About janus

British-born, schooled in Holland and Wales, I worked my journalism cadetship in the Home Counties, escaped to London, then spent a couple of years travelling before settling in Melbourne, where I have written and edited for a range of publications, including Pacific Magazines [Your Garden, Home Beautiful, New Idea] and Fairfax Community Newspapers. Now a mother of two wonderful teenagers, I write about gardening, sustainability and people, when I can drag myself away from the vegie patch and my saxophone.
Website: http://janeswrite.com
janus has written 47 articles so far, you can find them below.

Tripod Versus the Dragon

Tripod Versus the Dragon, live at the Forum

THE nerdometer was going off the scale as patrons filed into the Forum Theatre discussing probability curves and statistics.

Nerd nostalgia and pride are central to Tripod’s new show; it’s a musical homage to the original role-playing game that developed a huge cult following – Dungeons and Dragons – and it celebrates the ‘’coming out’’ of awkward teens who wore cardigans over ankle-length slacks and excelled at maths but now have the confidence to embrace their love of the underworld game they probably kept quiet about at school.

Not that you need to be a D&D fan to understand or enjoy the show – it opens with two of the Melbourne-based trio – Scod (Scott Edgar) and Yon (Simon Hall) initiating D&D virgin Gatesy (Steven Gates) to the game, giving them license to explain the some jargon and rules.

Tripod Versus the Dragon then fills with all the witty ditties and self-deprecating comedy fans have come to expect, but the for the first time introduces in a foreign body to the formula – a girl, armed with a full set of girl germs.

Elana Stone plays the role of Dungeon Master and later, the dragon, guarding the secret place on the magic map that the trio set out to explore. She brings not only a fresh element to the Tripod chemistry, but a huge musical and comedic talent of her own, as well as a stunning set of lungs; her first solo won the biggest applause of the first preview night.

The script is clever, mocking their own love of the cult subject while parodying a classical tragedy, complete with a dangerous quest, love interest, betrayal, tragic death, morality and redemption – plus a chorus, even if it is one that answers back.

Special effects include a guitar, chair, overhead projector, a sheet and a stick with a pointy bit, but the simple, honest way they are used brings another level of comedy again.

The plot seems to lose a bit of momentum about three-quarters of the way through, when a couple of the songs could have been cropped or sped up a bit, but otherwise it’s an enlightening hour, whether you’re a D&D virgin or fan.

Tripod Versus the Dragon is upstairs at the Forum Melbourne, corner Flinders and Russell streets, Tuesdays to Sundays at 9.15pm, until April 18.


Geared up

Appeared in first edition of Treadlie, December 2010


Despite mounting evidence that reduced car travel could provide a panacea for many ailments of modern life, it seems the message is too-rarely translating to action.

Last month (October) cyclists were given an armoury of ammunition to fire at recalcitrant governments by visiting Roger Geller, bicycle co-ordinator for the City of Portland, Oregon.

Once a typical, car-focused American city, the state capital has transformed itself by building the most comprehensive bikeway network in the USA.

As a result, the number of residents who consider cycling to be either their main or second means of transport is up to 18%. – higher in some areas.

Build it and they will come

Geller believes the key to Portland’s success has been extending the 10 kilometers of bike paths that existed in 1980 to a 500-kilometer network that criss-crosses the city today; paths range from lines painted on roads to separated ‘Copenhagen-style’ tracks with their own stop signals.

“We started with the easiest roads first – those wide enough to create bike lanes without it impacting other traffic – and we’ve slowly tackled harder and harder streets as we won more political momentum,” Geller explains.

Bike paths are signposted with direction, distance and approximate riding time, addressing the misconception that cycling is slow.

Portland’s building code says all new buildings must have long- and short-term bike parking and developers are given incentives to include showers and lockers.

Bikes can be carried on buses, light rail and trams.

Geller is quick to point out that while engineering is a key ingredient, other ‘Es’ of cycling are also vital: Encouragement, Education, Enforcement and Evaluation.

Good for the City

“We had a lot of complaints at the start,” Geller admits, and quotes: “ ‘Why are you wasting my taxes? – no-one is using the bike paths’ – but our data shows they are being used and the usage is growing.”

A major bonus for the city are statistics that show, in a city of many bridges, it is the bike traffic that is expanding, while car numbers stay the same.

“This means our bridges are still operating as well today for cars as they did 20 years ago – that’s huge for a growing city trying to manage transportation.”

Good for Health

Poor diet and lack of exercise is the second leading cause of avoidable disease in America.

“For the first time in history, our children are destined to have shorter life expectancies than their parents, and we have to do fix that,” Geller says.

A goal adopted by Portland city fathers is to get people out of cars and walking.

Quoting Danish statistics, Geller believes cyclists save between 25 cents and $1 on health costs for every kilometer they ride.

“This has huge ramifications for employers, who often pay health cover in US – plus fewer sick days,” Geller adds.

Safety-wise, Portland’s figures are encouraging, with the number of cycling incidents and injuries holding steady despite more cyclists.

“Cyclists today are four times safer than they were 10 years ago,” Geller cites.

Helmets are compulsory for riders under 16, but surveys have found more than 80% of all riders wear helmets – up from about 45% in the 1990s.

Good for Business

Winning support for bicycle road space became easier since businesses recognised riders as valuable customers.

Portland residents drive about 6.5 kilometres a day less than the national average – together saving US$1.2 billion a year on transport.

“We buy less gas and fewer car parts, and don’t replace cars as quickly,” Geller explains.

Of that US$1.2B, about $800 million is spent locally instead.

“People who ride bikes have more money in their pockets,” he says. “Businesses are noticing that and are asking for on-street parking to be removed and replaced with corrals for more bikes.

“There are currently 51 in city and 11 in the works, and 65 more have been requested,” Geller says.

“In a very barren economic time in US, inner Portland is doing quite well.”

New ventures have also sprung up to meet the new demand, such as a bike-friendly guest house, a community cycling centre and at least two boutique bike manufacturers.

Good Fun

An amazing 4000 cycling events are held in Portland annually, from pub crawls, mystery rides and heritage tree tours through to major events such as Peddlepalooza, Bridgepedal (20,000 participants) and the famous World Naked Bike Ride, which attracted 11,000 riders in 2010.

“There are a lot of ‘bike funnists’ in Portland,” explains Geller.

While more families and children are taking to bikes – and Portland-built cargo bikes are seeing more businesses use bikes – a challenge identified by the Community Cycling Center is encouraging cycling in Hispanic and other ethnic communities, many of whom live in outer suburbs where the bike network is weakest.

The Future

Now that the pro-bike lobby has some momentum, future plans include tripling the amount of bike lanes to 1500km, and making life harder for motorists by reducing their share of roads.

“Originally our policy aimed to make bicycling an integral part of transport.

“Now it is to make cycling more attractive than driving for trips of 3 miles [5km] or less.”

