Photograph by Jake Burger
It was nearing 6 PM, Tuesday evening on October 15, 2019. I was moving off the West Gate Bridge at a crawl, en route to Geelong after a day’s work in Burwood, east Melbourne. As my little Peugeot chugged along amidst angry horns and aggressive swerves, I wished I could close my eyes and teleport back to my sister, Skye, and my 9-month-old puppy, Piper. But that was all I looked forward to. Certainly not our cruddy, lavender post-war weatherboard, with its slanting floors and rotten window-sills. I was ten months free from an extremely toxic, abusive relationship that had made me a shell of myself. The house had felt like a perpetual prison of memories. Skye and I had made it our home in every way possible since, but the energy had scarred the walls. Burglars had attempted to break in multiple times as we lay in our beds at night. Piper slept in the little passage between our two bedrooms. We lived in a nice suburb in Geelong, but we never felt safe anymore. A couple of weeks earlier, a letter had arrived in the mail notifying us of a rent increase. The cost of living had already been so high, that Skye and I often struggled to make ends meet. Skye decided she was going to move in with her new boyfriend, and I felt like Melbourne was my only choice. We had almost moved back to our hometown, Hamilton, midway through that year – but the decision was faced with scepticism, and the timing didn’t line up. We abandoned the idea, but the doubt and disappointment in not following through plagued me in the months that followed.
In school and university, we’re led to believe that ‘careers’ are made in the city. If you’re in Victoria, all roads lead to a metropolis now bursting at the seams. Since my move back from Brisbane in 2016, Geelong’s population had began to swell, and it felt more like a suburb of Melbourne, than the big country town it once was. It was a fantastic base for my time at university. I completed my Bachelor of Arts and had worked a plethora of jobs; from being a nanny, to scraping plates at 2 AM at GMHBA Stadium (the home of the Geelong Cats), to later having some amazing jobs at Deakin University. From 2017 to 2019, I had thrown myself into coursework and jobs to escape the reality of my relationship; accolades from assignments and money entering my bank account was my only source of self-esteem. My creativity was dormant; I struggled to write, draw, sing – my keyboard was covered in dust. Though I put on a smiley front everywhere, I was extremely unhappy and battled anxiety on a daily basis.
But every time I went home to my parents’ farm, the pressure eased; the time with my family, the fresh air, space, horses, and a wood fire would strip away my stress. Even Piper was happier, with acres to stretch her legs and other dogs to play with. I would stand in a paddock, or in the garden, and close my eyes and inhale the air like it was a tonic. I would watch Mum make pottery in her home studio, and feel the creativity flickering back on inside me. Mum (and Dad) bought a run-down mid-century garage in town, with an incredible vision to turn it into a ceramics studio (now Hope & Co.!). As we excitedly sold our first wares at Sheepvention in August that year, I dreamed about working alongside her – which I am now lucky enough to do! But at that point, a country lifestyle was almost a fantasy for me; something I could have ‘down the line’, if I worked hard enough. When I spoke to friends at uni about it, many couldn’t conceive why I wanted to live there, or that it was even possible now. But I knew it was; I had been fortunate enough to grow up on a farm, and to know true space my entire life. And as I sat there, sandwiched in traffic that night, I craved it more than anything in the world.
That day, I had missed my mother, Sarah, making a speech at the inaugural Rural Women’s Day event. I wasn’t able to take the time away from work, and felt awful for missing it. Almost four hours away from my office cubicle, my mother shared her story with a group of women – and the man of my dreams (though I was yet to meet him) filmed it. On my lunch break, I chanced SEEK to see if there were any jobs available in the Hamilton district – and came across a Graduate Journalist role for the local paper. I distinctly remember Mum telling me about a time when she was a single mother to James, Skye and I – and how she came across a job and just knew it was hers. The feeling was instantaneous for me too. I knew little to nothing about journalism, but I knew the town and the people. I knew it was my job.
