Sunday, 30 October 2011

Australia Part VI - Melbourne

21/05/11 - 03/07/11

During our stay with Jane and Dave in Devenish, We'd managed to arrange another spot of HelpX'ing to the north of Melbourne in a place called St Andrews. At less than 200km away, this was just on the doorstep!

The journey was lovely. Winding roads, perfect temperature, English countryside. We arrived along potholed roads but not as bad as the outback and nothing that trusty Clive couldn't handle.

We were a bit trepidatious about the stay as the HelpX hosts were from the UK - a first for us - but their reviews were glowing so we went for it. We found the lady of the house - Tiana - in the front garden where she welcomed us with a big hug... good start! After a brief tour, took us inside for a cup of tea and meet the family.

Husband - Stuart - ambled into the kitchen wearing a dressing gown and suffering from a stinker of a cold (met with a touch of comedic derision from Tiana). He was clearly not feeling good and ended up heading back to bed. But not before bringing out the third member of the Machin family, young Harry, who was sporting a fetching blue plaster cast on his leg after he'd had a nasty fall off a step.

We were shown to our new home - "The Lodge" - which was away from the house; it's kitchen was already stocked with essentials and its little pot belly fire was ready to keep us warm on increasngly cold nights.

Their property was very nice and in a beautiful setting, on 22 acres of undulating grassland, which was also home to around ten horses including three cute shetlands. Tiana was very interested in'Natural Horsemanship' and they had a menage / riding-ring. As evening draws in, kangaroos come out; the house has a huge garden and is surrounded by fields and we would often see a group of more than twenty 'roos hopping around by the house. One night when walking from the house to the lodge, Tim almost walked straight into one... I'm not sure who was most surprised.

The house was located on top of a hill on the outskirts of the quiet but pleasant village of St Andrews. Weekends would see a quirky - and frankly rather hippy - market. Luckily the hippies in these parts like good coffee and pastries so it was all good.

Katy made the most of it and as usual ran nearly every day, masochistically enjoying the final push up the hill.

The place was idyllic. But it had not always been so. A couple of years previously the surrounding area suffered a terrible fire of which we were only vaguely aware at the time back in the UK.

They talked about how things were back then which I don't think we need to repeat here, but the effect of the fires was clearly significant for many people.

The HelpXing side was good. There was plenty to do and we were able to see some things through from start to finish which is always nice. First brownie points were scored by Tim fixing a water pump that was presumed dead, then fixing a brand new strimmer / weed whipper which was also thought kaput (after a previous HelpXer ran it without two-stroke oil). Brownie points were later lost for breaking three axe handles before investing in a carbon handle.

Katy became mother hen to the four chickens whom had so far not layed an egg. Cheif chicken was lovely and named Nerys. Weather had turned much colder in previous weeks so she made sure they were nice and warm - extra bedding, horse blanket on the roof and a windbreak around the coop. Every day she would expectantly lift the lid but found nothing but hay and chicken-pooh. Then, one day... an egg! I can't describe how happy she was. Next day another, then two, then three... eventually everyone was on full production making Katy very happy... and Tim - poached egg breakfasts!

After Tims initial successes, Tiana asked if he could make a garden gate to stop rabbits getting into the veggie patch. Never made one before so it was abit of a learning process but the end product was still hanging by the time we left! Katy followed this up with a brick path and the whole thing surrounded by chicken wire to keep out those pesky wabbits.

With Stuart sufficiently recovered, he returned to work. They owned a restaurant - Sushi Wushi - in the nearby town of Eltham. Consequently we were very lucky to get some amazing sushi and miso soup for lunch on some days which was exquisite. We were also treated to a night out at the restaurant too.

Which is not to say that we were otherwise starving. Often preceded by gin & tonic and accompanied by wine, both Tiana and Stuart were superb cooks. Tim tried to resist going back for thirds at every meal but... you know Tim.

At least he used some of that extra energy for chopping many, many logs for the forthcoming winter (hence the broken axe handles) and had fun chain-sawing down a few dead trees.

Katy was able to help Tiana's friend, Corn, when the horse dentist came to check the horses teeth. afterward, Corn showed Katy how the whole 'natural horsemanship' approach worked - I think she had fun.

We haven't yet mentioned how enormously funny the Machins were. When they started their banter it was hysterical and I had to do a double-take when Tiana first used the 'c' word... Most of the time she was very well spoken which made it so much funnier when she swore like a trooper (think 'Catherine Tate's old lady sketch'). There was something very comforting about spending time with some Brits after such a long time away.

we managed to fit in a couple of trips into Melbourne which unfortunately coincided with cold, blustery wet weather. Not conditions to fully appreciate what is a lovely city. But don't just take our word for it.

