Asparagus is the stuff of folklore and mystery

Flourish, September 2016

The ancient Greeks discovered the delights of asparagus and it’s no surprise they associated the firm, thick shoots – emerging each spring from winter-dormant soil – with virility.

There is no proof asparagus is an aphrodisiac – nor that it can cure cancer – but it is certainly a delicious, nutritious plant worth enjoying during its brief season.

Asparagus is low in calories and high in antioxidants. It is high in B vitamins, folate, vitamin C, potassium, sodium, iron and fibre.

Experts disagree on whether it is a natural diuretic and can lower blood pressure – and thus whether it should be avoided by those with uric acid kidney stones or diabetes.

Purple asparagus contains anthocyanins – potent antioxidants that aid in the growth of healthy cells.

When cooking asparagus, light steaming or stir-frying will preserve more nutrients than boiling, but stems can also be eaten raw (add to a salad or blend in a smoothie).

Try it in soup, in a quiche or omelette, tempura style or with smoked salmon and pasta. Blanched asparagus can be frozen or preserved in brine, vinegar or oil.

Asparagus can be costly to buy as the roots must be three years old before harvesting. White asparagus, which is grown in the dark, is even more labour-intensive. On the upside, plants last 15-20 years.

However, it is easy to grow from seed: six crowns, planted 20-40 centimetres apart during winter, will feed a family. Asparagus grows across Australia but performs best in areas cold enough to induce dormancy.

PARMESAN SPEARS

1 bunch asparagus, 2 tbsp olive oil, salt & pepper, 1/4 cup parmesan cheese (grated), balsamic vinegar

Heat oven to 230°C and drizzle olive oil over a single layer of asparagus on a baking tray. Spread with parmesan and season to taste. Bake for 12-15 minutes. Serve with balsamic vinegar.
(For recipes and tips visit asparagus.com.au)

words Jane Canaway illustrations Clementine/The Illustration Room

 

Rhymes with Reason

Flourish 04 May 2017

A passion to create beautiful things from her experiences has given multi-talented Liz Hicklin a rich life.

Liz Hicklin working at her desk

A mother and grandmother, Liz Hicklin has much in common with other residents at Morven Manor Retirement Community in Mornington, Victoria, but chat awhile and you’ll discover she has had the fortune – and misfortune – to experience more highs and lows than most of us read about.

Raised in Manchester in England, Liz studied nursing before moving to Cambridge, where she met young literature student Ted Hughes and they fell in love.

“We went out for two years and we were going to get married and come to Australia because he had a brother here,” Liz says.

Instead Liz visited her brothers – in the United States and Canada – and her life changed course. Possibly she dodged a bullet: Ted’s infidelities are described by his wife Sylvia Plath in her autobiography The Bell Jar and arguably provoked the murder-suicide of his lover Assia Wevill and their daughter.

However, Liz still describes him as “a lovely bloke”, adding: “He was so charismatic; the sort of guy who you’d leave a marriage for.

“In Calgary I met a girl going to Australia who asked me to join her. Ted had stopped writing but he’d always talked about coming to Australia, so I thought I’d come and might see him here. It was 1956 and the Olympics were in Melbourne, so I came down and got a job.”

Liz later lined up a job accompanying a child back to Europe, but again fate intervened and while visiting the Outback she fell in love with a Canadian. “I gave up the job, but he turned out to be terrible, so I got a taxi to Darwin with four other girls.”

Leaving the Canadian was a good decision: “The police called looking for him; it turns out he was an opal thief.”

Soon afterwards Liz met her husband Bill. “He had an MG car, desert boots and a duffel jacket, and I thought he was pretty hot.” They had three children.

For years Liz and Bill worked hard and focused on family. “Bill worked for a printing company but he wanted to work for himself so we bought a pet shop with a tax agency attached and for years I just worked in the shop and brought up three children. Our life was unexceptional.”

Liz Hicklin with the porcelain dolls which she hand painted and sculpted

An interest in porcelain doll making later became a career. Liz sculpted the moulds used to pour the porcelain and handpainted the dolls’ features, running classes from her studio in Brighton, Victoria.

“It was damn hard work; I was doing 12-hour days for years and I’d run across to switch the kiln off in my nightie.”

Ted Hughes’ legacy did linger though; not only did he leave Liz with a bundle of love letters she recently sold to the British Library, he also introduced her to literature, revealing her gift for poetry.

Somehow, Liz found time to publish two volumes of poetry, Dedicated to Dolls, which led to invitations to read at recitals around Australia.

But all was not well with their family life. Anxious phone calls from her daughter Leeza’s high school signalled that Leeza had developed behavioural problems, which quickly escalated. It was the start of a long battle with mental illness.

Then, in her late teens, Liz’s second daughter Jane developed signs of bipolar. Liz describes both girls as “clever and beautiful”. Jane, a gifted artist, took her own life about 15 years ago. Leeza followed a few years later, leaving a son and a daughter.

Yet even from this dark place Liz created some light. When Jane’s art was displayed at her funeral, Liz noticed each work featured a tiny figure floating under a parachute in the blue sky. Inspired, Liz and her son Boyd created a children’s book, Peter the Parachute.

The proceeds were donated to mental health research.

Liz moved to Australian Unity’s Morven Manor Retirement Community after Bill died three years ago. She sold her doll collection, retaining a few favourites and a sculpture she created of her three children. Three of her windows offer views of Port Phillip Bay and Jane’s bright artworks adorn the walls.

Liz’s latest book Can’t Drive a Car?, released last year, was inspired by a meeting with a tattoo-covered man driving a disability scooter. It celebrates the funny side of ageing.

Illustrated by award-winning artist Fred Gatte, it also reflects Liz’s need to stay busy.

“My greatest fear is having nothing to do,” she says.

words Jane Canaway
photos Dean Golja

 

‘Gator bait? Use marshmallows

By Jane Canaway

Published in News Ltd Travel section, March 2017

THE yell rings out across the weedy swamp waters, and echoes through the groves of the moss-covered trees towering out of the ooze.

“Here piggy, piggy, piggy, piggy,” calls the captain of our flat-bottomed boat, which is drawn right up to a bayou’s muddy bank, pitted with hoof marks.

“Here piggy, piggy, piggy, piggy,” he calls again until a quiet rustle in the undergrowth swells to a crashing charge as a herd of about 20 black and white pigs hurtles into the clearing.

The men who run tours deep into the Louisiana swamps are pig whisperers, gator baiters and bird spotters extraordinaire.

They have a secret weapon to lure the wildlife some visitors have travelled halfway around the world to see: marshmallows.

A small alligator jumps for its treat in the swamps of Louisiana. Picture: Jane Canaway

A small alligator jumps for its treat in the swamps of Louisiana. Picture: Jane Canaway

Aww. Alligators seem cute in comparison to Brutus, a saltie who lives near Darwin.

