The best part about traveling is you never know exactly what kind of adventures you will find. If you know me, you know those adventures can often times be high impact – and frightening for those reading or listening. The following story is no exception. This is the story of how an Alaskan guy I met in Sydney and I ended up in a remote Australian cabin, at times fearing for our lives.
How It All Started
It all started, strangely enough, with a call into the Mark Colavecchio radio show. I called in about a month ago to check in and give Mark an update on my Australia adventure. We had a good chat and wished each other all the best. This was very early in the morning for me as Anchorage, at the time, was 20 hours behind Sydney (18 now after daylight savings time; it was 19 for a while because there is a 2 week gap in the countries daylight savings time, I know it’s weird). Not long after the call I got an email, the subject line was Australia. The following is a portion of the contents of the email:
I don’t know you from a bar of soap but am always interested to hear your calls on the radio.
My wife Jacqueline and I are a couple of ratbags who moved here from Australia 3 years ago. We have some land and a cabin west of Kempsey NSW near a town called Bellbrook and miss it incredibly.
I wondered if you were up for a unique free homestay in the cabin for up as short or long a time as you want? (That said, we will need it in August for a 2 month visit)
It’s 11 k’s from the nearest town and off grid. I’d like to know what condition it’s in and have someone do general maintenance, lawns etc without getting run over by the cattle, washed out by floods and bitten by the worlds deadliest snakes. I will also want loads of pictures.
Anyway if you are up for it, get back to me and I can send more details. It’s remote, hot and the cicadas will burst your eardrums – sounds appealing doesn’t it (remember the snakes)? It is also on a creek and is an amazing place to chill out.
I thought it sounded like an awesome opportunity. I called Torsten to chat more about it. I thought the name sounded familiar and after talking for a few minutes I realized I actually met him once in Alaska. When I was working at GCI one of my clients was going to make some substantial changes to their network and Torsten was their IT guy. We met once to discuss their needs. I remembered he was Australian. At the time I was contemplating going to Australia and we chatted a bit about it.
I told him I was interested in going to the cabin but was not sure when I could go as I was looking for a job and the cabin was pretty far from Sydney. I mentioned that, however, I was contemplating getting out of Sydney and heading north but not sure when. I told him I would keep him posted.
Not long before the cabin email I had met this awesome Alaskan cat in Sydney named Tim. We have a mutual friend back home in Anchorage who connected us. Tim is quite a character and very different than me. We got along straight away. He had been picking fruit in northern Queensland but was traveling around and ended up in Sydney. He was crashing at the place I was staying. I mentioned the cabin opportunity to him, he was interested but also a bit skeptical. He said it sounded rapey. I agreed but told him I knew the guy really well, which was, well not exactly accurate.
Some time went by and I decided to get out of Sydney. Tim wanted to leave too because he needed to complete his 90 days of farm work up north so he could extend his visa. We agreed to get out of Sydney and head north (There is a whole different story about this really fucked up living situation we were in that involved a gypsy lady and a lot of drama. This was part of the reason I wanted to get out of Sydney but that will all be in a future post). I was going to a friend’s wedding in Dominican Republic and Tim was finishing out some construction work so we agreed to leave on April 1.
I got in touch with Torsten and told him the plan. We exchanged emails about the cabin and what he wanted us to do. He told me we needed to meet this guy who does the cabin maintenance so he could lead us out there. It is so off the grid it is nearly impossible to find unless you know where it is. This is when we began to contemplate the what ifs… I got in touch with the guy and told him when we would be in town to meet him.
Luckily Tim has a car (the real reason I invited him). This thing is a real beauty. A beautiful, gold, 2001 Ford Escape with about 1/3 of the options. It is missing the CD changer and only has 270,000 kilometers. The middle console is, for some reason, not completely attached to the floor. The car dealership who sold it to him told him it was “mint!” A great deal at $3,000 AUD ($2,250 USD). Tim had driven this thing all over Australia, the only reason I was confident we would make it.
Tim was staying with me and the gypsy lady but they had a major falling out and drama ensued. He left the place a few days before we were scheduled to head out so he had to pick me up the morning we were leaving. Luckily she was not home as she said if she saw him again she would, “Lose it on his American ass.” Tim arrived and I quickly packed all my stuff in the Escape, which turns out was a very appropriate name for the car.
