Day 26. Living in the hills on the periphery of Melbourne, it’s always fairly quiet around here. We don’t have neighbours within hearing distance, and the road isn’t close by. There’s one small general store, a primary school, a rural supplies store, a pub, bakery and a pizza place. Most of these are now closed or open on a limited basis. Time has come to a standstill. The nearby flight path is silent, the early morning workers’ cars are few and far between. The kitchen clock tics more loudly, evoking memories of dark, claustrophobic antique shops crammed with heavy wooden furniture, tapestries, Victoriana and mantelpiece clocks. The wooden beams creak overhead, expanding and contracting with the day’s heat; an annoying fly hums about, landing on my arm as I write. This deathly quiet seems like I’ve stepped back in time to another place in another century. On days like this, the black dog hovers too close for comfort.
It’s almost four weeks of self-isolation now and I can count the days of escape on one hand. Simple pleasures- a walk around an oval, a short drive to a nearby township to pick up a special order, or to drop something off from a distance, a long awaited postal delivery- have become the highlights of my month.
One of those outings occurred on Day 10. We left home early as the morning fog still hovered above the creek valley below our place. The drive took us through the hills that form part of our district and followed the steep descent to the township of Yarra Glen, suspended below the road in a pool of blinding light. Travelling along the fertile plains of the Yarra Valley to Coldstream, we passed by vineyards and strawberry farms, fields of dark leafed cabbage and paddocks of sheep and cattle. Our mission was to collect a few day old chickens from a hatchery, a necessary and essential trip, officer, in order to provide future laying hens for my small self- sufficient farm. It is a familiar landscape: I’ve been travelling through these same hills for forty years. Yet on this occasion, the landscape seemed to sing with extraordinary beauty. I discovered new vistas, old railway bridges and distant mountain ranges that I had ignored all these years. Less traffic, the cold, clean air of the morning, the silver sun rising through the glinting frost in the valley, I felt a rare euphoria, a joy that emanated from being immersed in nature.
I made a resolution on Day 10, that when all this is over, I want to go on more picnics in the nearby hills and valleys. To be a part of this landscape while we still have it. To do what our ancestors did on their days off. And when I’m more confident about the state of the world, perhaps I’ll take a longer drive to other beautiful landscapes and bush within Victoria, to visit this land with new eyes.
The first thing you notice when entering the lush rainforest world of TropicalBliss B&B in Far North Queensland is the sound of rushing water and the deep umbrous green light of the rainforest. It’s a soothing sound, reminding me in many ways of Ubud in Bali. Tropical Bliss B&B sits high above Utchee Creek and just below the platformed gazebo, the rapids rush loudly. If you are lucky enough to stay in the Ulysses Butterfly room, you will feel totally immersed in this environment. It’s another world. The bedroom windows are flywired but open, the doors are French and best left ajar so you can hear the sounds of the night forest or the startling early morning chatter of the Wompoo fruit doves. An afternoon read is a luxurious pastime but it only takes a page or two before succumbing to that water world: the words blur and its off, once again, to the land of nod. Call them naps, or call them dreams or trance, they happen often here. Chillax, as the hosts say.
Another nap with rainforest.
Shady living spaces
Memories of China
View of main bedroom, the Ulysses room
To get to Tropical Bliss B&B, drive south from Cairns down the Bruce Highway to the thriving country town of Innisfail, then head on through the sugar cane fields and banana plantations until you reach Utchee Creek. This is rich Queensland farming country but there are a few small settlements dotted throughout these fertile lands, especially along the creeks where the rainforest has historically been left intact. The rainfall in this area is the highest in Australia: it’s hard to imagine an average rainfall of 4,000 millimetres ( 160 inches) per year. The forest seems to grow before your very eyes. The thought of all this rain is quite overwhelming.
