Living the Life of Riley: our year around Australia (Part 2)

One of the main motivations spurring me to travel Australia as a family was the unhurried time we would have together. Unfortunately, our visit to Ulura in early March would turn into a race I now regret. 

But at least I went.

We had originally planned to make our pilgrimage to the rock later in the year when travelling the two thousand kilometres south from Darwin in the coolness of winter makes more sense. Yet, when we arrived unexpectedly in the wonderfully bizarre town of Coober Pedy in the centre of South Australia, we noticed Uluru was only about a third of that distance – so our plans changed. The Riley family would now make a dash for the red centre in the late summer heat, and (hopefully) be back in Coober Pedy in time for an impromptu speaking engagement at a church that weekend.

Up until our arrival in Coober Pedy the maximum distance we had travelled on any given day was only a few hundred kilometres. Our daily schedule consisted of a morning family walk, leisurely breakfast, a smidgeon of schooling for the kids, and then a tad of travel before we arrived at our next unplanned destination for an afternoon of exploration. So a 1,500km return race over 48-hours would test my energy levels and the children’s patience. Starting on Wednesday afternoon, this rushed excursion to the rock would leave the Rileys only enough time for a sunset and a sunrise, and hopefully an attempt to walk around Uluru’s perimeter. The plan was to then jump back in the Gypsy Express and hurtle back to Coober Pedy before the sun went down for Sabbath on Friday evening.

Late on our first afternoon of travel we pulled into Cadney Homestead on the Stuart Highway. The Roadhouse, still 600km from our destination, has a clean swimming pool – a vital feature at the end of a hot day. The campground was almost empty, as you would expect in Australia’s centre in late Summer. Normally, travellers sensibly wait for the cooler months before venturing in from the coast. At Cadney, we unexpectedly met up with an Italian couple living in Victoria who were the only other travellers we had seen on the Oodnadatta Track a few days earlier. As we chatted with the Italians about their plans to also head to Uluru a third car pulled into the campground. Big beaming smiles came through the windshield from two young Europeans backpackers who had camped near us in their rooftop tent at Ikara-Flinders Ranges. A few days previously I had cheekily chided them for their plans to drive south to Port Lincoln and miss out on seeing Uluru before they headed back to Europe. “How can you come to Australia and NOT visit the Rock?!” was my admonition, and it must have wormed its way into their thoughts. They had just driven over a thousand kilometres that day from the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula, and providence would have them pull into the very same campground their tormenter was currently harassing Italians in. I felt excited they had listened to my travel advice, but I also felt an awkward pressure; “What if the rock disappoints them and they’ve travelled all this way because of my chiding?” I thought to myself. There would be no need to be concerned about Uluru’s ability to perform and impress.

We now had ourselves a three-vehicle convoy heading for the centre in the morning.

Border crossings in Australia shouldn’t be hurried or minimised. There are a only a half-dozen or so opportunities in this great southland to change time-zones and territories, so it  should be treated as something special. Vehicles should be stopped and complaining kids should be made to get out. Photos up against signs saying “You Are Now Entering the State of ‘X’” should be taken and then uploaded to social media sites in a not-so-subtle attempt to elicit envy from friends and work colleagues – and especially that brother-in-law who had laughed at your suggestion of taking a year off to do a Big Lap…but perhaps I’m digressing from the story…

The Northern Territory is an ancient land filled with real and mythical monsters. It’s a dreamtime that is still mid-dream in its creation. Entry into this land should require something a little more important than a banal “Look kids, there’s the sign for the NT”. So, the Riley family stood on the South Australian side of the dotted line holding hands, and on the count of three we jumped together into the Territory.

For those who have pilgrimed to Uluru you will know there’s a sense of relief when you refuel your vehicle at  the Eridunda Roadhouse. This fossil-fuel oasis at the intersection of the Stuart and Lasseter Highways whispers temptingly; “You’re close”. The toilet stop, the vat of deeply fried fast-food, and an enclosure of ravenous emus menacing your sandwich all somehow add to an already growing sense of expectation. As you squint down the Lasseter you’re aware that just along THAT road is an ancient sandstone monolith billowing out as a giant multi-hewed bubble from the surrounding desert. But THAT side-road down which the rock is promised is another three hours of driving away. 

For rookie travellers to the rock the Lasseter Highway also comes with a soon-to-be-proven-wrong yelp of excitement. Every first-timer catches sight of Mount Connor jutting out of a flat horizon and mistakes it for Uluru. Locals refer to it as “Fool-uru”, and the presence of a rock ruse out here should be more widely known. The clue is in the name of the track that takes you there – Lasseter Highway. The road is named after a prospector who, almost a hundred years ago, said he had discovered a huge gold reef in central Australia, but couldn’t remember its location. Lasseter died out here trying to find his foolish dream, and Mount Connor has been fooling all those travellers coming after Lasseter.

