Where the hell did January go? I finally took down my Christmas tree late in the month rather reluctantly because I love an excuse to turn it on at night and enjoy the sparkling white lights against my blue and silver decorations. I still uphold the tradition of exchanging Christmas cards especially with those who live a long way from us and our overseas friends and families. Letters and family snaps fall out of the cards, giving us a glimpse of other people’s year that was.
The fires and smoke haze have disappeared for now in our part of the world. Kids are back at school. After a reprieve from hot days and almost 60ml of rain in the last week or so, one can almost be forgiven for thinking that we are through the worst. But the temperature gauge started to sneak up again and today it was 32 degrees Celsius at 10am. Tomorrow it will get into the mid-40s in places. January is always a funny month like that. One has plans to do lots during the quieter holiday period but when the weather is extreme it robs one of their mojo!
The holiday period has been a disaster for those who rely on the busy tourism period, so some of us locals have been trying to do our bit by spending money locally. While it is nice to be able to get a park outside your regular supermarket in town, the deserted streets are testament to a huge economic hit taken by businesses. Hard to imagine how much worse it is for those towns and regions actually burnt out.
But us Aussies are a resilient bunch and we bounce back with some help from our mates. A social media campaign “Fill Your Esky” is promoting the idea of people from the city and elsewhere to head off to places impacted by the fires and fill their ice boxes with produce and other goodies during their visit. We decided to head up to the hills to Jamieson, a pretty old timber village on the river about a half-hour drive from our home for lunch at Deb’s Café and a couple of craft beers at the Jamieson Brewery to do our bit. The Australia Day long weekend did see an influx of visitors especially for the annual river regatta which starts at Kevington. From what I heard it was well supported and loads of fun.
Summer in Australia includes the Christmas and New Year celebrations followed by fun filled relaxing holidays by the beach or camping in the bush. Boating, fishing and water-skiing are popular on large lakes and rivers. December and January have marked a period of heartache and devastation as fires raged across the country with NSW, Victoria and South Australia receiving the brunt of the damage. Many people’s holiday plans have been impacted by the closure of our national and state parks by authorities where there are fires and significant threat to life. There was the mass exodus of holidaymakers through our town when the evacuation order was made. Now it is strangely quiet and many local businesses are suffering from loss of income from the impact of the fires. Most of Victoria and NSW has been shrouded in smoke for several days with reports of smoke haze in New Zealand and South America.
We have been fortunate to only be subjected to smoke haze when so many have suffered lost of lives, homes, livelihoods, massive stock losses and trauma elsewhere. But it has been difficult to escape the wall-to-wall coverage of the fires and the social media frenzy without feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Situations like this also seems to bring out the best and the worse in humans. Stories of unsung heroes and the compassion for others has been uplifting. Another sad aspect of our bushfires is the huge loss of our native flora and fauna.
We continue to ensure on the hot days that there are plenty of water bowls around the house for all the different birds that visit us ranging from the tiny finches through to the larger magpies. Bolly(my husband) has been working extremely hard clearing any fallen leaves and branches from around our property. The hot windy days are nuisance because you have to clear up all over again! We have complied a “what to do in a fire” situation book of instructions and photos for us to refer to and for any house sitters or visitors. We have a fire-fighting pump near our dam and sprinklers in our lawn if needed. While we don’t feel in any particular danger being in cleared farming land there is still the risk of grassfires and lightening strikes hitting paddock trees.
A most welcome cool change overnight has brought 7ml of rain followed by clear, blue skies, this morning. One has to be optimistic if we are to support one another and look after our mates to get through the tough times.
Words, pictures, voices and actions can be woven into storytelling in all its different forms. It can be an oral history passed down by Indigenous Australians, a Shakespearean tragedy, a rousing Italian opera, tall tales shared by good mates, moving pictures on the screen both big and small, or found in the pages of a book. Whatever means is used to tell a story, there is a purpose behind the telling.
For writers or at least for me, the narrative is the holy grail of storytelling. As children we often heard or read the words, “Once upon a time…” that would lead us into the world of princes and princesses, fairies and elves, wicked step-mothers and ugly sisters. There was usually the elements of good and evil, a sense of injustice and redemption, followed by a happy ending to the fairy tale. Without being aware of the morals being espoused…
It is not the language of the paintersbut the language of nature to which one has to listen.
