For their fourth wedding anniversary a Moulton couple, Austin and Ari (Stephenson) Dutton, decided to take a trip to a destination that had long been on Ari’s bucket list, Australia.
A NASA Systems Engineer, Ari is by nature a planner. She started doing research and making plans for their trip back last January. “Honestly,” she laughed, “I’ve wanted to see Australia since I saw that Mary Kate and Ashley movie that was filmed there.”
The couple left for Down Under on November 1. The flight from Huntsville to Houston was the first leg of their journey. That wasn’t bad at all. The whole trip, however, totaled a grueling 16.5 hour flight.
When they landed they were thrust into the middle of Sydney. It was exciting, but they were tired, having completely lost a whole day in transit. The city was interesting, but Ari is quick to say that their transit system needs some revamping. “They don’t seem to think logically,” said the young engineer. “Our trip through Sydney involved every type of transportation available,” she explained. “It reminded me a lot of Boston.”
One side trip took them to Bondi Beach, which was nice, they agreed.
After spending three days in Sydney, moving around mostly with a scheduled tour, they departed for New Zealand for a five-day stay.
New Zealand was, Ari says, “One of my favorites of all of the places I’ve ever visited.”
She said the colors and textures of New Zealand reminded her of Scotland, and in fact, there was a big Scottish influence there. “The security inspection on entering New Zealand was one of the most intense that I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “They even inspected the bottom of our shoes to insure that we didn’t accidently bring in any seeds that might cross with their crops.”
She describes the country as being very agriculturally oriented. The Duttons visited several farms during their stay in New Zealand, and Ari says that she gained a new respect for farmers, both there and here at home.
There also seems to be a large sheep population in that part of the world. “One of the guides told us that their population was four million people, with a normal sheep population of about 28 million, but since this was the spring there, the sheep population was currently about 60 million.”
The guide also pointed out that there are many deer farms in New Zealand, as well.
They ventured out on their own several times, with Ari doing the driving and Austin navigating. “They drive on the wrong side of the road,” she laughed. "I was prepared for that, but the cars have the windshield wipers and the blinkers on opposite sides than American cars, so I was constantly turning on the wipers when I needed the blinkers.”
According to Austin, New Zealand has a distinct Jurassic Park kind of feel. There is a lot of countryside, and conservation is a huge consideration there. Most farms are family run and have been in the same family for years. People were very helpful and friendly everywhere the Dutton’s went in New Zealand.
In doing research on the land of the Hobbit, Ari discovered that New Zealand’s crime rate is extremely low. “We slept with our windows open in the ground floor and felt perfectly safe,” she said. “The weather was in the 50s and it was really nice. They don’t have air conditioning there.”
Everywhere they went, New Zealanders wanted to make sure that they were enjoying their stay. “People just wanted to take care of us,” said Ari.
The highlight of this leg of their journey included a trip to a penguin sanctuary. “Penguins are endangered there,” Ari explained. “The variety we saw is the smallest in the world. Their biggest predator is the Orca whale."
Austin would have liked to have brought one home, but because they are endangered, they couldn’t even hold one of the kitten-sized birds.
New Zealand is all about nature and protecting the environment, said the Duttons. “The people there are really content and are very focused on caring for the land.”
One of the distinctly different things they noted about Australia, in particular, was the lack of good condiments. Ari isn’t a big fan of mayo, "And they put mayo on everything,” she laughed. However, catsup is one of her favorites and according to Ari, Australian catsup isn’t one of the top 10 reasons to visit the Land Down Under.
Although they didn’t see much of the famous wildlife that part of the world is famous for, they did gain a new respect for its people. Too soon it was time for them to depart this idyllic setting, heading to Brisbane. Upon arrival there, as they shuttled from the airport terminal to the car rental spot, they noticed some haze in the distance that the car rental people mentioned was smoke from some wildfires. The country, like our American west coast recently, was suffering from a drought, and in the past few days the wind had picked up. However, the smoke looked a long distance away at that point, so the couple dismissed the early warning.
