Retirement in excelsior

IMG_4175

A land beset by falls and gods, Burrawang is coping the only way it knows how – by coating the paths with pristine white gravel and topiary-ing the trees…

At first glance, this one-street strip is standard country fare: pub? Check. Butcher? Check. Rusted utes and verge-grazing wallabies? Hang on. No. Where are the long-downed soldiers of the road, decrepit hulks that double as kiddy playthings and brown-snake hatching spots? Where are the drought-riven wobblies who have learnt to survive by nibbling the chrysanthemums? Where, in fact, is all the country?

IMG_4185

IMG_4154IMG_4184

A note on the tastefully curated village website reads:

First settled in 1862, the village of Burrawang is nestled in the very heart  of the Highlands. It is a village that is proud of its picturesque quaintness and its nineteenth-century charm.

Our unique cottages and country gardens are little different today than they were a century ago. The local business houses, too, are famed for their old-world charm, personal service and kind hospitality. Let our village take you back in time to an era of tranquility and peace

And with its predilection for imposing gates, bells that gently tinkle in the breeze, snowy blossoms [swept fastidiously into piles] and curt, shorn verges, that ‘charm’ and ‘quaintness’ is all too apparent.

Fat, blowsy camellias spill their load in a greasy swill of colour at every corner. Well-bred tradies have tastefully branded vehicles parked outside white picket fences, and the $8 toast is missing its butter, which the Tin Lid puts down to “old-world charm” in a pique of sarcasm that fills me with pride.

IMG_4147

IMG_4187IMG_4183

Maplewood, Hathaway, The Folly, Kricklewood – we’re a long way from Dunroamin’ here Toto. In fact, with its robust endorsement of all things ornate and quaint, Burrawang – with its alarming appreciation of symmetry – is almost too tidy. Even the For Lease signs are cultivated with the discerning reader in mind.

IMG_4328

IMG_4179IMG_4150

This lofty self-appreciation is appreciated by squabbles of daytrippers. It is soaked up from the front seat of the luxury SUV or sampled from a tasting platter at the General Store. Smartphones click and snap, capturing the sights for posterity, a sports car here,
a suitably aged produce box there…

IMG_4163IMG_4167IMG_4166

Tea is served with a hand-knitted blanket at the general store, while a nice sav blanc is accompanied by artisanal bread and an iPad-clutching waiter, intent on fulfilling every future desire you might have, from truffle-infused string fries to smashed [insert superfood here]. Its retro appeal belies a very contemporary take on country living, and while the menu is gastronomic, I miss the four’n’twenty aroma and fly-stripped flaps of the corner store, complete with grimace-faced attendant and back copies of Earthmoving Equipment moulding alongside wrinkled Granny Smiths.

IMG_4165IMG_4171IMG_4168

But the bunting matches the local school’s colours, so that’s a win…

IMG_4181

A congregation of magpies warbles from the war memorial, their head-bowing respect tinged with swooping intent, beady eyes watching every flicker of movement. They appear to be looking closely at what is on offer at Burrawang School of Arts; home to the annual Burrawang Ball and “regular morning teas,” the hall offers Sketching in the Gardens workshops and group meditation, though I get the distinct impression neither impresses the birds.

IMG_4155

The town’s utilities require no meditative practice at all. Lined up in military formation, they are innately themselves, considered, calm and centred, albeit itching for someone to notice…

IMG_4157

Retirement is many things: beyond withdrawing from active working life, it is the closing of one chapter, while another begins, it’s drophead Saabs and lunch at the golf club, or large-print thrillers and cheese sarnies in front of the midday movie depending on whether you have achieved financial freedom or must now rely on increased dependence upon the state.

IMG_4161

With its foodie hotspots, botanical concept boutiques, Italian homewares, an emphasis on sustainable and seasonal eating, keep cups, regional galleries, sculpture gardens, its own symphony orchestra, lash salons and a destination store for mid-century fanatics, the Southern Highlands is the epitome of life after work. It is a mid-life merry-go-round featuring fine wine and cultured conversation, manicured lawns and stylish wellies with which to exercise the Cavoodle.