Our three-car-convey pulled into Yulara in the middle of a hot Thursday afternoon, and then promptly complained about the high prices to camp. Yulara, the only permissable place for a traveller to rest within a reasonable radius of Uluru, is now one of the largest towns in the Northern Territory. The town exists purely to keep pilgrimages like mine to some form of decorum and respect of a sacred site. But decorum and respect have a price, and the cost is not middle-of-nowhere cheap.

The Riley team completed a Formula One-quick unhitch of the caravan, and sprinted our dust-covered Landcruiser the twenty minutes south to the red centre’s star attraction. I glanced regularly in the rear mirror to check the progress of the Italian’s rented van, and also the held-together-by-sticky-tape-but-at-least-it-has-a-tent-on-the-roof vehicle the backpackers were driving. I hoped I didn’t lose them, but knew if I did I wasn’t going to stop – a setting sun upon the rock waits for no mortal. 

I feel like I’m a latte-sipping stereotype of a soft, city-dwelling southerner when I write about the deep experience of standing before Uluru, but where is my (decaf) coffee cup? There is something about the permanence and majesty of any striking rock formation that prompts me to think about my own brief existence in this land. But Uluru doesn’t need any kind of unusual shape or unique form to strike you. Uluru simply is. When you look into its changing hues you feel like you’re staring into eternity. The Apostle Paul might have described it as “looking through a glass, but darkly”* when he wrote about catching a glimpse of another Rock only two thousand years ago. 

So, with my wife, the three quirky Riley kids, a couple of convoying Europeans, and five million flies, I paid my respects to the Pitjantjatjara people – a custodian nation who have cared for the significance of this giant slice of sandstone ever since a moment slightly after the creation of time. Also, I paid my respects to their Creator.

A moment like this requires confession: “I’m fifty-two years old,” I said to Jasper, the Dutch half of the sticky-taped backpacker-mobile, “and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to come.”

Yes, I was late. But at least I came. 

To be continued…(my next Reverential Ramble will describe the Rileys’ journey south to the Eyre Peninsula and then west across the Nullarbor to the hermit kingdom of Western Australia. Subscribe to get future Rambles direct to your inbox).

(* The Apostle Paul’s quote comes from his first letter to the Corinthian church – chapter 13, verse 12)

There’s a reason travellers steer clear of Uluru in the summer….five billion flies!

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is a minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is taking a sabbatical year (or two) to drag his family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.

Living the Life of Riley: our year around Australia (Part 1)

The Riley family has wrapped up our year-long meandering lap around the continent of Australia. And what a year 2021 was for the Gypsy Express as the five of us trekked deserts, saw cities, walked beaches, kayaked with crocodiles, swam with dolphins, and enjoyed each other’s company….mostly.

The year saw us drag our caravan for longer than the length of this planet’s equator, and visit people and places on this great south land we will remember for a lifetime… and even longer (you might have expected me to throw in a slice of eternity on a blog titled: “Reverential Ramblings”). 

We pulled away from our family home in Queensland just prior to Christmas 2020 and headed south through New South Wales, spending time with extended family until the beginning of the New Year. The Rileys were strategically avoiding peak travel congestion on the road. For those who have road-tripped with a van you will know it is the accepted wisdom to hide away if you can during school holidays, especially Christmas. 

Down the centre of NSW during the dog-day heat of January to find the cooling Murray River. This river had mixed meanings for me as a child, and now my kids were swimming daily in its murky depths. The Riley Gypsy Express stalked the Murray for a few thousand kilometres to see it spew its contents into the Southern Ocean. Fresh water meets salt meets the town of Goolwa in South Australia. 

Joanne nervously watched a hundred nervous people watch me nervously reverse our caravan onto a narrow boat. Have I mentioned how nervous I was reversing our long caravan in public? Well, I nailed it at the first attempt, and the crowd roared its appreciation (that last description might not be exactly accurate…). The boat’s destination was Kangaroo Island off the south coast of Australia. 

K.I. has a wonderful mixture of wildlife and wild beaches. The catastrophic Australian bushfires of 2019 (remember them?) had significantly reduced animal numbers on Kangaroo Island, and also the number of visitors to the place, yet there were still echidnas, koalas and remarkable rocks calling to us from across the waves. Our most memorable day on K.I. was swimming with a pod of dolphins and spying on a mama dolphin feeding her very cute baby calf underwater. We did try to entice the seals lazing in the sun on nearby rocks to dive into the water with us, but they saw our shouts and splashes were made with blue lips and shivering hands and knew they had best stay lazing.

