Updated: Feb 7
First trip back to Grafton after COVID
Have you ever looked forward to doing something that you wish you never had to do in the first place?
This was our first trip back to Grafton, or even back into NSW, after being restricted by COVID for so many months. We needed to get back - we hadn't been there since Duncan was buried. I needed to see him, and I kept telling myself he needed to see us. I couldn't wait to get back down. When restrictions were lifted in early December, it was all I had in me to wait until our planned trip after Christmas, when we were to meet up with Jen, Marty, and Qin.
ONE PARENT CAMPING
Big, beautiful bit of farmland right on the Clarence River
Shallow, sandy bank for swimming and kayaking, a tree swing into the river
Close to amenities - about a 10 minute drive to Grafton
No designated campsites, just rock up and chose your spot - you do need to book in advance through Hipcamp - and only two or three family groups allowed at a time so very secluded
Hot shower and flushing toilet
Tree frogs! Very friendly and stowaway tree frogs!
No dogs - we were so disappointed to not bring Goosey with us (though it was a blessing in disguise when we went to the Pacific Hotel in Yamba)
Hipcamp booking makes it difficult to add guests to your booking if its for a different number of days (but this is particular to Hipcamp booking, not this camping area)
No signage to campground, but Kevin gives decent directions and is quick to reply
The old Pacific Highway is directly across the river so you can hear a distant hum of vehicles (but not a huge con, just worth pointing out) (and when you spend 40-odd years living on the Pacific Highway through Kempsey, it still sounds like a dream, ahem Jen?)
The drive down
This camping trip was a bit further than our usual one, for obvious reasons. And we were packed to the brim. No dog, which made things a bit easier (thank you King family, and sorry Aero) but we had the tent for Marty, Jen, and Qin and because we were going for a bit longer, we took more stuff.
I did try to make sure the kids took care of the necessities before we left - grab (full) water bottles, do wees, brush teeth, and have breakfast. I found out 20 mins out of Brisbane that they all did the first three and none of them did the last one. Normally I'd show some fortitude and say "too bad - if you don't eat brekky you wait until lunch" but turns out I hadn't eaten breakfast either (my excuse, I was sorting the camper, clothes, dog, and the kids that hadn't eaten). So it was a quick stop at one of those massive roadside service centres that has everything but the kitchen sink but all the kids really want is McDonald's (insert eyeroll). So we stopped. I proudly didn't get McDonald's, was saving my calories for the setting-up-camp beer I planned on drinking.
The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful, just long. And weird. Aside from when we went down to bury Duncan, he always did the driving to Grafton. So everything I saw and experienced on the drive down was from a new perspective, but I'd seen it all before. I felt out of place and strange and to be honest, unhappy with the change. I just wanted Duncan back and everything back to normal. But since I've learned that's not possible, I pulled up my big girl pants and just kept driving.
I'm ashamed to admit that I silenced the kids with iPads while we were on the drive. Short drives, never. But 4 hours is a bit boring so they got their devices and hot-spotted from Alex's phone. I'm also ashamed to admit it was pure bliss. I got to listen to all the 90s grunge Spotify playlists I wanted, without comments on how old I was or what poor taste in music I have, and I didn't have to censor Wil Anderson podcasts.
For a camping trip, it was a pretty long drive. But as we know, it wasn't a camping trip per se, but a long overdue visit. We were just lucky to combine it with camping. Along with the distance being strange for us, camping without Goose was strange. We missed her from the minute we got to the campsite. I thought it would be a nice break but all the things we did, we thought about how much Goose would have loved it. I'm pretty sure all of the tree frogs were happy she wasn't there though. We really just couldn't find a campground that would allow pets but will research better next time.
This was our second camping experience with Hipcamp (formerly YouCamp) and because I was so new to it, there was huge potential for it to be a bust.
There were only two other couples there, ones happy to keep to themselves or just say "hi" and have a quick chat. There was heaps of room to spread out, so when Marty, Qin, and Jen got there, there was plenty of room for the tent (which I kindly left for Marty to set up!). The outlook was amazing - we could see straight up and down the river (which was very helpful a couple of days later), there was running water, a toilet, hot shower, and solitude. Perfect for me. I do realise that camping is more enjoyable for the kids when we go with friends or other families with kids, but this was the Cutler camping trip, to be spend with the NSW Cutlers, who were to come the next day.