The wet season continued later this year, with huge downpours throughout April, making Utchee Creek more teeming than usual. You can swim here- it’s too high for crocodiles. The small rock pools below look very tempting, though the staircase down is precipitous. Peter, the host, will happily guide you through his rainforest garden of 2.5 acres. Some is accessible and safe: other steeper sections along the creek are wild and primordial. Some plants have thrived here since the age of the dinosaurs. There are colours, shapes and textures unseen in safer southern lands and stories and legends abound. We passed one plant with incredibly sticky leaves: when torn, they have the property of super glue. Then there’s the Wait- a While stinging vine, ( the only way to become disentangled is to wait a while so you don’t get injured by the toxic stinging barbs) and then there’s Gympie Gympie, the devil- like bush with extremely painful and toxic leaves. Along the driveway, lush red flowers remind me of hydrangeas- they are beautiful but apparently invasive.
Beyond, in a small grassy clearing, black bamboo canes soar above, while black sapote trees, strangler vines and pepper creepers compete for light. For those interested in tropical plants, Peter can give you a list of palms, ferns and vines in his garden. Research has been conducted on site by world-famous botanists who itemised around 20,000 plant species, including grasses and smaller microscopic plants. I was rather taken with the Zamea Furfuracea, or Cardboard Plant, a bush with thick leaves like sandpaper, good tucker for those ancient creatures from the mists of time. It’s a plant wonderland here.
Peter can tell you about local activities, which might include a visit to Paronella Park, the Atherton tablelands, Mission beach, or the prosperous inland art deco town of Innisfail with its waterfront boats and fish shops. Perhaps you might be tempted to buy some fresh green tiger prawns or a slab of the beautiful white fleshed Coda fish or a coral trout? It is possible to buy some lovely produce in Innisfail to take ‘home’ to Tropical Bliss where you could use the BBQ or, by pre-arrangement, the kitchen.
A chilled white wine or G&T in the rainforest, a bird call, and a pile of freshly cooked tiger prawns with a squeeze of lime is a pleasant way to spend the early evening. Otherwise, the nearby Mena Creek Pub serves meals. Peter offers a variety of breakfast options. He has just mastered the art of sourdough bread so expect some good toast and sugar-free tropical fruit jams, along with a tropical fruit platter and home-made yoghurt, or banana pancakes, eggs and a good coffee.
The house itself is an inviting open space, though most guests spend their time on the deck overlooking the jungle. Inside you’ll want to kick off your shoes and wander about in the shady lounge area, tastefully decorated in Graham Greene style, with wooden shutters, French doors and Chinese antiques. There are two tiny old dogs on site, both friendly and quiet, and the bathroom facilities are shared. It is, in many ways, like a small and friendly guesthouse. Many ‘celebrities’ choose to stay here, given its private location, to recharge batteries and commune with nature. Some come to write, others to watch birds, backpackers to learn about Australia, and family groups come to have fun. There are two bedrooms and one overflow bunk room for children. Your hosts, Peter and Steve, can be as invisible as Ninjas or delightfully hands on and entertaining; it’s up to you. All you need to do is leave all your preconceptions behind. A short stay at Tropical Bliss is restorative and unique.
I stayed at Tropical Bliss for 6 days, courtesy of the owners. The views expressed here are entirely biased, and I can honestly say, I loved it all. Contact me with any further queries or book through the usual channels or ring the owners via the link below.
I lose all sense of time in the garden, and then I lose myself. It’s a common enough experience among gardeners. After the first flurry of harvesting, tying back overgrown tomatoes and moving hoses about, observing life’s cycle from seed to flower to fruit then back to seed, and all the while conscious of my own aging body as it bends and complains within this bounteous space, another state emerges. My pragmatic self surrenders to a semi- conscious meditation on the essence of being. Through silent awareness and invisibility, the sounds and signals of earth- primordial, spiritual, supreme- reinforce the idea of Anattā, that Buddhist concept of non-being.
It begins with a chive flower waving in the gentle breeze, now taller than the blanketing pumpkin leaves, insisting on more light. The delicate white coriander flowers belie the true pungency of their leaves, roots and seeds. Things are not what they seem. Then a strange bird call punctures the silence. High pitched like a creaking table, the sound is urgent but not bleak. I look up and see a flash of yellow underneath a broad wing span of black. It’s the yellow -tailed black cockatoo, an infrequent visitor to these lightly wooded lands. Now one, now two more, followed by a train of rasping sound, they are on their way to a distant pine tree. Word is out that the nuts are ready to strip. The guard cocky stands alert, signalling from the highest branch, a two-dimensional black stencil, a wayang puppet, an inked picture outlined in the early morning sky.