Aww. Alligators seem cute in comparison to Brutus, a saltie who lives near Darwin. Source:News Corp Australia

Yes, impale a large white marshmallow on a long, pointy stick and you have the perfect tool for teaching an alligator to jump.

While Australian croc tour operators spoil local reptiles with fresh meat, in the swamps outside New Orleans the southern fare is sugar.

The wild pigs obviously love it, too, coming right up to the boat so that Captain Anthony is able to hand feed them — although he keeps his fingers safely out of reach.

Both male and female hogs have razor-sharp tusks and they eat like, well, pigs — gobbling down as many marshmallows as they can and chasing away piglets that get too close.

The feral swine are a real problem in America’s wetlands.

One sow and her offspring can produce 250 piglets in four years, and a couple of years after that the numbers are in the thousands. Anthony tells us the herds are descended from Eurasian wild boar, probably crossed with domestic pigs.

The alligators, on the other hand, are barely changed from their prehistoric ancestors, who predate the dinosaurs.

And while their record-breaking jaw strength (scientists believe they could out-snap a T-Rex) has evolved to crush turtle shells, many now scrounge soft, sweet treats from the tour boats that cruise the waterways every day.

An alligator greedily eyes marshmallows while lurking near a tourist boat. Picture: Jane Canaway

An alligator greedily eyes marshmallows while lurking near a tourist boat. Picture: Jane Canaway

Captain Anthony stops the boat and splashes the water with the marshmallow-laden stick — a clear invitation to dine for the prehistoric reptiles — and instinctively an Alligator mississippiensis swims across to check out the menu.

He’s a tease, lifting the stick high out the water to make the alligators jump for the tourists, then flicking it away at the last minute to make the snapper come back a second time. Finally the critter snaps up its treat, and the boatload of visitors breaks out in applause.

Each alpha male gator guards his own patch of river about 2.5 kilometres apart, with a harem of about 20 females, and the guides have named them: Big Al, Bruce, Sydney and Scarface. Captain Anthony repeats his trick with a couple more “floating logs with teeth” before it’s time to head back downstream.

Along the way we pass flooded forests of white oak and black willow, but it’s the termite-resistant bald cypress that adorns many of the heritage buildings in the French Quarter.

Louisiana’s swamps are incredibly beautiful, but full of dangerous beasts. Picture: Jane Canaway

Louisiana’s swamps are incredibly beautiful, but full of dangerous beasts. Picture: Jane Canaway

Today’s parade of tour boats barely rates a glance from those living in the riverside homes — some in good repair while others hold out against gravity.

“Anyone can tow in a house boat, tie it up to a tree and live for free without paying property tax,” Anthony says, while fixed homes can be built on privately owned land — but don’t expect any insurance company to cover you.

The golden rule for river living is apparently don’t mess with your neighbour’s catfish lines — and stay indoors after dark, when all the wild beasts are about.

Louisiana and Florida both have about one million wild alligators that can grow up to five metres and live up to 100 years, however they are typically less aggressive than Australian saltwater crocodiles and attacks on humans are rare.

According to Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Alligator program co-ordinator Ricky Flynt, attacks become more likely when humans feed them.

A tour guide coaxes a herd of wild pigs from the dense undergrowth. Picture: Jane Canaway

A tour guide coaxes a herd of wild pigs from the dense undergrowth. Picture: Jane Canaway

The alligator (the name comes from early Spanish explorers who called them “el legarto” or “big lizard”) is able to hibernate through cold winters that would kill most crocodiles, but is less tolerant of salt water.

It has a more rounded snout and its bottom teeth are fully covered by its top jaw when its mouth is closed, so it doesn’t have the same toothy ‘grin’ of Aussie crocs.

Luckily for them, however, they share the ability to regrow any teeth that fall out.

No matter how bad their dental hygiene may become on their sugary diet, they can always rely on a new set to come through.

Jane Canaway is a freelance writer. She tweets @janusflytrap.

 

 

 

 

http://www.news.com.au/travel/travel-ideas/weird-and-wacky/alligators-have-a-surprisingly-sweet-tooth/news-story/45522933db9962e782e2529060bb9ce6

 

Set Course for the Southern Hemisphere

By Jane Canaway

Published in the Foxley Docket, UK, April 2014

TSS Earnshaw offers trips across Lake Wakatipu

From sheep farmers to gold diggers, snowboarders to bungy jumpers, Queenstown has always attracted entrepreneurs, and the current generation seems to feed off each other’s inventiveness to find ever more crazy activities.

Grass sledding? – ride up on horseback and throw in a zip-line ride while you’re there. Wine tasting? – mountain bike between vineyards, and return via jet boat or helicopter via the glaciers.

Now this creativity is also being expressed in food, wine, accommodation and service, as well as entertainment.

Declared “fit for a Queen” in Victorian times, Queenstown is still so pristine that the belches of black smoke from the grand old steamboat TSS Earnshaw as it chugs across Lake Wakatipu seem out of place. Feeding off this clean, green environment, the organic and wholefood industries are going great guns, but don’t think you have to be a vegetarian to enjoy it.

Restaurants light up Steamer Wharf at dusk

Fine wining & dining

On the hills around the town, the lush meadows are home to large, healthy herds of Merino sheep, as well as Angus and Murray Grey cattle, while the clear waters of Lake Wakatipu and its feeder rivers are teeming with introduced trout and salmon. As well as offering great fly fishing, all this tasty produce is appearing on the tables at a small coterie of restaurants that are setting an individual style in Kiwi dining.

Queenstown cuisine combines the best of the local, fresh produce – Canterbury mackerel, Fiordland crayfish, Athol lamb, and east coast oysters, gurnard and hake – prepared in a distinctive fusion style.

Michelin-starred chef Josh Emett runs the kitchen at Rata, and his menu reflects his love of slow cooking and local flavours; the NZ$60 set lunch is a great way to get a taste of his current favourites. Further out, Gantleys, set on two acres of gardens, has a stunning six-course degustation menu available with matching wines; it’s a short hop out of town, but free transport from central Queenstown is available. How’s that for service.

Another gem, buried down one of Queenstown’s labyrinthine alleyways, is Bunker, which serves a 10-course degustation Taste of the South menu with matching wines: think roasted Fiordland crayfish with house-made lemon gnocchi and crayfish bisque beurre blanc with a 2010 Amisfield Fumé Blanc. Its rooftop bar offers more casual tapas-style bites and is a great spot to enjoy a sundowner.

Shop for a drop

It is well worth making the short trip up the road to visit Central Otago’s adolescent wine industry, which is winning recognition for its clean-tasting, mineral-tangy wines. Pinot gris and pinor noir are especially fine here, as well as the sauvignon blanc and semillon that make up the bulk of the export market. There are a number of ways to explore the vineyards, but if you’re short of time you can do all your research in one location downtown.

