Island of the gods, guardians and peripatetic primates

Peculiar pre-match entertainment for a Cats-Tigers clash when you’re kicking back peanuts and Bintangs in the Bali mountain jungle town of Ubud.

A dozen or so Barbary macaques parading alongside the bar – upside-down infants clutching their mothers, cocksure males trooping the colour – suggested a peculiar cheer squad on the march. Perhaps not that peculiar in Tigerland, though.

Oh, sorry, I take that back but it’s been said now. Maybe I can’t.

Bar staff have abandoned the traditional shanghai slingshot deterrent favoured by hotels for coloured laser beams, which seems to be taking the fun out of things. When you’ve been hissed at, spat on and tackled by the little blighters and their rabid claws, sympathy levels for primates aren’t high.

The lasers send them scarpering, non-violently. My remonstration to a staffer about new tech over old tech is countered with: “Monkeys are sacred, they’re guardians of our temples.”

Oh yeah, that’s right. If only they stuck to the temples and off the hotel balconies spooking the tourists.

Peripatetic chimps are far from the only organic entertainment on offer on the Island of the Gods, though. Look closely around the place and you’ll find all sorts of oddities.

Think tourists buying satay sticks and sausages to feed stray dogs. Café tables and chairs washed out to sea by the incoming tide. Hawker knock-offs three times more expensive than home. Locals eating with ducks off the same table. Girls in dental floss bikinis practising yoga in front of beachside diners. Missile-like fireworks blasting out to sea as Boeings come out of the sunset to land in the shadow of giant deity statues.

Then there are plantain squirrels whipping through the jungle foliage, giant snails, luminescent black and yellow centipedes, koi pond fish feeding frenzies, dragonflies galore, fighting cocks, masterful bird mimics.

  

Art’s everywhere you look. In religious offerings, in signs, sculptures, gardens, temples, carvings, buildings, shop fittings, traditional clothing, masonry, paintings, furniture … absolutely everything.

Construction’s going on everywhere, too. Jackhammers next door, pile-driving down the river gorge, massive refits to old hotels, including one opposite the ‘quiet’ room I booked.

I’m especially drawn to a giant carapace bamboo structure rising from a paddock smack in the middle of Ubud. Workers line up for a 15-minute rev-up from the boss before I wander over, stupidly barefoot on the hot black bitumen path, to reconnoitre proceedings. A tall lean bloke introduces himself as the property owner, says the double-shelled, thatch-roofed design is going to be a yoga studio.

Good bet it might draw a bit of attention, too. It’s been whipped up by bamboo’s wunderkind architect, Pablo Luna  – known for blending Bali’s tri hit karana philosophy of harmony between people, nature and spirituality with environmental, sustainable and biomimicry principles into his work.

It’s a fair matrix. Almost as cross-pollinated as his background:  a Chilean-born architect of Peruvian/Lebanese heritage who studied in New York before taking his work to Indonesia and South-East Asia, Costa Rica, Mexico, India and Chile.

No doubt it will slot right in with Ubud’s wealth of health and wellness practitioners. No shortage of anything in that jungle; from soothing didgeridoo drones through fusion vegan iterations to breatharian starvation rackets, propped by a multitude of souls seeking happiness, self-awareness and more Zen in their lives. For all the healing they provide, I think Lomotil’s somehow got the jump on them.

The real thing about somewhere like Ubud, and the broader Bali, is the island itself and its natural geographical attributes. A mountain bike ride, a handful of temples and waterfalls, maybe some whitewater rafting, a few palms and a rice terrace or two are about the extent of things the punters will investigate outside the insane gridlock of Seminyak and Canggu.

 

Which is a pity. I’ve had a dog-eared topographical map of the island for a while now, a bright green-coloured thing of valleys, mountains, volcanoes, precipitous gorges, rivers, lakes – a surveyor’s paradise, or maybe nightmare. Contained within its cartographic swales and saddles are a trove of ridiculously stunning tracks and defiles, villages, waterfalls, panoramas, rivers, ravines, coastal outlooks, islands to ponder, jungle …

I’ll be happy to keep ticking off place names for next decade or two given half the chance. If the bloody monkeys don’t give me rabies, that is.

