Bloke and his bathtub on Australia’s biggest ride

Michael Willem is 100 days into a bicycle ride he hopes will change the lives of those struggling with mental illness. He left Melbourne in May with nothing more than his art, his bike, a bathtub he fashioned into a bed, and a sense of purpose to create a better future. And several BIG4 holiday parks have thrown their support behind his cause. 

Michael Willem's story has captured plenty of attention over the past three months.

Why have you undertaken such an arduous journey around Australia?

I had actually planned a similar challenge four years ago after almost going bankrupt. I recovered from that problem but had to postpone indefinitely due to injury. This 20,000km challenge is as much a recovery ride for me as it is a spotlight on mental health.

Last year was indescribably bad in just about every way. I lost everything and had a mental breakdown, followed by severe panic attacks for about six months. I was ‘self medicating’ heavily and was on my way to becoming a ‘statistic’.

After a really big health scare I thought ‘I’ve gotta get out of here’. I built a ‘bike camper trailer’ out of a bathtub and hit the road. 

This is Michael Willem - a man on a mission to help beyondblue.
The Melburnian sells his wares at markets to help fund his journey.

You are raising money for the charity, beyondblue. Why?

Given my journey through major situational depression, beyondblue was the obvious choice for me as a benefactor. They have really helped break down some of the stigmas surrounding depression and anxiety, and their work has saved and improved countless lives.

BIG4 holiday parks have opened their hearts to Michael's cause. This is Nash and Rob with Michael at BIG4 Port Willunga Tourist Park.

How have people reacted along the way in terms of support or encouragement – can you describe any moments that stand out?

I’ve been blown away by the kindness and generosity of complete strangers. I’ve met so many truly beautiful people that give of themselves without hesitation; whether it be water, meals, amazing hospitality or even just a compassionate ear. It’s certainly helped restore my faith in humanity that’s for sure. Being pulled over to receive donations always feels pretty good.

People have pulled Michael over on the side of the road to donate money.

BIG4 parks have shown great support as well. What are the highlights?

They certainly have! And not just with camp sites and the occasional cabin. Park operators are a very special kind of people. I’d like to personally thank Wye River, Portland, Port Elliot, Port Willunga and West Beach Parks in particular for going above and beyond, helping with things like arranging meals, repairs, and cabins when the weather turned particularly bad.

Robe is just the prettiest little town ....

Prettiest place you’ve seen so far, and why?

Gee, that’s difficult! So many places. Wilson’s Promontory, Kangaroo island, and Robe.

But Beachport is where Michael could spend the rest of his life.

Favourite town you’ve stopped in and why?

Beachport hands down. Beautiful town, beautiful people! I could move there!

'The Granites' near Kingston. You've gotta wonder how a few granite boulders found themselves on a coastline dominated by limestone!!

How is the bike, bathtub and body holding up? and tub are ok now, but I broke an axle and the tow hitch in recent weeks. All fixed now, and spares on board! I’m leaving Coober Pedy after two days rest so I’m feeling ok now, but my knees have been an ongoing concern. I’m not a cyclist!

I guess another aspect is mental health, and I’ll be honest it’s been a tough few weeks. Most days I want to quit, and I’m struggling with being alone with my thoughts too much! Trying to stay positive but it’s tough mentally. I’ll get there though.

Michael passed through the glorious Barossa during the South Australian leg.

How has the journey helped settle your own mind?

As I touched on, getting bogged down with negative thoughts has been tough. The journey overall has been a healing process, but it takes time. Just need to better manage the bad days. It’s certainly changing my life for the better, and it’s an important cause.

Michael's ride will be a life-changer ... albeit a more positive one.

What advice would you offer to others in terms of identifying their need for help, and then getting it?

If you’re struggling with depression and/or anxiety there is so much help available these days. I know it may seem hopeless sometimes, but a good first step is to chat to your doctor. If you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, don’t isolate yourself!! Call beyondblue, Lifeline or MensLine (Yes guys! You’re not an island, and the courageous thing to do is to open up and talk. It could save your life and spare your family).

You can appreciate so much more when you slow down in life.

What’s the message you have for everyone?

Depression is never the same for two people, but I think everyone can benefit from exercise. I ‘beat’ depression the first time by taking a crappy job that forced me to walk, a lot! It probably saved my life. For those on the outside, depression has no physical markers like a broken leg or head injury, but it’s just as real to sufferers. Your compassion and understanding that we can’t just ‘get over it’ goes a long way.

Michael reached Coober Pedy after almost a week on the road from Port Augusta. Next stop is Alice Springs, then Darwin.

How is the fundraising going?

It’s a slow simmer, but I passed the $4000-mark last week. A small donation really goes a long way to reducing suicide statistics in Australia. There are 65,000 suicide attempts annually in Australia. That’s pretty sobering, and a huge toll on families. You can make a donation today at Help On My Way Up make a difference.

If you or somebody you know needs help with mental health, please call beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 131114.

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