Wine Tastes has a smart self-service system stocking more than 80 local and international wines in one shop – with comfy chairs, low tables and cheese platters for extra cosiness. Tasting notes offer some direction, then you can choose a ‘shot’ or larger measure of any wine, from the latest-vintage riesling to a Penfolds Grange, at $600+ a bottle. If you find something you like, you can order and get it shipped home (or – ahem – pop to the bottle shop next door and buy it at shelf price).

Fashionistas will be pleasantly surprised at the individuality of Queenstown boutiques. Rodd & Gunn’s has its own Southern take on green wellies and country clothing, but it’s worth hunting down the locally made knitwear.

New Zealand has devised a new wool blend – the amazing Merinosilk, made up of 70 per cent merino, 10 per cent silk and 20 per cent possum fur. Introduced from Australia, possums are now at pest levels, and Kiwis have put a lot of creative thought into ridding their islands of the cute but destructive critters, known locally known as squashums.

The end result is a totally opulent, lightweight fabric that is being dyed and used to extraordinary effect. The cost can be fairly staggering too, but you won’t find anything like it for warmth and luxury anywhere else in the world.

The hills are alive

Film-makers and skiers are drawn like magnets to the hills beyond Queenstown, and you may find you’re more familiar with them than you realise. Nearby ranges have doubled as the Swiss Alps on Milka chocolate bars; they feature as the Canadian Rockies on the front of Coors light beer and, most famously, appear as the mystical mountains of Isengard, Lothlorien and Dimrill Dale in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies.

The hills are also rich in greenstone, which drew the first maori settlers to the area more than 800 years ago. While it is no longer used for weaponry (Captain Cook described it as holding a keener edge than metal), it now inspires local jewellers to create some very fine pieces. Many artisans sell their wares at the Saturday craft market on Steamer Wharf.

One local jeweller, who owns a chain of stores in Australia, is Sir Michael Hill. His son Mark has inherited his parents’ creative talents and has applied it to his chosen field of sculpture. Many of his dramatic, large-scale pieces are dotted across The Hills, which is part golf course and partly his family’s estate at nearby Arrowtown – a beautifully preserved 1860s mining town worthy of a visit in its own right.

The Hills is an example of what happens when passion, creativity and large wads of cash collide: starting with one practice hole outside the family home, the project grew to become a golf course many regard as the best in the area, and which now hosts the NZ PGA tournament. Membership is limited to 100, but visitors can apply to play – at a price (NZ$500). While most of the work is from Australasian artists, the course is also home to a huge, 111-piece from Chinese sculptor Liu Ruowang, featuring a single man surrounded by a pack of wolves.

Matakauri Lodge – the lap of luxury

The lodge of luxury

Wherever you are in Queensland, the views – across magnificent Lake Wakapitu lake to the aptly names Remarkable Ranges – are first class, but somehow they seem enhanced when enjoyed from the stand-alone tub in the ensuite of an elegant suite or from the Matakauri Lodge’s rimless pool.

The lodge is an intimate cluster of just 11 private suites and villas dotted amid landscaped gardens in a private section of the Lake’s shoreline. It also has a private arrangement with The Hills and Jack’s Point golf courses (across the lake – water taxi available) and day visits can be arranged by the ever-courteous concierge. Ski trips are as easily arranged.

The Hills golf club recently opened its own lodge – with equally impressive views, minus the lake – catering for up for 12 guests in exclusive luxury that includes having a Michelin-trained chef on hand to prepare all your meals, yet in an open kitchen that feels more like a friend’s rather grand holiday home.

Until recently, gentlemen were required to wear a jacket for dinner at the magnificent Matakauri Lodge but with complimentary pre-dinner cocktails and canapés, degustation-style meals that change daily, and relaxed but precision-driven service, it seems churlish not to continue this fine habit.

Guests have a choice of splendid spots from which to enjoy the food and views, and those seeking privacy can opt to dine in their suites or in the residents’ library upstairs. All drinks are included with meals, and it goes without saying that guests can choose from the very best of local wines, advised if need be by knowledgable sommeliers, who are in regular contact with local winemakers and often have exclusive access to limited vintages, such as some of the low-yield stickies.

Back in the action

So you’ve relaxed in the lap of luxury, and now you want to explore. Of course there’s AJ Hackett’s classic bungy jump options, but it doesn’t end there. For those who hate crowds, here’s a few suggestions for more exclusive adventures.

  • Spend a day in a Heliworks chopper exploring Fiordland in all its glory, with opportunities to get out and fish, dive and kayak in Lord of the Rings scenery – then dine on freshly caught produce. Overnight stays are an option. POA. www.heliworks.co.nz
  • Stand in awe at the base of the millennium-old trees in the Mt Aspiring National Park – some of these trees were alive when the first humans stepped foot on this island. Dart River Jet Safari guides are experts in the area: www.dartriver.co.nz
  • Design your own air charter trip, taking in quieter places or dropping you off for one-way bushwalks. www.glenorchy.net.nz
  • Sign up for a creative photography workshop led by award-winning photographers in some of the world’s most inspiring landscapes. Maximum group size is eight. www.qccp.co.nz
  • Visit the three-day air show Warbirds over Wanaka, held this Easter, April 18-20, which culminates with a mock air battle.  www.warbirdsoverwanaka.com
  • Vertigo Bikes; the name says it all. Whether you’re an overseas pro that wants to find the best runs ASAP or a beginner eager to keep the skin on your knees, these guys have the bike, tour and guide for you. vertigobikes.co.nz
  • Nick Clark has been leading fly-fishing tours of the area for 30 years and overnight trips are an option for true addicts. www.southerntrout.co.nz
  • Luxury cruiser Pacific Jemm is available for charter, for business or pleasure trips on Lake Wakatipu, and can provide catering. It can accommodate up to eight passengers in four five-star, en-suite cabins. www.pacificjemm.co.nz
  • If you’re going to try skydiving anywhere, Queenstown offers some great scenery for the ride down. NZone offers tandem jumps from 9,00ft, 12,000ft and 15,000ft. www.nzone.biz
  • If you thought heliskiing and powder were beyond you, think again. “If you can ski, you can heliski,” says Harris Mountains Heliski, which has 30 years’ experience in the business and offers and three-run day trip for blue-run skiers.
  • Dart Stables offers exclusive rides for experienced and novice riders (www.dartstables.com) while High Country Horses can arrange longer rides up to five days, travelling from hut to hut across the valleys (www.high-country-horses.co.nz

A boat trip with Dart River Jet Ltd offers thrills without spills

Race with a view

By Jane Canaway

Published in The Weekly Review, April 2016

Many years ago I ran a race through London; it took me hours because I stopped and took photos of all the landmarks along the way.

So imagine running along the Great Ocean Road, where every bend reveals another picture-perfect scene; it would take me days.

