A family odyssey through the Land Down Under
By Lionel Rolfe 08/24/2012
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, had 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 if I would even be able to deal with the normal travails of modern aircraft travel. When I panicked because I lost my cell phone, a kindly Virgin Australian stewardess took pity on me and found where it had slipped beneath my seat. 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, located 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. 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 neither from the land nor from sheep and cattle, as did so many wealthy Australians, but from pharmaceuticals. He was a chemist.
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 family 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 hardcover copies during a few months of its release in Australia in 2008.
Hephzibah was one of the three great Menuhin prodigy musicians, and 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.
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.
As we wended our way up into the mountains, I marveled at the intensity of the colors. We drove through a place that could have been a Gold Rush town in the foothills of the Sierras. 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. The color and dimensions of the trees, however, perhaps didn’t rival California’s unique redwoods, but they produce a brilliant red wood that is strong and big enough to provide timber for railroad bridges and furniture.
It is not surprising that the gold country in Australia looks like California Gold Rush country. Gold was discovered in both places in the mid-1800s, so even the architecture of the buildings is similar. 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 exists in a kind of parallel universe.
Things are the same, and they are not. For instance, the sky visible in the summer hemisphere is different, and much of the flora, fauna and animals are anomalies.
The English took Australia away from the aborigines only a couple of centuries ago — similar to what happened with California. British prisoners built intricate stone walls that, to this day, dot the Australian landscape. And there were Chinese in Australia at about the same time as in California. But Australia was mostly an Anglo land until the second World War. Then Jews arrived, then Arabs and eastern Europeans and Asians, and today Australia is a fairly diverse place. Their prosperity of late has been driven by the proximity of China.
Once out of the foothills, we drove for miles across the great plateau, which accounts for some of Australia’s richest farming land, and Kron talked about mostly growing up here.
“This is the kind of country I grew up in, hunting rabbits and getting into mischief,” he said.
I realized that my cousin was the perfect guide to Australia — partly because he had spent many years flying for regional airlines, but also because he’s a farmer, and geology and weather are big parts of that profession as well.
We discussed Australia’s production of exotic creatures unlike anywhere else on earth, ranging from emus to cockatoos to kangaroos, to name just a few.
I commented on seeing a kangaroo.
“They’re all over,” Kron said. “I didn’t point out the dead kangaroo by the road we just passed.”
“I saw it.”
We talked 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,” Kron said.
“For some reason, this countryside reminds me of Los Gatos. Is that coincidence? I can’t quite put my finger on it,” I say. Los Gatos was where the Menuhin prodigies grew up when they weren’t in Europe. It’s also where the grandparents held forth when grandchildren came along.
“I think maybe not just coincidence,” he said as he expertly wheeled the car past the gate with the words “Nicholas Vineyard.”
“I might have created Nicholas Vineyards with Los Gatos in mind. Los Gatos was so much a part of myself.”
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 in the heart of Australia’s wine country.
For the first few days we lived at the vineyards, with various trips into Moama and Echuca and around. At the ranch, I was haunted by the intense colors and went around photographing some of them. I also met a “natural companion,” a five-foot-tall statue of an Australian Brolga, one of Australia’s two crane species. I would go out and sit on a bench to be close to him.
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 went with him one morning as he guided a group of enthusiasts along.
One was a retired milk farmer, who latched onto me. He asked if I liked blackbirds. “I see no point for them at all,” he said.
I respectfully disagreed 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. An eerie 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 talked about the rain forecast over the next couple of days in almost prayerful terms. He was anxiously awaiting the rain. He had planted a number of acres of canola, which would be a valued crop if it rained. If it really rained over the next day or two, his canola would pierce its way above the ground, and his crop would be glorious. Later, when the rains came, with more predicted, he was visibly relieved.
One day, Kron wanted to show me the good and bad farmers among his neighbors. We drove to one, plunging into a dark forest where the soil was obviously rich and loamy, but there were too many trees for farming. The narrow road wound its way through the dense forest. He explained this 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.
We emerged from the forest and a great stormy sky opened up above us. I was barely adjusting to that when the air filled with birds, dramatic rose-colored galahs, a kind of cockatoo. I realized they were coming from the tree tops of the forest and filling the big open sky. There were so many, they helped darken the sky even more than the impending storm — it was an almost surreal moment.
We turned down a dirt road and sped alongside a field of corn. We passed by a giant GPS tower that guided the tractor, putting down seeds in a neat row next to the stubbles of the previous crop. We found Kron’s farm neighbor sitting high up in a huge tractor.
I asked the farmer if the GPS could guide the tractor without him. “Probably,” he said, “but what would I do?”
He said he’d reached that point in life where he’s got plenty of money but is too old to enjoy many things anymore.
Later in the day we went the opposite direction, toward Melbourne. We drove through a small rural town notorious for the odd relationships people have there. I told him about a town in the mid-coastal region of California, where nearly everyone is kissing cousins.
This view of how seedy rural life can be led us to a property where there was a large rambling house that had obviously seen better days.
Kron liked to check in because he used to own it. At first, no one appeared 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 started to step out of his SUV to go knock on the front door. I begged him not to. As we were talking, a man drove up on a motorbike. Kron stayed inside the truck and leaned out of his window, asking about the dogs, and the man laughed uproariously over the time Kron was bitten. The man said he was going in for knee surgery, and then they were going to send him to rehab. He thought he might not have to go in for the rehab.
“Not might,” Kron said, “you’ll have to go in for rehab.”
Kron could see that I was bothered by the man, who seemed a “real mountain man type” with a twisted face and missing several teeth. He struck me as stupid and cantankerous and annoying to be around.
As he was talking, another man who looked a lot like his boss, came up and said with real concern, “There’s a ‘crook bull’ in the field.” A “crook bull,” I later learned, meant a sick bull. “Poor thing,” he said, as we heard the bellowing beast in the distance.
“Damn,” said the man on the motorbike before roaring off without a further word. I was glad we were leaving.
We later spent a full day driving around Melbourne, an impressive city with railroads that can take you anywhere. We spent a night in a luxury club Kron belongs to and I toyed with eating a kangaroo steak, laughing at the concept, but ultimately figuring that this is my grand trip to down under and people should do anything once. In the end, however, I couldn’t bring myself to eat it.
Finally came the day we were going to Terinallum. As we talked, I learned that Kron wanted to retire there, but he was not in the same financial league as the present owner, who had invested heavily in the place.
Kron asked me why I so wanted to see it. “I don’t know,” I said. “My mom used to talk about it a lot.”
We drove across woods that would never be good farm land. They have dramatic granite outcroppings and miles upon miles of dense eucalyptus groves. Kron talked about these gigantic forests, where fires “can’t be stopped` and burn right to the sea.”
We drove through Bendigo, a beautiful old gold mining town that is literally built on an alluvial gold field. They were firing up the mine again, which is underneath the city. The mine entrance is in the center of town.
We knew we were getting closer to Terinallum when we passed a great extinct volcano known as the Elephant, so named for its shape. We drove along more miles of eucalyptus and stone walls showing their age. Then we turned off the road and went 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 told 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 me at Terinallum. My life would have certainly been different had that happened.”
Kron thought for a moment. “Well, if you read that in Kent’s book, it’s true,” he said.
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. He was a lawyer — a judge. He asked her how he would support his family in New Zealand.
“We could open a laundry,” I remember her saying.
We never moved 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 had 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 both 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 wake up or even if I could.
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