Outback Trip (part 1)

On my mental list of ‘Things I want to do in Australia’ was a trip to the Outback. Vaughn had already made the drive from Melbourne to Alice Springs, and on through the Tanami track to the Granites, taking in a 900km detour to see Uluru. His photos were spectacular and whetted my appetite to do something similar.

My opportunity came when he was once again working at Granites. We arranged to meet up in Alice, hire a vehicle and see what people meant by ‘the red earth’.

The road was straight. No twists, no turns. The only thing that varied was the colour of the earth either side, which changed from orangey sand to deep vibrant terra-cotta-rust, almost the colour of red-hot coals. No sign of life except random clumps of spinifex and small salt bushes which looked like bonsai trees, perfect but small.

The only fauna we saw was a small monitor lizard in the road, which we accidentally squashed. 

In the distance small whirlwinds whisked spirals of red dust punctuating the cloudless sky. After hours of driving we thought we saw Uluru in the distance and stopped to take a photo, only to realise it was the wrong shape. Too angular. It was Mount Connor.

We stopped at a little picnic shelter and hauled out the coolbox. Hundred of bush flies swarmed around us, and when we attempted to get the food out their numbers seemed to quadruple. Eating was impossible unless you were prepared for cheese and fly on biscuit with a mouthful of flies on the side. So we leapt back into the car for a hurried snack. 

At Curtin Springs we were greeted by an emu who turned out to be a resident. The heat was intense and we were glad to sit under the bough shed with a cold beer. The thatch consisted of dried grass thrown on top of wire netting, which seemed to work as the flies didn’t seem to be so bad there.  However, when I looked up, I saw the thatch was decorated with hundreds of funnel webs.


We didn’t hang around there, but hurried off to make the 100km trip to Uluru, to get there before sunset. We found ourselves a good position and watched the awesome sight of the rock turning from sandy orange through luminescent rust to dark purple. Many photos later we made the long trip back to Curtin Springs only to find the kitchen had closed, so there was nothing for dinner. Fortunately I never travel far without an emergency snack pack, so we managed to fill ourselves up on cheese and biscuits with an apple for desert. 

It was a short night because we were up and out in time to catch the sun rising over Uluru. As we drove along, the sky started to lighten behind us and we felt as if we were racing the sun. The lighter it grew, the more we panicked. However, we drove around the massive rock in the nick of time to see it light up. From a distance Uluru looked smooth and featureless, but as the sun rose we could see its weather-beaten face with all its holes and gashes that are so meaningful to the Anangu, the Aboriginal owners of Uluru. We read some of the dreamtime stories and saw the mark of Kuniya the woman python.


We had heard that one can climb the rock, but this is frowned upon by the Anangu , who regard Uluru as sacred; so out of respect, we chose to walk around, rather than up.

Geologically, Uluru is naturally grey, made of arkose sandstone. Over millions of years of earth movement, lifting, folding and erosion, Uluru remains the only visible tip of a massive underground rock slab, like a sandstone iceberg.

Once the sun was well and truly up and reflecting the red-gold iron-oxide content of the rusted sandstone rock, we headed off to Kata-Tjuta, previously called ‘The Olgas’. 

Whereas Uluru is sandstone, Kata-tjuta is a conglomerate of gravel and boulders cemented together by mud and sand. It did not appear to have the same luminescence, but that could have been due to the time of day we visited. We parked and walked the first section of ‘Valley of the winds’, but unfortunately it did not live up to its name and was scorchingly hot. I wore a net veil covering my whole head to keep the flies off my skin.

Driving on, Vaughn stopped to photograph two lizards before shooing them off the road to atone for the previous day’s killing. 

We saw trees shaped like Christmas trees but instead of pine needles their wispy leaves reminded me of an old person’s fine long hair. In several places feral camels roamed, apparently damaging the fencing at cattle stations. Ahead the sky was pink with dust, as if it was reflecting the earth…




That first year, I wondered. Would the pain ever go away? Would I ever be able to hear a song without feeling my eyes welling up? Would we ever be able to look forward to Christmas? Would I ever be able to look at mothers and sons out together, enjoying each other’s company without feeling stabs of envy, of anger? 

Every morning since Eddie left, I have woken up and for a split second started to luxuriate in the new day. Then suddenly the awful reality kicks me in the stomach and drives me into the foetal position where getting out of bed becomes an effort.

Keep going, keep going. Focus on the trivia, the everyday, the small things. Hang out the washing, peel the potatoes, clean the bath. Don’t stop to think. Don’t listen to music. Don’t go to that place. Because if you do, the grief will hit you like a tidal wave that picks you up and throws you on to the rocks and tosses you around like a piece of flotsam. And you’ll lie there as it recedes, trying to draw breath until the next wave batters down on you. And the next, until you have no strength left, and no will to climb out and the water fills you and becomes you and you become the water.