Surprisingly, the best runners in the GMHBA Great Ocean Road Marathon complete the course in just over two-and-a-half hours; I’m guessing they don’t carry cameras.

For this trip, however, I cruise the stunning 44 kilometres between Lorne and Apollo Bay with the roof down on a Holden Cascada convertible. My mission is to find some fun activities for those cheering on the runners in next month’s marathon.

Caught up in Melbourne’s daily grind, it’s easy to forget that the relaxed villages along the coast are so close; leave after peak hour and you can be in Lorne for lunch.

The rainforest walk to the Sheoak Falls in the Great Otway National Park just outside Lorne rewards with a picturesque flow of running water. Walks from the picnic area range from one to three hours.

Wye River is our destination for the night, in one of the many accommodation options still open after the Christmas Day fires. Twisted metal ruins remind visitors of the homes lost and contractors are still cleaning up, but from Ocean Magic halfway up The Boulevarde, the view is as perfect as ever.

As it is from what must be Victoria’s most scenic pub, the Wye Beach Hotel (if you stop for dinner, I’d highly recommend the duck curry).

Ocean Magic. Photo: Supplied

Ocean Magic. Photo: Supplied

Old photos on the wall tell the story of timber felling and past fires, and remind us that the present scars will soon heal.

There are few better ways to start your day than with a swim followed by a gourmet breakfast in the sun, and the Wye River General Store is the perfect place for this.

Heading on to Apollo Bay, keep an eye out for koalas, especially near Grey River, and prepare to stop at Carisbrook Creek, where cairn building has spread like a rash across the beach and warrants a photo or 10.

Our night’s accommodation, Waters Edge townhouse, is aptly named. You can almost feel the sea spray from the deck with its view. Luckily the township is an easy beach walk, because my hubby has his heart set on the beer tasting paddle at the Great Ocean Road Brewhouse. They also offer a gourmet take on traditional pub meals, including a sampler of local goodies; heaven on a breadstick.

970934_Large

Great Ocean Road Brewhouse. Photo: Supplied

Next day we have an early tour booked at the Cape Otway lighthouse. By the time we’ve taken in a few million years of history in the dinosaur exhibition we are ready for the full breakfast on the cafe’s sunny patio.

Next it’s time to test the Cascada on some shady curves as we head inland. Off the main drag at Forrest, the brilliantly named Wonky Donkey is well set up for families, with a playground and kid-friendly meals.

Managers Ruth and Justin Mason also run the Forrest Caravan Park opposite, as well as the nearby Planet Mud outdoor adventure centre. There’s paintball for groups and, for $50, Justin will strap you into an inflatable ball, roll you down a slope and call it zorbing. But we chose the more sedate off-road Segway tour. What an excellent, easy-to-learn, low-impact way to explore the bush.

Inevitably reality calls us back but at least riding home with the top down in the Cascada makes the magic last a bit longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT’S ON: GREAT OCEAN ROAD MARATHON, MAY 2016 The GMHBA Great Ocean Road Marathon offers a range of events, from a 60-kilometre ultra marathon to a 1.5-kilometre kids’ gallop, over the weekend of May 14-15.

greatoceanroadmarathon.com.au

https://www.theweeklyreview.com.au/stay/gmhba-great-ocean-road-marathon-accommodation-activities-road-trip/

Boy Out Of The Country – By Felix Nobis

By Jane Canaway

Published on Australian Stage

It’s a while since I’ve heard an audience gasp in shock at a character’s actions onstage but the depths of sibling bastardry portrayed in Felix Nobis’s Boy Out of The Country certainly hit the spot.

Tightly written for the most part, with only a couple of flat spots, Nobis explores the multifaceted issues of family, belonging, acceptance and growth in this true-blue Aussie tale of two brothers.

Nobis opens by laying his cards on the table and presents a simple scenario that would be familiar to all Australians: Bad-boy Hunter returns to his small-town home after an unexplained seven-year absence to find his elderly mum moved into a nursing home, his rundown childhood home about to be bulldozed to make way for a new housing development, and his former flame married to his clean-living brother, Gordon.

Soon afterwards, Hunter finds himself in the town lockup being lectured by the local sergeant for brawling with Gordon.

Nobis gently develops the story like a watercolour painting, adding depth and colour in subtle layers that slowly reveal a more intricate picture in a wholly gratifying way.

It is sharp, canny and astute, but it is also very funny.

The script captures the vernacular and flows with casual abuse, but its language shines most brightly in the monologues performed by the local cop, played by Christopher Bunworth, and mum – Jane Clifton.

In the hands of these seasoned experts, not only do their characters take on a more poignant air, but the cadence and verse of Nobis’s words is also revealed.

More than once, a quotable quote hit me mid-monologue with its condensed insight and observation.

It’s a script that demands tight comic delivery balanced with laid-back country style and occasionally this was marred by a little stiffness, but quite possibly due to first-night nerves.

Credit is due to designer Rob Sowinski, whose minimal set captures the essence of country town without being overly cute or contrived.

Backing music provided by the wonderfully named Bang Mango Cools on a single guitar and recorded loop was also suitable laconic.

Interestingly, despite its relatively short run, the play is listed on the Shows for Schools website; one hopes teachers take heed of the understated ‘some coarse language’ warning before booking.

 

Larrikin Ensemble Theatre presents

Boy Out Of The Country

By Felix Nobis

Directed by Felix Nobis and Fleur Kilpatrick

Designer: Rob Sowinski

Original music: Bang Mango Cools

Producer: Wolf Heidecker

Amanda LaBonte & Martin Blum. Picture: Sarah Walker

Cast

Margaret – Jane Clifton

Gordon – Matt Dyktynski

Rachael – Amanda LaBonte

Sgt Walker – Christopher Bunworth

Hunter – Martin Blum

 

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

Dates: Until December 8, 2013

Tickets: $30-$38

Bookings: www.fortyfivedownstairs.com

 

To the Manor drawn

by Jane Canaway

Published in The Senior Traveller,

April 2014

As soon as the boys discovered the apple loft they knew it had to be their room: they were already embarked on a game of pirates before the adults had finished carrying a week’s worth of groceries into the enormous, flag-stoned kitchen (with even larger scullery).

That left young Aurelie with the stunning bay-windowed room – and a four-poster bed – all to herself. For a six-year-old with an overactive imagination, it was a week of bliss as we played at being Lord of The Manor.

The home in Bude, Cornwall, sleeps 13. www.bigholidayhouse.com

For many Australians, a visit to Europe involves catching up with family. If you have a large, spread-out mob and limited time, then renting a large house to share is a good option.

Britain has a generous supply of such homes for rent, many in splendid locations where you will never be short of things to do, places to go and things to see.

If you want something truly secluded, there are whole islands you can rent, including a fort built during the Napoeonic wars to defend Portsmouth. That costs more than $50,000 a week, but it does offer a unique base for sailors visiting for Cowes Week.

