Treechange realities

Ditching the hustle and bustle of the “big city” for a more relaxed country lifestyle may sound like a dream come true. But what happens when you wake up and find yourself totally unprepared for the reality of the treechange experience?

By most people’s standards, Todd and his partner Jeff were living the good life in Sydney. The successful couple had wonderful friends, two properties and great jobs that afforded them a comfortable inner-city lifestyle.

But a deep sense of unfulfillment – and a trip to the Barossa Valley that gave them a glimpse of a potential new direction – saw Todd and Jeff cast their city trappings aside for a new life in the Hunter Valley.

They bought a 100-acre property at Belford called Block Eight, with the dream of building a luxury B&B, without any real idea of what they had actually gotten themselves into.

“We had absolutely no idea. As we drove home after signing the contract I said to Jeff: ‘Just how big is 100 acres anyway?’ After dinner, we walked it out where we lived in Sydney and 40 minutes into it, I thought there’s no way we own this much land,” he said.

“We also had no intention at all of being farmers but the property we fell in love with had 12,500 grapevines and 1000 olive trees on it… Jeff said, ‘How hard can it be?’ Well, we’ve never worked so hard in all our lives but we’d never go back to the city now.

Thirty Thousand Bottles of Wine and a Pig Called Helga, by Todd Alexander, Simon&Schuster, paperback, RRP $19.99, available on Amazon.

“The only equipment we brought with us was a pair of rusty garden shears and Dad also kindly lent us his Aldi electric lawnmower. Jeff would mow around the house with three extension cords end to end. Until it ran out, we didn’t even know that most people in the country live off tank water!

“Looking back on those early months now I can’t believe how unprepared we were and just what a massive undertaking the whole venture was.”

The reality of their tree change journey saw Todd and Jeff faced with everything from a dead kangaroo in the dam to boisterous 120kg pigs and one sweet-tempered sow who changed their whole outlook on the role of farm animals. Through all the challenges and triumphs the couple remained committed to the process and six years later are celebrating the success of their now established luxury accommodation and range of premium wines and olive oils.

“We are still very much learning. The property is always throwing new challenges our way and it’s always a matter of sink or swim,” Todd said. 

“We’ve only just finished building our accommodation and after six years we just recently moved back into our house. That’s six years of living through building sites mostly, with no running water, electricity and just a portaloo.

“The night we moved in was met with this massive sigh of relief. Even though we had no idea what we were in for we both knew we’d made the right decision and there was no way we were going to fail.”

Todd recounts stories from their fledgling days on the farm in his hilarious memoir, which he hopes will “make people laugh” and also inspire others to “try something different in their lives”.

Moving to the country was a similarly spontaneous decision for fellow Sydneysider Margaret McMahon and her husband Gregan.

The successful Paddington-based lawyers had travelled to Dungog in the early 1970s to settle a property purchase for Gregan’s sister when they unexpectedly fell in love with the area and received an offer to take over the local solicitor’s practice. With little thought for anything other than the chance to pursue a “better life” for their children, the couple sold their own Sydney legal practice and moved their family to a beautiful 400-acre farm on Monkerai Hill, seven kilometers outside of Dungog.

While unforeseen circumstances saw their “beautiful dream” of building a house and running cattle on that property evaporate, they later settled down with their family on a Williams River fronted property at Clarence Town called Cottonwoods.

But while the countryside they were living in may have looked idyllic, the hard reality of establishing and running a farm without any farming experience soon became apparent.

The best laid plans…

“We were young and naive and when a proposition came out of the blue, we were attracted by the idea that we could be self-sufficient, do our bit for the environment and lead a healthy lifestyle,” Margaret said. 

Tree Change: Koalas in the kitchen, butterflies in the bush by Margaret McMahon, Copyright Publishing, available for Amazon Kindle.

“From the beginning, things didn’t work out as we anticipated. There was a very deep recession that reared its head shortly after we arrived in Dungog. This affected all our plans and ensured that we would never completely achieve our goals.

“(But) we enjoyed the challenge and never had any desire to return to the city.”

Through trial and error, countless courses in agriculture and a willingness to challenge existing farming practices to try something new, Margaret established a prize-winning herd of Poll Hereford cattle. She was later recognised for her innovative efforts, winning the inaugural Hunter Farmer of the Year award in 1998 and being presented with the local Landcare Legend award in 2001. 

After 30 years on the land, the back-breaking demands of a farming life eventually saw Margaret and Gregan sell their cherished rural property and move to a unit in Newcastle. However, Margaret has not turned her back on their tree change life completely, passing on the lessons she learned during her years on the farm through her compelling, courageous and occasionally controversial memoir – Tree Change: Koalas in the kitchen, butterflies in the bush.

Story by Michelle Meehan, pictures courtesy of Todd Alexander, Nick Cubbin and Margaret McMahon.

Read more great stories in the Autumn issue of Hunter&Coastal Lifestyle Magazine, or click here to subscribe.