After surveying Portland residents on their attitude to cycling, city planners have identified four groups:

  • The Strong and Fearless, who will ride whatever the weather and even without bike lanes – about 1% of the population.
  • The Enthused and accomplished, who will only ride on bike lanes. This 18% are the ones the new Portland network has won over.
  • About 30% are ‘No Way, No How’ and will never cycle, whatever you do or say.
  • About 50% are Interested but concerned and want to ride but are terrified of bike lanes and traffic.

“This last group is who we’re now focused on,” Geller says.

To reach them, he believes the city needs a network to the standard set by Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

“They’ve created conditions where it doesn’t feel any less safe or comfortable to be on bikes as it does getting in a car. When people are able to look at just the advantages – the cost, the enjoyment, the speed – then they will use bikes.”

PORTLAND – Key Facts:

  • Portland has a population of 580,000 people and covers 380 square km.
  • The average distance per bike ride is 5km and the average speed is 16 kph
  • About 4000 bicycle events are held in Portland each year
  • If Portland rebuilt its bike network from scratch today, it would cost $60 million – roughly equivalent to buying 1.6km of urban freeway.
  • Portland spends 0.7% of its capital money on bike infrastructure but Geller warns that you get what you pay for – currently spending is at about $2 per capita, but he would like to see it increased to $18 or $10 million more a year.
  • Metrofiets, which makes cargo bikes to order, has crafted a bike for a local brewery that stores two beer kegs under an inlaid wooden bar, and boasts pizza rack and sound system.
  • Two thirds off all trips are now made by car in Portland. About 50% are trips of 5km or less.

How Does Australia Rate?

Geller said he was particularly impressed with the level of investment and the quality of the facilities being built in Sydney.

“They have clearly recognized the importance of separation from automotive traffic and that is reflected in their designs. Their challenge will be to make sure the facilities are well-connected and that people in the outlying areas are able to access the central city.”

Melbourne reminded Geller of Portland.

“I took several long rides and walks throughout city and surrounding areas and found I was able to be in either some type of bicycle lane, traffic-calmed street or off-street pathway almost constantly. The network seemed comprehensive and well-connected – at least in the areas where I rode. I also thought Melbourne was making good progress in improving the quality of their facilities by developing buffered bicycle lanes and were looking comprehensively at improving routes in the CBD.”

While in Australia Geller met MPs and councillors in NSW and Victoria, as well as VicRoads.

“I thought there was a high level of interest among all with whom I met and they were clearly open to learning what they could from me.

“As the Lord Mayor of Melbourne said at the Bike Futures 2010 conference, he hasn’t run into any mayors who are saying that they want more automobile traffic in their central cities.”

White choice

Published in Green Magazine, Issue 17

Despite bigger houses and more electrical goods, Australia’s domestic energy use is expected to fall in relative terms. This is mostly due to more energy-efficient appliances and homes – primarily led by government ‘carrot-and-stick’ programs.

The Star Rating system helps shoppers choose the most energy efficient refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, while Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) ban the sale of inefficient goods in Australia.

But there are still loopholes and even the ‘easy-to-read’ star ratings system needs to be approached with caution.

Also, underlying all the statistics is a common truth that the way a product is used, and how often it is replaced, often makes the biggest difference to your energy bill and footprint.

Star Ratings

Energy Rating Labels for all whitegoods became mandatory across Australia in 1992.

More stars means greater efficiency (to a maximum of six or 10) – but this only works when comparing models of the same size.

A larger machine may have more stars than a smaller model, but it will almost certainly use more electricity. So decide what size you need then choose the model with most stars.

Gas-powered appliances are not star rated.


Introduced to domestic fridges and freezers in 1999, Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) were rolled out to light bulbs, televisions and set-top boxes in the past two years and will apply to computers from June 2011.

However a 2010 Federal Government report found the standards were being undermined by different interpretations of ‘supply and sell’ across state and territory laws.

Another loophole allows users to import directly from overseas; so long as the product is not on-sold in Australia, the regulations do not apply.

Total Life Cycle Assessment

Life Cycle Assessment looks at all the cradle-to-grave impacts a product has, from raw materials through processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, to disposal or recycling.

For whitegoods, the in-use phase dominates, says Tim Grant, director of Life Cycle Strategies Pty Ltd.

While white goods have a high level of embodied energy from their manufacture, he said: “there are reasonable recycling options so those materials can be reused”.

With few longevity statistics available, Choice magazine bases its recommendations on customer feedback on reliability.

Longevity statistics are hard to find, agrees Aleks Efeian, marketing and communication executive for Bosch and Seimens Home Appliances (BSH) – partly because “how a product is used will impact on its longevity so manufacturers are hesitant to release those details”.

Instead, he says “BSH aims to reduce our total energy use per tonne of product by 15% by 2013” and other manufacturers are setting similar targets.

Hot water and solar power

Most new washing machines are only plumbed to the cold tap because heating water internally, while using more energy, is more efficient than using water heated by electric systems.

But with more households now using solar power or having solar hot water systems, there is a push for manufacturers to include dual taps to access this ‘green’ resource.

Size matters

Size, sensors and smart electronics have all helped whitegoods become more efficient in their use of energy, water and, where relevant, detergent.

Generally machines with larger capacities are more efficient relative to smaller ones, but of course a single person using a family-sized freezer or washing machine is not be an efficient use of power.

Choice magazine also found some washing machines did not perform well when filled to their claimed capacity, indicating some manufacturers might exaggerate this to gain a higher efficiency rating.

Lower water use has had an unfortunate knock-on problem – detergent residue on clothes, although this happens less with liquid detergents.

No matter how efficient a machine is, if it’s only being run at half full, it will be half as efficient. However, many machines – especially washing machines and dryers – now have sensors and will reduce the cycle or water use depending on the size of a load. Dishwashers with dual drawers are a good option for small loads.

Some of the biggest energy savings have been in the field of fridges and freezers; the E3 Committee, which monitors MEPS and the Star Rating system, found that in 2003, 88% of refrigerators sold did not pass 2005 MEPS levels, while in 2009, only 0.3% models sold failed, and many of these were old stock.

But when buying a new fridge, the biggest favour you can do for the environment is to recycle your old one instead of using it for beer in the garage; the refrigerator is the single biggest power consumer in many households and about 30% of households own two. Nearly 60% of households own a separate freezer.

The star rating system has not served chest freezers well because they are rated on a different scale to upright freezers. As a result, many appear less efficient, while nearly all are inherently more efficient and cost less to run.

The next generation of dishwashers will reserve the rinse water and, if it’s clean enough, hold it for up to two days to reuse on the first rinse of the next wash.

“Our most efficient machine uses just 12.3 litres of water to do full load, compared to up to 75 litres used in hand washing,” BSH spokesman Aleks Efeian said.

However humans use less electricity.

And, while the best clothes dryers are rated at six stars (out of six), the greenest clothes dryer is still sunshine and a rack.

