We’ve been delinquent in posting not because we still can’t find a decent high speed connection but because we’ve been having too much fun hangin’ with the Aussies. We got an invitation on Sunday for dinner on Monday with a family we met in the parking lot after church. (That sounds like the lyrics to a Cake song or perhaps a tongue twister.) We had planned on meeting up with some people in Brisbane, but when that fell through we headed north instead to dine with the Drakes. Parents of seven children, Robert and Coleen were unfazed by our four. Their property was a dream for the kids–a sugar cane farm originally owned by Coleen’s parents. Fulfilling his desire to keep his family close, her father divided the land amongst his children, who now all live on the property in their own homes with their spouses and children, kind of like an Aussie version of a Kennedy compound. Robert is an accountant and never farmed the land, but Coleen’s brother farmed until about three years ago when the local processing plant shut down effectively putting all the small farmers out of business. The Drakes fittingly keep pet ducks, and much to Kieran and Asher’s delight, rats as well. Coleen assured us the rats had received a bath during the day so they would be hygenic for handling by the kids.
After a delightful home cooked meal attended by the three children who still live at home, a niece who is an apprentice electrician, three friends, Coleen’s mother, and our clan, we headed into the den for family night. We sang songs, had a lesson, and played the little kids’ favorite M&M game, “Don’t Eat Pete.” Tom spilled the beans that it was my birthday, so I even got an on-key performance of Happy Birthday on my behalf (when left to Andrus voices, there is usually little musical accuracy). We found out our new friend Naz lives just around the corner from us and will be having him over to teach the Family Night lesson next week. He was the hands down favorite for Kieran and Asher who tackled him, poked him, teased him, and nipped at his heels like puppies desperate to play. He came right back tickling Kieran and calling Asher’s name in a droll American accent every few minutes. Coleen thought Asher looks the part of a “surfy” with her new beach bronze hue and golden locks. Dax and Mac discussed movies, music, and cell phones with the older girls and could have stayed all night had we not pulled them away around 11:00 pm.
As soon as we got moving the next morning, we hopped in the van and headed west for a barby with Richard and his kids, who Tom, Mac, Kieran, and Asher met in the park outside our house the day before. Tom was immediately drawn to Richard because he had built an enormous castle on the beach using shovels and industrial sized buckets he had brought from his “farm” an hour away. Mac was pleased that he had three young sons eager to climb trees, discuss bugs, and in general run amuck with him. One of them sized up Kieran accurately when he mused, “He’s a fast midget, isn’t he?”
We weren’t sure what we were in for and were hopeful that Richard was really the nice bloke he seemed and not a predator trying to lure unsuspecting tourists to his remote property. We drove about an hour and arrived at the one-horse town of Woodford, from which we were supposed to call Richard so he could come and guide us to his difficult to find land. Tom hunted down a pay phone while the rest of us sat in the van and unsuccessfully tried to convince Asher that having her hair brushed was a good idea. All of a sudden Richard was at my open door declaring, “There you are.” Intuitively assuming it was time for us to arrive, he had made the trek from the farm and zeroed in our location. Uber host or twilight zone?
We beckoned Tom back to the car and loaded the kids up with gum and mints at the curiously named Victory Cafe (perhaps a relic from 1945?). Richard assured us no one in Woodruff is ever in a hurry, but we were still apologetic that our indecisive kids couldn’t make up their minds in a timely fashion. We followed Richard and his son Mitchell past the prison, through miles of sun-drenched hills and fields, and finally up the winding dirt road to his house. A nice couple and their two daughters, the other guests for the day, greeted us in the driveway. They looked perfectly normal, so we figured we were in for a good day.
Richard had warned us about his house. “The termites are eating it away. Soon there won’t be anything left. I had the bug man out and he just laughed. Said I shouldn’t even bother with trying to get rid of them.” So as the house crumbles around him, Richard reinforces walls, replaces windowsills, and awaits the certain demise of his dwelling. He doesn’t mind. He bought the 70 acre property for the spectacular views, indigenous wild- and plantlife, and space to store his antique car collection and the hundreds of potted plants awaiting purchase by his landscaping customers. His kids don’t seem to mind sharing their home with the insects or any of the other many creatures that wander into the structure. Geckos, huntsman spiders, and the occasional snake are welcomed and help keep out unwanted visitors like the ubiquitous mozzies that plague Queensland in the summers. The ceiling has long since fallen in and a layer of shiny silver insulation keeps the place warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The kitchen is painted a lively shade of violet and is just large enough to fit a refrigerator, a few drawers, and a secret pantry which is hidden behind a panel of sheetrock.