We headed out of Sydney, putting it all in the rear view. We stopped in Singleton to see my mate Andrew, his wife Kristen and their two kids. Andrew brews his own beer and he had a cold one waiting for me. He was nice enough to let me use his printer so I could vote by email in the municipal election back home in Anchorage. We relaxed there for a few hours and then continued on our journey. Andrew and the wife were a bit skeptical about the cabin. They wished us luck.
Arriving In Kempsey
It took around nine hours to get to Kempsey from Sydney after stopping to see Andrew and getting some supplies. Tim had gotten accustomed to sleeping in the Escape but he was not too excited about sharing it with brother bear, he started calling me that for some reason. I suggested we get a hotel so we can get a good night sleep. We rolled into Kempsey around 10 pm, the place was dead on a Saturday night.
We drove around looking for a hotel. We pulled into one, no one seemed to be there and it looked like the Bates Motel, so we got the hell out. We settled on the Kempsey Motor Inn. We parked at the entrance and walked in. We were greeted by an older gentlemen as a younger Thai man scurried to the back. His name was Robbie. Describing him would be a challenge but let’s just say he’s the kind of person you never forget. He was surprised to see two Alaskans role up to his place at 10 at night. He told us he rad recently bought the place with his partner and was getting it fixed up. Remember the partner.
We got a room with two beds, the honeymoon suite was not available. We chatted a bit with Robbie while, in the Aussie way, he messed with us. I asked him how many people live in Kempsey? He responded, “Oh about twenty-five thousand (pause) five thousand of which are blackies!” Tim and I were like uh, come again? One thing I have noticed in Australia is when you get out of the city and into the country people have few reservations about making openly racist comments. He then said because he liked us he was going to upgrade us to a better room. Tim commented, “Because of easier access to the peep holes?” Robbie responded, “Nah mate, because it will be easier to slit your fuckin throats while you are sleeping!” He said it in a joking way but we were still like, damn we are in it now.
Before we went to the room he walked us back to the restaurant so he could sell me a few beers. The restaurant was locked up. Robbie opened it and took us in, it was something right out of the Shining. He sold me a few beers. As we were walking out, the ice maker in the back kicked on and Tim was like you need to zip tie them up better next time. Robbie then started telling us how he had lung cancer and liver failure. He looked really healthy, I asked him if he had treatment. He said doctors don’t know shit and he was cured from sea cucumbers. We pulled the car around and settled in for a nice sleep before our trip out to the cabin.
Heading To The Cabin
We woke up the next morning refreshed and ready to go. Well Tim woke me while he was unpacking and organizing the car. Dude is an early riser. Robbie was monitoring the grounds in his golf cart. He is quite the engaged innkeeper. I went to take a shower. As soon as I turned on the water the shower head shot off at a high speed, almost smacking me in the head. I called Robbie and asked if he could fix it. He came in hot with tools and a replacement. He was telling us about a time he visited America. I interrupted at one point to ask a questions and he yelled, “Jesus Christ mate, typical fuckin American, can’t shut the fuck up.” Again, this was in a joking way but was still full on. He added, remember he is a Kiwi, “The worst people in the world are Australians. Except for fuckin Americans!” I think he liked us.
We got packed up and went to check out. Tim and I had the suspicion that Robbie was an old queen and the younger Thai man was the partner he mentioned. I had to confirm this. As we were checking out I asked about his business and his partner. Like a business partner or a life partner? He was like, “Yeah mate, he is in the back making fried rice.” I have some gay friends and have gotten pretty familiar with some of the terminology in the gay community. Robbie would best be described as a daddy. He wished us a good journey and we headed off to meet Rob (different guy) who would take us out to the cabin.
We went shopping for supplies and then met Rob. Rob has been doing maintenance and taking care of the cabin for years. He is very Aussie. Unlike me he is not a talker so I did most of the talking. I rode out with Rob and Tim followed behind. I was telling Rob all about my life and Aussie adventure. He told me about his business and family. I probably did 90% of the talking. We stopped at a pub in the closest town to the cabin, Bellbrook. Bellbrook is a very small town, population 356.