Further reading

Gadgets and Gigawatts: Policies for Energy Efficient Electronics, published by OECD/IEA, 2009




  • If you’re not keeping a fridge at least two thirds full or a freezer at least three quarters full, it’s probably too big for your needs.
  • Automatic ice-makers and through-the-door dispensers increase a fridge’s energy use and price.
  • Manual defrost models tend to use less energy than frost free models, but must be defrosted regularly to remain energy efficient.
  • If you have cheap off-peak power, run dishwashers or clothes dryers overnight.
  • Externally venting dryers may save energy, to avoid moist air being recirculated.
  • A ‘suds save’ option can save water and detergent if washing more than one load at a time.
  • Avoid placing a fridge or freezer where it will be in direct sun and allow plenty of air to flow around it.
  • Cool food before putting in the fridge.
  • Use a thermometer to check fridge and freezer temperature. Freezers should run at -15°C to -18°C while fridges 3°C to 4°C.
  • Keep fridge seals clean and don’t leave doors open.
  • To calculate the rough cost of running an appliance, multiply the energy consumption figure in Kilowatts by the rate you pay per kWh – approximately 18 cents.
  • For an estimate of an appliance’s emissions, each kWh equates to about 1kg of greenhouse gas.
  • Hot water entering the machine must be no hotter than 60°C, so Choice magazine recommends installing a tempering valve on solar hot water heaters if there isn’t a controller already fitted.

Clive Larkman – nurseryman

Horticultural heroes is a new series of features being run by Your Garden magazine.

The following article ran as its inaugural feature in Summer 2011

Clive with some some new abutilons due for release

RUNNING a restaurant is not the traditional training for entering the plant industry.

But then, despite being a second-generation nurseryman, Clive Larkman is not a traditional gardener.

For starters, he’s never had a garden of his own: “I’d love to have a vegie garden but I just never had the time to do it.”

Asked if it might take it up in his retirement, he quite frankly admits: “I probably wouldn’t have a garden at all – I wouldn’t have time. If I had the money, I’d pay someone to garden for me; an old English-style arboretum, or a botanic garden style with labelled and named plants and collections.”

Yet he has a burning passion for discovering new plants – a passion that sees him travel overseas most years to hunt down new species. He imports about 200 plants a year – although sometimes only half of them are ever released.

And every so often, he’ll come across a plant or genus that totally fascinates him, and he won’t rest until he’s learnt all about it.

This hunger for knowledge has brought a wealth of plants to Australian gardeners; after being checked through quarantine, plants that Clive and his wife Di bring back are tested for hardiness, propagated, then finally made available through the plant wholesalers that Larkman Nurseries supplies.

Long, slow process

It’s a long, slow process. Before leaving England or South Africa or wherever he’s been plant hunting, all plants must be bare-rooted, cut right back and jammed (carefully) into bags then boxed for the flight home; consequently he routinely loses 40% of stock in transit – he once lost his whole cargo after the plants were sprayed before landing – and a grass he imported in 2002 has only just been released from quarantine.

He was in the UK in September 2001 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place.

“As I was preparing the plants for transport, I was watching all the events unfold on TV. Then I had to catch the first flight out of London when they re-opened Heathrow Airport – it was the most nerve-wracking flight I’ve ever been on.”

But it hasn’t stopped his overseas plant-hunting trips.

Abutilon 'Waltz'

“We’ve got two new abutilons and some rather unusual Veronicastrums due for release next year. And on our last trip we collected 3 or 4 yellow, moisture- and shade-loving salvias,” he marvels of the unusual gems he discovered in a specialist nursery in north Wales.

While he names a few of his overseas sources, the Welsh nursery is a mystery he won’t share.

“Every time I go there I’ll spend 3-to-400 pounds and the car will be so full I can barely get into it.”

His wife Di rolls her eyes: “I have to drag him away; we get two of every plant in case one dies and there’s only so many we can bring back.”

The road to here

Clive is also fascinated by the stories behind plants; what the name means, why it was chosen, who discovered the plant and how it was brought into cultivation.

However plant lovers can’t rely on his being in the industry forever; he has not given up his dream of one day getting into politics, which is, bizarrely, how he came to be running a restaurant.

“My problem in life was choosing what to do – there were so many things that I wanted to do or could have done,” he says.

“I basically wanted to get into politics but I had a belief that if you hadn’t been successful at something else, you shouldn’t enter politics.”

So, after studying botany and zoology, he headed overseas to travel and get some life experience. He worked as a handyman in the US for 18 months, ran a restaurant in the UK for a year then explored more of the country via a truck-driving job.

“Then my dad (nursery founder Barry Larkman) had a heart attack so I came home, and five weeks later he was dead.

“So you have two choices; you either throw you and your mother out on the street or you sign on to take over the loans and the business and make the best of it that you can.”

Since 1989 he has built the nursery up from six staff producing 300,000 plants a year to a peak of 40 staff producing 2.5 million plants about three years ago, as well as adding a mail-order business and buying the Victorian agency of Renaissance Herbs in 2007.

“My aim was to build (the nursery) up to a certain stage before getting into politics. I got the business going well but then we had the drought and GFC and so now I’m building it back up again.

“But there are times when I’m sick of it – sick of running a small business and dealing with staff and the government and bureaucracy.”

Politics calling

Clive has already dabbled in local politics, serving a term as councillor on the Yarra Ranges Shire council and involved in numerous committees, boards and groups, including being president of the local chamber of commerce, Victorian state president for the Australian Institute of Horticulture and treasurer of the Australian Region of the International Plant Propagators Society.

You might think that would have involved enough bureaucracy to last a lifetime, but Clive sees it differently: “If you want to make the world a better place you do it from the inside, not the outside.

“And when you’re on council or whatever you don’t have to deal with the everyday business of dealing with staff and getting people to pay you.”

Lavender love

Clive is also a life member of the Australian Lavender Growers Association, having dedicated much time and effort to discovering as many varieties of Lavender as possible, and writing a start-up guide for prospective lavender farmers.

“I’m a botanist so plant nomenclature is key for me; I started trying to sort out lavenders because their names were a mess – by the time I finished I knew more about lavender than most lavender growers in the country, so we just started expanding our lavender range; then we did the same with rosemary and we’ve got a huge collection of mints I’m trying to understand at the moment,” he explains.

Past imports that are now perennial favourites include Lavender ‘Avon View’, Sisyrinchium ‘Devon Skies’ and numerous penstemons and salvias. Of the 2,500 plants Larkman Nursery grows, about 40% are Australian natives and 250 are herbs.

New interest

The latest plant to grab Clive’s attention is Chia – a blue- or white-flowered salvia (S. hispanica) from central America now widely acclaimed for its health properties.

“I started researching that and we’re now releasing chia plants in our herb range in mid-October. If you believe all the hype, it provides more calcium than milk, more potassium than bananas, more omega oil than fish – you can live off a tablespoon of chia seeds and a glass of water a day – and Australia is now the world’s largest grower of chia.”

Research is a key part of Clive’s work and his office – part of a collection of sheds and plastic tunnels strewn across a steep hillside with views across Yarra Valley – has a bookshelf crammed with hundreds of titles, but he is finding he needs them less and less.

“The biggest change has been the introduction of the internet,” Clive observes. “Before uploading a plant into my database I have to learn about it – it used to take hours but now I can do it in a matter of minutes.”

