Never Too Old

For a New Adventure

Karen Radford Treanor 

 

Copyright 2016  by Karen Radford Treanor


Photo of Sunset from Karen's patio.

Ever since seeing a picture of autumn-coloured trees on a road in New Norfolk, I’d wanted to visit Tasmania. There was something about it that echoed the look of New England, where I spent my first 28 years. Over the years there was always something that prevented the trip, but the desire never abated. In 2013, having had a couple of major health problems that brought my own mortality to my notice, I began to filch time from more urgent work and trawled the real estate sites in Tasmania. The hotter the Western Australian summer got, the more keenly I looked at Tasmanian real estate. A horrific fire in the Perth Hills that only barely missed us in January 2014 and burnt out 70 of our friends and neighbours made my search even more urgent.

Finally in February 2014 I booked us into a small hotel in Hobart for a week in April and bought two non-refundable air tickets, and reserved a posh apartment at the cattery for our two spoiled felines. “We haven’t had an adventure for years, it’s time we did,” I said to Gene. I pointed out to my husband we hadn’t had a holiday together without children in tow for decades, and if we didn’t make a move soon, we’d be doing it in a Frail-Aged Bus Tour.

Gotta catch me first,” he muttered, but he packed a few shirts and off we went on the Red Eye from Perth to Melbourne, arriving in Hobart before lunch. The small hotel was in fact an apartment in an old house, right on a major road. It was odd but charming, and the landlady had left a folder with advice about where to find food, laundry service and, most important, wine.

We spent the week driving around looking at towns and houses, and clocked up 2000 kilometers on the rental car. Just about every property we inspected we’d have been happy to buy on the spot. Every town and every road had a view worthy of inclusion on a calendar. Whether you wanted hills or valleys, seacoast or forest, city or village or back-of-beyonds, there was something for every taste. Every place we stopped at we met friendly, helpful people. “Where do you suppose they are keeping the nasty, crabby ones?” I asked Gene. (We still haven’t found that out.)

We were tempted to make an offer on several properties but had been warned that the real estate laws were somewhat different to those of Western Australia: if you made an offer there was no cooling off period, and you could well end up in a breach of contract if you weren’t careful. We travelled up north to Mole Creek and Deloraine and Launceston; we travelled down south to Geeveston and Castle Forbes Bay; we circumnavigated the Tasman Peninsula from Eagle Hawk Neck to Nubeena and beyond; and we went up the east coast to Orford and Bicheno and Little Swanport.

With great reluctance we packed up on the last day, drove to the airport the long way around by going up Mount Wellington and down again, and got on the plane for home—which suddenly didn’t seem as much like home as it had up to now. We got off the plane in a muggy and still warm Perth evening. “I don’t know where you’re spending next summer, but I’m not spending it here,” I told Gene.

*****

Having decided that our future lay in Tasmania, we had to sell our own house before we could buy another. Fortunately a friendly real estate agent had been keeping a watching brief on our place for years, and after a whirlwind round of small repairs and tidying (mainly by Gene), we handed the house to Nanette to sell. Within four weeks she had a firm acceptable offer for us. We could have held out for a higher price, but keeping in mind my Grandma’s dictum “Enough is as good as plenty”, we decided to take the first reasonable one, and that proved to be a good decision. Not everyone wants a middle-aged house in the exurbs, and it’s a wise home owner who can see past the sentiment to a realistic appraisal of her property. It may be home to you, but to a buyer, it’s just a building. A few months after the sale, the Perth housing boom deflated, so we had sold at the right time.

There’s nothing like knowing your home of 22 years will soon belong to someone else to galvanise you into activity. Gene contacted several moving companies which gave us quotes for moving all our worldly goods and chattels across a continent, over Bass Strait, and down to a new home somewhere on a tiny island at the bottom of the world. I say ‘tiny’ because Tasmania is only 1% of the Australian landmass. However, due to the complexities of its topography and geology and the character of the road network, Tasmania is rather like the T.A.R.D.I.S.-- much bigger when you’re in it than it appears from outside.

While Gene did most of the hard work in preparing the house for sale, I began packing. We purchased purpose-made movers’ boxes; well-made cardboard constructions that would take a lot of weight without collapsing. We discovered that the size sold as a ‘book box’ was so heavy when filled that only the Incredible Hulk could lift them; so we used the smaller square boxes for almost everything except large lightweight items such as bedding.