After a beer we headed to the cabin. This was no simple journey. There had just been major rains and parts of the road were washed out. We crossed a concrete bridge, the water had subsided but days before the bridge was nearly unpassable. There were cows and bulls everywhere, all free range. We had to stop 5 times so I could get out, open cattle gates, let the cars pass and then close them. After about 30 minutes I was thinking damn this really is remote. We got to a point when Rob stopped and engaged 4 wheel drive low. I saw a steep ravine and thought no way that is the road, it was. I was worried about Tim and the old Escape making it up but it handled it like a champion. The top of the ravine lead to an almost unrecognizable road that was camouflaged by high grass. After about 5 minutes and another gate we arrived at the cabin.
Rob had recently been out and mowed all the grass, which saved Tim and I a lot of work. The cabin sits at the bottom of a picturesque valley in a temperate rain forest. Rob showed us around and helped us get settled in. There was a complex power system consisting of solar panels and many large batteries. There were propane tanks for cooking and heating the shower water though we could not figure out how to heat the water. Torsten had built a nearly self sustainable cabin in the middle of nowhere. Two large water tanks filled up with rain water and the solar panels and batteries provide power – well kind of.
Once Rob had shown us everything, including a dead black snake, he left us to fend for ourselves – but not before giving us a nice gift. He and his wife prepared a gift basket for us containing lots of food, medical supplies, some beers and a bottle of top shelf Australian Bundaberg Rum! The medical supplies were in case we got bit by a snake or spider. Things were starting off well. Rob drove away leaving Tim and I to get settled in.
Cabin Life – The First Day
The cabin sits in a truly magnificent place. It is so remote that all you hear are the noises of nature, in this case the creek behind the cabin and all kinds of animals, mostly birds. This was the complete opposite of the bustling city of Sydney. I was happy to be in the wilderness and away from the craziness of Newtown and the stress of looking for a job.
We arrived around 3 pm so there was plenty of daylight left. We unpacked the Escape and got settled in. One of the first things we noticed was a stuffed fake person sitting on the porch in a rocker. Torsten had mentioned that “Gilbert” would be happy to have some company, which I thought was an animal. This was Gilbert. The bed and couches were covered with sheets. There were rat or mouse droppings scattered throughout the cabin. The place has not been lived in for years so that is not unexpected. We decided a full cleaning was in order – but that could wait until morning. We had a list of work Torsten wanted us to do, we would tackle all of the work the next day. Torsten wanted me to call him when we arrived so he could walk me through a few things but he sent an email saying he would be at a party and unavailable the day we were arriving.
Torsten has s small TV and DVD player with a full selection of 23 DVD’s. Tim and I decided to make dinner and watch a movie. The sun had set and the temperature started to drop. It actually got quite chilly at night. We made some awesome burritos and sat down to watch one of my favorite movies, Burn After Reading, that Torsten happened to have. About fifteen minutes into the movie, boom, power out! Some of the lights and fridge still worked but everything else (TV, power outlets) was dead. I went outside to the cabinet with all of the electrical equipment to have a look. My knowledge of electricity is right up there with my knowledge of Arabic – I know it is a language and know one or two terms. I had no idea what I was doing.
I came back inside and told Tim I had no clue what to do. Tim came out to have a look, we tried “resetting” all kinds of switches that resembled fuses. That did nothing (I know shocking) so we went back inside to brainstorm. Torsten was unreachable, the only person I could call was Rob. I looked at my phone and there was no service. Tim and I looked at each other with worried faces, all of our jokes about what could happen seemed to be coming true. I was not really scared but let’s just say I was a little paranoid. Tim went outside and retrieved a hatchet and a large metal pole in case shit went down. I walked away from the cabin and got a bar of service. I rang Rob and explained the situation. He said, “Sorry mate no idea what to do.” I thanked him and said it was no big deal.
Tim and I started talking about our decisions to come to Australia and the time we had spent together in Sydney. Then out of no where Tim said, “What if a bullet just ripped through the back of my skull and I slumped over?” Not exactly what I wanted to hear. I joked and told him I would poke at his dead body and say, “Tim, you okay buddy? You taking a nap?” We decided if the attack came then we were going to grab the weapons and head out to the bush. All of the noises did not help to calm the nerves. We eventually fell asleep without being murdered.
