Looking back on our first year in Tasmania – 100 trees, 4 chickens, three months in a caravan and one new human later
The frenzied barking of caged dogs didn’t help our stress levels, as we milled around in the cold with the rest of the untouchables on the vehicle deck of the Spirit of Tasmania, awaiting our instructions. Our three-year-old Owen was steadily losing patience, splashing in the oil-slicked-brine at our feet.
Finally, over an hour after the Clean Passengers had boarded for their civilised dinners on this floating RSL, we were led by a harried, masked crew member onto our deck, segregated by red tape and hazard signs.
We’d chosen the first day the Spirit was to start ferrying passengers (returned, or in our case new, residents only) from NSW and Victoria, to which the Tas border was otherwise closed. That meant procedures were still a work in progress, and it showed – but we weren’t about to let it dampen our excitement of this new chapter.
We’d spent the previous weeks at our home in Gerringong, NSW, packing all of our belongings into a shipping container, then watched nervously as the front wheels of the truck levitated off our steep driveway from the weight of all our worldly possessions, before disappearing around the corner.
We’d nervously submitted our border pass request – successful only on the second attempt – and then drove the 820km to Melbourne, before sailing overnight to Tasmania.
On the boat, we weren’t allowed to leave our windowless bunk room, other than fresh air breaks on the smokers’ deck, and Owen took a long time to fall asleep in all the excitement of Sleeping On A Boat. But waking at dawn and spotting the hills of Devonport lifted our hearts. This was it!
We set foot on Tassie soil as new residents on 27 October 2020.
In the 12 months since then we’ve brought a new human into the world, planted almost 100 trees, built a chicken coop and a veggie garden, and lived in three different dwellings including a caravan. Now it feels like an apt time to refresh this old travel blog (remember travel?) and reflect on our first full year as new Tasmanians.
It seems we have a habit of procreating and relocating. About six months after Owen was born, we moved three hours south of Sydney to the coastal town of Gerringong. We loved our life there, and got used to daily swims in the ocean, made friends and even had a little veggie patch and two chooks in our rental backyard.
But we wanted to buy our own place, and Gerringong it turned out wasn’t much cheaper than Sydney.
Then there was 2020’s summer of fires, with thick smoke from all directions and consecutive scorching days and stifling nights, in a rental in which the owner refused to install AC. We spent a small fortune on a portable air filter and worried about the impact of the smoke on our little boy’s developing lungs, and were haunted by the idea that summers like those are only predicted to become more frequent.
For many years we’d talked about Tasmania as a milder climate to relocate to – and here was the reality of global warming playing out on our doorstep. Yes, Tassie will get fires too, but at least here we can afford to build a home that’s more resilient to them and other climate risks (more on that to come!).
We were also drawn by the wilderness on our doorstep, the produce, proximity to Hobart, and the fact that we have some wonderful friends already putting down roots here and were doing a good job of selling the dream. It felt like a no-brainer.
The property and the house
We had first seen our block on a holiday to Tasmania back in January 2020, a significant moment in history we would later realise – but at the time had very little idea how the world was about to change.
By March, from lockdown in Gerringong, we exchanged contracts on 2500sqm of ex-bull paddock on the outskirts of Huonville, about 30 minutes drive south of Hobart.
Still on the mainland, we engaged an architect and started to plan out our house – two-storey, to minimise the footprint on the land and enable an airy double-height void and capture views down the valley. Our architect specialises in Passive House construction, which means, in a nutshell, extremely well-sealed and insulated buildings that are mechanically ventilated through a heat exchanger, meaning you barely have to heat or cool them.
The block is a big flat rectangle on a subdivided farm that belonged to the family of our neighbours on two sides.
On arrival in Tasmania, we’d secured a very short lease to avoid hotel quarantine. And while nothing could make two weeks’ quarantine with a three-year-old easy, exactly, arriving at the beautiful little cottage, walls lined with books and surrounded by gardens in the sunny late spring weather helped.
We had the rental for about a month, total – with plans to find a longer-term place in the two weeks after our quarantine, where we’d live while we built our passive house on the block. We’d been warned about a severe rental shortage in the area, and that’s what we found.