Like his father, who launched, rebranded or wrote for a number of horticultural publications before starting the nursery, Clive writes for several trade journals, and is a regular guest on Melbourne’s 3AW gardening program as well as weekly presenter on Channel 9’s Garden Gurus show. Other hobbies are eclectic, from collecting antique books to riding his anniversary edition Harley Davidson.

With his mother still involved in the business, his partner Di in charge of its day-to-day management and one of their three sons, Simon, working in sales, it is a truly family affair – but Clive still believes a good business owner should aim to make themselves redundant. Working seven days on the business at the moment, he may still have a way to go on that plan.

Rating the System

New homes reach out across the western suburbs of Melbourne - without an eave insight

New homes reach out across the western suburbs of Melbourne - without an eave insight

Published in Green Magazine, Issue 16

An eight-star energy-efficient house touted to be “Australia’s first zero-emissions home” was opened to great fanfare this April.

It’s a huge leap forward from 1990 when houses averaged about 1 star on the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS) scale. Before the introduction of national energy efficiency regulations in 2003, less than one per cent of Australian houses achieved the current standard of 5 stars (which rises to 6 stars on May 1, 2011) however a 2006 study by RMIT’s Centre for Design suggested Australia was aiming too low after finding American and British homes designed for comparable climates would be rated at an average of 7 stars.

So should we be worried, ashamed, pleased or dismayed with our star rating system? Is it a relevant measure and is the Master Builders Association right to say greater efficiencies could be achieved by improving older homes first?

The CSIRO designed and built the zero-emissions (AusZEH) house with partners that include Henley Property Group and Delfin Land Lease, and its experts estimate 13% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions come from home energy use.

If all the new housing in Australia was built to the same standard for the next nine years, the country would save 63 million tonnes of greenhouse gas – equivalent to taking all of Australia’s private cars off the road for more than two and half years.

But drive around any new housing estate in Melbourne’s outer west – the third fastest growing area in Australia – and you will see row upon row of homes with heat-absorbing, dark-tiled roofs and no eaves. They may meet the 5-star standard, but they will need a lot of air conditioning to make them liveable.

“Without basing the star rating system on performance, it is meaningless,” believes Jan Brandjes, a Dutch-born, Canadian-trained expert in sustainable home design.

He is keen to promote performance-testing of houses because he believes the software used to assess star ratings assumes standards that are rarely achieved.

“The software assumes a building is (air) tight but there is no way of checking this. It addresses the design issue well but doesn’t address way a home is constructed.

“If the insulation is not put in right or it has gaps all over the place, it will be leaking air like a sieve; as long as they leak, no amount of double glazing will keep the energy out of those holes.”

Henley Homes’ energy and sustainability specialist Adam Selvay agrees.

“I have tested about 20 homes and you see a wide range of leakage rates,” Selvay said.

“I would like to see the Air Change per Hour rating given a certain star rating so there is some benefit for putting in the effort to get it right; at the moment there is no incentive to builders to do this.

“[The software] also doesn’t take into account the carbon emissions or the type of heating you use.”

Henley Homes can build the same zero-emissions four-bedroom dwelling on any suitable block for about $315,000 – that includes double glazing, a 6kW solar power, solar heating, extra insulation, retractable shading and a wafflepod concrete slab.

The wafflepod slab incorporates polystyrene under the concrete for extra insulation and adds half a star to the home’s rating. However, the home’s air-tightness adds nothing to its rating.

Brandjes feels so strongly about this he now works in the business of blowdoor testing – checking the air-tightness of homes by blowing air through the sealed up front door and checking how much is leaking out.

“I’m not saying blowdoor testing is the be-all and end-all but it’s one of the tools that can be used.”

He tested the zero emissions house, which is now spot on (if the Air Change per Hour rate drops too low, the quality of air in a home is compromised and can risk the inhabitants’ health).

However, two award-winning homes he has checked that were built to seven-star designs failed to meet even a 5-star standard – one ranked as low as 2.5-3 stars.

“We need to address two areas – the software needs to include performance-based testing, and we need to educate builders in the importance of sealing gaps.”

The Master Builders Association believes it is already addressing the issue of training builders, with the Green Living training scheme launched in Victoria in 2005 and since rolled out into NSW, Tasmania and WA.

However, the group’s vocal stance in the Federal election was due to way the star rating system is being implemented.

“With the move to Six Star it is imperative that the industry is properly consulted and allowed to prepare for any new regulations,” Master Builders Association of Victoria deputy executive director Radley de Silva said.

“The cost involved also needs to be managed (and) there also needs to be greater consumer education and incentive to reduce energy consumption – as there has been with water use.

“There seems to be this focus on increasing star ratings on new housing stock but we believe there is greater opportunity to improve the star rating on existing stock. This would be a more sensible way of improving the average star rating across the board.”

This is the area that Mandatory Disclosure aims to cover – by making it compulsory for all homes to be star rated at point of sale or lease. The scheme has been running in the ACT since 1999 and is due to be introduced nationally on May 1, 2011.

However Brandjes see the current gaps in the system as becoming potentially disastrous when mandatory disclosure starts.

“It’s bad enough that someone spends money on a 5-6-7- star home then finds their energy bills are still high, but if every home that is sold has to be star rated, on what are they going to base the assessment – on the design? How will they assess insulation? And who’s going to do this – if people sell their home every seven years then that’s about 1.2 million homes a year – we don’t have the manpower to do that.”

The not-for-profit Association of Building Sustainability Assessors – which trained the home assessors for the now-defunct Green Loans scheme – believes its 6500 members across Australia can do the job – but agrees the federal government needs to hurry up and decide precisely what the job is.

“It’s a federal scheme but the states will be implementing it … at the moment there are a lot of different schemes and checklists – it all gets a bit messy,” ABSA chairman Wayne Floyd said.

ABSA has already released its concept model for mandatory disclosure, which states: “It is imperative to improve the existing housing stock … as new homes only contribute 2-4% of the total market. Existing homes can be rated using the NatHERS tools if a plan is readily available, and if not, there is already innovation that will allow this to be done without a plan.”

In the ACT, assessments take into account features such as building fabric, window design, orientation, air leakage and cross ventilation.

Another useful tool, Floyd suggests, are infrared cameras.

“It shows straightaway which windows are leaking air or where there’s no insulation in the walls without being invasive,” he said.

However, when this is sorted out, an even greater challenge looms – how to assess energy used by household appliances.

“When you look at appliances it gets really messy,” Floyd said. “Because it comes down to not just what you have in the house, but how you use those appliances.”

Further reading:








Imagine a way to reduce erosion and pollution in waterways and help water and fertilise your garden too. The solution might be as simple as disconnecting your home’s downpipes

and letting the water flow into an “ephemeral creek” – if you have a large enough block and the right soil.

For the rest of us, rather than risk flooding your garden and those of your neighbours, consider building a simple raingarden to capture and treat run-off before it hits the drains.

But don’t creeks and rivers need more water to stay healthy? The idea of reducing water flows might seem counter-intuitive, but the fast growth of Australia’s cities – and with it increased amounts of hard, impermeable surfaces – has resulted in waterways in urban areas across the country damaged by fast and too frequent stormwater flows and pollutants.

