In this edition of ‘Meet the Staff’ we meet our Yuendumu Social Enterprise Manager, Neil Mackenzie, who tells us his story about how he ended up working for us. We feel very lucky that Neil’s cycling journey led him to Wanta. Our staff all have such amazing stories to tell!

As those pedals turned slowly but consistently in the warm breeze, and with the sun shining brightly into my tiring eyes, I decided that to turn left towards Alice was not such a silly idea after all.

I was still however, by my best estimate, 4 or 5 days away from the Stuart Highway where I would have to make that final decision.  Having, however, confidently flashed my Border Entry Form to the ‘COVID Police’, and having left Queensland behind for the flat and seemingly never-ending plains of The Barkly, I knew an amazing Territory adventure lay ahead.

For most of my beautiful (or is that mad?!) journey, having left home on the bike some 6 months earlier, I had a loose and ever-changing plan to head from Queensland up to Darwin before the wet season hit (cyclones, push-bikes and tents, funnily enough, are not the most endearing of friends) but there was a yearning to head for the Centre. After all I’d never been to Alice before, so why not?!

I pondered this potentially ridiculous decision, over the next couple of days, as I pushed those well-worn tyres towards Barkly Homestead and opted for time camped on soft, green grass and a wonderful cooling off in their iridescent blue pool full of cleansing, crystal clear water. Oh yeah, did I mention they had a bar and café….temporary but well received respite from warm drinking water and dehydrated food.

Turning left instead of right, in actual fact, was not a difficult decision, as my time was my own. I had taken long service leave from my Financial Management role in a Local Health District in the outer suburbs of Sydney, having had no real thoughts of going back to that daily grind. What, after all, is a couple more weeks on the road seeing the amazing Red Centre of this incredible country and even heading down to do a lap of Uluru…how hard and hot can it be?

I couldn’t lounge around that inviting Homestead pool forever, so after a couple of days, I put myself back in the remote but tender care of The Barkly, absorbing every beautiful moment until I made it to Three Ways and, without hesitation, I turned left. What a great decision, ultimately changing my life in so many ways.

To ride the Red Centre is an amazing experience and while some find the long, flat roads uninteresting, to say the least, I’m definitely not one of those. To be out in these huge, open spaces with all senses activated, not locked away in an enclosed vehicle where sight becomes your only truly engaged sense, a push-bike travelling at 15-20 kilometres an hour means you see, you feel, you touch, you smell, you taste and, perhaps most of all, you dream!

Without going through the detail of every beautiful pedal stroke, every person met, every animal seen or every change in the stunning landscape from Three Ways south, there was an evening, somewhere between Ti Tree and Alice Springs, pulled over in a rest stop with my sleeping bag laid out on a hard concrete bench, where a simple encounter eventually became a life changer.

I had just commenced reading a book, nothing special as I remember, just a time-filler, when a car, as you might expect in the outback, a white 4WD with camper on the back, slowly pulled in. Two people got out to the bemusement of this cycling fool, to stretch their legs and to give their little dog a run. As you do in these remote and isolated places you automatically start up a conversation which for me always begins with the premise that ‘everyone has a story to tell’….and that was definitely the case in this instance.

Taffy and Marella, as I quickly came to know them, had spent many years volunteering through remote Australia often working in, for and with Indigenous communities. At that time, Taffy was doing work with Xtra Mile Transport a newly emerging Indigenous business in Yuendumu auspiced by Wanta Aboriginal Corporation, an extremely interesting story in itself.

While I didn’t suddenly find myself working with Wanta, I did find myself keeping contact with these wonderful and generous people, so much so that what was, almost another 9 months down the track, I had ridden to Alice and Uluru, ventured through the amazingly stunning MacDonald Ranges, and made it back up to Darwin in time to slowly experience their incredibly spectacular and humid wet season.

As the northern skies began to dry out, however, I jumped happily and confidently back on the bike, packed the water and the dehydrated food once again, and headed south via Kakadu. It was during this stage of my adventure that another contact with Taffy and Marella suggested an opportunity existed to work in Yuendumu managing the Social Enterprise Project for Wanta. While I had ultimately intended to ride right around the country, this  opportunity with Wanta was like no other, one I definitely had to entertain and investigate as chances like this do not simply ‘lob in your lap’ each and every day. Riding a bike around Australia can happen anytime I somewhat ridiculously told myself!

With confidence in my decision and no doubt in my mind as to what I would love to do, Taffy put me in touch with Demian….a man I spent the whole ‘interview’ calling Damian, a mistake that didn’t seem to go against me which was fortunate. Long story short, and with no lasting or lurking antagonism or mistrust in his voice, Demian offered me this amazing opportunity, one which I accepted in a heartbeat. I did still need, however, to spend a bit more time on the bike as I had organised to meet two of my sons and their partners in Exmouth to discover Ningaloo Reef, not to mention the Kimberley, Pilbara and Karijini on the way. I even got to meet Clare and Matt Smith in Kununurra on that long-distance leg which was pretty special….more so for me than them, I’m sure.

We make choices every day from the moment we wake up, but some days the options we get to choose from are totally unexpected. Having caught up with family and having drank in a never-ending flow of world’s best scenery and incomparable experiences, my choice to take 4 horrendous days catching buses back to Alice via Broome and Katherine was not that bad after all. At the end of that journey lay the beauty and opportunity of where and what I was heading to, a choice I would and could never regret. In fact, all in all, I quickly shed my outer suburban skin and even my incredible bike adventure to undertake a role that immediately offered an amazing experience to learn first-hand of a rich and ancient culture with incredible people living in a remote but stunningly beautiful landscape. And somewhere in there I hope I can offer help with the establishment of some wonderful and long-lasting social enterprises within this lively community called Yuendumu.

Written by Neil Mackenzie, Social Enterprise Manager, Yuendumu.