In search of the good life
City slickers attempt a tree-change on a Tasmanian hobby farm
‘‘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
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).