This part of their trip was one that they were both looking forward to, their itinerary included stops at three beaches for a little time to slow down and relax. The zoo and several other tourist attractions were also scheduled for their last few days in Australia.
But as they looked over their maps a car turned into the rental business parking area. It was burned black and the tires were smoking ruins, having melted in the heat from the fires through which it had just emerged.
At this point, Ari became a lot more concerned. Austin, who works as a nurse in the heart unit at Huntsville Hospital, is always pragmatic and calm, and was only mildly concerned. The smoke, while still a long distance from them, was getting worse. His asthma was beginning to bother him. He suggested that they call ahead to their next overnight stop and inquire about the conditions there.
Ari asked the nice lady who answered the phone at the condo about the safety of attempting to drive there. At first the lady encouraged them to come. “But if I were one of your relatives and was about to drive there from Brisbane, what would you advise me?” asked Ari.
The voice on the other end of the phone hesitated before saying, “I would tell them not to come,” she said.
That settled it. They called and cancelled their other plans, and since there were no flights leaving Brisbane for the states, they changed their original return flight home from Sydney to an earlier departure date. Now the only obstacle was getting to Sydney, and doing so before flights out of the country were cancelled due to the increasing threat of the city becoming surrounded by the fast moving wildfires. The wind continued to spread them voraciously.
From Brisbane they phoned their parents, J.F. and Sonja Stephenson and Greg and Kim Dutton, to let them know that they were okay but asking for prayers because they still had to make it to their plane in Sydney.
On Monday morning they left Brisbane, taking the advice of the rental car desk clerk, who suggested that they go six hours out of their way in order to avoid running into a fire storm. It would make their drive to Sydney another 16 hours, but they chose the safest route, through the desert.
By Tuesday the fires were reportedly beginning to circle Sydney. They drove straight through to try to beat the flames. Along the road they saw their first kangaroos. The bad part was that they were dead, strewn along the roadside much like our roadkill deer. It wasn’t clear to them if the animals had died as a result of being hit by cars or of succumbing to the heat, thick veil of smoke and/or dehydration.
In the desert there were no guiding signs, no trail markers, and no cell service. The other cars they met were equipped with big protective grills to help if a kangaroo, drawn by the headlights, should leap out in front of them.
It was somewhere in this unfamiliar landscape that the gravity of their situation finally hit Ari. She was scared. “Austin and I knew and trusted that God would take care of us,” she said. “But, honestly, I’d never been in a life-threatening situation like this before. I could do nothing to control it.”
Austin, who is always positive, was growing more concerned also.
They stopped the car and prayed. They are both Christians with a strong faith, and it was a natural thing for them to do. Back home, their parents were doing the same thing. “We had put up a map to follow their progress as closely as we could,” said her mother, Sonja Graham Stephenson. “We knew God was with them, but we were still concerned.”
Greg and Kim Dutton first saw the fires on television, but were not overly concerned because they knew that Austin and Ari were in New Zealand at the time. However, Greg did catch the phrase ‘fires of historic proportions’ and it left him with an uneasy feeling, but still not alarmed. He was sitting in church when he next heard from Austin by text. “We are in Brisbane, and I need to talk to you. We are okay, but this is an emergency,” read the text. Immediately Greg got up, went outside and returned the text. Austin explained the urgency in them getting a flight out of Australia and having to travel to Sydney to do so. Now Greg and Kim were fully aware of the danger their kids were in. Austin sent several horrific photos of the fires, but advised his dad not to share them with his mom.
Finally, after what seemed twice as long as it really was, Austin and Ari arrived in the small town of Narrarbi, Australia, around dusk. They were advised not to travel at night because the kangaroo’s would be more active.
At daybreak the following morning they saw thick smoke on the horizon, but still no flames. Helicopters began to drop water from above, while the sound of sirens from rescue teams, ambulances and other emergency vehicles racing to and from the scene of the most recent fires could be heard.
