It was all yellow

There is a lightness in the air finally – mostly wattle pollen from western Victoria if the strength of the wind gusts is to be believed. Some hardy blooms are pushing through, which is encouraging after the frosts we’ve had. I’m thinking of starting a hashtag #isthisdead? and taking photos of all the sticks that remain after everything froze a few times, including my lovely blue hydrangeas. I’m hoping they’ll return, but right now the bush looks pretty dead. Same with nearly all the succulents in the cat run, although given these are all plants that came with the place, I’m trusting they’ve survived frosts here before and will return from their burned brownness in spring. So the daffodils, wattle and jonquils are gratefully received!

There have been a few weekend projects going on at the moment – weeding garden beds (seems the weeds don’t mind frost), cleaning out pony paddocks (Hugo very neatly leaves it all in piles to be collected), pruning fruit trees and trying to protect the birdlife from our cats.

On this last point – I would have thought the cat run was a reasonably good defence for the native birdlife. Best of both worlds – the cats still get to spend time outside pretending to be panthers, but don’t have the run of the place to actually get near any prey. I did however underestimate the size of birds’ brains. We covered the cat run in chicken wire, which is what we had plenty of, and is obviously plenty small enough gauge to keep the cats in, but not, as it turns out, to keep teeny finches out. Dot has been averaging a kill every couple of weeks of these lovely teeny green-black birds, with red masks (bird watchers, feel free to enlighten me!), that are tiny enough to flit through the wire, and then become panicked and trapped once they realise the mistake they’ve made. Dot brings them inside, chirruping proudly and always bewildered at the horrified reaction she garners.

So I decided to set up a bird deterrent inside the cat run (since the cats themselves apparently aren’t deterrent enough). Bird tape is basically shiny holographic wrapping paper and given that we (like most Gen Xers) have spindles and spindles of blank CDs, for all the mix discs we suddenly didn’t make when digital music swept all before it, I decided to use their shiny properties instead. I made a daisy chain of blank discs that will hopefully sparkle in a threatening manner and keep the birds out of the run – or confuse them enough to stay away. Two weeks in and Dot is nought from nought, so obviously these are millenial birds.

 

We also have had a go at pruning our wild and woolly fruit trees. The apple tree was at least 15 foot tall and leaned over the bungalow, cheerfully dropping apple bombs onto the roof in the middle of the night. This required a chainsaw prune as it is a very established big tree, so it was really more of a chopdown rather than a trim.

The stone fruit trees were not as tall, but were leggy and out of control and had suffered in the wind storms. We considered getting in a professional to do it for the first time and then following their lead (like getting your eyebrows waxed professionally and then just copying their lines over and over), however we thought this might be overcapitalising in this first year. It’s obvious they all had been pruned properly at some point, but now branches shot out from the old stumps at all angles, branches criss-crossed each other in all directions, including directly down. A bit of research reassured us that we couldn’t hurt them too much, after wading through all the technicalities of laterals and feathers and terminal buds. (A good resource we found was on the Flemings website.)

The basic principles are – winter pruning is to promote growth, summer pruning inhibits it. Open up the interior of the tree so that sunlight can penetrate into all branches, and keep the tree at a height where you can reach the fruit (seems obvious!). Remove branches that cross others, that are broken or drooping, and take everything back to a couple of buds. Given the state of our trees, this first year was a bit of an experiment in what damage we can inflict on the trees without hurting them, and it will take us a few seasons to get them right, but they’re greatly improved already. Toolswise, I can definitely recommend borrowing the good secateurs and trimmers from Mum (she uses Fiskars – they make short work of the sinewy branches!).

And now we wait for the blossoms!

For those following at home, my last post about Glen Mist (my brother’s cantankerous spirit animal apparently) garnered a flurry of reminiscences and a social media success story. After posting a link to the previous blog post on the Halvorsen Club’s Facebook page, in a matter of mere hours, Glen Mist was located – renovated and much loved on the Gippsland Lakes. The new owners were delighted to find out more about her history and a summertime reunion is on the cards! 

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What’s in a name?

Is there anywhere more golden in your memories than childhood holidays? Anything more longed for as the tedious school year crawled to a close? Songs are written about them, photo albums dedicated to them, and many a family get-together is spent laughing over stories that begin with ‘remember when…?’

