Here and there – Olinda, Victoria

When we moved to Australia, the family first lived in Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia.  However, after four years, I took a position in Victoria, and we moved to Melbourne.  Although we stayed in various location in the metropolitan area, I was to live there for 32 years.  Where is there?  Confusingly, Melbourne refers to the greater urban area, which extends over more than 2,700 square kilometres (the largest such urban area in Australia and the 33rd largest in the world), but also to the City of Melbourne, the central business district, centred around a rectangular block of streets, the Hoddle Grid, taking up an area of just 1 x ½ mile.  The CBD has become Australia’s most densely populated area, with approximately 19,500 residents per square kilometre, and, I recently discovered, home to more skyscrapers than any other Australian city.  However, Melbourne is often referred to as Australia’s garden city, and the state of Victoria was once known as the garden state, given the many parks and gardens, several of which are close to the CBD.  It’s confusing!

East of the CBD, beginning some 31 kilometres (19 miles) away, you can find the Dandenong Ranges National Park, spread over 3,540 hectares (8,700 acres).  The park was officially proclaimed in 1987, and added to in 1997, but the constituent parts  were parks long before.  These areas included parks previously known as the Ferntree Gully National Park, Sherbrooke Forest, the Olinda State Forest, and the Mt. Evelyn and Montrose Reserves.  Originally the home of the Bunurong and Woewurrong Aboriginal people, most of the forest was cleared in the 19th Century, when it became a significant source of timber for Melbourne.  Farming began in the area,  the ‘Puffing Billy’ narrow-gauge railway line began running from Ferntree Gully to Gembrook started in 1900, and tourism has flourished since the 1870s.  Because the park is located in an urban area, the park has a long history of major problems with feral and roaming animals.  This situation achieved some fame among Melbournians when a cat curfew was introduced in the entire Dandenong Ranges area, greatly increasing the survival of various bird and animal species. Is that enough background?

I recently spent several days in the National Park in Olinda, a township, located 47kms east of Melbourne’s CBD, and almost in the centre of the park.  It reported a population of 1,773 in the 2021 census.  Oops, a bit more background:  the name Olinda originates from Olinda Creek, a watercourse which had its headwaters in the Olinda area and from which it runs northwards. In 1858 the creek was named after Alice Olinda Hodgkinson, the daughter of Victoria’s dedicated and energetic Acting Surveyor General, Clement Hodgkinson.  It was settled by Europeans in the 1870s and the local timber provided a living.  In the mid-1890s ten-acre blocks were made available for selection, and township blocks surveyed and sold. Between 1900 and 1906 a post office, school and churches were built.

By 1910 the area of Olinda stretching south-east to Monbulk was extensively cleared for horticulture: orchards, berries and vegetable growing. The western forested part of Olinda was a tourist area, and the first guest house was built in 1896. After 1910 berry growing was replaced by dairying and cut flowers and Olinda entered a prosperous period of guest house tourism. Melburnians built weekenders and, later, more spacious residences “situated to take advantage of the extensive views”. Several artists (Streeton, Meldrum, Maltby) worked in Olinda.  The post-war years signalled the decline of guest houses, but increasing car ownership made it possible for Olinda to become a commuter dormitory. Day tripper tourists have also made a substantial contribution to the local economy, drawn to a place which has the “highest number of hospitality, gallery and garden attractions of any location in the Dandenongs”.  More recently, hideaway cottages have become popular.

None of that brief background adequately conveys what this unusual part of Greater Melbourne is like.  The not very high Dandenong Ranges are a weather trap.  Unlike most of Melbourne, Olinda and its close neighbours Sassafras and Kallista, receive a great deal of rain, are cooler than the suburbs ‘on the flat’, and have a micro-climate that seems almost semi-tropical at times.  In particular, and throughout the area, the various gully’s contain varieties of tree fern.  The whole area has a distinct fauna and flora, largely unlike that of the rest of Melbourne.  It is a place to try to see lyrebirds (which are somewhat elusive) and wombats (which are not!).  To stay in Olinda, even if you live in urban Melbourne, is to spend time away.