The walls in the house are configured haphazardly based on where the ceiling fell first and subsequent supports could be established. There are no doors, only curtains hanging in strategic locations and sign that indicates when the toilet is “In Use.” Because the walls will eventually have to go, Richard lets the kids use them as a canvas for expressing their artistic creativity. Every kid’s dream…to draw on the walls with freedom and impunity!
As if the very uprightness of the house itself was not sufficiently remarkable, the remainder of the property was even more of a marvel. Over the past 8 years or so, Richard has planted hundreds if not thousands of trees and flowers. His technique is not haphazard but carries the imprint of a professional. Ficuses, which most Americans struggle to keep alive as small houseplants, tower like oaks. Glazed terracotta pots and orbs were casually interspersed among the soaring native eucalyptus trees and carefully tended bromeliads providing pleasant surprises and indicating the subtle hand of an artist.
Richard was drawn to the land by its beauty and unlike most of his neighbors has resisted the urge to clear the trees and stock it with horses or cattle. He has gone so far as to register his property with the state government as protected land dedicated to the preservation of native species. State-employed botanists evaluated the land and agreed to provide hundreds of free trees every year for Richard to plant if he would maintain the existing ones and even offered to send in legions of what Richard deems “city-dwelling tree huggers” to clear the countryside of the pesky but beautiful pink-flowered South American invader, lantana, which threatens to choke the native underbrush out of existence. He has yet to take them up on the offer but vows he will sometime in the near future. (There’s a lot of lantana.)
After a most excellent barby comprising sausages, drumsticks, and steaks, the big kids headed off for a swim in the creek and Richard offered to take the rest of us on an abbreviated bushwalk in an effort to drum up some kangaroos and wallabies for Kieran and Asher. We had no luck on the kangaroo front (they laze in the underbrush in the heat of afternoon) but enjoyed our stroll immensely since we seemed to discover something surprising and interesting at every turn, wonders both natural and manmade.
When we got back to the house, one of Richard’s boys said, “Look at that, Dad. In Asher’s hair. What’s that?” “Why, that’s a tick,” our host replied as he pulled the innocuous looking insect the size of a grain of rice from her head. “That’ll make you really sick.” Tom and I looked at each other with concern. Richard went on, “We’ve lost a few dogs to those. I had to take Daniel to the hospital once to get one removed. They’re really nasty. When they bite you, it feels like a mosquito, but if you try to scratch, they’ll sink their little fangs in and inject a toxin.” Our parental danger meters now elevated to a state of alarm. “It’s ok. We’ve got them everywhere. I didn’t want to say anything before we left because I didn’t want to scare you. But we probably all should check for them. They like cool, moist places. Check behind your ears, on your scalp, in your underarms, up your legs, on your ankles. Yep. Look, I’ve got one right here.”
Even the other Aussies were starting to get nervous. We all examined our cracks and crevices for this death-delivering mite and were tremendously relieved when our searches proved fruitless. My hidden panic then extended to Dax and McKane who were down at some unknown body of water 2 kilometers away with absolutely no idea they were targets for a miniscule, ill-intentioned, blood-sucking enemy. Tom and Richard headed out in the People Mover to pick them up while the rest of us sat around discussing the state of technology in Australia and obsessively flicking away imaginary critters from our now hypersensitive hides.
The kids returned unscathed but full of wonder and disgust because the creekbed had been covered by thousands of moths, a phenomenon that left Tom and Richard dumbfounded. We tried to capture the indescribable scene on film, but it didn’t work out too well.
Before we left Richard lamented he had not instructed us to bring sleeping gear, so we could camp out and witness the hordes of cockatoos, parrots, roos, and wallabies that descend upon the yard in the early morning hours. We might have considered roughing it again in the van if it hadn’t been for the ticks…and the snakes…and the spiders. We thanked him for his hospitality, and he promised to look us up the next time he’s in the US. We explained our suburban fauna is rather unimpressive but remembering the “Beware: Feral Children” sign outside his house, realized that Kieran and Asher count as wildlife in anybody’s book.
At the end of the day, we were amazed by Richard…his talent, his energy, his love and attention for his kids. He is unlike anyone we’ve ever met or are likley to meet in the future. Australia is lucky to have such a savvy ambassador looking out for its visitors and we were most fortunate to have met him. Cheers Richard! We’ll see you in the States (or maybe next week at the beach)!