Our drive ‘up the guts’ of central South Australia took us through the Flinders Ranges. Some lappers of Oz miss this part of the continent as they fix their eyes west. I would tell them “Don’t!” Make sure you explore this ancient part of country, and if you do, tell me who you think the supernatural voice is, speaking to you as you stand atop Ikara (a.k.a. Wilpena Pound) in the early morning light. Surely there is an ancient Creator who communicates to each one of us through nature. Ikara is the local Adnyamathanha word for ‘meeting place’ and the Rileys were blessed to meet their Maker on this mountain top. We had begun our walk to its heights well before the sun was awake, and we still brag of being the first sightseers to summit for that year’s climbing season.

The reason I had purchased a heavy-duty off-road caravan was to gypsy our family into the wilderness and still make it back again. So, as we headed out of the Flinders and towards the Oodnadatta Track, I strategically neglected to tell Joanne our route would involve driving a sometimes flooded Brachina Gorge. This dry river canyon tested my inexperienced caravanning skills as we slid almost seven tonnes of vehicle around sandy river beds. The most memorable part of our drive wasn’t the sighting of rare yellow-footed rock wallabies – it was Joanne’s occasional stressed yelps of: “Where have you taken us, David?!” 

At the small town of Marree where the infamous Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks fork out either side of Lake Eyre, the Riley Gypsy Express headed north west. The inland Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, home of the Arabana people, is the lowest point on the Australian continent and for years will lay empty and caked in salt. It is 10,000 square kilometres of whiteness as far as the shimmering horizon will allow you to see. As the Riley kids strolled out upon the dry lake into the 42 degree heat, they imagined themselves walking on top of the Universe’s largest cake.

We hadn’t planned to be outback in the late sumer of early March, but here we were. There is a freedom to having time and no fixed programme, and a small house hanging off our car’s tow-bar. 

The Riley kids began complaining about the flies and the heat, and the nothingness. Talking with a local he told me I was lucky – because there was a southerly wind blowing keeping the heat and flies down. That news provided no solace to the kids who, after a few days, were refusing to get out of the airconditioned Landcruiser whenever I came across a landmark I thought was interesting.

Driving into the town of Coober Pedy is like driving into no other place on Earth. The town’s name is of Aboriginal origin meaning “White fella in a hole” and that’s exactly what it is. When opals were discovered in Coober Pedy a century ago, white fellas came in their thousands and dug huge holes underground looking for fortune. When the day’s diggings were done, the white fellas slept in the holes and Coober Pedy was born. Today, there are hundreds of cave-homes in the town – built with modern kitchens, lounge-rooms and bathrooms. All of them built mostly underground where the temperature is cool and constant, unlike up above on the surface where it can vary from zero to fifty degrees celsius depending on the time of year (that’s a variation of 32 – 122 Fahrenheit for you American heathens).

Jim, a local prospector, took us to his opal mining claim. His cavern was once mined by a conglomerate who had taken as much as their machines could munch, and then moved on. Jim took over the claim thirty years ago and had spent the last three decades noodling around for left overs. The kids were fascinated by the cave, but I was fascinated by Jim. What drives a man to hammer away in the semi-darkness for most of his adult life, looking for hydrated amorphous forms of silica (I looked up that description of opal on Wikipedia…)? I asked Jim some questions, and he told me of the time he was lured to Coober Pedy in his early twenties with the promise of a good job. They lied, he stayed, and each day for the last thirty years he’s wondered if today’s the day he becomes rich and makes it all worthwhile. I asked Jim if he knew what he knows now would he do it again. Jim unexpectedly began to cry when I asked him my question. Should I hug the man I’d only met that day, or simply allow him answer the question? “No” was his one-word response that spoke of a lifetime of regret. It wasn’t the right time to let Jim know that his precious opal was being built into the walls of a heavenly home promised in Scripture. 

To be continued…(my next Reverential Ramble will describe the Rileys’ journey to Uluru – the heart of Australia. Afterwards, the Riley Gypsy Express heads west across the Nullarbor to the hermit kingdom of Western Australia).

Our home on the road for twelve months – The Riley Gypsy Express
The Riley kids clambering over the Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island
A year of exploring remote beaches
Joanne on top of Ikara-Wilpena Pound at sunrise
Ikara-Wilpena Pound from an airplane. The Rileys were the first “offical” climbers to reach the top in 2021
The Rileys on the dry salt bed of Lake Eyre
Trying our hand at opal mining in a cave at Coober Pedy

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and was blessed to be granted a Sabbatical year during 2021 to drag his young family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.

