Two families, two lives… so similar but so different
HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT for the different way that life turns out for people, even when they share much in common?
Take two families — both having fallen for the allure of the rural backblocks, both made up of men and women in their thirties… all intelligent, capable people. One family has two children, the other has none. Put them, without wealth, in the mid-1980s and trace the patterns of their lives.
“Down there is where we will start on the mudbrick house soon, just above the farm dam. It will happen as we have time. Meanwhile, we live in the tent”.
We look behind to where Robert points to see one of those big tents, a large orange thing, the type people take car camping. We walk over. It is high enough to stand up in and, entering, the first thing you notice is the lack of possessions. What there are are few, modest and utilitarian. There’s an enclosed sleeping area and an unfloored entrance part.
“We cook outside on the old iron fuelwood stove but we’ve got a gas campers stove in the tent for when it’s raining”, he explains, indicating a wood stove standing incongruously near a couple chairs a few metres from the tent. “Showers? There’s a garden hose for that”.
This is home, modest and temporary the couple say, although they have lived in the tent since they bought the property a couple years ago. It’s pitched on the edge of a eucalypt copse, an area several hundred square metres in size and cleared of undergrowth. Stringybarks project tall and straight from the bare soil.
The farm dam is small and has been recently excavated — it wasn’t here last time we passed through on another road journey northwards.
Robert’s comment about starting on the house reminds me that time here is something different to what it is in the city. There’s a flexibility to it and it is accompanied by a patience that must somehow come with rural life, an acceptance that things take time and that this is alright.
I imagine the house being built, bit by bit. First, the manufacture of the mud bricks — the digging, mixing and moulding — days covered in sticky red clay. Then come months during which the bricks are left to cure. Time passes, but the leveling of the land has been done and the footings started. More time passes. Other things get in the way or, perhaps, the summer is too hot to work out in the open during the day. In a few more months the roof trusses and galvanised iron go on and the first mudbrick infill walls go up. Now it is starting to look like a house. Not long after, the house is ready for occupation. All this will have to be done in the days when Robert is home; the rest of the week he is away, working in the nursery of a mining company a couple hours drive to the south. Now, at last, the couple are ready to start life in their own home.
This, anyway, is how it could have been.
“Oh, yes, I still have my clydesdales”, says Sarah, patting one of the enormous beast on its long snout. Monsters of the horse family, these massive but docile creatures are so tall they look down on humans as if they imagine that they are the superior lifeform. They are not working horses, though, for Sarah they are the equivalent of the domestic dog or cat of city families.
We walk into the eucalypt copse. “We planned to finish the dome and to use it to live in while we built something permanent”, says Sarah. “But we haven’t put on a permanent roof yet and the plastic sheeting that covers it makes it uncomfortable at times. So we sleep in the tent, which is more comfortable”.
It’s one of those classic geodesic domes familiar to anyone with an acquaintance with the ‘counterculture’ of the early 1970s. The dome can be traced back to Buckminster Fuller, the polymath and noted innovator. Not that Robert and Sarah are counterculture types. “It’s just that domes are cheap to build,” Robert says.
Yet they display characteristics common among the counterculture — the ‘back to the land movement’ that got underway in the early 1970s. The difference is that their move to the land has been planned and deliberate and lacks much of the romanticised vagueness of that movement.
It’s not a large structure, this dome. It sits atop a hexagonal pole-construction base that is being made into a kitchen. In here, there’s a table, cupboard and a car radio and cassette player powered by a vehicle battery charged by a solar-electric panel. A few chairs stand adjacent to the large, floor to ceiling window. A small case of books is tucked away against the side wall. A rectangular extension is under construction. Sheathed in log offcuts, this will be used as a living room. The large sheet of clear plastic that has been loosely draped over the dome to keep out the weather will eventually be replaced by shingles.
Looking at a photo I took (above image), the thought came as to how often scenes like this must have been played out in the bush in those days, a time when restless youth left the cities to seek a new and different future in the country. How many times did young hopefuls sit by the fire near their dome or other rustic, basic structure at the end of a hard day’s work? What did they talk about? The work they were engaged in? The friends they had made? How the new life was going? Whether they missed the comforts and conveniences they knew in the city? The young child nestled in the mother’s arms? The future? All of these things I am sure, because thoughts like these flow when the encumbrances of city life are far away and there are no distractions to reflective thinking. And could that have been so different to others who sought a future in the bush generations ago?