– Vincent van Gough (1853-1890) Dutch painter
The end of November is technically the end of spring in the Southern Hemisphere but since when has Mother Nature complied with calendar definitions of the seasons? The start of summer here in the high country of Victoria saw a dump of snow on nearby Mt Buller and chilly days for the locals. We were talking to family in England and there wasn’t much difference between their temperatures and ours.
But the sun has returned with the promise of warmer days ahead. Our neighbour has tackled our long grass and soon it will be turned into large round bales for fodder. Our November has been a busy month and brings with it a mixture of joy and sadness.
The local Mansfield Festival over the unofficial Melbourne Cup long weekend brings an influx of visitors from the city to join in the activities. I help out early at the bush market on a stall to raise funds and awareness of our East Timor Friends of Venilale group while Bolly my husband is at the Anglican church setting up for the book stall and Devonshire Teas. Then at 11am myself and several others from our agricultural society group gather to participate in the annual street parade. Great opportunity to promote our up and coming show on the 16th November. Part of our display was a rusty 1937 Chevrolet farm ute which attracted plenty of attention. The rain held off until after the parade.
Sunny skies were the order of the day for the Mansfield Melbourne Cup Day horse races and despite recent bad publicity about the treatment of some racehorses after their career is over, there was a good crowd and a social atmosphere for all ages. These country events also provide much needed fundraising for community groups.
We join the members of our RSL sub-branch and the wider community to pay our respects on Remembrance Day with a special service.
I somehow managed to find time to write a short story for the local Bushy Tales competition. This year’s theme was to be based on an “animal”. While I did not win with my piece about Friskie, our beautiful bushy-tailed friend who we sadly lost in October, it was published in a collection of stories and poems. I was invited on the presentation night to share my story which was written as part of my healing from the grief of losing a much-loved pet.
The 130th Mansfield Show was hailed as one of the most successful in years which was helped by perfect sunny spring weather. Without the huge effort by committee members and many other volunteers the show would not happen. As secretary my November was extremely busy. It was good to see horse entries up this year and the number of young children entering the various pavilion sections.
We entertain two lots of visitors during November and always enjoy sharing our little bit of country with them. The kids especially enjoy a ride in the trailer and wielding an axe! There are birthdays to celebrate not far from home, one a 70th and the other an 80th in idyllic rural settings. November is also sad as I remember family members who died five years ago.
But as the year draws to end, we reflect on the good things and learn from the not so good, and continue to count our blessings
Spring fever has hit early with a vengeance this year and has curtailed my usual activities. From feeling a bit off-colour to full-blown hay fever and a chest infection I am currently limping along. The coughing spasms and lack of energy do little to inspire the creative juices. But in-between coughing fits I have been reviewing some of my most recent photos and trying to do a cull and select a few that represent spring in my part of the world until I feel better to write about some of the things that have been happening in my life in recent weeks. Until then better stock up on those hay fever pills!
Our lives this year have been like the seasons; unpredictable and inescapable. There are hints we can shake off our layers gathered over winter and venture out with a sense of freedom that the warmer spring days offer, but beware spring is a fickle season and teases us. September 1 in the Southern Hemisphere is technically the start of spring but as soon as one is tempted to stow away the woollies Jack Frost and sleety snow return.
Our lives are like the seasons that change from dark and gloomy to the flourish of new growth seen in the abundance of blossoms and flowering bulbs to the inquisitive new-born calves along our fence line.
We choose to celebrate the gift of life. Earlier this year we lost my 39 year-old-stepson to suicide. His Dad and I knew that he had suffered from highs and lows throughout his life but not to the extent that he would take his own life. We have decided to be open about the circumstances of Matt’s death. This has encouraged others to share their stories with us. While there is much being done to raise awareness about depression and suicide; the numbers continue to climb and more families, friends and workmates are left numb with the loss and waste of another life.
It has been a difficult and sad time for us, but we choose to embrace life and the memory of Matt positively. Our faith and support of friends and neighbours have made the grief more bearable. But it never goes away. When I hear of another suicide, my heart goes out to their loved ones. Never be afraid to ask someone if they are OK and offer a listening ear if needed or practical help to ease their distress. Remember not everyone will accept your offer but sometimes you may be the right person at the right time.
