A Personal Odyssey To The Land Down Under
By LIONEL ROLFE
A few months shy of my 70th birthday, I pulled my tired body full of aches and pains and the broken hubris associated with a divorce and headed to Australia. My cousin, who has several hundred acres of vineyards in Moama in New South Wales, sent me a ticket.
I felt like I had been spiraling down into an abyss of old age and failing health since the divorce, which left me unsure that I would even be able to deal with the normal travails of modern aircraft travel.
When I panicked because I lost my cell phone, which wouldn’t even be needed until I got back to Los Angeles, a kindly Virgin Australian stewardess took pity on me and found where it had slipped beneath my seat. Perhaps she was not the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, but healthy and warm and affectionate, and she seemed like an angel to me. After she helped me calm down, she passed by my seat a couple of times later, and her fingers gave me a reassuring touch that felt wonderfully libidinous.
Cousin Kron Nicholas was there to meet me at the Melbourne airport and as we walked through the parking lot; he told me it was a bit more than 100 miles to Nicholas Vineyards in Moama in New South Wales in the Perricoota wine region of the Murray River.
I looked around, expecting to see Melbourne. “The airport is quite outside the city,” he said. “To get to Melbourne we’d have to get on a freeway. But we’ll be driving straight back to Moama.”
Kron retired a while back as a Qantas pilot to tend to the vineyards and his retirement. Back in the days when he was flying, the airport was right in the center of town. But Melbourne kept becoming more urban and congested, so a decision was made to go with a satellite airport.
Kron’s grandfather George once owned the land on which they built the new airport. George had mostly built his fortune not from the land, not from sheep and cattle as did so many wealthy Australians. He made it from pharmaceuticals. During World War I, George, a chemist, took advantage of the fact that Bayer Aspirin was banned because it was German, and in 1915 he got the right to make aspirin tablets under the name of Aspro. An influenza pandemic reached Australia at the end of the war, and he became wealthy. Nicholas Pharmaceuticals grew into one of the most successful companies in the country, and George ended up with vast amounts of land in Sydney and elsewhere in Australia.
Only in the mid 1930s did George buy a 35,000-acre sheep ranch called Terinallum in the Western District of Victoria. You can’t call Kron and the Nicholas heirs poor, but most of the Nicholas fortune is history. Kron’s father was Lindsay, one of George’s sons. His mother was pianist Hephzibah Menuhin.
Writer Jacqueline Kent’s An Exacting Heart: The Story of Hephzibah Menuhin sold nearly 100,000 hard cover copies during a few months of its release in Australia in 2008. Two years earlier, Curtis Levy produced a powerful documentary called “Hephzibah.” No doubt, Levy knew the story because through various circumstances he had grown up with Kron at Terinallum.
Hephzibah Menuhin was one of the three great Menuhin prodigy musicians. She was my aunt; her sister Yaltah was my mother, and Hephzibah and Yaltah’s brother was violinist Yehudi Menuhin, regarded by many as the greatest musical prodigy since Mozart. He also was regarded as one of the two greatest violinist of the 20th century — Jascha Heifetz was the other.
The double marriage of Yehudi and Hephzibah to Nola and Lindsay Nicholas in 1938 was huge international news. Over the years the marriages proved to be dramatic and stormy mismatches and the stuff of many newspaper headlines.
I marveled at the intensity of the colors as we wended our way up into the mountains. As we came into a town that could have been a Gold Rush town in the foothills of the Sierra, I noted that to Kron.
Both of us were familiar with the green and gold hills of California, many of which were dotted with eucalyptus that had been imported from their native Australia. Eucalyptus are almost as ubiquitous in California as in Australia, but not quite. For one thing, there are more than 300 varieties of euchies in Australia. California has far fewer species of eucalyptus.
Some of the red gums in Australia grow to tremendous size. Their color and even dimensions do not rival California’s unique Redwoods. But they produce a brilliant red red wood strong and big enough to make timber for bridges and substantial furniture. “Yet they are eucalyptus,” he says.
It is not surprising that the gold country here looks like California Gold Rush country. They both developed in the mid-1800s, so even the architecture of the buildings in town are similar. The hotels, for instance, are two-and three-story affairs, sometimes with ornate wood designs. The strange similarities stirred childhood reveries that may have been in our genes as well, we both agreed. Thus was I first introduced to the fact that Australia is in a parallel universe.
Things are the same and they are not. The sky visible in the summer hemisphere is different, and much of the flora and fauna and animals are anomalies.