A SPANISH CASTLE IN THE AUSTRALIAN TROPICAL RAINFOREST

Travelling through the tropical rainforests of Queensland the last thing you would anticipate stumbling upon is a century old Spanish castle. Yet there it is – Paronella Park – sitting beside a flowing waterfall. It should be in a fairy tale, not in the humid northern Australian jungle. 

The castle’s creator was Jose Paronella, who emigrated from northern Spain to Australia over one hundred years ago. Jose was in his early twenties and full of ambition and romance. He had left his fiance in northern Spain, promising to return to marry her when he had made enough wealth to let her live comfortably. And what was his plan for making money? He built sugar-cane farms in the tropics of this southern continent. 

When Jose returned to his native Catalonia near the border with France he discovered his fiance had married someone else. Dejected, and determined to sail back to Australia with a wife, Jose asked his former fiance’s younger sister to marry him instead. She agreed, and Jose brought Margarita back to the Australian tropics. On arrival in 1929 they started building Jose’s dream of a Spanish castle ten thousand miles from his childhood.

It would be wonderful to think that when their neighbours first saw Paronella’s crazy grand plans, they all uttered in unison: “No way, Jose!”

But Jose did have a way, and by the end of the 1930’s Paronella Park would have ornate turret-topped towers, stone balustrades, and star-filled ballrooms. Grand balconies would overlook the turtles playing in the creek flowing through the grounds. On weekends Jose and Margarita would host lavish parties in their castle, and hundreds of people would fill this enchanting place in the Australian rain forrest. 

When Jose died in 1948 the family were already rebuilding after a disastrous flood only two years earlier. And over the next five decades the castle would begin to fall apart through fire, cyclones, and the ever-encroaching rainforest surrounding the Catalan castle.

Almost fifty years after Jose Paronella died,  a young couple purchased the park in ruins. They slowly began to clear away the five decades of creeping tropics and repair a crumbling dream. Today, once again, hundreds of people walk through Paronella Park daily and marvel at a Spanish Castle ten thousand miles from where it should be.

When the Riley family visited recently, my favourite part of the park was an avenue of giant Kauri trees leading down to the creek. Jose Paronella planted them knowing he would never see their magnificence. He planted them for future generations to enjoy.

In a similar way I hope our caravan lap around Australia as a family will inspire dreams in our kids that will outlast us as parents.

There’s an ancient Greek proverb that says: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”

The Bible says something similar about itself: “This Book will be written for the generation to come, so a people yet to be created may know God”. (Psalm 102:18).

What metaphorical trees are you planting today that will inspire the dreams of generations to come?

A section of Jose Paronella’s castle in Queensland
The Castle’s riverside courtyard – with Joanne enjoying the sunshine
Joanne and the Riley kids on one of the castle’s many balconies
An avenue of Kauri trees planted by Jose Paronella in the 1930’s

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is a minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is taking a sabbatical year during 2021 to drag his family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.

THE MADMAN’S TRACK

The Riley family travelled north during June to the remote Western Australian town of Broome. The road to Broome this time of year is filled with travellers chasing winter’s warmth, including holidaying families in heavy-ladened caravans, dreadlocked twenty-somethings in cars packed with fire-juggling paraphernalia, and bus-filled retirees in the sunsets of their own lives – all careening up the Great Northern Highway.

Broome is such a wonderful winter escape during the cool middle of a southern hemisphere year that its population triples for three months. In the early spring, when the troops of travellers finally depart town, Broome returns to being a hothouse of humidity leaving residents wanting to live inside their own fridges.

But a centenary before this paved motorway sped travellers north by their tens of thousands chasing winter’s sun, there was another road twenty miles further west – the “Old” Broome Road. 

This now forgotten road (if you could ever really call it a road) was the path poor sojourners either walked or sat astride beasts of burden as they travelled to and from Port Hedland in the south, and everywhere in between. Those with more money and sense travelled by boat, for the Broome road had too many depravations. The road was pockmarked with the heavy hooves of horses and cattle, sandy and windswept from the tropic’s summer blows, and devoid of any semblance of drinking water. Those who travelled it needed resilience and courage in spades, and maybe just a touch of insanity.

When gold was discovered ‘down south’ in the Pilbara in the late 1800’s,  prospectors who had been chasing pearls in Broome walked over three hundred miles down this road to try their luck in the goldfields. To travel this road was to suffer. So many prospectors experienced significant hardship, and even died travelling this path, that the road became known as the “Madman’s Track”.

It was said that if a person wasn’t already crazy to travel the Madman’s Track, they would be by the time they finished.

Many centuries ago Jesus talked on a hillside to a large audience about a similar Madman’s Track: “In life” Jesus said, “make sure you travel the road no-one else is on. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and most people are travelling this road. Less people are walking the narrow way, and it’s this path that leads to life” (Matthew 6:13-14).