The bluest of blue of the radicchio flower is a call to the bees. I can never find the word for this blue: constructs such as Cobalt or Persian or Cornflower might have to do. And the little gem of a beetle, friend or foe, travels across a furry field that is an eggplant leaf. The mauve and white bean flowers peep from the darkness of their leafy canopy, an arrangement, a posy, a boutoniere. The beans can wait.
What is a trip to France without doing the rounds of the Brocante? These visits can be enormously frustrating for the traveller, but then if you couple your tour with their fantasy friend, ‘ the little house in the countryside’, they take on far more meaning. The fantasy starts with the ‘for sale’ sign, à vendre, hanging from the window of a sweet shuttered country house. This is followed by a slow perusal of prices in the windows of the immobilier. In Monsieur Tranquillo’s case, this means every real estate agent’s window in every village, and includes collecting the free glossy brochure, all in the interests of research! Oh mon dieu! And so it’s only logical that a visit to the Brocantes must follow. That’s my department. I’m yet to find some vide greniers ( garage sales ) and marchè aux puces ( flea markets) in my travels, though there are locality guides for these too.
Pézenas in Languedoc- Roussillon has around 20 or so Brocante, which are located on the outskirts of the town, mostly along Avenue de Verdun. On a sunny day, we managed to visit 8 or so stores. I usually head straight to the antique linen collection, knowing that I can always squeeze in a monogrammed torchon, serviette or sheet in lovely thick white linen.
Village markets in France roll around once or twice a week, and if you happen to miss your local marché, there’s always another one the following day in a village nearby. I can sense pre- market excitement when I’m staying in a village but maybe it’s just my own eagerness to get there. I must confess, I’m a French market junkie, having been to around a dozen or so over the last four weeks, and I put this down to my greed and lust for good food. I’m in the right country. French markets are integral to life here. Supplies come to your village from the local district: some from the farmers, cheese makers, apiarists, some from local artisans, and of course, manufacturers of cheap clothing. Heading out the front door, with strong bags in hand, and strolling through narrow lanes and medieval arcades, with no car traffic to deal with enroute, is far more pleasurable than heading off to a supermarket by car. If only my local market back at home near Melbourne was as easy to visit, without fear of being run down by speeding tourists keen to park as close to the market as possible. In French country markets, cars are banned: they are parked on the outskirts of the village, allowing easy access for vendors’ vehicles. All shoppers must walk to the market.
What treasures will turn up this week? What new seasonal vegetables will be on offer and will I show some restraint for a change? The church bells are chiming 8 am and I can hardly wait. Today’s market in Pezenas, Occitanie, will be interesting. It takes place in a nearby square, a stone’s throw from our 16th century apartment. As I write, I can hear the trolleys being wheeled in through the port below the window.
The markets in the Dordogne region varied in size and style. The large and colourful Sunday market at Issigeac was a favourite. It snaked its way around the narrow and winding village streets in an unpredictable way, given that Issigeac doesn’t have a large market square. All sorts of vendors turned up: the mushroom man, selling girelles, trompe du mort and Cèpes(porcini): a rugged looking duo selling oysters of every size, boxed up for buyers on beds of seaweed, a curly red headed lady with honey and bees wax for sale, who played the squeeze box and sang French folk songs when not engaged in selling, and the usual array of vegetable, cheese and saucisson stalls.
The Thursday market at Monpazier ( it has always been held on Thursdays since the 13th century ) was much smaller, though on one occasion, a mattress seller took pride of place in the square and I did rather fancy the knife sharpening man, a skill that is slowly dying. The big town market at Bergerac encircled the town’s cathedral, then radiated uphill along adjacent streets. A huge christening ceremony took place one Saturday while the market was in full swing, the shoppers and vendors forming a row of honour as the family and baby arrived.