Had we to do the packing again, we’d have been much more ruthless in weeding out our 1500 or so books, kitchen gadgets and clothes—not to mention the workshop. Living out of four suitcases for seven weeks teaches you about what you do and don’t need.

By the time everything was boxed and the movers were due to arrive in a few days, I’d come to the conclusion that the best way to move house would have been to pick just the very best and most beloved items from the old house and move them into the new one—and then call my favourite charity shop and tell them they could have everything that’s left!

*****

The house and the workshop were now packed into 400-odd boxes and bundles. The biggest category was my husband’s stack of timber. This was the result of half a lifetime of attending timber auctions, and much of it was high-grade furniture maker’s material which could not be replaced without a major Lotto win. Phone calls and emails to the Tasmanian quarantine office had cleared the wood for import to the island; the movers had estimated the space it would take in the shipping containers and we did not expect any problems.

You can guess what happens next: on moving day the supervisor looked at how low the container was riding on the truck and said that it was as full as it could be, and other than a few light-weight things like lawn chairs, nothing else could go in. This meant that another partial container would have to be used, over and above the original quote for two. Our son-in-law was lumbered with the rest of the lumber, but as he planned to build a shed and a tree house and some decking, he seemed happy enough to take it. It choked his patio for some months thereafter, but eventually came in handy. Lesson learned: timber should be counted not only in length and volume but also in weight if you plan to ship it any distance.

On the day of departure we said a tearful farewell to the daughter who ferried us and our cats to the airport at the crack of dawn and thanks to some soon-to-expire frequent flyer points had the good fortune to travel Business Class. Travelling with a tall person who has adequate leg room is much to be recommended.

We had researched ways to ship the cats, and discovered a huge disparity in price and service. Shipping agents charged what we thought were incredible amounts. The best deal was with Qantas, with the pets being put on board as “Pets Accompanying Passengers” at $60 each. This ensured that they were on the planes with us, not shunted off to come along whenever. With one cat being a frail aged moggy subject to fits, and the other being a Burmese princess with a longer pedigree than either of us, this was an important consideration.

By 8 p.m. we had changed planes in Melbourne, landed in Hobart, reclaimed our cats, picked up a rental vehicle, found a shopping centre for food and wine, and driven to a charming cottage in Carlton River where we all settled in as comfortably as if we were visiting friends.

Having a home-like place to stay when you get off the plane is important; it’s wonderful to know there’s a hot shower, a proper kitchen, and a comfortable bed awaiting you. It’s also good to have your own transport-- we saved thousands of dollars in car rental by paying a relatively modest fee to ship my car from Perth so that it arrived in Hobart only a few days after us.

*****

Bright and early the next day we had a house viewing lined up. We’d had the wits not to make it too early, which was a good thing, since it took us a bit of backing and filling to find the address down on the Tasman Peninsula. You can’t really get lost on the peninsula because all roads eventually come back to The Dog Line on Eagle Hawk Neck—but you can bumble around a bit with wrong turns and hidden driveways. Even if you have a GPS thingummybob—and we didn’t—you need to plan extra time to get where you think you are going. (Historical note: The Dog Line was a narrow strip of white gravel patrolled by men and dogs, between the main part of Tasmania and the peninsula where the prison colony Port Arthur was located.)

We toured the house and grounds with the owners, who were doing a private sale. It was a charming house with only two drawbacks. The driveway came off a farmer’s lane, and the rainwater tank was on the farmer’s property. This meant that the home owner was always somewhat dependent on the neighbour’s good will, and that’s not something set in stone. We praised the property to the owners but after leaving and talking it over we decided the price was very high for what it was, and those restrictions were serious enough to give one pause. When we talked to real estate agent friends later, they advised against buying a property of that sort.

On the way back to the rented cottage we were pulled up by a policeman, who very decently didn’t give Gene a ticket, but did explain patiently that he’d been going too fast on a road under construction. Oops. In a car you aren’t used to, on roads that are all new and surprising, it’s very easy to find yourself not observing the speed limit.

We found our next home to inspect by accident. Driving out of our temporary neighbourhood one day we saw a lovely house: solid brick, large grounds, huge garage, two stories with dormer windows, and while it had neighbours, none were exceptionally close. Imagine our surprise when that day’s viewing of real estate agent windows showed a brand new sign, with this house on it, just posted! We viewed the house the next day and it was 85% of what we wanted; and the owners were able to settle and move out quickly. We viewed it again a few days later, but after much thought, decided not to make an offer.