Best read with a red … or maybe not

Review: A Mapmaker’s Dream

by James Cowan

Fra Mauro is a 16th century monk on a magnificent journey around the world without leaving the clustered confines of his cell on an island in Venice.
A cartographer devoted to drafting a definitive map of the world, he gathers his knowledge from a steady stream of travellers beating a path to his door.
Pilgrims merchants, explorers, scholars, foreign legates, ambassadors, missionaries, officers – all have heard of his ambition and want to make a contribution.
This, of course, presents Fra Mauro with a brilliantly seductive menagerie of Renaissance curiosities.
His visitors present him with cannibals and shrunken heads, turbaned Orientals, mermaids and hairy-bodied women, Borneo jungle dwellers who treat birdcalls as omens.
Together they discuss the world frequented by the thoughts and presence of Ptolemy, Solomon and Columbus, Babylon, Egypt and Rhodes, jade elixirs, Satan-worshippers, salamanders and one- legged men who wheel along on arms protruding from their chests.
Genghis Khan, Prester John, the Tartars, Crusaders, Persians, Thomas the Apostle in India – exotic characters are freely peppered throughout his cerebral discourses and peregrinations.
The problem Fra Mauro faces, however, the more he is confronted with tales that challenge the physical and philosophical tenets of his already considerable knowledge is to represent not the world’s geography but its thoughts and mysteries.
What he is trying to do is depict in two dimensions, within the margins of his maps, the three dimensions of space – a difficult task in pre-Mercator days .
He wants to incorporate the multi-layered dimensions of humour, thought, experience and philosophy as well.
Author Cowan uses phantasmagorical elements of the Renaissance as metaphor and playground for the discovery of the mind.
The experience is other-worldly. The intent seems to be to disarm the reader’s sensibilities and then usurp his beliefs – just as Golden Age discoveries of that time turned the world on its head.
Cowan has some tips for the reader. He says to treat Fra Mauro’s ruminations as a process of gradual guessing. His dream is to derive meanings from the perfect use of mystery.
And there is something of a rider, too. It is for the reader, says Cowan, to decide if Mauro’s meditations on the discovery of the world strike a sympathetic chord.
In many ways this is not difficult. For instance, a scholar, one of Fra Mauro’s visitors, finds himself inexplicably captivated by the mummified corpse of an ancient Egyptian princess.
Her death repose suggested to him that even in death her life had provided a jolt. “We do not engage in life so easily. It is not something we embrace naturally … in a sense we need to be jolted into it, do we not? he asks Fra  Mauro.
An elderly Jew from Rhodes, perturbed by his homeland’s trials, has lived in self-imposed exile for many years. These twin seeds of defeat – his Jewishness and exile – prompted him to embrace his solitude.
Says Mauro: “He  had discovered in his ruthlessness how to inhabit origin of his own mind … to redeem himself rather than allow another to do so for him.”
Cowan writes of deceptive appearances, of interpretation, of discernment and of searching. His vehicle, the immovable Fra Mauro, is yet another of many symbols.
And while it might seem self-promotion on Cowan’s part, you are left with the feeling he is correct when he says one feels that Fra Mauro has something important to say not just for his time but for always.
A word of advice. One critic suggested A Mapmaker’s Dream should not be read without red wine. Perhaps not, but I suspect a clear head would be far preferable.
This book shakes and bounces. It spins the world like a top and rocks its foundations as it negotiates a bewitching path through history, religion and philosophy.
And you wouldn’t want to miss anything on a ride ride like this.

A meteoric struggle of wills

Two brash colonial scientists jostle for possession of an astonishing 19th-century astronomical discovery­ just outside Melbourne – the world’s largest iron meteorite.

This prodigious cosmic lump of metal is a glittering prize but at stake also are critical notions of heritage ownership in an era of nascent cultural awareness.

Author Sean Murphy’s The Cranbourne Meteorite is a long-forgotten story of Victorian scientists fighting to assert their authority and challenging hide-bound imperial assumptions of ownership and a gloves-off brawl it is, indeed.

They might have been living in the wealthiest gold province of Britain’s 19th-century empire but these scientific leaders found themselves fairly flustered not by any auriferous anomalies as much as a ferrous phenomenon.

The Cranbourne Meteorite details the mini-culture war fought over this highly-sought nugget of iron, and the relationships, personal and professional, wrought in its wake.

