I drove out of Sydney on Monday noon. The day overcast, a light drizzle settling in as I passed the airport.
Further down the highway, where the speed hits 110km/hr, the drizzle became heavy fog. I slowed to 40km/hr. Couldn’t see more than 50ft in front of me. Switched on the hazard lights and willed the mist to lift.
Should I stop? Turn back?
Wiped sweaty palms against my jeans. Held on for dear life to the steering wheel.
At the Kiama bends, where the road sweeps in an ‘S’ around the hills, there was an accident – car and motorcycle. Lights and sirens rushed at me out of the gloom and the local radio reported it was serious.
How many more bad omens do I need?
Three hours later, my little Mazda and I slipped and slid down the dirt road into the Bundanon flood plain. A treacherous road at the best of times, but downright death-defying in the wet.
Three hours after I left Sydney, left my three kids, left my completely capable and supportive husband, left a bunch of sandwiches in the freezer, I arrived at the artists in residence complex.
Breathe out. You’re here.
Arts programs officer, Julie, showed me around the writer’s cottage. Pointed to the blackout kit of candles and torches that would prove perfect as a stand for my computer. There was no mobile phone service, no TV. But there was Wi-Fi.
I went about setting-up but my computer was proving cantankerous and there were a few hours of panic as I contemplated a week of complete disconnection from the wider world. In the night, the intermittent sound of the water pump woke me up and I’m pretty sure a wombat bashed into a joist under the floor.
By the next morning, I’d worked out my tech problems and the sun was shining. I sat down to write at 7:30 in the morning, wearing pyjamas. Two hours later, I was still writing, and still in my pyjamas. Occasionally, I’d look up and out over the paddock in front, which I quickly came to understand as being a giant playpen for frisky kangaroos, galumphing wombats and lumbering cows.
Who needs TV.
Bundanon is a special place. When you’re there, it’s easy to understand why it triggered such a well-spring of creativity in Australian artist, Arthur Boyd, who made it his home in
the 1970s, after being struck by the wild beauty of the place. His Shoalhaven River paintings are renowned for their gloriously vivid colours and impressionistic style, blended with the mythological iconography which is such a signature of Boyd’s work.
It was always his intention to share Bundanon with the nation, and in 1993, Boyd gifted the property to the Australian Government, along with a substantial collection of artwork. Bundanon was to be both living museum, and meeting place/retreat for artists.
And so it is.
To stand, alone, on the banks of the Shoalhaven River where Boyd painted before the mighty pulpit rock, is nothing short of a spiritual experience, and one that cannot help but inspire creative expression.
Over a normal Monday-Friday at home, in ‘first-draft mode’, I can write a maximum of 10,000 words. I went to Bundanon with the aim of writing 15,000 words. I wrote 20,000. The quality may be questionable but I was at least able to type the words THE END on the first draft of my next novel.
The routine was simple. Wake, write, walk, write some more, eat something, write, walk again. There were no school lunches to make, no uniforms to zip-up, no netball training to attend.
At night, I had the privilege of spending time with fellow creatives. Dane Yates, an outstanding young composer from WA, whose unusual use of goon in his work had us all agog (spoiler: he didn’t drink it). Merryn Sommerville – a wonderful emerging artist from Bega. The warm, witty, and fiercely intelligent, Susan Wyndham, former literary editor for The Sydney Morning Herald, and the man with an uncanny ability to describe New Yorker cartoons in humorous detail, Mark O’Flynn, the poet and novelist, shortlisted in 2017 for the Miles Franklin Award, and the person. Together, Mark and I stared down a black snake.
Was it intimidating to be in the presence of such talent? Yes.
Was it also joyous, mind-expanding and completely life affirming? Also, yes.
On Sunday morning, the last day of the residency, I woke early. The valley still in darkness, the kangaroos enjoying their morning grass feast around the cottage.
I couldn’t sleep. Excited to see my girls and my husband.
‘When are you coming?’ I messaged.
Two hours later, they tumbled out of the car and ran toward me, one by one, throwing themselves into my arms.
‘I missed you,’ I said, wrapping them up whole.
We walked around the property and I pointed out what I knew. The wombat in the wood pile. The galahs and cockatoos on the power lines. The piles and piles of kangaroo poo. The River was busy with waterskiers and speed boats. The smell of petrol in the air.
It was time to leave.
We drove out of Bundanon, the valley bathed in sunshine, and the cicadas singing us on our way.
Notes: I received the residency as part of the prize for winning the Shoalhaven Literary Award. However, most artists come to Bundanon through an annual open call for applications and the process for 2019 residences begins soon. To find out more, visit the Bundanon website.
Congratulations on the Shoalhaven award Cassie and very much enjoyed your piece about Bundanon. I spent the most magical two weeks there in 2016 as part of the same prize and your observations took me right back (waking to the water pump and the itchy wombat!). It sounds as though you were very prolific and made the best use of your time in the writer’s cottage. Very impressed by your word count, that’s for sure! If only we could write there fifty weeks a year, eh? It sounds as if you had some interesting company (literary royalty without doubt). I found myself on my own on site one night and woke to headlights and knock on the door in the early hours (a lost taxi driver…but would have been good fodder for a crime thriller). Best of luck with the novel, I’m sure it’s going to be a great read with the Bundanon magical touch. Look forward to reading it!
Oh, that’s so interesting Jo! I was in permanent fear that someone would knock on my door in the middle of the night, but luckily the thuds only came from the wombats.. Am just re-reading what I wrote there, and it was certainly a bit of a brain dump. But you know the old saying – you can’t edit a blank page. Very much looking forward to seeing your book later this year. You must be getting excited!
Never underestimate the power of the brain dump- the most authentic writing (that can always be tidied up later!). I meant to say congratulations on the Harlequin contract. Johanna is very smart and has a great eye for the slouch pile! Jo Mackay a great publisher. Excited to watch the process unfold and see the final product. I feel like I’m at the top of the Big Dipper, about to go! All the best to you on the same journey!
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