There is something special about having a regular haunt for those holidays too – camping at Rosebud, your apartment at Noosa, taking the caravan to Lakes Entrance. For my family that place was Lake Eildon – more specifically an old wooden cruiser moored at Anderson Harbour. Her name was Glen Mist.

My parents and their best friends had been searching for the perfect holiday solution for their young families. My Dad and his mate were into anything with an engine and were keen self-taught water skiers (before You-Tube tutorials were a thing) and imagined a waterside block of land, perhaps a ski club campground, but Lake Eildon’s notoriously moveable shoreline made this property hunt a bit tricky. Houseboats looked promising, until the building and insurance costs proved similar to an actual house, and it was starting to look like a lost cause, until they found the Glen Mist advertised.

Built sometime in the 1940s, Glen Mist had been a patrol boat in WWII, which I told absolutely everyone about.  I imagined where the guns had been and what derring do she had seen in her time. (She had not been within cooee of any active service – officially, but they always keep details like that secret, don’t they?) By the time our families walked on board, she was more than 30 years old, stripped of her military history and painted mission brown inside.

Life in a cruiser is all maritime romance and inconvenience. While houseboats are basically floating caravans, with no hydrodynamics – they are equally ungainly travelling sideways, forwards or backwards in the water – cruisers are made to sail, and you never forget you’re on a boat. Glen Mist in particular never let you forget that she was no simple, push-button piece of machinery. She required coaxing and wheedling and the toolbox to always be on hand.

She was powered by two huge Chrysler engines that lived under couches in the central living area. There were plenty of times that we were corralled up one end of the boat, as the cushions and floorboards were pulled up to access the dark, oil-stained, yawning engine cavity. Her innermost workings were fascinating to us kids – pilot lights for the fridge, the howling toilet, the monstrous batteries that powered the capricious flickering lights, and the regular visits to both the poo barge (oh how we giggled) and the fuel barge (which was usually an occasion of Barney Banana icecreams for everyone). Her propeller and algae covered hull were things of nightmares, although that may be due to me being traumatised by watching the shipwreck scene in  The Black Stallion at a formative age.

Each summer, we’d leave home early on Boxing Day and head to the lake to bring Glen Mist out of hibernation. She’d be all tarped up tightly, and as Dad unfurled the covers for the first time in months my arachnophobia was seeded, as countless huntsmen would rush from their hiding places and be flicked overboard at which point they would run across the water to the shore (sweet dreams everyone!).

It was a bucket brigade to ferry our luggage from the cars, down the steep banks to the marina and gingerly pass things across the back deck, then cover up the cars and leave them for the duration. At Christmastime, the marina roads were lined with car shaped shrouds, as people left their land lubbing vehicles behind for the summer.

Us four kids grew up on this boat – we learned to ski (although none of us ever mastered our Dad’s trick of taking off from the Glen Mist’s duckboard and gliding back onto it at the end without getting his hair wet), we learned to swim without touching the underwater trees that haunted the lake edges, and we learned to never, never take anything you cared about outside on the deck, for fear of losing it overboard. It is a testament to all of our parents that they managed to have family holidays with children ranging from newborns upwards and not actually lose any of us in the drink (although we were never allowed out on deck without lifejackets for an embarrassingly long time). The list of things that did go overboard from either the Glen Mist or during a waterskiing session includes sunglasses, diamond rings, a freshly varnished (but hitherto untested for buoyancy) handmade pair of trick skis, countless hats and the mouse from Mousetrap, during a particularly ill-advised boardgame session on the front deck.

I was quite famous in my Girls Guides patrol for actually having a practical application for the knots we were learning (yes, of course I got that badge). It was a great source of pride for me that I already knew how to tie a clove hitch (I know, how is it possible I was ever single?). As a result, it is possible I got a bit too cocky about my rope skills. I was entrusted once to tie the skiboat onto the back of the cruiser as we were moving camp, and then, joy of joys, I was allowed to steer the Glen Mist, taking pride of place on the captain’s chair. We had worked up a good pace and were merrily motoring along for quite some time before Dad astutely observed that we were missing a boat. Poor Solution was a mere dot bobbing on the horizon. We executed a slow uturn to collect the errant vessel and Dad performed an excellent Magnum PI leap into the orphaned ski boat, to bring it back alongside and tie it properly to the mothership. I was swiftly removed from my post (both as boat steerer and knot tie-er forever.)