Murphy lives at Berwick, close to where the meteorite struck earth. His account is an effort to highlight Cranbourne’s alien visitor, the nature of meteorites and asteroids as well as Australia’s impact craters.

He reveals the scrapping over the meteorite’s ownership in the colonial milieu where his protagonists lived and worked. He relates his meteor’s milestones with a weather eye on the growth of Melbourne and its science and academia at the same time.

   

Frederick McCoy (left) and Ferdinand Mueller.

“It’s a local event with astronomical fireworks and strong personalities,” he says. “The leaders of these institutions were deeply invested in attempts to retain, or remove, the main meteorite fragment: a 3.5 tonne monster named Cranbourne No. 1.

“This arm-wrestle is largely conducted via letters, a very many letters, and in the chambers of learned societies such as the Royal Society of Victoria.”

Murphy exposes professional jealousies and how two pioneering Victorian scientists, Irishman Frederick McCoy and German-born Ferdinand Mueller, held determined but divergent views on what to do with the No. 1 specimen. Two iron wills competing for one iron meteorite, you could say.

“Cranbourne was, for a time, the largest iron meteorite in the world,” says Murphy. “And it has a colourful cousin, the Murchison meteorite, which fell on the Goulburn River township in 1969.

“Murchison’s peculiar chemistry made it a much-studied specimen and famous the world over, so Victoria has two famous contributions to Australia’s meteoritic honour-roll.”

The Cranbourne Meteorite

By Sean Murphy

Australian Scholarly Publishing, $49.95

Roadtripping and stumbling every step of the way …

Dateline: April 2024, Cabbage Tree Creek: 37.6526° S, 148.8172° E 

Nice part of the world for a quick road-trip recce, East Gippsland, when it’s not on fire, that is. And also when you don’t have spare tyres flying off the back of SUVs and across the road at you at 100kmh.

Was standing in the Bellbird Hotel car park, a few metres off the road, when a sudden bang, crunch and whack had me scurrying for cover. The spare was hanging off the car, bouncing and crashing before shearing loose, belting the car behind and rocketing off into the bush.

Things that happen when you pull over. Need to keep an eye out. Couple of hours earlier, I was pondering whatever happened to the old Metung gas pools where bathers could capture the gas that bubbled up and set it alight through a wet beer box. Near Cantrill’s Lookout.

Shut down and replaced by public dunnies, and gaseous explosions of a different type. Lookout still applies, it seems. Which is what Zachary Hicks was doing offshore up the road in James Cook’s Endeavour in 1770 when he first sighted land.

Wasn’t the first, of course, plenty of other Europeans preceded him, even Islamic explorers going back to the AD800s. Nearby Bitangabbie Bay just over the border hosts the remains of what appears to be a stone fort commonly attributed to the Portuguese navigator Cristovao Mendonca in the 1520s. Supposedly while the Spanish didn’t have an eye out.

 

The Bellbird Hotel and a Tathra beach denizen.

Sadly, a weather eye was badly needed at the next stop, further up the coast on the Tathra Wharf, when in 2008 a young fisherman’s two little kids went over the edge; one of them in a pram many people speculated was pushed by the older kid. Dad jumped in to try to save them. None of them survived.

Ensconced in a bush pole-house at Tathra high above the Bega River, I’m reminded of the graffiti I once found outside a Bega fish shop: ‘The flake you’re eating could be Harold Holt’. Irreverent but also ironic as next stop is Tilba Tilba, once home of his widow Zara after she took up with the mutton-chopped Jeff Bates.

It’s achingly pretty with its green hills, granite outcrops, yellow-tailed black cockatoos galumphing overhead and heritage buildings, including the famed Dromedary Hotel, named for a nearby mount; a sweet stop en route to the next stop.

 

Tathra Wharf  and the Mollymook beachfront.

Ulladulla/Mollymook, with its sprawling beach, heaving surf, fishing boats, rockpools, undulating golf course and glass-encased club, and Slane Irish whiskey at ALDI, makes a nice pitstop before doubling back to Batemans Bay, which has a patina of tiredness these days, and inland along the Kings Highway.

My long-suffering better half, not a great passenger, is biding the while away watching videos sans buds. By journey’s end, I’ve listened to four series of Schitt’s Ceek, which makes for a more than curious travelogue soundtrack.

