Old houses are pretty. They are also very, very cold and require the wearing of gloves to bed. The minty green cottage was adorable. There was not a straight wall or level floor in the place. The verandah was the perfect spot to soak up the afternoon rays. But once the sun went down, the house was freezing.
The first night I burrowed under two bedrooms worth of blankets and quilts and was still cold. “Pretend you’re in an ice hotel in Sweden,” I thought, which was distracting for about 30 seconds until the sound of my own teeth chattering broke through the reverie. The second night I made a cocoon and swaddled myself in a huge throw before piling on the bedding again. That worked better, but it was never exactly balmy.
Sheep are impossible to photograph. On our drive through a corner of the Riverina we saw many sheep. Some were like woolly lions with soft, bulky fleeces, making the others with shorter fleeces look as though they’d forgotten to get dressed.
Twice we stopped the car so that I could take a photo. I walked towards the fence line slowly and quietly, but each time those woolly bottomed alarmists turned and ran before I’d even stepped off the road.
There was a federation style house that I’d been stalking online and just had to go and see. Perhaps, I thought, it could help me make the transition from one life to another. Perhaps I could live there part of the time while I stepped from one career path to the next.
But when I walked in, despite its 12-foot ceilings and beautiful doors and floorboards, I knew I would never live there. It wasn’t just that it needed renovation. It was the lack of light and warmth. The house was facing the wrong way.
I currently live in a house that faces the wrong way, but I chose to overlook that when I bought it. I was charmed by the quirky layout, the architect’s signature style and the gorgeous view. But at the height of summer, when I’m forced to sleep on the lounge room floor to escape the heat, and for all of June to August, when being cold is inevitable, I give myself a stern talking-to about falling for a south-west facing house.
As much as this trip was an escape from lockdown and a chance to visit an old friend, it was also a fact-finding mission. The older I get, the more I yearn for the villagey life of my childhood or the small-town camaraderie that my parents discovered in retirement.
They moved to a place that happened to have all the right ingredients for a fulfilling life: a big enough population but not too big, interesting activities to get involved in, beautiful country and affordable houses (alas, not any more).
Every day, my dad walked down the road for a coffee, a paper and a chat. Many people knew him by name, some people just knew him as the man with the hat, but always there was acknowledgement and a friendly exchange. That’s what I’m looking for, I think, rather than the anonymity of suburban life.
I thought I had my next move pretty well planned, but when bushfires destroyed 58 per cent of the Bega Valley this summer and burned for 74 days in the Shoalhaven, I decided to widen my search. No point moving to paradise if you can’t relax. So this was, in part, a try before you buy expedition.
I’ve talked before about listening to your gut, but on this trip it was still surprising how quickly places revealed themselves. In one town there was an instant “Ah!” of recognition and comfort, while another produced mixed feelings. Sometimes it was the way a town sat in the landscape that gave it the wrong atmosphere.
One hamlet, despite its grand Edwardian pub and gleaming Art Deco memorial hall, couldn’t shake its sleepiness. It was trying so hard to attract visitors, but no amount of street beautification seemed to work. It is, though, possibly the only place in Australia with a window display like this. Yes, that is a petrol bowser behind the tea table.
It was so wonderful to be out and about, to watch sheep paddocks and ploughed fields roll by. I forgot to be anxious. Sitting in the sun, out on the verandah on that first afternoon, I experienced one of those rare but lovely feelings of being at peace.
COVID world still existed, though. Many shops and cafes were shut or required us to queue and wait our turn. Our temperature was checked when we went out for dinner.
On the drive home, we stopped at Jugiong in the hope of finding lunch but instead found that half of Victoria had stopped there too, so we hopped back into the car and kept going. Luckily, we had chocolate-covered freeze-dried strawberries from the Junee chocolate factory with us. (A highly recommended snack.)
We’re planning to visit the Hilltops region next, including the appealingly named village of Wombat. After that, there’s more of the Riverina to explore. And let’s not forget the Snowy Valleys. Then I might start heading north for a look-see. Which road to take? I haven’t decided yet.