It wasn’t until his own life took a dramatic turn that James realised the power of nature as a form of therapy for people living with a disability. And now he wants to help everyone to access the outdoors.

Flying High Above Arnhem Land

The sun turned red as it burnt across Arnhem Land — a land of horizons, red dirt, shrubs, buffalo, crocs, giant sea turtles, and dugong, fanned out before me forever. A landscape at once infinitely threatening and beautiful. I squinted behind my sunglasses, took a photo on my phone and waved goodbye to my last passengers as they drove off in an angry old Patrol blowing a thick cloud of diesel soot. The Patrol was the only motion in a perfectly still landscape.

 

I had no passengers for the 19-minute flight home to Groote Eylandt, Australia’s fourth-largest island only behind Tassie, Kangaroo Island, and nearby Melville Island. Groote is situated in the Arafura Sea and home to the Anindilyakwan people, who curiously speak Anindilyakwa, a language endemic to the island.

I jumped in EEH; a six-seater, single-engine, Cessna 210L that recently had become an extension of my body. This was the first time that day that we’d been alone together. I’d added eight hours of flight time to my logbook already that day and I was happy.

 

 

I made my radio calls; the radio was silent indicating there was no one around. As I taxied out I texted Ops my ETA for Groote, and then hit play on a playlist titled ‘Bangers’. If It Makes You Happy by Sheryl Crow started playing through my Bluetooth headset. 

I started hurtling down the runway, got airborne, but instead of climbing out and departing, I held the plane just off the runway in ground effect. Gathering speed, 70, 80, 90 knots, I got the gear up, held forward pressure on the yoke and pointed the nose toward the fence at the end of the runway. Going through 130 knots and the fence looming large in the windscreen I pulled back on the yoke and shot straight up to 1000ft above the remote community of Numbulwar.

Instead of climbing to 3500ft and tracking 063° for home I turned north and tracked along the beach. I pointed the nose down again and descended low enough to see the expressions on the face of the Numbulwar mob on the beach below.

 

 

Kids and adults jumped and waved as I hammered past at 160 knots. I gently rocked the wings in response. The community of Numbulwar/Numburrindii always seemed joyful in their relationship with country and family. 

Spurred on by the waving families I got even lower, closer to the beach, trying to spot crocs on the shoreline. There was no one to be seen this far up the coast. As I came upon the mouth of a river, what I thought was a huge piece of driftwood lying on the bank threw itself backwards into the water.

The setting sun reflected off the belly-scales of an ancient dinosaur scared half to death by the banging of my engine, and it left a small stain on my retina.

I pulled back on the yoke and climbed to a non-standard 2000ft, turned toward the sea, on 073° and tracked for Groote Eylandt and home. 

 

Crash Landing

A few months later, with a flying instructor job lined up in Wollongong, halfway through my instructor rating and before I could begin work, Covid happened. The world went from a pilot shortage to thousands of unemployed pilots, overnight. 

And then I had complications of my own. 27 minutes was how long the aura lasted – a visual disturbance associated with ‘classic migraine.’ 

It began as a feeling, then hardened into dust motes in the water of my eye. Then it grew into a buzzing, sparkling horseshoe that widened and blotted out my peripheral vision. It was a migraine with aura. One of a handful of illnesses that disqualify you from being a pilot. 

My neurologist told me that he wasn’t happy until he’d seen me 12 months symptom-free. I spent six months taking it easy, trying natural remedies, elimination diets, lots of exercise, abstaining from alcohol, keeping a food diary.

Then I moved on to a couple of different heart medications. One left me feeling like I had lead weights on my feet, the other constipated and drowsy. All the while the migraines kept coming and, in some instances, got worse. It’s been a couple of years now and there’s been no real change to the headaches.

Finding a New Purpose

During this period after a suggestion from my partner, I’d been working casually in disability support. I responded to a post on an app that connects support workers with NDIS participants and met Steve, my first ever client for my new disability support business, Good Support. 

 

 

At 63, after having a stroke two years prior, Steve was looking for someone to help him get in the ocean to help him surf again. It didn’t seem like a job to me. Up until the stroke, Steve had been in the water every other day, surfing his whole life. He grew up around Sutherland and then Culburra working as an electrician.