Cabin Life – Day Two
We woke up to a cloudy sky and light rain. The power was still out. I called Torsten to let him know we arrived and also to see if he knew what could be the issue with the power. He was not sure but gave me some ideas on what to do. Luckily two of my best mates in Australia are electricians so I decided to call my mate Andrew, who we had visited days before. I met Andrew 10 years ago in Germany while I was backpacking Europe and we have stayed in touch since. I explained the situation to him and he talked me through a few things. I sent him an email with a picture of the cabinet (which took 5 minute to send) and he responded with one sentence, “Damn that looks messed up.” I called him back and asked what he thought. He asked me how far the nearest hospital was. I decided to forego playing electrician. After all we did have some lights and the fridge was working. Later I got an email from Torsten suggesting I reset the inverter, IT 101! I did and it worked, the power was back! Well for a while.
Some of the work Torsten wanted us to do required a shovel, which we could not seem to find. We also wanted to clean the house and did not have any paper towels or cleaning supplies. We decided to go in town and get some supplies at the general store. We were careful to remember exactly how to get back. I was on gate duty again.
The general store looked exactly how it sounds, an old building with “General Store” written on the front. We walked in and were greeted by a lady that was right out of the movie Deliverance, Aussie edition. She was hunched over and wearing thick glasses. They did not have a shovel or much of what we needed. The shelves were stocked with what seemed to be only one of every item, except what we needed. The lady asked us where we were staying. I remembered Torsten asked me to pick up his mail from the general store. I told her we were staying at Torsten’s place and asked for his mail, which she gave to me. She then said, “How long you boys staying up there for?” Tim looked at me with a concerned facial expression. I said, “Oh well we could be leaving any day now…” Tim tried to buy some napkins but she said they were running low so she cut the napkin bag in half, gave him half and kept the other half. We paid for the few items we found, went to the pub for a beer and headed back. Luckily the pub had a shovel we were able to borrow.
We headed back for the cabin, nearly careening off the road at one point. I was on gate duty again. We decided the next time we drive out is when we leave, or when we were escaping an attack. The first thing we did was dig out the ground at the main gate. The gate was getting stuck and could only open about 3/4 of the way. With our combined shoveling skills the gate now opens all the way. We then went to the cabin and spent a while doing a deep clean – which was much needed. Later I noticed the power was out again. I tried to reset the inverter bu it did not work. I started to suspect it was the batteries. Torsten had mentioned this could be the issue. Once the place was all cleaned up it was time to take a shower. Because the hot water was not working we settled for the next best option, the creek. The water was a bit chilly but also very refreshing. If anyone had seen us they would have probably thought this was a Brokeback Mountain situation.
We went back to the cabin and started on dinner. Tim had noticed that some of the food we left outside had been rummaged through, what could it have been? I fixed myself a nice rum and coke, sat on the swinging chair on the balcony and continued reading The Fatal Shore, a great book about Australia’s convict history. The sky was full of clouds and there was a light breeze as the sun was setting. The evening was looking to be pretty quiet, or so we thought…
After dinner we lit a fire in this very old, steel wood burning stove. It had “PITTSBURGH” etched on the front. A relic from the booming days of the American steel industry. It took some trial and error figuring out how the flue worked but we eventually got it – the stove worked great. Tim went outside at one point to take a piss. When he was heading back in I heard him yell out, “Ahhh!” Apparently he forgot about old Gilbert sitting on his rocker and had a little scare.
We were enjoying a nice fire and a quiet evening when, suddenly, we heard something scurrying outside. Tensions rose, what could it be? We looked at each other not sure what to do but knowing we had to check it out. We went to the door and had a look outside, we did not see anything. I opened the door and saw something small moving at the edge of the deck. It was a possum! Tim had a run in with a possum a few months back when he was camping and told me they are not scared of people. Tim went outside and the thing seemed to have no fear of him. He got a banana and broke a small piece off. The possum climbed up the ledge, stood on its hind legs and reached out with its little hands and grabbed the banana. The possum was not scared of us at all. We named him Sylvester.
Cabin Life – Day Three
The sun rose to a cloudless sky. The morning chill quickly disappeared. We had a long day of work ahead of us along with a bush walk up the mountain (we would call it a hill in Alaska). Tim cooked a lovely breakfast of eggs, potatoes, toast and avocados. If you have not tried Vegemite before let me just say it is an acquired taste, and I have definitely acquired it. We finished breakfast and geared up to complete our list of work.
I went to check the inverter and noticed the voltage was way up. I switched it on and asked Tim to go inside and check, it worked! I came to the conclusion that the power issue was in fact the batteries not holding the charge. When the sun was hitting the solar panels everything worked, when it went down, lights out. Torsten actually suggested Tim and I go to Kempsey, pick up new batteries and replace the existing ones. I told him I would probably either kill myself or burn the house down. That will be a project for old Torsten.
