I took my mum out of her comfort zone – and she hasn’t looked back
I have always thought of my mum as an adventurous spirit: fearless, feisty and fun-seeking. She left England behind in her 20s to take a road trip across America, landed in California thinking she wouldn’t stay more than a long weekend, and before she knew it had a motley crew of lifelong friends. She met and married my father, had me and my sister, and loved being the eccentric Brit in a suburban town. A couple of decades and a divorce later, she returned to village life in Britain for a different adventure: a new career, new friends and a new relationship that turned to marriage.
My mother is still this person, but since developing an ongoing case of vertigo she has become increasingly anxious. The pandemic, which shrank many people’s social orbits and their sphere of day-to-day activities, certainly didn’t help. She stopped venturing out of the house alone, and something as simple as a 20-minute drive became an obstacle – all because of the fear that, if the vertigo started, she wouldn’t be able to get home.
For her, the idea of travelling across the world to Australia, on three connecting flights, seemed impossible. But my sister Kate lives in Melbourne and the two had not seen each other in years, so I offered to travel with her to make it happen. She said: “You may regret this.”
The week before, her voice became more jittery each time we talked; she later confessed that she had considered cancelling when she experienced a case of vertigo just days before we left. Unsure how to calm her nerves, I looked to my childhood for inspiration. My mum had frequently gone on nine-hour flights with my sister and I to visit family, and she had invented several ways to distract us.
One was to wrap things we already had at home, which we would open on the flight: Play-Doh, a book, sweets. As we took our seats, I revealed I had done the same for her. She opened them: a pack of cards, a mint tea bag, an eye mask. “I guess it’s me that’s the child now,” she said. The hard part was soon over; we managed the flight without incident and were reunited with my sister. Our plan was to take a road trip along the Explorer’s Way – a route of 1,800 miles or so that crosses from Adelaide to Darwin. It turned out to be a journey not without its challenges for my mum.
It was on the drive to Clare Valley that I saw her nerves first get the better of her: my sister’s map-reading led us down an unsuitable road marked with craters and rocks and she was not pleased. During an electric bike ride along the Riesling Trail, a former railroad that links local wineries, she preferred to go at a snail’s pace while my sister and I whacked on the full throttle. Admittedly, without her, we would not have spotted the stumpy lizard or the kookaburra sitting in an old gum tree. One morning, she went for a solo walk before my sister and I got up and found herself in a frightening face-to-face confrontation with a kangaroo.
On our first hike in the Flinders Ranges, we were about to embark on a longer route than expected and she suggested she wait in the car. That reversal again: as a child I was forced to go on long walks, so now it was my turn to do the same with her. We took it slow, and soon we reached Arkaroo Rock with its centuries-old aboriginal cave paintings. She’d done it; we cooled off with a skinny dip in our private pool at Rawnsley Park and a bottle of riesling.
We arrived at our final stop, Coober Pedy, in the dark, after a day passing roadside kangaroo skeletons at various stages of decay and an encounter with a Huntsman spider that my mum will never be able to find funny.
The first glimpse we had of this opal mining town didn’t quite live up to expectations. It looked like nothing more than a dusty landscape with a few squat buildings. In Coober Pedy though, what you see on the surface belies what you will find beneath. Many of the private homes, museums and hotels here are found in below-ground dwellings known as “dugouts”. That is because temperatures in the summer can reach 50C, while underground it stays pleasantly cool at 20-24C.
Our home for the night, the Desert Cave Hotel, was one such place. I will never forget the glazed look in my mum’s eyes as we descended into the dark and she scanned the popcorn-textured ceilings. Again, she was out of her comfort zone.
By morning, though, we were all ready to give the town a fair shot – a state of mind helped by one of the best night’s sleep we had ever had, underground in our cool dark cave. We strolled along the main drag, admiring the murals, popping into opal shops, and peering at what looked like abandoned buses, Volkswagens and even spaceships. We learnt later that the surrounding landscape is a popular movie set (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and more were partly filmed here) and old props that get left behind are turned into eye-catching sculptures.
However, the point where I started to believe that Coober Pedy might actually be somewhere in the middle of nowhere was on a tour with Aaron, from family-run Noble Tours Australia. He began by showing us an underground Serbian church built by volunteer miners, with religious sculptures carved into the earth. It is one of seven churches in town. Earlier, we had seen a leaflet describing Coober Pedy as cosmopolitan and laughed. But it is an accurate description: there are more than 40 nationalities among a population of just 2,000. Everyone we met around town reminded us that this is a place people come seeking adventure and a new life – to take a risk and see what might happen.
Aaron even took us out to his own claim on the mines. “There’s a lot of luck in this game; you never know what you might have missed,” he said.
We also saw some of the natural beauty nearby; the “Moon Plains”, named so because of their lunar look, and the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park, where majestic hills resemble huge ice cream sundaes, albeit in hues of burnt orange, smokey topaz and dusty white. The entire park is a registered aboriginal site, with plenty of spiritual significance. All in all, it was one of the strangest places my mother and I had ever visited, yet she took everything in her stride.
In all, we managed about a third of the Explorer’s Way in 10 days. Coober Pedy snuck up my list of favourite places partly because it surprised me, but also because it is the place where my mum proved to herself that she can handle the unexpected. Just like she always has.