Photo: iStock Photos
It was the first morning of our new life. Either a choir of yodellers had set up camp on our roof or a family of magpies was welcoming the dawn. Whichever it was, it was a huge improvement on the sound of buses changing gear.
Another improvement was the view from our bedroom window: a pink sky above a tree-scattered hill. Previously we’d looked at a tile showroom car park, which had its charms, but only for connoisseurs of big bags of grout.
The night surprised us with its darkness. This was country dark – black – and a different beast altogether from that half-light that masquerades as night in the city. We’d expected challenges when we moved to the country but never imagined finding the bedroom door would prove so tricky.
The night had not been silent, the unnerving quiet often punctuated by the more unnerving scurrying, gnashing, croaking and wailing of countless unseen creatures that seemed to live in our attic.
Yet we slept well and were raring to go that first morning, even if the first thing we were going to do in the bush was drive into town to buy washing-up liquid and toilet paper.
After a couple of hours of unpacking, cleaning and wandering around saying “ooh”, “aah” and “Lord have mercy, look at the size of this spider”, we crossed the creek and spotted our first neighbour, loading bags of manure into the boot of his car. He was so pleased to see us he was quivering with excitement.
A thin young man, he introduced himself as the Phantom – “you won’t see me very often” – and proceeded to tell us a tale.
That morning the Phantom had come across a brown snake in his garden. Not just any brown snake, but one that had reared up to head height to stare him in the eye. The adrenaline must have been pumping as the Phantom fled because, understandably reluctant to fiddle with a gate latch, he ran straight through a fence.
He then called a snake man, who caught the offender, declaring him the most aggressive and longest (at three metres) brown he had ever seen, and departed, phoning shortly afterwards to say the captive and another snake in his possession had got into a fight and killed each other.
“Look at me,” said the Phantom, holding out a bony hand.“I’m still shaking.” He urged us to take care. As well as browns, the snake man had warned that this year there were lots of taipans in the valley, too.
The temptation was strong to keep driving up that gravel road, hit the bitumen and follow it until we were back in Sydney, sobbing in the arms of the tile showroom manager. However, the fear of making the Guinness book of records for the shortest-ever treechange was stronger, so we decided to give it another 24 hours or so.
With our two children, now aged five and two, we had moved from a house in the inner city to an old Queenslander on roughly three hectares in northern NSW. Both journalists, my wife Barbara and I planned to freelance from home thanks to the magic of the internet, while raising children, chooks and vegetables.
We soon realised we wouldn’t be short of company. Green tree frogs perched on the edge of toy boxes. Insects that David Attenborough has never heard of alighted on our noses and waved their antennae at us. There were so many birds it was a surprise authorities hadn’t established an air traffic control tower. My favourite was a restless flycatcher, which hovered outside our office window as we worked, plucked moths from the insect screen and departed, making its distinctive call – rather like the sound of a carving knife being sharpened.
A shriek from Barbara signalled the discovery of our first cane toad – in the cupboard under the laundry sink. I opened the door to confirm the sighting and shrieked, too.
Cane toads are about as welcome in the bush as witches were in Middle Ages England, and the way they’re treated makes you think that mankind’s progress since then has not been as dramatic as we might like to think. People hit them with golf clubs, spray them with Dettol and blow them up with fireworks – all of which seem a little harsh on an animal whose only crime has been to be imported against its will and then make a decent fist of things.
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