• Lara Flanagan

From Uzzano to the banks of the Balonne River

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

This time last year we had just arrived in Italy and were wandering the cobbled laneways of Uzzano. Some time ago, I made the promise to myself that I would spend every Christmas in Italy until I achieved my dream of living for 9 months in Australia and 3 months in Italy. I could never have predicted that the end of 2020 would see me sitting on the banks of the Balonne River with my loves and a vintage van called Tiney-Boppa.

This year has been a constant reminder that you can never envision the future or the twists and turns of life. We should never forget that life is short and to live as if each day was our last. I was reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day this week. The beautiful last line of that poem has been in my head all week, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Sitting on the banks of the Balonne River was a gift. Something I would never have thought I would say when I realised that international travel was not an option for 2020, possibly 2021. Corona-virus made me reassess and pivot in a whole number of ways. Tiney-Boppa the vintage Viscount Van was one of my ill-thought-out plans along the lines of moving the kids and me to Tenterfield, deciding that Tenterfield was my home and buying a cottage, and selling up to go travel the world with Archie and Rissie for a year. Just like all these decisions, I have a feeling that it was meant to be.

I am someone who believes that life is the most precious education you will ever receive. Occasionally there are gentle lessons, more often than not there are swift kicks up my lily-white arse by the relentless teacher that is life.

For some reason, I was a complete bundle of nerves before the kids and I headed off on our first adventure in Tiney-Boppa. It was only going to be a short two night stop as Archie and Rissie were off to their Dad’s for Christmas, but it was imperative that we were together the first time Tiney-Boppa hit the road.

We were originally heading to the coast but due to the weather, we decided to head inland.

Archie did a bit of searching in our Caravan Parks book and he thought he was on to a winner. I had told him to find a place that was west of Tenterfield, anywhere up to 5 hours away. So we booked a little riverside campsite in St George and headed north and then west.

The drive in itself was uneventful and took us about 6 hours. When we arrived at the caravan park though I was completely gutted. My first impression was that it was really rustic, incredibly basic and I heard my inner voice start to say – what the hell have you done this time Lara? I was so completely and unutterably disappointed. I behaved like a spoilt brat. I don’t know what I wanted, maybe for the kids to say wow Momma, this is amazing. But I think they knew their finely tuned mother was on edge and they started reassuring me that all would be ok. Both Archie and Rissie said to me, how about we get set up Momma? It will all be ok.

Suffice to say, 24 hours later as I was floating in the river with Archie and Rissie while Kevin and Rosie ran up and down the banks, I wished we had more time. I had found a happy place. It reminded me of our arrival in New York City when I had a million plans and an extensive list of things to do. It was only after a meltdown by all of us at the Natural History Museum following long days at the Stature of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Empire States Building that I realised I did not like big-ticket items and that what I was doing was not my idea of travelling.

I threw away the maps, the schedules and any expectations and became obsessed with living like the locals do and forgetting about the tourist attractions. One day I will wander the Uffizi on my own for days, but right now when I travel to Italy, what is more important is knowing who makes my gelato and knowing the best spots to sit and watch the world go by.

My arrival at our little St George caravan park was a huge lesson in not having expectations and telling first impressions to take a running leap! We set up, found out that the internet was sorely limited, let Kevin and Rosie smell their surroundings, and discovered that we had the place largely to ourselves. We checked out the toilets and showers and saw that they were basic but immaculately clean. After a little while, I realised that our little camp was in fact exactly what I wanted. It was just that I had not been able to picture it in my head.

I rarely do nothing and that is what I wanted to do. With Archie and Rissie. The first night we watched as a big storm rolled in. The following morning we were up early and we had a breakfast of mushrooms and tomatoes with hashbrowns. Afterwards, both Archie and I had a long morning nap, while Rissie pottered outside making little bird noises as she read.

