It is a tall order: three farm stays, two kids and 1,000km in four days.
We are city people. I still remember my daughter’s first encounter with mud.
“Get it off!” she screamed.
“It’s not dirt,” I told her in my best Earth Mother voice, “It’s nature.”
“Get the nature off!” she replied.
I realise the kids need a bit of exposure to life outside the Sydney bubble. And it is winter school holidays. Adventure is calling.
My husband is sceptical. “It will be cold,” he says. He is right. But despite it all, in the end, the trip surprised everyone. The trick I think was the diversity of our destinations. And ending with a little bit of luxury.
‘Lucky Duck’, hearty food and horse riding
Hanericka, a sixth-generation working cattle, sheep and wheat property west of Wagga Wagga, is a six-hour drive from Sydney, so the kids are desperate to get out of the car and run around as soon as we cut the engine. They immediately find some play equipment and busy themselves while I meet Amanda Aygun, our host.
Amanda runs the farm stays with the help of her children while her husband looks after the farm. She is warm, welcoming and has an affinity with children; our normally shy five-year-old and three-year-old are putty in her hands.
Soon we are all inside the main shed, having afternoon tea of fluffy carrot cake, oranges from the farm tree, cheese and crackers. There are two other families with children around the same age as ours, so the kids are busy making friends.
Before it gets dark, there’s time to drop our bags into our room (the accommodation is basic but functional) and have a quick look at the animals. The farm dog, Otto, accompanies us as Amanda shows the children the family of rabbits. My daughter grabs handfuls of grass to feed them, her distrust of dirt and “nature” dissolving before our eyes.
We cover the rabbit cages with woollen blankets to keep out the frost. Then it is time to lock up the dozens of chickens, ducks, turkeys and guinea fowl for the night. Amanda explains to the children that the chickens and ducks must be safe inside their coop before nightfall because of the threat of foxes. We meet Lucky Duck, who was named after surviving a fox attack. The children’s eyes are wide. They ask a lot of questions including “Why are you watering the chickens” when Amanda turns on a hose. One chicken is refusing to come in. My husband and I try to catch it. A pair of kangaroos, sitting on a nearby hill under a pink marbled sky, watch us with what I can only describe as disdain. Of course Amanda grabs the bird with ease and chucks it into the coop with élan.
Soon it is time to head back to the shed for dinner. All meals are served in the communal dining hall, where there is also a stash of toys for the kids to play with. I am assured the eggs we eat come from the farm, but the chickens do not.
The hearty food is a hit with children: we eat baked chicken with rice and salad for dinner. Afterwards there is ice-cream for kids, lemon tart for grown-ups. Amanda puts the sugar high to good use, involving the children in games of musical cushions, musical statues and what’s the time Mr Wolf. Everyone is having a great time but there is one thing missing. Alcohol. My tip for drinkers: BYO.
After the games we go outside to wonder at the Milky Way, easily visible out here where city lights are a distant memory. When it gets too chilly, we head to the bonfire that is blazing close to the cottages to warm up, kicking ourselves that we forgot to pack a bag of marshmallows.
In the morning, after breakfast, we meet for goat milking. Everyone wants a turn of squeezing, but no one, even the milk-mad three-year-old, is game to try the result. The children take turns throwing handfuls of feed to the chickens and giving them a little pat, then it is off to visit the camels and horses.
Now comes the highlight: horse riding. These are not ponies. Bella, which my daughter gets to ride, is huge. Now basically a country kid, she doesn’t bat an eyelid. It’s time to go.
Kid rating: 4 stars
Adult rating: 3.5 stars
Roaring fires and a fairy shelter
At Kimo, a two-hour drive from Hanerika, there are no animals to pet, feed or water. There is, instead, a huge expanse of sky, a lot of paddock, green hills, mooing cattle, baaing sheep and a little wood out the back of our cottage that is ripe for exploring.
Unlike the setup at Hanerika, we are left to our own devices by the owners, who dropped off an ample basket of steak, sausages, salad, cheese and wine (hooray!) for dinner and breakfast provisions and bid us a friendly goodbye.
As well as being a working farm, Kimo is a wedding venue run by husband and wife team Emelia and David Ferguson. When David’s parents decided to sell the 7,000 acre farm a few years ago, the couple stepped in. They have since set up the farm stays and wedding business and host more than 15 weddings a year.
There are two cottages to choose from as well as the Shearer’s quarters and JR’s Hut – an architecturally designed A-frame construction perched on the top of a hill with amazing views of the Murrumbidgee river.