Here we had a rare investment; Katy desperately needed new running trainers as she was starting to get leg-pain. In a cost cutting excercise, Tim selflessly decided not to run... to save money, of course. What we saw of the city was nice but I suspect we didn't see it in its full glory.

When not outside, Tim could normally be found in the aircraft-hangar sized shed; tidying, organising tools, stacking logs and fixing the car. We had given up trying to claim from the guy in Queensland who dented the side of our car, so Tim had a go at filling and spraying the dent... its trickier than it looks isn't it?! Anyway, the final result was definitely an improvement and the car looked much more sellable (our task when we reach Adelaide).

Chickens aside, Katy would be in the house helping Tiana clear-up in the aftermath of wherever Harry went! Crumbs in the kitchen, bricks in the lounge... and where is that bloody remote control? This also meant cooking; we were treated to creamy risotto, delicious carrot cake and luckily the extra eggs also resulted in more than one lemon meringue pie... happy days.

By now Harry had had his leg plaster removed, but it was quite funny to watch as he was still walking as if it were still there. He was such a great little character and like most children had that uncanny knack of doing the exact thing you don't want him to; with that and the recently fixed leg, Tiana was in a state of constant high-alert whenever he was awake.

The times when he was at nursery she could relax and whenever she could manage it, would be out with her horses. We were largely ignorant of the natural horsemanship thing before arriving but it was very interesting to watch her work with the horses. Luckily, Katy was able to go riding with Tiana and friends a couple of times. Tim was in the shed.

During one of the bouts of heavy rain which were becoming more of a feature, Tim noticed water overflowing from one of the gutters, so this became his next task: cleaning out all of the debris from the - it turns out - many gutters. It transpires that he is indeed 'half useful'.

We had a bonfire party one evening with many of the Machin's friends (of which, several were Brits), which gave Stuart a chance to indulge one of his passions (other than football and his beloved MGF which unfortunately sounds like it was as much of a lemon as Katy's used to be). Several of said friends were part of a band of which Stu played bass guitar, so Tim was on a roof cleaning gutters to the sound of old school rock being strangled out of a range of amplifiers... from inside HIS shed(!) whilst they were practising during the day; then later that night gave their performance to us and their other halves (until their other halves got to cold and told them 'thats enough'!). It actually sounded great and they all looked so happy!

Around this time, we had an unexpected email from the Bourkshire Batys asking if we fancied going snowboarding. We didn't take much convincing! We had previously discussed between ourselves how good it would be to go snowboarding but had already come to the conclusion that it was beyond our means, but Kylie can be very persuasive!

And so it was that we were soon driving back past Benalla to meet up in the small town of Bright, with the lovely and excited Baty family (none of the children had ever touched snow before!). We loaded into the bus and wound up the mountain, along heavily wooded switchback roads. We eventually reached that exciting point: the snowline! On and on in more and more snow until we were finally in Hotham village. Kylie had rented a lovely apartment so after moving in, we got kitted out at the rental shop ready for the next day. That night we celebrated Bec's birthday with cake. Happy days!

Next day: military operation: breakfast, kit up, sweating like a pig, head to bus stop, much apprehension, on bus, off bus, find instructor and... relax.

Katy and I watched on with Jack whilst the Batys had their first ever ski lesson with a lovely young instructor. They all took to it straight away; really, much better than we could've dreamed. And Jack was great, he had a great little red sledge which he was just happy to sit in and take it all in. After lessons and lunch, we took them back out for a bit more practice and before long we were heading for their first draglift! They managed it really well but secretly we were more thankful that we managed too (... its been a while!). First day done with tired smiles!

Day two and the kids were eventually dragged away from cartoons on TV for more lessons (after tracking down missing gloves, helmets etc), this time a different snow field. Kylie went for a seperate lesson whilst we stayed with the young ones noticing improvements every time they came flying down the hill.

By midday, Kylie had returned still in one piece but deciding maybe skiing was not 'her thing'. So, for the afternoon, she had Jack and we took turns taking the others on a chairlift for as many runs as we could fit in. As the evening rolled in there was still just enough time for snowball fights and snowmen.

And before we knew it we were packing our bags, boarding a bus and heading back down below the snowline. We stayed in a motel and headed to Glenrowan - a place familiar to many Australians as it was the home to the showdown between Ned Kelly ("notorius outlaw") and the police. Consequently the place is filled with museums, monuments, memorabilia and many a tawdry gift shop. Hope you've still got the porcelain dog Joe! And Kylie should be eternally grateful that we didn't include THAT photo in the blog!

The following morning, we said what we were pretty sure was our final -tearful- goodbyes to the Batys (for this trip anyway). Thank you once again for everything guys.

