Barry Oliver checks into an un­usual hol­i­day house near By­ron Bay

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

WE’VE been warned that John and Rago Dahlsen’s Cape Her­itage home is far from your av­er­age coun­try re­treat. Cows graze in nearby fields and the house is partly hid­den be­hind trees. We could be light years from NSW’s laid­back By­ron Bay, just 2.5km away, but it’s the plas­tic bot­tles that grab my at­ten­tion.

There must be hun­dreds of them, con­tained in an old fish­ing net hang­ing from a fence. Nearby there’s a totem pole ar­range­ment of old brown and white foam. I ask John, a lead­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal artist and Wynne prize win­ner in 2000, what it’s called: ‘‘ Brown and White Foam Totem.’’ Silly ques­tion.

His works have fairly lit­eral ti­tles, John says. He’s rather taken with the colours: they’re a good match for the house, he sug­gests, as if the ar­range­ment it­self is noth­ing out of the or­di­nary. Here, as I am about to dis­cover, it isn’t.

An­other en­vi­ron­men­tal art totem nearly 1m tall is stacked with flip­pers (totems, we dis­cover, are all over the place, made from any­thing from buoys, rope and plas­tic to drift­wood, thongs and Coke bot­tles).

There’s an air of an­tic­i­pa­tion as we open the front door. A first look takes in a sofa John has built from drift­wood; there’s a match­ing cof­fee ta­ble, two strik­ing ab­stract paint­ings on a wall and an en­vi­ron­men­tal art as­sem­blage of found ob­jects: bot­tle tops, bits of plas­tic, old rope, dis­carded tooth­brushes, glow­sticks, even lighters care­fully ar­ranged and framed un­der a per­spex screen.

There’s even a drift­wood base for the flatscreen TV and DVD (a copy of The Sketch­book of Pi­casso lies nearby).

An­other totem is topped with what ap­pears to be a plas­tic work­man’s hat, which has seen bet­ter days.

John and Rago have spent many hours scour­ing beaches from Vic­to­ria to north­ern NSW in search of junk (or ‘‘ trea­sures’’ as John puts it): drift­wood, bot­tles, net­ting and dis­carded plas­tic. It’s John who does most of the col­lect­ing: ‘‘ I just lie back and sun­bake,’’ says Dutch-born Rago, who runs a spa on their 0.8ha prop­erty.

The cou­ple live in a cot­tage on the grounds but we have Cape Her­itage, its four bed­rooms and un­usual art, to our­selves. It’s a lit­tle like stay­ing at a gallery (with beds) — John says that’s the way he uses the house — and I get a strange buzz from be­ing sur­rounded by such curious and en­gag­ing pieces.

I’m tempted to take an as­sem­blage off the wall (just to see if it has been signed on the back, you un­der­stand) but I’m wor­ried it might set off a hid­den alarm (many of the works fetch five-fig­ure prices).

All are for sale, but not the furniture. It’s a move­able feast. Some pieces are bought by guests while oth­ers are moved tem­po­rar­ily for ex­hi­bi­tions. When we stay, some are hang­ing in the Big Brother house on Queens­land’s Gold Coast.

But back to ba­sics. This is a hol­i­day home, af­ter all. We are warned not to worry about noises on the roof in the night. It will just be pos­sums. Or maybe a koala. Oh, and the pythons are harm­less. ‘‘ On the whole the wildlife’s pretty friendly,’’ says John cheer­ily.

We have a choice of where to eat: there is a large din­ing ta­ble (more drift­wood) in the well-ap­pointed kitchen and an­other in the sunken sun­room, which more than lives up to its name with shafts of light spear­ing through the glass. There are also out­side ar­eas that are per­fect for break­fast on a sunny morn­ing.

The main bed­room is down­stairs (even the bed is made of drift­wood) and the en­suite is home to yet more as­sem­blages. Tow­els hang from a drift­wood rack.

On the sec­ond level there’s a small bed­room and bath­room with claw bath, shower and as­sorted drift­wood. A nar­row stair­case leads to two more bed­rooms that


Ze­braPlas­tics share a bal­cony look­ing out across pad­docks on the other side of the road. In one of the rooms, two dou­ble beds are invit­ingly strewn with cush­ions.

Need­less to say, there aren’t many bare walls. As we ex­am­ine one as­sem­blage, John de­lights in point­ing out some of the found items: a tiny child’s toy, glow­sticks, a bat­tered pair of sun­glasses, a plas­tic fork. ‘‘ It’s like a time cap­sule,’’ he says with de­light. ‘‘ Ev­ery piece has its own story.’’

What do vis­i­tors make of his work? John says some are sur­prised; some, like us, are in­trigued. Oth­ers, strangely, don’t say a word or ven­ture near Rago’s spa (guests re­ceive a 10 per cent dis­count).

The house is nor­mally rented on a weekly ba­sis — food isn’t sup­plied — and the Dahlsens also plan to move into wed­ding re­cep­tions: ‘‘ Noth­ing big, just in­ti­mate gath­er­ings of up to 30 peo­ple’’, says John.

Out­side, the pool fails to tempt us — it’s a lit­tle chilly for a dip and it’s not heated — but we’re grate­ful for the lounge room com­bus­tion fire and stash of nearby wood as evening ap­proaches and the tem­per­a­ture dips.

We find our­selves sit­ting in front of the in­stal­la­tions try­ing to iden­tify what’s inside. It’s hard to be­lieve the colours, or that there could be such beauty in junk thrown on to a beach by the tide.

In the morn­ing our whoop­ing chil­dren de­light in swing­ing on a Tarzan rope hang­ing from an old tree. Dan­gling from an­other limb is a huge ball of net­ting con­tain­ing found ob­jects. John says it grew or­gan­i­cally over 15 months and ended up ‘‘ a bit like a bee­hive’’.

Af­ter demon­strat­ing his tech­nique on the rope, John tells us about his latest pas­sion, which has in­volved a re­turn to paint­ing af­ter a long break. He wants to record the lo­cal coast­line while it’s still rel­a­tively in­tact. ‘‘ I’m not an alarmist but I am su­per con­cerned about global warm­ing.’’

We’re treated to a private view­ing in his stu­dio on the prop­erty. He is build­ing a body of work be­fore con­sid­er­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion but there is no short­age of ex­am­ples. One af­ter an­other John and Rago pro­duce paint­ings to hang on the walls. When there’s no more space oth­ers are propped on the floor against the sides. Some are eas­ily recog­nis­able as the By­ron Bay coast. Oth­ers are of so-called purged ob­jects (the plas­tic blob cre­ated when a mould­ing ma­chine is cleaned at the end of a pro­duc­tion run). It’s hard to com­pre­hend.

‘‘ On the eighth day God cre­ated By­ron Bay,’’ says the bumper sticker as we head out. We’ve been so wrapped up in Cape Her­itage we’ve al­most forgotten about the town. I’m half tempted to scour the beaches to see what the tide has thrown up. In­stead, we make do with a spot of whale-watch­ing. Best leave the art to the ex­perts. Barry Oliver was a guest of Cape Her­itage.


Cape Her­itage is avail­able from $1600 a week; shorter stays are some­times pos­si­ble. Phone (02) 6685 5325; www.cape­; www.john­

Trea­sure trove: Works made from found ob­jects, such as

, far left, and

, top right, by artist John Dahlsen, grace the rooms of Cape Her­itage, the house he owns with his wife Rago; from cen­tre, the liv­ing room, the sunken sun­room and mas­ter bed­room

Flot­sam, jet­sam:

by John Dahlsen

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