IMG_4162IMG_4164IMG_4177

Burrawang is a sanctuary, seclusion from vagaries of old age and the indignity of poverty, loneliness, fear, despair and a loss of hope, though I am not naive enough to think this sadness does not exist here. Rather it is well hidden, shrouded in well-cut linen and cinnamon scented.

But there is something missing. And I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I want to think of the new chapter in an ageing life as the zenith, the summit of the journey to reach ‘old growth’. For many, this too-tidy town is that, the crest. But it is also an ‘experiential destination’, a hot spot for those with time on their hands, and it runs the risk of becoming contrived in its perfection, a tasting plate for retirement with too many expensive sides on offer.

IMG_4173

 

There is old growth here – gentle giants creak on the wind, their shade life-sustaining, their roots the substrate to the township. But they are kept at arm’s length, shunned from participating in the country weddings, garden symphonies and stylised eating plans.

 

Perhaps if they were allowed to creep a little closer, if the land surrounding them was a little less manicured, controlled… Perhaps if there was a frisson of gentle disobedience reintroduced, in homage to the highland heroes of whom tales are told around every fire, of cattle rustling and bareback chases, shearing battles and barrels of rum? Perhaps then I could settle into old age in a place like Burrawang.

muph061-sl420-i001-001

 

 

 

A place to mourn (and other joys)

IMG_2603IMG_2584

One of the worst kept secrets in Sydney, Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden is mesmerising. It is a realm invested with emotion, joy tinged with grief, peace rippling with agitation, and introspection duelling with extroversion.

It is a remembrance space, where memories swirl and glisten, tears that roll tenderly across the garden’s skin, an unearthly realm wholly of the earth and its fecund beauty.

IMG_2582IMG_2583IMG_2591

Autumn carousels at the edges, adorned in gold. The light filtering through is inlaid with iridescence, a sharp glint of dew prickles the retina, and the smell is gothically pungent, a damp stew of rich earth, rotting bodies and the skeletons of leaves.

IMG_2589IMG_2586

For over 20 years, Wendy Whitely has toiled here, divesting her grief into a florescence of love. Neglected and forlorn during the years she and husband Brett Whiteley lived in Lavender Bay, the garden was ripped, torn, trampled and scoured into existence following his death…

“In the weeks that followed Brett’s death in 1992, Wendy’s grief-stricken need to regain some control in her life, to clean up a mess that she could clean up, found her obsessively attacking the piles of overgrown rubbish on the large land-filled valley of unused railway land at the foot of her house. Wendy hurled herself into the site, hacking away at lantana, blackberry vines and privet, clearing up dumped bottles, rusty refrigerators, rotting mattresses, labouring till she was too exhausted to think or feel, then collapsing into sleep each night.”

wendyssecretgarden.org.au

IMG_2615

She has created a sanctuary, a healing place still raw with sorry business yet innately peaceful. Perhaps that is why people are so attracted to it, for while the foliage is exquisite, the shrubs bushy and the tall trees sentinel in their guard, there is something else here, a sense of cathartic release, a sense of pure peace.

IMG_2611IMG_2600IMG_2592

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I suspect subconsciously it’s why I invited The Gamekeeper…

Who is quite beside herself.

IMG_2585

She is communing with nature, a fleshy native among exotic orientals and indigenous stalwarts, a panoply of lush vegetation: Port Jackson figs, bamboo stands, camphor laurels, Bangalow Palms, a Moreton Bay fig that seems to swells perceptibly each time you gaze at it…
native ginger,
Acacia,
bananas,
bromeliads,
ferns,
vine-strung masts that carry a canopy of green,
and Dr Seuss trees…
IMG_2610
IMG_2598
IMG_2597

Winding gullies peel from Wendy’s elegant home at road level, scuttling fast and steep into the depths. Carved wooden handrails are a serpentine guide to bark-lined paths, the garden absorbing you as light is extinguished by dark. In the dampness near the water’s edge, a wagtail flits impatiently, its legacy as a harbinger of gossip and bad news distilled, here, into vague disquiet.