Tom Selleck was an influence in more ways than one.

Glen Mist’s age eventually became enough of an issue that she needed repairs that could no longer be carried out on the water. Combined with the fact that our families had each built homes on a bit of acreage, which now took up the summers, the cost of a police escort for an old boat to come down the Black Spur seemed extravagant. We sold her for the cost of the mooring permit at Lake Eildon and she was replaced with a gleaming soulless houseboat before the following summer. We last heard she was somewhere on the Maribyrnong River, hopefully relieved of her mission brown interior and huntsmen. We all scavenged what souvenirs we could – barometers, chrome filters and flags, but had to leave the yellow fridge and the captain’s chair.

I always loved the imagery evoked by her name (as soon as I realised she wasn’t named after someone called Glen) – not only the misty Scottish highlands, but also our glorious summer holidays that will always be etched in our collective memories. So it seemed fitting to call our little personal glen after an emblem of childhood, summer and families and we hope that our little one (and his cousins and friends) recall this place with the same fondness. Because nostalgia – and also because we may never be able to afford holidays again.

The devolution of an Instagram post

There are lots of lovely things about winter that make up for the gasping cold mornings, the YouTube worthy slipping in mud dance in your gumboots, and the unremitting darkness. The fireplace is lovely, bonfires are basically mini adventures, the sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, set off by the layered clouds – and red wine and hot chocolate laced with Rum Chata (try it!) are basically mandatory. I was excited to discover we have lovely twin chestnut trees, which just brought to mind Judy Garland or Dean Martin waxing lyrical about roasting chestnuts while ice skating or something (I’m sketchy on the details). I do love trees that clearly mark the seasons, like these ones, or the liquid ambers or the oaks – stark branches against the sky at the moment, giving way to green fuzz in spring, dark lush leaves in summer, and all the colour and drama of autumn.

Alongside their sunny yellow autumn leaves, the chestnut trees bristled with prickly sea urchins that fell to the ground alongside the dropping foliage. My chestnut curiosity was piqued – there were so many that the ground was basically carpeted with these vicious spiky balls and I had visions of neatly bagging them up at the farm gate and becoming some kind of nut mogul via a roadside stall (nevermind our deadend road with no passing traffic, except for a guy who takes his daily constitutional along the overgrown verge and actively hides if you attempt to wave at him).

I found this delightful recipe blog, which confirmed that chestnuts are some kind of luxury gourmet ingredient that are made for lush photography and accompanying gorgeous antipasto platters.

So I donned the gardening gloves and collected the prickly balls from the ground and loaded up two white plastic buckets to begin with, confident that I’d be back for a more photogenic collection method for the next round (perhaps a gingham blanket to  gather them on, or a vintage tin bucket). Chestnuts are best left to fall to the ground before collecting, so this suited me perfectly (note – I’m not actually a fruitarian, just lazy). I used a knife to split open the spiky skin and pop out the glossy brown nuts. They look lovely and appetising at this stage, like shiny coffee beans, but you would be very wrong to get excited and try to break them open with your teeth at this stage. Very wrong. The spiky skin is the first layer, the glossy brown layer is the next one. You are not there yet.

There are a few recommended methods for getting to the actual flesh, once you have despiked the nuts. Blanching them in scalding water is suggested before roasting, to loosen the skin away from the nut, so I tried this, before carving an ‘x’ in each nut and popping them in the oven to roast. This is a dangerous task, fraught with slipping knives and impenetrable skin. I ended up using the bread knife to gently saw the ‘x’ into the shell, which actually worked well (if not quickly). Apparently once roasted, these x-shaped cuts will open up like flowers and the nuts will slide right out of their curled back skin, in a perfect golden globe of fluffy all-American Christmas movie nostalgia.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned how much we miss the Aga, but our nasty Chefmaidinghouse (the brand name has peeled off) oven is a tricky beast, whose temperature control is uncertain, and whose lighting requires a hazmat suit to prevent singed faces. So I’m not sure if it’s because I blanched too long (blanching is a very quick process that I may have overdone in the mistaken belief that more is always better) or because the oven was not hot enough but I ended up with rather a lot of unpopped nuts, or nuts that refused to let go of their flesh, and so I destroyed many many chestnuts in an attempt to get a mouthful of chestnut by gouging into them angrily with a fork. I created a delicious fluffy pile of nut crumbs, which sounds like something Heston would use as edible gravel to help you reminisce about a caravanning holiday (note, I thought of it first!).