By the time we set up camp and the kids had gone for a muddy swim in the Clarence, it was time for dinner.
We slept well that night.
This morning we woke up to beautiful weather and a need to grab a few supplies. Thankfully Grafton was so close. We made a quick trip into Bunnings to grab mosquito coils and ended up leaving with most of the store.
It was bittersweet being in Bunnings. When we had the farm, we had so many trips into town for tools, supplies, food, you name it. This was the first time I'd been back to Bunnings since we'd sold the farm, and it brought back so many memories. Like the tow chain I got for the tractor. Or the cleaning supplies. Anything really. It was like a wave of mixed emotion, one that made me want to fall into a heap on the floor, but also made me smile thinking of all the good times, which we had so many of. Heart-breaking we won't have more.
I'm pretty sure it was at that stage I stopped in at the bottle shop to grab a few more necessities for the evenings. And afternoons.
The rest of the Cutlers got in around lunchtime. That was it. Eating, drinking, swimming, kayaking, and just a fun time. It was so good being together. Nana adores her grandchildren. I can't imagine how hard all of this would be for her. I lost my husband, but she lost her son. Nothing any parent should ever have to experience. The kids love her too. And not because she spoils them, they just know she loves them.
It was absolutely amazing for them to be with Uncle Marty again, too. They missed him so much not being able to see him for so long, so they basically didn't let him out of their sight for the next few days. Even when he had to run in to town for a few supplies himself, I think they all went with him! Qin and I stayed to "watch over" the campsite while they were gone. And everyone knows you can't have a successful lookout without wine. My vegan-basically-sister-in-law was just as happy with my vegan, organic, and sustainably-made Pinot Gris as I was, and it was near empty by the time Nana, Marty, and the kids came back.
Great first afternoon camping.
The night was good. Well, for the kids and me. Poor Jen, Qin, and Marty - let's just say the air mattresses didn't have much air in them when they woke up. Or even halfway through the night. And while they all remembered to bring the camping chairs we bought them for Christmas, Marty and Qin forgot their sleeping bags that the the kids got them. And it was a *little bit* cooler than they were expecting overnight. The rest of us? Snug as a bug.
So clearly it was a rough night for the other three - their second night was also interesting.
We spent the day in Nymboida today, which was ultimately the main goal of the trip. Spend time together and visit Duncan. For me it wasn't soon enough but that was COVID's fault. I may have expected too much from the kids. I thought because I needed to be there, they needed to be there. I was probably wrong. I found out later from my sister-in-law Kait, that she didn't visit her mother's grave until a year after she was buried. Poor Kait and her dad and sisters (who I've been so lucky to meet and spend time with) (and share an apple whiskey with Bill). Kait was 19 when she lost her mom. So when I found out it took her a year to visit, and she was considerably older then than my kids are now, I questioned whether I should have pushed so soon. That's the problem with widowed parenting. You don't have your other half/best friend/confidante/partner there to discuss what you're doing right or wrong as a parent. I couldn't ask Duncan if it was too soon. I had to make that call on my own.
Read about the day here:
It was a beautiful day. Couldn't have been more perfect, actually.
We got back to the campsite around 4pm, the kids tired and hungry. Par for the course when camping.
First things first, a few drinks poured. Kids had a snack, went to the river to swing off the tree. The older Cutlers relaxed and chatted. Seriously, this is exactly what camping is all about. So is what came next.
I decided it was time to check on the kids, so I went to the water to say hi. I'm not worried about them in rivers, lakes, creeks, oceans. Alex is a superstar in the water, and the boys are good swimmers. I love in Australia that its mandatory to take lessons all through primary school. I usually task Alex as rescuer (great parenting on my part) so I can not sit and watch them the whole time. So far she hasn't had to fill the role.
I went down, said hi and asked how they were going. I stopped to have a a look at the beautiful scenery. And it really was beautiful. As I mentioned earlier, you could see so far down either end of the river. The end closest to Grafton though, to my surprise, looked like there was a snow storm. Just white. I thought it was a bit odd. Storms are usually dark and grey. I told the kids to get out of the water and come help at the campsite, and we went back and I casually suggested to everyone that we pack up the camp chairs and anything loose, just in case it got windy. While I tend to stay offline (either forced or intentionally) when camping, I was very grateful to have mobile reception at this time, where I checked the BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) app and rain radar. Within seconds there were about 5 weather warnings for heavy rain, hail, thunder, lightning, and for the love of God take cover!!
