As the temperature fell we toasted the future, in particular the immediate future, house sitting in Armidale, with a glass of red.
Being forced into retirement is not necessarily a bad thing. We set about making a plan to house sit and travel our vast country, making the best of what we had by selling our personal goods and chattels.
The next two months were a mixture of acceptance of the situation and the stress of dealing with the other people who were also affected, employees, shareholders, small creditors and friends. It’s difficult to reconcile a failure, despite having succeeded for 38 years. In the midst we had a family illness that required a trip to Brisbane for several weeks and the painful evacuation of the house.
As we were about to be sans home and with no ‘dependents’ for the first time since we were in our youth, we made the decision to travel. We subscribed to Aussie House Sitters and Julie sold her car. With the proceeds and a couple of garage sales to get rid of the rest, we had enough to buy the campervan and trailer. We figured that if we free-camped and spent some in-between-house-sitting time with family and friends, we could make a better plan as we went along.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made.
Nine weeks had passed since the axe fell and we were free. It was almost like being young again. I repeat, ‘almost’. We didn’t get very far. Within a couple of hundred kilometres one of the trailer wheels disappeared into the bush, never to be found.
We had the trailer picked up and taken back to Bowen, the last town we passed. After getting a new hub and wheel fitted, we were back on the road, fortunately with no further adventures and at $500, it had only consumed 30% of our amassed fortune.
The house sitting website had come good and our first ‘sit’ was to be in the middle of winter in one of Australia’s coldest cities. Armidale also lays claim to being Australia’s highest city at 3,000 feet above sea level, not so high by international standards but notable in Australia. We had a few weeks grace to spend time in Ipswich with family to prepare the van and trailer for self- sufficiency, which means a small generator, spare water, a shower toilet tent and a few tarps. We already had some camping gear and the van had come equipped with a bed, fridge, stove and awning.
The adventure begins
On a frosty morning in June we set sail, heading for a family oasis in Ballina, the home of Julie’s brother Paul and his wife Carol, to finish last minute preparations. A couple of days later, on a not so frosty morning, we hit the road for the half-day run from Ballina to Armidale.
It was fortunate we were not in a hurry as the van had only a small and well used engine to pull us and a loaded trailer up the range. We arrived at the house mid-afternoon the day before we were due to take over.
We only met up with Angela and little Joseph as Angela’s partner Tim was playing soccer and young Lucas was somewhere else we can’t remember. Angela was warm and welcoming and the house had a very comforting feel so we immediately felt quite at ease, a very good start for our first ‘sit’.
After a quick run-down on feeding Benny the dog and the six nameless chooks, we set up camp across the road in the showgrounds. It was threatening to rain but after having been given the OK to park under the cover of a large open roofed area, we headed up town to catch an already-cooked chook for dinner. People were polite and didn’t stare too much at my dress sense even though I was the only person in the city wearing shorts.
By the time we set up the van it was beginning to rain, the temperature had dropped to about 3 degrees and the lady in charge of the showgrounds once again showed us great hospitality and lent us a small heater.
As the wind picked up and the temperature made its lazy way down to zero and beyond, we ate our chook, toasted the future with a glass of red. After the misery of the last half-decade we could not have been happier doing anything else.
The next morning required some fortitude to get moving despite waiting until a respectable 9.30 before driving the 40 metres across the road to our new temporary home. Benny was not exactly pleased the family had buggered off without him but the chooks didn’t seem to mind.
Benny and I were going to get along very well.
It did not take long to settle in to our first official house sitting role, our new temporary home in Armidale. Benny quickly caught on that there was a substitute on the field and dinner would be served on time after all. The other benefit was the substitute, the old guy with the grey hair, was happy to play ball, throw and fetch, wrestling and most importantly, tummy rubbing.
We were entertained by the prospect of lighting a fire. One does not develop this particular skill in the tropics and the prospect of chopping wood and having a fire place was a novelty. It didn’t take long to work out that if you brought in a couple of pieces of wood every time you passed through the back door, there was never a need to go out at an inconvenient time, like when the taps were iced up for example.
The weather in an especially important topic in Armidale and we noticed there is a certain local competitiveness with the two thousand residents of the nearby small town of Guyra. I suspect there is a grudging acceptance of Guyra’s ‘superiority’ in a few aspects, not least that of its elevation, at around 4,000 feet, it’s a 1,000 feet higher. They back up their claim too with a local record for coldness.
In July 1984 there was a general cold snap in the area and Guyra recorded a maximum temperature on the 3rd of that month that at no time during the day managed to get up to zero Celsius. The next day the 4th of July, Guyra managed to just crawl over the line to half a degree Celsius. (32.9 Fahrenheit).
Not that one should take from this information that Armidale is in any way tropical, sub-tropical or even sub-sub-tropical. While it rarely snows, it is bloody cold, have no doubt, but for all that, Armidale is a very attractive city and one that has much to boast about, not least the extensive campus of the University of New England.
When you take into consideration the quality schools hosting students from all around the country and some international students, it is no surprise that nearly a third of Armidale’s 24,000 residents are aged between 10 and 24, a much higher percentage than the rest of Australia.
The University of New England has some 17,000 students but many of those are in the ‘distance education’ program. It was the first Australian university established outside a capital city and has 75,000 degree graduates on the books which seems pretty impressive to me.
It was also home to Australia’s first student radio station and the Students’ Association made world headlines in 2005 by creating the position of Heterosexual Officer. They also appointed a Men’s Officer while disbanding the position of Homosexual Officer and scrapping the campus’ ‘queer space’. Other than a wry smile, I decline to comment.
By the time we were in residence in Armidale, we had already been able to organize the trailer to some extent, to make it efficient.
For a starter, we needed to separate it into a ‘his and hers’ basically so I could find my tools. By great fortune the house also had a large shed, almost unoccupied and here is where I spent a considerable part of my time. This involved many visits to the hardware store, so many in fact we thought on the last Sunday that we should call Bunnings and tell them we wouldn’t be in today.
It seemed a little incongruous to me that not so long back, to keep our essentials in order we needed almost an entire mezzanine floor in the factory, two bedrooms, lounge, two decks and lazarette on the boat and a three bedroom home with two sheds.
Now our life fitted into our old van and a box trailer, albeit with some imagination and continuous refinement.
It was really cold in the shed, most days it was at best lunch time before you could remove your jacket but to be truthful, it was a happy ‘Man Cave’ time, working with my hands again, the welcome arrival of the coffee lady and the unstinting admiration of Benny the dog.
Aside from walks to get the local paper with my mate Benny on most mornings, when the rain was not freezing on my face, we did not get to do a lot of local sightseeing, partly because of the shortness of the ‘sit’ and time constraints of getting the trailer ship-shape.
Although our stay was well past the autumn, it was evident the city would be brilliant at that time of year judging by the huge number of trees that would be covered in autumn colours.
The most striking memories we took from Armidale were the friendly people, cosy fires, tinkering in the shed with a little heater purring away and the tinge of excitement that this was just the beginning of the adventure.
Our next ‘sit’ was only five days and 1,250 kilometres away in Glenrowan Victoria. Benny would most likely be happy to see the old team again too although getting spoiled is probably off the table.