For those left behind as my husband has found, it is sad and at times a frustrating process of dealing with the coroner’s court, police, funeral directors, solicitors and even fractured family relations. Five months later we are still trying to sort out the legalities while we grieve in our own ways.
Mental health is complex and many of us at some stage of our lives experience depression, anxiety, trauma and grief. For most of us, that dark season of our life ends and can be like a daffodil stretching towards the sunlight in spring with the promise of renewed hope. The dark clouds and icy tentacles of winter have been replaced in my heart and mind, reminding me how precious every single moment is.
For those still struggling we need to advocate for better services and more funding; combined with increased public awareness around suicide prevention. We also need to aim for a kinder and more caring world for all. If you are struggling there is help out there.
A social media post brought to my attention that August 8 is International Cat Day which has prompted me to share some of my favourite cat photos with the rest of the world. For more information on how this day came into being check out this link https://www.daysoftheyear.com/days/international-cat-day/
I love all animals big and small but my feline friends Rambo (the black and white one) and Friskie have a special place in my heart and in my bed at times! They wandered into our suburban backyard over 13 years ago and have embraced the tree-change.
June 1 heralds the start of winter in the southern hemisphere. From the idyllic autumnal days of warming sunshine we have plunged headlong into an extremely cold season for this part of the world. This morning I had to add a minus sign to the temperature of 3 degrees! Usually I get up early but this morning I was struggling to get warm. My feet still feel like ice-blocks but that might have something to do with popping outside to photograph a somewhat icy but stunning landscape. It reminds me of my winter travels to Lancashire and Yorkshire as I look across the open paddocks with rolling hills. But hopefully, with the sun on the way up, it will warm up soon.
To celebrate our winter solstice the Mansfield Lantern Festival now in its fifth year runs an event for all the family to get involved. In the weeks leading up to the event there are lantern workshops to encourage children to make their own. My husband and I, did the lazy adult’s version with my Ikea Christmas lanterns replacing the candles with safer lighting being the flashing red tail light from my bicycle and his head torch! There was a procession to the area which had been set up for the festivities. Loved seeing the families and the little ones with their lanterns. The cast from the forthcoming Dr Seuss musical had donned the red and white stripy tall hats with lights to promote their show. The night was clear but cold so parkas and gloves were a must. For a town of 4000 there was an excellent turn-out accounting for the queues for food and drink including a mulled cider which I can recommend. The two huge fire pits were most appreciated by festival goers and added to the atmosphere. It reminded me of the atmosphere of an European city in winter. For some with littlies the nearby pub for a meal and a chance to warm up was a popular option. It is always great to talk to new people and catch up with locals. Life in this small town is never boring!
The real deal…in Aussie lingo if you hear someone described this way, it is a high compliment indeed. Genuine, what you see is what you get, knowledgeable, not arrogant, a willingness to give of themselves generously, true-blue, and an ability to get on with anyone; are some of the attributes that come to mind. This year I had the pleasure of meeting two such individuals.
One a highly credentialed senior journalist and the other a skilled horseman and country musician. I’m not sure that they have ever met but they do have in common a love of Australia and sharing stories of people and places.
Heather Ewart, esteemed and seasoned television journalist with the ABC for many years, is the real deal. From hard-nosed reporting on the 7.30 Report to fronting the series Back Roads she is travelling across Australia with her producer and camera crew to capture the essence of places and people that are off the beaten track. Usually, smaller communities with characters and stories aplenty to share feature.
Our paths crossed recently during the annual Tolmie Sports Day held each February for 133 years in a bush setting in the hills about halfway between Mansfield and Whitfield in Victoria’s north-east. The day showcases traditions such as the wood chop, woodwork and blacksmithing and newer ones to include a chain saw competition. Equestrian events offer various novelties and jumping competitions for younger and older riders. The foot races judging by their names cater for all abilities and ages; ranging from the single ladies race to the Cooked Chooks through to the bloke’s Old Buffer’s Race and the Prime Bucks. The dog jump is always a crowd pleaser and so was the special display by the “Flipping Disc Dogz” which promotes a positive message of encouraging young children that they are capable of doing great things. It has a feel of an English fete with an a bush flavour. There are historical displays and of course the ever-popular Devonshire teas.
