Happiness Like This

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Kim:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

“This is what I imagined the whole trip to be like,” Dave commented. It was 3pm.  We were all crunching on salt and vinegar chips, still wet and sandy from our midday swim, relaxing in the van together watching The Greatest Showman DVD and reading books. Eat, swim, rest, repeat. The simple life. I immediately understood what Dave meant.  

There is no doubt that we made the most of every waking moment of our trip. Yet it took us until this point to really feel like we had found our feet as a travelling family. “I think I have worked out your perfect camp style,” Dave offered. A small free camp by the beach, remote enough to feel like we were in the wilderness, yet set up for all of the luxuries our tin abode had to offer (generator to run coffee machine, Thermomix, Nutribullet and potable water for drinking and a hot shower in the van). This time we had nailed it. We were set up at Middle Lagoon, a small Aboriginal Community about 30 km off the main thoroughfare from Broome to Cape Leveque on the Dampier Peninsula. Apart from a very small patch of signal several hundred meters away from the van, we were unplugged from everything but nature and each other.  

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Dampier Peninsula
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Kim SUP’ing at Dampier Peninsula

The rhythm of our day was controlled only by the tide and temperature. High tide gave us about three hours of swimming and SUP’ing in the bath-like waters of the bay before the heat of the day would force us to return to camp for food and rest. As we ventured back down to the bay late in the afternoon, our morning landscape was barely recognisable as six to seven metres of tidal movement had caused the water’s edge to retreat almost back towards the horizon. As the girls and I collected shells and hermit crabs, we watched the local kids use hand spears to fish for dinner. Incredible patterns in the sand left the outline of where massive stingrays had rested only hours earlier. Dave had found Ali the perfect rockpool for her to bathe, fully shaded, in the warm salty water as the sun set over her little head.

Our nights were sometimes spent around the campfire watching our girls figure out how to make new desserts with toasted marshmallows. In the aftermath, only the best industrial grade steel wool would make any ingress in cleaning the burn marks off the various kitchen appliances used. As we went to bed, the billions of night stars were visible through the fly screen of the caravan bedroom window where we lay our head in the blissful sea breeze. “I wish for happiness like this forever,” I mouthed along with Michelle Williams as The Greatest Showman DVD did its thing.

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Exploring Dampier Peninsula
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Fatbiking and fly fishing near Middle Lagoon

Middle Lagoon was not entirely different to other places we had stayed. Yet it was here that our experience of simple pleasures had transformed from the novelties of travel to habits and characteristics of daily family life. That it has occurred only days before our trip ends has not dampened its impact.

I have also intentionally altered the way I interact with my children. Prior to this trip, I spent many hundreds of dollars and hours unnecessarily complicating both their play and the quality time I spent with them. The last few days, the girls have been overjoyed to play for hours climbing a nearby tree and making new inventions with empty beer cans and juice containers from our recycling bin.  While there is no doubt that upon our return, I will still enjoy fancy Mummy dates with the girls, it gives me some pause that they have been most impressed by my newly found oyster-shucking abilities and willingness to serve them absolutely 100% non-organic hot dogs on white bread for lunch.

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Special mother-daughter moments at Cable Beach

What do you want?

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Kim:

We have begun the final stretch of our trip. In less than two weeks, the girls and I will be preparing to board our flight back to Sydney and Dave, the six or seven day drive home. To say that the trip has gone too quickly is an understatement. Dave and I have caught each other in the past few days feeling both contemplative and melancholy about returning home. Yet there have also been those precious moments of reflection when I am able to celebrate the beauty of all we have experienced, and our growth individually and as a family.

A few years ago I undertook a team building exercise with a work colleague where she repeatedly asked me for two minutes, ‘What do you want?‘ In turn, I was to respond with the first thing that came to mind. I got about thirty seconds in before I burst into tears and sputtered, ‘I want someone to come and do all of my laundry.‘ While my response was clearly an overreaction to an extremely large pile of washing, it also spoke to my feelings of being exasperated with not perceiving myself to be in control of either work or home.

