2022 was an exhausting, no-kidding-around, all-consuming bear of a year. For reasons big and small, I was wiped by the end of it and took all of the three week summer break to fill the tanks back up.
It wasn’t that the year was all bad, not at all. It’s more that it feels like the distance between the ends of the spectrum grew – the extremes were more extreme than ever.
The good parts were great, and the bad parts were awful.
This post, however, is about one of the unmitigated greats of the year – moving to Ballarat.
I’ve tweaked it a fair bit, but I wrote the original shortly after we moved but before some of the awful parts of the year came along.
So it’s nice, it’s positive and hopefully it’s interesting!
In May, my family and I moved house – from suburban Melbourne to the regional centre of Ballarat.
This quasi-tree change of ours has been exciting, fun and consuming, so I’ve been a little stuck when I’ve had some people ask me “why?”.
Not because it’s a difficult question, but because I don’t have a simple answer.
Which made me think it might help to write about it – why we’ve moved to Ballarat, what it’s meant, why it’s been so exciting and what I’ve learnt so far.
Maybe there are some parts of how we approached this change that other people might find useful and, hopefully, it’ll help me find the answer to that simple question – why?
Long Time Coming
First things first – I’ve wanted to move out of the city for a while now. For a few reasons:
I grew up in the Dandenong’s, which is still close enough to Melbourne to access anything you would need – but far enough to have lots of big trees, unreliable electricity and regular bushfire lessons.
Which means that we spent lots of time playing outside and exploring the bush. Weekends spent out of the house, walking along the old Puffing Billy track and kicking over rocks with my mates seemed completely typical, at the time.
Of course, I now see that it was a very different experience to what a lot of our kids have now. And I feel like it gave me a lot of habits and enjoyment that I want my kids to have.
We bought the business of a regional adviser a few years back. And this adviser was good enough to take me around to meet his clients. We spent hours in his car, driving all over Victoria – from Maryborough to Warrnambool, Portland to Labertouche, Frankston to Echuca.
Which helped me see the pure breadth of life in the country. As well as some of the differences – good and bad – between city and country life. I worked hard to avoid it forming a idealised picture of rural life in my mind, and came away with what I feel is a fairly realistic perspective.
And as I’ve repeated that trip in the years since, it’s getting harder to find Melbourne’s charms more compelling than driving along a country highway, under a big, cloudy sky with the window’s down.
I feel like some of my values align a bit better with life in the country than in the city.
I do what I can to avoid stress, for instance, and as anybody that’s driven in Melbourne in the last 10 years can tell you – this isn’t really an option while living in Melbourne.
I really, really hate spending any of my time commuting to work – and that’s a tough value to live in Melbourne.
And as controversial as this might be in some corners, the property market in Melbourne doesn’t make any damned sense to me anymore.
The One-Day Trap
For these reasons, moving has been on my radar for a while. But with a young family, a business and a close extended family, I’d let it become a “One Day” proposition.
As in, “one day when I’ve done this, I will do that”.
Until I realized, with a start, that this might be a fairly silly way to look at it. As I tell the people we work for – if the reasons are sound, and you can do it, why wait?
Why fall into the trap of putting the minutiae of the day-to-day before the life that I wanted for my family? There’ll always be a reason not to do something. So if you want to do it – really want to do it – then make it happen.
Or regret not doing it later.
As somebody who doesn’t handle regret terribly well, this was a strong motivator to get moving!
Not on the Same Page
It’s fair to say though, that my wife didn’t feel the same way.
She was very happy and comfortable living near her family. We were still in the comfortable position of being in the area that we had grown up.
We’d settled down and were building a rather nice and comfortable life – particularly since we’d had our second son. We were comfortable, we regularly saw our families and my wife had the support all stay-at-home parents could appreciate.
And there I was, agitating for uprooting our life and transporting it somewhere else, without any support, homegrown knowledge, or roots.
All to punt on some phantom goal of a ‘better life’ for our kids. Or, more honestly, itchy feet and a simmering sense of dissatisfaction with metropolitan routines.
She was right to be deeply skeptical!
Which means this was a point of discussion for quite a while. ‘Discussion’ might be putting it a bit mildly – it was a recurring bone of contention. Eventually, we agreed that going back and forth wasn’t getting us anywhere, so we resolved that we’ll come back to it – ‘one day’.
(Incidentally, I find zero-sum situations like this quite challenging – there’s no compromise here, no middle-ground. One person gets their way, the other doesn’t. That sort of absolutism is really challenging. We were able to navigate it, but it must be awful when it can’t be resolved).
