“Look! There it is again.”
Eve almost slipped into the river in her eagerness to point out the dolphin as it slowly glided up out of the water, then slid back in again.
Four of us, Eve, Daniel, Rick and I, were walking along the sandy bank of the Manning River at low tide. We were near Manning Point, a sleepy coastal hamlet on Mitchells Island, at the point where the Manning River meets the Pacific Ocean.
It was a hold-your-breath moment. We’d seen the dolphins surfacing a dozen times now, and each time was as magical as the last. I loved sharing the closing of the day with these beautiful creatures, and it seemed they were willing to share their river with us.
“It’s a sign!” Rick chimed, in what had become a mantra over the last hour or so. Well, it was a sign we were enchanted with the area and with the property we had just inspected.
The sky had also begun to do a magical thing. There were little popcorn clouds from horizon to horizon, and they were beginning to glow as the sun dipped underneath them. We stood quiet and still for a few minutes as we watched the clouds transform through silver, gold, red and black.
“That was definitely a sign,” Eve said solemnly. “We are so meant to live here.”
“Here” was a four-acre block of land we’d visited an hour ago. Rick and I had discovered it on one of our driving missions the previous weekend, and we’d been enthusiastic enough that Eve and Daniel had decided to make time to come and view it with us.
The acreage was on Mitchells Island, a triangular body of land bounded on two sides by arms of the Manning River and on the third by twelve kilometres of Pacific Ocean. It was accessed by crossing two bridges: one from the mainland to its sister island, Oxley (where we had visited properties a few months ago with our friend Maggie), and the other between the two islands. Manning Point Road, running across the island, was about nine kilometres long. There were, we were informed by Bob, the real estate agent, about 400 inhabitants.
The property itself was a kilometre or two off the main road. At the entrance to the road, a weathered timber sign grandly announced, “Manning River Estates”. The “estates” were mostly little brick or timber clad houses on two to four acres of property. Several, including ours, had nothing more than a good old Aussie shed on it.
The shed was an attractive bonus. It was a nicely finished twenty by forty foot dwelling with two small bedrooms, a big bathroom/laundry and a quite acceptable kitchen/lounge room. It was a place where we could spend a relaxing and comfortable bit of time away from the city. We talked about revelling in the country for a long weekend, grabbing a swim at the beach, walking in the local national park, cycling the side roads, exploring the countryside. I envisioned dropping into the ground some twenty or so potted plants I’d been dragging around for several years, awaiting their final home.
The acreage was on a long, steep slope, with a flat area near the top that had been cleared and levelled for building a house. The slope itself was covered with a runaway pine forest that sighed in the wind and, reminiscent of my Canadian heritage, enthralled me. The lowest part of the property was a swampy wetland dotted with moisture-loving paperbarks. Bob the agent, who knew a cluster of city-slickers when he saw one, was enthusiastic about everything. He assured us we could make money from selling pine logs if we cleared parts of it, and readily agreed we could create a picturesque lake in the lower wetland area. The area would fit us like a glove, he reckoned. Did we know there were triplets next door? – he wondered, making even those three young boys seem like an astonishing feature.
Best of all were the views. To the west, the rolling peaks of the Eastern Highlands were silhouetted against the sky; to the south, the property dropped away to lush views of the neighbour’s cattle pastures and the sparkling river beyond. To the east, we could enjoy the white-gum forest on the slopes belonging to the family of the triplets. The views to the north, of the road and our third neighbour’s collection of battered vehicles, could soon disappear behind a hedge of fast-growing natives, Bob guaranteed us.
Bob vowed that, like us, he could picture a big new house going up on a stretch of land near the top of the lot. If he had opinions about six city folk of somewhat advancing years living together in a home on this little island, he kept them firmly to himself. He could see we were perfect for this place, and this place was perfect for us – that was his real-estate-agent story, and he was sticking to it.
As the four of us walked along the river, now hurrying to get to the car before the sky lost all its light, we reviewed what we liked about the property. It had the beach nearby, the views, the tranquillity. It was quiet but not isolated. It had access to Taree’s infrastructure, a twenty minute drive away. It had electricity and water, with sealed roads right to the door. It was near a small café in a captivating seaside community. It had a liveable shed, as well as a clearing for what seemed to be a good place to build a house.
We slipped back into the car, which was waiting for us beside the little park at the corner of Beach Road and Main Street. While we headed toward the nearby village of Old Bar, where we were staying in a holiday rental for the weekend, discussion continued. We were philosophical about the property’s shortcomings. It wasn’t on the beach; it wasn’t a high-energy cultural centre; the collection of old cars across the road was an eyesore.
However, if there was one thing I’d learned over the year and half of looking, it was that I couldn’t have everything I wanted in a property. Further, if I wanted to be part of this or any group, there would be even more compromises. This acreage seemed more than good enough. I thought of a Jewish friend who had once counselled someone who was having a hard time finding the perfect flat to rent, saying, “Oi vay, you can’t live everywhere.”
I could see myself retiring here on Mitchells Island, building a beautiful home, finding a community to be part of, creating expansive gardens. I could see putting my mark on this spot, even growing old here. The vision we’d been creating for ourselves over the year and half of looking seemed to match nicely on this particular tapestry.
It felt right. I was ready to stop searching the countryside, roll up my sleeves and make this work.
Rick was even more rhapsodic. He loved the land, the pines, the location and the beach nearby. He was ready to move up tomorrow. Undaunted by the four hour drive from Sydney, he was already planning fortnightly visits and long weekends.
Eve loved it. She loved the beauty and she loved the peace. She said she felt a connection with nature in this place that she had rarely encountered before. She was ready to settle.
I could see Daniel doing a final grapple with the big issues: leaving the Sydney cultural scene, leaving business and friends, his choir and men’s group, not to mention sharing his life with these unpredictable new partners. His enthusiasm was more muted, but he was saying yes.
* * *
Two weeks later Rick and I were on a passenger ferry headed toward a holiday on Magnetic Island off the Queensland coast, when Rick received a phone call on his mobile. He waved me over and we scrunched up, each with one ear pressed to the little phone.
It was Judy, her contralto voice rich with excitement.
“Guess what?” she said. “We own a property!”
Rick waved the phone with glee. “Mitchells Island?” he shouted. We’d put our blessing on the possible purchase a few days ago when the others had decided to go up again – Eve and Daniel for a second look and Judy to check it out on her and Michael’s behalf.
“Yes,” she continued. “That’s the one! We liked it as soon as we saw it. So we put in an offer for $25,000 less than the asking price, Bob phoned the owners and they accepted it on the spot. How about that?!”
Judy continued anxiously, “So we’re phoning to make sure you haven’t changed your mind?”
We assured her we were delighted and would get our share of the money ready immediately. We hung up in the midst of an excited gabble of good-byes and see-you-soons.
Rick and I looked at each other. Unbelievable. We’d finally done it.
We were one-third owners of a major adventure.