Before England started sending its prisoners to Australia, there had been aborigines for 100,000 years. The Anglos took over nearly a couple of centuries ago–British prisoners, for instance, built intricate stone walls that dot the Australian landscape to this day. And there were Chinese in Australia about the same time as in California. But mostly Australia was an Anglo land, until the second war. Then Jews arrived, and ultimately Arabs and eastern European and Asians, and today there is a lot of diversity in Australia.
Their prosperity, of late, has been driven by the proximity of China.
For miles and miles, we are going up toward the great plateau on which there is some of Australia’s richest farming land and Kron talks about mostly growing up here.
“This is the kind of country I grew up in, hunting rabbits and getting into mischief,” he says.
Australia’s longest river also flows along one side of Nicholas Vineyards. Kron has built his library so that you can sit on the porch on a body of water that’s an inlet of the Murray. Moama, where Nicholas Vineyards are based, is the heartland of wine country.
You might think it odd that Kron knows such things, but he’s a farmer, and geology and weather are big parts of that profession. He went to university to become a farmer, although he also trained for his career as a pilot, and began as a pilot flying for regional airlines.
We discuss Australia’s production of exotic creatures unlike any where else on earth, ranging from Emus to Cockatoos to Kangaroos, to name just a few.
I comment on seeing a kangaroo.
“They’re all over,”he says. “I didn’t point out the dead kangaroo by the road we just passed.”
“I saw it.”
We talk about birds. As a youngster at Terinallum he saw crows eat the eyes out of ewes as they were giving birth. He prefers magpies, which are related birds. The magpie, “is a friendly bird who will almost sit on your shoulder when you’re working. It’s almost as if they miss your company.”
“For some reason, this countryside reminds me of Los Gatos. Is that coincidence? I can’t quite put my finger on it,” I said. Los Gatos was where the Menuhin prodigies grew up when they weren’t in Europe, and also it’s where the grandparents held forth when grandchildren came along.
“I think maybe not just coincidence,” he says as he expertly wheels the car past the gate with the words “Nicholas Vineyard” overhead. “I might have created Nicholas Vineyards with Los Gatos in mind. Los Gatos was so much a part of myself.”
For the first few days, we live at the vineyards, with various trips into Moama and Echuca and around. At the ranch, I’m haunted by the intense colors around me and go around photographing some of them. I also met a “natural companion,” a 5-foot statue of an Australian Brolga. I would go out and sit on a bench to be close to him. To get there, you had to cross the water on a bridge.
Kron has been working hard over the years to develop the Moama Botanical Park, featuring native plants, especially of the high desert variety, in Moama and Echuca. I go with him one morning as he guides a group of enthusiasts along.
One is a retired milk farmer, who latches on to me. He asks me if I like black birds. “I see no point for them at all,” he says.
I respectfully disagree with him, saying they are amazingly intelligent creatures.
There’s a large amount of a particularly interesting “tree” at the park that Kron had introduced me to at his ranch.
He drove up to a small unprepossessing tree and turned the engine off. “Listen,” he said.
Suddenly, an erie whistling sound kept growing louder and louder. The sound was coming from the trees–known as She Oaks or Bull Oaks–which have long thin leaves that act like reeds on a musical instrument.
Despite the fact that Kron is a scientific farmer, not given much to religious impulse, he talks about the rain forecast in the next couple of days in almost prayerful terms. He’s anxiously awaiting the rain. He has planted a number of acres of canola, which is a valued crop if it rains and undervalued if it doesn’t; so far this winter there’s been little rain, and it isn’t coming up well. But if it really rains in the next day or two, his canola will pierce its way above the earth, and his crop will be glorious. The rain comes, and more is predicted. He’s visibly relieved.
Kron wants to show me the good and bad farmers among his neighbors. We drive to one, plunging into a dark forest where the soil is obviously rich and loamy, but there are too many trees for farming. The narrow road winds its way between the forest. He explains this forest is called Green Gully, a forest that really is only a line of trees along the old back water of the Murray before it was redirected south because the land began slipping. The soil either side of the Green Gully was rich and loamy.
We emerge from the forest, and a great stormy sky opens up above us. I’m barely adjusting to that when the air is filled with birds, dramatic rose-colored Galahs, a kind of cockatoo. I realize they are coming from the tree tops of the forest and filling the big open sky. There are so many, they help darken the sky even more than the impending storm–it’s an almost surreal moment.
We turn down a dirt road and speed along a field of corn. We pass by a giant GPS tower that guides the tractor, putting down seeds in a neat row next to the stubbles of the previous crop. We find Kron’s farm neighbor high up in a huge tractor.
I ask the farmer if the GPS could guide the tractor without him. “Probably,” he says, “but what would I do?”