Looking back, it’s clear that had we made a reasonable offer, we’d have been home within 3 weeks or so and other than the cramped upstairs bathroom and the tiny kitchen, we’d have been quite happy with the property. The price was reasonable, and we’d have saved a great deal in storage fees and temporary rentals. On the other hand, there was no view to speak of, and we would not have found the place we eventually bought, which was also 85%, but a different mix. (You will never find a house that is 100%of what you want, unless your criteria are very, very limited, or you build it yourself from scratch.)

One house --except for the price being at the far end of our price range--was so perfect that we made an offer on the spot. It had land, a big work shed, a good kitchen, plenty of bedrooms, no near neighbours and a lovely sunny glassed-in room at the back that I could see being perfect for the bony old cat and my large desk, where I planned to write a lot more books.

We would have preferred the agent to just ring up the owners and say “I have an offer of XX, would you entertain it?” Instead he insisted we make a written offer, and by the time this was done and the owners thought it over, a full week had passed—and then they said that they had really hoped to get ten thousand more than the listed asking price, so no thanks, they wouldn’t accept our offer. We found this puzzling—why not just advertise the house at the price they wanted and say “firm”? We’d not have bothered, and not have wasted a week. (Footnote: the property eventually sold two months later for $5000 less than the owners wanted.)

Sadly, both of the properties that were on our short list from the April visit had sold by the time we returned in September. However, the agent who listed them had several other suitable places to show us. He had a good idea of what we wanted, and we were hopeful he’d come up with our dream home.

*****

By the end of the first week we wondered if we would find a new home as easily as we’d hoped. One of the things I wanted was a good view of something nice. We’d spent 22 years on a dead-end street with views of a scrub forest, and I wanted something more expansive. My husband wasn’t all that fussy, as long as the view didn’t include close neighbours or their dogs or roosters. Since a view of something nice is almost a given anywhere in Tasmania, this was a criterion easy to fulfil.

We viewed a house way up a long, windy, scary drive north of Orford. The views were of rolling hills, the house was adequate, there was a lot of land, and some handsome chickens came with the property. The drawback here was the workshop was cramped and needed a lot of work, the house was passable but didn’t have any ‘wow factor’, and the owner was newly widowed and seemed of two minds about moving. On balance we decided this probably wasn’t the new home for us.

We looked at a charming cottage on a mountain top, well above the winter snowline, but it was a long way from anywhere and the road was narrow, steep, and gravel. It was hard to imagine a moving van—or an ambulance—being able to get up there. It had some very nice features, but the alarmingly cerise paint on the outside walls had bubbled and cracked, indicating an underlying problem. We wound our way back down the mountain and back to the real estate ads.

We looked at a large old farm house that needed a lot of work. The upside of that was the price was modest and would have allowed for hiring in subcontractors to do some of the heavy lifting. There was both a large, solid apple shed suitable for a workshop and a big open shed for cars, wood and other raw material. There was a wombat living in the orchard out back of the house, we were told. There was one neighbour a bit too close, and some of the fabric of the house was damp-damaged and may have been much worse than it appeared if it had been closely inspected. On balance, the amount of work required seemed a bit daunting—had we been ten years younger, no problem.

We looked at another old farmhouse that also needed a lot of work. It had a shearing shed that would make a fantastic workshop for Gene, but would need steam cleaning, gutting, insulating and re-flooring. It was a hilltop property on a dirt road, with views for miles—but it also had a water supply partly dependent on a nearby farm.

We looked at, fell in love with, and planned to make an offer on a mud brick house way out in the country, miles from anywhere at the bottom of the Channel peninsula. It had a babbling brook that supplied drinking water; it had a separate, large, studio suitable for all sorts of things including holiday rental, and it had a small workshop well back from the road. It needed work, including replacing the break-neck ship’s ladder stairs with a better arrangement, and re-doing the barely adequate kitchen, but it was relatively cheap. The grounds were magic: huge trees, a big open paddock, the brook, a tiny stone bridge, and a miniscule summer house that would just fit me, a cat, my laptop, and a pitcher of Sangria. The ground was rather damp; in fact quite boggy in spots, but it was green and healthy-looking.