The day starts in brilliant sunshine but after lunch, the clouds rolled in and the rain poured down. But the local CFA (Country Fire Authority) volunteers agreed with me the much needed rain was preferably to dealing with bush fires. Despite the down pour and the risk of frizzy hair, Heather and her camera crew continued filming and interviewing some of the local identities and personalities. There were still smiles all round and good-natured banter. Heather posed for photographs with many of the local volunteers and assisted with the raffle draw taking it all in her stride.
Having followed Heather’s career and her more recent foray into presenter of the popular Back Roads series, one can see her ability to tell a story and to engage with individuals on all levels. Heather grew up as a country girl in the Victorian town of Murchison on the Goulburn River. There is a relaxed, laid back manner about her and a genuine interest in people’s stories. She manages to dig up some real gems like old-timer Tarpot in a recent episode featuring Windorah in outback Queensland. Sadly, Tarpot died recently but he is immortalised on screen. If I told Heather I thought she was “the real deal” she would probably brush it off and tell me she had encountered much more worthy contenders for the title.
The new Back Roads series including the Tolmie episode is due to return to our ABC television screens from June 17. While on the subject of ABC television, it is worth noting journalist icon, Barrie Cassidy, as well as being husband of Heather Ewart, retired in June after 18 years presenting Insiders, a successful current affairs show with shrewd insights into Australian politics . Described by many as tough but always fair, the accolades and response from the public and politicians alike, puts Barrie into the category of the real deal as we hear “back to you Barrie” for the last time. One hopes that Barrie and Heather get to spend more time together on a back road somewhere!
My other contender is Tom Curtain, respected horseman, dog handler and a golden Guitar winner at the Tamworth Country Music festival held every year in NSW. I met Tom in his home town of Katherine in the Northern Territory playing at the tourist motel where I was staying with my husband and friends in 2012. My Mum, a country journalist interviewed him when he was performing at the “Man From Snowy River Festival” in Corryong some time before. Growing up on a large cattle station one of five boys his life revolved around horses, dogs, music and all things country.
His lyrics echo the stories of so many who call Australia home – that great dividing line where the city ends and bush begins. As a young man while out in the mustering camps, Tom would try to hone up his playing skills. Obviously, a combination of perseverance and talent, came together in the 2004 release of his first album Smack Bang providing insights into life in the territory. He has gone on to win, the prestigious “Australian Independent Artist of the Year” at the 2018 Southern Stars Australian Independent Country Music Awards in Tamworth, NSW.
Tom also knows about resilience and having to reinvent one’s self when one door closes and take on a new venture which was to be the Katherine Outback Experience after his livelihood disappeared due to a downturn in the pastoral industry because of the Australian Government’s ban on live export of cattle in 2011.
Tom and his partner Annabel embarked on a whirlwind tour across Australia performing at small towns including Mansfield in Victoria(slide show above) and big cities such as Melbourne, earlier this year as part of his “Speak Up” tour. This tour was a result of the “Speak Up” single duet with Sara Storer that Tom penned in memory of Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett who at 14 took her own life after being bullied. This had a huge impact on Tom, a parent himself, who knew Dolly as a part of his local community. The song and the video clip was possible thanks to the generous support of several musicians who kindly donated their time and studios with 100 per cent of all proceeds and royalties from the song going to ‘Dolly’s Dream’. The Dolly’s Dream Foundation has been established by family and friends to help raise awareness about bullying and get more educational programs into schools. As part of this awareness program, Tom, arranged school visits and media interviews to spread the word about Dolly’s Dream while on the road with his “Speak Up” Tour.
Tom is the real deal when it comes to his work ethic and ability to connect to so many people through his horsemanship skills, working dogs’ display and undisputed musical talent. Watching him in action, it is wonderful to see how he can get the young kids up and dancing. His passion for sharing Dolly’s story is evident and a positive part of her legacy. Check out the two websites below to find out more about Tom Curtain’s music, his Katherine Outback Experience show and supporting Dolly’s Dream.
As school returns for another term and the holiday makers disappear, the car spaces return outside the local supermarket and a sense of normality is resumed. Some may have gone home earlier due to the extreme heat wave conditions and fire activity close to popular camping areas. Last week our weather station was recording outside temperatures in the high 30s with some days hitting almost 44 degrees Celsius which is unusual for this part of the world. But to be honest, what is normal these days? Regardless of your thoughts on climate change, there is no doubt our weather patterns are changing.