IMG_2265IMG_2595IMG_2608IMG_2609

The bird’s flitting message is poignantly clear, though. This is goodbye, the separation of a long-limbed friendship by distance. The Gamekeeper is relocating, escaping the emerald city for greener pastures.

With change comes melancholy – rakishly astride anticipation – and mourning for what will be lost. But in this sacred space, invested as it is with spirit and soul (and the ashes of Brett and their daughter, Arkie), I sense the joy in change, the possibility and expectation of what comes next.
Rubbled with white goods, tangled, feral in form and choked by lantana, the garden was cultivated into what it is by grief, yet at its heart, what it conveys is hope and refuge, which is what every traveller needs.
That and a hip flask…

IMG_2594

Safe travels my friend.

 

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett

 

 

Of steel and salt

IMG_0734IMG_0732

Renegade and tumbledown, Newcastle Ocean Baths are a still life in concrete and rust, skeletal girders and pockmarked slabs slick with the patina of summer: ice-cream wrappers wrinkle and skid bombing gracelessly into the depths, cream is smeared on lips and hips, its oily sheen rainbowing the water, and drifts of sand and chicken salt cling to the softest part of toes.

IMG_0742

IMG_0738IMG_0737IMG_0739

An echo of a simpler life, the utilitarian beauty of the baths is scorched, degraded and rusting alive, concrete cancer a virulent viral decimator. Band-Aids swarm the drains, bawling nanas corral their ratbag charges with promises of sweaty pocket-fluffed lollies, and the lifeguards are snoozing in splintered towers.

IMG_0694

Clouded green shadows entice the Tin Lid and his besties in, a concrete bollard chained to the depths their end game. Snorkelled up, riots of high-vis swimmers crowd the ragged edges, soft skin splitting and weeping. Bombing, howling, stalking and raging with delight, they trawl through sun-stretched days, exposed hides pinking in delight.

IMG_0364IMG_0366

IMG_0695

Amid a haze of saltwater, Winnie Blues and tea in polystyrene cups, ice-cream-crusted piccanins barrel into crumpled mothers endlessly searching for lost thing, while goggles get smashed…

IMG_0736

The cool depths of this one-time deco darling are a magnet, drawing swimmers, lovers, pirates, hippie-chicks with salt-crusted locks and old men who gamble using long-dead crab carcasses. It is a microcosm of life at the water’s edge and the epitome of cool relief on a blistering day.

Newcastle MirageShane Williams

The baths and pavilion crest the edge of the world on a wave-cut platform, a lifeline between ocean and earth. Opened in 1922, at one time this was a sparkling jewel in Newcastle’s mercantile crown. Today, authorities bluster and frown, conservation vs gentrification an epic battle of wills. The Young Mariner’s Pool was carved out of the stone for the ‘tinies’ in 1937 but was so popular with all ages it had to be extended. Today the Canoe Pool is a glorious knee-deep wonderland, crusted edges, flaky form and brimming with bodies.

IMG_0682IMG_0754IMG_0751

IMG_0744IMG_0746

A turquoise geometry defines the business end of the baths, numbered pedestals queuing for attention, bleachers bleaching in shards of light, spectators blooming like algae on wet rocks when the races are on.

IMG_0807IMG_0808IMG_0809

Beyond, however, is the land of big rollers, endless pounding walls of water that drench and scour. Storm drains peel from fragments of land with bite-size jags, spewing water in effervescent efficiency, and ocean crevasses swallow your mind whole, a one-way trip to Narnia bathed in acid-green kelp.

Here council approved ‘protection from the elements’ dissolves pitifully into the raw fabric of the earth, studded as it is with razor-sharp rock, staunch in the face of crashing surf, sluicing tides and the stink of decaying flesh. This is an entirely new reality, and one the children, unsurprisingly, take to with alacrity…

IMG_0698

Newcastle HeraldIMG_0712

This is the land of trawlermen and surfers, back-flipping teens on the hunt for fresh-fleshed girls and a mob fishing for flatties off sea-grass rocks. Memories are enshrined, shrines memoried, and shadows cast long.

IMG_0711IMG_0710IMG_0709

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Roachy, La Punk, the Waterman and the Cowrie Hole boys send their love.