“Some Sunday afternoons are spend out the back of the hotel in the village a few kilometres west of here”, says Robert. “It’s self-made entertainment”.
This we find out the next day when we sit, cold beers in hand as a local country singer works his way through an old, popular country standard, accompanying himself on guitar. This is home-made entertainment and there’s something comforting about it.
We sleep in the dome that evening. Usually on these road trips the Kombi is our accommodation and in the evening we would lay on the mattress that covers the raised rear of the van above the engine. But tonight we have the luxury of a bed under a curved ceiling. It’s not late but here people go to bed early. Outside, the sound of wind in the eucalypts and a dark sky. We talk. “They seem so comfortable here. It seems that life revolves around work on the property, working for a living and travel to town and beyond”, I say, reflecting on the routine of the couple’s life together.
Fiona agrees, as I knew she would. She has lived in the country in a village not all that far from Bathurst, but that was years ago now. I am well aware of her affinity with rural life, however, and with the knowledge that she would gladly return to the country given half a chance.
Tired of urban living, Sarah and Robert had moved from Sydney to Mungay Creek. Both are well educated. Rupert is tall, his fair hair falling below his ears and his face framed by the type of wispy, blondish beard that gives you the impression that he had trouble growing it. Sarah is more solidly built… sturdy… with her long, dark hair tied back in a pony tail. She’s what you might call a matter-of-fact sort of woman. The couple have assumed a pace of speech and movement commensurate with the unhurriedness of rural life. They seem to have a satisfaction with things, an acceptance of their lives and a patience so far removed from our urban lives.
To get here and stand surrounded by tall eucalypts and gaze out on green fields we had followed the Pacific Highway into Kempsey. After it swings sharply to the left and crosses the bridge over the broad, muddy river, we had turned westward rather than follow the highway along the main street. Across the rail lines at the Railway Hotel, we continued along the winding blacktop until Fiona slowed to find the unmarked turnoff to the property. We followed the narrow dirt road that descends through a patch of forest, crosses a creek, then proceeds along the edge of an open field towards the copse of tall eucalypts.
Tonight, it is quiet at Mungay Creek.
A year or two go by and we follow another road. This one, like that leading westward from Kempsey, is a narrow band of grey asphalt that twists through forest and passes farmers’ fields devoid of crop or cattle. The motor of Fiona’s aging, once-white Kombi hums — if that is a proper term to describe the sound made by a Kombi engine — and we are accompanied by the hiss and bump of tyres on rough tarmac, a sound so familiar these past few days that we have long ceased to notice it.
It’s been a long journey north. We stopped off at Mungay Creek to find that Sarah and Robert had finished the living room extension to their dome but found them still occupying the tent although much of their living was now done in the building, its roof now shingled. As for their mudbrick house, there was no sign of it yet.
It had been good to catch up again but the far north called and we had stayed only a short time. Then it was north through Coffs Harbour, north along the Pacific Highway to Grafton and then off to Lismore. Here, a brief stop. Northward again and over the low range that spill travellers into the Tweed Valley. At the Murwillumbah turnoff we leave the highway and I feel that pull that comes from knowing that a further two hours along the Pacific Highway would land us in Brisbane, a city I feel an urge to visit. That city, however, must await a future journey when I have time to rediscover some of the places of my childhood.
This is spectacular country. Where the vistas of Mungay Creek are close and the undulations of the land offer no high point for the distant view, the road we travel affords occasional outlooks to hills more substantial. Through the hamlet of Chillingham — essentially a general store and small cluster of houses — and then the Kombi accelerates until the engine again assumes its hum and the wheels go clack! as they pass over irregularities in the road. Fiona sits behind the big steering wheel focusing on the road ahead as she has been all the way from Murwillumbah. “Shouldn’t be too far”, she says as if to reassure me.
“There!”, I exclaim, recognising the turnoff onto the gravel road along which we now drive, followed by a plume of dust raised by our passage. Looking back out the window I see that grand view of the high Border Range which dominates this area. Once again, here we are on Stoddards Creek Road where we have been several times these past few years.
Jim lives with wife Karen and two children — one in early primary school and the other soon to start — in a converted industrial garage of the type farmers keep tractors in. Made of iron panels sitting on a concrete slab, the building has been divided into rooms and a kitchen. It is basic but comfortable and sits on a shelf cut into the red soil of the slope about 10 metres below the road.