Onwards and upwards takes you over the nose-bleed Clyde Mountain Pass – great lookout to the Pacific Ocean – to the brooding historic Braidwood and its ancient architecture, to the national pitstop Canberra and its stultifyingly sterile architecture, and onto the contrived heritage Hall Village, where the only heritage to be found are pretty much the trees and shrubs … possibly.

Half an hour further on looms Yass, which greets visitors with the civil works start of a 500-lot subdivision ceding its historic regional centre status to an outer ring of the ACT.

 

The Dromedary Hotel, Tilba.

Notwithstanding, the town’s pretty stately buildings and parks, its friendly folks and their tales of cops, crooks and magistrates, its genial pub chatter and generous grub, make for a curious and charming stop.

Just remember, somewhere it hosts an armed bandit who would tick off the banks he robbed on a list stuck to his fridge. Allegedly.

Armed with local pomegranate balsamic and olive oil produce, I cut out for Yackandandah in a valley beyond the knobby hills south of Wodonga. Travelling down into the Yack valley is one of the sweetest drives about, provided the dolts coming at you stay off their phones and stick to their side of the road. Once again, keep your eyes peeled.

 

Yass Post Office and High Street, Yackandanah.

Yackandandah’s  where my grandpa Ned was born, the first of eight kids, back in 1889 before being spirited away to the ancestral homestead of Banimboola, high in the Mitta Valley. His grandparents, Edward and Mary, had married at Yackandandah in 1862 before taking up life at Banimboola.

Young Ned never got to meet his granddad. Edward the senior was returning from a potato paddock across the Mitta River in darkness in 1866, when he failed to notice a flash flood had dangerously raised the waters. His own Schitt’s Creek as it unfolded.

He and his horse and pack were swept away. His body wasn’t found for several days. One more sorry episode of the wrong place at the wrong time.

Run for your life … or your wife

NOW girls, this isn’t an opportunity comes along every day. In fact, it only comes once in every 1461 days, to be precise. Once every four years.

It’s your chance to propose to the beau of your choice. Don’t fuss if he’s not keen. He can’t say no on February 29. Or so the theory goes.

To my addled mind, February 29 should be instituted as a Downunder Sadie Hawkins Day. Sadie Hawkins, if you remember Al Capp’s L’il Abner comic strip, was the daughter of Dogpatch founder Hekzebiah Hawkins and the homeliest gal in the hills.

Pappy called together Dogpatch’s eligible bachelors and told them he was taking firm measures “since none of yo’ has been man enough t’ marry mah dotter”. He fired his blunderbuss and the boys had a running start. On the second blast, Sadie set off in hot pursuit. First lout she caught, she hitched.

The idea caught on and became an annual fixture, feared with good cause by the men but adored by all the bachelor gals. It also helped make Capp a household name around the world for some 40 odd years.

Not sure why I’m so enamoured of this comic ritual; perhaps it’s because some men might be suckered into connubial bliss in more sophisticated a fashion that this blunt, outrageous, head-on approach is so appealing. There’s nothing like a Dogpatch hillbilly belle, unwashed and lacking sorely in the pulchritude department, rugby-tackling her hapless larrikin and carting him off to unholy matrimony. With three daughters, I watch such rituals with considerable interest.

Why not set up an Aussie version every four years? Might take some of the violence and uncertainty out of the current mating rituals. You shouldn’t land a rohypnol cocktail or a broken glass across the face when you go out. You shouldn’t find yourself assaulted while trying to catch a non-existent taxi home.

A February 29 Sadie Hawkins Day might not be so different from the desperate and dateless B&S jamborees we see around the country. It could ease the load on dating agencies, chat rooms, classified columns, gym circuits,  Farmer Takes a Wife, Bachelor  and other TV Cupid soaps. They’re just variations on the same theme but there’s nothing so simple, or arguably as fearsome, as the unadulterated real thing. You want him? Go grab him and he’s yours.

Mind you, the traditional Sadie Hawkins Day a la Capp could be deadly. The pursuit of true love was just as likely to see you mauled by a wolf-reared cannibal gal as gunned down into submission by hillbilly horrors armed with World War II ack-ack guns. If you were lucky, you might escape with a glue-pot boiling or hide out at the skunk works.

We’d need some basic rules drafted for our domestic species of Sadie Hawkins. No spiking, glassing, vomiting, bashing, dribbling or urinating. Maybe a basic legal contract, too, so blokes don’t wriggle out of their obligations; they’d probably have been hitched soon enough anyway, so why not in a controlled environment?

