In Janice Gregg’s lovely photo of the Cape Otway coastline, the rock platform extending sometimes 50-80m out into the Southern Ocean is just visible.

Seventeen years ago (seems like yesterday etc etc) our friend Dennis took us for a walk along a section of these platforms from Blanket Bay to Parker River only at one point needing to navigate a big watery incursion. It was a memorable walk for all sorts of reasons: the pleasure and ease of walking on smoothed rock, the strong sense of being somewhere between the punch of the waves and the scale of the cliffs which sometimes towered above, but beyond anything I think it was the extraordinary shapes and patterns in the platform itself that iced the cake.

Myrna was smaller then.

We spent a few days in the Otways after Christmas this year and I thought that walk was something I would like to do again. We couldn’t make it work but with Dennis again and Richard his son we did walk along through the forest on top of the cliffs between those two inlets, a section of the Great Ocean Walk and very pleasant in itself.

But we found another section of platform closer to where we were staying at Apollo Bay that had just as much interest:

the point at Marengo to Shelly Beach, at low tide.

Some of this is a part of the Great Ocean Walk as well — near enough to the beginning of it — but that track takes you off the rock up into the hills, in fact up and over Bald Hill directly in front of us here.

There was some company …

… but again it was the shapes and patterns that got me in. Quite a high proportion of the rock here is basalt, so full of holes.

And so full of life …

And messages.

I read them, went home, and thought about what they had to say.


We’d been here before too. Twice. Recently. The second last time water was spilling over the ledge above.

It was winter and for the very first time we had discovered the Falls of Gar (‘Mt Difficult‘), one of the new sections of track of the recently opened Grampians Peaks Trail. We’d found the three falls, all running at the time, but only got about a third of the way along this section. It was quite a shock that it was all so new and familiar only in a generalised Grampians-y way. I must have driven past here scores of times in complete ignorance of these formations.

So on a beautiful day with additional company we repeated the first few kilometres.

Look at the quality of this work. Construction of the new elements of the track cost $37m. I say it’s worth it; but then I would.

The climb goes up one stage before the bumpy little peaks begin, and you have a long generous walk on the flat for a couple of kilometres.

This is the view one way (west).

And this is the view in the other direction,

to an amazing ampitheatre with a host of striking formations and an unusually fine echo.

There are two large rock shelters under the peak of this slope which are likely to have paintings in them. But the art is everywhere.

I had been looking for the old track to Gar and found it. It begins at this little trace and then goes more or less straight up the face.

And then there was getting down.

The old track takes over and you descend a couple of hundred metres in a couple of hundred metres to the pool at the bottom of Beehive Falls.

I have never seen more than a finger line of water coming over the falls themselves but this pool is always there for refreshment. I think it was about 10km by the time we got back to the car, but hard to imagine a better spent 10km. Glorious.

The Big Finish

A luxury finish to what is really just a collection of holiday snaps: a Corymbia in flower outside our unit in Apollo Bay, one of dozens in the street plantings.

Once called Flowering Gums, Corymbia were declared a genus separate to eucalypts in 1990. They are called ‘Corymbia’ because a corymb has a flattish top with a superficial resemblance towards an umbel, and may have a branching structure similar to a panicle. You’ll be saying to yourself: of course, of course. Why does he have to go over that stuff?.

What a delicious explosion of colour.


During the last relief from being locked down we visited the mountains. Jessie and Myrna climbed up Mount Buffalo’s Big Walk on a cold day with, apart from a few brief breaks, a heavy dripping mist clamped down on everything.

We were sitting having a late lunch (provided by the estimable Support Team) and across towards the Gorge was the brief revelation pictured below. Drama.

It’s Jessie’s photo with her flash new phone. Superb.

From the other direction Crystal Brook was spilling over the Gorge to another version of itself several hundred metres below.

With the wrinkles and creases of its eddies, Crystal Brook drains Hospice Plain, sometimes under snow, more frequently under water but most often dry. This was an occasion.

Wet wet wet. Weather persons like to conjure up distress at the prospect of rain. ‘I’m sorry Pete. It’s going to be wet for the next few days.’ ‘But we can look forward to some better weather next week can’t we Jane.’ ‘Sure can Pete.’

From almost any point of view — almost, unless you’re a house painter for example — there’s nothing wrong with weather like this. We could start from the proposition that we couldn’t live without it and move from there. But stormy weather on a mountain is profoundly good for the soul as well.

It could be suggested that the aesthetics of these conditions might be best enjoyed from snug interiors with good windows. Like this one in fact.

Breakfast at Chestnut Tree Apartments looking towards, but not seeing, Bogong.

Or this one, with not one but two fires which we just happened to find in a shelter hut near the Chalet — a real surprise. Go Parks Victoria.

The view out its window.

Or even from the warmth of a car.

The slabs near Mackey’s Lookout, all slick with a centimetre or so of run-off.

But there’s nothing like being out in it.

Eurobin Creek near the entrance.
Not the weather, but the sort of thing you go to Mount Buff to see.

While the Support Team undertook rehabilitation at the Bright Gym next day, the Intrepid Adventurers went back up on the plateau for another long walk: Long Plain, Mount Dean, Dingo Dell, wet feet most of the way and a certain amount of snow and ice.

Another masterpiece from the new phone and its owner-manager.

Ice crystals in an old foot print.
The Horn (and peak) of the buffalo from near Cresta carpark.

And then on the way down it all cleared and suddenly there were the Buckland and Ovens Valleys in all their late afternoon shimmering splendour.

* * * * * * * *

Determined to make the most of the break in lockdowns we headed off to the Grampians almost as soon as we got home from the Alps.

Weather? Yes of course. Wet. In this case, standing on top of The Pinnacle after walking from The Sundial, majorly wet in driving sleet. (Hmm ‘majorly’. You can think about that. Is he just trying to keep up with the young people I wonder?) And very very cold — freezing — just there, a big wind chill factor.

But not wet all the time.

I have wondered about the tendency to look at rock formations and anthropomorphise them. (‘Anthropomorphism: the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate human tendency.’) This takes concrete form in the naming process, say as something domestic (The Flat Iron, The Cool Chamber) or otherwise familiar (Fallen Giant, The Alligator, Elephant’s Hide, The Grand Canyon). I’m sure that’s better than naming them after obscure — or famous — humans.

I have commented elsewhere about the tendency on Mount Buff to name everything: The Sarcophagus, The Piano, The Cathedral, the Monolith, Mahomet’s Tomb, Giant’s Causeway, The Leviathan, Whale Rock, The Sentinel, Og Gog and Magog etc etc etc. Perhaps not strictly anthropomorphism, but wandering round the ball park.

Maybe we need to do that, or maybe we used to, and, as nature has been experienced (and understood) at a rapidly increasing distance, that’s dropped off. I notice in the Grampians most of the signs that used to be attached to such formations have been taken away. Too cheesey perhaps? Too 1950s?

This cold day I found myself thinking whether formations like the one above have ever had a name, especially a Jardwadjali or Djab wurrung name? Perhaps they are too common in the Grampians to matter in that way. Perhaps only the really remarkable sites/ features/ spectacles (of which there are more than ample) received that sort of attention.

Just going on a bit randomly, if I call this a bus stop, or a group of friends lining up for a mass selfie, am I betraying something about myself? And should I quit right now?

Perhaps I should marvel from a more elevated non-verbal perspective. That’s probably right. So much thrilling to see everywhere you look.

Pink heath, Victoria’s floral emblem. Just thought I’d note that. Flowering unseasonally on a sheer rock face.
Anything Mount Buff can do the Sundial range can do just as well.

A lot of tracks become water courses after rain: they’re cleared, they’re often lower, they’ve often been chosen because they at are the bottom of two inclines. Or, in New Zealand, because you won’t care or notice the difference.

This is a track on the Tongariro plateau.

Even when they’re raised on rocky ribs like this one they hold water.

