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26 December 2002

They come from the Big Smoke - refugees from outrageous real estate prices or those liberated by the cyber office. A year ago, Christopher Kremmer joined them for the Sydney Morning Herald

There came a point when we rounded a bend, the rolling hills flattened, the road straightened and tall trees formed a protective canopy. Suddenly, the conversation in the car died. The scenery was doing the talking, and it sounded like home. Beyond the trees, freshly planted vines imposed order on the scrub and gateposts pointed to berry farms and wineries, antiquarian bookshops and historic villages.

It was a sunny winter's day in the Southern Highlands, the air crisp as champagne, towering pines bristling in a postcard-blue sky. Yet this was no sightseeing tour.

In the summer of 2001, my wife Janaki and I had returned to Sydney after a decade abroad. Exile had intensified memories of a city where you could spend the morning in a cafe, the afternoon on the beach and the evening at the concert hall.

For once, memory wasn't lying. You could throw back that macchiato, frolic in those breakers, and dip into the cultural ocean that washes against the harbour city's shores - and be home in time for work. In the first few months we asked why had we ever left. Why did Sydneysiders bother travelling to distant destinations for their holidays when one of the world's great getaways was on their doorstep? It didn't get any better than this, we agreed, and decided to invest in Sydney real estate.

That's when the dream began to turn sour. It was the usual story. Lebensraum priced at cruel premiums and winning views beyond our means. The market's view of how and where we should live was different from our own.

Then we saw it. A display ad in the local newspaper featuring a restored 19th-century stone cottage with open fireplaces, four bedrooms and a sprawling garden, all for the price of an inner-west tunnel house. The only catch: it wasn't in Sydney.

That was how we ended up on the M5, the magic tunnel that has opened up the Southern Highlands to the urban masses - and doubled the house prices. An hour out of Sydney we were 600 metres above sea level and climbing through the chain of villages between Mittagong and Bundanoon, Australia's equivalent of The Berkshires or upstate New York.

The honey-coloured sandstone cottage was perched on a hillside acre, facing north, dwarfed by old pines. The original portion was built when settlers were shorter than they are today, and we had to stoop to enter some rooms. An extension at the back provided a more practical living area.

It was half the price of a similar spread anywhere in Sydney. The agent was a laconic man, who swore the real estate business was different in the Highlands. There would be no auction, just an asking price. Nobody had been gazumped since Governor Macquarie gave Charles Throsby 405 hectares in 1820. We did our sums, investigated the possibilities of working from home, put down a deposit and moved in.

Although it had been vacant for several months, the house was in remarkably good shape. But the bull that had kept the adjacent vegetation down had been shipped off by the previous owner.

Clearing 2000 square metres of thick scrub with nothing more than a shovel challenged muscles that hadn't seen the inside of gym in years. But clearing the land - and purging the city in us - proved addictive. Soon we were scratched and sunburnt, but strangely satisfied.

With labour came a new wardrobe. Hats, boots and oilskins were a matter of practical necessity - and we joined that strange tribe of new arrivals in various stages of transformation towards the practical dagginess of hats, flannelette shirts and work dacks with the bums hanging out of them.

Like it or not, your image changes when you go bush. Friends joked that our speech had slowed and our conversations were laced with fatalistic gripes about the weather and politicians' neglect of rural areas. Having made their point, they roared off home to Sydney in their 4WDs.

Locally, our arrival was greeted with a degree of minor celebrity. Highlife, the glossy bible of upmarket Highlands lifestyle announced it with a review of my book, The Carpet Wars, and Nancy Shearer's bookshop organised a reading in Bowral.

In the early weeks, we were kept busy answering a stream of knocks at our door from locals extending a welcome and offering assistance should we need it, even though our immediate neighbours remained a mystery. A dessicated old gent who serves as warden of the local Anglican church, which was designed by colonial architect Edmund Blacket in 1850, kindly stopped by to invite us to Sunday service. It's taken a village to rekindle that healthier notion of religion as a ritual of community, not a narrow act of faith.

Alas, in the old established social hierarchy of the area, we remain blow-ins. People who've been here for 20 years still call themselves outsiders. Not a bad thing to be, especially when you discover - as you do - that these charming hamlets bristle with feuds. A new deck on a neighbours' house or a loud truck exhaust can inspire lasting enmities in the highly personalised hothouse of local gossip. None of which is likely to keep the hordes at bay. When you can live in a village of 400 people and still have access to broadband internet connections, the shape of the 21st century is clear. A more dispersed population could even be the answer to terrorism threats. If they crash an airliner into these wide open spaces they'll be lucky to hit a few cows.

