Warr Ringa means cold place, so I’ve been told. It’s on the side of a hill, with views over a paddock surrounded by gum trees, and in the distance, forested slopes that occasionally rise into peculiar conical shapes. The mailbox is a beaten-up tin can, rammed into the crevice between two red, ragged branches. It doesn’t look as if anyone has ever delivered mail to Warr Ringa. The cabin can’t be seen from the dirt-track road, only by the quietly grazing highland cattle in the paddock, and they ignore it. This cold place is certainly far from the madding crowd.
The main structure of the cabin is made of roughly hewn red bricks – not the crumbly variety that wears back recessively between the hard splintery flints in the mellow climes of southeast England, but a hard, uncompromising brick that breaks in harsh jagged edges and refuses any form of deference to mother nature. Above the brick structure is a low corrugated roof punctuated by skylights and vents. From the eucalyptus wood above the house, where a large cylindrical water tank is found, one looks down on this utilitarian, low-pitched roof surrounded by ornamental shrubs and trees, and catches the essence of living in Oz. Survival, cheerful and resolute survival. The roof collects the rains and diverts it to a second cylindrical tank at the side of the house. From there, a pump transports the water to the more elevated tank of which I have already spoken.
The roof of corrugated iron extends over a shaded verandah where crimson crested cockatoos perch and pick away somewhat maliciously at the wooden window frames. It also covers a wood store where snakes hang out, a barbecue area and also serves as a car-port. It is a thin protective cloak from the clicking and rustling of sun-weary summer days, and from the chilling rainstorms of winter. Beneath it is a haven for mice that live and die in their hundreds and accrete a thick layer of their skeletal remains, cemented by their excrement, like a fossil bed eons old. Australia is to some the opera house and Sydney harbour, but for me it is a corrugated roof, a water tank, and a bony fossil bed.
Warr Ringa is in the Macedon Range, which stands defiantly above the surrounding plains largely because it was here that, not so very long ago, volcanoes erupted viscous lavas that barely had the energy to escape from their vents. The choked vents and small, steep, cones of lava now punctuate the landscape, and provide the topography for picnic places and wineries, like Hanging Rock. It doesn’t take long to walk to the top of Hanging Rock, through the pillars of cavernous volcanic rock, but by Australian standards this is a tourist hotspot. The State of Victoria sits at the stern of a powerboat heading northwards towards Australia’s future neighbours, the wake causing melting deep below to feed the acidic volcanoes and the brown basaltic plains. While the rear of the Australian surfboard melts, the front crumples in Timor and Papua New Guinea, as Australia, bit by bit, becomes geologically part of Asia while bit by bit she does the same economically.
We departed for the Ocean Drive along the south coast of Victoria accompanied by drizzle alternating with heavy downpours, but the day finished in a brightness that gave outstanding contrast to sand spits separating sluggish backwaters from surging surf, weatherboarded guesthouses, lobster cages and seaside boutiques. The coastal scenery changed rapidly from hour to hour as the ocean revealed the secrets of Victoria’s past like a natural, indented and serrated wound. Vegetated slopes dropping precipitously to small coves and broader bays with houses stuck on wooden platforms; hilltops swathed in temperate rainforest populated by tree ferns and the green filigree of groundcover; trains of sea stacks standing like sentries guarding the mighty but vulnerable sea-cliffs as oceanic swell batters their feet. Australia crumbles as she sets her course towards Asia from her rightful berth alongside Antarctica, tilting forwards, hell-bent on collision with the tropical islands of southeast Asia at the bow and careless of her jettisoned history at the stern.
The gum trees that surround Warr Ringa drop their branches with a certain amount of enthusiasm, which is why it is unwise to park oneself beneath one of them during the blowing of a strong wind. During one such strong wind, a gum tree deposited a hefty branch that barred the driveway until neighbours with big gadgets could saw and remove the inconvenient timber, thereby connecting Warr Ringa once again to civilization. By civilization, I am referring to the odd flittish kangaroo that scarpers at your scent and the docile Aberdeen angus that can’t be bothered to raise its head to recognize your existence. So being trapped by a branch of a gum tree is perhaps not the shock to the system that, for example, running out of Veuve Clicquot after the shops have closed might be in Chelsea, or discovering that your (former) friend has quaffed the last remaining bottle of Chateau Lafite while thinking it was Jacob’s Creek. No-one could remain a friend of mine who made such a serious mistake in wine appreciation.