I was edging into my third trimester when we’d arrived, with our lease coming to an end, wondering what address to give the hospital as I tried to navigate a new state health system for the impending birth.
We’ve never been ones to shy away from an adventure, but were we crazy to buy a caravan and live on the block without mains power or water, with a toddler (and soon a newborn) whilst working remotely full-time?
Yes, we were, and we were also a walking Grand Designs-esque cliche.
In late November, the caravan arrived sight-unseen, towed by a 4WD from Launceston. Home sweet home.
I had dreams of renovating the caravan into something white painted and instagrammable, but time wasn’t on our side. Instead we put glow in the dark stars above Owen’s bunk bed and Paul unscrewed and refitted the dining table in the kitchenette to better accommodate my growing belly. We were gifted recycled floorboards to put under the awning by our good friends living in similar circumstances on their own property (I told you we were cliche), and I instructed Paul to redesign the caravan bed area, to make space for baby and me before January.
People associate Tassie with cold, but the summers can get hot, and with no shade on our block it could feel quite arid. The caravan was sometimes an oven by day and a fridge by night. We mastered the Zoom background filter for our corporate video meetings, to hide the garish caravan decor – there wasn’t much we could do about the background sounds of the plastic awning flapping in the wind, or the braying of the sheep we borrowed to help keep the grass down.
But the caravan also allowed us to make the most of Tassie’s long summer twilight, and I loved watching Owen play outside long after we’d eaten dinner while watching the sun set over the valley.
We spent our first Tassie Christmas in what was by then dubbed Caravanistan with Paul’s parents in a winnebago on the property, and it was like many of our summer days and nights on the block. Our much-missed Sydney family were happy faces waving over Zoom calls, our neighbour traipsed through the fence with a plastic bag full of plum-sized cherries, Owen played in his Bunnings splash pool, and we sat outside until the sun finally set at about 9pm.
While I’ve missed our daily ocean swims from our mainland lives (sometimes viscerally), we’ve compensated as frequent visitors to Kingston beach, summer afternoons playing in the tannin Huon River water, and barely touched the surface of the aquamarine beaches to the far south, let alone the potential for holidays up Tassie’s famous east coast.
The caravan was truly cemented in our family history when it was christened by my waters breaking at midnight, two weeks early on 30 December. An intense labour and five nights in hospital later (we watched Hobart’s New Year’s Eve fireworks from the birthing suite) the population of Caravanistan had finally increased by one.
The home midwife visits all took place in the caravan, which I would painstakingly tidy in the hope of avoiding a call to social services, but they all seemed happy enough. In fact, having Ebony’s first six weeks of life in that little bubble on wheels was ideal in many ways. I’ll always treasure memories like the sleepy mornings feeding her as the dawn light flooded the tiny space, Paul in the kitchen two feet away, the smell of coffee and steam billowing off the kettle, Owen’s sleepy face peeking through his ‘bedroom’ curtain before he’d unsteadily descend his bunk ladder and run outside to knock on his grandparents’ door a few metres away.
But eventually, with our first Tassie winter on the horizon, a rental down the road finally came on the market and we pounced. We sold the caravan and watched it be towed away by its new owners.
The patch of dead grass it left behind looked impossibly small for all the memories it had contained.
Autumn and winter
Autumn and winter followed in our rental townhouse, where we still live now. We’ve settled into life here as a family of four.
Autumn was the orchards heavy with apples and shorter days. Winter was long mornings shrouded in thick fog, bright snow settling on the surrounding mountain ranges, gloves and coats and thick socks, coffees and croissants in front of woodfires. We were glad to be living now with heating and insulated walls.
On the block, the grass has grown over the caravan patch, but Caravanistan hasn’t been completely deserted – at almost any one time since we’ve been here we’ve had either set of our parents living in the Winnebago on the block, which has been invaluable and obviously transformative to them too – both have since bought properties in the Huon Valley themselves!
Materials shortages and builder availability (or lack thereof) mean our build hasn’t started yet. A scheduled start date of late this year turned into early next year and now mid-way through next year. But we already have DA approval, and it will happen.
