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Travels in the Off-Grid…

5. Other roads

IT WAS 1995, maybe 1996. Some time around then, anyway. I step off the bus after making the overnight coach journey from Sydney to Lismore and catching a local bus to Nimbin. I’m tired and my mind is hazy, a condition I’m familiar with from previous long coach journeys. The walk from the town’s main street to Showground Road revives me a little. I am back on the North Coast of NSW. Well, some distance inland of it, anyway.

There is something about the country air that refreshes you after too long in the city. Even after a night in a coach with your sleep disrupted by frequent stops and starts you step out and you’re fully awake again. Travel fatigue dissapears. That is what I felt as I walked down showground Road.

Here at last. Djanbung Gardens. Robyn Francis’ permaculture teaching centre. I walk across the path on the earthen wall separating two small farm dams which broad-leaved water plants are starting to colonise and enter the hexagonal, earth-construction building where Robyn holds her courses and workshops. A covered verandah on the northern side provided a sheltered outdoor sitting space and a fine view to the distant peak known as Blue Knob. Across the field I see a large farm dam with an island in the middle. Located at the low point of her 2.5ha property, it stores runoff. Further along is the newly-completed retention works for the composting toilet system.

The Djanbung Gardens teaching centre with blackwater reedbed installation and the settlement pond at front. Reedbed blackwater treatment systems mimic natural wetlands in how they cleanse water. They offer a viable solution for off-grid rural properties.

I’m staying here for the next few days. My accommodation is a small room in a train carriage.

Robyn arranged the train carriages that are her home to form a U-shape that is open to the north, to sunward. The wide verandah filling the space between forms a sheltered outdoor living space, useful in this hot and humid subtropical climate. Inside, the old wooden carriages are fitted out as a home. One is a bedroom, the centre one at the base of the U-shape is a living room with a small sleeping space for visitors. The other is the kitchen. Where the carriages meet are two large, galvanised iron water tanks storing the rain that falls on the roof. It is a functional and comfortable arrangement.

Home is a train carriage at Djanbubng Gardens. The awning over the U-shaped arrangement of carriages provides shade from the hot summer sun and drains rainfall into the water tanks.

In those days the carriages were centre point of a large, cleared farm paddock. Last time I was at Djanbung Gardens they were hidden behind clumps of giant bamboo.

On a community not far away is a woman who lives in a single train carriage. Sited atop a rise and fitted with a verandah, it is a compact dwelling that in later years would be recognised as a ‘tiny house’.

Disused train carriages provided a home for many a person moving onto the land. Retrofitted as dwellings, they are affordable housing. They are not the only repurposed structures to be found in the backblocks during the decades of the seventies and eighties as people sought new lives in the countryside.

A train carriage converted into a tiny house. The deck is for outdoor living in the hot summers of the Northern Rivers district of NSW. The awning over the carriage provides shade and channels rainwater runoff to the water tank.

Life in the bail

The Border Range, its steep slopes clad in subtropical rainforest, forms the imposing backdrop to the family’s cow bail home.

The road enters Tyalgum and presents us with a T-junction. If we take the left turn we will run out of asphalt and end up in the backblocks of the Tweed Valley. So we take the road to the right and end up in a different part of the backblocks where the Border Ranges rise steeply from the farmland below. First, though, we make the not-difficult-decision to stop at the Tyalgum pub for a cold beer. It is a hot summer’s day, after all.

Jeff told us where to leave the road and cross the ford over the shallow stream. We do this and follow a dirt farm road to come to an old farmhouse of a faded, rusty red, its timbers weathered by decades in the humid subtropical sun and rain. There is a big farm dam immediately in front of it. It is picturesque in that pastoral sort of way that appeals to city folk who would rather be out here instead of in their suburban houses from where they commute to their uninteresting jobs in town. Appealing the vision of walking away might be, few find the courage to turn dreams into goals.

The farmhouse is not our destination. We continue on. Fiona puts the van into second gear and follows the track up the slope, the Kombi’s air cooled engine making that characteristic sound known only to those who have owned one of these vehicles. Do this, Jeff told us, and you will come to an old cow bail. That’s where we live.

Home. A cow bail long unvisited by cattle. It was once the milking shed when dairying sustained the generations that occupied the old farmhouse below. Those days are long gone as are the farmers for whom dairying was a livelihood. They were replaced by a new generation seeking a different way to live on the land. That’s the story of Jeff and Kay and their two young children, a close family renting the cow bail while they search for somewhere to live out their rural dream. That won’t happen just yet, but it is both a dream and a goal that will eventually be realised not all that far in the future or in distance.