Jesus was talking about a path many people are still on today. A crazy metaphorical road chasing cash, fame and recognition, and earthly successes. This road, Jesus said, was temporary and led to destruction. His way is better He told His audience, and it had less people travelling it.

I do hope that’s the path my family is travelling on, as we continue to follow the Son.

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is a minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is taking a sabbatical year to drag his family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.

Good News on Australia’s First Ever “Big Lap” of the Continent

The Riley “Big Lap of Australia” in our Gypsy Express farewelled the city of Perth this week to begin our trek up the western coast towards Broome – and then on to the warmth of Darwin in the Top End by mid-winter. 

The nights are becoming a little cooler in the south of Western Australia so we’re chasing the sun north as it continues its autumnal recession. 

As a Seventh-day Adventist pastor I’m proud the first person to circumnavigate Australia in a motor vehicle was a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist in 1925. Neville Westwood had planned to travel from his home in Perth up to Darwin to help spread the Good News and do some work in the remote northern communities. While he was up in the “Top End”, Neville decided to just keep going and lap the continent – a feat never achieved in a motor car.

Today, the Riley family is doing our “Big Lap of Oz” in an air-conditioned four wheel drive, towing a comfy caravan, and on (mostly) paved roads with plenty of fuel stations along the way – but Neville Westwood had none of that. His pioneering lap was all done in a tiny second-hand 1923 Citroen 5CV they nicknamed “Bubsie”. For much of the journey Neville had to travel on cattle tracks and through scrub and dessert at under 10kmh, and buy fuel from farmers by knocking on their door. Punctures were repaired by stuffing grass and leaves into the tyres, and there is a faded photo of the small Citroen being pulled across the famous Fitzroy River by local Indigenous women.

When Neville arrived back in the city of Perth at the end of 1925 there was a large crowd of celebrating West Australians to greet the motoring evangelist pioneer as he drove his beaten-up little yellow “Bubsie” back into the city.

Almost a hundred years later the Rileys are ‘travelling in Neville Westwood’s tyre marks’ – both geographically and also spiritually. The Riley Gypsy Express is hoping we, like Neville Westwood, help share the good news;- the good news of a loving God who created this beautiful and vast southern continent; the good news that our future is filled with a “Blessed Hope” of re-creation (see Titus 2:13 in the Bible).

You can visit Neville Westwood’s pioneering Citroen in Australia’s capital city Canberra where this hundred-year-old car is on display at the National Museum of Australia. Here’s a quick video of Bubsie’s restoration and display.

(Note: Neville Westwood’s travelling companion for this incredible trip was Greg Davis. Davis left the trip after a few months when they both reached the town of Albury in south-eastern Australia)

* In Titus 2:13, the Apostle Paul writes: “We look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed.”

A ROAD TRIP TO REMEMBER

When Captain Leo Gwyther badly broke his leg working on the family farm in Leongatha in southern Victoria there was concern. Next season’s crops needed to be planted if the family had any chance of surviving what the papers were calling “The Great Depression”. The early 1930’s were difficult not just in Australia but all over the world.

So of course Captain Gwyther’s son Lennie volunteered for the task. He harnessed together the horses, and for weeks Lennie drove them up and down the family’s one hundred and sixty acres. He ploughed and planted and perspired solo to make sure the job was done before the summer’s heat really set in.

When Captain Leo asked Lennie what he would like for his reward, Lennie had only one thing on his mind. Lennie wanted to travel to up to Sydney for the opening of their magnificent and shiny new Harbour Bridge. But Captain Leo knew there were two obstacles to granting Lennie his request: The first obstacle was Lennie would have to travel one thousand kilometres by foot to Sydney, all on his own. The second obstacle was Lennie’s age; the lad was only nine years old.

Lennie’s mother said no to the request straight away as all anxious mums would, but Captain Leo wasn’t so quick to deny the boy his day. Lennie wanted to take his pony –  Ginger Mick – who Lennie had grown up with. If nine-year-old Lennie Gwyther could plow one hundred and sixty acres of farmland with a team of working horses then perhaps a two month sojourn alone to the city of Sydney was not beyond consideration.

Lennie left Leongatha with Ginger Mick on a warm summer Wednesday in the February of 1932. His family was not to know at the time that sixty years later a life-size statue of the boy and his small horse would be erected in the small town to mark the extraordinary expedition. A brave boy in bronze – as a memorial to a feat beyond what twenty-first century parents would allow any of their children to attempt.