Any sign of green grass has been replaced with an extremely dry landscape which adds to the risk of fire with the long, brittle grasses scorched by the blazing sun.
February 7, 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday which was one of the darkest days in Victoria’s history and changed how as a community we dealt with the dangers of bush fire. ABC TV aired a documentary this week “The Aftermath: Beyond Black Saturday” stories of survivors and their struggles. Despite the horrors and heartbreak, that will always stay with individuals, there are the stories of hope and love; and lives rebuilt which pay testament to the ability of the human spirit to overcome. https://iview.abc.net.au/show/aftermath-beyond-black-saturday
Although I was not directly involved in the 2009 bushfires which during January and February destroyed many parts of Victoria, it was heart-breaking to hear of the 173 deaths, thousands of homes and other buildings lost, and the 400,000 hectares that were burnt (cfa.vic.gov website).
The scale of the tragedy saw more than 78 Victorian communities directly affected. The anniversary on February 7, marks the devastation of several towns including Marysville, Kinglake, Kinglake West, Narbethong, Flowerdale and Strathewen. The Country Fire Authority (CFA) ultised more than 19,000 members in frontline firefighting, incident management and support behind the scenes (cfa.vic.gov website). For a more detailed account of the fires it is worth visiting the CFA website to understand fully what these firefighters were up against on the day. Hopefully many lessons have been learnt from that event to prepare us much better 10 years on. https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/about/black-saturday
Our move to the country has made us think more about being fire-prepared and to realise the real possibilities of a fire. The recent hot weather makes one nervous, especially when surrounded by dry, grass. But we are fortunate to have good neighbours who help out and keep others in the loop if there is a problem. We also have three CFA brigades reasonably close by. The former owners of our property were smart in setting up a sprinkler system around the house which pumps water up from our dam.
This past week has seen us concerned about friends who live at Grantville, near Western Port Bay, in Victoria due to a fire that got out of control in a nature reserve. For a week now, they have been observing a watch and act advice. While they have been relatively safe, it has been unnerving for them. Transport yourself to far-north Queensland and I have another friend who has been struggling with the impact of flooding with a record 1000mls over one week. Talk about extremes. Yesterday, we received 25mls in one hour and yet the nearby township only 20 minutes away got zilch.
Apart from being immersed in the weather conditions, my husband and I are always amazed at the wildlife and birds that live here. His discovery of a metre-long snake skin makes me not keen to meet the former occupant! I am finding the odd dead frog indoors who has sadly succumbed to being dried out because of the hot weather. Before it rains, I often find large, sugar ants busily running around on my front porch.
The extreme heatwave is hard on native birds, especially the magpies. The young ones take a while to work out that the silver tray is full of water just for them. We have also been watching a family of Willy Wagtails in their tiny, mud-built nest in the oak tree. Every time, I walked past the tree I would get dive-bombed by mummy bird to warn me off going near her three little babies. Today, we noticed that there is only one left in the nest.
From small palm-sized birds to majestic giants, we happened to come across a pair of wedge tail eagles in a nearby paddock last week. As we were driving past, I thought they were perched on a fallen log. We turned the car to go back for a closer look and found it was a dead sheep they were standing on (I imagine the sheep had died of natural causes). I was too slow to get a decent photo but they were magnificent to see. Several days later, while we at home enjoying a coffee outside, we spotted what we think is the same pair soaring across our paddock and perching in the dead gum tree. It was incredible to watch the smaller birds trying to scare them off. I also warned Friskie my cat to keep well away or he would end up as a tasty snack!
So life in the country is anything but dull; and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Several of my good intentions never materialised including a blog post to herald the start of summer on December 1. This was due to the busyness of my life before Christmas. I can’t blame it on Yuletide preparations. I come from a small family with members scattered across Australia, and Christmas tends to be low-key. My husband has a married brother with two adult children living near London, in England. We spent Christmas with them in 2015, followed by New Year’s Eve in Vienna, in Austria. It was such a special time because we don’t get to see each other very often being so far away. But thankfully the internet and cheap overseas call rates helps us stay in touch.