There’s a bit of philosophical talk where he explains how he’s reached that point in life where he’s got plenty of money but is too old to enjoy many things anymore. I nod.
Later in the day we go the opposite direction, toward Melbourne. We drive through a small rural town notorious for the odd and strange relationships people have there. I tell him about a town in the mid-coastal region of California where every one are mostly and literally kissing cousins.
This view of how seedy rural life can be leads us to a property where there’s a large rambling house that has obviously seen better days.
Kron likes to check in because this used to be a piece of property he lived on. At first no one appears to be around, except for cages of angry, snarling dogs, as well as a few roaming loose. After telling a story about one of the dogs attacking him during a previous visit, Kron begins to step out of his SUV to go knock on the front door. I beg him not to. As we’re talking, a man drives up on a motorbike. Kron leans out of his window. They sort of play the Australian dozens. Kron asks about the dogs, and the man laughs uproariously over the the time Kron was bitten.
He says he’s going in for knee surgery, and then they want to send him to rehab. He thinks he might not have to go in for the rehab.
“Not might,” Kron says, “you’ll have to go in for rehab.”
Kron can see that I’m bothered by the man, who seemed a “real mountain man type” with a twisted face and missing several of his teeth. He struck me as both stupid and cantankerous and annoying to be around.
As he’s talking, another man who looks a lot like his boss, comes up and says, with real concern,”There’s a ‘crook bull’ in the field.” A “crook bull,” I later learn, means a sick bull. “Poor thing,” he says, as you can hear the bellowing beast in the distance lying down by a fence.
The man on the motorbike says “Damn,” and roars off without a further word.
I’m glad we’re leaving. There was a sense of decay and death about the place.
We later spent a full day driving around Melbourne; a neat and impressive city with railroads that can take you anywhere. We spend a night in a luxury club Kron belongs to in Melbourne and I toy with eating a Kangaroo steak, laughing at the concept, but ultimately figuring that this is my grand trip to down under and you should do anything once. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to eat it.
Finally comes the day we were going to Terinallum. As we talk, I learn that Kron wants to retire there, but he’s not in the same financial league as the present owner who has invested heavily in the place.
Kron asks me why I so want to see it. “I don’t know,” I say. “Perhaps it was that lovely documentary about it made by your friend Curtis. And my mom used to talk about it a lot.”
We drive across woods that will never be good farm land. They have dramatic granite outcroppings and miles upon miles of dense eucalyptus groves. The land then changes to rich farmland and I can imagine the gigantic forests where fires “can’t be stopped, and burn right to the sea.”
We drive through Bendigo, a beautiful old gold mining town literally built on an alluvial gold field. They’re firing up the mine again, which is under the city. The mine entrance is in the center of town.
We know we’re getting closer to Terinallum when we pass a great extinct volcano known as the Elephant, named because that’s what it looks like. We drive along more miles of eucalyptus and stone walls. Then we turn off the road and go through two entrances into Terinallum, Kron’s childhood home.
Terinallum was not only important to Kron, it was one of the great sheep ranches dating back to the mid 1800s in the Western District of Victoria.
“There’s a strange thing about this place for me,” I tell him, “I read in Jacky’s book that when my mother went on a concert tour of Australia and New Zealand in the 1950s, she was very unhappy with my dad. Your father Lindsay suggested she come and live with my brother and I at Terinallum. My life would have certainly been different had that happened.”
Kron thinks a moment. “Well if you read that in Kent’s book, it’s true.”
I thought about the time my mother returned from the tour and argued with my father, insisting that we move the whole family to New Zealand — and Australia by extension.
My dad didn’t share my mother’s enthusiasm for the idea at all. He was a lawyer — a judge, in fact. He couldn’t easily practice in another country. He just asked her how he would support his family in New Zealand.
“We could open a laundry,” I remembered her saying.
Needless to say, we didn’t move to New Zealand. And I never actually saw Terinallum until now. I only saw it in pictures and video and heard about it endlessly. As we passed by the rock gates, behind which cows were grazing in the green fields, I shared Kron’s feeling of returning home.
I knew this place and I did not know this place. But at least I was seeing it for the first time with someone who spent his childhood there, so that made it all the more real. He also wanted to spend his final years there as well. But for me, I knew I was entering that parallel universe where I felt at home and did not. The whole country was in a parallel universe, but Terinallum even more so. It was like a dream, complete with the jagged moments of super reality that sometimes dreams jolt us with. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to to wake up or even if I could wake up.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey,” “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” and “Fat Man on the Left,” all available on Amazon’s Kindle Store. A documentary is being made of “Literary L.A.” See “Literary L.A. Movie” on Facebook.