We are assigned to Daley’s Cottage, a blue weatherboard three bedder nestled in a corner of a paddock. There are two fireplaces, ample space for the kids to run around inside and no TV. For a moment panic sets in, before the children discover a box of talking books and a CD player that is easily worked by little fingers. Soon the fires are roaring, the kids are listening quietly to Peter Pan and the wine has been opened. The sun sets, turning the huge sky orange and pink and then black.
We don’t emerge until the morning. I have decided that my daughter and I will climb the nearest hill. We have a peptalk. We bid farewell to the others. We make it about 40 yards. In the little wood, she has discovered some grass that looks like it might make a good bed for a fairy. We make a shelter for the fairy. Then we make a shelter for us. She makes a “sofa” for us out of grass.
My husband comes along with the three year old and covers the shelter with eucalyptus fronds. The shelter is cosy, the children romp around finding more twigs to make a door and windows. My daughter finds an old rusty horse shoe and we explain about good luck.
Suddenly the morning is gone and everyone is hungry. We pile into the car and drive 45 minutes to the Sir George pub in the river town of Jugiong where there’s a cubby house for the kids to play in and a goat to pet while we order lunch. When it comes, the children eat all of their food – the country air is making them ravenous.
We spend a second night with the fires, talking books and wine at Kimo. There is no bath, so we borrow a bucket from Emelia and pop the kids in it, one at a time, in front of the fire. I imagine this is just how the pioneers did it.
In the morning, we cook up eggs and bacon from our ample “breakfast basket”. It is rainy but before we leave we must check the fairy shelter. It has survived! There is even a tiny dry patch of “sofa”. The kids bid the shelter a sad farewell. As she trudges back to the car, my daughter says, “I love nature”.
Kimo Estate is at 1,218 Nangus Road, Gundagai, NSW
Kid rating: 5 stars
Adult rating: 4 stars
Collecting eggs, a real bath and ‘talking chicken’
By the time we arrive at Farm Club in the southern highlands, the kids have been asking “are we there yet?” for about three hours.
They tumble out of the car ready for action and luckily, action is immediately at hand. We are met by Anna, who runs the farm shop and vegetable garden. Anna immediately spots kids in need of a runaround and takes us on the farm trail.
We wend our way behind the shop and cafe and into the paddocks towards the goats, pigs and chicken coop. My daughter is elated to help with collecting eggs and delicately places about two dozen warm, white eggs into a basket while the chickens bustle around our feet.
Then Anna takes us to the vegetable garden where we get to pick our own salad for dinner. Anna, her husband Ben and their two children relocated to the southern highlands from Melbourne last year and have dedicated themselves to setting up the vegetable patch. Despite the season, it is bountiful. There is lettuce, kale, radishes and white turnips to harvest. My daughter, a child who is obsessed with salad leaves, discovers a new favourite: tatsoi, a thick, nutty-flavoured Chinese green. She munches handfuls before we head back to the shop.
Here, we collect our dinner basket which is heaving with four slabs of dry-aged beef, sausages, organic butter, locals cheeses, our salad, a bottle of red for us and some hot chocolate for the kids. Alice, who owns and operates the cattle farm with her husband Hugh, shows us around our accommodation – the warm, light and spacious Old Dairy Cottage. The cottage, which has three cosy bedrooms, overlooks paddocks and a dam – it is all supremely peaceful.
And there is a bonus: the cottage is the first place on our trip with a real bath. After all the mud, animals and brief, chilly showers, we are all thrilled at the prospect of a good long soak. But not yet.
First Alice takes me on a “farm safari” in her Land Rover. She hails from Jersey; Hugh is Australian. The couple share a love of the land and horses and have 16 that they obviously cherish. But they are not for riding by guests. “What, um, exactly do you do with them then?” I ask, my city credentials well and truly showing. “Muster!” she replies with relish. Of course.
Anna drives us to the top of the property where we get a gorgeous 360-degree view of the farm and neighbouring national park as the afternoon light turns golden. She tells me that in warmer months she brings farm stayers up here for tea and lemon cake or gin and tonics at sundown. In my head I am counting the number of weeks until spring.
As we drive back down the hill, there is a light shower and then, as if on cue, a perfect double rainbow arcs across the sky. We sleep deeply that night and awake to the cottage surrounded by chickens. The kids dart outside to “talk chicken” to them as we slowly repack the car. We are less keen to return to the city than I thought we would be. Country life, it isn’t so bad after all.
Farm Club is at 1 Werai Road, Werai, New South Wales
Kid rating: 4 stars
Adult rating: 5 stars
The writer and her family travelled with Destination New South Wales