The Damned Pandemic
Then, COVID happened.
And one thing COVID did was highlight to us the importance of the people sharing our suddenly quite small world with us.
This, plus the powerful impact those rolling, interminable lockdowns had on my perspective, helped reset some of our priorities.
Mind you, I was one of those lucky ones whose experience of that period was probably a net positive:
I spent every day with my kids and my wife.
I got to have lunch and dinner with them every day.
None of us got sick.
My work probably benefited from the big changes that took place.
And it’s still left its mark on me, a mark that I think I’m only now – 18 months later – getting past.
Our world shrunk down to the three most important people in my life. Yes, it was difficult. Yes, there were challenges. But we were some of the lucky ones.
Like nearly every other person in Melbourne, this also meant that we couldn’t see our families as often as we could before.
Which highlighted to me – and, most importantly, to my wife – that while we love our family, and we love spending time with them, we don’t need to be physically near them to maintain that kind of relationship.
That our little family of four could be – would be – enough.
Sure, proximity makes certain things easier. Having a one-year-old who’s teething has really emphasised the benefits of having family nearby, and only having each other to rely on every day and night can lead to a dull monotony.
But it made us both understand that we don’t need to live within five minutes of our families to stay close to them.
Pushed and Pulled
Which brought the idea of moving to the country back on to the agenda. After all, if the main reason to stay in Melbourne – family – could be maintained during enforced separation, then how much worse could voluntary separation be?
And without that to keep us in Melbourne, why stay when the reasons drawing us to the country were so much more powerful?
Which led to us deciding now was the time. Let’s move to the country!
But the deciding was the easy part – now we had to answer all of the other questions.
Starting with “where”?
What seemed like a real advantage – not having any family in the country, so we could move anywhere – proved to be a bit of a challenge.
Because how do you choose where to live when you can live anywhere?
Our solution was setting some criteria to narrow things down:
My wife wanted to be within 90 minutes of her family, who still live in the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne.
We wanted four bedrooms and two bathrooms (room for visitors, essentially).
It needed a backyard big enough for our two boys to be able to run around.
We wanted to rent for the first twelve months at least just in case it didn’t work out.
I wanted a small town – fewer than 10,000 residents.
It had to have a decent primary school, a quality high school reasonably close, and good transport routes into Melbourne. Ideally, somewhere near the V-Line train.
It had to have the NBN.
Given we lived 45 minutes from the centre of Melbourne, this really limited us to southern and western Gippsland. Which was great – I love that part of Victoria.
It’s beautiful, lush country filled with hills and valleys. And in those valleys are some charming, fun, interesting towns – Meeniyan, Inverloch, Yarram, Mirboo North, Foster, Korumburra.
The Search Begins
We started searching.
We spent three to four months driving down into one of those towns every weekend. Take the freeway through the sprawl and turn right into green, rolling hills and consistently great bakeries – not a bad way to spend a Saturday!
We must have seen every single town in that area, which was wonderful. But ultimately fruitless.
While it is an utterly lovely part of the country, there just wasn’t the housing options there that met what we were looking for.
We started to really wonder what we were going to do – we had to do it in 2022, because our eldest starts school next year and we wanted him well-settled beforehand.
We were getting mildly frustrated.
And this was after a few months – I know people that have done this for years! I have no idea how they did it!
(Another) Change of Plans
So we spoke about what we were going to do. We agreed that we had a choice:
Give up on the idea of moving or
Relax some of our criteria.
Our motives for moving were still there, so giving up wasn’t really an option.
This left the latter and we agreed that of all the criteria we had, the first to relax should be the distance from my wife’s family. Not that being closer to them was no longer appealing. Just that if adding 45-60 minutes to that particular trip made it possible, then that was the compromise we chose.
Adding an extra hour to that diameter brought some wonderful areas into the mix.
Different (And Better)
We knew Ballarat a little – we’d visited a few times over the years, spent some time hitting the tourist sites: Sovereign Hill, the Eureka museum, the wildlife park, the spectacular local architecture, Buninyong and the local area.
And I’d been in and around the area a fair bit, thanks to that business we bought a few years ago.
But we didn’t know what it’d be like to live there, so we drove up to check it out.
We headed up on a perfect autumn day. Looking back, the timing couldn’t have been more important. Because Ballarat is particularly beautiful in autumn, it turns out.
The trees were turning and those great, wide streets were filled with golden light and falling leaves.