Frilled out into the endless blue, this scratch of land holds endless adventure, roaring with sound and spray. Its depths are watery homes glanced through glass, its heights cumulus nimbus curls.

IMG_0755IMG_0724IMG_0728IMG_0730

And it is home, for a short while, a reminiscence of childhood, the immediacy of now palpable.

IMG_0725IMG_0722IMG_0713

IMG_0693

Time feels inert as if stolen from another generation and laced with the narrative of a simpler story, a no-frills nuance on reality. It offers up a borrowed sense of freedom while sluicing free the anxiety and exhaustion that shackles itself to us all, the aggressive silent partner in this modern-day marriage.

With crabs clutched in salty hands, tangles of hair sucked dry, we straggle home as the light fades, the only recourse hot chips beneath a mantle of cawing gulls and teenage attitude.

IMG_0763IMG_0778

Big tree country

 

We are bound by our senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch; memory, hunger, thirst, fright, the sense of time – and while enlightenment might be scoured from a freedom from such perceptions, entangled as it is in the prosaic, in the land of the giant trees, I am willingly enslaved to mine.

Towering, reaching, pulsing with acrid sap, a blood that weeps and boils from gnarled skin, the leviathan blue gums in this prehistoric valley have stood sentinel to time for longer than I can perceive. Five-foot nine-and-a-half (that bit’s important), I am reduced to insignificance at a stroke, my heartbeat slows, my eyes gaze ever upwards, my nose is hijacked by the sharp bite of eucalyptus, muddled with dark soil, crushed bracken spores, the damp of long-awaited rain and the rich stink of spring.

In the beat of silence I hear the thrum of life, unfurling, breathing, synthesising. Spores joyride the air like bikers astride the white line, violent, determined, fighting fit. The unquestioned authority of nature, the vibration of a system locked in form and undeniable, is as far removed from white picket fences and a nicely sculpted decorative shrub as you can get.

It rips into itself, tearing old flesh from new growth and spewing it aside, the vicious denouncement of renewal. A festering carcase broils with flies, its decay too pungent to investigate further – possum, deer, wombat, bush turkey, all potential winners in the final race to the sticky loam below.

We are on Dharug land, at the very end of Weatherboard Ridge Trail, Wollemi National Park, where the scrawl of the track dips its toes into Wheeny Creek, open river land that writhes against the steep sides of a bristling ridge, rocks thrown and tumbled into precarious place a wonderland for the Tin Lid and his blonde compadres.

Lyrebirds do a roaring trade imitating bellbirds, who ignore them and continue to peal into the void, while a bush turkey named Trevor wages war on the provisions, gobbling in glee at his perceived superiority. While Trev clearly has the upper hand over the Kelpie, who, as yet, has failed in her attempts to fly, the homo sapiens have made inroads into the melee, existing on salty cheese and beer in halls made of tin:

Velvet swathes of untethered time are soft on my skin, a kaleidoscope of space and place and random thought, interspersed only by smoky tea steaming from the billy. The throng of happy noise that arises from the kids disperses into the distance, the crackle of the CB the only constant. Memory crowds in, time retracted to a distant source, another place, another country, but the same feeling, the same Lapsang taste.

I am humbled here, ploughed fallow in my humanness. The wild glory of old-growth untamed bushland exists in every dimension, a welcome assault to the senses. Straddling the skies the trees unpeel striped skin in a bark of delight. It lands, wet, at our feet, a sacrifice perhaps, revealing the pale beauty of the clean soft surface beneath. And every element is textured, organic braille to be interpreted and absorbed: moss, lichen, pine needles that pillow beneath our feet, swallowing sound;

Flames of colour lick at our gaze, the riot of life synaesthesia for the soul.

And an ochre cave cradles us in its embrace, the aeons of time etched in its skin:

The towering stands of this natural theatre are so far removed from the modern conceits of human existence as to be almost predatory. Senses twitching, nerves on edge, fight, flight or succumb – this is not a human domain but the realm of nature, swelling, splitting, oozing, leaching, as if…

As if we weren’t here.