Other than that, it would be free market, level playing field stuff. And if my guess is right, a walk-up start major event tourist attraction, too. Might even give the Olympics a run for their money. The blokes will be moving faster than any 100-metre sprinter, that’s for sure.

Shamrocking old Sandhurst

“Hey, rich bitch!” squawks the emaciated ice junkie skipping along the Bendigo street Jack Daniels can in hand.

Her target, an elderly woman lugging two Salvos bags, looks bewildered as the sprite runs past her, grabs an abandoned receipt from the footpath, shouts “11 dollars” and uses it to wipe her backside before dancing out in front of traffic.

One car brakes, to a barrage of abuse from the poisonous little imp. A second car stops, to the same calumny, before she scampers off toward the mall.

It’s not the first oddity since arriving at the iconic heritage Shamrock Hotel. A touched bloke bellowing ‘Stewie’s got a grand!’ over and over ran past me as I hauled my bags into the pub.

Inside, I found three kids’ swim pools of brown water ceiling leaks around the ornate stairwell. In reception. Just a spit from the framed Charles and Diana newspaper clips when the pub reopened after a major reno 40 years ago.

Settling in, the room didn’t match the website pics, much smaller. Reception staff were happy to provide another room, no charge, unfortunately it wasn’t any bigger. Then third time lucky, larger room, and again no charge. Lovely staff.

In the interim, my small three-piece cohort discovered various human hairs in a nearby eatery, Mexican staff who didn’t know what nachoes were, street smokers all over their al fresco dining, over-cooked fish, more nuffies singing and yelling on the street, and local louts hollering at them from their car.

In the morning, a poor, prone bloke is snoring on the footpath in front of my car outside the hotel. Should’ve invited him in for breakfast but even he might have been disappointed with the over-priced mangy big breakfast and burnt coffee. Then again, of course …

Makes you feel sad about an historical showcase like the Shamrock. It’s a pretty place this old pile. Loads of colourful leadlight, thick carpet, polished timber bannisters, cream columns, lithographs and daguerreotypes of old Sandhurst, dimpled leather Chesterfields, printed wallpaper, mosaic tiling, timber balconies, flowers, palms, giant mirrors, ceiling roses, marble mantles and fireplaces, chandeliers … seriously pretty, truth be told.

Anyway, checking out, the boss turned sour and reneged on the day before’s complimentary upgrade.

Maybe I should’ve mentioned the dirty carpet, stained sheets, lack of wi-fi, bathroom vents or fans, and 7am drinkers under our window but figured if they needed the extra $27 so badly I ought to let it slide.

Magic, mischief and misdirection

Image: Scene from A Haunting in Venice,  20th Century Studios

 

Easily thrown off script, I am, especially by subjects such as the supernatural, mysteries, bushrangers, UFOs … that sort of thing. Several events have distracted me lately from my usual ruminations. Not getting a lot of work done, fitful slumber, glazed eyeballs.

I’m blaming Hercule Poirot’s latest cinematic outing, A Haunting in Venice, a spooky little affair but there might be more to blame than just its seances, corpses and ghostly apparitions on high rotation in my grey matter. Maybe some cosmic, ectoplasmic confluence.

Weird, I know. But why am I being bombarded all of a sudden by stuff about Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1920 Aussie tour spruiking all things spiritualist?

And how do things come together like Ned Kelly’s long missing skull suddenly re-appearing on the anniversary of his mentor Harry Power’s death?

And UFOs, too. Suddenly, the invites are piling up to see/hear/meet various experts after the recent spine-tingling US Congress depositions about little green men being more real than I already thought.

Wouldn’t be so creeped out if these weren’t all riddled with local and personal links.

Conan Doyle’s pre-Poirot Sherlock Holmes was based on a Scottish surgeon named Joseph Bell. He operated on Geelong’s George Morrison, son of Geelong College founder also George, after he was speared by New Guinea tribesmen on a ridiculous newspaper jungle race across the island.

The Aussie Sherlock Holmes Society has been headed up by Geelong’s Derham Groves, author and authority on the great fictional detective, and go-to expert on Aussie culture from TV to kebab shops. Ask him about Geelong’s Happy Hammond; there’s a great joke there about coconuts, a hurricane and a precocious brat on his TV show.