Alternatively, for the cost of a fairly average 2-3 bedroom beach house in Australia, 12 of you can enjoy a week in a mediaeval tower near Kilkenny, Ireland.

There are plenty of options elsewhere, too: Swedish Lapland, Madeira, Poland, Hungary, Czech republic, Turkey, Morocco, Cyprus, Phuket, South Africa, British Virgin Islands, USA, Vanuatu – as well as yurt holidays, ski chalets, eco-friendly homes and tree houses.

Spitbank Fort, off Portsmouth, offers fine views of Cowes week. www.thebeautifulhouse company.com

Where to start

Location and size will narrow your search quite quickly, and budget will kick in soon afterwards. After that it’s just fine-tuning and availability.

Holiday Lettings (http://www.holidaylettings.co.uk/rentals/richmond/62565) is part of the TripAdvisor network so feedback is available from previous guests. Within the UK, some areas naturally attract premium rates; even the cheapest rate for one of the Cotswold homes listed was more than the peak-season rate for a similar property close to three stunning National Parks in the Yorkshire Dales.

The Beautiful House Co. specializes in luxury rentals and includes on its books the stunning Aldourie Castle beside Loch Ness. With its award-winning renovation, it offers top-end elegance with all the trimmings: 15 individually styled bedrooms (nine with en suites) and use of the 500-acre estate from about $45,000 a week. Four more cottages, catering, activities and full house staff are optional extras.

Aldourie Castle at night

For more affordable grandeur, Plas Glansevin, a Georgian Grade 2 listed building on 10 acres in Wales can accommodate up to 62 guests. It includes wood-fired sauna, outdoor plunge pool, and has wheelchair access. Weekly rates range from $5800 to $8650.

One of the largest properties on the books at Big Holiday House is Park Hall, a Grade 2 listed Queen Anne home on a 132 acres that can sleep 45 in the main house plus 90 in annexes and cottages. For those planning a large wedding, it has a dining capacity of 160.

By the time you’ve searched through a few websites, you’ll be thinking a mediaeval tower is fairly commonplace.

 

From luxury to activity

Apart from the size, style and price variation of the many homes on offer – everything from grand Scottish Castles, through converted barns to modern luxury homes – you can also create a short-list of accommodation by searching for features or activities.

Think Hay on Wye for literary types, the Isle of Skye for sea kayaking, Yorkshire and other moors for walking, biking and white-water rafting, Aintree for the Grand National, Newquay for surfing, Lyme Regis for fossil hunting and South Wales for cliff jumping.

Some of the grander homes offer huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ among their country pursuits. BYO green wellies.

For less energetic types, extras include spa treatments, full catering, a dedicated chef, chauffeur or a maid. At least one eco-farm provides its own organic produce and vegetarian catering.

The YHA also owns a series of large houses, most fitted with commercial-sized kitchen and many offering access to outdoor activities.

Consall castle offers disabled facilities

Holiday Castle Rentals includes the 13th century, moated Consall Castle in its list of properties with disabled facilities, while on a number of ‘quirky’ lists is the Elizabethan Stonnwall Manor in Somerset, which boasts a themed underground bomb shelter (presumably added post-1604).

However, there are some limits, too.

?             Only some accept pets

?             Many are booked out nine months ahead

?             School holidays can mean double rates

?             Some refuse bookings for stag and hen parties

?             Not all websites provide details of disabled facilities

?             Shops are sometimes half an hour or more away

?             Nearly ALL will ask for a good housekeeping deposit to cover any breakages or damage; the bigger the home and list of antiques, the bigger the deposit.

With so many interesting places to stay, it’s worth making up with long-lost family (or friends) to make the most of our good exchange rate and try some.

By the time you've searched through a few websites, you'll feel like a mediaeval tower is commonplace.

Other websites include:

www.thebigdomain.com

www.scottscastles.com

www.thewowhousecompany.co.uk

www.holiday-chateau.com/

www.holidaylettings.co.uk/

thebeautifulhousecompany.com/

www.uniquehomestays.com/

www.yha.org.uk/escape-to

www.bigholidayhouse.com/

www.statelyescapes.co.uk/

www.large-self-catering-accommodation.co.uk/

www.countrycottagesonline.net/

www.large-self-catering-accommodation.co.uk

www.holiday-chateau.com

www.groupaccommodation.com/

www.big-cottages.com/

www.lovetoescape.com

 

Roamin’ holiday

Published in Royal Auto magazine, February 2013

By Jane Canaway

 

Instant hot water, solar chargers for your phone, wall-mounted TVs (with pop-up aerial), air conditioning and hi-fi systems with external speakers are some of the luxuries you will find in a modern caravan.

That’s without mentioning the smarter storage systems, higher-quality fittings and finishes, better plumbing and more efficient lighting that comes as standard.

No need to pack a separate barbecue, awning or picnic table; chances are these are fitted into the side of the van, to be pulled out when needed. You may even get a pull-out deck.

Forget the arguments over re-hitching the car to the van – innovations now allow you to move your trailer by remote control, or at least see where you’re going with a rear-view camera. LED alert caps from TyreCheckers will signal when your tyre pressure drops 4psi.

Queensland-based DreamPot offers a powerless pot that slow-cooks your dinner while you drive. And whether you consider it domestic bliss or drudgery, built-in washing machines are another option, as are purpose-made vacuum cleaners, although a robotic maid to operate them might be harder to find.

“There is more consumer demand for luxuries,” observes Robert Lucas, CEO of the Caravan Trade & Industries Association of Victoria. “It’s not just the good old days of roughing it. There are new layouts, safety systems, and luxury extras, such as en suites even in smaller caravans; through research and develop manufacturers can now put them in smaller vans without owners needing a 4WD to tow them; smaller cars need to be catered for.

“That’s what people are demanding and the industry moves very quickly to meet customer demand,” he said.

Safety first

But the one new innovation that will create a lasting legacy for the industry, according to Mr Lucas, is the anti-sway technology introduced in 2012 by AL-KO International.

“It will usher in a new era of safety in the caravan industry,” he says simply.

The Electronic Stability Control (ESC) technology controls excessive sideways oscillation that can result from high winds or from swerving around an obstacle on the road. This swaying is scary at least and, at worst, can lead to jack-knifing of the car and van.

The ESC system works by sensing sudden sideways movement and activating the caravan’s electronic brakes.

“Rather than slamming on the brakes, which is most drivers’ natural reaction and often the worst thing they can do, the ESC has sensors in the unit that apply the brakes in a smooth and controlled manner to pull the caravan back into line,” explained Rob Funder, technical and manufacturing manager at AL-KO.

“More than 30 Australian caravan manufacturers (which account for most of the market) are now installing the ESC as standard on premium models and we believe we will soon see it rolled out across the rest of the market,” said Brad Hooper, AL-KO marketing services manager.