Another one of those formations … hmmm The Artichoke, The Bag of Lollies, The Hand Grenade, The Transplanted Hair, The …

* * * * * * * *

The average annual rainfall on the eastern side of the Grampians is double that on the west. The next day we were thinking of a walk with Robert near where we were in the central Grampians. But the weather looked shocking, enough even to turn us back and barely worth a 90-minute drive from Horsham. However, he had an idea about a walk near Troopers Creek, and the further north we drove the more the weather improved. (‘Improved’. An unnecessary judgment right there.) The more the prospect of life-giving rain diminished. (Much better.) Can I say it turned out to be a lovely day? No I didn’t think so.

This track was a discovery: brand new and part of the very slowly evolving Grampians Peaks Walk, from Mt Zero, the northern tip, to Dunkeld in the south. There will be 100 km of new track as well as 60km of established trail and Parks Victoria thinks it will take 13 days.

The part of this track that Robert knew about, ‘Lower Waterfalls of Gar (Mt Difficult)’, had just been opened, brand new, and very carefully and thoroughly constructed: ‘Troopers Creek’ to Beehive Falls below Budjun Budjun (Briggs’ Bluff). ‘Troopers Creek’ has a very new and well appointed camp site now. I have thought, known really, that Troopers Creek is about 4 km south of this site and that the creek that runs through it is really Dead Bullock Creek, but this is more of that name quibbling business.

It did have waterfalls and they were wonderful, running enough to justify the naming process, and, to me, completely unknown. We didn’t do it all — it was a Sunday arvo stroll — but what we saw was compelling.

This rather ordinary photo was taken from the car as we headed down Roses Gap Rd towards Wartook. It all reminded me again of what I wrote about the Grampians in my remembrance of when we lived there.

Over Djibilara (Asses Ears) through Glenisla Crossing towards Billiwin at sunset from Reed Lookout.

Much of the Grampians out of the tourist swarm has a very particular and striking flavor. It resonates with something that is difficult to describe. It’s incredibly particulated but of a piece; it works; but it’s not you, or me anyway. Both fragile and resilient; scrubby but graceful; worn out but enduring; brimming with life but a lot of that life is crepuscular or nocturnal.

What a place. Really.

Tour de Wimmera


Mt Arapiles, the very end of the Great Divide, poking its head out of a canola crop.

IMG_1433Victorian city mice tend to forget they have country cousins. It’s not deliberate. They just get bound up in the haste of the city and the rather limited boundaries of their geographical horizons.

That’s a shame, because there is so much to enjoy in the extra-urban world.

With two friends, Barbara and Graham, we thought we’d design a little tour, just a week, to revisit where we’d grown up, to chase up some of our favourite places but also to stretch out and drink in some of the less familiar big skies of the northern Wimmera, a region not famous for its tourist draw cards. What follows, however, provides some evidence to the contrary.

Would you travel with these people?IMG_1578

IMG_1251We drove up the Western Highway for lunch at Lake Wendouree Boathouse and some testing of the quality of the recent products from the Langhi Ghiran winery.

The destination was the Grampians. Graham and Barb were interested to see the burnt relic of Girin Flat; Myrna wanted to get some stimulus material — photos, vegetal matter, images — for a current painting project; and we all wanted to see the wild flowers.


IMG_1552The wild flowers were only just coming out; they’d be at their best in another three weeks or so.IMG_1504 The big interest was in what we could see of the recovery from last summer’s fires. The blackboys (Xanthorrhoea Australis, Australian grass trees) in particular had shot and for long stretches of the road round the northern Grampians were everywhere. It’s rare to see them quite so floral.


Hollow Mountain still looked its distinguished self even though much more naked than usual.

IMG_1381Trip Advisor moment: we ate and drank well at the newly duded-up Kookaburra Bar and Resto and, as part of a theme, enjoyed the Kookaburra Motel as much as we usually do.

Meanwhile in Hamilton Keith was casting through the personal ads (‘Mature, full-figured woman. Ask for Jazz…’) in the Hamilton Spec when his eye fell on an ad for opera at Alan Myers‘ remarkable establishment in Dunkeld. His three-chefs-hat gourmet restaurant/pub, the Royal Mail, enables one to explore simply all the varieties of foam available … let’s just say food adventures, and so they are. Bar, bistro, fancy bit — all at the foot of the looming Mt Sturgeon. The establishment over the road, next to the antique bookshop, holds the RM’s wine collection. But then there’s the family gardens (do check this link out, a great description of an extraordinary place) and so on and so on. The opera was on at the auditorium /gallery, newly minted out of Grampians sandstone and attached to a portion of the house. (Adjacent to the croquet lawn, but some distance from the tennis area, etc.) On its walls were, I would say,  3-4 million dollars worth of art: Martens, Piguenit, von Guerard, 15 or so early Australian masters, and a version of Benjamin Duterreau’s ‘George Augustus Robinson’. The other is in the Australian National Gallery.

Robert Divall introduced himself and the artists, Antoinette Halloran (at right) and Dimity Shepherd. Both were fine singers. IMG_1517

They sang the hits, we marvelled and then went off to eat shaking our heads in just slight wonderment. When we discovered that our 50 dollar tickets included payment for our meals at the RM they wagged violently. Graham led the flight to the car before those in charge changed their minds.

A night at the Rippon Road premises and a tour of Arborline is always highlight of a trip to Hamilton; then to Horsham up the Henty Highway the surrounds of which were looking magnificent. Then to Horsham … where I didn’t take even one photo despite seeing houses where Barbara, Myrna and I had lived, the schools we had gone to, the hospital some of us were born in, the stretch of the weir in which I turned into an ice-block during a three kilometre swim. But it was busy, Horsham, making Hamilton which is about the same size look sleepy. We like towns with signs of life.

Then west to Natimuk and Mt Arapiles, home to Brigitte Muir the first Australian women to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. The sharp face of Arapiles contains series of famous climbs.

The main reason though was for a detour through the Little Desert, an arid but complex paradise of small things.IMG_1536IMG_1556We lunched at Nhill. After dallying in the Little Desert we got the tail end of the offerings at Oliver’s, a resto set up to employ disabled people and going very well by the look of things.


We chose to spend two nights in Rainbow because it was a suitable step off to Wyperfeld National Park which had adherents in the group and also because Rainbow has its own low key delights.

We drank the Eureka Hotel out of red wine for example — monumental drinkers in our party! But, yes, while plenty of beer was available, that bottle of Shiraz we drank was the last one they had. And it was 10 dollar parma night! (For those overseas: parma = veal parmagiana, in this case highly and variously modified.) And there was a very attractive open fire. It gets cold up there on the edges of the desert. And it’s got a fine set of silos, very clean air, a school fete featuring jumping castles which we just missed, and an IGA which sells most of the things you might like (including some well-aged St Hugo’s shiraz that the owner keeps largely for himself).

There were also several interesting pieces of public art. Graham said this was picture of the station to substitute for a real one; but there was a station even if the passengers getting on were bushells of wheat and barley rather than people. The centre of the end of the main drag, and I think rather lovely.


For the purposes of orientation, this is the main drag, with returned servicemen memorial.IMG_1596

Then the paintings on the butcher’s shop — the butcher sold very good meat which we barbecued at the motel on our second night having exhausted some at least of the delights of the Eureka (the Royal’s lights were on but no one appeared to be home) — these really got me in. The way they had degraded increased their solemnity and knocked some of the folk art edges off. The diversity of what time had done to the medium was also most engaging. Wild. Appropriate. (The posters in the window are the work of Rainbow PS students advertising their fete. Inter alia, it had a football theme; 11 of the 18 AFL guernseys got a run on the poster nearest the door.)

IMG_1598And there’s a big house at Rainbow — Yurunga. IMG_1566

It was built in 1909, a bare 20 years after Europeans settled this part of the Wimmera, and when more grain was loaded at Rainbow than at any other station in Victoria. The town had reticulated water — goodness knows where they got it from, almost certainly artesian — 30 men were employed as blacksmiths or wheelwrights; there were golf, football, cricket, gun, coursing and turf clubs, a brass band, a debating society, a progress association. Currently, with a population of 525 at the last census, most of those are historical memories, but there’d be worse places to live.