We explored the river and floated for hours. For dinner I made fresh bread served with hummus. I taught the kids canasta which reminded me of Tiney so much it hurt. We lit a fire and toasted marshmallows. After dark, we realised that when you turn on a light, it does not take long for the van to fill up with every imaginable insect. We scarpered outside, turned off the interior lights and left an outside light on until the van emptied. We then crawled into bed, talking in the dark like we were on a sleepover.

As we were packing up the next morning I struggled with the front stabiliser legs. Tiney-Boppa is over 50 years old and I know that my legs occasionally get tired so it was understandable that hers would get stiff. As I was lying in the red St George dirt using my feet on the old winch lever that was meant to wind her legs up I wondered if my $15 Kmart ¾ jeans would ever be the same. I hate shopping and they were a crucial part of my summer uniform. Archie told me that people might think I looked really weird lying on the ground like that and I told him that I did not care. I realised as I said it, that I was telling the truth. I really did not care.

I told him that I did not think I was capable of getting those bloody front support legs up on my own but we decided I did not have to use them in future because the jockey wheel gave more than enough support. After another 10 minutes of me rolling around on the red dirt and grunting like I was giving birth, I finally got those bastard legs up. Then I remembered I had some WD40 at home – I felt so bloody impressed with myself that I had WD40 at home – how it got on to my little tool shelf I have no flipping idea. I told Archie we needed to spray everything with WD40 feeling like I was wearing a gold-plated tool belt!

All packed up I headed to the first petrol station I could find and I pulled in facing a one-way street. We all sat there silently until Archie said – you know you are going to have to reverse. There was a RBT unit on the other side of the road so pulling out the wrong way into a one-way street was not an option. I filled up and started reversing. Multiple times. Imoved backward then the van started to jack knife. Archie started getting frustrated with me. After the 15th attempt, I was almost back on the street when a lovely man came and asked me if I wanted help. I thanked him profusely and told him I thought I was doing ok and asked him if he thought I was doing ok? He told me it was the funniest thing he had seen all day and he could not believe I had kept smiling throughout the whole process. He then told me I was close enough to drive out over the footpath and onto the street so that I would be then facing the right way. When I asked about the coppers manning the RBT, he told me that they wouldn’t mind as my reversing had been the highlight of their day.

When Archie got in the car he asked me why I was so happy as it had been pretty bad. I told him that I was happy because I had almost got it and next time I would be that much closer. I also loved knowing that there were nice people in the world. Ten minutes out of St George, still high on life Archie said – oh shit Momma we forgot to put the hatch down. I had visions of it blowing off as I topped 80km an hour. I pulled over at the first safe opportunity and as Archie was checking the hatch I was mesmerised by the fact that I had pulled up at some part of Cubby Station. A place I had long heard of but never seen. I was so mesmerised I did not notice that my feet had sunk into ankle-deep mud. We needed to get out of there as I had visions of Tiney-Boppa sinking. Archie headed to a water puddle and subsequently sunk up to his mid calves. I went into panic mode and told Archie to stay there and that I would be back but I had to move the van. As I tried to run to the car I lifted my feet and lost my thongs which were sucked off by the mud. I got into the car, knocking off big chunks of mud from my now bare feet. I got Tiney-Boppa onto the verge of the highway, praying that some wide load would not pass us, and went back for Archie. As he lifted his feet, he also lost his thongs. We drove off, Archie and I with bare feet covered in dry caked mud. A pretty cool way to end our first adventure. I reversed, albeit badly, we welcomed our new family member in style and we lost our thongs.

So what am I doing with my wild and precious life? I am creating memories – the only thing that you can take with you. I am working towards my dream of exploring the two countries I love most in the world. I hope I am teaching my two adventurers that a precious moment is worth more than a million things. I am reminding myself to lose crazy expectations, to slow life down, to forget about what other people think, and to not trust first impressions. I want to show the kids that it is ok to dance to the crazy sound of music that beats in your heart and your heart alone. Most importantly I am trying to create memories, memories that I hope Archie and Rissie will hold in their hearts as preciously as I hold mine.

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