In search of the good life

City slickers at­tempt a tree-change on a Tas­ma­nian hobby farm

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CAROL ALT­MANN

‘‘I THINK we should buy a hobby farm.’’ It was my idea.

It was also my idea to find a farm on an is­land at the bot­tom of the world — next stop, Antarc­tica — well be­fore sea-chang­ing or tree-chang­ing had caught on in an ex­hausted na­tion.

At the time of our de­ci­sion, Tas­ma­nia was still not a fash­ion­able place to live and house prices were a third of those on the main­land, so we could af­ford to buy a four-bed­room, five-acre ( 2ha) prop­erty on the side of Mount Welling­ton and keep our house in Ade­laide, just in case home­sick­ness over­pow­ered our dream of own­ing a few acres.

We knew noth­ing about keep­ing five acres, but the house it­self was lovely. Half brick, half western red cedar, the place looked solid, com­fort­able and big: much big­ger than the grainy pic­tures in the Ho­bart real-es­tate guide, which sat open on my lap, led us to be­lieve on the day we set out to in­spect po­ten­tial prop­er­ties.

In fact it was too big for two peo­ple, with two lounge rooms, two bath­rooms, three bed­rooms and a loft, but I liked the idea of a guest wing should friends want to come and stay.

The main bed­room was dom­i­nated by a floor-to-ceil­ing cor­ner win­dow which looked across two dams, down the val­ley and away into the hills, with the near­est neigh­bour a com­fort­able acre or two away. And then there was the land, a com­bi­na­tion of rolling pas­ture and raw bush where, the longer I looked, the more I could see my dream of a few ducks and chooks and maybe a goat and a sheep or two ma­te­ri­alise with­out any ef­fort at all.

De­spite it be­ing sunny out­side on the day of the in­spec­tion, I could ex­hale fog in the kitchen, but Colin the real-es­tate agent smiled cheer­fully and as­sured me that all it needed was a cou­ple of sky­lights to brighten up the place.

While I pulled at doors and tested floors, my part­ner, Deb, wan­dered around out­side, only to re­turn min­utes later, yelling ‘‘peeecawks, peeecawks’’ in her North Carolina ac­cent.

There were, to be sure, two pea­cocks — or, more rightly, two light-grey pea­hens — pranc­ing and poop­ing across the cedar deck. ‘‘Oh, aren’t they just adooorable,’’ Deb cooed as the birds ejected slimy green bul­lets on to the deck­ing by way of a greet­ing.

Colin milked the mo­ment: ‘‘They come with the house!’’

I stood in the gar­den and looked at the val­ley fall­ing away be­low us and knew that this was a cap­ti­vat­ing place with an en­chant­ing name: Neika. Neeeeka. Few peo­ple have ever heard of Neika, 18km south of Ho­bart. It is the only Neika in Aus­tralia. Dread­ful to spell, but lovely to say: Neika.

This was it. We were mov­ing from Ade­laide to Tas­ma­nia. We were go­ing to slow down and be­come farm girls. WE turned into the dirt road that was our new street and, tired and over­wrought, felt our shoul­ders slump in re­lief as we fi­nally en­tered the steep drive­way that led up to our new home. How­ever, rather than tow­er­ing be­fore us as a vi­sion splen­did, the place was barely recog­nis­able.

In the few months that had passed be­tween our buy­ing the house and mov­ing in, the ten­ta­cles of na­ture had be­gun to wrap them­selves around the prop­erty. It had been ten­anted un­til a week prior, but the ten­ant had ob­vi­ously not been home in a while.

The win­dows were opaque with dust and the once neatly land­scaped gar­den had de­gen­er­ated into a jun­gle of waist-high weeds that bobbed their grassy heads in sur­prise as we swept into the drive­way.

‘ ‘ Oh boy. We have a bit of gar­den­ing to do here,’’ Deb said as she got out of the car and shoul­dered her way through the grass seeds and this­tles to un­lock the front door, which had be­come sticky and swollen from the damp.