Fiona takes a break to absorb the quietness of the landscape.

The family’s takes a casual approach to life. Nothing seems to perturb them, not their moving from place to place around the region, not Jeff’s occasional work in the city to bring home much-needed funds, not his periods in and out of work. Theirs’ is a pace of life in tune with this lush, green landscape. It is a spacious approach to life that seems to fit well with their contemporaries hereabouts.

The bail offers basic and modest accommodation. The one enclosed room serves as kitchen and dining room and a place to sit and socialise. The parents and the kid’s sleeping spaces are out on the concrete slab under the galvanised iron roof. It is enclosed by the room at one end and a rear wall behind. There are no other walls. The mild subtropical climate enables a comfortable life in the semi-enclosed cow bail. Winter mornings might be chilly, however the day warms with the rising sun. Summer days are hot and humid although a little cooler than down on the coastal lowlands.

Waking in the morning, the family have a grand view across the valley as the sun tops the peak of Mt Warning, the first place on the continent to catch the light of the new day. The inspirational landscape and the uncluttered simplicity of life here suggest a type of casualness alien to our city-bound lives.

What a view to wake to. The diamond spire of Mt Warning rises above a range blued by distance.

There is power here, so the family can run a refrigerator. Cooking is on a bottled gas stove. A hanging gas light provides illumination. There are cupboards along two walls, windows which let in the light and a large, wooden table with kitchen chairs. This, the combined kitchen and dining room is the social centre of the home, the family room. I look around and notice there is no insulation below the unlined roof. It must get hot in here in summer. As for water, there’s a galvanised iron tank outside.

This is simple living, life at its basics: a rudimentary shelter from the weather, somewhere to cook, somewhere to sleep, somewhere to sit and talk, a water supply and an outside toilet. Life’s essentials. It affirms my belief that few possessions are needed to live well. Around 2000 years ago, Socrates realised as much: “How many things there are that I do not want”, he said. This is how other people live here in the subtropical backblocks where the mountains end and the rolling farmland starts. Like Jeff and Kay’s family, many came from the cities in search of a simpler and less-harried way of life in a kind climate. Here, they acquire land, built a house and settle. Think of it as a reinhabitation of the land, as a type of intergenerational handover.

This is simple living, life at its basics: a rudimentary shelter from the weather, somewhere to cook, somewhere to sleep, somewhere to sit and talk, a water supply and an outside toilet. Life’s essentials.

Painting in oils is one of Jeff’s talents. He doesn’t indulge it much here in the bail but, later, he will attempt entry to the Archibald Prize, a prestigious portraiture award. He will be unsuccessful as will most who try.

The family lives the dream of many a city-bound aspirant of the alternative/off-grid life of a place in the country where they can live deliberately rather than by the dictates of the city. We stay with Jeff and family for three days before starting our journey south, back to the big city where our lives are. It is a journey tinged with the knowledge that we, too, would like to call this region home. As we turn onto the Pacific Highway I experience that gut-felt feeling of regret that I get when leaving places where I would rather stay.

Not all that long after we met, Fiona, who once described herself to me as ‘an old Cronulla surf dog”, tells told that she used to live in these parts, in the regional city of Lismore a couple hours drive south of where we are now. She was on a journey northwards then, a casual sort of journey for someone with a casual but self-confident approach to life.

Building a better bail

Another year. Another journey. Where were we coming from that day? Somewhere on the Mid-North Coast I suppose. Wherever, we turn the Kombi inland and follow winding backroads to Rollands Plains. It’s a little over 30km inland of Crescent Head’s long, curving surfing beach and roughly 20km north of the inland town of Wauchope, a faming area partly enclosed by forested ranges.

We find the place and walk in. Astonishing. This is no ordinary cow bail. This is a home. A home fashioned from a one-time cow bail by the couple who live in it. We’re impressed.

Hans Erkin’s converted and comfortable cow bails is a couple hundred kilometres from Jeff and Kay’s. Hans is a bamboo expert and he and his partner own the property and have made the bail into a comfortable home. The difference is that they own the property. Jeff and Kay didn’t own theirs but they did what they could to create a comfortable, basic home for their family.

This is how it is in this part of the country as people seek affordable housing in which to make a rural life connected to the land they stand on. Was it common for new settlers to convert cow bails into homes? That is hard to answer, however over the years I hear of them here and there.

Some time in the 1980s was when we visited Hans and his partner in their Rollands Plains bail. It was during the following decade that we stayed with Kay and Jeff. Like so many others seeking a better live in these parts, both families would move on to make homes in places close and distant.



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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.