The drawback was that the house’s water supply had been disconnected from the babbling brook, and the house was owned by three people in the same family, one of whom wasn’t keen on selling. Several previous sales had fallen through, we understood. This was a recipe for frustration, and reluctantly we told the agent not to submit our offer.

We’d have to keep looking.

*****

By now we were getting nervous: would we ever find a house we could afford, that met at most of our criteria, and whose owners were able to move before October 19th, the last day of our rental? Old Harley had already gone missing once; we wanted to avoid another temporary home if we could.

I booked a viewing of a house which had a spectacular brochure, which made it seem grand but at the same time warm and welcoming. It had a number of outbuildings, suitable for all sorts of purposes. I wasn’t sure where it was, exactly, but it didn’t look too far from the mudbrick house we had liked.

We drove down the eastern side of the Channel Highway to see the house. We drove, and drove and drove. Just as I assumed we must have gone past it, there it was. By day it did not look as grand as the brochure, mostly of evening pictures, had made it seem. However, we were here and we might as well view it. Going up three steps to the big deck, we could see the d’Entrecasteaux Channel just across the street. It was intensely blue with tiny whitecaps; across the way Bruny Island basked like a giant sea mammal in the sun; swallows swooped and twittered around our heads, and a wisteria vine was just coming into flower on the patio. The wisteria twined around my heart at once: the house we’d sold had had a 40 year old huge wisteria which was my joy every spring. Story-book bumblebees buzzed in the wisteria, furry insects I had not seen since my New England childhood. (They are accidental imports to Tasmania but don’t seem to have become a problem.) The house had a big open front deck and two covered side decks that were porches or verandahs, as you please. I could see us sipping gin and tonics and watching the play of light on the Channel every evening after a hard day’s work in the garden.

The house was made of weatherboards, as clapboards are known in this part of the world, like the house I grew up in. It had huge multi-paned front windows, as had the house in one of my favourite childhood books. By day it wasn’t as grand as the brochure suggested—in fact, it was a large seaside cottage if one had to categorise it. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The friendly young real estate agent showed us in the front door. I noticed she’d taken off her shoes, but she said we shouldn’t bother.

Indoors was a huge living room, divided by a wide step in the middle, which in effect gave you two large rooms, a front lower one and a back higher one. Two large bedrooms opened off each level of the living room. At once I thought, “I could put the matched bookcases either side on the step and use them as semi-room dividers.” The total area was nearly 50 square meters—we could have fantastic parties in this room, once we met enough people to invite to a party.

Well, you can see what’s coming. Once you start placing your furniture in a house you view, you’ve just about sold it to yourself. The young lass from the real estate had very little work to do other than answer a few questions about the taxes, acreage and so forth.

We toured the kitchen, which was the size of half a tennis court. On the back wall hunkered a six-burner stove with an oven suitable for roasting a whole goat—which you’d need if you invited enough people to fill that huge living room. A very efficient looking hood and extractor fan hung above it. The floor was made of grey-green large tiles, and there was a cute little hutch painted to match the capacious kitchen cabinets which went with the house, the agent said.

A huge bathroom housed both a tub and a double-size shower. One of my pet peeves is tiny shower stalls with clammy, grasping curtains. This one was all glass walls and door, and moulded fibreglass back with built-in soap and shampoo holder, and a giant shower head on a flex. There was a large pantry, and a laundry room with an extra toilet. Another box ticked!

In the back of the house was a large sunny room at ground level, giving onto a concrete apron beyond which was a trench and then a steep bank which was covered with flowers and rosebushes. Off the sun room was a small room suitable for an office, and a good-sized third bedroom.

Gene said, “In case of fire, no problem getting out—I’ve counted six external doors.” At the time I thought this was great, not considering that that meant six places for an absent-minded old cat to go and cry for entry or exit.

We went out one of the many doors and toured the yard. It was a glorious sunny day, you could see for miles and miles. You could see the acres and acres of green meadow that went with the house, and the further acres of tall mountain ash trees, also the large orchard with a dozen or more apple, pear, plum and mulberry trees. A fenced garden showed burgeoning growth: silver beet, carrots, potatoes, currants, blackberries and more.

There was some basic workshop space with room for improvement; plus a double chicken coop and netted run, a goat shed, and a dam full of water, waterlilies, ducks and frogs. The air was so clear you felt you could see to the South Pole if it were not for the curvature of the Earth. A large raptor sailed overhead; an osprey or a sea-eagle, I thought.

