The lucky country

Tim Elliott dreams of a different life after a few days in Honeycomb Valley.

Considering the fact I'm a complete stranger and I have just walked up, placed my hands on her breasts and begun massaging them vigorously, the goat responds pretty well. I don't even know her name but here I am, squeezing and pulling and gently cursing as jets of hot milk go everywhere but in my bucket.

''No, no, what you do is you curl your little finger round the bottom,'' Andrew says. ''And then gently squeeze.''

I do it like he says. The next jet splashes all over my wellingtons and, oops, in the crotch of Andrew's overalls. In time, however, we have enough milk to drink.

It's our first morning at Honeycomb Valley, a family-run farm-stay on the north coast. It's raining, which my wife and I had assumed would be a disaster but which my three daughters seem to consider all part of the package. Kitted up in raincoats and gumboots, they race around all morning, collecting eggs, feeding rabbits and freaking out about the alpacas, all the while splashing in every mud puddle they can find as if pretending they're in a giant open-air water park. Which in a way they are.

With its 36 hectares of gently rolling, lushly grassed hills, Honeycomb Valley is, indeed, a huge open-air playground, one that pushes a gently organic DIY form of sustainability.

Owners Andrew and Anna Campbell and their three children make it all seem easy - too easy, in fact. After only a short time I'm convinced the farm should come with a government warning that prepares visitors for the fact they will return home in a state of profound existential angst, asking themselves why they are living in the city and working at their stupid office jobs when they could be growing their own vegies and tending animals and generally leading a more satisfying life at a place such as Honeycomb Valley.

''Yes,'' Andrew laughs, ''lots of people come here and go away pretty inspired to change their lives. It's that kind of place.''

The Campbells did not grow up on the land. Until a few years ago, they were as citified as you and me, living a comfortable yet naggingly unfulfilled existence on Sydney's northern beaches: Andrew worked in hospitality, Anna in marketing. One day, like a lot of people, they started asking questions such as, ''Is this all there is?'' and ''What if we sold up and moved to the country?'' Unlike a lot of people, however, they actually did something about it. They took the children out of school, liquidated their assets and scouted around for properties.

''When we found this place, it was already being run as a farm-stay,'' Andrew says, walking me down the valley. ''A local churchman owned it. He was a Mormon and he had built the cabins to put up visiting clergy from Utah.''


The two cabins were already up to speed - self-contained two-bedroom units with little kitchens and pot-bellied stoves. But the rest of the property needed work. Lots of work. The Campbells built a dam, erected seven kilometres of fencing, installed irrigation, pumps and vegetable beds, fitted out the yards and bought the animals: horses, ponies, goats, cows, sheep, bunnies, alpacas and about six types of chicken.

Some animals came with the property. ''There are lots of foxes here,'' Andrew says. ''At dusk, you can see them prowling around.''

Luckily, he explains, the alpacas are guard animals; they will surround a vulnerable animal and protect it from predators. ''I've seen them do it with a lambing ewe,'' he says. ''They formed a circle and kind of hummed to one another. Bizarre, really, but quite beautiful.''

The next morning we awake to a symphony of bleating, mooing, crowing and clucking. The girls hurry out to help collect the eggs.

One of the best things about Honeycomb Valley is the access-all-areas vibe; this is a working farm, with all that entails, but guests are encouraged to wander about, see the animals and help with the long list of daily chores that keeps the show on the road.

Some guests get more involved than others. A little while back, the head of a merchant bank came to stay. One day the temperature reached 35 degrees and one of the sheep died. The banker decided he wanted to bury it. Anna said, ''No, no, you're on holiday'' but he insisted. So they gave him a shovel. ''Three hours later he came back,'' Anna says, ''his hands covered in blood and he says, 'I'm in the wrong job.' For some people it's incredibly fulfilling to do this kind of work.''

My girls are happy feeding hay to the cows. Then they check the honey bees and give a bottle of warm milk to the baby goats. Andrew puts my two eldest girls in the trailer and takes them for a ride behind his quad bike, making sure to go through as many mud puddles as possible, which splatters my deliriously screaming daughters from head to toe. Cleaning them is easy - we throw them in the pool.

That night, Andrew builds a bonfire out the front of our cabin. The girls eat marshmallows; we drink wine.

''It's only since moving up here that I have learnt the true meaning of all these sayings that I'd always heard,'' Anna says. ''Like, 'You reap what you sow' - if I don't plant those pumpkin seeds I won't have pumpkin soup later on. And 'Put your roots down' - we have planted carob trees that are really slow growing but live for hundreds of years. We planted them for our kids.''

She pauses. ''It's not easy here and it's certainly not as lucrative as our life in the city but I don't think we've ever been happier.''

''I don't blame you one bit,'' I reply and propose a toast to dreams made real.

Tim Elliott stayed courtesy of Honeycomb Valley.


Getting there

Honeycomb Valley is at 3736 Wallanbah Road, Nabiac, 3½ hours' drive north of Sydney on the Pacific Highway. Take the Nabiac turnoff about 30 minutes beyond Bulahdelah.

Staying there

The two-bedroom cabins sleep up to seven people and cost $350 a night for a couple, $25 for children (two-night minimum on weekends). A breakfast hamper is included; bring food for other meals, or supplies can be bought from Nabiac, a two-minute drive from the farm. Local produce can also be bought at the farmers' markets at Nabiac Showground on the last Saturday morning of the month. The Campbells usually build a campfire one night so you can barbecue a meal and there's a solar oven for outdoor cooking. Phone 6554 1460, see

Things to do

The farm offers a range of courses, including bread-making, bee-keeping, even plein-air painting workshops. Anna is happy to explain Farmerceuticals, her side business that blends farm-produced raw honey, fresh goat's milk and sun-melted beeswax with organic oils and butters to make natural skin-care products.

Gardeners will be impressed by the huge vegetable patch and should also inspect the 200-tree orchard. Or relax by the 10-metre solar-heated pool.