Some members back home avoid Christmas all together which is fine by us. Bolly (my husband) and I were once again invited to join friends in town for Christmas lunch with their extended family. This year there was 12 of us compared to 16 last year. I got out of cooking again! The only problem with this is I don’t have any left overs for our traditional Boxing Day picnic outing. Never mind, we made do with pizza and beer at Wrong Side Brewing at Jamieson on a hot summer’s day.
The end of the year was extremely busy with our local agricultural show on the 17th November involving lots of work beforehand and after. Took me the secretary, two weeks to recover! The hard work of all the committee obviously paid off, not only were we blessed with a beautiful late spring day, but our gate takings were the best ever in several years and everyone commented on a great atmosphere enjoyed by young and old alike. Of course, behind the scenes we can see areas that need to be streamlined before next year which will be our 130th show. Our next event is the annual campdraft in March. This has evolved from mustering cattle into one of the fastest growing equestrian sports in Australia.
I was also trying to keep on top of my studies. In lieu of doing a community development placement I was allowed to do a project on my involvement with the Friends of Venilale group and my return trip to East Timor in September. This country has a special place in my heart and I now have several Timorese friends on Facebook. The local Friends’ group continues to meet monthly. Fundraising efforts in 2018 included a stall four times per year at the annual bush market, the ridgeline walk across several local farms, special guest talks, a trivia night, a book launch and a film afternoon. Despite being time poor, I managed to produce a 1500 word essay and an audio-visual presentation. In early December I started a new study period doing an elective unit “Drugs in Society” which is proving most interesting. End of February, I will commence my final core unit for my sustainability major. This will leave me with two more electives to complete and hopefully my double degree before the end of the year!
November was also a time to commemorate the contribution of our service men and women 100 years later at our local Remembrance Day Service on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour. This was preceded by a procession of those who were returned servicemen and women, and those who proudly marched wearing medals passed down through their families. My husband wore his grandfather’s World War One service medals for the first time. It is a real community event with young people involved in the service.
As 2018 drew to a close, temperatures began to climb into the high 30s and even 40 degrees Celsius on a couple of days. The nearby hills have lost their green tinge by becoming brown in the hot sun. Our paddocks look wave-like as the long, dried golden grass moves in the breeze. Our fire warning ratings have hovered between high (blue) and very high (orange) this week. The weather has been unsettled over the Christmas and New Year period with some heavy rainfalls followed by high humidity. During the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, we were surrounded by constant storms with lightening and thunder. Rambo my cat tough by name not nature, hid under the bed all afternoon. We received a phone call from a neighbour to alert us to a nearby grass fire at the end of our road. I checked out the emergency services’ website, to find there was another incident of a small fire two roads away. But both were under control. Early evening we learn that another neighbour has a tree on fire on his property which was also dealt with quickly. All three were caused by lightening strikes! We need to revisit our fire plan and be sure that we are prepared in an emergency.
We enjoyed a quiet New Year’s Eve at home with just the two of us. I made a special dinner including wine trifle for dessert. We had an early night so we could get up early to drive to Melbourne and celebrate New Year’s Day with my Sri Lankan friend and her family. It is a annual lunch with loads of traditional Sri Lankan food, drinks and even dancing to work it off! We love catching up with my friend who was a former employee of mine. Bolly and I limit our alcohol consumption so we can make the three-hour trip back home. As much as we love visiting our friends and family in the city, we are always keen to get back to our country haven.
As normality returns to our lives, it is time to prepare for the coming year and setting goals so our time doesn’t get squandered. Just before Christmas we invested in solar panels for our north facing roof of our house. It will take about four years to start to recoup our money but at least we are doing our bit for the environment. I follow the tracker for our energy provider and notice less usage when the solar panels are operating during the day. Other jobs include finishing painting the outside doors and windows. We have two new homes being built nearby so we are going to do a huge tree planting along our fence line. Today sees a change of neighbours directly behind us, who no doubt will want to make their mark on a new property acquisition. Life is full of changes and sometimes we just have to embrace them! While Christmas is behind us, or until the Christmas tree and decorations come down, I thought I would include the video below as a reminder of striving for peace and harmony throughout the world in 2019. May we all find joy and personal satisfaction in the coming months.