The ad was old, it’d been up for a few months, and I thought that there was no way he’d still be looking for a surfing buddy, surely someone had snapped that up. It turned out he’d only had one reply in the months the ad had been up, and the person had never surfed in their life. 

No one with hemiplegia (one-sided paralyisis) had been barrelled before but this was precisely our goal from day one. As a results-driven company, we set our annual KPI early – ‘get pitted’. 

Every person living with a disability has had to overcome immense adversity just to be sitting in front of you. Steve put the hard work in recovering from the stroke, the months and months in rehab not knowing if he’d ever walk again, being told time and again that he likely wouldn’t, having to sell his dream home he’d just finished building himself to make sure he and his wife Kerry could afford the early retirement.

Steve learnt to do everything with one hand. He’s fitted out his van as a camper, built a treehouse, chicken coup, mini kitchen for his granddaughter. All after having a stroke.

I saw that it was my job to honour the work he’d put into getting here and help him do something I took for granted every day – go for a swim in the ocean, get a wave, get barrelled, the one thing he couldn’t do on his own.

Surf’s Up

We started at Bomaderry pool to see what Steve was capable of. Turned out a lot. He’d been training in his pool at home, learning to right himself so he didn’t float face down and even started swimming laps underwater.

To prevent Steve from drowning, Kerry got him a fancy big wave life jacket and I convinced a friend of a friend, Russell Quinn, to help out. Russell’s a ‘waterman’, having grown up in Huskisson, a professional bodyboarder and surf photographer. There couldn’t be anyone better for the job.

 

 

Steve bought a giant orange foam surfboard dubbed ‘the pumpkin’. We’ve since moved on to ‘the lemon’. No points for guessing the colour. We’ve rigged up several intonations of handholds and elbow grips using old bodyboard plugs, chunks of foam, and plenty of Sikaflex.

When I say ‘we’ who I really mean is Steve. Steve built this board with one hand using quick grips in place of a left hand. Tweaking the design week after week with lengthy discussions around the placement of elbow stops and hand grips to maximise his ability to turn and surf across the wave.

Now what we have is a purpose-built prone surfboard (long-boog) for a person who’s recovering from a cerebrovascular accident (stroke) experiencing left-side paralysis. Russ and I paddle him out on our bodyboards one on each side like an outrigger canoe. This method works incredibly well as we’re able to paddle Steve around and on to waves with just our flipper power.

Two weeks ago, we caught a record seven waves and Steve almost got barrelled at Cave Beach in Booderee National Park. The week after, another record with eight waves and then just in time for Christmas, nine waves and a legitimate barrel. 

The Outdoors as Therapy

Steve insists no other manual therapy gets close to making him feel as good as surfing does.

A huge part of the success with ‘therapies’ like this is that they’re not therapies at all. Surfing, bushwalking, mountain biking, trail running, swimming, diving, climbing – whatever it is that gets you outdoors.

 

You tend to hear the same sentiment echoed again and again; ‘It’s my therapy,’ or ‘I need it for my mental health’. 

I don’t pretend to be a therapist – I’ve been a publican, pilot, landscaper, writer and now a disability support worker. With my company Good Support, I consult with the experts, Speech Pathologists, Physios, Occupational Therapists, Doctors, and Specialists. Because we recognise that as support workers, we are implementers.

We spend a lot of time with our clients, and we have close relationships with them. It’s in this relationship space, where people feel safe, that’s when therapy happens. So, we try and be across whatever strategies the therapists are using so we know how to best support our clients. And most importantly we listen to our clients.

 

 

We’ve been able to support clients getting their learner licence, engaging with community Bushcare programs, farm experiences, surfing, fishing, kayaking, and hiking just to name a few. In 2022 we’ll be organising small group camps for teenagers on the autism spectrum, which will include all the above rolled into one weekend.

Aviation feels like a dream to me now. If I ever fly again, it’ll be to help people in whatever capacity I can. As a support worker, the ‘work’ is in creating a space where people can find a little connection and purpose and through that maybe growth and healing. The natural world is the perfect place for healing – anyone who enjoys being outdoors knows this innately. People living with disability sometimes need help making this happen and that’s what we do, the best way we can. 

 

Video and feature image thanks to @james.kates