We’ve watched the decline of small towns happen in our life time, as farms get bigger and more industrialised, and people drive more easily and willingly to bigger centres to shop and do their business. So while Horsham (population round 14,000) thrives, the death spiral hits places like Minyip, Murtoa, Rupanyup, Jeparit, Beulah and Rainbow. (Altho something seemed to have happened in Birchip to keep it kicking.)

Yurunga was built by the Cust family who had also acquired a shop and 6000 acres. The shop burnt down one year later, but they built another. However, after three years they’d had enough and moved back to Melbourne, a very common story in this marginal country, never really meant for agriculture, paying costs in perhaps one of five years.

IMG_1570 (Not the Custs, the Liesfields in whose family Yurunga remained until its acquisition by the Shire in 1969. History in Australia runs in short spans.)

IMG_1571The house has a certain splendour nonetheless, verandahs all round, a climatic accommodation completely ignored by the chaps currently building houses in Horsham where even eaves are considered anachronistic if not obsolete. As long as the refrigerated aircon works, I suppose, who cares … This house had a coach house, a school room, a tennis court, a kitchen garden and an underground dining room. Not to mention pressed tin ceilings and a fine view of unused municipal conveniences at the end of its very grand passageway.IMG_1572

But, despite beguiling Graham (we still haven’t heard the outcome of his offer for the whole of the main street), we hadn’t come for the built environment. Nature beckoned.

The Wimmera River rises at Mt Cole quite close to Langi Ghiran where we’d begun our business. It runs through Horsham and Dimboola on its way to nowhere. It has the distinction of disappearing first into Lake Hindmarsh, the largest body of water in Victoria when it is full (almost never), then on into Lake Albacutya, then into Outlet Creek and on into a series of mysterious sites: Black Flat, Lake Brambruk, Lake Jerriwirrup, Lake Agnes and finally the Wirrengren Plain. And if you think Rainbow is a bit out of town, try the Wirrengren Plain. Although amazingly, whitefellas have tried to live there running sheep and cattle. Dingoes got the sheep, and the dry got the cattle — the shortest of shrifts.

There is a record of water covering the Plain in 1854. In 1917 Pine Plains some kilometres to the south got wet to the extent of flooding. In 1957 it covered Black Flat and with record rainfall in 1975 (when I was trying to build our house in the Grampians) Lake Brambruk filled. Since then, due partly to the imposts placed on the river downstream (weirs, irrigation, town water), these ‘bodies of water’ have almost always been dry. This means that the red gums which fill these depressions will die. They need wet feet at least every 20 years to keep going, and that will change the landscape forever. This is Lake Brambruk today.

IMG_1585The Wimmera river doesn’t run anywhere. It just disappears into the sand.

Apart from the two big ‘lakes’ these places are all in Wyperfeld National Park, a collection of different semi-arid environments with astonishing bird life and a wonderful sense of quiet.IMG_1591Sand dune country with stands of callitris, native pine, which does not regenerate after fire. After recent huge fires about 60 percent of the callitris in this area has been wiped out. More cheerfully, Graham and Barb proved their indomitability here with a very satisfying walk.

If north is up, it was mostly downhill from here, except for one great drive almost along a line of latitude: Rainbow, Kenmare, Beulah, Birchip, Wycheproof, Boort. It was very interesting to look at the variation in the crops over this 150 or so k.s. Those near Rainbow needed a soak, near Boort they’ll have a good year. But round Beulah and Birchip they might as well be putting their money on horses. This is what tens of thousands of dollars of seed, chemicals and labour sinking into oblivion looks like. These crops won’t even provide feed.

IMG_1609I’d been to Boort not long ago to talk to a teacher of Indonesian there, and found the delight pictured below. Great home-cooked food, good coffee and the sort of individual flourish that, sometimes, rural Australia allows. Look at the windows. This is a masterpiece of the genre.

IMG_1621IMG_1633IMG_1644You may be wondering about the stock in this area. Fortunately we have renderings of same. Big fellas aren’t they? There is even a town, district maybe, named after the Durham Ox. The caption on the pic reads ‘Henry F. Stone and his Durham Ox 1887. The early colonial cattle were of extraordinary proportions.’ (But um … that extraordinary?) The sheep was found in the Bendigo art gallery and the cow was wandering the streets of Boort, just over the road from ‘The Cup and Saucer’.

IMG_1614We did go through Birchip, for one year my home and, albeit a slightly different colour, this was my home.

IMG_1618And I found it difficult to resist this pic from the top of Mt Wycheproof, billed locally as ‘the smallest mountain in the world’, towering a grand 43 metres above the surrounding plain and consisting of a unique substance known as Wycheproofite. How good is that!

Its the first frame of my first film and featured me driving along that long straight line of latitude towards my first job.

Before getting back to a more contemporary home, we drank in the delights of Bendigo where Barbara grew up. When I think of gold field towns I always think of people who found nothing and went home disappointed. But some people made some money. Obviously.

These were the days when public building was public building and meant to last. I give you Camp Hill Primary School.IMG_1629

The Bendigo Oval.IMG_1625

The Town Hall.IMG_1632That’s pretty Bendigo. But so in it’s way is this.IMG_1654

This is the interior of the Great Stupa at Myers Flat perhaps 10ks from the centre of Bendigo. It is only half built, will cost upwards of $20 million and is designed to last 1000 years. It will have attached a convention centre, a hotel, a monastery (built), 80 houses, a school, etc. The (somewhat unprepossessing I’m sorry to say) Buddha has been carved out of a single piece of jade and is the largest, most expensive etc etc etc. Like so many other things on this journey this all appeared as a delightful surprise.

How busy we ants are! What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving how express and admirable. However, along with my Danish friend, there has been a stern inclination of late, for reasons which I’m sure are widely felt, to lose all my mirth.

So what better way to conclude than with something which has not lost any of its splendour after 30o0 years. It won’t always be in Bendigo but it was when we were there.IMG_1641(Just one more big sky …)IMG_1559


An application for subdivision of Lot 50C Parish of Wartook lodged with the Shire of Arapiles on August 4th 1974 was returned approved on April 9th 1975 just eight months after it was submitted. That meant that the process of buying the land could commence.

polesBy that time I had found, felled, skinned, transported and weathered the trunks of four big trees, two yellow box, one messmate, one stringy bark, and ended up with four big (reasonably) straight poles. On April 10th with the aid of my ute I got the poles in, and by the end of the 13th I’d finished the box for the slab. I did the preliminary feed plumbing on the 19th and the waste plumbing on the 20th. We were living in Horsham at the time and I was working on this at the weekends and sometimes coming out to the land after school. When I was doing my school work I’m not sure.

Then on the 3rd May the concrete trucks rumbled in to Girin Flat again. I had made fewer mistakes this time but 22 cubic metres of concrete are never going to be less than daunting.

slab#1These pictures indicate the help: Robert, Myrna’s brother, in the white T-shirt, John and a very heavily pregnant Gabi who were living in Horsham, the Sproulls. During the whole enterprise we had a great deal of volunteer labour. It would be curmudgeonly to complain but, you know, a lot of time spent supervising, and as I got better at it, a certain amount of time spent pulling out work and doing it again. But on balance, you would never complain. In building there is a permanent role for at least a second person. There is so much repetitious hackwork and Mernz and Geoffrey Ainsworth did as much of that as I did and often more neatly.

By the time the fifth truck came the vertical boxes I’d built for the upright concrete stanchions were groaning and sweating unhappily and I could no longer bear to look. They ended up with rather more hour glass figures than you would like, but the straight sides were where I needed them to be, straight and reasonably vertical. Patina.

How many things did I write off as patina (lit: a film or incrustation, usually green, produced by oxidation on the surface of old bronze and often esteemed as being of ornamental value, but here: ‘a dodgy bit adding to the character of the whole’. So much patina was employed. Sloyd would have walked away, horrified.)