Lennie’s tools for the trip was a bed-roll, his tooth brush, a water bottle, his oversized bucket-shaped cloth cap…. and silk pyjamas. The boy headed north-east travelling about twenty kilometres a day. At the end of each day Lennie would stop at a farm house and ask if Ginger Mick could eat some of their grass, and if the both of them could sleep in the farm’s barn. In the first few weeks Lennie dealt maturely with a dangerous summer bushfire passing through his route, as well as the constant threat of vagabonds on the road. 

News of a rural boy’s ride from from the green hills of southern Victoria up to the bright lights and bustle of Sydney for the opening of the huge Harbour Bridge began spreading over fences and down the road ahead of Lennie. Newspapers around the nation began picking up on reports from their country cousins of Lennie and his pony Ginger Mick’s journey north. Headlines were giving him the moniker “Lennie the Legend”, and the nation’s readers were requiring daily updates on his progress and safety. The London Times were even reporting on the the boy and his pony back in the Mother Country. 

By the time the pair had reached the newly built Australian capital city of Canberra – the halfway point on their journey – Lennie had become a national celebrity. The Prime Minister of the country, Joseph Lyons, invited Lennie to have morning tea with him. Lennie couldn’t help but notice the sheep grazing on the front lawn of Parliament House as he ate scones with Australia’s premier politician.

When Lennie and Ginger Mick finally arrived into Sydney ten thousand people crammed into Martin Place to greet “Lennie the Legend”. Lennie was a little lost in all the attention and adoration as most nine year old boys would be. He had to be shepherded through the large crowd by two dozen police, and was annoyed with some of the greeters who were plucking hairs out of Ginger Mick’s tail as souvenirs. 

Six weeks earlier Lennie had set off from Leongatha with farewells from his family. All he wanted was to see the brand new Sydney Harbour Bridge, and now he was being asked to ride across it on Ginger Mick as a national celebrity during the opening celebrations.

When all the ribbon-cutting was over, and tickertape was being swept from Sydney’s streets, Lennie and Ginger Mick began their long return home. The Sun newspaper reported the young boy’s departure with the following line: “Lennie, being a typical casual Australian, swung into the saddle and called ‘Toodleloo!’”

Today, when you visit Lennie and Ginger Mick’s statue in his home town of Leongatha, you’re reminded of the courage an adventure like theirs requires. All exciting escapades involve the ingredient of bravery. But another component is not so obvious – the element of faith. All journeys in life require a faith that, despite our fears, everything will turn out well in the end.

And for Lennie and Ginger Mick everything turned out just grand.

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil. For my Creator walks with me; His rod and His staff comfort me.” (the 23rd Psalm, verse 4)

Lennie Gwyther (aged nine) in his familiar over-sized cloth cap along with Ginger Mick. Lennie was given the pony as a gift on Lennie’s second birthday
Lennie & Ginger Mick riding passed the dignitaries as they opened the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932
In the southern Victorian town of Leongatha there’s a statue of their boy “Lennie the Legend” and his pony Ginger Mick

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is a minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is taking a sabbatical year to drag his family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.

A REMARKABLE ROCK

The Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island live up to their given name. Standing sentinel on a weathered cliff, these massive formations have perched in this one spot over the Southern Ocean for aeons. They have watched, they’ve been weathered, and they have stood firm – almost as monolithic metaphors for strength and imperiousness. 

Facing south from the cliffs, Antarctica is out there somewhere. On the clearest of days you would never be able to see the great white continent from here, but through squinting eyes you are aware it’s the next land mass over the ocean once the Roaring Forties have been conquered

On the day of our visit the Riley kids ran among the massive granite boulders looking for recognisable shapes, and also really good places to hide. These rock formations  are nature’s superior version of a Henry Moore sculpture display

“The Eagle” was the most obvious of the weather-hewn shapes to be seen. The “Helmet and the Sword” were discovered next, and then a “Cake” – a discovery perhaps influenced by the fact it was my son Theodore’s ninth birthday. The “Sad Puppy” was one  of our final discoveries, and was seen only when the shadows of the setting sun had thrown enough reddening tones to reveal some round eyes and floppy ears.

On the display board in the car-park down the hill there’s a photograph of a family visiting the Rocks in the late 1800’s. Over a century stood between their touristic trip to this remote part of the world and my family’s visit. The only difference between us (apart from an Eagle’s Beak slightly longer back when Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire) was they had brought their dog. My wife tells me we’ll NEVER own a dog… and so maybe the reason I saw a Sad Puppy face in the Remarkables is some kind of three dimensional Rorschachian inkblot revealing the sadness of my soul at a future without Rover.

Standing beside and among and inside these rock formations I can’t help but compare their existence to mine. When our shadows were cast upon their permanence it only served to emphasise this life’s fragility and failures. These Remarkables will be here well after the Rileys are not. 