The two buckets of chestnuts took about six hours on a Saturday to process to this stage, and yielded two Tupperware containers of nut fluff. The nut mogul lyfe has not chosen me yet, but there is always next season.

 

Baby it’s cold outside

It’s the middle of winter but there has been no rain. We ran out of water the other evening. Luckily, this house has the unusual set up of tank water, with the added bonus of mains water (perfect for non-committal types like us). So running out of water is quickly resolved by turning on the big tap and filling the tank up from town water. Another one of those ‘Well that’s odd’ discoveries in this place. So you feel all the panic of the choking, coughing tap, and all the hassle of having the toddler in a half full bath, while you go out into the cold and turn the lever to start the mains water rushing into the tank, and having to remember to turn it off in an hour or so, or pay for water to run out through the overflow.

The dry, clear cold weather is certainly pretty and the days are gorgeously sharp and sunny, but the minute the sun dips behind the treeline, the dew starts to fall and your socks start to feel thin and mean in your boots.

The list of things to do therefore has changed to more indoor things, or things that make our little cedar shack a bit more cosy for winter. We were excited to try out the fireplace for the first time one weekend, and as we fired it up (haha) we heard the disconcerting sound of the fan churning through years of neglect, followed by the loungeroom filling with smoke. We battled with it for a short while, before conceding defeat and opening the windows to the freezing air. It took a week for the house to lose the smokehouse smell (and a few bottles of Febreeze) so we found a chimney sweep (they still exist) to come out and service it. Disappointingly, he was a grown man who did not sing charming Mary Poppins songs, but he made up for it by making our fireplace roar and crackle, the fan run smoothly after being cleaned of years of soot, and resealing the door.

There’s not enough kindling in the world though to make lighting a fire on a weeknight a worthwhile exercise if you actually want to spend time in the loungeroom and not tucked up in bed while icicles form on the ceiling fan, so we also had a split system installed. This was partially to replace the gas heater that we had, which was about as reliable as the fireplace. We’d done some Googling to find out how much it would cost to fix or replace this heater, as it was a touch temperamental and would only light after much pilot light frustration and dramatic gas hissing and popping. The internet revealed that you couldn’t buy these heaters anymore as they’re illegal, and as a result no one would service them. There are plenty of sad stories about why they’re illegal, and totally unsafe, particularly in small bedrooms (thankfully ours was in the open lounge), but is a good reminder for anyone with an oldish house with ageing appliances – unflued gas heaters are really quite dangerous, particularly as they get old, so get them checked or replaced!

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as having a split system installed, as the electrician took one look at our switchboard and said he couldn’t touch it without upgrading it – and fair enough too, we didn’t even have safety switches apparently (so all that toaster knife poking we’d been doing was quite risky – joke) This added considerably to the bill, but now we have lovely shiny safety switches and can safely bathe with the hair dryer (another joke), but better still – our heavenly split system is installed and heats the house beautifully and quickly for those late weeknights and early mornings, and better yet – will cool the place in summer, even with those north west facing windows!

The animals are coping reasonably well with the cold, and of course we help them as best we can. Even in south eastern Australia, it never gets properly European or Canadian cold, and so the horses and the sheep can cope quite well without too much help. Still, the warmer you can keep them, the more you save in feed, and the easier I can sleep at night knowing that everyone is tucked up nicely. Hugo has grown a ludicrous winter coat and resembles a little orange highland cow, with flowing beard and fetlocks, so is still naked, which is fine in this dry cold weather (if it was windy and rainy I’d rug him just for comfort’s sake). 

The two older ladies are both rugged, and definitely appreciate it, although they are at different ends of the breed spectrum. Bell’s winter coat is not that impressive and as a part Arab she is not a particularly fat horse, so she is having everything thrown at her in terms of feed, as well as a couple of layers of rugs. Sunny, meanwhile, as a Clydesdale is turning out to be more of a big pony to manage than we would have thought. Expecting a big, aged horse to need a diet at least as large as little Bell’s turned out to be an overestimation, particularly taking into account that this crisp winter weather is the perfect climate for sugary green winter growth. According to our farrier, there have been plenty of surprise founder cases this winter thanks to the bright clear days and frosty nights, and Sunny had a few days of lameness while we adjusted her diet in a hurry. Luckily it didn’t amount to much more than a few days of mild discomfort, and tells us we’ll have to be careful when spring shoots through – she and Hugo might be sharing the Jenny Craig paddock.