As I was playing with the inverter I noticed something right above my hand. It was a spider that was upside down and covering some kind of sack. My hand had been inches from this thing the whole time. I jumped back and yelled for Tim to come outside. I showed him the thing and he was like what the hell is that! We decided it had to be dispatched but could not agree on who would do it. We decided on rock, paper, scissors. Now this is a game I have played a lot and mastered so I felt pretty good about it. In what could only be describes as an anomaly, Tim and I threw identical symbols like 20 times in a row. I could not believe it. He eventually beat me.
I grabbed the shovel, nervously moved it close to the spider and smacked it. It fell but was not dead. I kept smashing it until we were confident it was dead. I have no idea what kind of spider it was but it had two very identifiable fangs. The sack hung and oozed out some kind of fluid, it must have been baby spiders. We removed that and disposed of it. So happy I did not get bit out there, it could have been a real disaster (They say if you get bit to try and kill or get a picture of what bit you so they know what serum to give you. They also say to remain calm, lay down and wait for medical personnel, yeah right)
Tim and I completed a variety of tasks ranging from replacing the tarp covering the BBQ pit (luckily no snakes in there), removing an incredible amount of grass and roots from the water tank filter and cleaning and organizing the property. We finished all the work, had a nice lunch and prepared to set out for the bush walk.
We headed down the road and started up the mountain. It was a fairly steep climb and Tim is mister hiker. I was following along, breathing a bit heavy, as Tim looked like he was taking an afternoon stroll. At one point Tim grabbed his leg and yelled out, “Fuck! What was that?” I thought he got bit by something but it was actually a bush he brushed up against. He said it stung something horrible. I thought he was overreacting and told him to chill out. He had a few more of these run ins and I continued to think he was being a baby. That is until my leg brushed up against a Stinging Nettle! If you have never been stung be one of these things before I don’t recommend trying it. The bush releases some kind of toxin on your skin and it is incredibly painful. Tim was not messing around. The pain lasts for hours but eventually goes away.
We posted up on top of the mountain and looked around at the incredible beauty of the rain forest and valley. A large part of the mountain looked like jungle and was completely covered by trees and a canopy. Growing up I always imagined Australia as desert but I have come to learn it is a lot more than that. Other parts had grass fields as far as you could see. It was quite a sight. We headed back down, careful to avoid the Stinging Nettles. I wanted to go into the bush but we were not dressed or equipped for that.
We got back to the cabin excited for our last night. I had a nice dip and wash in the stream as the sun was setting. We cooked our last dinner and watched the sun set for the last time at the cabin. I lit another fire and continued reading The Fatal Shore and thought about how things will go when I get to Brisbane. Sylvester the possum came by again and enjoyed some oats and fruit we left for him. I enjoyed a few more rum and cokes in front of the fire before heading to bed.
Leaving The Cabin
We woke up at 7 am to another chilly morning. After a filling breakfast we packed up the car, secured the cabin and headed to Kempsey to meet Rob. I needed to give him a few things and also wanted to take him for breakfast as he had been so kind to us. We met him at a local diner and told him all about the cabin adventure. The power issue, the spider, the possum. Rob seemed quite amused by our story. We thanked him for being so accommodating and headed north for Queensland. We stopped in Coffs Harbor to have lunch with my mate Scott. I met Scott on the same backpacking trip in Europe I met Andrew on 10 years ago. They were traveling together. It was great staying in touch with them over the years and even better spending time with them on my Australia adventure.
We left Coffs Harbor and headed for Brisbane. I had a few leads on some jobs in Brisbane so I decided to give it a shot for a few weeks and see what happens. On the way up I checked Gumtree (Australia version of Craigslist) for a room to rent. I came across a room in a suburb of Brisbane and called the number. The guy was looking for a long term tenant but after a little Landfield charm I was able to negotiate a shorter term arrangement. We arrived in Brisbane around 8 pm an headed towards his place. Eddie is Brazilian and an all around cool cat. He is in several bands and teaches music. He even invited Tim to stay on the couch that night. Tim headed north to look for farm work while I got situated in Brisbane. We wished each other all the best on our new adventures. This marked the end of one chapter in my Australian adventure and the beginning of a one.