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Stand up paddle boarding at Willie Creek Pearl Farm

Another pre-trip experience that now comes to mind is the spiritual formation course that Dave and I did together and which required us to articulate and refine our individual and family values. This helped me to develop a deeper conviction that I wanted to more fully live and walk in the freedom of God. However, applying what I gained from the course to this trip, prior to leaving, I must admit that I failed to see how, as a naturally anxious person, removing myself from everything I knew and felt comfortable with could leave me with feeling anything but fear and worry. Fast forward several months later, and I can honestly say I have walked almost daily in the freedom of a growing relationship with God that I so deeply desired. It took leaving my Sydney life and experiencing just how small I am compared to the vast yet intimate beauty of nature to realise that I can’t hold onto controlling things that I actually have no control over. Most people who know me will probably be surprised at the deep contentment, peace and joy I have found in wild and remote places. ‘Going bush’ to truly recharge had always been Dave’s thing, certainly not mine. Yet if the past sixteen years of Dave trying to convince me that it might be worth a try has taught me anything it may be that timing is everything. Who knows, it may be that Dave experiences some kind of equivalent spiritual growth the next time I drag him shopping in New York City!

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It may still be my overflowing dirty laundry pile or screaming children that attract sympathy glances from onlookers but there have been many times on this trip that people have made unsolicited comments about what a ‘brave’ effort we are making with such a young baby. While I don’t say this out loud, the response in my head is one of bewilderment. It would seem to me now that it was more appropriate for those onlookers to comment on how lucky we are to get the opportunity to travel together as a family for such an extended period of time and fall more deeply in love with this beautiful country, and each other.

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Our little wanderers wearing gorgeous dresses by Little Kimberley

Little trinkets of joy

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Dave:

Of the books I’ve enjoyed so far on this trip, including the audiobook marathon on the sixty-odd hour drive over to our start point, a clear frontrunner has emerged: Closer to the Ground by Dylan Tomine. This personal account, published by Patagonia Books, reveals on each page a new and beautiful aspect of a father’s love for nature, his own offspring, and the daily (often hilarious) interactions between the two. I reckon it is mandatory reading for any parents who are even remotely interested in raising children in a way that encourages passionate immersion in the natural world, along with a proper understanding of our utter dependence upon it.

One aspect of Tomine’s writings that I especially identified with was his observation that some of the most profound and enduring childhood memories are, in terms of the duration of time that they cover, little more than fragments of a particular day or incident from our youth. These sticking memories also often relate to ‘ordinary’ events rather than watershed occasions.

In what, for me at least, is something of a parallel to this idea, I have found that much of the deepest joy on the trip has come, not from the ‘big ticket’ experiences (although they have been truly incredible), but rather from little details, passing comments, or shared moments that unexpectedly emerge, without fanfare, in the course of our wanderings. In a wink towards the small bits of memorabilia (wallaby bones, coloured sand, the odd seashell or coral fragment) that Mia has been quietly stashing away in a secret corner of the caravan near her big girl top bunk, I have begun thinking of these moments as ‘little trinkets of joy’.

Without wanting to distort them into more objectively grand occasions than, perhaps, they truly are, I thought it was time to start listing a few of these moments in one place, in no particular order:

  • Before leaving on the trip, Alice’s godmother, Mel, in an extravagantly generous gift presented Mia and Olivia with an old fashioned Polaroid camera (albeit adorned in bright pink livery). Kim then promptly went out and spent roughly half of our total trip budget on film sheets. At first, exposure after exposure of total dud shots was all that seemed to materialise out of the magical little slot on the camera. But after a while, the girls started capturing some really special family photos, complete with that ethereal quality that only comes with analogue film. Ansel Adams’ protégés… perhaps not. Nonetheless, a few have gained pride of place on Elsie’s dashboard. I am filled with gratitude each time I glance at them during long hours behind the wheel, along with being instantly reminded about just how precious is the cargo that I am responsible for transporting safely.

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  • I have previously written about some of Olivia’s special handwritten notes. She is equally quick to say things expressing loving sentiment of a similar quality. In pure parental jest, Kim and I have dubbed her, ‘Captain Hallmark’. Often her muses bear a striking resemblance to the corny messages that one might find in a card at the newsagent. A photo of one of her smudged postcards to Mia (bearing in mind they are together 24/7) is pictured hereabouts, signed off with the handle, ‘BFFS’. I am told this stands for ‘Best Friends Forever Sisters’. In terms of her verbal declarations, she recently announced in the car, again speaking of her two younger sisters, ‘When we are by ourselves we are small, but together we are big’.

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  • We have had mixed success exploring rock pools. I find them to be enchanting places filled with endless opportunity for discovery. To me, they are like time machines back to childhood. Kim is more ambivalent about her precious children being on the restless edge between land and sea. One such sortie on a rough dirt track between Coral Bay and the northern boundary of Warroora Station in the late afternoon was an almost comedic disaster. Other times have been more successful. A particularly glorious moment was when I showed Mia an oversized white sea cucumber. After giving her the ‘ok to touch’ approval (something I have insisted on, given the occasional presence of nasties like blue-ringed octopus and cone shells), she promptly proceeded to pick the large marine invertebrate up, hold it straight to her nostril and say, ‘Look daddy, a giant booger!’