We all deal with it in our own ways. The Cowboy spews fire into the night sky, a warrior in tune with the majesty that dwarfs him…

He insists on making chappatis to sustain us and a fire to warm us.

The Tin Lid resolves to embrace his animal instinct, mastering a low-slung holler, limbs akimbo

And me? I suck it all in, this powerful sense of human inertia and insignificance, drawn in magnetic spirals by a swarming, relentless presence. Heart of Darkness undertones slake a thirst for realism and  ‘authenticity’ – the buzz-word for an urban generation – and the concrete, diesel, asphalt and attrition of the city is sluiced free, pooling in the heaving dirt at my feet.

 

 

 

A spinster’s folly

Cloistered, sequestered, filed in time, an ornamental garden is an expression of love, carved into the rich earth only deep care, time and wealth can provide. The verdant yet contained splendour of a planned, pruned, perfected and propagated natural space is designed to pocket emotion as a thief palms a purse, to stall your pace and entice you to lie down beneath the shade of a broad-leaved tree, the velvet scent of year-round blooms syrup on the breeze.

Private gardens were designed to express the power and benevolence of the ruling or upper classes long before public spaces designed for the masses were developed. They were elite. A philanthropic badge for the well-breasted. Still are, in most cases: Tivoli, Versailles, Babylon and Kenroku-en in Japan, all known for their spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity.

Yaralla is no exception:

Rose arbours, camelia veils, sculpted cycads and canary palms set the bar high, but it is the avenue of mature-leaved brushbox – sentinel shadows akimbo – that steals the show, an entrance that cannot be ignored. Ramrod straight, we are channelled into the heart of another world, a bygone era.

The local dialect for ‘camp’ or ‘home’, Yaralla is a nineteenth-century Italianate mansion set in 37 hectares of land that fringes the Paramatta River at Concord West. It is considered an exceptionally rare and complete example of a large Edwardian private residential estate complete with grotto, spindly towers atop the front door and rural acreage, an anomaly amid the contemporised sprawl of modern cities.

From the crest, the rural idyll unpeels into the amalgam of a red-brick hospital complex, incinerators and frosted glass the destination for the whine of an approaching siren. Across the estate, a distant stripe of water glistens, a mighty river that soothes hot edges. Beyond, though, its farthest edge is cramped with little-box bowers and the whump whump whump of piledrivers, digging deep into old flesh.

The contrast is mesmerising.

Yaralla was built for the only daughter of Thomas Walker – Eadith – who lived here between 1861-1937, cradle to grave. It was her passion, a powerful display of elegance and prosperity. It was a self-sustaining destination where even the horses had plaques, Captain and Baron immortalised in an echoing space, a fox weathervane idling in the calm…

The clock tower and weathervane

Run as a feudal estate, Yaralla had its own power plant, fire station, bakery, laundry and dairy, with two river wharves catering for its bustle of traffic. Eadith had 25 servants and employees living on the estate, including a butler, nine maids, cooks, laundresses, chauffeurs, four gardeners, poultry and dairymen, a housekeeper and an engineer. There were four bulls, eleven cows, horses, hens, ducks and geese, as well as rockeries, fountains, ornamental urns, hothouses, a conservatory, rose gardens, a fresh-water swimming pool with bathhouse, a lavender walk and the infamous grotto.

The dairy

The race

 

The grotto

With the Secretary betrothed to her ongoing quest for world domination, and my attorney fighting the good fight in the war against right-wing journalism, I have seconded the Gamekeeper, a woman whose intimate knowledge of loquats pays off immediately.

It was her idea, a country jaunt in the heart of the city abreast our trusty steeds (complete with flat cap). From a long line of wild foragers, the Gamekeeper is an excellent partner in crime, notably because she also brought a picnic and tea in a thermos, which proved both fitting and filling and required leisurely repose.

We investigate salt-fringed mangroves, swamp-oak floodplain forests and rare Turpentine stands. Desert fan palms, cycads, agave and aloe strut their oriental stuff around the grotto, while cedars, Kauri pines, Moreton Bay figs, orchids, Himalayan firs, hibiscus, oleanders, camellias, Indian hawthorn and more vie for attention, a riot of colour, scent and sound, their boughs heavy with the raucous chatter of maggies, parrots and cockatoos, fairy-wrens flitting like light on the leaves.