In fact, where I was staying wasn’t just ‘away’.  It was another world.  My cottage was tucked away among the ferns and trees, with huge windows that looked out, the view unimpeded by buildings or other evidence of modern civilisation. There was a track a distance away, which led to another cottage (I presumed), but I never saw anyone using it.  No other people around, but birds a plenty.  There were crimson rosellas all the time, and one somewhat grumpy (or so I decided) kookaburra, who would perch on a pole or branch and simply look at me.  Rather like Mr Benjamin Bunny, he clearly had no opinion of humans, (Benjamin Bunny felt that way about cats).  At one point I got out my iPhone and took some photographs from 5 feet away.  The bored bird waited until I was finished, and once the iPhone was put away, concluded this was the time to move on!

To stay alone in the middle of the Dandenong Ranges is a wonderful experience.  It is very quiet.  Actually, that is wrong.  There are no sounds of people or civilisation, but there are plenty of bird sounds, wings flapping and occasional squawks.  At home in Canberra I like to have the radio on, and so ABC Classical is often present.  Otherwise, it is also quiet, but I do hear cars and trucks some fee hundred feet away, and I do have neighbours.  In Olinda, I was living in peace.  Many years ago, I would have seen this as an ideal place to live, the ideal spot to sit, think and write.  On this occasion, I was happy just be ‘in’ the quiet.

If this suggests I spent hours staring out of the window, that isn’t quite true.  A short walk took me to the Dandenong Ranges Botanic Garden.  Perhaps it should have been called the Dandenong Ranges Mountainside Botanic Garden.  Let me quote from the website:  “Dandenong Ranges Botanic Garden is part of an Aboriginal cultural landscape in the traditional Country of the Wurundjeri People. Parks Victoria respects the deep and continuing connection that Traditional Owners have to these lands and waters, and we recognise their ongoing role in caring for Country.”

The website goes on to explain

“The Dandenong Ranges Botanic Garden is Victoria’s premier cool-climate garden. With breathtaking views over the Yarra Valley, the garden features important collections of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and more, in a setting of native and exotic trees. While it’s difficult to predict timing of the floral blooms, seasonal changes ensure the garden is a year-round delight.  Meander down to Serenity Point where the sculpted landscape opens to stunning views over the Yarra Ranges and beyond. A network of paths criss-cross the Dandenong Ranges Botanic Garden and highlight the ever-changing seasonal landscape.  The Dandenong Ranges Botanic Garden is home to a staggering 15,000 rhododendrons, 12,000 azaleas, 3,000 camellias and 250,000 daffodils clothed in colour in spring and autumn. The garden houses Australia’s largest collection of Australian and overseas raised hybrids of rhododendrons that cannot be replaced, re-bred or re-imported.”

Hang on, did that say meander?  This garden includes over 3 kms of easy walks, easy except they seem to down and up serious hillsides!  I went to the gardens several times, and the walking didn’t get any easier.  However, even on rainy days, the sights were compelling.

On one walk, staggering back uphill towards the exit, two children saw me, put their fingers to the lips, and gestured.  They had seen a lyrebird, which was busily looking for grubs in the damp, loamy soil.  Lyrebirds are amazing mimics (they can even copy a mobile phone’s ring tones or police sirens), but this one was far too busy to waste time on creating a new song based on my laboured breathing.  I don’t think we needed to keep quiet, but we did.

On another occasion (more than once in fact), I turned a corner to see a very fat wombat slowly walking across some grass.  I thought I was used to wombats (we used to have one that would walk up the track to our house, thereby slowing our return home until it had completed its journey up hill).  However, this wombat was surprisingly nervous.  No slow mover blocking the way, it took one look at me, and raced off.  Raced off?  OK, in wombat world, racing off is around 2 mph.  Whatever.  He clearly did not like me (“I do not like thee Dr Fell, The reason why – I cannot tell.  But this I know, and know full well; I do not like thee, Doctor Fell).  Perhaps he was a well-read wombat.  Or a grump?

I am confident you will be pleased to read that I was taking some exercise, not just watching the world outside my cottage from a comfortable chair, kept toasty while enjoying the wood fire I had lit in an old stove.  I even walked downhill to The Pig and Whistle for a pub lunch, which offered the standard Australian pub delicacy – a huge veal parma (parmigiana).  I walked uphill to have an afternoon tea of sconces, jam, cream and tea.  However, most of the time, I was looking out of the window, or walking in the Botanic Garden.

