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Tree and seachangers retreat to the city

TIME : 2-26 17:57:58

Dying to dump the urban humdrum for a change? It may sound idyllic, but those moves don't always go to plan.

It's not the snakes and sharks, fires and floods that make the countryside dangerous. It's the dreams, developed during day trips to enticing rural towns.

The prettiness and the peace, the lower prices and slower pace - stealthy and creeping as predators.

The dream surges over summer when, as you're lolling in the holiday rental with its kookaburra kitsch, the call of the waves sounds like a command.

Soon comes a guileless window-shop at a country real estate office, followed by back-of-pie-bag calculations.

Then, unwittingly, bouts of tyre-kicking at fixer-upper farmlets where hazy notions of an investment property or apocalypse bolt-hole morph into fantasies of kids hugging ponies, unlocked doors and blissful days of nowhere-to-be togetherness.

Oh, and the coffee and the sourdough are equally fabulous in Potts Point and St Kilda, Bowral and Hepburn Springs.

For most seachangers and treechangers, life out of the city is a happy success. But for a large minority it is discomfiting, disillusioning and, if a retreat to the city ensues, very expensive.

Reality bites

nine years ago, margaret gill, now 53, lived in cosmopolitan prahran where her well-paid but "deathly horrible" job as a forensic business analyst saw her unhappy, stressed and, she thought, on the cusp of grave illness.

She bought a house in bucolic Daylesford, 115 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, and moved there to slow down and launch a small business.

"I thought that it would just succeed," she says. But it didn't. "I ended up getting part-time work as a receptionist, for a fraction of the hourly rate I used to get. It was a dramatic drop in status and income."

Then it got dark and drizzly. "I thought winter would be great because you could sit by the fire and read a book," she says. "Well, when the skies drop and it's grey for days and freezing cold and you've got no wood, it's not that fantasy. I felt like a failure and very alone."

Gill stuck it out because she didn't have the money to move again, but it took five years before she considered herself happy and settled.

She was so rocked by her experience that part of her now-thriving consultancy is advising other people on their seachange plans.

She's not swamped with clients, though. "Seachangers and treechangers tend to be the sort of people who don't get advice and are impetuous," she says. "They are classic DIY-ers."

A just-do-it impulse drove Lindy Cook's move from St Kilda to the Bellarine Peninsula in 2008, following the end of a lease. "We'd always talked about moving to the coast," says Cook. "I did feel a bit panicked about it, but I love the beach. I thought I should be open to change and give it a go."

Cook, now 46, her partner, Dugald McAndrew, 48, and their two girls moved to Barwon Heads, 100 kilometres south-west of Melbourne and the location where the television series Seachange was filmed.

The area was as pretty and relaxed as the TV show promised but they lasted just three months. "We didn't know anything about Barwon Heads. We just thought it was cute," says Cook. McAndrew's work as a rock-tour manager (and RocKwiz roadie) meant Cook was mostly alone to juggle part-time work, kindergarten drops back in Melbourne and a teenager at school on the coast. "I spent half my life going up and down, up and down," she says.

When she was home, it didn't feel very homely. "The house was great, much better than anything we could have afforded in Melbourne, but I felt isolated," she says. "We'd come home and count the number of people we could see on the street at night. Maybe there'd be two, maybe there'd be none. To come from St Kilda to that quietness was to be taken away from all that was familiar."

Her teenager had been keen to swap her small private girls' college for a big co-ed country high school, but she didn't love it, either. "No one cared if she did homework," says Cook.

"No one assessed her. She said after a term that it was fun but she thought that if she stayed there, she would end up working at McDonald's.

"McAndrew arrived home from tour to find his partner on the brink of breakdown. "In about 3 1/2 seconds I realised the only sensible option was to move back," he says.

"We were seduced by the idea of the romantic beach lifestyle but we hadn't thought the move through ... Our social and financial hub was still Melbourne."

The family lost money on breaking the lease, removalists and storage but soon settled back in the city. "I have never packed so happily as when we moved back to Melbourne," says Cook.

Not such a smart move

education is a concern for many tree/sea-changers. In 1999, Caroline Kennedy-McCracken and her husband, Peter McCracken, then in their early 30s, escaped spiralling property prices by moving to the Mornington Peninsula, 85 kilo-metres south-east of Melbourne.

They had two children in their seaside village and loved their ramble-scramble garden with its vegetable patch, the beach and the quiet in which to pursue their work as artists and musicians. "But as soon as you have children, you get a wake-up call about the cultural environment," says Kennedy-McCracken. "It was very white-bread.

The melting pot we'd been used to was absent, and I missed it badly. I wanted my children to experience that diversity."

When her eldest child went to kindergarten, her unease increased. "I would tell people I was an artist and they would say, 'Oh, bullshit artist, do you mean?'

It was funny at first, but it became tedious. There was racism, homophobia, and I could sense that being exposed to all that would affect who you became as you grew up."

The McCrackens shifted to Melbourne's cosmopolitan northern suburbs but struggled with a huge mortgage before buying a cheaper property on a large block in a goldfields town, 100 kilometres north of Melbourne. That was two years ago.

They've made friends - all arty treechangers, too - and love their country life. But now it's secondary education that may see them city-bound again. "Our ideological position is that we'd send our children to the local state high school, but we don't feel we can really consider that here," she says, citing a stressed education system and a low proportion of university aspirants.

"Unless you have money for a private school there isn't a quality education on offer where we are in regional Victoria. There's such a low level of expectation."

Growing concerns

transport and health care are other issues that push people back to the city. When Carlos and Stephanie Robles' third child was on the way they realised they would need more space than their Summer Hill rental in Sydney's inner west could provide.