Stands of bamboo shoulder an ancient wharf and a tangled coastal path is pungent with the stench of salt and mud. It is littered with shell middens, rock oysters the size of dinner plates testament to the riches here.

Aside from gulls ‘maaaaaaate-ing’ from a barge on the water, the tchick tchick tchick of the sprinkler is the only other noise, until a high-vis-clad horticultural crew hove into view. Once a high society hub that catered to royalty and rogues, including aviator Ross Smith, who famously landed in the front paddock and shared cucumber sandwiches with Eadith, today it is the gardeners’ domain.

Well, theirs and NSW Health.

Pale peppermint tones beneath the awnings of the main house belie its historic grandeur and lend it a vague sickliness, a pallor that extends to the quietened windows and sticky-backed plastic foyer. A ‘serious sign’ requests beaky eyes not get too close – it’s an easy request to uphold: much of the glamour has seeped away in a sluice of foamy handwash, and today Yaralla’s heart belongs to patients.

Eadith was a benevolent soul, a philanthropist like her father. Aside from the pet cemetery she dug for her dogs, upon her death, Yaralla was donated to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, to become an outlying convalescence and care unit, its cottages set aside for elderly people in need.  

Eadith was described as fiercely patriotic, loyal to the Empire and ‘a Britisher to the backbone’, despite being born and bred in Australia. Her allegiance is painfully clear in her devotion to the gardens: water is pumped and sprinkled on to the grounds day in, day out. The roses, though not blooming at this time of year, have a team of carers to disperse their needs, OH+S fluorescence a beacon of duty. Post and rail fences are taped up like limbs requiring splints, and the gates have electrical collars as if they might escape.
It is jarring to the eye. That something so beautiful can be so at odds within the broader landscape surprises the Gamekeeper, but the manicured order at Yaralla – flower picking beds, stone carved balustrades and trellises of delicate blooms – sticks out like topiary in the outback. The wild beauty of this land, as it would have been when the estate was built, is subsumed by an order not native to it… herbaceous colonisation if you will. 
And while the ornamentalism on show is captivating – a breathy respite from suburbia and better than anything other than what was – I will always question its place here and its patent need for a team of professionals dedicated to its ongoing convalescence. 

 

 

 

 

 

Laid to rest

There is purpose in his stride and a marmot backpack clinging to his back as the Tin Lid climbs the well-worn steps of the infamous Oasis Hotel. Little is known about this watering hole’s nefarious past, just that it has one, and my intrepid assistant is on the case, nose tuned to the stench of corruption and decay.

Grime-streaked stairs lead to the vacant acres of the first floor. Bathed in light, it would be a property developer’s dream… if it was zoned ‘residential’ and in the heart of the inner west.

As it is, this space is abandoned in time, a relic thick with ghosts. Something happened here, years ago, and age has wearied her. The light-filled expanse creaks and sighs and there is a nebulous trace that flickers in the air, a haunting that nags and bullies, demanding attention like a quarrelling lover…

“It happened. Right here, you know? Youse can still see the marks on the glass…”

 

“I saw it mate, sick!”

 

“He got what he deserved… fucking cop”

So much space, yet it is so filled with memory you have to chew through chunks of it to move around. It tastes like stale smoke and hard-worked grit, like sour slops and cutting loose on a Friday night. It tastes of anticipation and adrenalin, chickie-babes and gleaming muscles, of high-vis diesel stains and the tiny beads of condensation on the outside of a schooner brimming with VB…

In the heart of Bankstown, the Oasis squats inelegantly on South Terrace, a colon of a catchment that leads to North Terrace before coiling back on itself. While downstairs still manages a brisk trade, upstairs it’s howlingly empty.

According to one excited statistic from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Canterbury and Bankstown recorded the most murders for any NSW council area in 2016, ‘one life taken every month last year!