They say the time will come when we can allow ourselves to feel. When I can wear his big tee shirt and play his awful music, and I can howl into the song because it is part of the music. I can pour out my anger and anguish and let the wind blow it into the skies where the clouds will take it over the horizon. Then the sun will shine through, thin rays of tear-filled light, enough to see a future that is not full of shadows, that is not like a moonless night, that carries just enough warmth to revive the soul.

And my sadness self-indulgent, because I know my boy is alright. That day, one year later, we threw flowers in the sea, and looked up. And there was my sign, written in the sky.



When I came back to New Zealand I tried to steer clear of social occasions for a while, but the longer I avoided people, the more awkward it became. With hindsight, I can see it was probably harder for other people than it was for me, as there is really nothing one can say. Some people conveyed their sympathy with a hug, some asked many questions, some simply said they were sorry to hear about my son, some came over with wine. Others did nothing, and that was okay, too.

We managed a quiet family Christmas, for the sake of the children, whose presence reminds us that life still goes on.

I feel so blessed at being part of such a loving family. Our closeness was illustrated when Edward’s ashes are scattered.

In a casual conversation, he had said that if he died, he would like his ashes scattered at sea, so he could visit his relatives spread around the world.

A date and time were arranged, and as his ashes were sprinkled in the Indian Ocean, so family and friends from New Zealand, England, Spain and other places around the world, all went down to the beach with flowers, to welcome his spirit to their land. Thanks to Skype, we were able to share that emotional moment across the continents.








The phone calls I feared the most, came. The first call was to tell me Edward was critically ill in hospital. There followed 24 hours of severe anxiety, intestines knotted, throat constricted and dry mouth. I paced the floor, breaths fast and shallow. I prayed hard for his healing, searching to feel some connection with God.

The time difference made sleep impossible, knowing that they would all be awake in South Africa, when we in New Zealand, should have been sleeping. Vaughn was working away in Australia, which was perhaps just as well, as he would have felt helpless to ease my worry.

When the second phone call came, telling me that Edward had passed away, I went outside and screamed at God, disturbing two lorikeets, which, I felt afterwards, had come to bring me a message.

In my state of anguish, I phoned my two Kiwi daughters, and blurted out the terrible news. There was no gentle way to say those words. They both came straight to be with me and after looking online for flights, we decided we would go to a travel agent first thing in the morning, and let someone else sort out those details.

We managed to catch a plane that night and sobbed most of the way to Johannesburg.

Although it was good to be with the rest of the family, the reality of the situation smacked us all even harder when we were there, walking past his house, seeing his parked car, hugging his daughter, a little girl who would grow up without her daddy. And for my South African daughter, Nikki, who had always been so close to Edward and spent so much time with him, the grief was terrible.

We all clung together as we planned a fitting send-off. We cried to some of his songs; we laughed as we discovered old photos; with heavy hearts we remembered the good times.

Many people came to pay their respects and to tell us what a wonderful and caring friend he had been. He left a huge gap in many people’s lives. But for us, his family, we really had no idea how we would carry on with our lives, knowing there would be no more clumsy bear hugs from our gentle giant, no more of his particular sense of humour,   no more opportunities to look into those kind brown eyes and tell him how much we loved him.

And we always will, Eddie, my boy. We will think of you every day for the rest of our lives, and never stop missing you.


In Loving Memory of Edward Michael Smith

27/11/1977 – 9/11/2016

Jo’burg Stress

While I was in South Africa for Megan’s party, I could feel that knot of tension returning to my tummy. It seemed as if everyone I met was taking pills for stress or anxiety. They had the constant worry of safety and security, of paying their insurances, their medical aid, their armed response; of holding on to their jobs, as it wouldn’t be easy to find another one.

On the highways we either sat bumper to bumper without moving, or people raced past at 180 kilometers an hour on the hard shoulder while talking on their phones.


Suburban roads were full of pot-holes; entire areas had become run-down whilst in other suburbs huge ostentatious developments had sprung up. Affluence and poverty, side by side.


All night I could hear the wailing of emergency vehicles and I prayed that my family and friends were all safely tucked up in their beds. On some days there was no electricity; other days no water; sometimes neither. Yet people took it all in their stride. It was an irritation, an inconvenience.

I came back to New Zealand full of worry, and I dreaded the phone ringing because it was never good news.