Another thing to watch in winter for all the animals is their water intake. This morning all the troughs had a crackling layer of ice across them and no one feels much like drinking ice water in this cold, however this puts the horses in particular in danger of impaction colic (too much dry food in their digestive system). There are a few things you can do to mitigate this risk – soaking hay or adding water to their feed, a bit of molasses warm water to tempt them to drink and generally keeping an eye on their water intake is helpful.

Hot feeds tonight for the ponies #coldnight #horsesofinstagram

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Dave has done one outside job though this month. We went tree shopping for something beautiful to plant for Ali and ended up Jindivick Country Gardener. They had a great variety of autumn colour and we had a somewhat hilarious conversation about what kind of tree we wanted – Dave explained what it was for and was met with a shocked look. ‘You’re not planting it in a paddock are you?’ and apparently this discounted a lot of the trees we were looking at (who knew some trees were not paddock trees?!) We ended up with a beautiful liquid amber, which will have lovely colour each autumn and will also be quite at home in a paddock, beside the chestnut trees and the winter creek.

He also bought this beautiful steel sign as a surprise and it’s absolutely perfect, even down to the kookaburra in the corner. Ali still has native bird of one sort or another looking over her each day, including our resident kookaburra family. The sign and the tree have been installed in her paddock, where she was laid to rest.

So we are definitely using this season as a chance to regroup and plan for the coming spring – and also enjoying the cosiness of the fireplace now that the smoke goes up the chimney.

Wiping those weepin’ eyes

I had forgotten that horses grind their teeth when they’re suffering. It came flooding back as we knelt next to Ali on Thursday night. She was already heavily sedated, but it was barely taking the edge off. She tried to raise her head as she heard us approach, and managed to briefly, along with a nicker of recognition, but that was it. She was back in herself and her pain. After nearly 23 years without bothering the vet with illness (a few injuries barely count), her first bout of colic was incomprehensibly shocking both to her, and to us. I was desperate not to lose her like this, but I was desperate for her pain to stop immediately and as her heartrate continued to increase even after the painkiller was administered, only one of those things was an option. She had no fight left and given the amount of fight I know she has, there was no choice to make. She went quietly with our soft words in her ears – she had raged against the dying of the light, and now she was conceding. Possibly for the first time in her life. The light had gone from the most alive creature I have ever known.

Back when I was 19, I spent more on Ali than I did on my first car (To be fair, dollar for dollar, Ali had more horsepower.) After I had lost Kohuna, who was the one who taught me about the teeth grinding, I had leased his mum for a couple of years. Gemini was a typical Arabian mare – pretty, tough and smart and for better or worse I was smitten with the breed. I saved and saved my paltry supermarket income, while scouring Horse Deals and finally Curringa Mustang Sally popped up, an Anglo yearling out of an Anglo mare by a purebred stallion. Back in the olden days, you had to phone up and ask for a VHS tape to be put in the post – how did we ever buy anything? In the video, the breeder rattled an icecream container to razz her up (and stop her inspecting the camera at point blank range), and she sprang into the lightest most expressive trot I’d ever seen. I went to see her on the basis of that trot, but really, it was a foregone conclusion. She was coming home with me.

The Horse Deals photo.

The vet check was glowing (I think she enjoyed the attention) and she walked confidently onto the float, even though she’d only ever been transported in a truck. She may have had many many quirks and phobias, but I will always be grateful for how perfectly she always loaded and travelled. (Even if she shouted embarrassingly when I went in to pay at the petrol station as if I was leaving an infant in the car and someone needed to alert the authorities.)

‘This filly’s temperament is excellent’

My non horsey neighbour rushed over to see me the morning after I’d installed her in my paddock, exclaiming over how she carried herself: ‘You can tell she’s a purebred!’ She accepted all praise like this as if it was her due. She was well on her way to becoming thoroughly full of herself as a two-year old, to the point that my vet suggested I ship her off to boarding school a few months early to give her brain something to do. As predicted, she was quick to train and enjoyed having a job and also enjoyed having someone to pit her wits against.