Just as I went to relay the message to all other Cutlers, a massive gust of wind game and it was ALL hands on deck.
The kids and I went straight into the camper trailer in the hopes that we could hold the frame in place - I wasn't worried about the camper flying, but more the canvas tearing and steel rods snapping. The "all hands on deck" theory was good for about 45 seconds, until Oscar was crying scared we were going down with the camper, so I sent him and Alex to the Prado. My gorgeous and beautiful Max who is just like his dad stayed and held up poles and rods and camper frames with me inside. Such a champ.
I will note that at this stage, the wind was something like 41kms an hour, and I'm not sure I'd ever actually been outside in such hard rain before. I also note that I had no idea what Marty, Jen, and Qin were up to but presumed keeping their tent in tact would have been a priority. The frame we were holding up in the camper was getting ridiculously heavy and I had to go outside to see why. Before I got there, I saw that the top of the trailer/bottom of the bed had flipped up because the canopy attached to the camper had flown on top of the camper and was crazy-ass heavy. So I went outside thinking I'd be quick and close it before getting too wet and come back in to help Max. I was quick, and I did close it but fuck I did not stay dry. As soon as I pushed down the lid, about 18 million litres of water pooled on the roof of the camper poured down on top of me. It was like I had jumped into a pool fully clothed.
This happened three times before I finally thought of securing the lid with some occy straps and relieving Max of the daunting task of being sole saviour of our weekend home.
This all lasted what seemed like 15 minutes. I actually have no fucking clue. It may have been an hour. Maybe 3 minutes.
When the rain and wind calmed, we went outside to assess the damage, and see how Marty, Nana, and Qin had fared. Qin was nowhere to be seen (and after a few minutes realised she was in their new Mercedes). Jen was running around in her swimsuit and Marty was drenched and shirtless. We all looked at each other and started laughing. The gazebo was a crumpled heap on the ground, their tent (ahem MY tent that I gave them for the weekend) was half pegged to the ground, the other half blowing in the wind, and a small pool at the bottom, with mattresses and sheets floating around. Jen had apparently bit it on a guy rope at one stage and Marty was killing himself laughing as he told the story.
Quick look around - what a fucking disaster.
Everything was wet. The tables, chairs, tubs, towels, hanging-to-dry clothes, drawers, food, EVERYTHING. Tubs that I lazily hadn't covered because it was sunny were filled with water. The utensils drawer in the "kitchen" was filled with water. The fridge filled with water, as did the slide-out tray it sits on. The inside of the camper was a small swimming pool. Fortunately, VERY FORTUNATELY, I had the sense to pickup all the kids' belongings on the floor of the camper before water started leaking in, and threw it all on top of my bed. So while it was a small swimming pool, all the clothes, sleeping bags, and mattresses were dry.
Marty, Qin, and Jen, not so lucky. There was no way they were going to be able to sleep in the tent that night. Along with not even knowing if it would still stand, everything that was in it was completely drenched. Qin was on it, she called and found a room for them in Grafton. They held a room for us too, but despite the kids begging desperately to stay, I told them not to be soft and we were staying in our camper. This is when Marty told me I was more and more like Duncan every day, and it was the best compliment I've ever received.
Dinner that night consisted of peanut butter sandwiches and Oreos. And fruit loops, which Alex creatively shoved in her Oreo to make the ideal cookie. I spent the whole time thankful that the storm hadn't hit after I'd had a few more drinks, so I was pretty sober for most of it. I didn't have another either, in the chance it happened again. It didn't. It rained all night but at least the wind had died down.
In retrospect, it was really good that we didn't have Goose that weekend. She'd have gone crazy in the storm.
We woke up this morning knowing it would be mostly spent drying shit out. The gazebo canopy. The camper canopy. The tent. The chairs. We chucked the air mattresses. They didn't work anyway. I had to clean out the underneath part of the trailer, pulled out all the towels and boxes and tubs. It was great fun when I pulled out the last tub and a fucking green tree frog jumped out at me. Well, it didn't jump AT me, it just jumped. And scared the shit out of me at the same time. Little prick.