“The problem we have is the quantity and quality of stormwater flowing into our waterways,” says Phil Edwards, Melbourne Water’s team leader for stormwater quality.

“It flows into waterways too frequently, causing erosion; and the run-off from roofs and driveways also carries a degree of pollution and sediment, which is deposited in our waterways.”

Raingardens are designed to collect water from any hard surface – roads, driveways, footpaths or roofs – and to filter and clean it before it hits the nearest river. The filtering is largely done by the soil structure and microbes as well as through absorption by the roots of plants in the raingarden – a process called biofiltration.


As well as obvious pollutants such as oil, litter and animal faeces that are swept into stormwater drains from the street, dust, leaves and airborne pollution can also flow in from house roofs. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the main culprits, but the good news is that both are essential for plant growth. The goal is to feed raingarden plants rather than encourage algae in waterways.

Surprisingly, tiny amounts add up to make a huge difference even in large bodies of water. According to Phil Edwards, in 1999 Port Phillip Bay received 7000 tonnes of nitrogen – 1000 tonnes more than it is able to process. In Western Australia the Swan River has been hit by algal blooms and in NSW in July there were 11 “red” alerts for algal blooms in various waterways.

South-east Queensland has had an especially bad 12 months, with rains last summer washing high levels of pollutants into waterways.


Stormwater harvesting programs are being introduced in most major cities as planning departments adopt the principles of Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD).

“We’re looking at alternative technologies such as small-scale filters that can fit into urban streets,” says Edwards. “In all major cities you’ll see these appearing, built by local councils or water authorities.”

In Sydney more than 80 stormwater harvesting projects should save about two billion litres of water a year. The city of Orange has devised a scheme to supplement its drinking water supplies with stormwater. The scheme captures some of the high flows in Blackmans Swamp Creek during storms and transfers these into the nearby Suma Park Dam to augment the city’s bulk water supply.


At its simplest, a raingarden can be a swale or depression alongside a driveway or footpath, or even at a low point in your garden, where rainwater can collect and gradually soak into the soil. (Swales created close to buildings should be lined like a pond to avoid damage to the foundations.) We covered this style of raingarden in “Rainwater Gardens” in Sanctuary 4.

If you have installed rainwater tanks plumbed to your laundry, bathroom, or kitchen, you have already reduced the amount of water that’s going to the stormwater drain. Depending on the capacity of your tanks, during wetter months your tank may overflow. By absorbing and filtering the overflow water, raingardens can help ensure all or most of the water that falls on your home and garden remains on-site.

According to Anjali Brown, the Alternative Technology Association’s water projects manager, “Filtering the overflow from your tank into a raingarden will help you get the most out of the rainwater on your roof. Keep in mind, however, that a raingarden which only receives irrigation through overflow will need highly drought resistant plants. One way to provide more water to your raingarden in this situation is to divert your first flush device into the raingarden as well. A first flush device diverts the first flow of water from your roof, which may contain pollutants, away from your tank each time it rains. Usually the first flush water gets sent down the stormwater drain but by diverting it to the raingarden, your filtering plants will get a little extra water every time it rains which will help them survive.”

The best type of raingarden to work in conjunction with a water tank is a plant bed raingarden. Plant bed raingardens are either an above-ground planter box or an in-ground lined trench. Inside the plant beds are layers of gravel and sand that slow water flow, filtering out sediment and pollutants from the water as it passes through. The filtered stormwater is collected via a slotted drainage pipe at the bottom of the filtration bed, and can then be discharged into your garden or the stormwater system.

Raingardens should be planted out with species that are particularly good at removing pollutants, such as Lomandra longifolia or Carex appressa, and hardy, indigenous species that will survive the dry periods between rainfalls such as other Lomandra species and Dianella species.

It is important to remember that any run-off needs to be kept out of neighbouring properties and a registered plumber is needed to connect your raingarden back to the main stormwater drain. Some WSUD principles may clash with local council by-laws, while other councils may have incentive schemes that are worth registering with first, so check before you build.


Melbourne Water is campaigning to get 10,000 raingardens built across the city by 2013. Its website (www.melbournewater.com.au/ raingardens) has a range of information sheets about above- and in-ground raingardens, including the materials you will need to make them yourself, as well as which plants to select, and how to work out the size of raingarden you’ll need for your situation. These information sheets would be applicable to conditions around the country (though it would be best to seek local information about indigenous plantings).

If you would prefer an above-ground raingarden you may need to buy or make a lined raised garden bed or buy a water tank and have a drainage hole installed – see the details on the Melbourne Water site to find out the size of the drainage hole you need.

Water Sensitive Urban Design
Melbourne Water, including links to instruction sheets for building www.melbournewater.com.au/raingardens
Stuart McQuire’s book, Water Not Down the Drain www.notdownthedrain.org.au
Healthy Waterways
Alternative Technology Association
www.ata.org.au/sustainability/stormwater- capture/
Some tank suppliers include:
www.tankworks.com.au www.cessnocktankworks.com.au mtwatertanks.com.au/GardenBeds.php

Musical’s flush of brilliance

menopause the musical

Right up until a straitlaced housewife from Dubbo starts crooning the Platters hit  ‘Only You’ to a quivering, magenta-pink phallic microphone, the material in Menopause the Musical had been entertaining but not confronting.

The title alone gives fair warning that issues of hot flushes, fuzzy memory and lost youth would covered, but her friends’ entreaty to try out some ‘Good Vibrations’ took the production to a different level – both in terms of joyful laughter turning raucous, and in the message of self-discovery behind the fun.

Menopause the Musical turns of the contrivance that four women meet in a department store and, over a battle to secure a bargain bra, form a sisterly friendship that involves singing daggy versions of pop classics.

Retail therapy takes on a new meaning as the four explore various departments, discussing as they go their discomfort, anguish, fear and confusion at the dreaded Change that is overcoming their bodies and with it, their self-image, careers and relationships.

Most of the songs are cleverly reworked – such as “In the guestroom or on the sofa, my husband sleeps at night” sung to The Lion Sleeps Tonightand It’s in His Kiss bemoaning chocolate binges going “On my Hips”.

While the characters – a Power Woman (Maria Mercedes), a Soap Star (Jennifer Levy), Earth Mother (Michelle Collins) and Dubbo Housewife (Andrea Creighton) remain nameless stereotypes we can both laugh at yet relate to – all four performers (plus swing performer-cum-resident director Carolyn Waddell) deliver them with excellent singing voices, which were matched by simple but effective choreography. Originally set in American, and offering a few new songs and new cast to the last Australian production, this version is a month into a six-month Australian tour.

I found the phrase “delightfully daggy” ruminating around my head as I watched the first half and listened to the audience slowly warm into joyful, spontaneous laughter.

Then came that pink microphone.

There are many reasons why incontinence and female masturbation are rarely discussed – common embarrassment and cultural taboos among them – so for playwright Jeanie Linders to deal with them while causing only minor audience squirm amid the laughter speaks volumes about her skill in creating lovable characters that you can comfortably laugh at as well as laughing with. Much of that comes from their honesty and vulnerability, and their lack of judgement when sharing their anxieties.

