Australia

A Year Down Under

More precisely, a year has passed since our move to Bendigo, Victoria. In fact the ‘move’ should really be termed an ’emigration’ as we traveled on a sponsored working visa with no intention of returning to British shores.

We arrived in a cold and windy Melbourne with the clothes on our back and what luggage we could carry and although tired from our 24 hour journey, we were ultimately excited at what lay ahead. As part of my wife’s relocation package, 2 adjoining rooms at the Hilton were booked and waiting for us as was an eight seat minibus the following morning. After a couple of hours of payment negotiating (they initially refused to accept a cash deposit rather than a credit card) and without so much as being pointed in the general direction of Bendigo, we loaded up and headed off.

The first thing that struck me after leaving Melbourne behind was the sheer expanse. From any higher ground you could see the bush for many miles. The open space and distance in between dwellings or any considerable urbanisation was surprising having played sardines for the past eighteen months in Southall, West London but it really shouldn’t have been. Everyone knows (or should) that the continent of Australia is bloody huge. In fact, the largest island on the planet is only very slightly smaller than the United States (pop. 301 million) with a population of under 20.5 million.

Bendigo is not hard to find once on the main highway out of Melbourne. It’s straight up the Calder Highway and takes approximately an hour and forty five minutes. It is actually a city but for anyone coming from the UK, it would probably resemble more a small town.

View from our cabin
View from our cabin

We stayed in some bush cabins away from town (sorry, the city) for the initial month while looking for a suitable long-term rental for our large family. Bendigo has a fair amount of property both in the city and out in the bush, rental and for sale but even though prices locally have noted a small drop they are generally rising to a point that local first-time buyers are struggling. Increasingly it’s Melbournites venturing inland who are snapping up properties which are vastly cheaper than Victoria’s capital city. Self-build seems to be very popular over here.

Having rented all my life, the one thing I particularly like about the rental system in Victoria ( I really can’t speak for the other states/territories) is the bond scheme. Your bond is payed at any bank or post office and deposited into the account of an independent third-party who keep it secure for you until the end of your lease. Provided there is no dispute, it is returned in full. In the event of a dispute, the case is heard by an independent body. We currently pay $270 (₤120) per week for a large four-bedroomed split-level house with garden and a separate mini-bungalow for guests/gym/rumpus etc, with the council tax included. In comparison, we paid ₤300 ($680) per week in Southall for a mid-terrace two-bedroomed house with a box room, no garden and extortionate council charges.

Having said that, it is probably wrong to compare the two as the respective cost of living is different. This was one aspect that we researched but the more we researched the more opinion seemed split. Personally, I would say that it is slightly higher here in Australia than the UK but I can afford more meat which is also of a higher quality. Swings and roundabouts will adequately describe the cost of living with some items cheaper and others more expensive and at the end of the day, if you survived in the UK, you will manage here too. Besides, we didn’t move here to make more money. We are actually earning much less but that is more than compensated by so many other aspects of life down under. You’ve probably heard that emigrating to Australia is a ‘lifestyle’ thing. That’s precisely what it is!

From the outdoor barbie culture to the laid back ‘fair go’ attitude, Australia has so much more. We are less than two hours from the beach and a major city even though Bendigo has practically everything you’d ever need. The mountains and all they offer, including skiing, are three hours by car and you only need to walk five minute to be immersed in the bush. I have taken up motorcycling and there’s not much more relaxing than discovering new roads and taking in the scenery. Trail riding is more popular and hardly surprising given the amount of land.

There is an abundance of flora and fauna if you take the time to look. Admittedly, I rarely get the chance to observe much of the detail while riding but it’s clean and quiet. It’s wise to take some precautions if you decide to trek out in the bush. Thankfully there are no sharks out in the bush but there are snakes and spiders and they’re not just confined to the bush. This is something that worries many thinking of a move here but the reality is that there is really very little to worry about. Toxic and venomous creatures do exist but you soon learn to live with the very remote possibility of being bitten. Provided you take simple precautions you should never lose a limb through necrotic arachnidism.

