The Kombi of Hope, the cold, a road trip, and a Relay summit

*** Warning to read this article you must be fluent in Australia's particular brand of dry, sarcastic humor. *** In the Australian winter of 2012 (yes Australia has winter) I embarked on a journey that is one of the most memorable of my Relay For Life (RFL) experiences. This journey took the form of a road trip which I shared with the Chairperson of the Newcastle/ Lake Macquarie RFL committee, Verity Currey, and a purple Kombi. I had been a committee member of Newcastle/ Lake Macquarie RFL for a few years but this was the first time that I had been invited to attend the New South Wales RFL Summit. That year's summit was in Tamworth, which is a medium size city four hours drive inland from Newcastle. Relayers are known for their enthusiasm. Each of us choose to show that enthusiasm in different ways. Verity shows hers with her wheels.

The Kombi of Hope is a custom refurbished Volkswagen Kombi, painted purple, with the words 'Kombi of Hope' printed on all sides. It was in this "fantastic machine" that Verity offered me a lift to the Summit. Our road trip started like any other, except for the conspicuous presence of Verity's husband tailing us in a much more modern Toyota Hilux. Verity was quick to explain that he was following us to make sure everything went smoothly with the Kombi. Upon reflection this should have served as a warning of the "adventure" ahead... As we approached the outskirts of Newcastle, Verity and I engaged in the obligatory conversation that all Relayers must have with one and other: the story of how we got involved in Relay. Verity explained that she made the decision to join the ranks of our global movement when a 15-year-old family friend was diagnosed with a spinal tumor. She recalled thinking "No-one should have to suffer through a cancer diagnosis, let alone a 15 year old with her whole life in front of her". Verity was clearly struck deeply by the experience, explaining that her young friend lost her battle 3 years later.

Our somber moment was interrupted shortly after we got onto the New England Highway. I couldn't help but notice the increasingly potent sent of petrol fumes permeating the cabin. After deliberating for a few moments about whether I should say anything I queried Verity as to what was going on. She explained that the Kombi had only recently been serviced and this usually happened for a while after a visit to the mechanic. After a small amount of deliberation we both decided that it just wouldn't be proper to arrive at a Cancer Council function, high on petrol fumes. So in order to prevent such a faux pas we manually cranked down the windows. Brilliantly however this provided for our conversation to turn to the Kombi itself. Why on Earth had Verity gone to the trouble? Well, it turns out that it was a joint venture between Verity and her husband, and her best friend Megan and her husband. The logic it seems, was that people camp at Relay and the best thing for camping is a Kombi! After the idea had been hatched, Verity's husband, Ian found a dilapidated Kombi on Ebay and purchased it for the grand total of $1700 Australian. It took the group of four 2 years to refurbish the Kombi.

Our solution to the petrol fume problem created an entirely new one. Driving with the windows down exposed us to the cold nighttime air of inland New England. Both of us had dressed for maximum comfort during our 4-hour drive; this did not include the many necessary layers of clothing to survive exposure to the elements. Growing hungry and weary of the ever-present danger of frost bite, we began to look for a place to eat and adjust our attire. Much to our frustration, 'country' (not quite outback) Australia is sparsely populated by only a smattering of miniscule towns. Despite the irony bourn of our status as Cancer Council volunteers, our hunger lead us to conclude that to be considered part of civilization a town needs to be adorned with golden arches. Eventually we found a small roadside restaurant and before proceeding inside, we burst into our bags and clothed ourselves with all manner of materials to stave of the cold. I ended up repurposing some thermal underwear as a scarf and headgear.

 I recently caught up with Verity to re-hash our adventure. We also talked about the adventures she has had since 2012. Since then the Kombi has been to Dungog, Shell Harbour, Cessnock, Singleton, Sutherland, and Hawksbury Relays and the Tamworth and Wollongong RFL summits. When I asked her if all the effort had been worth it. She said "At Relays we use the Kombi to drive sick or frail survivors around the first lap. The smiles on their faces say it all as they lean out of the window waving at everyone. So yes it has been worth it." Few of my Relay adventures compare to my trip with Verity in the Kombi of Hope. Like the Kombi which has brought smiles to the faces of countless survivors, our trip was well worth it, if only for the fit of hysterical laughter from our fellow volunteers when we arrived in Tamworth half frozen, relying on repurposed underwear to keep us warm. 

James Garlick
Cancer Council Australia Volunteer