 

  • I have relished seeing the girls embark on tasks with true focus and purpose. An early example was a wallaby skull and thighbone that we salvaged from a sun-bleached roadkill skeleton while Kim was feeding Alice by the roadside. Upon arrival at camp, Mia and Olivia diligently set about cleaning the red dirt and road grime off the bones with cotton buds dipped in metho. They did so for much longer than a typical kids show on Netflix, and with all the diligence of real archaeologists.

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  • Some of the wonderful transformations in Kim’s outlook and attitude will be the subject of our next blog. Without putting the cart before the horse, one impressive display of ingenuity that she demonstrated recently in the car involved a delicious slab of carrot-cake that she had picked up for our afternoon tea on the road. Realising that she had forgotten to get a knife out of the caravan, instead of asking me to pull over the car and go fetch one, Kim simply grabbed a Transport NSW Opal card out of my wallet (not much other use for them over here), and proceeded to use it to neatly slice up the cake for distribution. Bear in mind that one of Kim’s prize possessions back in Sydney is her fine china set for hosting high tea. I’ve said it before, but what a woman!

 

  • An inevitable result of the combination of lots of outdoor activities with down time in the car is that Mia has had more than a few afternoon naps. Whilst this might be harmless (even welcomed) for most kids, ever since she was around two years old, if Mia has even the shortest day sleep, the result is inevitably a very late night. A few days ago, at around 9pm, Mia was sitting on my lap, helping me sort and edit photos on my laptop from the day’s activities. In response to her enthusiastic and considered input as to which shots she preferred, I offered some simple praise, ‘You’re such a good kid.’ Without the slightest self-consciousness, I received an almost instantaneous retort, ‘You’re such a good grown up.

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  • During an overnight stopover at a motel in Carnarvon, the included breakfast buffet boasted a fully automated pancake machine. Olivia, ever the lover of gadgets, took it upon herself to dial in her selected number of pancakes: three. Kim then announced that she would like two pancakes as well. So Livy, quickly performing the correct arithmetic, pressed ‘5’ on the keypad. Unfortunately, the digital display informed us that this combination of numerical commands had the machine outputting 35 pancakes! For days, despite all the amazing locations, nature and wildlife we were experiencing, the first (and sometimes only) thing that Olivia would report to friends and family during telephone conversations was this mishap that resulted in the entire family not needing lunch that day.

 

  • The self-satisfied grin on Ally’s face and accompanying heart-melting giggle upon her realising that she could prop herself up in our makeshift camp baby bath (a collapsible laundry tub), without the supporting hand of mum and dad. What a trooper she is!

 

  • Other joy trinkets have, to me, been downright holy. After watching the sunset over the Indian Ocean from atop a remote sand dune (although, in truth, the big girls preferred to run and slide down the steep sand hills in their PJs rather than enjoy a moment of quiet reflection), we all piled into Elsie for the short drive back to camp. The majestic song, ‘Lay it All Down’ by Will Reagan and United Pursuit began playing on my preloaded Spotify playlist. As everyone in the family sang along with great volume and enthusiasm (even Ali was ‘goo-ing’ and ‘gaa-ing’ happily), I found myself constantly blinking back tears, so I could negotiate the narrow 4WD track.

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  • Lesson #437 of living with four women. For an exciting change of pace, Kim and I decided to switch camp chores a week or so ago. As a result, I got to hang the washing on the caravan park clothesline. At final count (yes, I actually counted), I hung 73 individual pieces of clothing. Of that impressive amount, a total of three (3) items belonged to yours truly! The lesson here might simply be that I’m a stinky camper, and need to introduce more wardrobe changes into the repertoire.

 

  • Kim and I have had multiple conversations about what aspects of the trip the older two kids will remember. I guess only time will tell. I think, or at least I earnestly hope, that some of these trinkets (or innumerable others) will live on in the most lasting depths of their precious memories. I know they will in mine.

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Tensions

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Dave:

As we seem to be moving beyond that hazy line that somehow distinguishes a ‘holiday’ from a longer state of travel and adventure, I often find myself in something of a conundrum.

