Situated on Goonellabah’s northern ridge is a unique house. With one foot in suburbia, it extends into a rural acreage. Sloping to the north-west, it contains a former stone quarry, and has an intermittent stream that drains into Wilson’s River.
The idea of writing about this residence really crystallised when I saw a Facebook album created by Paul White that conveys its quirky and photogenic qualities. The full photo album is accessible to Facebook members here. Encouragingly, Manfred, the owner was laid-back about the idea of my putting together a written impression of his abode, and Paul was happy for his images to reach a wider audience.
On the road down, there is a spectacular panoramic view down to paddocks in the Wilsons River/Bangalow Road area, stretching out to the hills, towards Nimbin, Sphinx Rock, and beyond to the Border Ranges National Park.
The house is on two levels, with the front entrance using a type of wooden bridge that crosses a drop down to the level below, like a drawbridge over a drained moat. When I visited, Manfred was living upstairs, a part of the house that benefits from sun, views, and natural warmth, making it is possible to largely manage without heating all year round. Surrounding the whole top level on all four sides is a narrow deck.
At the time I arrive, Manfred is working with a solar contractor on installing another four panels. It is mid-afternoon on a fine warm hazy day, with gnats flying around. Sun-loving bougainvillea around the rear of the deck is flowering with its trademark magenta hue. To the rear, the land runs down the slope into a gully, and back up the opposite slope to houses in Lismore Heights. He takes a break from his work to share a cup of tea.
Spending time on the upper floor, there is something about it that feels appealing and homely, in a way that the average modern dwelling fails to match. Perhaps it is the flowery carpet, the artistic collections of curiosities in shelves, or the lead-lighted windows, but the major factor is probably the honey-coloured wood that features prominently in the construction. According to Manfred, the whole house was owner-built by a friend, with much of the timber coming from a single tree that had died after being struck by lightning, and which had been left for several years. In the bathroom toilet is an old-fashioned carriage light that had been gathering dust in a shed become being appropriated to replace the previous broken unit.
Manfred has had an interesting past, which includes becoming affluent and successful in the jewellery trade when still in his teens in Sydney, and being jaded enough by the experience that he no longer felt able to make material success his central life goal. Later, he purchased a run-down hotel in Katoomba, establishing it under an arrangement where visitors could choose how much they wanted to pay. Near Kuranda, in Far North Queensland, he was involved in a record-breaking 208-day tree-sit, as a protest against the Skyrail elevated tourist cable car project in a World Heritage national park. Living in a remote area of Far North Queensland an hour or so inland from Cairns, he would periodically leave to go ‘walkabout’ for months, carrying nothing, and with no money, foraging for wild food.
It is obvious that he likes combining a rural off-grid existence with being only five kilometres from Lismore’s CBD, accessible most easily via less-busy and more aesthetically appealing back roads. He is self-sufficient in both electricity and water, with three large water tanks and an array of solar panels backed up by battery power. This self-reliance extends to areas such as doing his own handyman work.
I go down the rear stairs to check things out. An access track running down the edge of the land passes a wind generator that is currently non-operational. Despite being overgrown in places, there are numerous fruit trees including passionfruit, pawpaw, banana, lemon, and star fruit. Manfred prefers to spend much of his time working here. Off the track, a flowering umbrella tree has one lorikeet and hundreds of bees feeding on the red flowers. A few metres from this spot is where I once encountered my only pair of regent bowerbirds, including the spectacular yellow and black male, despite looking out for them many times in rainforests.
Behind the house is much of Manfred’s impressive collection of secondhand items. Some are in piles, while others are arranged on display. He has been a regular customer at the council tip shop, and like myself, frequents garage sales. I guess that there are rare occasions when he buys something new. On one table is a line of four ancient typewriters with the letters rubbed off the keys that puts me in mind of an art installation, and next to them is an antique dial phone. One of my favourites, hung from the upstairs ceiling, is a quirky wooden carving of Laurel and Hardy holding onto the moon by a piece of rope.
When Manfred moved in, there were a couple of antique 1927 Buicks with wooden-spoked wheels. Both were exchanged for a 1949 red truck that is on the property but currently in a non-operational condition. Fixing it involves a trip to Casino to obtain a part, and while Manfred rarely goes in that direction, I offer to help when I’m next passing through.