It’s not a subject or style that will suit everyone – teenagers are unlikely to get it – and a couple behind me left after the first song, although I sincerely hope it’s because she had a hot flush or he was worried he’d left the oven on, because otherwise they would have missed an uplifting message of self-love and shared support for nothing.

Menopause the Musical is at the Comedy Theatre, Exhibition Street, until August 29. Details: www.hitproductions.com.au/menopause/

Slick sister act’s rock-solid

Stonefield aka Iotah, photographed for Triple J's Unearthed High contest

Stonefield aka Iotah, photographed for Triple J's Unearthed High contest

UPDATE 2011: When I interviewed Iotah in 2008, after they won the Macedon Ranges Push Start Battle of the Bands contest, I was struck by both their maturity and eclectic taste in music – lots of Hendrix and Zeppelin style rock, but all the new alternative sounds, too.

I was stoked, but not surprised, when the girls beat bands from across Australia to win Triple J’s Unearthed High contest, earning them a day’s recording time in Sydney and a free concert at Holly’s new school, Gisborne High, playing backup to rising Melbourne band British India. Since then they have enjoyed growing airtime on Triple J and, despite having to change their name to Stonefield due to a clash of naming rights, have a huge fanbase across Australia and growing media presence. A residency at iconic Melbourne venue the Tote and an invitation to play at the UK’s classic festival, Glastonbury, are the next steps on their broadening horizon.


June 10, 2008

Macedon Ranges Telegraph

Words: Jane Canaway

On a windswept hill just outside of remote Darraweit Guim, a shed pulses to the sounds of slick, solid rock.

It’s being produced by the four music-loving sisters of award-winning bank Iotah, who are working on their distinctive form of old-school rock.

Citing Led Zeppelin as an inspiration, the girl – Amy, 18, Hannah, 15, Sarah, 14, and Holly, 10 – have been playing together for about three years and have a remarkably democratic work ethic.

While Amy, the lead vocalist and drummer, writes most of the lyrics, the rest is collaborative.

“We all do a little bit; like if I come up with something on the guitar, we’ll work out some stuff around that,” says lead guitarist Hannah.

“Yes, but we also give each other ideas,” adds keyboardist Sarah.

Holly, whose bass guitar is almost as big as her, started playing about three years ago, around the time her sisters also took up their instruments.

Surprisingly for siblings, the four admit they have always played and worked well together and say their parents’ choice of music was a strong influence.

Last month, Iotah won the 2008 Macedon Ranges Push Start Battle of the Bands – and with it a day’s free studio time at The Sound Vault Recording Studio. They also won the Mitchell Shire Battle of the Bands. They will thrash it out against other young musos in the Push Start’s version of regional finals in October.

All four practise daily, rehearse together weekly, and believe they will play together for many years.

Amy is doing a bachelor of Australian popular music degree at NMIT and plans to follow that with a teaching degree. Hannah is taking VET music at Whittlesea Secondary College and Sarah, also at Whittlesea, has also chosen a musical elective. Holly is at Darraweit Guim Primary School.

With several live perforance behind them – from 50th birthday parties to school fund-raisersj, open mic sessions and at the Youyth Week finale in Broadmeadows earlier this year – their next challenge is against about 400 bands in the worldwide Emergenza contest.

Dozens of Victorian hopefuls will plan int ehfirstround play-offs in Richmond in June and Jly for the chance to represent Auastralia at the international finals in Germany and, ultimately, win six weeks’ paid studio time in Sweden.

  • Iotah lays at the Central Club in Richmond on July 7. Contact them via their wepage at www.myspace.com/Iotah

Volcanic awakening

volcanoPublished in Green magazine, July-August 2010


One of the positive things to come out of the decade- long drought in Southern Australia has been the development of some innovative water-saving plans. One of the most impressive is that of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Jane Canaway meets its senior designer, Andrew Laidlaw.

After being held in the fierce grip of drought for the best part of a decade, the “wasteful” sound of running water has become a distant memory in much of southern Australia.

In Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, the Fern Gully has been dry for many years, except after occasional rain, and visitors have grown used to ducks dabbling in muddy puddles where lakes used to be. However, a solution is in sight, and a key to its success lies in the recent re-awakening of a long-dormant volcano in the Gardens’ south-east corner. That landscaping project – completed this March – is stage one of a longer-term plan to create a sustainable water supply for the RBG, starting with approximately 68 megalitres of stormwater harvested from the nearby suburb of South Yarra. This water will enter the gardens through two stormwater pipes that will deliver the water into the Gardens’ lakes where it will be filtered on-site through a series of wetlands. This has the added benefit of removing 68 megalitres of diluted oil, dog faeces, salt and other pollutants washed from nearby streets that would normally run into the Yarra River.

In 1876 William Guilfoyle designed a reservoir in the shape of a bluestone-lined volcano that appeared to rise from the highest point of the Royal Botanic Gardens, with lawns created to mimic the lava flows between massed planting of shrubs, representing outcrops of land. For nearly 70 years it was filled with water from the Yarra River, which was then gravity fed to the rest of the gardens.

“It was possibly inspired by Guilfoyle’s plant collecting trips around the South Pacific,” senior designer Andrew Laidlaw said. “The Volcano was designed as a ‘Garden Folly’, a feature that visitors would come across in their meanderings around the gardens. “It holds 1.4 megalitres of water, which is enough for one cycle of our current irrigation.” However, Guilfoyle’s plan was plagued with many problems – including the loss of fresh water in the lower Yarra after waterfalls at Queens Street were blasted in 1879 to alleviate flooding and allow larger boats upstream. By the 1950s the irrigation system was attached to mains water and the volcano was locked up and slowly forgotten. Hidden by dense stands of olive trees, eucalypts and weeds, it was passed by generations of joggers and walkers without its being noticed – until a 1997 master plan called for its redevelopment.

Then drought hit. Toxic blue-green algae became a regular problem in the Gardens’ lakes, and mud flats were a common appearance in the Ornamental Lake – so a rescue plan seemed more appropriate than a simple redevelopment.

Laidlaw considers himself “very lucky” to be the one who landed the “plum job” of revitalising the feature – and he believes the timing was perfect, too. “If I’d been doing this five years ago we would probably have just done a pretty water feature, but now with the current water crisis it’s become an integral part of the Gardens’ water system,” he said. Along with Richard Barley, Peter Symes and Stephen Paterson, Laidlaw is part of a highly water-smart team that meant the RBG was one of the first Australian Botanic Gardens to develop an award- winning irrigation management plan that has been used overseas as a blueprint for other gardens.

While working on a revamped layout and drought-friendly plantings, Laidlaw consulted with both hydraulic and civil engineers about the possibility of filling the volcano with stormwater. “It was discovered that large amounts of stormwater from nearby suburbs was going straight into the Yarra [River] or to Albert Park and into the sea. Because stormwater hits the river fast it stirs it up and affects the flow rate, as well as carrying road rubbish and pollutants. By redirecting water through the gardens first, it reduces the water flow rate and cleans it. “The extra 68 megalitres is not enough to water the whole gardens but eventually, as part of stage 3, we hope to siphon off 120–150 megalitres of water required through a sewerage–water harvesting scheme,” Laidlaw said.