The property had been cleared of trees to the boundaries but, immediately below, the bush survives. Hidden in the bush is a waterfall that the family occasionally walks down to. Above and across the road, all the way to the top the hill, the land is occupied by a banana plantation — north-facing slopes are favoured by growers. A few metres from the house, on its western side, the land slips steeply into a gully. On the adjacent ridge sits another industrial garage-like structure, this one, too, occupied by a family. All around the western and northern quadrants the horizon is made up of the cobalt blue of mountain ranges. This is spectacular country… inspiring in its topography. There’s a sense of remoteness that comes with the view over bush and farm to the line of high mountains on the northern horizon.
Neither Jim nor Karen have jobs in town. It is not that Jim avoids working, it’s that jobs are scarce in this part of the country and hearing of them is difficult this far from Murwillumbah, the big town of the Tweed Valley. Anyway, searching for a job requires motivation that is sometimes a little scarce.
Sitting around the table in the cool of the evening, we get to talking about how life leads you to strange places and, sometimes, strange people.
“Back a few years ago I had an art gallery in Sydney. That was a good time but we decided to move north”, says Jim in his characteristically slow, drawling manner.
The move was typical of that made by thousands of young people at that time when rural living seemed to offer a positive alternative to urban life… it was a search for a better way of living that some discovered and many didn’t. Jim has made repeated returns to the city but just as frequently has abandoned it for the north country.
“We settled on the Tweed Valley. I like it better than the Nimbin area over the hills to the south. And… well… here we are, though there’s been a bit of coming and going”, he explained.
A bit of coming and going is right. Jim recently went to Sydney to work for a year to accumulate some capital to bring back. Unfortunately, the good life of the city led to his losing his way, in the financial sense, and he returned with little to show for his absence. The family does dream of making money, though. They are developing a board game that they hope to sell to a specialist publisher. This is a dream of more than a few years duration, though progress has been made. At every visit we are shown the latest iteration.
“My parents bought this property,” explains Karen after she described how they have moved around the region, living in rental properties in bush and town. Anyone meeting the parents, though, might get the idea that they were a little disappointed in the way their daughter’s life had turned out. The father, who thought Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Australian, is the epitome of news publishing, comes across as a solid conservative who might have had more than a little time for the ‘Jo for PM’ campaign of the then-premier of Queensland, Jo Bjelke Petersen.
Karen knows they are disappointed though she seems to keep this unsaid, however it sometimes comes out in tone of voice or choice of words. She comes across as having ambition that circumstances have prevented her actualising. It’s as though the way the family lives forms some kind of barrier and that Karen is aware of this, though this is an assumption of mine derived from snatches of conversation. True or not, Karen seems happy. Maybe it’s this that matters rather than ‘success’ in the world.
Evening comes. It is getting dark and the lights come on. They have town electricity out here along this narrow gravel road, but not town water. A couple big tanks store what falls on the roof.
A glimpse through the open door reveals the forested heights of the Border Ranges awash in a lavender light, the bush and farms between assuming the greyish pallor of early evening when its the shape of the land rather than the detail is visible. It’s a good time here. The heat of the day is starting to dissipate and the land assumes a quietness as if all of its wildlife has retired for the evening. Gone are the birds that swoop and overfly during the day, gone the scurrying lizards.
Some evenings we sit outside, beer in hand (one of the main purposes of the household refrigerator is to keep the beer chilled and one of the main purposes in the weekly visit to Murwillumbah is to keep the refrigerator stocked). We talk in that desultory, sporadic way of people comfortable in each others’ presence… sometimes about trivia, sometimes about our plans… their plans, mainly. For they do have plans of a very general sort though they might be classified as ‘good ideas that we should do’. The challenge is making that leap from idea to actuality. The occasional swish of the hand signals that the evening’s mosqiuito squadrons are assembling. Time to go inside.
Another evening, sitting out on the verandah made from polewood Jim and I cut from nearby bushland and roofed with sheets of galvanised iron, that timeless and functional Australian building material.
“Last year we made a large garden above the house so we wouldn’t have to go into town for vegetables. But it was the summer heat that defeated us… the plants just withered… you can see what’s left outside”, he says. This I had already done to find the barely recognisable shape of a garden producing nothing of culinary value.
There have been other, shall we say, agricultural experiments though these were only for personal use and were hidden from view in the middle of a lantana thicket. Those in the know say that frequent consumption of some of the local vegetation has a de-energising, debilitating effect. Having seen the results, I have to agree.