We headed back to St Andrews, where - after a couple of days - it was time to pack up there too...the clock was ticking once again and we had thousands of kilometres still to go. St Andrews was not an easy place to leave. We feel we've been so lucky with this whole HelpX thing. The Machins were an utter delight, their home was lovely... and did I mention the sushi?! Tim, of course, still misses the shed.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Australia Part V - Devenish


We headed south from Bourke, our ultimate goal being Melbourne. But that was still quite a distance so we were most grateful when Miss Bec from Bourke (for that is her full title!) invited us to stay with her mum for a while who lived midway at a place called Benalla, over 800km away.

After leaving the lovely yet crazy Batys, we drove 160km until reaching a campsite in Cobar, another sleepy if non-descript town. Next to us was a couple on a BMW motorbike and - with Tim sporting his Honda t-shirt - a conversation was quickly started. They were from Brisbane and were heading to a place called Kangaroo island but had also been all over Aus on their bike. Chatting with a cold beer in the late afternoon sun was nice as we settled into our first spot of camping in a couple of months.

And what a difference. By 3:00am we were wearing as many clothes as we could fit on but were still freezing cold. By 4:30am, Tim was up and having a hot shower trying to get warm... this was to be our last spot of camping for quite some time! Who knew Australia could be so cold?! With feeling back in our extremities we pressed-on south and eventually reached England. At least thats how it appeared. Just as New South Wales became Victoria, countryside became greener and reminiscent of somewhere between Oxford and Devon (no, not Bristol). Many fields, many horses.

Seven hundred kilometres later and With the excellent directions provided by Bec, we ended up on a dirt track, in darkness, convinced we were lost but luckily just half a mile from Bec's mum, Jane. We rolled in to the drive and were greeted by a very smiley Jane into her roasting hot home thanks to its big log fire. We were given Bec's room to stay in and were not allowed to do anything (i suspect Jane realised our incompetence early on and didn't want to take any chances). Jane lives with Dave, an ardant rugby league lover, so this largely dominated our TV viewing (which was just fine for Tim).

Jane's property was literally surrounded by fields. She owns a farm of sheep, cattle, pigs, horses and fowl... a really cosy place with a beautiful garden (with peacocks) and an orchard beyond with orange and olive trees. Autumn was approaching, bringing shorter days and colder weather; leaves turned to yellow, to orange, to red... and then fell.

We tried to help where we could by garden tidying (see above), helping collect logs and doing bits of farmwork (sheep fondling). All very enjoyable, with glorious sunny days, but really felt like winter was drawing in at night.

Jane continued to look after us well, feeding us generously and heartily. The garden was providing an abundance of fruit and veg - particularly tomatoes - many of which were being reduced down to a delicious tomato sauce. We tried to return the favour by cooking roast beef with yorkshire puddings (which they'd never had) and were a bit stunned when they didn't really like them... who doesn't like yorkshire puds?!?!

The nearest town was twenty minutes away past picturesque rolling hills and fields of horses and expesnive looking farms. The town, Benalla is very 'pleasant'. Functional and tidy (in fact some places very pleasant), but not terribly exciting.

They actually live in a place called Devonish but for the life of me i couldn't work out where it started or finished. It was a tiny, one shop, two pubs kind of place, centered around the huge grain silos by the side of the rail track (a feature in these parts). Dave took Tim to both said pubs (quite english style which was nice) for a lazy afternoon beer or two in the setting sun. A funny guy (both ha-ha and peculiar), but difficult to work out.

Unfortunately, the most exciting thing for Tim was being bitten by Dave's dog... a red-healer called Alan (can't fault the name). It was Tim's fault for walking past the kennel within biting-range. A mere flesh-wound. In return, Alan received a good soaking whilst Tim was cleaning the car and they both gave each other a wide berth after that! Thankfully, Jane's dog - Bert - was much nicer.

During this time, Jane was away so we thought we'd treat Dave with a lasagne. Most people would consider it a treat anyway... not Dave! I know that not everyone will like everything, but come on... who doesn't like lasange?! Anyway, we enjoyed it!

Upon her return, Jane took us on a tour of the local wineries, which were exquisite and really quite a surprise in the middle of (to us) nowhere; we would never have found them otherwise. By this stage rain and cold weather were drawing in which made the wine tasting all the more cosy and the wine was sublime. We got to one which should have been open but was locked up with the owner driving away. no problem, Jane chases after him in her car and five minutes later, the doors are re-opened and we're quoffing reds, whites and even stouts!

We had such a lovely stay with Jane and Dave (and even Alan) and stayed much longer than I think anyone expected (sorry about that!). But the clock's still ticking and we had to keep heading south.