The ancients have often compared nature’s Creator to a rock. At the Remarkables I am able to catch a glimpse of the reason for the comparison. 

There is a story in Scripture from almost three thousand years ago of a totalitarian leader of a world superpower. He craves absolute power and immortality and yet dreams one night of a divine rock that smashes into his ego and all those who come after him. This biblical story is not a prophecy of a catastrophic meteor, it’s a metaphoric promise of Christ. It’s a story of a Saviour who brings strength and peace to a world needing permanence.*

In Jesus, we do indeed have a Remarkable Rock. It is He who gives our life shape. As we walked away from the cliff face, I was closer to this Rock than when I had arrived.

(* This story of the king of Babylon’s dream is found in the Old Testament book of Daniel, chapter 2)

An eagle’s perspective of the Remarkable Rocks on the remote south-west corner of Kangaroo Island

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is a minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is taking a sabbatical year to drag his family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.

TALKING TOMBSTONES

Three generations of my family stood on a windswept cemetery hill a mile outside of the small southern New South Wales town of Boorowa. A rain storm was heading towards us, and we only had a few minutes before the welcomed wet arrived.

My mother understood the significance of the moment, but my kids would probably only appreciate the memory of a graveside stop in a few decades’ time.

“John Mulcahy” the headstone read, “A native of County Cork in Ireland who departed this life in 1867 aged 88 years.”

John Mulcahy was my mother’s great great great grandfather. In 1836 John purchased tickets on a boat for himself and his wife, and also their ten children – and they embarked on a three month sea voyage from Ireland to a new British colony in the southern hemisphere. The trip would cost him the lives of his wife and his seven-year-old son to Scarlet Fever, and John would see a fifth of his fellow passengers and crew die of the same infection before they reached Sydney cove. When they arrived, those who survived were forced into quarantine on a remote headland miles from the colony. “Fever Ship!” shouted the front page of the fledgling Sydney Morning Herald, and the vessel’s survivors were scorned.

John Mulcahy would spend the next two months in a makeshift tent with his nine children, released from quarantine when Governor Bourke deemed the Fever’s outbreak over. 

John took his family south and inland, two hundred miles from Sydney. He took them to sheep country, and they stayed for over a century. Four generations of John Mulcahy’s family stewarded the land and the livestock, and today Italian suit companies clamour for the superfine Merino wool the area sends back to Europe. 

My mother and my children stood by John’s grave, in the same place our ancestors had stood grieving over one hundred and fifty years previously. The spot seemed sacred to me, but my kids just rolled their eyes and asked: “Is this over yet, Dad?” They’ll thank me in a few decades…. I hope.

John’s tombstone is engraved with words both macabre and also deeply meaningful:

Remember me as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you soon must be
Remember that as you think of me

The rain began to fall, and my children welcomed an excuse to scurry from an ancient burial ground towards the car. I took my mother’s arm to help her over the uneven ground, and we followed the kids’ lead back to the vehicle. As I helped her into the passenger seat she half-whispered something to me so the kids wouldn’t hear: “David, I hope I’m not forgotten when the next generation is gone.”

That may very well be every adult’s fear as we confront our own mortality.

On a windswept and wet hill, a mile outside of the historic town of Boorowa, I had ancestors from both yesterday and today speaking to me. A message from the tombstone of the dead and the lips of the living: Our time is short, so make your life mean something.

The Apostle Paul wrote something similar two thousand years ago: “For each one of us is a masterpiece of God’s, created deliberately in Christ Jesus to do a good work in this life.”*

My life is short. By God’s good grace may it mean something.

(* Bible quote taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2 verse 20)

Beside the grave of John Mulcahy (1779-1867). The Riley kids may be smiling in the photo, but as soon as I hit “click” the asked: “Can we go now?”
The small town of Boorowa in southern New South Wales has an annual festival called “Irish Woolfest” to celebrate immigration from the Emerald Isle that built their wool industry. This photo captures the ‘running of the sheep’

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is a minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is taking a sabbatical year to drag his family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.A group of people posing for a photo

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BORDER CROSSINGS

Almost all of Australia’s internal state borders are straight. They mirror the majority of the continent’s flat terrain. Those dashed territorial lines on a map represent the separation of former British colonies into today’s self-governing states.

But if your eye wanders down the map to the south-east corner of the country, you’ll see a line of dashes snaking all the way to the outback of South Australia. This meandering border separates Australia’s two most populous states (and the country’s oldest colonies); Victoria and New South Wales.

The snaked line of dashes on the map isn’t the result of a cartographer’s machine malfunctioning, nor is it because he might have had a beer too many by the time his ruler reached the fourth quadrant of Australia. That serpent of dashes represents the mighty Murray River.