There were little stalls selling sweet canelè in every flavour, lots of walnut stalls, chestnuts, and a substantial flower market. The Saturday market at Le Bugue, right on the Dordogne, sold the best Paella, cakess and quiches and the huge poissomiere truck did a roaring trade. I purchased a small tub of brandade to spread on croutons: this is one dish I never bother to make at home given the tedious soaking of salted cod required.
In each market you’ll usually find a separate area where cheap clothing, linen, shoes and handbags are sold. These stalls are appealing at first, then after a while, you recognise the same garments at every market- this season it’s oversized knitted sloppy joes, women’s tops with large stars on the back, and retro looking cotton tops with a lot of glitter and sequins.
One of the other features of the village market, and one I’m too shy and too foreign to join, is the footpath café scene. Coffee and wine are sipped slowly, double or triple kiss greetings take place as locals gather to catch up, though you can always spot a French poseur or two, and a few expats trying very hard to appear local. I’ll head to the Café des Arts in the late afternoon for a Pastis. I’ve acquired a taste for this old Provençal drink. I’ll wave about an imaginary Gauloises and if chilly, I may even don my new fingerless gloves or perhaps a beret.Bonne journée.
The country is calling me, the hinterland of Australia, this ancient land, where rocky foundations were laid 370 million years ago, and ancient seas raged around western Victoria a mere 40 million years ago, creating inland deserts and lakes and small pockets of green. Lands that were once steeped in another culture and language, before colonial farmers denuded the plains, believing that the rain would follow the plough, and sometimes it did: where the old knowledge of birds, animals and land, the indigenous Dreamtime, powerful and evocative, can be felt, the song lines understood. These are the lands I now must visit, my new horizons are the most ancient of all.
Each time I visit Rod’s place, located in the heart of the dry Wimmera district, I do so with a heightened sense of anticipation. I always take my camera along and even the offered glass of chilled Pinot Grigio does not distract me from my snap happy tour. His house and garden is a feast for the eyes. Although he claims that nothing much has changed since my previous visit, I can usually spot major revamping. Lets’ take a walk together through his garden.
One of the major developments is the spill over of Rod’s garden onto the road verge. This began some years ago with a few tough succulents and a rosemary bush or two which thrived in the granulated sand. Since then, he has added some red flowering bottle brush, Callistemon, and a sprawling silver and purple flowering Dusty Miller, some irises and red flowering geranium. Along his fence line are vertical walls of creeping geranium, orange lantana, large agave, and ornate old wire fencing intertwined with rusty bedsteads. Passers by stop in their tracks and gaze in awe. It’s a work of art and enormously inviting in a wild kind of way.
At his end of town, the paths are still rustic, consisting of hard compacted gravel, country paving that suits this rural village. All the town paths used to be so. But sadly ‘progress’ is now just a block away: the local Council is rolling out regimental width white concrete paving. This is happening despite the advice from R.M.I.T’s architectural department, where the students identified that the traditional gravel paving enhanced the visual and historic feel to the town and should be retained. Ugly concrete paving will be another blow to the town. Government grant money, which must be spent, often ignores aesthetics.
The narrow walkway to the front door takes you through a dark forest of succulents mixed with three metre high shrubbery. Rod initially planted out his front garden with rescued agave plants, found growing in abandoned ruins in the countryside or at the tip. To attain height, he has added large pots, urns, and statuary: these are usually placed on top of some found tin object to obtain further height. Other plants, such as geraniums, grow a few metres high in their chase to reach light. There are very few purchased plants in Rod’s garden.
Statues of Buddha feature throughout the garden, but their placements are meant to surprise and amuse. This golden Buddha sits inside a painted corrugated iron tank which is raised onto an old wooden tank platform. The Buddha faces the house, the blue painted tank faces the street. Others can be found about the garden, often in seemingly random positions, on top of fence posts, or inside cages, or lying about, waiting to be painted.
Amid the dense planting in the front yard, Rod recently broke through to create a tiny red brick path leading to another small painted niche and shrine.