Wally Ahmad – one of Western Sydney’s most infamous crime figures – was gunned down in a brutal underworld execution in Bankstown on April 29th last year. It was a Friday afternoon and he was drinking coffee at Bankstown Central Shopping Centre. On October 25, a drive-by shooting saw Hamad Assaad gunned down in front of his Georges Hall home, perhaps in retaliation for the gangland assassination. Furthermore, “investigators believed Ahmad’s killing could have been retribution for the murder of Safwan Charbaji earlier in April outside Ahmed’s smash repair shop in Condell Park…”

It’s a deranged daisy-chain of retaliation, vengeance laced with fury played out amid the gentle sway of life in an ‘any-other’ suburb just 20kms west of the city. It’s the ripe reckoning of a cash-grab for laundered power, of extortion, narcotics, guns and control. And, in the padded excess of the 80s, the Oasis was allegedly one of the platters from which it oozed.

In 1982, strife was rife.

Downstairs, this was happening:

“Guests at a wake for a murdered criminal dived for cover last night when the suspected murderer appeared at a crowded Bankstown hotel and shot another man dead.

The gunman, described by police as an extremely dangerous hit man, ran from the Oasis Hotel in South Terrace through a car park and disappeared as drinkers were still lying on the floor. Police said John Doyle, 35, of Glenfield, ran out to fight the gunman after four shots were fired through a plate glass window into the bar area.

No one was hurt in the initial shooting, but Mr Doyle was shot in the stomach as he grabbed the gunman. Despite quick treatment from ambulancemen and paramedics, he died soon after reaching nearby Bankstown hospital.

A detective at the scene said about 30 guests had gathered in the bar at the Oasis Hotel to hold a wake for Garry Graham Riley, 32, who was found dead in a car at Padstow 10 days ago. Riley, who had convictions for assault, robbery, stealing and breaking and entering, was on remand for a charge of indecent assault when he was found with six .38 calibre bullets in his head. Homicide detectives believed they knew who was responsible for his murder.”

Meanwhile, upstairs, an even less well-documented drama was unfolding…

And dust still clings to one of the windows, ghostly prints lurching from its powdery reveal.

According to ‘those in the know’, the first floor operated as a nightclub in the early 80s; on one occasion the coppers stormed in, raiding the joint for whatever it was worth to them.  They were promptly ‘removed’ by the bouncers, one through a plate-glass window.

The downstairs drama is recorded in time in one solitary Sydney Morning Herald account, archived to within an inch of its life and buried in the fluttering reams at the heart of the internet.

Upstairs, the story is conceived in whispered motes only, an insinuation, a slight, a snippet of rumour. Was it an internal window? How far did he fall? What did he hit?

All that is known is that the copper didn’t make it. The force shut the place down, with the edict, “this place will never re-open”.

These windows look suspicious, coated in fingerprint powder and clattery to the touch. But if they are coated in dust, they can’t be the ones he fell through, right?

The rooftop makes an airy playground for the Tin Lid, who has, by now, forgotten why he is here.

In the absence of answers, we explore further. The hotel’s gauche glory is a little tarnished now, leached to the bone by the acidity of time. The paint is in revolt, blistering from every surface; the floors slide beneath you yet are sticky to the touch; and the urinals are a still-life of rancid decay. Even the pigeons have scarpered.

Out the back of the bar, where life saddens into pools of disconsolate shadows, the narks and cartels recede a little. Here, the wraiths cling, desperate to hold on to the forlorn slice of life they called their own. Once. Down a dim corridor, the boarding rooms line up. Functional and far from aesthetic, they are a grim portrait of life on the breadline.

At the mention of bread, the Tin Lid reminds me it’s lunchtime, in his own inimitable style:

The Oasis’ delinquent past steams from its cracks, like the puff of air that escapes a kerb sofa when you sit on it, musty and rank. The vestiges of a bygone era are everywhere, memories stuck in the gullet of now. But these, floated down from the walls, the tape that once held them flaky dandruff, these are more heartfelt than heinous…

Just old and faded. Although that motor has got form…

We leave in a flurry, lightsabers at the ready, intent on scoring sumac-sprinkled meat served with fresh labneh, mint and pomegranate, lunch with a middle-eastern provenance Bankstown’s other legacy.