Of all the wonderful activities that I have been blessed to enjoy amongst the wonders of God’s Creation, there are two that hold a special place in my heart. One is fishing (no surprise there). The other is landscape photography. Both require time. Lots of it. For any real success to be tasted, a confluence of factors must align –tides, winds and moon phase for the former; lighting conditions, careful composition, and accurate exposure for the latter.

I don’t think I was ever too deluded in my expectation that this trip would permit me to pursue both passions at large, everyday, for as long as I wanted, whenever the desire to do so seized me. Perhaps my bride would beg to differ. But I hope that I was accepting from the outset that travelling with three kids requires a totally different mindset when it comes to activity planning.

I have found that there are lots and lots of opportunities on the trip for me to pursue these passions (thanks in large part to Kim’s grace and willingness to grant me regular leave passes). But, it’s not some kind of free-for-all. One option is to bring the kids (or at least the two older girls) with me on these sorties. Another approach is too get up super early, before the van’s other inhabitants begin to stir, and head out for a quick session that has me back by around the time Kim’s first caffeine hit has begun to taper off.    

Kayaking in the Oru on Ningaloo Reef
Kayaking on Ningaloo Reef

What I have noticed over the last week or so is that, whilst the option of involving the kids in what were previously ‘me-time’ activities is not without its drawbacks, it is deeply rewarding, and is providing the raw materials for what I sense will be truly lasting memories that are full of joy.

It has also been wonderful to see that, just as Mia and Liv have such different personalities, their preferred activities for ‘Daddy-time’ involve clear individual preferences that are sometimes in sharp contrast. Looking at the ‘About Us’ section for the blog that Kim wrote before we left, it is funny to see that Liv was, then accurately, described as anxious and reserved, whereas Mia’s daredevil streak is more than hinted at. How funny it is that the opposite has emerged to date.    

Liv has been super adventurous – enthusiastically bounce arounding in chop and wind in the tinny as we zoom out at full throttle to a snorkeling spot consisting of amazing soft coral gardens that we found more than a kilometre from dry land. Upon arrival and without hesitation, she then exits the boat, navy-seal style, and happily swims around spotting fish and talking excitedly with remarkable diction through her snorkel. Mia also enjoys the boat, but on a very different basis and with a number of immutable rules. Rule No.1 – she gets to drive for a minimum of 90% of the time. In so doing, she diligently pushes and pulls the tiller steer of the outboard in immediate response to Daddy’s instructions. Rule No. 2, we are to travel at no faster than idle speed. This obviously limits our exploration range somewhat, but we did manage to putter to a footprint-less beach hidden behind a rocky outcrop. Once there, Mia happily began shell prospecting, chatting the whole time about which discoveries she was most excited to show ‘Bubba’ (our name for Olivia) when we got back to camp.      

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One of my more successful ‘Me-time’ plus ‘Kid-time’ outings was taking Olivia in the boat to some impressive sand dunes that I had noticed returning home from an early morning fishing outing whilst we were at Ningaloo Station. Olivia had expressed immediate interest in an exploratory run to check them out. I had suspected that there were some interesting wind patterns in the dunes so took a mental note that, perhaps, I could do some landscape photography when we got there. I was not disappointed. As Livy repeatedly rolled down the highest dunes like a runaway 44-gallon drum (all the while declaring that she was not even a little bit dizzy), I managed to snap a few frames of the intricate sand details.

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I’m also pleased to report that my solo fishing trips have been fruitful. In a break from my almost exclusive catch-and-release practices back home, it has been nice to actually be fishing to supply the family with a source of nutrition. The menu has varied from Spanish Mackerel (super fun to catch with lightning fast runs, but hardly a banner culinary experience) to us all feasting on a stonker of a Coronation Trout (close relative of the revered coral trout, which I recall having seen for sale at the Sydney Fish Markets for the princely sum of $95/kg).  

I’m yet to have much success in integrating a serious fishing outing with the kids, which is perhaps the last stronghold of melding ‘Me-time’ with ‘Dad-time’. The tension remains. I guess this is all a pretty good dilemma to have to try to work through…

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Coronation Trout

Flyfishing in paradise

      

Oh, the places you’ll go!

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Kim:

I hate this!” I hissed at Dave as we drove over yet another patch of particularly corrugated dirt road. We had about another forty-five kilometres to go on the road and the last vehicle we had passed gave us the courtesy of winding down his window to forewarn us just what a “#$%* of a road” we had left to travel.  