Dinner is finished and we sit around the table, the kids now in bed.
“Do you remember visiting us, in the 1980s, when we were living in that converted cow bails near Tyalgum?”, asks Jim.
“Sure do, I really liked going to that farm… I guess it was the mountains that rose so steeply outside the back door… rising sharply to the Tweed Range… and that fantastic view across the Tweed valley to Mt Warning as the morning light washed its sides yellow… there was something about that place and the landscape around it”, I recall.
I pause, recollecting memories of traveling in Fiona’s clunky old Kombi along the road that leaves Tyalgun to follow the creek, and of fording it to get to the bails. This brings a sensation of happiness and I wonder why it should. It was only a few years ago — I think we visited the family twice at the bails. I think also how life can seem to change but remain essentially the same, though in different places. For Karen and Jim, life at the bails was very much like life on Stoddards Creek Road.
“Yeah. It was good living there”, Jim responds. “Once, a brown snake came onto the grassy clearing in front of the house and I had to kill it. There were no walls to the building except that at the rear of the bails and the kitchen, just a wide iron roof that kept the weather out. And from our bed we would look out over the valley.. and, sometimes, it was filled with morning mist… that place had a great view to the south-east, all the way to Mt Warning. We would lie there and watch the light come onto the mountain. What a way to start the day!
“In the 1930s a passenger aircraft called a Stinson — a three motor job — crashed up there after leaving Brisbane. A few survived and the crash was found by Bernard O’Reilly who explored the Border Ranges and lived at Binna Burra in the thirties”, explained Jeff. “I climbed up there one day and found the crash site”.
The bails was a home more modest that that that on Stoddards Creek Road. The only enclosed room served as the kitchen and in there was a large table and chairs, a few cupboards and a stove. “The basics”, I think silently. Outside, a large rainwater tank that was starting to rust. The rest of the bails was just a big undivided space, open, sheltered only by the rusty galvanised iron roof. The only hot water was that heated on the stove. The advantage was that the house was sited on top of a hill and, through the open sides, that grand vista opened all the way across the valley to Mt Warning.
Life in a converted cow bail is nothing unusual on the North Coast of NSW. There must have been many converted for this purpose. That once occupied by Hans Erken and family, before he moved to Crystal Waters village to start a commercial bamboo nursery, was perhaps one of the more comfortable. Visitors would be unaware they were in an old cow bails until they were told.
These were good memories for Karen and Jim, I thought, and recalling them might be a good thing. Yet, that bails on its little hummock of a rise below that steep range… it was only one waypoint that the couple had passed through on their way to the security of their home on Stoddards Creek Road.
A week passes and, one morning, we point the Kombi towards the hardtop at the end of the gravel road. Somewhere along the road I look back to see that metal shed-come-home and a feeling of gratitude for having spend time there infuses me with that warm, satisfied feeling that you get on departing some place you have enjoyed being, a feeling that tugs at you, saying ‘would you like to live here?’, ‘could you live here?’.
We turn eastward and the Kombi picks up its characteristic hum as we drive that curvy road
that takes us into Murwillumbah. The town is still quiet at this time of morning and, if my recollection is correct, we stop, perhaps for a coffee, before heading south along the Pacific Highway, a road that has become familiar to us these past few years.
We do not take the turnoff towards Mungay Creek this time. We have to be back in the city. But as we pass through Kempsey I think of that couple with their plans for the mudbrick house by the farm dam. A feeling that combines completeness and envy comes over me, yet both of us know that the journeys of these two families is not our journey. The road southwards beckons and the Kombi’s engine hums as we move along it.
Two families — Robert and Sarah at Mungay Creek and Jim and Karen in the Tweed Valley. They have commonalities and they have substantial differences. Both have sought to make a home in the bush. Both have assumed the relaxed rhythm of country life. The difference is that one couple has marked their landscape with their intentions and vision. The other has given into the lure of the landscape and accepted the limitations of living within it as the norm.
Neither relationship has turned out as anticipated.
Within a couple years, Rupert and Sarah would go their separate ways. Sarah returned to college and later found work with a coastal council. She bought a house by the river in the holiday city where she works, and here she has settled into its rhythms.
Jim and Karen persisted in their easy-going lifestyle after we had visited them. But that visit was the last, it turned out. As told to me by an acquaintance, the relationship broke up when Jim took an interest in a woman in a nearby town.
Neither family survived intact.