Becoming totally water-sufficient will be expensive, but Melbourne City Council wants all its parks off potable water-irrigation. Revamping the volcano cost $1.5 million and the next stage is to build the Working Wetlands in the Ornamental, Central and Nymphaea Lakes, which will cost about $2.5 million. Project Manager Stephen Paterson said tenders have been called for and it is hoped the 12-month project will start later this year.

Of the 68 megalitres captured, allowing for evaporation and overflow, “the modelling indicates we will be able to substitute about 40% of potable water with harvested stormwater,” Paterson said. The sewerage-harvesting scheme – if funding can be found for it – will cost at least $10 million. By contrast, water costs the gardens between $100,000 and $120,000 a year – and that is after spending $4 million on a new irrigation system in 1993, which has cut water use by more than half to 130 megalitres a year. “What’s exciting is we’ve got a whole new way of working with water that is environmentally friendly. And we’re actually bringing water to Fern Gully for the first time in years and bringing water to the parts of the garden that need reinvigorating. All based around the volcano.”


Two stormwater pipelines will be diverted to the RBG, carrying about 68 megalitres of water a year into the Ornamental Lake and a receiving wetland in Nymphaea Lake. The water goes through a gross pollutant trap to remove larger pieces of rubbish and sediments before flowing through a series of wetlands where less visible pollution is removed. Wetlands will be constructed in the Ornamental, Central and Nymphaea Lakes. The lake silt will be removed and clay used to line the area and build levees, creating pools of varying depths to hold the stormwater and selected wetland plants, which will grow in different depths of water. A bio-film of bacteria and fungi will grow on the large plant surface area and act as the engine of the wetland, removing nutrients from the water as it slowly flows through the wetland. Plants are also chosen for their ability to take up nutrients and top growth will be harvested and composted to remove the nutrients from the system.

Water from the Nymphaea Lake then flows through the Fern Gully – where waterfalls and mini rapids aerate the water – and into the Central and Ornamental lakes. Water will be circulated through the lakes and wetlands and pumped to the highest point in the Gardens, Guilfoyle’s Volcano. From this reservoir, garden beds on the Volcano slopes will be watered by sub-surface irrigation. The water will then flow back to the Nymphaea Lake and so will circulate through the wetlands; the whole cycle takes about 30 days. By pumping water from the deeper parts of the lake any layers of warm and cool water are mixed, which helps reduce the frequency and duration of Blue-Green algae blooms. Floating garden beds will be installed in the lakes and act as treatment wetlands, as the plants’ bio film-covered roots remove nutrients and improve the water quality.

After the fires: The healing power of a cuppa



New, green tendrils contrast with the charred timber of a lost home

Strathewen resident Robert Bell thought he’d been coping well all year.

A sensitive man by nature, he fiddles with a home-rolled cigarette and cup of coffee while remembering his escape from the Black Saturday fires with his 94-year-old neighbour, but his voice remains calm and doesn’t recall feeling afraid.

Nearly a year later, he is still looking for a shed to live in, but he has developed a daily routine that helps: mornings spent weeding the bush – for the love of it – a lunchtime visit to the Hurstbridge support centre for a cuppa and a chat, then off to his shift work in a haulage firm.

Then, around Christmas, he suddenly felt a huge loss.

“I feel like I’ve lost my whole identity,” he said then, surprised by the force of it. “I think it’s only just hit me.”

Individuals are finding each their own path to recovery, which has to be taken at their own pace, but as they prepared for the February 7 anniversary, many spoke of an overwhelming exhaustion.

Driving along the St Andrews-Kinglake Road, there is a mixture of rebuilt homes, new slabs showing promise for the future – and land for sale by those who got so far then decided they could go no further.

“Everyone was going to return to start with,” recalls Sonja Parkinson, whose house was one of about 30 lost in Ninks Road, St Andrews. Miraculously, no one was injured – at least not physically.

“I think for some people it suddenly all got too hard.”

Weighed down with a chest infection, a fractious three-year-old and a mountain of work to be done rebuilding both their business and a shed for temporary accommodation on their creek-side site, she had almost hit the wall herself.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m whinging because all the government help and donations have been really good, but everything just takes so much effort – everyone’s exhausted.

“It’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of people who are very vulnerable will find it really difficult to get through – I wouldn’t be surprised if not all the money had been accessed at the end.”

Applications for grants close in February and many credit the Hurstbridge Support Centre – run by a band of volunteers since March – with helping them sort through the paperwork and keep going.

For at least six days a week over the past 10 months, a band of volunteers has been there to support those affected by the Black Saturday fires.

Ask how they did it and organiser Helen Legg will say the team could not have managed without the support of the survivors themselves, some of whom cooked meals, others unloaded trucks of boxes and furniture and one even donated $1000 after burglars broke into the Hurstbridge-based centre and stole money from the sale of fund-raising calendars.

“Most of these people are very independent and they need to give something back,” she explains.

In-kind gifts and those who keep giving

There has been a lot of giving over the past year – first the generous donations of cash and in-kind goods and help in the immediate wake of the fires, then the ongoing kindness, labour, sympathy, and non-judgemental support that volunteers have contributed since then – some on a daily basis.

At the Hurstbridge centre – unofficially nicknamed Helen’s Place – a dedicated band of women have put in hours of effort to meet the ever-changing needs of displaced residents from nearby St Andrews, Strathewen, Arthurs Creek, Strath Creek, Kinglake and further afield.

Begging the use of an empty weatherboard opposite the primary school – generously given by an owner who turned down an 18-month lease in favour of its community use with no guaranteed rent – the centre has become a second home to many survivors who call by, often daily, for a coffee, chat, quiet cry or just a packet of toilet paper and some new clothes.

“In the early days we had a lot of people who were very traumatised and who still hadn’t even accessed any government support. There were people who were still shell shocked and a lot of elderly people who were trying to cope with the whole cleaning up their house and just became so overwhelmed because every time they thought all the black soot had gone the wind would blow it all back in,” Helen recalled.

The mix of personalities at the Hurstbridge centre helped them break through, buoyed by the constant banter and laughter that the close friends all share – although when the visitors have gone for the day and a bottle of Chardy is opened, the humour often turns dark: “That’s how we coped,” Fiona explained.

Quieter visitors tended to hang around in the back rooms with down-to-earth, natural comedian Fiona, who would put folk at ease until they were ready to talk about accessing more formal aid.

“We’d be constantly taking people down to Arthurs Creek and Diamond Creek to get them hooked up with those official government services, or to get them a blue form that gave them access to Salvos or St Vincent de Paul and other grants,” Helen continued.

In the winter – one of the coldest on record and a nightmare for those still ‘camping out’ – the centre set up a cosy lounge area and a makeshift laundry in the carport, and the girls would do people’s washing as they shopped or battled the endless paperwork.

When Mick Gatto reportedly had a run in with Christine Nixon about donating $800,000 that she allegedly rejected, Helen rang Jon Faine on ABC Radio “just for a laugh” and said “if Mick Gatto wants to do something I’ve got a long list of people who need white goods”.