Once we'd had breakfast and we'd done all we could, we figured we'd have some fun on our last day and head up to the beach at Yamba. We gathered all the fishing gear (which had proven useless in the many attempts in the Clarence) and beach towels. It was a relatively quick drive up, and for some reason we were all able to find good parking spots close to the beach. It was slightly overcast but I didn't mind, too sunny generally means too hot, and to be honest, I was sick of heat. I know, I know, how the fuck this Canadian winter-loving girl ended up in bloody Brisbane is beyond me. But I'm here for good now (or at least until the kids finish uni and leave Brissy, then I'm buying a small house in Tassie).
One thing I love about going to the beach with Jen and Marty is I don't have to do a bloody thing. That is their time with the kids, so Qin and I just chilled. So good.
I don't think any fish were caught, but everyone had a nice swim and play with Nana and I didn't have to get wet or chase a dog or even think for that matter. I just enjoyed being outside in not-too-hot weather. We all went up to the Yamba Hotel for lunch, recommended by my good friends Strak and Nat. Good call too - the view was outstanding, and the beer was as cold as it could be without being frozen. Such a good dinner.
Evening of Day 4 proved to be much better than the previous night had been. Not a difficult feat, I know.
The four of us went back to the campsite to clean up, shower, chill, etc. The other three went back to their hotel for a quick sleep and shower. They got back as it started getting darker, which meant time for Spotlight. This is another favourite time of mine camping. I don't play games. I'm not talking about cards and board games, but physical running around and hiding games. I don't know why, I have no reason other than I just don't. But Marty, Nana, and Qin do. And the kids loved it. I'm not sure how much our neighbours loved it though. We all had dinner and then they all played until about 930pm at which time I'm sure our elderly-ish neighbours were more than ready to go to sleep.
Remember my reference to the tree frog? Well apparently I was too nice to it, and it told all of its friends how kind we were and how they should all come and hang out with us for the evening. They were everywhere! In the toilet (which made it difficult for some to actually use it - can't flush a frog!) and a couple of them jumped on Max as he was running around playing Spotlight! We (I say "we" like I actually had anything to do with it) put them back on trees but they LOVED Max and clung on to him. He loved it. I made sure he washed his hands after.
Such a better night than the one before.
Today was time for home.
This blog is long enough already - pack up was pretty par for the course, with the exception of me NOT being able to do up the zipper on the camper cover. Fortunately after a short regaining-my-composure breathing session, I was able to get it done up. For the record, I haven't been able to again since.
We went and had a surprisingly nice breakfast at some little organic hipster cafe in town and then it was time to drive home. Big hugs and and sad goodbyes, it was time to head back up to Brissy and rescue poor Aero from Goose.
Jen, Marty, and Qin, we are beyond looking forward to seeing you guys again soon.
Beautiful Robert and Petra and the kids Goose-sat for us while we were away. I love the Kings. There is nothing they wouldn't do for us, and they have been amazing friends for a long time, but especially incredible during COVID, Duncan's unwell time at home, and ever since. I've spoken about how guilty I feel about feeling lucky - this family contributes to that guilt. I adore them.
I won't, however, ask them to look after Goose again. Ahhh this makes me laugh even as I write it!
Aero is a big softy. He's a gorgeous stumpy-tailed cattledog that loves his family and wants nothing to interfere with his time with them. Goose is a high-energy, wants to play all the time, interferer. It did not go well. Poor Aero actually went into his cage a few times, just to get a much-needed break from Goose. Robert and Petra, I think they were just exhausted, and I'm pretty sure Robert commented on now understanding why I drink on Monday nights.
Kings, I love you.
The next day
We were so tired from the trip home that I didn't bother unpacking the fridge that day. I didn't even open up the trailer. We went in, ordered Maccas for dinner (yes, that was our last meal of 2020 - it was already a fucked year, why pretend on the last day that it wasn't?).
The next day I figured I'd clean out the trailer - went outside, opened the top and fuck me there was a green tree frog on the fridge, just waiting to scare the shit out of me. And it did. I called for Max to come get it (loves the little buggers) and released in the jungle that is our back yard.
And that is the end of our post-Christmas Grafton trip. I've convinced Marty and Qin to come up again in July - but they're staying a cabin this time.
Its taken me a while to get to this blog. Christmas, New Year's, and holidays in general totally stuffed me around. To top it off we had the weekend at the Gold Coast, first week of school, etc, etc. I'm still recovering.
I know I have two more blogs to catch up on. Rugby Moms camping, and near-lockdown camping with Carol and Will.
I'll get there soon.