Fitting ESC adds about $1000 to the cost of a new caravan and about $1500 to retrofit. Vans need to be fitted with approved brakes and suspension but most Australian manufacturers comply.

To view a video of ESC in action or to make a booking to have AL-KO ESC fitted to your caravan, visit www.alkoesc.com.au

“I’m really pleased it’s being introduced,” said Mr Lucas. “If you’re a bit reluctant to try a caravan because you’ve never towed before, this will give you much more confidence.”

An Australian tradition

With Australia’s wide, open roads, beautiful scenery and excellent roadside facilities, it’s not surprising the caravan and recreational vehicle (RV) industries thrive here. It also taps into Australia’s talent for ingenuity and innovation, with most pre-war caravans being hand-made.

Victoria is particularly blessed with manufacturers and users.

“There are 482,000 registered RVs in Australia, and 132,000 of those are … in Victoria,” Mr Lucas said. “That’s a large slice, so they’re as popular as ever. There was a view that caravanning was going out of popularity but that’s not what we’re seeing.”

This observation was echoed in a recent survey by Australia’s leading manufacturer, Jayco, which found that eight out of 10 Australians believed a caravan holiday was a good option for families.

Even though many who answered the survey had not experienced RV holidays as a child, most saw it as an affordable way for their family to spend quality time together and to see the Australian countryside.

Within the options for a camping and caravanning holiday, Rob Lucas includes nine variations: Caravans, pop-tops, camper trailers, fifth-wheelers, motorhomes, slide-ons, campervans, tent-trailers and tents.

Fifth wheelers have an extension on the front that extends over the tow vehicle and sits on a round plate – hence the name fifth wheel – and need to be towed by a truck or utility instead of a car. Slide-ons also fit on utes, literally sliding onto the back tray, while tent-trailers pack down to a small trailer size but open up to form a luxury-sized tent with raised double bed (over the trailer) and lots of floor space. Most have pull-out kitchens and storage in the trailer, too.

RACV Caravan Club

For those who find they don’t use their van as much as they would like, a remedy is offered by the RACV Caravan Club, which has been encouraging RACV members to enjoy their vans since 1937.

About 100 people stayed in 32 caravans on the group’s first outing in 1937 and the strange spectacle attracted more than 1000 spectators to the Sunday public open day. More amazing, perhaps, was that the site at Barwon Heads was provided free of charge.

The club organises monthly rally weekends and keeps groups to a manageable size by splitting the membership into five divisions. All five combine for annual events, including summers at Sorrento, where the club leases a foreshore reserve, with exclusive use for three months.

“We leave our van there for the three months and it only costs $900, or a fortnight costs $120, so it’s pretty good value,” club secretary John Wall says.

It has proved so popular that members must ‘earn’ the best sites by attending rallies through the year.

“It provides a discipline to use your caravan and a context in which to use it,” Mr Wall says.

Some families have continued the membership down to second and third generations.

“Some have been continuous members for 50-60 years ,” Mr Wall says. “Another couple bought a new van at 98 and they were still caravanning at 102.

“We don’t lose many members so people must be pretty happy.”

Vintage caravans

The legendary couple who shared their love of caravanning until the age of 102 – the late Arthur & Pat Pullen – were also keen ‘Vintage Vanners’; a network of folk dedicated to the restoration and preservation of caravans built before 1970.

“My interest is in trying to enthuse others,” says Alan Stevens, who discovered vintage vans through restoring vintage cars.

“A lot of people love the interiors as much as the van, because we fit them out to suit the era: tea towels, games, cups, everything. You rarely see that stuff, let alone get a chance to use it.”

Bendigo-based Mr Stevens rents out two of his vans for holidays – as well as photoshoots and window displays – and will deliver them to sites for non-towers. He has a four-berth 1938 Paramount, a 1947 Don, fitted with wireless radio and leadlight windows, and is working on a 1920s van.

“I tow them with a 1949 Austin Sheerline, which has a 4-litre engine and plenty of torque,” he says.

While designed to be a home-away-from home, the vans were also something of a luxury item, so their style and construction not only reflects the latest housing of the day but the building materials and trends of each era.

Despite their age, many of the older vans are fitted with electric brakes (often plugging into a cigarette lighter), while others had over-ride brakes that were activated by the pressure between the van and the car when the car brakes.

Ease your way in

So you have your new van and want to try it out. Where to start?

RACV members can save at least 20 per cent on accommodation at the club’s resort in Cobram, and many local traders also offer discounts. Plus the staff makes a special effort to settle in beginners.

“A lot of parks are now offering help reversing or setting up vans for new or inexperienced people,” the manager of RACV’s Cobram resort, Gary Hunt, says.

While Mr Hunt has observed caravans become more luxurious and sophisticated, he warns buyers to consider their towing car when choosing a van.

“Sometimes people do not realise their car doesn’t have the right towing capacity. They might even be breaking towing legislation without realising, or get into problems when braking suddenly. Update your vehicle first if you want a bigger van.”

Mr Hunt is familiar with the many different styles and preferences: long-haul travelers happy with basic facilities and more concerned with cost; those with active children who need entertaining, and those who just want peace and quiet.

With volleyball courts, jumping pillows, indoor pool and spa, outdoor pool, recreation room, tennis courts and a BMX track for kids, he knows the resort offers more than some travelers need, but Cobram also has plenty of what every camper wants: space.

“We could easily fit 80 sites or more on the 30 acres we have here, but we stick to about 40, because regular vanners want a clean, presentable park, with amenities that are clean and light, and they want space.”

 

The Caravan, Camping & Touring Supershow is at Caulfield Racecourse from March 7 to 12, 2013. Details: www.caravanshow.com.au

 

Getaway: Lording it up in Queenstown

Published in The Weekly Review, December 2012

By Jane Canaway

Sunset sights: Steamer Wharf, Queenstown Bay, at dusk. Photo: Chris McLennan

Sunset sights: Steamer Wharf, Queenstown Bay, at dusk. Photo: Chris McLennan

Burning up energy and adrenalin may be what Queenstown is most famous for, but look outside the square and you’ll discover a fresh undercurrent of fine dining, world-class sculpture and fabrics, and some of the world’s best cool-climate wines.

The hills and dales around Queenstown are populated with large, healthy herds of merino and Suffolk sheep, as well as Angus, Charolais and Hereford cattle, while the clear waters of Lake Wakatipu are teeming with brown and rainbow trout and three types of salmon.

All of which combines to inspire a handful of restaurants that are carving out an individual, exciting style of Kiwi dining. Combined with an adolescent wine industry that is winning recognition for its clean-tasting, mineral-tangy wines, and Queenstown has great allure for a new breed of visitors.