While Helen never heard from Mr Gatto, she did get a call from the Bayside Church who’d been wanting to contribute; they agreed to set up a white goods program that is just starting to wind down, after contributing more than $200,000 worth of new cookers, fridges, washing machines – all specially chosen to meet families’ specific needs – as well as laptops for Year 12 students and businesses.

Back in her ‘normal’ job as a flight attendant, Helen met Bill Shorten on a flight and asked him to organise a visit from Beaconsfield mine survivor Brant Webb.

“He really spoke to them – he really understood what they were going through and put in so much time with people,” Helen said.

Then there was lobbying for containers for people to store this largesse, as well as specific projects, such as a replacement piano for a musician who’d lost everything and a new motorbike for a teenager who lost both his brand new bike and his best friend in the fires.

“He’s a great lad but his world had just crashed.

“We spent ages with him looking for the right replacement. Jake saved $1500, his mum and dad gave $1000 each, the two community health services in Nillimbuk gave $500 each, Diamond Valley Baptist Church gave $500 and Bayside Community Care gave $2500 and we gave a measly $100 for some gear, and we presented it to him two weekends ago,” Helen said. “I got a lovely text from him last weekend saying ‘I’ve been riding it all weekend and it’s sweet as – thanks so much’, and his mum texted to say ‘I can see a change in him already’. “

Being caught up in such a flood of physical and emotional needs have seen many volunteers – and survivors – develop a whole new set of skills. Others have re-thought their lives and, embracing the new, have moved on from lifestyles or relationships that suddenly seemed flawed.

Volunteers co-ordinated a number of working bees in the St Andrews area until public liability insurance became a problem. In Nillumbik, the council has taken over this task and is still keen to sign up new volunteers.

“We’ve been getting the Conservation Volunteers Australia to help out recently because all the regular volunteers are exhausted after helping all year,” Council co-ordinator Sue Aldred said.

First, swallow your pride…

Rebuilding: Colin, Sonja and Bobby are determined to stay.

Rebuilding: Colin, Sonja and Sam are determined to stay.

Ironically for folk who have spent the past 20 years supporting the East Timorese people through the Dili All-Stars, trombonist Sonja Parkinson and her husband Colin Buckler – former drummer with the Painters and Dockers – have found it hard being on the receiving end of help.

“We’ve found it really uncomfortable accepting all these things but we’ve had to learn to. It’s easier to accept the official grants than cash from individuals.”

After a distant cousin read about Sonja and Colin’s story online – how they sheltered in the burning house with three other families until the last minute, then escaped to a creek refuge, along with two lyre birds, just seconds before the house collapsed – Sonja even received help from an unknown Parkinson in Canada, who worked out they were related and sent cash.

The many thoughtful gifts have had a huge impact.

“Our case worker got us a Christmas tree, and Sam was given this lovely little table and chair set from some part-time bus drivers in Bacchus Marsh, plus we received a beautiful quilt… there are so many kind people.”

It’s good to have some positives to balance out memories such as the week after the fires, when each day would bring news of another friend confirmed lost from the hill above their house – Kinglake’s notorious Bald Spur Road, where only three people survived.

The journey home

Sonja and Colin kept visiting their block from day one, but others who stayed away are finding it harder to return.

Helen Legg has found that those who left their homes before the fires hit are dealing with rebuilding better than those who experienced the inferno. Those with young children are also finding the rebuilding hard work and Helen is also concerned that former residents who have found accommodation out of the area are not been getting the support they need.

Further along Ninks Road, retiree Steve Law has been slowing working away at preparing his block for rebuilding – a new house site has been excavated and the old footings will form the basis of a memorial garden – but when he finally reached the point where he felt ready to get his block BAL assessed for fire threat level, he discovered the free scheme had closed. He still plans to get a shed up and caravan onsite by February – but isn’t so optimistic about how he’ll persuade his wife Vicki to return.

“She’s not real keen,” he admits.

They stayed to fight the fire but, despite their toughened glass staying intact, their curtains exploded into flames from the radiant heat, forcing them to find refuge by the Diamond Creek – along with a small herd of goats, some ducks and a singed wallaby.

For many of those receiving rental help from insurance companies, the money runs out in early February – some earlier – so the financial pressure is on, too.

“People think we’re rolling in insurance money, but it’s cost me $19,000 just getting the block ready and, with the new building standards, everything’ll cost more, too,” he said.

No one is quite sure how they will react to the first code red day this summer; one case worker said it took her several hours to calm a Strathewen survivor who thought she smelled smoke on a 39C day in December.

Then there is the anniversary itself to deal with.

Sharing the experience – and strength

But there is a strong sense of sharing. A survivor now living in a caravan on her land relates how touched she was when a young man pulled up one evening with a six-pack of beer.

“He said ‘I’m living in a caravan too and I don’t know if your husband enjoys a drink, but I’ve been driving past every day on my way home from work and decided it was time to call in and say hello’.

“They ended up talking for hours.”

It’s the women who have really led the way with looking after each other.

One of the strongest support networks that has emerged in the aftermath of the fires is the Ladies of the Black Belt, formed when a group of St Andrews women realised how few of their neighbours they knew – and how many needed help and support.

“Most of us live on acreage so you don’t see a lot of your neighbours; we thought afterwards we really should get together and help each other through this thing,” Rae said.

A list of about 78 directly affected women in St Andrews North was pieced together and in May, 21 of them returned to the Black Belt for a lunch – held at the repaired vineyard home of Cathy Lance.

Since that first emotional meeting the group has remained in contact, meeting two or three times a month, cementing friendships, having fun and sharing enormous support.

“It is the silver lining that now we have discovered the friendship and support of so many talented, interesting individuals,” says Cathy.

“We meet for coffee about every three weeks,” adds Elizabeth, who knew 17 of those lost in the fires.

“It’s the only group of people I feel truly safe with.”

Widowed and rendered homeless on Black Saturday, Elizabeth admits she still has very bad days when she does not cope.

“I bumped into a neighbour outside the shops the other day and he said: ‘You good, Elizabeth?’ I’d had an awful week and just went off at him: ‘Of course I’m not good! How could I be good?’ “

But all agree that, without the fellowship of the Black Belt – and support from centres such as Helen’s Place – they would be far worse.

“We didn’t really have a plan when we started, and we still don’t have plan,” laughs Fiona, wife of a CFA volunteer, and a stalwart of the Hurstbridge support centre since day one. “We thought ‘Well, it’ll stay open at least a month’.”

Now they are hoping the centre might become a place to sell the art and handiwork survivors have created.

“I think that’s our strength,” counters Helen. “We changed to meet people’s needs as they emerged, and we’re still evolving.”

POST SCRIPT June 2010: Steve was right; his wife didn’t want to return and they have now bought a property in Albury, where they are settling in well. Rob has now retired and weeds all day long if he can – and feels a lot better for it. But, as the second winter sets in, Rae is still living in a caravan. At least one other person in this story is now divorced, and one is in a new relationship.

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