“I just don’t understand what about this you find enjoyable” I asked / interrogated Dave, closer to the point of tears than I’d care to admit. I turned to my friend Jess who had spontaneously flown over from Sydney to join us for a week of adventure as we travelled ‘off the grid’ to Ningaloo Station. I was hopeful she would back my position of this not being a good idea. Despite being jammed into the boot of the car with a plethora of our gear nearly suffocating her, she seemed perfectly comfortable that our chosen form of holiday was to deprive ourselves of on-the-grid conveniences with three small children, all for the sake of… well at that particular point in time I wasn’t sure what it was for the sake of!

“The end will justify the means, Kim.” Dave assured me.  “I promise. Just trust me,” he said.  Famous last words, I thought to myself, wondering if the generator was going to be able to handle the surge of electricity required to fire my coffee machine in the morning.

We had first heard of Ningaloo Station from a friend in Sydney who had praised it as one of his all- time favourite spots from his own wanderings around Australia. The next piece of the puzzle that persuaded us to make the effort to visit happened when Dave arrived in Perth to pick up his ‘dream boat’ during the drive over.

A much maligned (by me) Gumtree purchase, the vessel in question could be rightly described as glorified tinny that fitted neatly on top of the car – weighing almost half of its aluminium equivalent (Dave made me add that bit). As a credit to his humility, Dave acted as though he had just purchased one of Kerry Packer’s prestigious mega-yachts. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder darling,” he said while dreamily starring at the new boat that the girls had named ‘Barry’. As things would transpire, the previous owner of Barry had also enjoyed many seasons at Ningaloo Station with his family shortly before his passing. When his wife heard of our plans, she was more than happy to call her friend and the owner of the station to organise for us to free camp at one of the top sites. So here we were, twenty kilometres down a corrugated dirt road travelling at twenty kilometres an hour with 45 kilometres to go.

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I didn’t doubt that where we were heading was going to be beautiful. I was actually scared of being so remote from my urban security blanket (or at least a powered van site and sealed road!). While I wasn’t happy at the thought that my coffee machine may not work in the morning, it was the anxious and invasive thought that if something happened to the girls there would be no one or nothing around that genuinely made me feel so uncomfortable with this endeavour. 

My fear was almost immediately alleviated when we were personally greeted at our camp site by our next-door neighbour, Roger, who personified a helpful Aussie mate. “I heard you were coming today”, he said happily,  “I’ll help you back the caravan in,” he offered to Dave (and thank goodness for that). “We have been coming here for 42 years. My oldest son was just her age when we first started coming here,” he explained, smiling warmly at Alice. It turned out that Roger and his wife Jan camped at Ningaloo Station for the winter months each year and was so much a part of the camp’s fabric that he has even bored his own water source. Although there were not many people around, Roger and the Ningaloo Station community welcomed us with open arms. From sharing stories over a cold beer in the afternoon, to the kids ‘collecting bones’ together, to letting us in on the best snorkelling and fishing spots, we felt far more a part of a group of people you could count on than I had imagined. Worries alleviated (mostly).  

I hate to admit it, but Dave was right. We got to camp metres away from a beautiful turquoise bay that was a quick snorkel, stand up paddle board, or kayak from the World Heritage-listed coral gardens of Ningaloo Reef. The girls spent their days happily combing the beach for shells, discovering the underwater world, and jumping off the front of Daddy’s prized boat as it bobbed at anchor about 20m from the door of our van. “I can’t believe I have such a fancy boat” Dave exclaimed at one point, before continuing, “…and all the girls want to do is jump off the front of it like a diving board.” We feasted on freshly caught seafood while watching the sunset. Similarly special moments were shared as we tilted the camp chairs to maximum horizontal and spent some time star gazing under the clear night skies.

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While we fell asleep at night to crashing waves, we were often woken up by the sudden change of weather, including some howling winds. So much so that on one night Dave had to go for a 2am swim to retrieve our 3.5 x 3.5m shade gazebo which had been picked up and blown off the beach. Not the first piece of equipment that our family had lost to a tempest, so there was no point getting too stressed about it.

As I began to unwind into a more natural rhythm I was able to connect deeply with the incredible nature and people that surrounded me. I was constantly reminded that going off the grid was not in fact losing control of my daily happenings, but rather a precious opportunity to realise I was never really in control in the first place.

I am sorry to say goodbye to this special place. A place where precious memories were created with family and friends, a place where good Aussie mateship was experienced freely and a place where my character was built by facing some of my fears. As we stopped at the end of the corrugated road to re-inflate all eight tyres before hitting the blacktop, a couple beginning their journey wound down their window to ask, “What’s the road like?” I replied, “Pretty rough,”  but then quickly added, “…completely worth it.  Have a great time.”

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