Escape is important.  I escape into books, into novels, murder mysteries and fantasy adventures.  I escape into non-fiction books about science, history and philosophy.  That is a form of escape, but it is escaping from doing one thing by doing something different.  In my Dandenong cottage and in the Botanic Garden it was escape by not doing something.  Not typing out a blog, not thinking about a discussion topic, no task in mind, just allowing my mind to wander, purpose free, serendipity choosing associations and thoughts.  The only other way I can escape equally freely is by listening to music, classical music, usually trios or quartets (anything more than that often commands a different kind of attention).

Are we losing the ability to escape, to be free of scheduled tasks and the demands of others?  Among the many theories of the importance of sleep and dreaming, one suggests this is a time when our brains aren’t everyday busy.  we are able to sort out what has been happening, assess and file away experiences.  Unfortunately, true or not, that’s about our unconscious lives.  What about when we are awake?  How can we find the time to be free?  In my work life, I used to have friends who would boast about the hours they worked;  I probably did some of that too.  Now digital media and intrusive systems create an environment in which is all too easy to be constantly ‘working’, attending to what is happening, thinking about how to respond, working out what to do next, always in touch, and never alone.

Is the right word ‘escape’?  Somehow escape carries the connotation of getting away from something.  I can escape in my townhouse when I listen to music, my mobile off and my computer screen blank.  That was what I was doing a few days ago, listening to Shostakovich, his 10th Symphony, 50 minutes of absorbing music.  I didn’t need to travel to the Dandenong Ranges for that kind of escape.  Perhaps a better word is ‘relaxing’, allowing yourself to become completely engaged in something that takes up your attention, simply absorbed the place you are in without having to pay attention to anything beyond that.

Do you know what I mean?  I spent a lot of my Dandenong’s break sitting looking out at the woods around my cottage, or happily walking (yes, I admit, sometimes struggling up and down hills), purposeless and yet aware.  I sometimes feel the same way when I take my morning constitutional, a 50-minute circuitous walk from my place in Canberra, towards the end of which I do some shopping.  I can arrive back and realise that I can’t clearly remember some parts of my journey, even though I can remember all the places I would have visited.  Was school back?  I think so.  Was it morning break time?  I don’t think so.

There is a word for this kind of free wandering: flâneur.  Flâneurs are true wanderers,  walking without purpose or itinerary, strolling from place to place, sometimes establishing a base in particular locations for a relatively short period, or perhaps staying a little longer.  They are highly aware that the best things that happen in life happen as a matter of chance. This purposeless strolling opens the flâneur up to an infinite number of new chance encounters that otherwise would not arise.  They’re able to observe the things that others fail to see. They go through life looking at the world as if it’s for the first time, noticing their environment while remaining detached.  As one definition makes clear: “In searching for what it is they don’t know, the flâneur is able to see beyond their immediate worldview.  Counterintuitively, it’s through not seeking that the flâneur finds.”

I would love to spend time as a flâneur.  Against schedules and systems, the flâneur is not focused on productivity or reaching a specific goal.  There’s no need to overthink life or feel pressure to manage or plan out every hour of the day to be as productive as possible. Instead, they’re taking life in, letting it take them where it goes instead of needing to be in control all the time.  They don’t allow themselves to be made prisoners to appointments, plans or others’ demands.  Flâneurs feel just as at home in the heart of the city as they do between the four walls of their dwellings. Their notion of home remains fluid and adaptable.  They move beyond an identity that’s tied to geography and reinvent themselves as ‘citizens of the world’.  This very trait is what makes them such great observers.  This level of empathy, tolerance, and connectedness leads to interactions and insights that would otherwise never arise.

In doing so, they move beyond having an identity that’s tied to the place they are visiting.  Perhaps they are in search of what makes them better people.  However, this isn’t about a hedonistic search for the next hit of pleasure, the flâneur is in search of what resonates deeply with their inner self, and they focus on paying attention to the true essence of things.  Flâneurs are not just aimless wanderers, but rather they are concerned with seeking out what speaks to the soul.  Ultimately the freedom the flâneurs possess is a state of mind. It’s about slowing down and soaking up more of life, being present to surroundings and finding inspiration from what they see. It’s the ability to shut off the voices in our heads and see things for how they really are – escaping from the demands of bias, judgment or ego.

I played at being a flaneur for a few days up in the Dandenong Ranges.  Then I returned to Canberra, and my life snapped back into a focus on committee meetings, blogs, and mentoring.  I started watching the ABC News, only ‘escaping’ into novels in the evening.  All too quickly my brief time as a flaneur was lost behind the prosaic ties of normal life.