In­side, the air was dank and freez­ing, as if it had been years, not days, since a ten­ant had lived there. We soon learned that in win­ter, the weak sun started to dip be­low the tree­line at around 3.30pm and was all but washed up by 4.30pm, by which time the wood fire needed to be roar­ing or an un­com­fort­able chill would wrap it­self around our shoul­ders at the din­ner ta­ble — if we’d had one.

For the three weeks that our fur­ni­ture sat wait­ing on a dock in Mel­bourne, we ate din­ner from the top of Peggy the cocker spaniel’s trav­el­ling crate, care­fully dis­guised with a draped sarong so that at least it looked like a low ta­ble with a Hawaiian print.

This worked quite well un­til Peggy de­cided to go to bed and crawled into the crate, send­ing wine glasses top­pling and din­ner plates sway­ing.

Com­plet­ing our en­sem­ble were two camp­ing chairs, a roll-out mat­tress and a por­ta­ble tele­vi­sion with a rab­bit-ears aerial that sat perched on an up­turned plas­tic milk crate and de­liv­ered fuzz on all three chan­nels.

At least we’d packed a torch. Win­ter in ru­ral Tas­ma­nia is dark: inky dark. It’s the kind of dark­ness you ex­pe­ri­ence when you turn off the last light in the house be­fore go­ing to bed and then try to grope your way up the cor­ri­dor, dis­ori­ented and blind. I never ap­pre­ci­ated the con­ve­nience of street­lights un­til I didn’t have any.

The first night I ven­tured out to col­lect kin­dling for the fire, I stood at the top of our twist­ing gravel drive­way, which de­scended steeply to the let­ter­box a good 300m away, and could see no fur­ther than the length of my arm. With the moon and stars cov­ered by thick cloud, the bush lay in black­ness, its trees shuf­fling and whis­per­ing among them­selves, dar­ing me to step closer.

‘‘Don’t be a weak­ling,’’ I told my­self. ‘‘There is ab­so­lutely noth­ing out there that can hurt you.’’

I clicked on the Dol­phin torch only to find that its cheap, no-name bat­tery was al­most flat and strug­gled to cast a light brighter than a birth­day can­dle. Across the pad­docks, I could see fuzzy squares of light from the home of our near­est neigh­bour, who sud­denly ap­peared to be very far away in­deed, while above me the sway­ing pep­per­mint gums moaned and creaked with what sounded like the plain­tive cries from a con­vict ship at sea. I clearly watch far too many movies.

‘‘Come on! Get go­ing and get some wood,’’ I steeled my­self as I stepped out into the night. It shot out of nowhere. ‘‘Christ!’’ A Ben­nett’s

wal­laby

bolted across my path, its leath­ery feet spank­ing the gravel and spray­ing up a hand­ful of stones be­fore it crashed deeper into the bush.

Ben­nett’s wal­la­bies are only knee-high to a hu­man and are nor­mally very shy crea­tures, but I shrieked as if an an­gry brown bear had crossed my path. It was mov­ing too fast for me to see if it was armed, but I was cer­tain that this one was wear­ing a bal­a­clava and dark glasses.

The black bush closed in around me and where by day I saw only harm­less pep­per­mint gums and gre­vil­leas, I was now sur­rounded by grotesque shapes that had mor­phed into hang­men, the grim reaper and a cy­clop­tic mon­ster swing­ing a blood­ied axe above its head. I snatched up a few thin sticks and sprinted the hun­dred me­tres back up the hill to the house un­til, gasp­ing and red­faced, I reached our back door. With lungs heav­ing and calf mus­cles scream­ing, I burst in­side to find Deb stand­ing at the stove, slowly stir­ring a pot of soup, a pic­ture of seren­ity and calm.

‘‘Is every­thing OK? Did you find some kin­dling?’’

I checked the mea­gre twigs clutched in my right hand and re­alised they were about as use­ful to start a fire as a fist­ful of drink­ing straws.

‘‘Yep, yep, ab­so­lutely, no trou­bles at all.’’ This is an edited ex­tract from Four Sea­sons with a Grumpy Goat by Carol Alt­mann (Allen & Un­win, $32.99; al­lenan­dun­win.com).

TOM JEL­LETT

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