By the time the fifth truck came we had, as usual, plenty of concrete, always a bad moment. Concrete waits for no man and dumping four cubic metres of concrete somewhere … well, you’d notice. I rapidly improvised a verandah, a slab for ‘other use’ and asked the driver to rinse out where we couldn’t see.

slab#2I nearly did have a fit that day. So much was bound up in getting that slab in: two years of focus and thought, not to mention 18 months of struggle with lawyers, a surveyor and the Shire’s building inspector. I looked at the way I had built the stanchion boxes and how pathetically flimsy they were, scarcely supported, and knew it was all wrong. I hadn’t thought about how the concrete was going to get in them (and in the end, see at left, Barry Sproull indefatigably filled them all by hand with a bucket!), and I just wanted everyone and everything to go away. But the workers kept on working. I went off and had a walk around and a cup of tea and when I came back most of it was done. I noted at the end of this day: It now remains only to build the house.

On the 20 May I was exactly 25 and a half and celebrated by buying 15 pine poles (the veranda posts, skinned and soaked in creosote and sump oil; Myrna had to be taken to hospital with an allergic reaction to creosote) from Horsham Rotary Club for $7. My father was round at the time and noted wistfully: ‘I guess you can’t make a straight veranda out of bent poles just as you can’t make a good world out of bent people.’ My mother concurred, importantly, as she was generally the authority on the moral dimensions of trees. But, on the other hand, while you may not be able to make a straight veranda you might be able to make one which is perfectly serviceable, and that might be the difference between the good tradesman, described elsewhere in these blogs, and me. (Below: Pole wrangling: Geoffrey Ainsworth, Rod Parker and the non-owner-builder.)logswhole frame25th May. The house now has a roof framework and a veranda that it didn’t before. The weather has come and gone a bit, a couple of nice days but mostly shitty and wintry [during two weeks of flat-out building in the May holidays.] Apart from a sore wrist and some tender fingers there have been no major mishaps. It’s interesting how with the addition of the form of the veranda the external aspect has changed and internally you are suddenly aware of these heights, especially in the bathroom, which are going to be lovely. Cutting and shaping the poles I don’t want to do again immediately.

hand tools 1Cutting and shaping the four poles was a matter of balancing on top of a ladder with nothing to lean against trying to get a series of straight cuts with a bush saw through a foot of very hard wood. With power tools and a bit of scaffolding it would now take me about half an hour. But with no power tools — and no power tools were used in the building of this house; no power — it took me a lot of two days.junction 1

June 8. Nigh unto death. I don’t think I would really care at the moment if I never saw another hammer or nail. I’ve had it. Went over to Mt Gambier on Friday and fish-tailed my way back with $458 worth of exterior pine cladding in the trailer. Smells nice, will look good when it’s up. If it was just a matter of whacking that up it’d be fine, quite a nice job really — quick, good result — but there’s so much else to do.

On the 3rd July we moved from Horsham into the shed on the property (still Joan’s). We’re out here now for good or ill. The die is cast; the McKenzie/Rubicon has been crossed. Of course we still don’t own the land. Ha ho. So we were ‘on site’ every day if not necessarily working.

The shed had our bed in it, a table and four chairs and a very old wood stove that we had rescued from somewhere which actually worked a treat. Light was a pressure kerosene Tilley lantern, which had reasonably durable mantles, gave a strong light — you could read by it quite easily — but hissed mercilessly. It was always a relief to turn it off. The smart set had moved onto gas bottle lamps by then, still noisy if less so, but that move had passed us by. Cold water came from the tank and hot water from a 5 gallon ‘fountain’, a big cast iron vessel that you just left on the stove. It was never warm in the morning, so the day began with a cold splash followed by a cup of tea made with water boiled on a gas ring. Then we’d climb in the car and pray we wouldn’t get bogged before we’d got out the gate. Forty minutes later we’d be in the staff room at HHS at our desks checking what was actually in front of us for the day. After school we’d do a bit of shopping, Myrna down the street and me at the hardware store, and make our way back towards Mt Zero, down the Laharum road past Mt Stapylton (named by the Major’s trusty off-sider after himself) and the olive plantations, through Laharum, past Joan’s, up over the hill at the Roses Gap turnoff and down into our valley.myrnz #1

12 July. It’s three weeks past the shortest day and there is still no real sign of a let-up in the minimalist approach to sunlight. More or less dark at 5.30. After ’staff meetings’ and that sort of thing it means no time no time no time and we of the pioneering fraternity have things to do. There’s wood (currently getting thoroughly soaked) to cut, lamps to clean and fill, water to be pumped. … Here I am espousing the glories of noble ecological savagery to 3A1 and 3A5 with an aching shoulder and tomorrow with a sore eye having been hit ker blam by a flying bit of red gum. At night the Screech Owl is continuing its horrifying cries over in the ti-tree, and the first time always makes you jump. Or it may be someone being tortured. Hard to know. The shed fills with the smell of hot wet stringy bark and the wife sits meditating on greener pastures.

the builderIt was another very wet winter (and spring). One of the things that I was constantly alert to was how I could keep the materials up to the site and not stuck half a kilometre away on the other side of ‘the pond’. But even some of the materials that had been there a while provided a challenge. Upon checking the interior lining board — in the open now for I suppose five months [under a bit of plastic actually] — I find it has been colonized by a fungus and families of various creatures: the giant slater, the ant, the spider ENORME etc. etc. What do they think this is? The bloody bush?

roof#1But it wasn’t always like that, and things improved when I got the roof on. At last there was some shelter.

19 July. Faintly warm. We drove in from the best angle, the north-west, in the middle of one of those red, red sunsets with a huge moon rising over the ranges. The roof was a shimmering silver sea, the moonlight pouring in through its skylights. I climbed up and sat there on the roof thinking that for every hassle with the house there is a countervailing stroke of the purest and most energetic luck. It’s coming into shape and it’s ours and it’s beautiful.

Val Finch [another teacher living in an owner-built home, an A-frame] told me a story today about how two Mallards and an ibis had tried to land on their roof in the moonlight thinking that it was a lake. I was just thinking about that when a flight of some unidentifiable birds whirred past just above — you could hear the motors in their wings they were so close — and uttered one stark cry. One. Stark. Cry. It means nothing, but the whole situation was art. I’m living in an art form, an installation. The weather is good, the wood is reasonably dry, the shed is warm, the food is cooking, the sun will rise tomorrow.

stove inA couple of days later: On the credit side, to which the Great Keeper of the Balance Sheet would urge attention, we might have some hot water soon. [I’d installed the fancy and fabulous second-hand IXL slow combustion stove in the house (where it belonged on the slab really) and hooked it up to the hot water. Even though we were out in the open we could, if we wanted, cook on it, and we weren’t a long way from the first bath if en plein air.] Arthur Phillips [our lawyer] is refusing to return calls and we’re $1000 in debt. Yippee. Not sure if I’ve stayed entirely on the credit side. I have put the heads on the taps and they’ll work soon, but rain is getting in on the rather gorgeous mezzanine floor at the moment and I really don’t want that weathered. And why do the mice have to shit all over the bloody table? Tell me that. We have become an exciting new food source. Where’s their sense of gratitude? I wonder when it’s pay day and whether I’ll get $1000. Myrna might. She deserves it though. Once again I’d like a nice sunny FREE week to just get a few things done. Just a clear week or two. Hot water. That’ll be a groove.

mezzaI took two days off the next week to put in the glass panels in the mezzanine and the clerestory in the south wall running between the top plate and the roof, a fiddly job but one which would improve weather proofing substantially. As I surmised it was a bugger of a job. A while ago I wrote up some sort of phoney timetable for us to follow of things to do. After two weeks we’re three weeks behind. Anyway, what the hell. Drunk again.

One of the features of the house was two pairs of magnificent black bean and glass doors, oversize, nearly 3m high and out of a city bank via Whelan the Wreckers. (See below.) They were a striking part of each end wall. But double doors are hard to fit. Anyway …

20 July. Last week, a windy week, I had for the 103007th time tried to fit the double doors: the unfittable meets the unwidenable with intransigence the name of the game. A gust took one of the doors and smashed it down onto a pile of Hardiflex [the proprietary name of the AC sheet], the world’s most revolting building product. The thick and very expensive glass, however, did not break. So I went round to pick it up, thanking lucky stars etc etc, lifted it up and returned it to its place saying, hmmm tough no damage great etc etc, dropped it and the glass smashed.