"If we wanted a house and a yard, we couldn't afford to stay in Sydney," says Carlos, 42, a theatre professional then working unhappily in retail management.

So he quit his job in late 2009 and the family moved to Point Clare on the Central Coast, 80 kilometres north of Sydney.

At first, things were good. "People say hello when you walk down the street. It was the weirdest thing!" he says. They liked their spacious house and they launched a T-shirt design business from the backyard studio. "We were totally out of our comfort zone but we thought, 'Yes, we can do this.' "

But within months they hankered for Sydney's bustle and variety. "We missed the multicultural food, being able to jump on the train and go to Newtown or the museum."

Then their youngest daughter, Cruz, was diagnosed with sagittal cranio-synostosis, a condition in which the infant skull plates fuse too soon, potentially hampering brain development.

Central Coast hospitals couldn't treat her, and Cruz soon had a raft of specialist appointments at the Sydney Children's Hospital.

The family had no car - never a problem in the city but now a real issue. "We couldn't get public transport in time to make our morning appointments, so we had to stay in hotels near the hospital," says Carlos.

"It was expensive and we really started to feel isolated on the Central Coast. We were just a couple of hours away, but it felt like a totally different world."

To exacerbate difficulties, their rental lease wasn't renewed and they couldn't find another home in the area. "When we moved up there we had our pick of properties, but by the end of 2010 there would be 40 or 50 people looking at places. It was a nightmare."

After looking at 50 houses with no success, they ended up homeless in Sydney, waiting for Cruz's operation in a family refuge. It took six months to get back on their feet and they're now living in the Campbelltown area.

Cruz's medical treatment was successful and she's now in blooming health. "Our seachange ended up costing us a hell of a lot financially and emotionally," says Carlos. "We tried it, but fate spat us out and threw us in the opposite direction."

Relationships can be stretched to breaking point by a country move. Indeed, Margaret Gill thinks those in troubled relationships are more likely to make a big change - and suffer a split as a consequence. "People in shaky relationships think, 'Oh, we'll just have another baby' or 'Oh, we'll just go and live in nirvana and that will make it all right.' And of course it's never nirvana."

When worlds collide

Creative director Ewan McEoin, now 39, made his first treechange at age 21. "It was a beautiful place on a remote hill in the Hunter Valley, but it turned into a nightmare. I ran a farm; my partner looked after our baby on her own. It placed huge stress on the relationship."

They separated and both ended up in Sydney, where they eventually reconciled. Four years later they tried again, this time to a cosy town 100 kilometres north of Melbourne. "We had a beautiful mudbrick house and an orchard but I spent most of my time driving to Melbourne," he says.

"I had to network. Most of the best things that happen in my world are a result of bumping into people." His career focus and the consequent grinding commute highlighted issues in the relationship, and he and his partner began drifting apart again.

McEoin thinks popular treechange towns have a "weird split of cultures" with, on the one hand, career-focused folk who maintain links to the city and, on the other, those who seek an alternative lifestyle. (Those born in the towns are yet another layer.)

"We got stuck in the middle of those two communities. We had hilarious situations where I'd come home to a bunch of hippies," he says. "They'd ask who I was. 'Well, I own the house,' I'd say. I was the only person with a job."

McEoin and his partner broke up again and he moved to Melbourne but kept a weekender in the country. "Eventually, I would like to try again," he says. "It's good for the soul and it's especially wonderful for children to not grow up in the city. Also, I can't afford to buy a house in Melbourne."

More stress, not less

Selecting the right rural location can make a big difference. Melbourne couple Kristy and Brian Breed chose a remote four-hectare property near Myrtleford in north-east Victoria for their 2006 treechange. He ended his demanding glazing business with its frequent 20-hour work days.

She quit her job as a travel agency manager. "We were stressed and frantic," says Kristy.

"We decided it was time to get some fresh air and chill out." Then in their early 30s, the couple wanted children but weren't having any luck.

They hoped a relaxed country move would help that along, too. But it wasn't as relaxing as they hoped.

Brian was happy in the country, while Kristy became miserable. "I liked the laid-back, friendly atmosphere and the fact that people would stop in the street and actually talk to you," he says. "I enjoyed the isolation and having more 'me' time for fishing, gardening, trail-bike riding."

But Kristy missed her friends and the proximity to shopping centres, and was alarmed by the drop in income. "My husband went from owning a business to working as a tradesman taking home $400 a week.

I went from being a manager to just an employee. We probably quartered our income. I couldn't see us ever getting ahead."

Three months after they arrived, bushfires ravaged the region. "I could see flames over the hill from our porch and my house and my clothes stank of smoke," says Kristy. "It was frightening."

There were many arguments: "I wasn't happy, our marriage wasn't happy, it took us to breaking point." She moved back to Melbourne after six months; Brian followed six months later.

"We moved 3 1/2 hours away," says Brian. "It was too far. We might still have been there if we had been within day-trip reach of Melbourne."

Being closer to a large town would have helped, too. "I didn't mind the 45-minute drive to buy milk but Kristy wants a five-minute drive.

The couple estimate it took a year to repair the financial damage. Brian started another business, threw himself back into crazy working hours and, despite the city stress, two children came along.

They see a country move in their future but next time "we will do a lot more research on where we are moving to", says Brian.

The couple plan to buy a weekend getaway to test out an area and, if it works and they are well set up financially, they'll move there within the next 10 years.

Kristy says the upheaval was worth it: "It's made us realise what we really want out of life."

Margaret Gill thinks that makes it a successful move. "When it doesn't work, people sit down and ask what their deeper desires are," she says. "I don't think you ever fail a seachange. It always leads you to where you want to be."