On weekdays, we drive past the Tassal salmon smoking factory and through an apple orchard, muddying the car on dirt roads to Owen’s daycare drop off. We work in our office jobs from home, and spend time with our fantastic circle of friends, who have been so open, welcoming and generous, most recent blow-ins themselves, empathetic to the experience of setting up a new life in a new state.
Weekends, especially rainy ones, we often drive into Hobart, enjoying exploring its alleys and family-friendly offerings – museums, rock climbing, swimming at the aquatic centre, ice creams at the Botanical Gardens. Otherwise, we’ve made a second home in Hobart’s tip shops, collecting recycled materials like bowerbirds, to incorporate into our eventual house – so far we’re storing a full set of Kauri pine doors from a Federation house, bathroom basins, a marble washstand for the vanity, an enormous Huon pine slab for a kitchen island, piles of recycled bricks for an interior brick wall, sandstone slabs, three art deco mirrors.
Loving the novelty of it, we’ve sought out snow when we could, hiked the Hartz Mountains twice – once in summer when we swam in the mountain lake, once when it was blanketed in snow.
And more than anything else, any chance we get, we’re back up at the block, building, weeding and planting, while Owen plays in the mud and Ebony sleeps in her pram or, more recently, crawls in the grass and attempts to eat the flowers.
We first broke dirt with an assortment of about 60 flowering natives planted down the western fence as a wind and visual screen. Then a small orchard of 15 fruit and nut trees, a large veggie garden enclosure, and now a chook house which has just welcomed 4 Plymouth rock hens with three blue Australops waiting for us to collect them soon.
We’ve also waged war on capeweed (my mother in law gets all the kudos for that!), layed a gravel driveway, had three-phase power provided and plumbed in a portaloo!
We’ve basically done our best to fill the void of not being able to build our house, and already the block is far from the sparse bull paddock we lived on last summer. The months of winter and spring rain have softened and darkened the soil, which writhes with earthworms when met with a shovel.
Seedlings are popping up in the veggie beds, most of the natives are poking their heads above the plastic tree guards, and the fruit trees and berry patch are flowering and budding. I’m loving learning more about gardening and the prospect of creating a patch of something lush and green that can feed our family. I’m also anticipating much trial and error, as the selection of brown leaves, frost-burnt or slug-devoured seedlings already attest.
It’s been a big year – globally, of course, but in our little lives and corner of the world too. Impossible to fit it all into one post, but I plan on updating this blog more regularly than annually. So stay tuned for our Taswegian adventures as we build our house (eventually!) and explore our new island home.
Thank you for sharing this inspirational story. We have been aiming to make a similar move (in retirement) and repeatedly deterred by lockdowns. But now very much anticipating moving in the new year. All the best to you and your family. Looking forward to your next instalment.
Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. It was such a pleasure to read. Our daughter is planning on attending university in Hobart and to help with the housing crisis we have offered her the option of living in our caravan but her and her husband would need a block of land to park it. Is there a possibility of this on your beautiful little bit of paradise? Regards Lucie Helm
Hi Lucy, unfortunately not as we use the block ourselves quite a lot and hope to start building soon. All the best to your daughter and her move to Hobart. I’m sure she’ll find a solution ☺️
I just finished reading your update and was captivated by the picture you have painted of your experiences in Tassie so far.
You leave no doubt that the move has been the right one for the Chilton clan and with the greatest experience of building your own home yet to come.
I am looking forward to the next chapter.
Love always from Grandad.
Gemma , What a fabulous adventure . So good to hear how you are getting on. Loved seeing the progress on the garden. I too am learning about gardening now I am in rural Nsw. Congrats on your new baby . I have just become a grandma this very day with a little girl born in London. I think I may be visiting them every summer . All the best on the sustainable house build and what a beautiful place to live. All the best Jan
Thanks Jan! Congratulations on the birth of your granddaughter 🙂 I hope you can get over there soon! All the best x
What a delight reading this and I can see now the attraction.
I’m sure you will love your Mum and Les living close by and Matt and Alysha are excited for pending visits.
The pandemic prompted us for a sea change too and Stu and I have moved from Chatswood to Woy Woy, by the water. Zero regrets.. it’s about living life and doing what you can, while you can!
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