Conan Doyle was mad about seances, spiritualism. Toured Oz in 1920 rambling on about the subject, drew huge audiences. At one stage he was mates with Harry Houdini, also keen on spiritualism, and especially on exposing its shonks, including Doyle’s missus. Didn’t end well.

Couple of unhappy endings also for Ned and Harry, one floating in the Murray, the other dangling at the end of an Old Melbourne Gaol rope. Harry about this time of year, I’m being told by the bombarders. Ned, of course, on that iconic day, the 11th of the 11th.

Did their tours of Geelong in the day. Gentleman highwayman Harry ran under his real name, Henry Johnson. Ned tagged along as a 14-year-old apprentice. They stayed in a pub on Ryrie Street across from James Street.

“Poor Ned, you’re better off dead,” goes the old song but his post-execution, post-autopsy head went missing forever. A bloke in WA thought he had it for a while, no idea why, given it apparently looked like a female skull, but the real thing’s surfaced again, in bits, at the old Pentridge Prison cemetery where it was relocated from the Old Melbourne Goal.

Ned’s remains were shuffled around like a Contiki tour, they tried to RIP him in no less than three different places. The autopsy had separated his sconce from his skeleton, and it was put it in a toolbox beside him.

DNA detective work eventually sorted it all out but talk about a mess. Almost as bad as the perennial stuff-ups by museums trying to exhibit the Kelly Gang’s armour. Could’ve been worse, I suppose. No kudos in your bits winding up as a tobacco pouch like purportedly happened to Dan Morgan.

As for UFOs, well where do you start? Sightings over Shell, off Apollo Bay, Belmont Common? Written them all up. I did like the Manifold Heights clairvoyant who said she saw missing Bass Strait pilot Fred Valentich hanging out with air force pilots in her visions.

Might just have to take up one of these invitations to hear more about the US intelligence defence encounters with hundreds of UAPs, as they’re now called – Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena.

NASA’s put up a study into them but found no evidence they’re extraterrestrial, even if some are still unexplained. Is it possible we’re in a Men in Black world with aliens all around us already?

Certainly think that from time to time when I go through the mall.

Incidentally, my granny and her sisters saw Houdini flying his Voison biplane out at Diggers Rest, present-day Plumpton, back when they were little girls, when he wasn’t jumping off bridges into the Yarra in chains and dislodging a drowned corpse that came floating to the surface in a grisly spectacle.

Love that trick. Old Harry wasn’t ever beyond a good bit of prestidigitation. Just don’t get it, though, why a clever bloke like Sherlock Holmes refused to see through his tricks, Maybe something in that pipe he was smoking – that’ll distract you every time, especially today, Friday the 13th.

Postcards from the heartland …

Long-standing joke in my family is that the many French letters my grandmother was sent by her Gallic aunt a century ago were addressed to her at ‘Truganina Loose Bag’.

Pretty cruel, really. She was a darling thing. Widowed at 47 with eight kids, she drew on country girl nous garnered on the rocky windswept plains of Truganina and Tarneit to get through. And did so admirably.

The letters were actually postcards – of rivers, mountains, snowy forests, buildings, bridges, farms – most of them out of old France, the Vosges, the Alsace, more than a century ago, many of them during the Great War. Shots of soldiers at the Pyramids, in the trenches or on the march are peppered through the collection. One shows a road where her great grandmother was stalked by wolves.

Sad story. Granny’s aunt, sister of her dad, came out to Oz in 1873 with their parents, fleeing Strasbourg in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war. The aunt was sent home to her grandmother after a couple of years in an orphanage when her mother died of TB months after her arrival. Her brothers were sent up country to friends. Her dad remarried.

.   

Been scouring through the postcards looking for info that might help inform a neat project going on in what’s officially Tarneit but what we always called Truganina: Granny’s old 1877 bluestone home, burnt out in the 1969 fires that ravaged the area, is being rebuilt.

All by the City of Wyndham. Costing a small bomb but looks quite remarkable. Heritage restoration building works have taken place already to secure the building’s structural integrity and renders are up online showing café plans for its future. All very smart looking and positioned as it is, beside a large park and plenty of homes, it’s already attracting interest from potential operators.