The work was getting done at the weekends. I would do a tour of the hardware shop or the plumber’s supplies or the saw mill on Friday after school to make sure we weren’t going to be thwarted by some crucial missing item and we would get up at the crack of dawn on Saturday and get into it, often with amateur help arriving mid morning. By four o’clock the mistakes would begin. By five o’clock insuperable obstacles would have emerged. By six o’clock I would be walking around looking at what had happened to see if I could see any difference. Next morning I would correct mistakes, I would have resolved the insuperable difficulties and we’d be off again.

On Sunday nights we would make our way over to the Taylor’s for a hot shower, so we could at least begin the week fairly clean. Their house was fully air-conditioned, warm, lined with western red cedar, had lights, everything working, often a bowl of soup to go with the shower. My best recollection was that I was very grateful — it was always fun to see Gwyneth, not so much Ron — but not envious. It was a very nice house with a fabulous view of the Asses Ears and a remarkable garden of natives emerging very quickly under Gwyneth’s tender ministrations, but they’d brought the suburbs with them. I think that’s what I thought.

seppo 1toiletIn early August, the septic tank went in and a friend’s plumber father hooked it up to the pan and signed the plumbing off, the only professional contribution of labour to the whole. Here is an example of the occasional offset. It took me less than a morning to dig the hole for the tank (at left, 2.5m. deep) in slightly damp pure sand. A talking point was provided by the fact that I sunk the toilet pan so that it was half way between a squat and a pedestal. I’d read somewhere it was a good idea. My mother demurred.

first fire 1The first fire in the fireplace was on 25 August. Laurie Polec set it. He wrote, inter alia: The house, yes well one of the nicest and most splendid I’ve seen, and safe and secure thanks to my work today. And we should finish grouting those tiles tomorrow. But Mernz’s cooking is the big drawcard here. I had a bath tonight which was magnificent in a room with view. At left is the first fire occasion. The grand doors are on display along with the clerestory above the top plate.

This is followed by one of my many ‘lists of disasters’. Borer in the main poles. Moths breeding in the blankets. Vegie garden underwater again. Pump under water. Ran out of trim. Fridge goes on and off. East wall leaking somewhere. And so on.

Wet orchard 1On the 5th November we had two days off to go to a wedding in Mildura, the first downtime since 5th April.  But we had moved in. All that’s left to do on the house is a bit more trimming, two storm water drains, make and fit the fly screens. All the systems are working. The stove is brilliant. Might have another day off sometime. Life? Good.

The person who started it is the person finishing it. There have been no deaths. It seems like the shallowest of beginnings. Constant, teeming struggle against things that can’t be satisfied, like hundreds of lots of dishes to do everyday and I’m the dishpig. But then the trees [in the orchard] are in leaf and some are going very well.

This is the only photo we have of the inside of the finished house: blurred, black and white, shot into the sun coming in through the east wall. Jill and Melissa Vallence talking to Mernz. It doesn’t show the warm honey colour of the wood or the glorious variety in the quarry tiles that I bought from an Eltham potter. Or the way that the light would come through the quadrilaterals of plate glass cut for me so willingly by the chaps at Horsham Glass. Nor the bits and pieces of Italian ceramic on the wall. It was often bit neater than this. No idea what the fly screen is doing inside and we would have put the tent (in the hessian bag) away. Its usual spot was in the root cellar.inside
garage 1We finished the house to a very liveable condition before Christmas and I built this over summer. So we finally had a shed for the ute, the wood and a laundry.

But then we had some news. Myrna was pregnant and while the house was perfect for an athletic childless couple, it wasn’t ideal for a new and growing family. We were also having lots of visitors and it would be nice to be able to offer them a pleasant bedroom. So we built another wing of three bedrooms, more simply designed than the house and much more skillfully executed.

Again we were in something of a hurry. Always in a hurry. My nephew Martin has been building his own very fine house in southern Tasmania for years now. He’s a much better builder than I am, and one of the reasons is that he is patient. When he’s a bit sick of things he stops. He’s also made a friend of his building inspector, who inspects only to marvel at the quality of Marty’s work. I’m not patient.

siteThis is today, I wrote in the journal as a caption to this photo, where there are 92 tons of McKenzie Creek Quarrying Co.s finest and lots of bits of 4×2, 4×1½, 6×3 and 7/10s of a roof as the rain pours down and my terribly expensive lining board gets wet. There’s not the same big fat history to the bedrooms as there was to the house. That was a case of schizoid obsessionalism, a phase now passed. Don Carter has been shooting his scurrilous and lizard-like mouth off saying we haven’t got a building permit. Horrible Don. He had dobbed us in to Fred. I’d sent the plans in but we didn’t have a building permit.

The slab was poured on the weekend before Easter, 10 April just less than a year since we had poured the slab for the house. This slab was a pretty one. I used prime scantling for the very well secured box but experience must count for something. The last mixes were a bit runny but that wasn’t my fault. I began the frame on the 18th and finished it four working days later. I think there’s a future for me in timber framing. The roof is on now so there is somewhere to put the pristine new lining board. It seemed to go up in a flash. It wasn’t a very complex building but I was in practice, I knew what to buy and I had a clear idea about what to do.

Compounding a most inglorious set of mail, Fred sent the plans back yet again on 21 June. He noted the roof needed strutted purlins (an impossibility as he himself admitted when he knew what was going on) and that the slab was unsatisfactory! (Bust ‘er up and start again. Aaaarrrrrrrrgh …) With these and other travails in mind I thought I’d harden up and ring him with a solid line of engineering argumentation. So I gave it a burl on Friday. On Thursday night we had noted new tyre tracks into our place and Myrna had cracked an hilarious joke, ‘Probably Fred Heinz.’ (heh heh heh)

‘Hello Mr Heinz? David McRae. We’ve been corresponding recently …’

‘You’ve been doing a bit more than corresponding. I inspected your place yesterday.’

What can I say? There is no confessional for the building miscreant. This is what Freddy found.frame

And for some reason that’s where the journals end, except to note that on Christmas Day 1976 it was 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and that even though there was work to do I was sitting reading Charles Mingus’s autobiography and it was making me feel queasy.

Front#2I can’t even remember how Fred and I sorted out our differences. I wasn’t required to break up the slab. (Can happen. Happened almost over the road near here a year ago.) I didn’t have to pull any work out. The bedrooms were snug and efficient, each with a different lovely view. We had a bay window in ours. The floating wood floor made things very comfortable.

But then Jessie was born. The Wimmera Base Hospital, 16 September 1976. She had heart surgery in Melbourne a few days later, and everything Jessie#1

Telecom put the phone on, a very difficult task, running an underground cable almost a kilometre through thick bush two days after I rang and asked them to do so. That was a help, but Myrna was expressing milk, saving it, getting up in the middle of the night, walking across to the house, lighting a lamp, lighting the gas bottle, heating milk, feeding a baby who had spent quite some time in intensive care as often as possible day and night. I was going in to work in Horsham leaving at 7.30 in the morning getting home at 6 or later. And there was still wood to cut, water to be pumped …

Other things happened, but between locking the gate for the last time eight months later and now, I have spent surprisingly little time thinking about all this. It’s been an adventure to rediscover it.

I kept building: a fair bit of another house for a friend, big renovations for others, two new rooms on our new house when we moved to Melbourne and then in Alphington whenever I got bored till every room had a view of garden and from every room you could see the birds.Backview#2

There’s still more: the final IN MEMORIAM #6: THE ASHES


images-2 copy 2[Eugene Von Guerard, 1862: ‘Mt Abrupt and Mt Sturgeon’]

The Grampians are the southern end of the Great Divide which runs for more than 3000 kilometres down the east coast of Australia, separating the fertile coast line from the more challenging interior. In contrast to the massive shield in Western Australia where the earliest evidence of life on earth dated from 3.5 billion years ago can be found in Pilbara rock , the mountains of the Great Divide are fresh young things, and the Grampians younger again.

