To hell and back

• Bob Rees has found a “second life” as a disability advocate and – at the age of 74 – a musical recording career with some help from The Waifs. Photos supplied.

SCHOOLS should teach children about disabilities so they become more aware of the variety of challenges faced by more than four million Australians each day, says a disability advocate who’s been to hell and back to get his message out.

Bob Rees lost the love of his life and the use of his legs while on a motorcycle tour through Africa in 2019, but used his remarkable journey of recovery to find a new voice – thanks to some inspiration from The Waifs.

The retired Albany Advertiser compositor and his wife Christine were crossing a narrow bridge in isolated Malawi when a driver coming the other way mowed them down.

Mr Rees says he knew instantly he’d broken his back, but thought his wife would be all right as she was still able to sit up.

The pair faced a tortuous journey on the back of a truck without pain killers; in Malawi medical supplies disappear quickly on the black market and when villagers got them to the nearest first aid post, it had nothing.

After six hours on Malawi’s bumpy roads, the unthinkable happened; the couple realised Ms Rees was dying. Despite his injuries, Mr Rees was able to turn and hold her hands, and says being able to look into her eyes and say goodbye as her life ebbed away has given him great comfort.

Then it was his turn.

“I did die, and I went down this tunnel and there was a feeling of euphoria; all the pain and the memory disappeared and there was no grief,” Mr Rees said.

“I knew there was no coming back, but as I was going down this tunnel, there was this little black box, and it was my mate shouting at me ‘come back, stay with me you c…’ and stuff like that.

“And then I came back.”

Tunnel

Despite not being religious, he believes “100 per cent” that at death people go down a tunnel to a place of tranquility, and says it explained his wife’s last moments.

“It gave me great comfort to know this, because I could see in her face how peaceful she was, how the pain had gone and all the stress lines disappeared, and while she often looked younger, this was something different.”

A riot in the Malawian capital meant another delay, before he finally got a flight to Johannesburg – and his first shot of morphine –some 30 hours after the accident.

Mr Rees returned to Perth for more operations and recovery in Fiona Stanley, and says this is when he started his “second life”.

He travelled to Albany for a memorial to Ms Rees, who’d been a popular head nurse at the local hospital, and met Vikki Thorn from The Waifs, who’d grown up living next to the couple. 

 Seeing the personal anguish he’d faced, she urged him to take his guitar back to Perth during his treatment and start writing songs to work through his trauma. 

“My spinal doctor said it was a great idea because I was moving my hands,” Mr Rees said. 

“My left hand has got a plate in and nine screws. 

“So I wrote about travelling in Africa and I wrote about when people ask you how you are and you say ‘ok’, but you aren’t ok.” 

He tried out one of the songs on a fellow paraplegic he’d befriended in hospital, who said that it perfectly captured how he felt.

Mr Rees said he then experienced an incredible outburst of creativity and has discovered his blunt, often brutal, honesty really resonates with people who have experienced adversity. 

“It just poured out; they came in a cascade of songs, sometimes two or three in a day.”

When Ms Thorn’s sister Donna Simpson joined her in Albany while later, it was a reunion that almost derailed their Waifs concert.

“We were in Albany playing a gig and mum said ‘we have bought Bob’ and I hadn’t seen him since the accident and I hadn’t seen him in a wheelchair … so I just broke down in tears,” Ms Simpson said. 

“I had to completely redo my makeup, and there’s Bob comforting me saying ‘it’s all right Donna’.

“I was four years old when Chris and Bob moved in next door and our parents grew up being the total hippy party people in the 70s.

“Bob was a whole part of that scene and he and my dad have been best friends for years.

“When we got the call about the crash – they aren’t blood family – but my whole world out from under me when I heard Chris had died.”

Ms Simpson said the day after the Waifs concert she was enjoying a smoke on the front verandah when Mr Rees pulled up in his car, stereo blaring with a recording of his own material.

She was impressed enough to suggest putting together a few songs for friends and family, but after putting together a bit of a who’s who of WA talent which included Eskimo Joe session muso Tony Bourke and Cockburn councillor/violinist Phoebe Corke, she decided it deserved a full album and took on the job of producer.

Ms Simpson says she loves producing and sees it as playing a big part of her own future.

The album The Journey is heavy on Bob Dylan influences, but Ms Simpson also sees shades of Rodriguez and Nick Cave.

The launch sold out two concerts in Albany, where another chance encounter saw Mr Rees find his other voice: advocate.

“When I spoke at the album launches, I spoke about education being a huge things, and there was a young woman who came up to me and told me her story – and it was so alien to me – that at school she was being called spastic and bullied. Every day. That blew me away.”

Mr Rees has since convinced Albany’s council to fix their ACROD bays which were no wider than a standard bay, while he’s discovered just talking to local businesses about the incredible barriers people with disabilities face every day, such as trying to get through their doors, has seen a great response.

“A lot of it is simply that it’s never been pointed out to them, and 99 per cent of people actually want to help,” Mr Rees said.

He’s now taking the album on tour, starting at Clancy’s in Fremantle this coming week, and says he’s got a message for anyone who attends.

“I would like them to imagine they in a wheelchair and then imagine they are moving around the city, and if they find somewhere that would be difficult, to let someone know.”

Bob Rees
The Journey album launch (supported by Donna Simpson solo)
Clancy’s Fish Bar, Fremantle August 19 and 21
Tix: https://clancysfishpub. oztix.com.au/

by STEVE GRANT 

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