I can’t help but wonder, though. Will the Oasis ever relive its glory days, proudly anarchic and staunchly naughty? Somehow, I doubt it.

 

 

 

 

 

At the edge of the world

“Renaissance cartographers portrayed the edge of the known world as an evil, enchanted place, where storms raged and bizarre creatures lurked. Sailors foolhardy enough to venture there were believed to face certain death. Yet resolute explorers pushed the world’s edge ever farther back, until the map finally wrapped around the globe.”

Jamie James, www.theatlantic.com

This triggered apprehension is the epitome of the Australian Gothic movement – the landscape is seen as malevolent so that terror shrouds the perception of a barren land that resolutely fails to fit a romanticised colonial ideal, that of the bucolic, verdant bounty of England’s green and pleasant lands. It was driven by fear of the unknown, a storm of ‘what-ifs?’ wresting anticipation into the realm of rank foreboding.

Far from the tame, considered beauty of the motherland – coppices cradled in cropped uniformity, ‘shaded lanes‘ and ‘soft dim skies‘ – the end of the world is a helix in time, a sinkhole to the past where the light dances and skulks with staccato resonance, a brooding reiteration of the dawning of time.

“Throughout its history Tassie, as the Australians call it, has attracted a rugged breed of people who have come and stayed. The first wave of Western inhabitants, the convicts transported from Great Britain, came involuntarily; but in modern times the island has held a special appeal for visionaries, explorers drawn to the far end of the earth.”

Jamie James, www.theatlantic.com

In a world in which everything has an online representation, Mount Terra, just to the north-west of Hobart, has but an echo of a story. Its contours exist in a vortex, no name, no place, no mark. It is a whisper cast in low-level light, bound by the circles of age that can be traced on ragged skin.

A sculpted muscle on the flank of Mt Dromedary, Mt Terra rises 608m above sea level. Mists swaddle ancient boughs heavy with doused lichen. Speckled rocks and faded green moss never rouse, but an iced bite refreshes the tips of your ears.

The air is bracing – a ‘clean’ you can taste – raw oxygen pumping into your veins like a drug, a soaring invocation of life on the edge.

Australia itself is remote, tucked away from almost everywhere else, but Tasmania – a small island state that dangles like a glittering pendant from the mainland’s neck notch – is about as far from anywhere as it’s possible to go.

And then there’s Mount Terra. So close to Hobart and yet so far removed, with its escapist views and redneck tinge it is wholly of its own. Trees and reptiles shed their outer casings to litter the dirt; skins and furs line the walls of the homes, crouched around wood stoves; and time casts off its mantle, stripping itself bare beneath our curious gaze.

There is a faintly gothic taint: the land is wreathed in smoke and fog, wraith-like vapours caught in curled valleys, pink, heather and velvet-grey tones bruise a faded eucalypt haze, and weathered hulks loom from the shade. But it is playful too, a natural wonderland, rich in soul, and the Tin Lid is quick to find his realm: a shattered trunk becomes a trader’s den, founded on the principles of Bartertown, rocks exchanged for love and long sticks.

Bleached rises soar ever up, strewn with the carcasses of long-hollow timber and burnt out burrows, while the scale, from the minute to the majestic, is awing.


And within this untamed intensity, couched within the wild sparse beauty of the edge, there is a tenderness. Stoves and flames stoke a closeted warmth, and life is carved out carefully:

   

Windows open to the expanse, edges are curled in tight. Rocks and bush poles form sturdy homes that bubble with hard-won laughter and warm toes; the scent of heady wine hangs in the air and produce comes carved from the earth.

In a shiver of sunlight at the zenith of day, we toast to a new life, a world away from the roaring choked grit of the city, and devoid of convenience or clique.

Faded by trial and time, Mount Terra is where shadows race to meet each other and an ancient place exposes its bones. It exists at the edge of the world and yet it feels so familiar, home away from home.

They say that here, time is forgotten. That can’t be, not in our modern world. Perhaps, instead, it has escaped, billowing free in an endless sky.