As a rider, Ali was a puzzle for life. I grew to know her so well that I could tell what sort of ride I was going to have from the way her hooves hit the ground in the first two strides. She could be 17 hands tall, or her actual 14.3. She couldn’t bear being told twice and she didn’t abide nagging. She knew if you weren’t completely sure what you were asking for, and would make impolite suggestions about where you could take your request. She went through a teenage phase of rearing at any suggestion to go somewhere she didn’t want. I asked for help from my very clever trainer cousin who saw straight through her cheeky threats and after a perfectly timed smack between her ears as she went up, she never tried it again. And suddenly I understood that this horse needed a leader, and in that exchange we’d become partners.

She was counter intuitive to ride in so many other ways. The lighter and more hesitant your aids were, the more she’d over-react, and the more you tried to collect her and hold her back, the more she fizzed and raged. A calm, firm driving seat and open, generous hands however gave you a horse you could ride on the buckle. She taught me that there was freedom, security and control in letting go.

Our dressage record, it is fair to say, is chequered. The epitome of chestnut mare, tests on the same day usually varied by 10%, with comment on one ‘tense, disobedient’, and other ‘calm, what a lovely ride’. We once competed at Top Teams at Werribee, with the scent of lions in the air, and polo being played behind the hedges, and the thing she spooked at was the A marker at the entrance of the ring (and then proceeded to throw in a ridiculous circle of two-time changes, which are definitely uncalled for at level 4).

We have ridden on beaches, galloped up fire trails (leaving ex racehorses behind) and jumped fallen logs. When saddling up, you would have to pause every single time with the bridle in mid-air, while she indulged in a last minute lengthy, dramatic, tongue-flapping yawn, before you could slide the bit into her mouth. She gave quiet, sleepy pony rides at many family occasions, and looked hopefully over the fence towards the marquee at Lucas’s wedding, begging for some cake (or maybe hoping for a turn on the dance floor). She was a ring bearer and a bouquet eater for my wedding celebrations. She greeted Tim’s arrival with equanimity and warm breath. She greeted her feed bucket with either an approving snuffle, or a roaring, sliding gallop, depending on her mood. She trained my Dad to feed her earlier and earlier each day, with a hopeful neigh whenever he put his hand near the back door.

When the vet told me about the arthritis in her shoulder in her mid-teens, and suggested that she’d had a good life and would enjoy retirement, I was horrified. I didn’t think that anything I ever achieved with my riding would mean anything if it wasn’t with her. I started her on a regime of joint injections and various gold dust supplements to keep her running and we plodded along with our modest dreams of riding club dressage, clinics and trail rides. I’ve had coaches shout at us ‘What was that?’, ‘Make her listen!’, ‘Is your seat making her do that?’ through to ‘Don’t look so surprised – that’s perfect!’, ‘YES, boy she can move!’ and even ‘She’s much more difficult than you make her look’ (a compliment, I think?).

My riding face gives nothing away.

I no longer think that my riding is over without her. She came into work with a trainer after my maternity leave break, and to see her so calm and willing was enough. To have her in our backyard at Wilandra and then at Glen Mist was glorious and to be able to give her some friends to boss around was a lesson in the politics of mares. She was a beautiful bouncy paddock ornament for whom the word retiree never quite worked.

My darling Ali, you were my muse. Writing about you gave me my first published story. Working with you taught me various truths about myself that others might learn on a therapist’s couch. Somehow I found myself crying into your mane again at the end, but this time I was trying to offer you comfort instead of the other way around. I hope St Francis is ready for your dramatic arrival at those pearly gates. I wasn’t ready for you to leave, but I know that holding you back never worked. Rest softly my girl.

 

Pretty sure this video demonstrates her arrival at those gates.

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Rosella’s paying their respects at Ali’s tree.

60 Year Makeover

After the fall (and before the next one)

There was a snap change of seasons this weekend. A balmy 27 degree day gave way to a dramatic thunderstorm (cue hysterical Border Collie) that lasted all night. This morning dawned with a weird sickly yellow light, amid continuing thunder (no-one slept well) and perfect double rainbows, before a thunderclap heralded an icy belt of storms that rippled throughout the day. At one point we took advantage of the sunshine for a pleasant cup of tea on the verandah, before watching the familiar brilliant white clouds on menacing black background bring with them another downpour.