Place is called Remiremont. It was built by William Doherty in 1877, bought and farmed by my great grand-pere Louis Valentine Paul Didier in 1903 and named for his French home, and stayed in the family with his son Paul until 1956.

LV Paul Didier’s sister Jeanne’s postcards were sent regularly and broach harvests, seasons, music and birthdays but assume a more sober tone with the onset of war; the carte postale images changing from bucolic landscapes to ambulance wagons, bombsites, military parades and uniforms, battle scenes, bombings and wounded soldiers.

Jeanne was a single girl, an English and German teacher, living in Epinal, on the Moselle River, in rural France’s Vosges mountains about 20km from Remiremont. The area pops up occasionally in coverage of the Tour de France.

While she was boning up on her linguistics skills with the correspondence, the cards were pored over at Remiremont, Tarneit, by her young nieces; their exotic European allure a captivating, all-but-unreachable destination – as much as Australia was to their author who penned a raft of letters as well. Both towns became bywords for the family’s sense of history.

Tourist guide books don’t give a great deal away about Epinal. Some go as far as to advise against going there. Don’t heed what they say. You might even thank them. If anything, they’re protecting the charm of this provincial capital on the edge of the Vosges Mountains.

Epinal straddles the Moselle River, a little off the tourist beaten track and about 85 km southwest of the Alsace’s famous city Strasbourg. The only reason this scribe ventured anywhere near it was to investigate the home of this long-dead relative who  sent the often poignant postcards to Australia.

The cards, hundreds of them, were a source of mystery and deep fascination. The images of these cards varied greatly. A great many were military, most of the others tourism- oriented – all of them might be considered historical documents. There are soldiers squatting in trenches, exhausted Moroccans returning from the front, helmeted guards with rifles at hand watching over vital railway lines, army vehicles negotiating dangerous mountain paths, memorials to the fallen.

Then there are buildings, idyllic mountain scenes, stone fords, parks, fountains, the Moselle in flood, dour-looking family groups, churches , streetscapes, houses set on hillsides. And virtually all of these in a faraway romantic monochrome haze – one that seems to even soften the harsh image of German prisoners of war being marched through town. In return for all these, great grand-pere sent Australian newspapers back to his sister to use in her job as an English teacher.

The mutual correspondence went on for decades, all of which made Epinal, for this scribbler, a place of great curiosity. Remarkably, visiting the town from getting on to a century’s distance not much had changed. The parks, memorials, bridges, churches, buildings, are largely still in place. The town square has changed little and the Moselle still flows through the heart of town.

What was surprising to learn was the town history. Its foundation dates back to a 10th century monastery built by the Bishop of Metz. The town soon became a political, economic and cultural centre at the crossroads of four nations:  Lorraine, Alsace, Burgundy and Champagne. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it developed a reputation as the world capital of popular print-making, an industry which still flourishes to this day in a working museum-gallery, the Imagerie.

Epinal claims to be the most wooded town in France, with the forest galore, and it is a Mecca for hiking, horse-riding, mountain-biking, camping, sailing and fishing. It boasts numerous festivals – street theatre, comic theatre, music and international piano competitions – plus art houses and museums, flower arrangements everywhere and of course all the charm of its many centuries-old townhouses, churches and provincial architecture.

With any luck, Epinal’s charms will remain intact for some time yet, especially if the guidebooks continue to recommend against visiting.

Travel bites: Euphoric redemption in Bali

A downward dog-led economic recovery is probably not what you’d expect to counter the Covid/volcano/earthquake/tsunami-led tourism recession of recent years in Indonesia’s Ring of Fire.

For one thing, yoga fanaticism, spiritual con artists – think breatharians and didgeridoo healing – were around before the ongoing flight cancellations of late.

But sticking your bum in the air in a steaming, oxygen-depleted environment in an idyllic jungle mountainside has its merits. And that taps into the Balinese economy in a reasonably big way.

You’ll lose weight, to dehydration. You’ll feel euphoric, to heat frustration. You’ll feel achievement, to the weight-loss euphoria.

For people who in their youth might have frequented the booze-holes and fleshpots of Legian and Kuta, smoking dope and scoffing magic mushrooms, it’s probably kind of redemptive. Or something.

It’s neat to fly for six hours to buy a sense of spiritual tranquillity amid a deeply religious Hindu community surrounded by natural and human disasters of a scale unimaginable to your average clueless Aussie.