The hills beyond Queenstown are rich in greenstone, which drew the first Maori settlers to the area more than 800 years ago. While the stone is no longer used for weaponry – Captain Cook described it as holding a keener edge than metal – it is inspiring local jewellers.

One jeweller well known across the Tasman is Sir Michael Hill. His son, Mark, has inherited his parents’ creative talents and applied them to his chosen field of sculpture. Many of his fine, large-scale pieces are dotted across the The Hills – his family’s 101-hectare estate at nearby Arrowtown, a beautifully preserved 1860s mining town that is worth a visit in its own right.

The Hills is an example of what happens when passion, creativity and large wads of cash collide, starting with a request to golf course architect John Darby to create one hole on land adjoining the Hill family home. The project grew and opened as a full 18-hole course in 2007. It is regarded by many as the best in the area, and hosts the New Zealand PGA tournament. Membership is limited to 100, but visitors can apply to play – at a price ($NZ500, or about $A400).

Australians can lay some claim to the emergence of the amazing Merinosilk – a blend of 70 per cent merino wool, 10 per cent silk and 20 per cent possum fur, of all things. The result is a luxurious, lightweight fabric that is being dyed and used to stunning effect. The cost of the end products can be fairly stunning, too, but you won’t find anything like it anywhere else in the world.

» The 2013 NZ PGA Tournament at The Hills is from February 28 to March 3. www.thehills.co.nz

Jane Canaway travelled courtesy of Air New Zealand and was a guest of Matakauri Lodge and Dart River Jet Safaris.

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Stay here

Matakauri Lodge
Farrycroft Row, 569 Glenorchy Road, Queenstown,
New Zealand +64 3 441 1008
www.matakauri.co.nz

Gentlemen are required to wear a jacket for dinner at the magnificent Matakauri Lodge, an intimate cluster of just 11 luxurious private rooms dotted among landscaped gardens in a private section of the Lake Wakatipu shoreline, about 10 kilometres south-east of Queenstown.
It is worth the effort – equally impressive as the lodge’s setting is the food, which stands head and shoulders above most other dining options in Queenstown.

At dinner, guests are greeted with complimentary cocktails and canapés. There is a choice of splendid spots from which to enjoy the views – by the outdoor fireplace, on the deck, in the lounge with its huge picture windows, or the smaller dining room. Honeymooners can opt to dine in their suites, or even have a private table made up in the residents’ library upstairs.

And every night the chefs – many of them young guns from overseas touring the world as part of their global experience and bringing the freshest trends from all corners of the world – present a brand-new tasting menu as well as a la carte options, combining the best of whatever local farmers and suppliers have in season.

Fish will often feature, whether it is tuna, monkfish or blue nose, as will the most delicate lamb and Angus beef, all presented in a variety of imaginative ways and accompanied by the best vegetables and herbs from the lodge’s own garden.

How about seared South Island monkfish in a tomato, fennel, kalamata olive and thyme velouté; roasted scallops with parsnip, cos, sugar snap pea and vanilla-white wine sauce; or breast of corn-fed chicken with caramelised onion, baby turnip, asparagus and chicken consommé?

Set as the lodge is, so close to Central Otago and its renowned vineyards, guests are invited to choose from a range of top local wines – including lots of pinot gris, pinot noir, syrah, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Suffice to say the suites are first class, beautifully redecorated two years ago in a palette of stone, timber, fresh white and earthy tones, and offering lake views from virtually every corner of every room.

 

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Spa-studded luxury: Winter at Matakauri Lodge … and the outdoor Jacuzzi and pool.

Miz Watanabe

Guests are also welcome to use the gym, spa or infinity pool (naturally with Those Views across the lake to the ski fields of the Remarkables mountain ranges), or to take advantage of some of the spa treatments available.

With the exception of wines and spirits, guests can help themselves to the complimentary goodies in their mini-bars, such as beer, soft drinks, yummy local chocolate and snacks, including freshly made cookies from the lodge kitchen.

If you can tear yourself away from the lodge, you can sign up for a range of activities, such as a day out painting with a local artist, a round of golf, a ride on the lodge’s mountain bikes or a wine-tasting tour.

The lodge offers a level of luxury and personal service rarely found anywhere in the world and, with such spectacular scenery as its backdrop, it is simply one of the most special experiences available.

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Michael Thomas

Don’t miss

It is unlikely there are any Tolkien fans who are not aware The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in New Zealand. And anyone who has seen the film versions is likely to feel an instant thrill of recognition when they see the mountains and lakes around Queenstown. Isengard, Lothlorien, Dimrill Dale and Argonath are all here, and can be visited in a number of ways.

A jet-boat trip with Dart River Jet Safaris will take you into the heart of Isengard – a lovely valley that has also doubled as the Swiss Alps (in a Milka chocolate advert), the Rocky Mountains (for Coors light beer), the Himalayas (in Vertical Limit), Narnia in the film adaptations of the C.S. Lewis’ books and locations for many other films.

Tours cost $NZ219 (about $A170) and include a guided visit to the ancient Nothofagus forest at Mount Aspiring National Park and a 4WD safari on which you see the site of Gandalf’s ride to Isengard, where Boromir is struck down, and where Aragon fights the orcs. Or you can opt to jet boat up and kayak downstream past the site of the three pillars at Argonath for $NZ299 (about $A230) – although the pillars were digitally added afterwards, of course.

Southern Lakes take visitors to as many as 20 LOTR locations, including Amon Hen. It even has a collection of weapons and costumes available
for photos. Full-day tours cost NZ$299 by road; an air/road version costs $NZ1650 (about $A1300).

Heliworks includes several LOTR landing sites with a flight to Milford Sound in a 3½-hour extravaganza that costs $NZ1800 (about $A1400).

Nomad Safaris offers two different half-day tours of various sites, both costing $NZ169 (about $A130). Dart Stables leads a number of LOTR horse treks of varying lengths and difficulty from $NZ135 (children $NZ125) up to $NZ315.

Or you can buy a book, hire a car and do it all yourself.

Whatever transport you choose, make time to see the millennium-old trees in the Mount Aspiring National Park – some of these trees were alive when humans first set set foot in the area.

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Eat at

Fergburger
42 Shotover Street,
Queenstown

www.fergburger.com

Of the 152 restaurants listed by TripAdvisor in Queenstown, this burger bar is ranked No.?1. (The Fergbaker bakery next door is ranked No.?2 – try the lamb shank pie.)

Initially, this may have been influenced by the young, active, hungry demographics of many visitors with huge appetites and low budgets, but it’s continued because the burgers are consistently good.

The place is easy to find – it’s the one with the long queue outside around meal times because demand is high and everything is made to order – but you can order ahead.

Prices range from $NZ10 to $NZ18.50 for a 200-gram ribeye steak but the most challenging meal is a Big Al ($NZ17.50), comprising a half-pound of meat, bacon, cheese, two eggs, beetroot, lettuce, tomato, red onion, relish and Ferg’s world-famous aioli. Open 21 hours a day.

