taking time to explore an elevated grotto of columns, stalactites and stalagmites near the site of the cave-in.

The end of Tunnel Creek

In the late afternoon we drove back to the Windjana camping area. While the others set up and prepared dinner, I ran down to the river to capture on film a brilliant red sunset reflected in the orange walls of the gorge. I knew we would be leaving before sunset the next day and I would not have another opportunity to take the shot. When I returned to the camp, I set up the tent amid the gorgeous smells of a dinner cooked by Peter and Mihkala, nachos, corn chips, sour cream and chives and vegetables as good as any restaurant. If all vegetarian meals were as good as that one, I'd give up meat for life.

Sunset on the cliffs of Windjana Gorge

We dined under the stars on a brand new picnic table. The Hale-Bopp comet was now near Betelgeuse, fairly low in the sky and setting soon after sunset. It would not be visible to us for much longer. The best part of the night, however, was the lack of wildlife - only two or three vagrant mozzies made an appearance, and these were soon dispatched. Peter and Mihkala talked about their plans, and startled us by asking if they could accompany us on the road to Broome. One of them would ride with us while the other drove the Kombi, stopping every so often to swap rider and driver. We told them we would be happy to have them ride with us.

The following morning we all walked down to the entrance to Windjana Gorge where a handful of freshwater crocs were sunning themselves on the shore. They were apparently accustomed to the approach of humans because we were able to get within a few metres of them before they flashed into the water. We followed the Lennard River through the gorge for a couple of hours before climbing up to the top of the range for excellent views up and down the narrow valley and over the surrounding range and plains.

The entrance to the Gorge - note croc in foreground

In the afternoon we returned to the Gibb River Road, but turned right for a short drive through the Napier Range to stop again at the Lennard River. After a quick swim, we began our homeward journey, stopping again at the wetland for birdwatching and a late afternoon tea. A Spotted Harrier flew alongside us for half a kilometre as we made our way back toward Birdwood Downs and its waiting squadrons of hungry mosquitoes.

Our remaining few days at the property were slightly different to the first, with Peter and Mihkala working for money erecting fences at a neighbouring property. Karen helped me in the garden for a day, but also worked on the fencing to help out. I managed to finish most of the mowing and edging around the main house, resorting to a brush cutter in the thicker sections, before a series of trials and tribulations had me pining for the relative safety of the highway.

After blowing up the ride-on mower, I used the brush cutter to finish of the last few metres of unmown grass. Not long after starting I heard a metallic ring and a small jet of water erupted into the air. The blade of the brush cutter had found a dead end water pipe hiding in the grass, and Peter and I spent a couple of hours fixing the nick. With the pipe fixed I recommenced cutting the grass, but shortly before lunch I backed into a paper wasp nest and got stung three times on the back. Not a great day!

The next was not much better. I spent the day climbing around the outside walls of the main house, cutting back a mass of bougainvillea. Not only did I get the shit scratched out of me, but I was also regularly pissed on by startled frogs. Karen helped me get rid of all the cuttings at the end of the day after spending most of the afternoon trying to clean the toilet and shower block. I think she had a few problems with frogs too.

A new woofer arrived, one of our replacements, a big, wild-haired aboriginal guy from Western Queensland called Kim. He seemed a nice enough guy, but we had to laugh when he told us that the frogs in the shower really freaked him out. His first experience with them in the dark one night after the generator had been turned off must have been a beaut, because for the last couple of days we were at Birdwood Downs he would only shower during daylight hours.

When we returned from Windjana we were amazed to find that the kitten was still going strong. It had definitely wormed its way into Matt's affections, much to Robyn's chagrin. On our second last night at her property, Robyn showed us a couple of videos, one made by a French woman about Women in the Kimberley, and the other a recording of the awards dinner during which Robyn received her Rural Woman of the Year Award. On our last night at Birdwood Downs, Robyn thanked us for our efforts of the previous couple of weeks with an excellent lamb meal and red wine.

Karen's dad phoned us late in the day to find out our next postal address for Wendy from Darwin. The cyclists we had spoken with in Warmun, and two of the woofers who had been at the property when we arrived but who had left shortly afterwards, had followed our advice and booked tours with the Blue Banana around Kakadu. Wendy was sending Karen and I a T shirt each, to thank us for helping her business. We told Kevin to get Wendy to send the shirts to Broome.

The next morning we awoke with the realisation that we did not have to work, a bloody great way to start the day! We had brekkie and said quick goodbyes to everyone as they left to clear acacias from a paddock near the road. Life at Birdwood Downs would obviously go on without us. It had been an interesting interlude, but the time had come to move on. Peter and Mihkala were staying until tomorrow, so we packed up Elle and Mel and rode in to Derby, shopping for supplies at Woollies on the way back into town.

We had arranged a rendezvous with Peter, Mihkala and Mac at the Prison Boab tree, near the Gibb River Road turn-off, the next morning. After one final night in the Derby caravan park, Karen and I were ready to tackle the next part of our journey, two hundred odd kilometres to Broome. It was only a stone's throw down the road, but it would be a significant departure from our normal mode of travel.

It would be our first experience of riding with a support vehicle.

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