But con artists, faux spiritualism and healing, yoga fanaticism and Australia prices are once again the norm in post-Covid Bali.

This is across Bali. The idyllic mountain and inland villages and towns of the beautiful Indonesian island. Not just the Legians and Canggus with their booze-riddled churls and phone-addicted narcissists.

The latter remain tide-recycling rubbish tips with fancy hotels years as before ago. It’s surfing and ocean swimming where Bali belly comes from these days, as often as anywhere else.

Up in the hills, by contrast, the palms and bougainvillea, the paddies and river gorges, are ever-increasingly frequented by travelling souls seeking spiritual succour and purpose in a steaming, sweating contortion. It’s a downward dog redemption against their Western follies and prodigal excesses.

Big little changes to how you live

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know housing in Australia is changing. Has been for quite some time.

Tighter lots, increasingly prolific renewable energy, gas on the way out, recycled water, floor plans changing to work from home, the shrinking back yard, are all the norm. Today’s greenfield communities are far removed from the raw, bare estates of old.

These changes, however, are about to be ramped up big time. Or small big time to be more accurate.

Think more smaller homes, townhomes and townhouses, apartments, terrace homes. In the greenfields as well as established urban areas. Think many, many more. Medium density’s coming your way and it is going to be snapped up by a largely unserviced market hungry for affordable, low-maintenance and quality homes. It’s started already, in fact.

Numerous factors are driving this change. The over-arching factors are price, inadequate land supply, soaring migration numbers, demand – and governments anxious about financing new infrastructure in the greenfields and keen to ramp up urban growth around existing infrastructure. Then there’s also lifestyle options where buyers don’t want big houses, preferring easy-to-maintain smaller homes; buyers such as first home buyers, singles, downsizers.

Given the competitive nature of the property market, it’s no surprise to find developers, architects, designers, builders and planners upping the ante of small homes in terms of design, quality, craftsmanship and delivery.

The recently-released book Housing Evolution: Towards Better Medium-Density Design (UWA Publishing) is a powerful catalogue of how this transition is unfolding, what it looks like, of designers throwing themselves at it with a passion and the striking results they’re achieving. It’s been compiled by Western Australia’s Office of the Government Architect, Development WA and staff and students of the UWA School of Design.

   

“The ability to flex, adapt and evolve is becoming increasingly vital to respond to the challenges our world is now facing – and nowhere is this more evident than in our communities,” says DWA’s Dean Mudford.

“Housing design is evolving to address this challenge and this has given birth to exciting new urban precincts that deliver smarter density and diversity, including safety, connection, a greater sense of community and, importantly, affordability. By taking a strategic approach to designing housing with a diverse range of approaches to density, we can address community concerns and make the case for innovation.

   

“We can demonstrate how under-utilised pockets of urban land can be reimagined into thriving neighbourhoods where you can walk to work, shops, cafes, parks and public transport. While the nature of housing is changing, the importance of homes and community remains at the core of our society. Everyone wants to come home to a place where they feel safe, connected, comfortable and free to make choices that suit their lifestyle.”

These sentiments are echoed in the likes of developer  Villawood Properties’ approach to building new communities to include a greater proportion of premium medium density homes. Its VillaRange suite of small homes, on separate land titles as opposed to many other MD offerings, is a telling precursor to what’s shaping up as a powerful watershed for the housing sector.

VillaRange is geared directly toward a part of the market long ignored by the industry: people anxious to buy but kept at arm’s length by the tyranny of price. These homes smash that barrier while upping the ante in significant terms not previously addressed for this type of housing – central location, access to amenities and services, social networks, community opportunities.

     

Building homes is one thing, building communities is another, of course. And VillaRange (above) reflects a maturity and responsibility in urban design that is setting benchmarks for competitors. It’s part of a strategy of community sustainability that’s intrinsic to Villawood’s MO. An ethos delivered through a diversity of lot options, swathes of open space, recreation, retail and social facilities, and financial community support.

Villawood provides community infrastructure years ahead of what local councils or government might, or even can, provide. It’s a key part of how Australian housing is changing. As housing demand continues to grow, it’s the astute, caring and innovative urban designers who will best shape the future.

As Dean Mudford says: “The way our towns and homes were designed in the past is no longer sustainable and we need to be smarter about the way we use our land and resources to ensure our cities are well-positioned for the future.”