So just to keep y’all in the picture, and because there’s a bit of history here already (two years, to be precise) I’m thinking I’ll do one front-story, so to speak, then one back-story. Alternating. Take it in turns you guys. I know you want to be told, all you stories. But stand in line yeah?
In the beginning was the drive.
It had fencing. Only kind-of-fencing, and only of the perimeter variety but yes, the small, square pocket-handkerchief of farmland was defined. It also had a gate. Actually, I loved the gate. I still do. The gate feels real.
But in terms of infrastructure, that was it. There was also a creek, a couple of springs, a gnarled and ancient orchard, a few dozen assorted trees (including a hundred-year old poplar with wedgetail eagle nest) and maybe twenty different species of grass, both native and exotic. I wanted to do things with the grasses and the water, so that was where it began. Fences, grass, water.
And there was something else it had. Feel. During our years-long site hunt, when agents asked for my criteria, I’d tell them that as well as water, grass, a hill to climb and more than one way out, I wanted pretty. Place had to feel good. They’d go politely cross-eyed at that. Like, huh? I recalled when I was buying a car, starting with the sunroof. They were like, uh, lady, you can’t start there. But that was the truth. Feel was it. And as we explored the countryside, in a five-hour radius around Sydney, it became increasingly apparent that this was a real consideration.
The typical arc of those countless road trips ran from buoyant expectation through, oh this is nice, to the dirt road of despair where the land went from healthy and welcoming to miserable, the trees became thrifty and the properties were marked by dead vehicles, underfed animals and a generous strewing of rusted junk. It’s heartbreaking, because the air smells of broken dreams. But it’s impossible not to think, ice. This is ice country. Those are places you do not want to be.
So yes. Feel matters. And this place, slung in a high, gentle tablelands valley, had it. But before you can even start to farm you need somewhere to stay. Somewhere to sleep. I’d done a lot of swagging, desert trips mainly but also bush trips, and loved it. So this question of what does it take to survive was perhaps less daunting than it should have been. Survival? Pah. How hard can it be?
But yes, you need shelter, and you need tea. So that meant water – usable, drinkable water. And water, out there and absent what is known as “town supply”, requires roof. It also means tanks, which is to say money, a lot of. You need electricity which, in the absence of poles and wires, also requires roof, and batteries. Batteries are expensive. Like, very. You need a dunny, which means a composting system. And before you can get any of that onto a piece of largely untrodden ground you need a driveway.
Before you get a driveway, you have to know where it needs to go. Where on the site do you want to build? Where do you want to dwell?
It’s not a simple question. I was mindful of the story about Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Falling Water house. The Great Man visited his clients’ romantic rural site at Bear Run in the Appalachians, took one look at the couple’s favourite picnic spot atop the little waterfall and decided to build there. They were reluctant, since building there meant an end to picnicking. (Also, it turned out to mean the house was irredeemably damp and permanently uninhabitable so is now a museum). But the Great Man was obdurate. He knew it would make his name. And it did.
So the build spot is not necessarily the be-spot. And in the future there might be writing huts, bath houses or summer follies to locate. But, a decision had to be made, quickly. The highest point of the site, with a gentle view down the long, north-stretching valley, was where I’d expected to build. But it was very close to the northern boundary, and when I walked around the site it felt weird facing into the neighbouring property. Locals said I should build near the orchard, down low and protected from wind where, apparently, the old house had sat long, long ago. But as I wandered, I found a place on the southern boundary, halfway along, facing north across the farm. It meant the drive had to be a good 600m or so. But it felt right.
So that was where I began. How do you get a driveway, though? What you do, apparently, is call Pat. (Pretty much half the blokes in this part of the country are called Pat, and half the rest are called Matt. So if you forget anyone’s name, fudging the difference between the two – Ppppmmmmattt – is likely to get you mostly there.)
Pat’s pretty busy. I guess, in the country, any “genius with a bulldozer” (this in itself was a whole new concept for me) is likely to be sought-after. But six weeks later Pat arrived. I asked him if he wanted a drawing to work from. He said no, just walk me through it. So, while his digging machine sat grazing the top paddock, we walked a curving line. Wherever I said “so, a creek crossing here,” or “running close along the boundary there” Pat dropped a branch or a rock to mark the spot.
Three weeks later, when I returned, heart in mouth, feeling sure (after no communication) it’d be either in the wrong place or not there at all, there it was. A perfect, snaking gravel drive that lay upon the contours of the land like it had been there all its life. The same colour as the local roads and not too different from the paddocks. Honestly. All alone in the middle of winter I jumped for joy. And as I drove down it for the first time, hearing the crunch of gravel under the tyres, I felt like I’d always wanted a driveway of exactly this sort and just never known it. Now, at last, we could start getting shit done. In the beginning was the drive…