They could have stayed put, just ridden out the fires, which were steadily moving toward Sydney, but they chose to keep moving. They had only five hours to reach the airport or they would miss their flight, possibly the last one out until the fires were controlled.
They both had an overwhelming desire to get back home, so their trip resumed, amid an ever-thickening smoke that had become much like a heavy fog enveloping their car.
Five hours and counting…with Ari driving into the dense smoke, Austin poured over the fire maps marking the safest, fastest routes to Sydney. He was in constant contact with a site that provided updates on the fires every 10 minutes, which he credits with helping immensely to keep them safe while driving on the wrong side of a road they could sometimes barely see, in an unfamiliar country, during extremely unusual circumstances.
Two hours after they left the little village of Dubbo, fire broke out there.
Two hours later they saw the first flames. Two fires had jumped the road in two separate locations.
Austin’s asthma was kicking into high gear; Ari was also suffering the effects of the smoke. Intensely aware now of the danger they were in, Ari remained focused on the road.
Driving through thickening smoke, the world around them shrinking to the size of the front seat, Ari became convicted that she should pray not just for them, but for the lives of the people in Australia who were in harm’s way. She realized that she had a home to come back to. “Many of the people there were uncertain about their homes, or had already lost them and had nowhere to go,” she said. It was for them that her prayers took a turn away from her own situation. She became burdened for those who were in danger from these hellish fires and the smoke they generated that covered what must have seemed like the whole world at the time.
After their harrowing drive through the desert they saw Sydney ahead. “The whole city glowed orange,” Ari remarked. “But the only fires so far in the city were grass fires in parks, and the smoke was a little better, but they told us when we checked into the hotel that the day before you couldn’t see a building right in front of you.”
Arriving at the hotel, about six miles from the airport was a relief. It wasn’t the best hotel, but even it was 94 percent booked because of people coming into the city from the countryside which was still burning.
“I was just relieved to be in Sydney,” Ari admitted. “I’d rather have been in an uncomfortable hotel than in danger from the fires.”
The following morning they boarded a plane departing for the United States at around 11:00 a.m. From his window seat Austin could see little of Australia. His impression was that it looked like a volcano from above. It was covered with smoke, and so sad,” Ari remarked.
After a 15- hour flight (they gained an hour due to a friendly tailwind) they arrived in Huntsville (after an hour and a half layover in Houston) Wednesday, November 13th at about 2:30 p.m. exhausted and suffering jetlag.
When she saw her parent’s faces at the Huntsville airport she realized just how much she had missed them. The family of four, including her brother Daniel, has always been not just relatives but best friends. “I know how fortunate I am to have them," she said gratefully.
They are both glad to be home, thankful and praising God for seeing them through the most dangerous event in their lives. This Thanksgiving will be especially poignant because of their experience.
The Thursday after they got back Ari was rereading a speech she’d written before she left for the Pleasant Grove Women’s Gala. Reading her words she came across something amazingly prophetic, it was a sentence about how God was always there, walking through the fires of life with us, never dreaming when they were written that He would literally be with them through actual fires before she read them again.
The next night, Friday, at the Women’s Gala she broke down when she delivered them to her audience. She was overcome with the love that had been showered on them from across the globe when they were in danger. They received many texts of prayer and encouragement not only from their parents and church family but from people that heard about their predicament. It was humbling.
This Thanksgiving the couple will have a place at the holiday table at several family gatherings of the Dutton/Stephenson/Graham clans. They are all especially grateful that this adventure ended well, and appreciate one another all the more because of it. “God blesses us through the fire, so we shouldn’t live in fear,” cautioned Sonja Stephenson as she reflected about this experience. “But He also gave us a brain for a reason,” she laughed.
Greg and Kim Dutton will be especially thankful for God protecting their children during the fires which are still burning in Australia at press time. “We should all be thankful for everything we have, but this year we are especially thankful for their safe return. There will be lots of hugs and kisses and smiles around our Thanksgiving table!” he said.
The adventurous couple has already booked their next adventure, a trip to the Mediterranean next summer. Their parents have threatened them with confiscating their passports.