During that drive home, I warred with the guilt of leaving my friends, my grandmother and close family based in Geelong, and my position in Burwood. I was in a great team, with amazing prospects for professional growth; the wage was fantastic, and I could build a great career there. But as I looked across at other cars, all at a stand-still, I saw a lot of other tired people. Some pinched their foreheads with a hand, some tapped the steering wheel furiously, others scrolled their phones. Some were in flashy Mercedes, delivery vans, dinged-up relics from the 90s, or little hatch-backs. Regardless of who everyone was, or where they were going, we were all wasting the same amount of time in traffic. I looked at my Waize app, and realised from the time I had left my office, to the point I would arrive home – I could have driven to Hamilton. In my epiphany, I knew that I couldn’t be doing this in five years’ time. Ten. Twenty. I felt this inexplicable pull, and knew that I had to move home.
Three days later, I submitted my application to the newspaper. A month on, I got the job. Though I left that role after 9 months, I am grateful for all that a learnt in it – and getting that job changed my life, because it was like signallers on an airport runway. This way, it’s time to come home.
I was apprehensive about telling everyone that I had chosen to move ‘back’ to Hamilton.
Would the people I worked with in the city think I had wasted my potential, or that they had wasted their time with me? (The answer is no, they understood it was the right decision for me and affirmed that I would succeed wherever I went.)
As a teenager in a country town, your primary objective is to finish school and move to the city and never return. How would people view me? I had moved interstate, lived in cities, had these great jobs and done really well at uni – what would they think about me coming back? Would they think I had given up?
The thing is, none of that mattered. People who love the city, and live and breathe it, will never understand how I could move ‘out to the sticks’ (though we do have all major supermarkets here, and now Bunnings, thank you!). When I told people in my hometown that I was moving back, they were actually excited and very supportive. ‘We’re lucky to have you!’ some said to me – and it began to repair four years of my self-esteem being stripped away. I had missed the sense of community so keenly.
Also, I wasn’t to know it at the time, but when the global pandemic hit a few months after my return … many young adults came back; either to escape draconian lockdowns in the city, to have a secure roof over their heads, or to stay for good. And we weren’t the only ones who worked out the country was the place to be! In January 2020, I wrote a series about how Hamilton was ‘the lifestyle for the future’ and would see a population boom because of everything it had to offer. So you could say I was ahead of the trend …
During COVID, there was what was described as an ‘exodus’ from metro suburbs to regional areas. The Grampians region saw a huge influx, with one of the biggest housing market increases by percentage in the state, and country (it even surged above Noosa, QLD last year). This has been a double-edged sword, because any growth for this region is fantastic – both economically and socially – but metro investors and homebuyers have driven local first-home owners like myself and low-income earners out of a chance to buy here. (For now – I’ll try the Lotto!) But dissimilar to places like Geelong, the lifestyle hasn’t been compromised.
I love that I can get anywhere in town in about five minutes. That my commute to work is three minutes. There is one set of traffic lights here, and you can always find a car park. Even in town, the air is clean. There are beautiful walking tracks around Lake Hamilton and The Grangeburn, and the mighty Grampians are only a 20-minute drive away in Dunkeld (Halls Gap just over half an hour). There is a growing population of younger people with fresh ideas and zest to create opportunities for community events and networking. There is a reinvigorated energy here; an excitement for all that can be.
A week after I moved home, I received a message from the videographer at the Rural Women’s Day event. He had seen a photo of me in the slideshow accompanying my mum’s speech, and said he just had to meet me. A kind of love at first sight – and he is the man of my dreams. But that is another story!
Whatever your belief system, I think we are sent signals and given opportunities all the time to make the life we want. Whenever we’re on the right path, things have a way of lining up. In the city, I felt a constant, underlying resistance in everything I did – because it never felt completely right for me. I was moving through the motions, but never fully present. Blocking out the voices and white noise, and listening to my gut and heart in that life-changing day, was the best decision I have ever made. Right now, I have everything I ever wanted. Real love with my partner, Haavard, and our little family with our two dogs, Piper and Maverick; surrounded by my parents, some of my siblings, and extended family; beautiful friends. I have a home I am proud of, and we live in a beautiful part of the world.
At the start of the year, Mum (Sarah) and I contributed an article to Wattle Road Australia – a new website helping people escape the city to regional Australia. Starting with Victoria, Wattle Road has “profiled popular towns and some you may never have heard of” and provides invaluable information about schools, major employers, health services and properties on the market. Read our feature on Greater Hamilton at: https://www.wattleroad.com.au/hamilton/