IMG_1410Unlike most of the rest of the Divide the dominant landform in the Grampians is the cuesta, a long slope with a sharp scarp, the result of folding and faulting. Except for a couple of granite outcrops in the Victoria Valley the Grampians are all sandstone, in geological time not long from the sea bed. [The pic? I’m on the peak of the highest mountain in the Von Guerard looking north. The hump on the horizon to the right is Mt William/Duwil.]

Growing up first to their south in Hamilton and later to the north in Horsham, I was a familiar. Picnicking and walking in the Grampians was a staple of domestic entertainment, just as it was for Myrna who grew up in Horsham. Sunday afternoon? Mt Zero and Flat Rock.

I have always been struck by the way they spring out of the surrounding plane, without topographical warning. There are few foothills, so there can be sublime ‘whole’ views like the one west from Carroll’s cutting just out of Ararat on the way to Moyston, north across the paddocks from Glenthompson, south from the Laharum turnoff or in any direction from the Glenelg Highway.2702050-16x9-940x529

[The Glenthompson view. Von Guerard again, same time but really ‘Grampians viewed from Mt Rouse’]

images copyFrom above (in the dry, this area can be greener than this) they are shaped, broadly, like a saucer with two tails. A large cutlet of fish perhaps. images-3 copyThe fin at the apex is shaped like a nose (in Jardwajali, ‘gar’, see Peter Bellingham’s fabulous pic) and is capped by Brigg’s Bluff from the top of which eternity appears just beyond the horizon.IMG_0921Lake Wartook, dammed in 1886 but probably a very long standing body of water, is in the middle of the saucer (‘syncline’ to its intimates). To the north are the chocolate soils of the Wimmera plains and to the south the volcanic soil pastures of the Western District.

Less than 100 k.s from north to south and not much more than 50 east to west (ignoring the Black Range, a small outlier further west), they have always struck me as fragile and small. Since I walked from Dadswell’s Bridge to Mt William as a callow youth of 14, the development of roads, tracks and other infrastructure has made them a lot smaller. Some of the Victoria Range might be considered isolated but when I hear of people getting lost in the Grampians (as they do from time to time, very occasionally fatally) I am puzzled.

220px-Mitchell,_Sir_Thomas_Livingstone,_Explorer,_1792-1855,_NLAThey were named ‘Grampians’ by Major Thomas Mitchell, leader of the first group of Europeans to visit the area. He thought they looked like the Grampians in his native Scotland. Hard to know what he was thinking really, although it had been very cold and wet. The bullock drays carrying the expedition’s baggage were being pulled through the soil almost axle deep just here and they were only making a few miles a day. When he and his party climbed Mt William (or Duwil, the range’s highest peak at 1167m.) on July 14 1836 they were completely fogged in. The view next morning on a clear day must have been a revelation.

In the early 1980s there was a move to rename the ranges and their features (and in this heavily weathered sandstone country there are many more features than you can poke a stick at) with their original Koori names. [‘Koori’ = Indigenous Australian term used in Victoria for ‘people’; ‘Jardwajali’ one of the many local tribes or groups.]

Instead of ‘Grampians’ for example, ‘Gariwerd’, a rendering of the Jardwadjali generic term for ‘mountain’, and Gar (‘nose’) instead of Mt Difficult, Wudjub-Guyun instead of Hollow Mountain, and Djibilara rather than Asses Ears, Galbidj rather than Birge’s Nose. I was interested to discover that the ‘Billy wing’ of my childhood was actually ‘Billawin’, and the ‘Cherrypool’ where I’d spent time looking for the cherries was actually ‘Djarabul’. For several months the letters pages of the ‘Wimmera Mail Times’ shimmered with choler and bile. This clunky state government initiative produced a  reaction from the locals which set the cause of Indigenous recognition and reconciliation here back years.

Indigenous people lived in the Grampians for more than 20,000 years before the first whitefellas appeared — Jardwadjali to the west and north and Djab wurrung to the south and east. Billawin, a most unusual sometimes marshy area full of heath and head-high ti tree with an increasing number of lumpy and exotic rock formations as you close in on the Victoria Range, was an important ceremonial meeting place. This area, like much of the Grampians out of the tourist swarm, has a very particular and striking flavor. It resonates with something that is difficult to describe. It’s incredibly particulated but of a piece; it works; but it’s not you, or me anyway. Both fragile and resilient; scrubby but graceful; worn out but enduring; brimming with life a lot of which is crepuscular or nocturnal.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThere are more Indigenous rock art sites in the Grampians than in all of the rest of south-eastern Australia combined, many of them near Billawin. These pics are from Buandik and Billimina shelters where the sandstone is polished and the art more than 10,000 years old.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Four years after the Major’s first visit almost all the land around the Grampians and beyond to the southern coast had been colonised by Europeans. Four years. So very fast. Eight years later around 3,200 members of the two Gariwerd tribes, about 70 per cent of the total, had died or been killed. There is no doubt about the scale of the deaths; the circumstances are foggier. Introduced infections (like colds) certainly killed many, but there are also stories about massacres one of which may have taken place on or near the site of the current Hall’s Gap football ground, and there are other equally repellant stories about the activities of the ancestors of some of our erstwhile neighbours.

IMG_0785Further to issues of naming, here’s proof, of a type, from a Government of Victoria Department of Survey and Mapping map (Northern Grampians, 1994) that our property did exist. The area is called Wartook. When we were round there were nine (9) little black squares: four at ‘Rosebrook’ home of Peter Carter’s family, three at ‘Rain Acres’, Bernie Caelli’s holiday property, and two at ‘Girin Flat’. No others. No knives and forks, no petrol bowsers, no (public) beds. Our property was bounded by the road, the creek and the two black lines. ‘Joan’s paddock’ is the area containing the ‘200’ contour line mark.

IMG_0904Proof also that we have contributed to the named features of Victoria. ‘Girin’ is the Jardwadjali word for sulphur-crested white cockatoo. It seemed appropriate. Every evening hundreds of them would gather in our trees and chatter — hawaack waak waak hhhaaawaak qwaaaack waak waak poi poi poi WAAACK waak waak waak — until sundown after which you might hear a lonely cry from stragglers flying home.IMG_0911

The birds were and are a spectacular feature of life in the Grampians. The variety of environments, the plentiful flora and insects and the mild climate mean they are there in profusion. Geoffrey ‘The Twitcher’ Ainsworth began this list. Think of it as a poem.

Blue wrens, crimson rosellas, eastern rosellas, grey thrush, emus, eastern shrike-tit, southern yellow robins, willy wagtails, yellow-tufted honey-eaters, yellow-winged honeyeaters, wedge-tailed eagles, white-browed babblers, sulphur-crested cockatoos, Major Mitchell cockatoos, southern magpies, chestnut shelducks, kookaburras, brown and grey tree creepers, brown flycatchers, orange-winged sitellas, pied currawongs, long-billed corellas, lorikeets, crested and bronzewing pigeons, rufous whistlers, welcome swallows, crows, spotted and striated pardalotes, yellow-tailed thornbills, galahs, kestrels, whistling kites, screech owls, southern lapwings (I say spur-winged plover), gang gang cockatoos, yellow-tailed black cockatoos, noisy miners, magpie geese, bronzewing pigeons, white-faced herons, ibis, pipits, flame robins.

And dozens more. More than 240 species of bird have been identified in the Grampians and I suspect we would have seen at least a third of them on our land.

IMG_0832The Grampians are also alive with animals. There are more species of kangaroo living here than anywhere else in Victoria and they’re not difficult to find. This is one place in Australia where the tourist dream of kangaroos loping up the main street is realised. They particularly enjoy grazing on pasture, or lawn for that matter if it is available, and that was one reason why groups of hundreds of roos were common in Joan’s paddock. When the trees in our orchard started to grow kangas also proved to be partial to young fruit tree growth.

orchid_Thelymitra_aristata_Grampians131106-4682C_tensa_Rigid_Spider-orchid_G_Rudolph341KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAnd flowers. Flowers are one of the reason why the Grampians are overrun by tourists in spring. Unexpectedly prolific, diverse, florid, sometimes tiny like the orchid on the right, but gorgeous among the standard khaki, grey and dusty greens.