There is something  special about the Murray River. Well, there is to me.

As a child being shuttled regularly on the long car journey between the cities of Sydney and Melbourne, the Murray signaled something significant whenever it was crossed. On the other side of the Murray River is where laws changed. It’s where football fields transitioned from southern codes to northern. It’s where the darkness of my heart turned to light or possibly back to a deeper black, depending on the direction I was travelling. 

The Murray River: from its rapid beginnings in the Snowy Mountains, its slow dawdling across an ancient flat land through multiple attempts of humanity to civilise it into dams and irrigation systems, and then finally the river’s release into the giant mouth of the Southern Ocean. Two and half thousand kilometres of meandering water, making it one of the longest rivers in the world. But to me, in my childhood memories, the Murray is more than just another river.

I’m currently stalking the Murray westward on our family lap around Australia. We’re following the river’s flow west towards South Australia. As the week has unfurled, the Rileys have swum in the huge Lake Hume near the city of Albury, and then watched turtles feeding along the dam wall before being chased away by a sudden rain squall. We’ve splashed about in shallows near the historic township of Corowa, making sure not to swim out into the middle of the river and be dragged too far downstream. We’ve camped along its banks watching sunsets and river cod jumping at insects on dusk. 

The other night our daughters were talking about strands of their hair coming loose from their head as they swam. They were mildly concerned they had somehow managed to pollute the river as their hair floated downstream, or possibly even endangered fish. “You’re now a part of the Murray,” I reassured them as we washed the river’s mud off our feet, “And the Murray is a part of you”.

The biblical account of creation tells us*: “God formed humanity from the mud, and then He kissed life into each of them. With this combination of mud and the Creator’s breath they became a living soul.”

Each of us are made from something material and also something supernatural. When we allow ourselves to become physically close to creation we can sometimes hear the quiet voice of the Creator whispering His wishes for our lives.

And so today, the Murray River is letting me cross a border; a border into another Kingdom. 

A Kingdom of eternal tomorrows.

(* Bible quote taken from Genesis chapter 2, verse 7)

The Murray River in south-eastern Australia is the third longest navigable river in the world (behind the Amazon and the Nile)
One of our campsites during our travels along the Murray River

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is a minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is taking a sabbatical year to drag his family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.

LONG DAYS AND SHORT YEARS

As a dad with young kids I’m continually repeating the following parental maxim: 

“The days may be long but the years will be short”. 

Each day with young children can seem a drawn-out repeat of the previous, so I endeavour to minimise some of my frustrations with the adage I just mentioned: “The days may be long but the years will be short”. 

Every evening when I bang on the bathroom door and tell my daughters to “hurry up in there!” – I whisper to myself: “The days may be long but the years will be short”. Each morning when I rush around the house asking my eight-year-old son: “Where are your school shoes, lad? I can’t believe you’ve lost them again!” I stare down his I-don’t-care-about-shoes facial expression and say to myself….. “The days may be long but the years will be short”.

When I speak with parents whose offspring are into their latter teens or even older, they share with me their laments and regrets regarding not embracing this “younger” parenting season with their own kids. These more experienced parents miss the long days of when their own kids were smaller, and they prod me with a large stick of urgency to spend more time with mine.  

Yes, the days may be long but the years are short.

As both a father of faith and also a minister of religion I was blessed early last year to baptise my then twelve-year-old daughter .  The baptismal ceremony and subsequent celebrations were held just weeks before the pandemic pressed ‘pause’ (or possibly even ‘cancel’) on regular life for most of the world. Jessica’s baptism into Christ – a rite of passage marking the maturing of a believer’s faith – jolted me into a realisation that the days had begun to stop being long and the years were beginning to be short. 

How do I squeeze the last few moments out of being a dad of young children during a worldwide health crisis? The answer for me was to pack up the family home, and take my wife and three young children on a year-long trip around Australia during 2021.

I’m aware that one day I won’t be around. I think about that reality every time I conduct someone else’s funeral. And I wonder how my kids will remember me in the days and years that follow, and what sort of loving mementos and legacies I shall leave in their lives.

I’m hoping a year together in a tin can of a caravan, travelling the terrors and beauties of this wide brown land, will provide character-shaping experiences and eternal memories. 

The travel days may be long, but this year will be too short.

Three-thousand-year-old Jewish blessing:

“Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord… Blessed is the parent whose life is filled with them” (as recorded in Psalm #127)

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JOANNE (Wife), with Riley Children: KEA, THEODORE, AND JESSICA
THE RILEY RIG (WITH DAVID WATCHING THE SUNSET IN CENTRAL NEW SOUTH WALES)

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is a minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is taking a sabbatical year to drag his family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.