Ten years ago, I found out. After living in London and then Brisbane for seven years by mistake, my husband and I moved onto five acres halfway up Tasmania’s idyllic Tamar Valley, an hour away from the nearest department store and anything else that was familiar.
Like a lot of people we were looking for a sea change. We wanted to downshift, live life at a slower pace, bring up our little family in the bush, or near it. And my husband wanted alpacas. He had a thing about them.
Quickly we had to adjust to new ways of living. No longer could we just flick a switch for warmth. Now we had to split logs, stack them and light a fire. Drinking water didn’t come from the local authority but straight off our roof, with traces of possum poo.
Out on the property, Oliver set about building a shed (every Australian man needs one) the size of an aircraft hangar. I went straight to the local playgroup. There I met women who told me how to stack a woodpile and dispose of my livestock’s afterbirth. (You don’t want to know just yet).
Along the way, we met our neighbours Damo (Edna to his friends) and his niece Bob and got livestock of our own – mainly chickens, Midget the retired sheepdog, and two pregnant alpaca mares. When I saw the grumpy one with the legs of her unborn calf sticking out of her back end one morning, I knew I’d be late getting the kids to school.
Gradually we settled in and experimented with rural living. Could we turn our livestock into cuisine? When Vlad the cockerel went feral, could we cook him for dinner or had he got rigor mortis? How to put in a kitchen garden a la Monty Don when one’s soil was the texture of concrete? And yoga in the country: those who have chopped their fingers off with an axe must adapt their poses.
Gradually Tasmania got under our skin and rewrote our sense of what home meant with a palimpsest of new experiences - the scent of peppermint gums after rain, the bite of the wind when snow lay on the Midlands, the whisper of dry grasses in the paddocks under the heat of the summer sun. We understood why Tasmanians chose to live and die on their land. We were coming to feel the same.
This book is about leaving the city and learning to live the good life, work, play and face everything that life throws at you together, depending upon each other even when you’d rather not. Whilst it’s a humorous book, it has moments of reflection and poignancy, and lots of local colour.
Once the butt of Australia’s jokes, Tasmania has come of age in the past decade. It’s now on many a traveller’s bucket list as their destination of choice. We didn’t know it would turn out this way when we moved here. We just got lucky.
Apple island Wife is an armchair travel book that gives you a sticky beak, as we say in Australia, into what it’s like to live in a different place with a sense of adventure and a resistance to normal paid employment.
So if you’re suffering the effects of Brexit or Trump, or you’re sweltering in city or outback Australia, pledge your support and get a copy of Apple Island Wife, for a vicarious taste of the good life in Tassie.
It was quarter past ten one Wednesday morning when I happened to glance out of the kitchen window and catch sight of Lorna, still Tasmania’s grumpiest alpaca, standing awkwardly in the paddock. The forelegs and head of an unborn calf were sticking out of her back end. It was at that point I knew we’d be late for playgroup.
And so it was that I spent the next hour engaged as midwife to this ungrateful mare. It was a series of tasks I hadn’t expected to have to demonstrate that morning.
Since nothing in my earlier life or the arts degree I’d completed at university had prepared me for delivering an alpaca calf, I rang Oliver to find out what to do. Oliver had chosen to go out that morning on a cabinet making job, to see a client who wanted a kitchen. It was just like him not to be there when one of his precious livestock chose to deliver, I thought, stabbing at the numbers on the keypad. Had he given a thought to what might happen if his alpaca went into labour while he was contemplating laminated benchtops? I severely doubted it.
When I got through to him, he was typically unfazed and clearly expected me to be also. ‘There’s not much to it, really,’ he advised calmly. ‘They have a much easier time of it than you did.’
Typically, an alpaca gives birth between the hours of eight and eleven in the morning. That gives her cria the rest of the day to get up and about, learn how to walk and suckle, identify a predator and find the water bucket. In the late afternoon they might even gamble around the paddocks if they’ve found their feet. In almost every case, the birth is problem free and requires no intervention.
Having gleaned this from Oliver, I ran over to his workshop with a set of keys, to find the iodine he’d told me I would need. Kit toddled noisily behind me. I forced myself to stop and wait for him, as he paused to admire the purple sprouting broccoli and the white cabbage butterflies flitting around it with destruction on their minds and evil in their insect hearts. Minutes later after this brief interlude, we reached the workshop door. None of the keys I’d brought with me opened it. Swearing under my breath, I ran back to the kitchen, telling a confused Kit to wait where he was, and then befuddling him even more by racing back a couple of minutes later flustered and red in the face. Finally a key worked in the lock, and I rifled hurriedly through the jumble of contents in the cupboards, wondering what an iodine bottle looked like.
After what seemed like an eternity, with iodine in hand we traipsed back down to the willow paddock. ‘Stay there, darling!’ I instructed sweetly, pointing Kit towards the wire fence.
‘Come in?’ he questioned keenly.
‘No darling, stay outside while I go and see Lorna.’ I fumbled with the lock on the gate.
‘Want come in!’
‘No darling, Lorna is having a baby and I need to help her.’ Not only did I have to attend an alpaca birth, I thought to myself, but I now had to explain events in terms a one year old could understand. It was all a bit much for a morning when I’d expected to go to playgroup for some finger painting and a cup of tea.
Kit stood obediently at the fence, a little agitated by all the dashing about. Down in the paddock, meanwhile, Lorna’s delivery had also become a high speed event. As I approached, a black, wet baby alpaca cria, its fleece all crinkled from the crush of its passage through Lorna’s bony pelvis, plopped onto the ground and began waving its head from side to side, presumably gathering its thoughts.
It was freezing in Tasmania last week. Determined to be warm not cold, I channelled Roadl Dahl and took to my bed with the electric blanket set on ‘toast’ and my work balanced on a tray before me.
The rest of the house is normally warm but this was a manufacturing week for our farm and food business, meaning my Other Half was making sausages downstairs in the kitchen, and he prefers the temperature…
These people are helping to fund Apple Island Wife: One Woman's Adventures on Five Acres in Tasmania.