Playing a long game of ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf?’

So it seems like a good day to ponder where we’re at, and share our hard won wisdom of property purchasing and the ‘journey’ thus far  (perhaps this could be our audition tape for the next big reality show, The Hobby Farmer Wants a Life or something). These are the things that have made the most difference (for better or for worse) to how much like home the place feels, and given us the biggest bang for the paltry buck we have left after making the purchase.

  1.  Make sure the sellers actually move out.
    Why did no one warn us about this? (oh that’s right, apparently it’s never happened in the agent’s living memory, or the conveyancer’s, or anyone we’ve ever spoken to) Still, take it from us. Be there on settlement day so that you can at least threaten to withhold payment until the truck is out the gate. Remember that a few boxes lying around the week before settlement does not a removalist make.
    Part B of this tip: Change the locks (or in our case – put some in) the minute you finally take possession. Even though it looks like half their worldly goods still remain on the property…which leads onto the next point.
  2. Make sure they take all their rubbish with them.
    Or make sure you have willing buyers for piles of VHS tapes and corrugated iron offcuts. Oh and mattresses. Anyone? No, didn’t think so…

    The rubbish is now in neat piles at least.

  3. Painting covers a multitude of sins (like Swedish sauna level pine panelling, years of cigarette smoke discolouration, and random bits of graffiti).
    We employed an earnest painter, who reminded us of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, who did not listen at all to our colour suggestions and whose first quote made us cry a bit, but who did such an impressive job that we got excited about the undercoat.
  4. Carpet covers the rest of the sins that the painting missed.
    Much of the house was uncarpeted, with a grey chipboard standing in as flooring (it might be the next polished concrete trend, but we took the risk and covered it up for the next owners to uncover), and the carpet that was here was…well loved to say the least (ok, love is the wrong word). It’s been on the rubbish pile for four months now and looks better than when it was inside the house. New carpet, combined with the new paint gave the house an entirely new demeanor (a clean one).
  5. Pictures on the walls! It may not seem a priority when you don’t yet have a wardrobe, but finally picking up the piles of framed pictures stacked against the wall and putting them up has instantly made the house more ‘ours’. Not to mention tidied the place up by removing at least some of the random piles of stuff lying around. Plus I think our pictures are an improvement on the dogs playing pool print that was previously up in the kitchen (I wish I was joking).
  6. Shipping containers! If you are in desperate need of shedding (the ‘hayshed’ in the real estate advertisement was a euphemism for a haphazard pile of tin – the agent had the grace to look sheepish as he presented it), shipping containers are an economical, if heinously ugly, solution. No construction required and they’re waterproof, vermin proof and well travelled. Ours is grey and blue, and has Cosco written on it, and despite my desperate Pinteresting, is resistant to all beautification. Butted up next to the carport, it is probably the most solid structure on the property.

As we continue to learn everything the hard way, there are probably plenty more learning opportunities to be had (I’m imagining learning where not to park the cars in winter will feature) but for the minute, the house is starting to welcome us and we usually turn on the right light the first time we flick the switch.

And suffice to say, we’re looking forward to bonfire season!

Of Peach Jam and Pony Parties

Summertime, and the living is – well, not easy, but at least there is daylight to be had at each end of the day. The mowing is constant but we have employed the services of two borrowed goats, who are doing a brilliant job with the blackberries and the overgrown driveway. Milly and Molly also enjoy watermelon, making a disconcerting racket when you emerge from the house in the morning, and somersaulting at the end of their tether when you drive past them. If they were horses they would have broken their necks ten times over, but goats are apparently a bit more rugged than the other four legged grazers on the property (who wouldn’t dream of eating blackberries, but would most definitely injure themselves on the thorns somehow, if given the opportunity). 

Molly saying hi through the car window

Animal escapades this month have been confined to Hugo worrying at a soft spot in one of the first fences Dave and I put up and having a brief adventure with the grown up horses who are allowed to eat grass. He was promptly returned to his Biggest Loser paddock, where he continues to gain weight just thinking about grass (he thinks about grass a lot).