The back yard is now a forest. When Rod arrived here years ago, there was an old apricot tree, a sad-looking 100-year-old grape-vine and an old shed. Now the garden is a wonderland. The ancient vine is a monster, twisting its way around the garden and into the front yard. Other statues peep out from the shrubs. One colourful wooden Torii gate is topped with a terracotta chook sitting on a barbed wire nest. Rows of Chinese warriors, bought years ago from the Reject shop, line up in a tall painted wire cage. A classical statue sits on top of an old truck. Frizzle chooks and roosters run amok in the understory. I nearly stepped on a day old lost chicken.
Rod is an artist who is always on the look out for something quirky to add to the mix. He fertilises his garden with sheep manure collected from his brother’s farm and adds thick mulch in summer. He is on town water, but uses this sparingly. The garden thrives due to the microclimate he has created. The garden provides deep shade in summer and protection from frost and wind at other times.
I have thousands of photos of Rod’s garden and have chosen these few(!) to demonstrate what can be achieved with found junk, some good quality statues and urns and plant cuttings from the tip.
It’s Sunday morning and the small town of Jeparit seems deserted. We walk towards the centre and do not see a soul. There’s one car parked outside the Lutheran Church along the way. Old time religion lost its customers long ago. The only remaining cafe, an annex of the supermarket, is closed as are the other two businesses in town. There are two pubs, the grand looking Hindmarsh, which opens from 4 pm a few days a week and the other, the Hopetoun, recently purchased by enthusiastic new owners, which opens from 11 am daily. Two years ago, neither pub was in operation. Business fluctuates in Jeparit. Welcome to the heart of the the Wimmera District of Western Victoria. Not many tourists bother to make it here. The vast bleached plains seem too flat and monotonous to the untrained eye. After a few visits though, the stark beauty of this rural, dry and at times, inhospitable landscape, leaves a stirring impression. I am called back annually, leaving my own claustrophobic hills and valley behind.
Jeparit, with a population of 632, clings to survival. Each year another business fails and more large Edwardian and Federation houses fall into disrepair, crying out for new owners to love them. But while the school, post office and bank remain, there’s some hope for the town. Situated 370 kms north-west of Melbourne, it takes a brave soul to re-settle here. The physical isolation is palpable: cheap real estate, pure air and austere beauty comes at a price.
I have been visiting a friend here for around twenty years now and with each visit, the beauty of the environment unfolds: I am often overwhelmed by the silence and majesty of the vastness of the land. On one occasion, we were tempted to buy a solid 1920s red brick mansion on a thousand acres. It was a dream house begging to be cared for, with a crumbling earlier house from the 1880s out the back, beautiful handcrafted sheds, wild almond trees growing in the sand dunes, and rusty old harvesters lining the driveway. The property was going very cheaply. We resisted. The property still haunts me, such was the strength of that particular fantasy.
There is a sadness about the town, a melancholy that hovers under the mantle of continuance. This year, the rains have been good: the wheat crop is the best on record. Other crops such as lentils, peas and green manure crops have also been abundant, making the local farmers more optimistic. The newly re-opened pub, the Hopetoun Hotel, managed by smiling Mel along with an enthusiastic young chef and assistants from Sri Lanka and the Punjab in India, offers a cheerful gathering place for the locals. Our new Australians are breathing life into these isolated communities.
The first thing you will notice in the Wimmera is the sky. It seems overwhelming, surrounding you in blue clean air above and right down to the ground: even during winter when the mornings are crisp, the skies seem to be perennially blue. The landscape is entrancing and after a while, you begin to see slight rises in the flat, bleached plains, where old sand dunes rise and may contain ancient water springs, as old knowledge about water sources was passed down long ago to the farmers by the traditional owners, the Gromiluk aborigines.
Another appealing hallmark of this wheat-growing district are the silos dotted along the horizon at each small town. At sunset, white silos turn pink against an azure sky. The silos at Brim have become a tourist attraction thanks to the amazing artwork by Brisbane artist, Guido van Helten. They are now a tourist landmark and have put the tiny town of Brim ( population 100) on the map. Nearby small towns are gearing up to get their silos painted also.
Other buildings, many falling into disrepair, dot the main streets in Brim, Beulah, Hopetoun, and Rainbow. It’s worth a drive around the circuit in this lonely land, to visit the real country, the heart of north western Victoria.