A Special Birthday

In July of that year I was privileged to be able to go to Johannesburg to celebrate my granddaughter Megan’s 21st birthday. As she was born on Independence Day, she chose to have an American theme. Before I left, I managed to find some fabric with red and white stripes and some more with white stars on a blue background, so was able to make flags and sashes.

The girls here in New Zealand helped me create a movie of Megan’s life thus far. It was a good excuse to look back at old photos and re-live memories. I chose some background music and posted the movie on to YouTube. However, for some reason it wouldn’t open in South Africa, possibly due to the music copyrights. Luckily I had backup on a USB.

The day of the party we spent decorating the hall and setting the tables. The venue had not put out the vases we’d asked for, so we asked the staff to change them, only to find the ones they brought out instead didn’t work, so we had to ask them to take those away and bring out the ones they’d originally put on the tables.

But with some improvisation, we created a very festive party room. As the venue was some way out of town, Nikki had arranged for a private bus to pick up and drop off, as she did not want anyone driving home after too many drinks.


After the final song had been played and the final dance danced, the lights went on and the grand clean-up began. Some time later, we dragged our weary selves out to the bus, where the party was still in full swing. In one hand I was carrying a black dustbin bag full of table decorations. In the other I held the remains of the cake.

Which was why I had no spare hand to hold on to the rail as I tried to climb onto the bus. Which was why I felt myself falling backwards in an undignified heap on the tarmac. But  I didn’t drop the cake.IMG_3785

However, I gashed my head against the wall, and it started bleeding quite profusely. After passing the cake to someone else, I grabbed the rail and climbed aboard the bus. The young people were most concerned at the sight of blood pouring down my neck, and the general consensus was that I should go straight to Accident & Emergency.

The damage to my head was superficial, although my pride still hurts. Amazing really, that out of a bus load of inebriated youth, the only one to fall over was not-so-drunk Granny!

Extending the family

My efforts at gardening were random and amateur. I joined the local garden club, which inspired me, but made me wish we had made a Grand Plan before rushing ahead with raised beds and a second shed. Had I waited, I might have placed things differently. I regretted not creating an area where I could sit with a cup of tea, surrounded by colourful and fragrant plants. It would have been a place of relaxation for Vaughn, if he ever had the opportunity to unwind.

However, we both found great satisfaction in being able to produce most of our own vegetables, often with plenty to share around. We discovered a feijoa tree next to the old shed, the fruit of which I used to make chutney.

To complete our family, we acquired four red shaver pullets, which in spite of not laying eggs for quite some time, gave us much amusement. I had always been slightly frightened of chooks, with their pecky beaks and flappy wings, and I never dreamed I would be picking them up. But I grew to love those girls, and great was our excitement when the first egg appeared. When Vaughn was at home, we vied for the privilege of collecting the eggs, sometimes well hidden, and feeding the sheep with their nuts.


While driving into town one day I heard on the radio that Alzheimer’s Tauranga were looking for volunteers. I drove straight there and was welcomed into the whanau.

So between Nanna duties, Garden Club, writing group, book club and Alzheimer’s, I managed to keep very busy.

Settling In

We settled into some sort of non-system, with Vaughn away for three weeks at a time, returning for just a couple of days, during which time he worked himself into a state of exhaustion in the garden. Our tenants had not been gardeners, thus the blackberries, gorse and ferns had not been disciplined into submission, and were marching inexorably towards the house. The paddocks were full of thistles and brambles, but the goat from the next field kindly helped us keep them down.


As company for the goat we acquired two lambs. I had visions of them bouncing up to the fence when I called, but they were too skittish, which was just as well, because I was able to remain emotionally uninvolved with them. They were fully weaned when they arrived, and merely served as nameless lawnmowers, until their date with the local butcher.

Since then, I should add, we have become soft; our subsequent sheep have been lovely, friendly and part of the family. sheep


(As you can see from this very naughty lamb…)


For additional company, our neighbours had a retired racehorse and a Shetland pony, who also assisted in keeping our paddocks neat. The horse, whose name was Jack, came to my fence every morning for a bit of a rub and a carrot or just a handful of grass. He was rather in love with the pony, who was a grumpy old woman and rejected his attentions with a toss of her head and a snort.

Lovely as the animals were, they weren’t the greatest conversationalists. I knew I could always phone or pop over to visit my daughters, but they led busy lives and had their own circles of friends, and I didn’t want them to feel they had to be forever entertaining me. In Australia, it had taken me about 18 months before I started making new friends, so I was expecting it would be much the same in New Zealand.

However, we were blessed to find ourselves living in a rural area with a strong community spirit. I put a little ad in the local newsletter enquiring whether anybody would be interested in forming a book club and a writing group. And people replied!