We went away to think about the house. Other than not having a very large workshop it seemed just about perfect. The price was within our range. The nearest neighbour was a bit too near, but we thought we could live with that. We could probably look for another four weeks and not find anything we liked better. It was an 85-percenter at least.

We made an offer, it was accepted, and three weeks later we were standing on the patio, lord and lady of all we surveyed.

*****

So you’re waiting to hear about the 15%, right?

We had our large house with large kitchen, large yard, plenty of elbow room, great view, garden, fruit trees, workshop and sheds. What was missing? Well, it turns out there was no town trash collection, no town sewerage, no town water—in fact, no town--no mail delivery, no public transport, no mobile phone service and only very, very basic internet connection and television reception. And other than the kitchen cupboards and giant pantry, there was no storage—no bookshelves, no wardrobes, no closets.

All these lacks we found out one by one, and most of them after we had a binding contract. Fortunately most of the lacks were fixable. We rented a mailbox in a town a few kilometres away where there is also a general store, petrol pump and gas bottle exchange. We deal with the trash by taking all the solid stuff to the recycling yard, burning or composting the small paper detritus, and have acquired two handsome hens to recycle all the kitchen scraps. There was quite an efficient rain water catchment set-up which only wants a filtration system installed; meanwhile a counter-top filter does the trick. The television works most of the time thanks to the local antenna man’s clever adjustments; we’ve learned to tolerate the slow internet, and the mostly useless mobile phone is taken by whichever person goes out shopping in case they want to ring the home landline.

The lack of streetlights means that any night that isn’t overcast will give you the most spectacular view of the universe anyone could wish. You can see about 20 stars in the Pleiades, and both Magellenic clouds. The Aurora Australis often burns in the night sky. (Yes, that’s the Southern Lights.)

As far as the storage, fortunately I married a master woodworker who is designing and building some nice wardrobes and a few more kitchen cupboards. I overcame his distaste for ‘cheap and nasty’ and we bought a number of inexpensive white shelving units to hold most of the books and bibelots, and turned the sun room into a library-cum-office.

We learned why people took their shoes off at the door—the property was infested with wallabies and pademelons, who all suffered from incontinence. These are endearing-looking little marsupials which resemble miniature kangaroos, and they will eat anything that’s not nailed down, and some things that are.. It took 8 months, but eventually we chased all of them out of the acre around the house and into the big paddocks, where they are welcome to roam. We reinforced all the fencing and think we have plugged all the gaps.

As far as other creatures go, there are a number of cheeky possums who prowl around the verandah of an evening in search of a snack, and which peer into the sliding glass doors hopefully. We’ve met an echidna trundling across the paddock; a family of turbochooks (‘native hens” ) which are flightless but can run like billy-o; a quoll (a small carnivorous marsupial like a weasel) and we think we have a family of Tasmania devils up by the dam. We hope this is true, and that they are healthy, because our iconic state animal has been afflicted with a dreadful facial cancer that has killed off 80% or more of these animals.

Photo of turbochooks.
“Insurance colonies” of healthy devils have been established on offshore islands and elsewhere in the hopes that they will be a gene pool while scientists are trying to develop a vaccine to save the remaining population.

Old Harley survived his air trip and the move to the new house by a year or so, but has now gone to chase mice for St Peter. A kitten has been installed in his place, but Miss Cat, the mature Burmese, so far doesn’t think much of her. We await rapprochement, but suspect it may be a while coming. I am considering whether sheep or alpacas would be a better choice as living grass cutters; my husband counsels caution, having experienced my animal misadventures in the past.

Strangely, we’ve had more visits from friends and relatives since moving here than we had in many years in Western Australia—when you live ‘just up the hill’ people never seem to come calling; move across the country and you find visitors on your doorstep just about every month. After decades of threatening, my sister finally hopped a plane and came for a fortnight’s escape from a New Hampshire winter.

Tasmania seemed like home almost from the first, and while we miss the children and grandchildren, we aren’t lonely. We have settled in pretty well down here at the bottom of the world; have met some nice people, and begun to put down some roots. The roots aren’t as deep as the familial 386 years in New England, nor our own 36 years in Western Australia, but the cultural soil here seems arable and in time we’ll be anchored.


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