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Botswana Butchery
Archers Cottage,
17 Marine Parade,
Queenstown

http://goodgroup.co.nz/botswana-butchery

Set in a cute stone cottage with lovely lake views, this stylish restaurant is one of a handful setting new standards for fine dining in Queenstown. Only four years old, it has been a finalist in the Cuisine Restaurant of the Year awards for the past three years. It is part of the Good Group that includes stylish Queenstown wine bars Barmuda and Bardeaux.

Despite its name, meat is not the main focus, nor is Botswana, although you can order steaks (of local beef, salmon or tuna) by weight with a choice of sauces. The more interesting dishes explore seasonal, local produce, and include South Island sole, West Coast whitebait, pulled-lamb soft tacos, local wild rabbit and salmon gravlax. Banquette menus offer a good range of options.

The drinks list is extensive (it includes 16 beers and three sections of cocktails) and has a strong local focus.

The lunch menu offers a lot of tasty $NZ15 options, and only the charcuterie platter for two breaks the $NZ30 barrier.

 

Students find joy with strings attached

By Jane Canaway

Published in The Age, April 30, 2012

Eh Moo See with her violin. Picture: The Age

FIVE years after arriving in Australia as a refugee, 11-year-old Eh Moo See is still shy about her English vocabulary. Asked if she feels any different when she’s playing her violin, she smiles brightly but whispers for guidance in teacher Susan Porter’s ear.

“She says she feels more confident,” Ms Porter.

As we’re talking, Heath wriggles and flops in his chair like any nine-year-old. But as he picks up his viola, his back straightens, his eyes focus and he is engaged.

“He’s one of the most attentive when they’re playing,” says Ms Porter, who helps run a groundbreaking music program being trialled at Laverton P-12 College, in Melbourne’s west.

Asked how he feels when he’s playing, Heath says simply: “Like a professional.”

They might not get paid, but the ensemble now has a growing repertoire and has performed several concerts in the past 10 months, including one alongside the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra — no mean feat for children who had barely touched a musical instrument a year ago.

The intensive program, based on a successful Venezuelan model, introduces orchestral training and performance to children who are otherwise unlikely to experience it. While the Venezuelan experience has now reached 4 million children over the past 37 years, Heath and Eh Moo See are among the first 30 children in the Australian pilot.

Not only have the children — selected randomly from more than 70 who applied to take part — embraced the disciplined training, but a survey sent out after six months showed 90 per cent of parents noticed an increase in their children’s confidence, with 95 per cent saying their children were happier and 95 per cent now more positive about their child’s future.

The two-hour classes, led by some of Melbourne’s brightest young music teachers, are held after school three nights a week. There is no cost to parents and children enjoy “a nutritious snack” beforehand. After basic music instruction using recorders and singing, each child received a junior-sized string instrument: violins, violas, cellos or double bass.

But as Laverton P-12 College assistant principal Paul Lishman points out, “it’s not just about learning a violin, viola or cello; it’s a whole musical program, with percussion and vocal work and learning to perform as a group”.

Only a handful of children have dropped out — all but one due to their families moving, which is common in Laverton’s transient population.

“Not only have the children lapped it up, never complaining about the extra work, but the parents are highly supportive, too. They can see the benefits,” Mr Lishman says. “It’s had huge benefits for their whole learning, too; we’re seeing positive effects on their other work.”

As the Laverton program — called Crashendo! — approaches its first birthday, the organising body, Sistema Australia, plans to expand to Adelaide, and has had strong interest from other Melbourne schools.

The stumbling block is money.

“Depending on staffing numbers, it costs between $2000 and $3000 per student each year,” says the head of Sistema Australia, Chris Nicholls. “The current funding and pilot finishes at the end of the current term. We are seeking funding for the full program, which will take 60 children, five days per week for the school year. We need approximately $60,000 for the rest of 2012.”

The Laverton Crashendo! program pilot was funded from private donations and in-kind support from the college, Hobsons Bay Council and Victoria Police.

By contrast, the Adelaide program has secured major funding from philanthropic, corporate and government sponsors as well as donations of instruments and smaller grants. A third of the Adelaide students will pay $15 a day, subsidising free music education for those unable to pay.

Social justice is a key element in the original El Sistema program from Venezuela. It was established by economist and pianist Jose Antonio Abreu, who wanted to share his love of classical music with children, especially those from the slums.

From one children’s orchestra in 1975, the Venezuelan program now has more than 300 choirs and orchestras, and teaches 300,000 children. Its success has led to the government now funding 60 per cent of its $80 million budget.

Similar programs are now run in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, Austria and the US.

With no formal background in either music or running a trust, Mr Nicholls landed his role as head of Sistema Australia almost by accident, after seeing his own son transformed through music.

“My son had learning difficulties that led to him being miles behind.” A diagnosis was found, but by then his confidence was at rock bottom.

Then at high school, all students had to learn a musical instrument.

“When we explained his learning problems, he was given one-on-one help; he really grasped it with a passion and started accelerating and was leading the cellos in his orchestra within a few months.”

At 17 he was accepted into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. “I was flabbergasted that a child could make such progress.”

Mr Nicholls discovered the El Sistema program — and wanted to give Australian children a similar chance to shine.

Inspired, he took up the viola himself and plays in the Maruki Community Orchestra, which he co-founded with violinist John Gould.

However, his steepest learning curve has been getting the Australian version of El Sistema up and running. “I ran the idea past a lot of people; some thought ‘what a nut’, but others thought it was a good idea and were supportive, especially [choirmaster] Jonathon Welch.”

Senior Constable Sharon Radau learns with the children. Picture: The Age

Independently, Senior Constable Sharon Radau, community liaison officer with Hobsons Bay police, was looking for a creative way of tackling youth disadvantage in Laverton — her area’s most disadvantaged place — and discovered the El Sistema program. She was given Chris Nicholls’ number.

“Victoria Police wanted to help run the program at Laverton P-12,” says Mr Nicholls. “I tried to get funding but it was really hard. So I just sank everything I had into it; I don’t have a house or any money any more, but I have this program up and running and it’s working — if we could run it every day of the week the kids would probably turn up.”

To make it more attractive for philanthropists, Mr Nicholls is converting Sistema Australia from an incorporated body to a limited company. And to gauge the program’s value, Melbourne University was asked to research its benefits.

A postdoctoral research fellow in music psychology, Dr Margaret Osborne will assess it as part of a three-year study examining the value of music education.

Senior Constable Radau can already see the powerful effect of music; she is learning violin alongside the children.

“Nobody is forcing the kids; it’s all voluntary. To get kids occupied and off the streets is just gold.”

sistemaaustralia.com.au

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/students-find-joy-with-strings-attached-20120427-1xq1m.html#ixzz256jkk2TR

 

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