Hugo thinking about grass in his cabana 

The fruit trees on the place exploded with bounty, despite no evidence of ever having been pruned or even loved. Long, leggy branches drooped to the ground, laden with peaches, plums, pears and nectarines, and for some reason the parrots that had stripped the trees up at the parents’ place, had ignored our trees (or perhaps our dogs are more useful than we thought). 

Millions of peaches, peaches for free

We had also treated the trees with complete disinterest, assuming they’d need some work before providing any edible fruit, but one morning, out on the verandah, the air was perfumed with sweet ripe peachiness and the trees were just about begging us to relieve them of their burden. We filled laundry baskets full of the peaches and nectarines, and realised we had a very narrow window in which to process them into anything longer lasting than a summer’s evening. A very pleasant afternoon of wine drinking and peach peeling ensued, with the weather, a decent playlist and every jam jar we could find in the cupboards, and soon we had a collection of peach, vanilla and apple brandy jam, plus enough frozen peach crumble to see us through the peachless winter months. 

Jam packed afternoon 

Such is the surplus, that the dogs have taken to eating the fruit off the ground and Wally (like Hugo) is almost self-sufficient and in need of no supplementary feed, living an entirely fruitarian lifestyle. His skin should be glowing in no time.

It hasn’t all been peach scavenging and fence limbo for Hugo though. On Australia Day, we sent him off to boarding school to learn to be a useful horse – that is, pull a cart. We dropped him off with some trepidation – he was the smallest horse there by about 10 hands. He looked very forlorn as we left him in the yard with all these real harness horses looming over him and looking at him like a curiosity in a toy shop. Even the first cart I saw there had wheels up to my shoulder and when I heard his first outing might be pairing up with the Friesian/Gypsy Cob that was harnessed up to this beautiful vehicle, I couldn’t help but hope that photos would be taken (they weren’t!).

Harness horse training is an arcane activity that comes with a lot of niche trades that are becoming extremely rare and specialised – harness makers, cart builders, wheel turners, shaft fixers (I’m making a few of these up). Even as someone with years of horse experience, I found myself at sea with much of the lingo (and all of the harness fitting – there are so many straps!) and the experience of driving is totally different to riding. I thought some skills might transfer, however I found it all very foreign – but I love it. It’s a completely different sensation of the control of the horse’s movement and you can really observe them working, in rhythmic unison with the smoothly spinning wheels.

The trainer was the very definition of old-school horseman, chattering away to the horses as if they were old mates, a mere change in tone smartening up a fidgety pony who might be thinking of digging a hole where he stood. He took me for a drive up the highway with one of his big horses, never touching the horse’s mouth but effortlessly controlling direction and speed with a few clear and obvious commands – halt, back, gee-off for right, and come to me for left. It seemed impossible that Hugo could pick all this up in a few weeks. His pony smarts were going to hold him in good stead, however, and he seemed to turn some of his brain to the work, instead of plotting to get closer to any type of food.

After his first week and a half away, I rang to check on his progress only to be told he’d tried a few pony tricks already – like running backwards, throwing in tiny laughable rears and (my personal favourite), lying down in the shafts when it all became a bit hard. But by the time we saw him a couple of weeks later, he was as good as the big horses I’d seen. The small one was scooped up for a ride on the trainer’s lap (which amused him no end) and off they trundled companionably as if Hugo had always had small laughing children in a cart behind him.

The little one’s first drive (the little person that is, not the little horse)

My stated goal had been to surprise my Dad with transport back from the winery near our house, where he was having his birthday party, but the timeline had seemed rather tight for a green pony to be out on the roads and in public, so to speak. By the time I took him home four weeks later, with four weeks until the party, it seemed that I had more to learn than Hugo did. Initially there were a few embarrassing sessions of giving up and just long-reining him, when I couldn’t make sense of hooking the cart on (I wasn’t trying to put it before the horse, I swear!), and I was loathe to ring the trainer and admit defeat just yet, so I finally watched a few ‘harnessing horses for idiots’ videos on Youtube and off we went.

Home James and don’t spare the pony

In the end, Operation Surprise Party Transport was a success. Happy birthday Dad, and thanks Hugo for humouring my attempts at driving (after possibly more Chardonnay at lunch than was exactly ideal). And thanks Cannibal Creek Winery for being such a brilliant local – we are lucky indeed to count them as neighbours! Next step in Hugo’s training – learning to be our full time designated driver to the cellar door and back!