One other thing you might note about the map and the location of Girin Flat is the blue hatchings, the err … ‘subject to inundation’ information. We didn’t look at this or any other map when we tried to buy it. We got things under way in early summer, signed up (after a fashion) in mid summer, and anyway knew the western side of the Grampians is far drier than the eastern side. It has a Wimmera climate: hot summer, beautiful winter with freezing clear mornings warming up to 25 or so, shirtsleeves if not shorts. It rains from time to time but not very often and not very much.

Except when we moved there.

In July 1974 the rain began and it kept raining. Four inches (100mm) in three days, then six inches over a week, then it just rained continuously during August — the wettest month on record. I tried to plant fruit trees but the holes I dug would fill with water as soon as I sank the shovel in.

Quicksand has struck. There is sort of a crusty surface and very paddly sticky stuff underneath. Cam [a nephew, young at the time] got his foot and leg into a patch near the creek and went straight up to his groin which was rather exciting. And today when, as is my custom, I got bogged next to the shed, I was able to watch all four wheels slowly sinking into the dirt until the body was more or less resting on the ground. A job for P. Carter’s tractor that one.

Talcum powder, quicksand, bogs, washaways, puddles, frogs, lakes, swamp, marsh, floods, night noises, taddies, water birds, creeks. We’ve bought a creek, a wide one. By judicious and careful calculation one can conceive that this might be what happens every year about this time.

As the floods tore through our first garden, Myrna wrote:

IMG_0847Floods in the vege garden nearly broke my heart yesterday. It was so depressing. I came close to understanding how the farmers feel. It is a very different thing to be dependent on the weather. For the first time ever the Grampians seemed really quite hostile. … There were hundreds of kangaroos at Zumsteins busy grazing. The looked quite prehistoric with their enormous backbones extending out to the end of their tails and their tiny heads. I’ve never looked at them like that before. They seemed to belong to the rugged hardy trees and the prickly complicated mountains. The Grampians didn’t seem to be sympathetic to us at all. It made me see how nature can stop or destroy things so easily. …

That’s the way it is when you want to be in touch with living things. It isn’t all beautiful and fresh and invigorating. It is often trying and bewildering and hurtful and very very harsh. Living here isn’t going to be a lovely time in the country. It will be sometimes. … But we will have to keep reminding ourselves about all the animals and plants which have evolved tough strong durable systems before we ever arrived and started doing things. … We should respect what is here and not try to do too much.

The water finally receded in early November. The water table dropped about 90 cms. We moved the garden and the site for the house up onto a modest rise. The native grasses came up in profusion. Hundreds of emus populated Joan’s paddock. And, because it’s Australia — ‘a sunburnt country of droughts and flooding rains’ — the country browned off after six weeks to the point where we were watering hours a day.

IMG_0852[pic: not Billawin, but typical. Looking south to Sentinel Rock from Mt Rosea ridge]

IMG_1409.JPGThe alien quality of much of the Australian physical environment to its European settlers is a commonplace if not a cliché. I thought about this when we were walking through the Ardeche in southern France a year or two ago: picturesque stone houses in a rolling green countryside that seemed to be the very embodiment of fecundity, an ecology apparently in fine balance, a landscape so palatable I could just loll around in it permanently without thought. But is this some atavistic memory, some throwback, some chocolate box archetype of how things are supposed to be? Myrna has always been more fond of the Grampians than I have. I like them very much. She might say they were part of her identity: I wouldn’t. I can remember times, just as she describes above, when I’ve been shaken by them.

If we’d been doing this at Molyullah, a softer and more settled landscape, it would have been different. Girin Flat wasn’t virgin country; it had been logged by sleeper cutters and there were remnants of a camp half way over to the creek. But it wasn’t that far off. At Molyullah we would have been starting with cleared land (surrounded by national reserve), we would have had sheds, a garage, sewerage, a phone, water and power. At Girin Flat we had none of those things, which was partly the point. (Or was it? I don’t remember thinking about it much).

We spent endless hours trying to clear the bracken from around the house, and from the orchard and the garden. Bracken grows from extremely hardy rhizomes (underground rooting systems) which are very hard to remove. We didn’t want to poison them so we had a permanently available job cutting bracken. And look here at the first thing coming back after the fire.IMG_0549

There is no shelter in the bush. I knew that, and that was one reason why we valued the shed so much. It had a roof. But there wasn’t anywhere to put building materials or other stuff which might become rain-affected. We established a sewerage system after a while which worked very well, except for some reason we needed twice the length of runoff piping than was standard. I doubt whether runoff would have got much past the first few metres.

We used tank water to drink (after we had a roof to collect it). To wash and to water the garden and orchard we pumped water to a header tank from the creek (Horsham’s water supply but 40 k.s cleaner). Our pump was much better at blowing than sucking so we moved it over to the creek 500m. from the house which meant that you had to go (usually walk) over there to start and stop it. This was not always convenient.

This morning I was running late. I tear into the bathroom, tramp round the ice-encrusted tiles, leap in the shower and turn on the tap. Nothing. Nada. Rien. Zilch. No drips. No noise. Nothing. Thinks: no water. Bloody hell blooody hell. The wife has emptied the tank with all her watering.

So without further ado I stick on boiler suit and slippers jump in the ute and drive heedlessly through native vegetation. (I did stay on the track.) Got there and had a real struggle trying to get the aluminium-flavoured ice block that was the trusty Honda 4-stroke to fire. As I casted through all the things that could have gone wrong, rusty water was coming out the drip line, always a bad sign.

Then, lo! Bonzo the idiot wonder dog appears at the side of the clearing with infuriating Jack Nicholson grin. Then even more lo!, glamorous wife appears in pyjamas on Space Ranger bicycle and tells me the whole pipe is frozen. I’ve been trying to drive a 50mm x 500m. icicle through the house. I will read this in few years and, no doubt, marvel at nature. But I was pissed off this morning. Minus 6 degrees.

And for most of the time we had no electricity. We used wood for heating, cooking and hot water and had efficient technology for each. Both our slow combustion stove and our hollow-backed open fire place were brilliant performers. You did of course need wood. I found a great pile of red gum sleeper offcuts somewhere up the creek and cut them up using Peter Carter’s docking saw. That lasted a couple of months. Wood goes fast.

Our fridge ran on gas. (See ‘In Memoriam #4’ for its exotic source.) It mostly worked okay. Entertainment came from a battery-powered cassette player which turned over a set of batteries a week. I tried to hook it up to a car battery, swapping them over, but never succeeded. For light we used a kero pressure lamp which as I have complained elsewhere hissed relentlessly and six or more Aladdin lamps (see pic. Ours weren’t just like that, but same principle.) which gave a lovely light but not enough to read by and their mantles were very fragile.Bmajectic And no phone. Never thought about phones then. Imagine.

When Jessie came along we bought a small generator, enough to drive the record player and one light to read by. (Not reflecting very well on me at this point.) But you had to start its motor and leave it running for anything to happen. The Pykes (see below) had a large, and quiet, diesel generator which was automatically activated by turning any switch on. That was too complicated for us.

Not having electricity wasn’t a matter of ideology. We were more than a kilometre from a pole and it would have cost as much as the land did, more than $6000, to get connected to the grid. And for a good while we seemed to be getting on all right. Except for the matter of actually buying the land.

It took forever. The stages: hope, wonderment, mystification, fury, disdain, fatalism.

It was a subdivision which made it more complicated. It needed to be surveyed for a start. Before it could be surveyed we had to cut a clear eye line about a kilometre through ti-tree which we did quite promptly.

31/2/74 First visit from Noel Ferguson the surveyor. Seems like a good bloke. We may be getting a little closer to fixing things up. It looks like the survey will be taking place before Easter.

25/5/74 Despite the fact that we’ve cut a clear line for more than half a mile Noel says he won’t be able to survey it for another month. Needs new equipment or something.