If there is anything that will bother you, it will be the bloody flies and other than ‘hoons‘, nothing annoys me more. They are not dangerous to my knowledge but they are more persistent than the most over-zealous and committed Jehovah’s Witness to ever grace your stoop. Both roos and wallabies (and wallaroos!)are broadly considered as vermin and are certainly a menace to motorists and motorcyclists. It’s not a unique experience to be leaning right into a bend at considerable speed only to be confronted but a couple of the beasts, nonchalantly loping across the road on the exit. Only luck has prevented my bright yellow bike from being redecorated with the guts of Australia’s national animal.

Bendigo is the most progressive city in Australia and there’s something for everyone. I was informed that it’s a great place to bring up kids and I have to agree. The schools are very good and children can walk to and from by themselves. It’s safe to let the older ones go the shop by themselves and the eldest loves the fact that he can go into town by himself, meet up with friends, go to the cinema and then a burger afterwards without any hint of a problem. There is so much to do outside of school or work and it often involves outdoor activity. There are numerous sports clubs for cricket, footy (Aussie rule football), footy (proper football called soccer here) basketball, netball, rugby, cycling, athletics, martial arts, fishing and much more. There are so many more clubs and societies catering for a myriad of hobbies and interests.

One of the many reasons we chose Victoria was it’s climate. Of all Australian destinations, Victoria’s climate is probably the closest you’ll get to the UK. Winters are wet and often cold but there are more warmer days and the Summer lasts longer. I’ve only been here thirteen months but from what I have noticed there are two seasons, Winter and the rest of the year. We are currently experiencing a severe drought and this coming Summer is predicted to be hotter and drier than last. Having spent last (UK) Summer in record temperatures of 38°, the initial shock of 42° during the ensuing Aussie Summer wasn’t so much to endure, especially given that it was a very dry heat. I have to admit that I was rather worried about pushing baby to and from the school to pick the little’uns twice a day but plenty of sun cream, water and a good pushchair sun cover helped to eliminate the sun if not the heat. A kindly neighbour even offered to pick them up in her air-conditioned car on a couple of incredibly hot days, which brings me nicely to the people.

More often than not, the average Aussie will be an instant mate and with very few exceptions, they have been friendly, approachable and very helpful in my experience, always willing to fire a ‘G’day’ in your direction. I have made numerous friends since my arrival, the vast majority of which are Australian but one or two Brits also. One thing I have noticed is that many British expats spend more time with other British expats and this is a curious trait of those from the British Isles that I have noticed in many of the countries I have had the pleasure of visiting. I know that especially during the initial period after a big move that it might be comforting to have others around you who have shared the experience of relocating a family to the other side of the planet and that being part of such a social network might make the transition smoother but until you integrate, I don’t believe you can really settle.

That’s just my opinion and is in no way meant to be a judgment of those who feel a need to stick with one’s own. We have always had to rely on ourselves with no help from family or close friends so I guess it’s second nature to be somewhat more resourceful or self-reliant under difficult conditions and being open to new cultures and traditions helps.

A somewhat less effective foray into integration and networking was establishing Bendigo Forums. The idea being that those considering relocating to the region will rely on the Internet for information and perhaps even discussion forums for ‘first-hand’ intelligence. If, like most, you arrive with all your worldly possessions and the proceeds from your recent property sale, then you’ll be laughing. If, on the other hand, you arrive with very little but a notion of starting a new life down under, a willingness to integrate and a desire to make it work, you will experience the best of yourself, the Australian culture and it’s people.

And so a year on, my wife has seemingly profited from the inability of her employer to retain staff (the reason they recruited her from the UK in the first place, I guess) and secured promotion. However, she is now expected to take on two or even three times the workload for very little financial gain in what is one of the most stressful jobs imaginable.

I am in the process of establishing my own web design business, while taking an increased responsibility for childcare and maintaining the house. Yes, it’s a struggle and we’re not yet in a position to save but I can honestly say there’s no place I’d rather be.

It’s been a hard but wonderful 2007 and I for one, look forward to an even better 2008!