Shortly after the incident that led to the involuntary isolation of Warr Ringa, its owners decided to cut down a gum tree that was sufficiently close to the cabin with its corrugated roof so as to represent a safety risk. First enormous ‘rounds’ were cut, up to a metre in diameter. Then the rounds were rolled down a hill rather like, in ancient films, children with summer dresses and short trousers would navigate a thin hoop across a lawn to its uncertain destination in a herbaceous border. Perhaps a more accurate analogy would be the rolling of large cheddar cheeses down a precipitous slope in the Cotswolds, followed by yelping young men who crash, twist and somersault their way to the nearest casualty department. The rounds are assembled close to the splitter, which consists of a loud machine that sends a ram with a chiseled end into the wood, splitting it in sizes suitable for the stove. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow transports the logs to a store where they are assembled in Swiss-like geometrical correctness, to await the happy day when they might surrender to combustion. By my estimation, one tree provided work for three men for three days and enough wood for three winters. Just when you think you’ve finished, another mighty branch falls from another eucalyptus, and you are left wondering if there is anything in all of Nature so daft as the gum tree. Or to be fairer, if there is anything quite so daft as someone who buys a cabin surrounded by 50 acres of the damned things.
My first visit to Warr Ringa was by train from one of Melbourne’s main stations on a Saturday morning, but not an ordinary Saturday morning. It was the morning of the Melbourne Cup, which I understand is a momentous occasion where horses compete against each other on the race track and ladies compete against each other in their dresses and hats. It was a most peculiar experience to wait for my suburban train to Bendigo as groups of ladies walked past in shoes that caused them to stagger like drunks, tilting them forward as if they had slipped a disc or were urgently making their way to a public convenience. The ladies were dressed in a minimalist kind of way, if you know what I mean, no doubt in anticipation of a hot day at the racecourse, whereas the men were dressed like Shane Warne picking up a sports personality award, with brightly embroidered waistcoats that were in conversation with their girlfriends’ frocks. There was a procession of groups such as this. And it occurred to me that Ozzies like having a good time and really don’t take dressing up at all seriously. Australian Ascot with a different accent, a different hue.
My crowded train to Bendigo drew into the small town of Woodend on the edge of the densely forested Macedon Range, from where I was transported to Warr Ringa for the first time. The following morning, we went to a community fire defense meeting in a hall that seemed to mark the centre of the village, only it was the sole building for miles around. We listened to a man who frightened the life out of us with tales of disastrous fires, but with that phlegmatic and unruffled style that I recognized as common in Australians. Mid way through the lecture, which was illustrated with pictures from the previous year’s bushfires, I heard the clanking of heavy metal tongs against grills as the barbie was prepared outside, though it sounded initially as if a car mechanics course had started. After a rather long set of questions and answers, which were more answers than questions, we exchanged pleasantries and made a get-away. But we had not reckoned on the heavy barbie that blocked our exit. It was clearly going to cause a diplomatic incident to refuse a sausage, so I gathered one in a flimsily thin serviette, which gave me third degree burns before I could get rid of it beneath . . . yes, a gum tree, where it possibly still lies. To this day I savour the irony of incurring burns while attending a fire defense meeting, and that a gum tree came to my rescue.
It was a happy coincidence that my visit to Warr Ringa occurred at the time of a wine festival over the weekend. We set off with the intention of visiting several wineries in a circuitous route that maximized the pleasures of the Victorian countryside with the strict limitations of the road plan, to produce a route that would allow the best of the whites to be consumed before the best of the reds. Of course, the British come into their own on occasions such as this. Thus it was that we started our day sampling the best that Victoria could offer, reaching dizzying new heights of pretentiousness by noon, and ending it laughing in the back of a 4WD under the influence of a churning mixture of riesling, pinot noir and shiraz, which in the case of my brother was added to by a few indulgences in the sparkling stuff. ‘Initially disappointing, but with a strong finish’, and ‘After that nose, it didn’t quite live up to expectations’ were gradually replaced with ‘Cor, that’s nice’, and ‘Blimey, that’s cheap’, until eventually one resorted simply to ‘Where’s the loo?’ and ‘Have you seen my hat?’ At the final winerie, aptly named Granite Hills, mon frère stared at a flat panel of wood for long enough for me to realize that he must be calculating his finances in the light of the impending purchase of a few bottles of their outstanding pinot noir. This was the signal for me to sit outside as the sun started to cast long shadows across the vineyard, and a slight breeze freshened the skin. The breeze gave life to the tea trees and wattles around us, as two brothers, now continents apart, sat in the sharp contrast of the oblique light of evening, reflected, and said nothing.