The year is 2002 and Carol Altman is living in safe, suburban Adelaide working as a journalist for a reputable Australian newspaper.
Then one day, instead of accepting a position in the Canberra press gallery, she chooses to abandon the rat race for five acres on the shady side of Tasmania’s Mount Wellington.
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Little did she realise she was about to embark on a crazy adventure where her naivete was no match for the ingenuity and willpower of Gretal the Goat, let alone five recalcitrant ducks.
Hopelessly ill-equipped to tackle infestations of blackberries, bush rats and marauding crows, Carol shares her painful but hilarious experience of making a tree change.
What started as a weekly email to a few friends back in Adelaide is now Four Seasons With a Grumpy Goat. She talks to Meredith Jaffe.
What on earth possessed you to move from a comfortable existence in suburban Adelaide to a cold damp five acres in Tassie?
(Much laughter.) This is a very good question. How can I best answer that? I have a strong sense of adventure? At the time it was still pretty daggy to move to Tasmania. My friends Jane and Trish had moved there and I felt it was an amazing place and that we could take ourselves out of the city to the wilds of Tasmania and live the dream a little bit.
You paint a pretty harsh picture of yourself as inept, frightened of creepy crawlies and horses, unable to raise even a batch of tadpoles in a bird bath. Where are you at now in your relationship with animals?
Extremely disappointed in myself. I was incredibly naïve and over confident. I thought I knew everything from “gut feel”. I was pretty naïve all round. I now have a whole lot of respect for people who raise animals, even if it is only a few ducks. I have a much more realistic understanding of what I can cope with. I live on four acres with a few chickens. I knew I loved animals but I never realised that they are incredibly time consuming.
There are lots of stories about animals and learning to handle potentially lethal farm equipment but no mention of veggie patches or orchards. Why is that?
To establish a veggie garden with not only Gretal the Grumpy Goat but possums and bandicoots was impossible. We tried carrots but even they didn’t work. We had friends who had a whole extra house of glass and shade cloth attached to their real house just to protect their veggie patch. Plus it turned out our land wasn’t particularly arable. It was clay-based and growing anything was a challenge. Another sign of my naivety… check the soil!
What on earth drew you to ducks and not something easier like chickens?
Because I had never had ducks. I’d had chickens in the backyard as a child, I’d watched Babe and thought ducks were cute. I had no idea about their breeding capabilities. It was a frenzy!
Many of us were dedicated fans of the ABC show Sea Change and even now like to spend our holidays farm hunting but we have never actually taken the plunge and bought into the life. How much courage does it really take to leave the rat race?
A huge amount of courage. There are so many things you’ll miss that you don’t even know you’ll miss. Guttering that doesn’t fill up with leaves, streets with paving, garbage collection and a shop at the end of the street. The sheer physicality of living on the land is beyond your comprehension when you are a city slicker. My advice to people who want to make a tree or sea change is, if possible, try it out first. Hang onto your city dwelling and if after two to three years you are hanging in there? Then do it. But giving it all up, straight away? I saw so many people who only lasted six months or less. It sounds wonderful by you need a test run.
What does country life offer that you can’t find in an urban environment?
You are very close to nature which is the biggest attraction. There is beautiful connection with nature you don’t get in an urban environment. The country also has a different sense of community. It takes time but once you develop those connections they are very earthy relationships. In many senses it is a very simple lifestyle, even though it is physically very hard work, and that centres your mind.
Have you finally committed? Is that safety net of a house in suburban Adelaide still got your name on it? Or are you now a country girl through and through?
It’s taken a long time to commit. I have sold that house in Adelaide. It was a big thing to let go of, for a long time I had a foot in both camps. Ultimately, I like the country lifestyle and it has allowed me to live the life I always wanted. Since the Tassie experience I know so much more and what I can and can’t do. And I am enjoying it a lot more now I am not on such a steep learning curve.
For such an intelligent woman, I spent a lot of time feeling like such a fool!
I am definitely a feet-first kind of girl. My life has been ridiculous. I moved back to Adelaide then to Hobart because I was looking for a balance with writing and journalism and then moved back to the mainland with another job opportunity versus lifestyle.
I ended up on the land at Gippsland and I’m teaching journalism. We’ve been here three years. It’s never perfect. We live five or six kilometres from a coal mine but with lots of trees between it and us, so I just pretend it’s not there. But, you know, it’s not damp and it’s not on the side of a mountain! I could never understand why people would say: “Oh, you live on the side of the mountain” in that tone of voice. It’s all very charming to have the snow on the mountain but, jeez it is bitter and cold!
I’ve saved the most important question until last. I don’t wish to put you on the spot, so feel free to throw a “no comment” my way, but have you entered a sponge, a homemade jam or chutney in the local show yet? And, if so, have you won anything?
Oh, I hate to say it. Can I say “no comment”? Umm, look the truth is I haven’t. I am no further forward with my cooking skills. Can I say it’s still a work in progress? (Until the day I die!)
What’s next in the adventures of Carol?
I’ve got a million ideas and I am trying to corral them. I do now have a veggie patch. I’m growing some lovely broad beans, kipfler potatoes and garlic. I did try sugar snap peas but they were more “snap” than “pea”. We now have two bantams, four Rhode Island Reds and two Cocker Spaniels. The hens are all housed in a cosy little hen house with proper roosts. And we have a lovely neighbour up the road who has goats so I can scratch that itch whenever I miss Gretal.
Four Seasons with a Grumpy Goat, Allen and Unwin, out now. RRP $29.99