I’m a contadina ( peasant woman) at heart, having moved to the country years ago, when self-sufficiency and the ‘back to the earth’ movement was in its heyday, long before real estate agents and marketers grabbed hold of the catchy phrase ‘tree change’ to hoodwink city folk onto small farms in the bush. Looking back on that life of vegetable growing, chook breeding, orchard planting and raising a few miniature Dexter cows, I can see that it has been a rewarding yet extremely demanding lifestyle. And now some tough decisions need to be made.
This year’s drought has been challenging. Our five Dexter cows, all named and loved, have been relying on bought hay for months. The front cleared paddocks, around 13 acres, have been bare and bleached since Christmas. The five Dexters unwittingly share their grass with mobs of hungry kangaroos and rabbits, the latter becoming more invasive during drought years.
The Dexters listen for the sound of the back door opening in the morning and begin their hungry mooing. They wait for a car to travel up the driveway and chase it like crazy circus animals, all legs flying in the dust. Stepping outside into the morning’s Autumn mist, they are waiting for me, their gentle gaze longing for another hay bale. I look back at them, our pets, Delilah, Derry, Duffy, Dougie and Oh Danny Boy and all I can think of is Little Father Time’s maudlin phrase, “becausewe are too many” from Jude the Obscure. Two or three of our Dexters have to go.
The Dexter breed originated in south-western Ireland. The breed almost disappeared in Ireland, but was still maintained as a pure breed in a number of small herds in England. The Dexter is a small breed and is naturally a miniature cow. They are usually black, a dark-red or dun, they are always single-coloured except for some very minor white marking on the udder or behind the navel. Horns are rather small and thick and grow outward with a forward curve on the male and upward on the female. The breed is suitable for beef or milk production.
We keep Dexters to mow our grass and use their manure on our gardens. They are inquisitive and very friendly.
A Garden Monthly diary is a beautiful thing. It’s handy to be able to scroll back to last month’s post to see if anything got ticked off the list. And I am happy to report, YES, we did achieve most of our goals.
We keep two kinds of lists here:
The Daily List, a list of things that need doing, the demanding list, and
Eric’s List. Eric’s list is more of a concept list. Named after a wonderful Swedish man we met when wandering through Laos, Eric’s list is more about desirable things to do- there is no need to mark anything off with a big black line. Once you have written the list, you have achieved your goal. Drawings and colouring in are acceptable too. Arches, designs, fantasies, as if we had all the time in the world. We keep a special book for this list- Eric’s book. Sometimes things get upgraded from Eric to Demanding Daily.
But back to the garden. We finally installed the shade cloth and bird netting over all our berry beds and the results speak for themselves. We have an unbelievable berry crop. I am picking a kilo a day. We cut some metal reo into manageable lengths and with poly- piping, made hoops over the beds, then covered these with bird netting. When the season becomes even hotter, we will add some shade cloth. I have a few lads in the building game keeping an eye out for discarded reo. I love the stuff.
The cucurbits and lettuces will need shading too and maybe by February, the tomatoes. The season is predicted to be hot, dry and windy. I am not looking forward to those days.
Below is the largest tomato bush I have ever grown. Talk about a Triffid. It is already a metre wide and a metre tall. It bears miniature yellow pear-shaped fruit. If the crop is as good as the bush, I might open a market stall. I gave it some manure ‘tea’ when it was little and it went berserk. Next month, I hope to be able to report on the crop. It is out of control. I don’t usually prune laterals as our fruit needs as much shade as it can get. We have already eaten a few miniature tomatoes. This has never happened before Christmas.
The zucchini have started their long march into the season. The early ones are always most welcome. I try not to buy zucchini between the months of April and November. Six months of zucchini and six months of no zucchini seems about right. These will make some little Greek fritters this week.
Further tasks this month.
build more hoops over other beds
collect more manure to balance the compost.
collect and preserve more berries
harvest garlic and dry out, then clean and braid.
water more often as the season is predicted to be nasty
fix fencing in the front paddock.
This post is linked to Lizzie’s Garden Share Collective. Check it out here.