Only 42,000 people live in Wingecarribee Shire, an area almost equal in size to Sydney. But the 2001 census reveals that the area's population has grown by almost 23 per cent since 1991, double the state average. Retirees, babyboomers and seachangers - or in this case, hillchangers - are leading the charge. Among them are young chefs, winemakers, artists, architects and entrepreneurs who are revitalising the Highlands' horsey, old school image of Don Bradman, alpaca wool pullovers and gated estates. Their influence was apparent recently when a sign appeared outside a local cafe proudly announcing "We now serve cappuccino!".

The fastest-growing industry is tourism. In the early 1970s, the state's best-preserved Georgian village, Berrima, was in terminal decline. But rerouting the Hume Highway around the village has fuelled its revival, eliminating the fumes and noise of through traffic and bringing in tourism revenues of $25 million a year.

With the successes have come development pressures. In Australia, that means the degradation of what little built history we possess. In the 1960s we demolished historic buildings. Now we save the buildings, but allow them to drown in a sea of tat. Cement factories loom over the graves of the early settlers, and towns become gaudy circuses of roundabouts and link roads, defaced by excessive road authority and commercial signage. New housing estates besiege old towns like Moss Vale and Bowral with some of the most banal residential architecture on the planet.

Berrima isn't even on the state heritage list (the politically sensitive Sydney inner-west suburb of Haberfield is considered a more urgent priority for listing), and priceless historical sites like the local courthouse, scene of Australia's first trial by jury, are left to local volunteer groups to manage without a cent of federal assistance.

Yet the political machine, fuelled by tax revenues and driven by vested interests, seems to speak no other language than construction. Left to the cargo cult of Australian politics, and assaulted by urban refugees, the village is under siege. Public meetings in Bowral and Berrima recently have seen angry outbursts from residents fed up with development and road-building projects which they see as unnecessary. Local government is torn between courting investment and building facilities for a burgeoning population, and strong public opposition to projects that endanger the tourism goose that lays a hefty golden egg.

If there is hope for the Highlands, it may lie in its climate and geography. Judging by established settlement patterns, the area lacks one essential ingredient to make the average Aussie happy: it has no beaches, and between June and August temperatures fall below zero for six out of 12 weeks. One of the most common reasons for leaving, even among hardened locals, is the cold.

And warm weather isn't much better. Working at the computer one afternoon in late October, I was interrupted by my wife who thought she smelled smoke. Looking up, we saw its milky fingers reaching out fast towards us through the trees on the western side of the property.

It was a bushfire, and not far away judging by the billowing thickness of the clouds. Not a good time to realise you are woefully under-insured and that the gutters are full of leaves. I didn't even have an axe to cut down overhanging trees.

The fireys soon arrived, but were busy saving houses down the hill, so when I turned on the hose to wet down the house, it provided only the most desultory dribble. That was when the fear struck, that mouth full of sand that I hadn't had since reporting in Afghanistan. I went inside and found Janaki fumbling for her things in terror.

We had minutes, possibly less, to decide what cherished possessions we would put in the car - a photo album, a computer, some clothes and a guitar my parents gave me when I was not yet 21. Deciding to get the car ready for a quick escape, I ran to the garage out front, only to see flames racing up the Wingecarribee valley, consuming

a line of gums across the road and directly threatening the big trees flanking our house.

Instinctively, we ran to the rainwater tank and began filling buckets to douse the flaming eucalypts across the road. When that was done I climbed onto the roof and began splashing water around up there. It seemed to take years, but after several hours the emergency passed.

From our front porch, we looked out across treetops turned bright red, plunged into an instant autumn. The house we had purchased only a month earlier now stood exposed at the summit of a two-hectare charred-stubble hill.

Weeks later, the acrid smell of smoke still laced the air.

But in the midst of the crisis, we had finally met our neighbours. Ron from up the road, who lost a shed, Craig, whose wife had been alone when the fire hit, and Ursula from Eastern Europe who seemed to be in shock, muttering repeatedly, "It came right up to my house." A tribe of misfits united in our moment of truth.

I was inspecting the damage a few days later when a conference of kookaburras started up with such infectious hilarity that I couldn't help but join them, laughing ruefully at the harsh wisdom of the bush.

Slowly, I'm beginning to realise that going country changes your perspective. In Sydney, a hot sunny day, even in the midst of drought, is celebrated on the sandy altar of the beaches.

Here we frown at the sky and pray for rain. We may not get newspaper or mail deliveries, and the nearest doctor or supermarket is a 10-kilometre drive away.

But who needs a doctor when walking or driving to buy the milk each morning takes you along country lanes dotted with arbours, horse studs and colonial edifices?

It's the equivalent of an hour on a psychiatrist's couch, a place where wake-up calls are free, courtesy of blue wrens and black cockatoos, king parrots and rosellas, and the nightlife features wombats.

And who knows, the difficulties and dangers of this place may yet steel us and fill our frivolous urban souls with the love of a harsh country that rations its delights, the better to understand and appreciate them.


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