A hint of gentrification had crept in since my last visit to Bermagui. An artisanal bakery had appeared. At the wharf I found a shop selling trousers that cost nearly $300. Two blocks back from the harbour an old country cottage had been knocked down and replaced by an architectural box, beautiful and shiny but out of place. For now, anyway. “You’re way ahead of the game, mate,” I thought as I looked at that house, “but you’re right: change is coming.” I hope they keep some of the old Bermie charm when that change comes.
I quite enjoy motel kitsch: chipped laminate furniture, a nylon pastel bedspread and bath towels fanned like serviettes in a Thai restaurant. The motel I stayed in was a cut above the rest, though, because they’d bothered to cover up the breeze block walls and paint the room. Bare breeze block depresses the hell out of me, so I was glad. I hunkered down for the night, drank multiple cups of tea and wrote a lot of things down. When life throws a wobbly, I find writing things down immensely soothing. It helps to get things out of your head. Work Stress and Anxiety tried to push their way in, but I beat them back with pen and paper.
When I woke up the next morning Bermie was blue and shining all over again. I had no idea what the time was: my phone was dead, there was no clock in the room and the info ribbon on every TV channel said it was 4.56. Clearly that was wrong, because the sun was up and people were out walking dogs and saying hello to each other. The dogs were barking at pelicans in the harbour, who took no notice and hung around patiently in case anyone was having fish for brekky. Little Black Car and I headed off to Cobargo.
Cobargo’s been my escape fantasy destination for a while. Do you have those? When life gets too busy I start planning an alternative one in Cobargo. Most recently I’ve been saying I’ll buy a block of land, build a straw bale house, keep goats and get a Labrador. This is pure fantasy on so many levels. For a start, I have no building skills. And my sister tells me that male goats smell awful because they wee on their own beards. (True goat fact. Got to admire the level of skill involved in that.)
The houses in Cobargo and nearby Quaama are so quaint. I almost bought one a couple of years ago. It was old and characterful. The kitchen benchtop was made of a huge slab of polished tree trunk, so tactile that you just had to run your hand over it. The back garden sloped down to a duck pond. “How will I ever keep the Labrador out of the duckpond?” I thought. (I didn’t have a Labrador; I was just playing out the fantasy in my head.) The house was cheap and I wanted it, but I knew in my heart that it was too far from the points of my compass—Canberra, Sydney and the Illawarra/Shoalhaven. I knew I couldn’t really live there. I’d miss my people too much.
On this sunny Saturday in September, though, I indulged in the fantasy again, just for a while. Outside the bookshop in Cobargo the owner was drinking tea in the sun and greeted me with a cheery hello. I had a good breakfast in the Chalk and Cheese, where everyone knew everyone else and I overheard someone excitedly talking about a white whale that had been spotted off the coast. As I walked around to the School of the Arts for the woodblock printing workshop I heard an “ooof, ooof” sound and found an old man doing press-ups against his front gate. “Ooh, you caught me out,” he said, laughing. “I’m just building up my strength for the walk up the hill.”
This is probably the most famous Japanese woodblock print: The Great Wave, by Katsushika Hokusai. Now that I know how it’s done, I’m even more in awe of it. He didn’t actually do the carving or printing himself, I learned at the workshop. He had minions to trace the design, carve the wood, prepare the paper, mix the pigment, position each block precisely and make multiple copies. It probably took them years of training to do that. An apprentice probably had to shuffle on their knees to the doorstep of the master every day for eight years before he let them prepare a piece of paper. We had two days to do all of it. Dreamin’.
In the old wooden hall with a minty green ceiling, we learned to lower our expectations. I was originally planning to draw this:
The teacher looked aghast. So I simplified it to a child-like drawing of three flowers and a stick. Another student drew a beautiful, intricate wren. Someone else drew a waratah. We oohed and aahed over their work then watched them gnash their teeth as they tried to carve the detail in wood.
Wood carving tools are not my friends. If you are left-handed, it helps to use left-handed tools. Tip number one. When the teacher tells you to create a gently sloping valley, do not gouge out the Grand Canyon. Tip number two. If you are trying to print a small dot, it helps not to accidentally cut that bit out of the design entirely. Let’s just say we’re lucky I left my phone charger in the washing basket because there’s no photographic evidence of what I created. At the end of the day I had a butchered piece of linden wood in front of me, I was covered in wood shavings and my left index finger was completely numb. I said a cheery goodbye to my fellow artistes and drove off knowing that I wouldn’t be going back for day two. Life is too short.
That night I stayed here: Moonrise on the River. On the way there, driving on a dirt road through a forest at dusk, I wondered if I’d made the right decision. But when I arrived I found a place that was welcoming and peaceful and downright beautiful. I said hello to the owner and her dog, Topsy, then walked around the property and down to the river. I spent the evening alternating between snorting with laughter at parts of this book, Everywhere I Look (Helen Garner=genius), and just staring out of the window at the moon and the trees and the silver river. All of the week’s tension and worry dropped away and a wave of complete relaxation washed in.
In the morning Little Black Car and I went home, back through the wide, sunlit valley, past the Bega cheese cows, up the honey-smelling escarpment, past the concrete elephant, back across the treeless plain to join the line of traffic creeping home to Canberra from the ski fields. I thought about what I’d learned from the weekend. Some people shouldn’t use woodworking tools and I am one of them. It’s nice to escape to the country but it’s good to come home again too. Some things in life, like concrete elephants, just can’t be explained. And a road trip is balm for the soul.