27/6/74 Today I had a rather cathartic visit to Bob Stewart of Power and Bennett, solicitors and vile bodies of Pynsent St Horsham. Nothing has happened. Nothing. He suggests, from behind his professional mask, worn threadbare from overuse, that it might be 6-8 months before we are able to finish buying the land. That’s just crazy. There is a whole collection of misunderstandings combined with the slowness (indolence, sloth, sluggardliness) of the surveyor. I hate this.

15/8/74 Ferguson is now in a position of even lower esteem. Joan has been in touch and he’s fobbed her off, told her he’d finished the job but he hasn’t been anywhere near the place.

2/9/74 It is certainly not a matter of being patient and having your expectations pleasantly fulfilled. The right date, the right time or, as a delightful surprise, a fraction earlier, a good job, that extra mile — NO WAY. It always seems to turn out crazily rushed at gunpoint, shoddy work, things missed or mucked up. Anyway after all this time Noel F, our poster boy, has finally confirmed we are going to buy 23 hectares of finest Grampians land.

Seven months. What a rat. And that was just the surveying.

In July, 1974 we became official holders of Crown Grazing Licence No. 302.130 with ‘the transfer from Joan Carter to yourselves duly endorsed thereon. Signed: E. Kennedy, Secretary for Lands.’ Five dollars per annum allowed us ‘to enter with cattle, sheep or other animals upon parklands to depasture same’. This was the slice of land between what we wanted to buy and the creek. But it didn’t allow us to build anything.

I spent a long time trying to talk Fred Heinz, the building inspector for the Shire of Arapiles, in long distance control of our area, into considering plans for a building under Joan’s signature.

12/9/74 I had a long talk to Fred Heinz yesterday when it was so wet and miserable it almost guaranteed that everybody would be home. Noel F. had at last, a pleasant surprise, got off his bum and done the prints for the survey map. So all the stuff is sitting at the Shire of Arapiles. Fred says that —

1)     There is absolutely nothing to do before 100 days. Hi ho. Same old thing.

2)     He will not look at the plans even under Joan’s name until the sub-division is approved.

3)     He was all over the place about whether or not we would be able to build here! It might be ok … probably. And we won’t know that until we have bought the land and completed an Interim Development Order which may be subject to a number of conditions.

4)     I was a land developer. I said I wasn’t. I was a teacher who wanted to live on the land. He eased off a bit after that was established.

In the end he did agree to look at a building submission signed by Joan. And finally, after a good deal of the house had been built —

9/8/75 Today we signed some dubious looking papers that apparently indicate that sometime in the future the bank will buy the land from Joan and that we owe them $6310.50 for that particular privilege. This has occurred an offensively long time since this game began. I’m past caring.

Nearly two years in fact. That was as hard to manage as anything. Not least because Fred was based in Natimuk an hour’s drive away, so regular contact was difficult and in his mind pointless. There was no basis to have contact with the Councillors of the Shire (we weren’t rate payers till we owned the land) and Fred ruled with an iron fist anyway. Short, very blond, cropped hair (can I say Germanic? I think I will), he was exceptionally keen on the letter of the law. But his Wartook confidants were also the dark side of the Carter family.

We were the first of the new settlers (which 20 years later multiplied egregiously as the Carter boys found there was very comfortable money to be made from land sub-division). There were three families besides us. Ron and Gwyneth Taylor, a few k.s away, had come from (‘been driven out of, by development’) Vermont, an outer suburb of Melbourne. He was a retired solicitor and Gwyn was a gifted naturalist (plants. native) and they were staunch ‘greenies’, I think the first formal versions of the genre that I encountered. Ron was an irascible crock, Gwyn a lovely person. Further round towards Zumsteins were the Raleighs, Royce and Zhan and their three young kids. He was a primary teacher working in Horsham too, but they wanted to quit and set up a native plant nursery which they eventually did. Then back towards Horsham and more remote than any of us on a glorious and large block, several hundred hectares with a great view, were the Pykes. Will was an ag scientist and good at a lot of practical things and Prue was a TAFE teacher before they began producing children.

Fred had made the Raleigh’s pull down their shed frame and insert new reinforcing plates on the slab. That helped our relationship.

But our immediate neighbours were Peter and Denise Carter and their young kids Bradney and Genene. Peter was Joan’s nephew. The only stipulation Joan asked of us when we started buying the land was to keep our gate shut so that, and I quote, Peter’s lice-infested sheep wouldn’t get into her paddock. He was thoroughly amiable, dreamy in a sort of orotund way, enjoyed a drink, was keen on the races and not so much on work. He had a well-rehearsed theory that good farms looked after themselves. His brother Don owned the land adjacent to the national park nearest to Zumsteins. He was another sort all together. I thought he was sharp, mean and hard and he quite evidently didn’t like us and our ilk.

The back to the earth literature is full of the presence of wise ancients who can advise you of the ways of the land and guide you through the thickets. They may have among their skills an ability to talk to the wind or to call emus at will. They know knots, how to baffle wasps and at their finger tips have 32 practical uses for (traditionally refined and organic) sump oil. Old Justiney or Black Beardy James. Joan and her man Jack Smith were a bit like that, but mainly we were embedded in quite a large colony of red neck arseholes (for whom of course we were fly-by-night drug-infested hippies).

Three things gave me a sharp fright when we were on the land.

One was the first and every subsequent time I heard a screech owl. You would swear that someone was being murdered. The second was the time a possum dropped on us when asleep in the shed. It didn’t like it; we didn’t like it. There was a ruckus. The third was again in the shed, again asleep, but home from school sick as a dog. The door was crashed open and the two Carter boys — men, how old? probably 40 — stood over me, demanding to know all sorts of extraneous things that were none of their business. Was I building on Crown land? Where did those bricks come from? Who gave me the right to … Were there drugs on the property? (I think they might have been drunk themselves.) I was physically shocked and utterly nonplussed. How and why that happened is still a mystery.

This event coloured our relationship somewhat which may already have been coloured by the Horvath affair, something to which there is no reference in the journals and about which I had completely forgotten till last week.

Here’s a note to self that is in the journals: A good thing to do after we own the land and have a building permit, would be to get Royce and Ron and the Pykes, all the people round here we could muster and people who don’t want shooters crawling over their properties. Could set up an organization devoted to conservation causes.

This admirable notion was pushed ahead because a Mr Horvath, who we never met, purchased some land on the other side of the creek up the hill in order to set up a theme park full of Disney characters. This, like most things, infuriated Ron who in short order sought an injunction to stop any such thing happening.

This is a classic land use issue of course. If we could do what we liked with our land, why couldn’t he? Whose values should prevail? What notion of amenity applies? Is there any role for the idea of ‘appropriateness’? Oooo land development, what a Sargasso Sea of untethered rights and cravings.

So, long story short, we hooked up with Ron; and the Carters (with, I would have to say, an eye on their own subdivisions) went with Horvath. I set up a public meeting in Horsham to try to establish a Grampians Conservation Society. It started nasty and got much worse. I think the whole Laharum Football Club — players, relatives, friends and acquaintances — led by Bruce Lamshed whose son I was teaching (as if that means something), turned up to yell and catcall. There were no fistfights because there was no one on our side. It was the most abject of disasters. I would have done better if I’d played footy for Laharum, but I was too busy building the house.

orchardI could talk about the garden and the orchard and how we were trying to woo plants to grow in sand that had been scoured by the creek for centuries, maybe millennia. Great for mortar and foundations, useless for vegetables and fruit trees. How we used to spend days collecting manure for these enterprises: on one day alone 17 ute loads of aged sheep shit were dug from under Bernie Caelli’s historic shearing shed and carted off. And, despite all, how things did grow. We never had any fruit off the trees but they blossomed and some of the 40 or so thrived. Myrna’s garden was a major source of food.Garden

One meal I noted: three fish from the creek, mushrooms from Joan’s paddock, broad beans, zucchini, brown rice and homemade bread. Yum. I don’t know where the fish came from. I’m not a fisherperson. But the garden did flourish, maybe hydroponically.

There’s so much more. But the subject is the house. Let’s return to the topic in hand. In Memoriam #4 and 5: How do you build house.poles