The weather was crisp, but pleasant. We parked just off the main street and got walking.
We strolled along the paths, next to the bluestone gutters and their driveway bridges. Past beautiful weatherboards, gorgeous brick homes and under the canopy of gracious oak trees.
We stopped at cafes, found neighborhood pubs, looked in small boutiques and found great bookstores – a previously forgotten criteria for our list.
We saw primary schools, people happily walking their dogs and the ingenious idea of sharing the otherwise dead space of a driveway.
We lied to ourselves and pretended we were keeping an open mind, but I’m fairly sure our minds were made up before we’d parked the car – this was where we wanted to live.
It hit most of our criteria, but most importantly it was somewhere we could really see ourselves building a nice life.
I say it hit most of the criteria – obviously it’s not a ‘small’ country town. In fact, I believe it’s one of the biggest regional cities in Australia.
But it had everything else we wanted, plus more we didn’t realise we were after.
Finding a Place
We were lucky too – once we decided we wanted to live here, we inspected a few places, loved one, applied for it and were approved, all within a month.
So then we got to organizing the move.
I will skip all the gory details of that because anybody who has ever been through it will know that it’s awful. Even the best move is bloody horrible – and having kids doesn’t make it any easier!
Plus, adding in 150k’s means you can’t just nick back to the house to grab some stuff.
But we packed the truck, made the move and now we’re in.
How’s It Going?
We’re past the early days now. We’ve been in the house for 7-8 months or so.
So we’re past the stage where we were basically exploring a brand-new town like tourists. Which was fun and exciting, though sampling as many of the local cafes, bars and restaurants as possible wasn’t nice to our wallets or waistlines…!
And I still I feel like it’s going incredibly well.
Our eldest son had some reservations. He talked about the old house a lot for a while, until we got him into the local kinder.
I’m confident that part of the shift was the day he spends going to ‘bush kinder’ – where they go out to a scout camp, they fence off an area and they let the kids run free.
Which sounds like an updated version of the bush freedom I had as a kid, picking up sticks and building forts and falling in puddles. I mean, it’s different – we didn’t wear hi-vis for easy identification, for starters – but it’s a great thing for him to have and he’s loving it.
Ever since that first day of bush kinder, he hasn’t mentioned the old place.
We’re noticing that our youngest – he’s about to turn two – could do with time around other kids. Being new to the town means we don’t know anybody with kids his age, so hopefully we can find some like-minded and similarly exhausted parents in the area.
My wife found it tough early on. It’s isolating enough, being a stay at home parent with two kids under 6. Combine that with living in a new town, and it’s easy to avoid stepping out of that front door.
It’s been harder for her than me, I think it’s fair to say, which makes the efforts she’s put towards building our life here even more impressive.
As for me, I walk to work most days, to a space I’ve rented in Ballarat central. Sometimes I ride one of the ubiquitous electric scooters home, or simply walk.
We do a lot more walking now.
We walk to the local cafes, there are several hotels within walking distance. Admittedly, none of them really combine convenience and ambiance as much as I’d have liked, but again, maybe that’s a good thing!
The kinder is a 5-minute walk, his school is 8 minutes.
Having everything within walking distance is, for a child of Melbourne’s outer suburbs, a complete and enjoyable novelty.
The winter was cold, as everybody told us. Colder than I expected though – I thought a Dandenong’s winter was cold, but this is next-level. But that’s what jackets, blankets and heaters are for.
It’s not like we’ve come from Queensland, anyway!
We’re still working some things out.
I’m still commuting down to Melbourne at least once a week for meetings. I don’t think that’s sustainable – Melbourne’s traffic becomes more bewildering the longer I spend away from it.
So I’d like to move that to once a fortnight, book out a really big day seeing people and head home.
Video meetings are one part of that puzzle, but the nature of our work and the intimacy of that advisory relationship does still need some meetings to be face-to-face, ideally.
Another question is what does it mean for the future of what’s been a Melbourne-based business until now? Do we keep a foot in both camps, or do we shift the focus to our new local area? Or keep building our presence in Melbourne and accept the commute compromise?
I suspect it’ll be a mix, but there’s no real rush to answer that question.
I had quite a few, well, crummy things happen in 2022. Which meant lots of driving back to Melbourne. Looking back though, being able to leave Melbourne and drive to what’s been called (desultorily, though we now see it as a glowing positive) our ‘hidey-hole in Ballarat’ has been a real benefit.
Not to avoid what’s happened, but to have the kind of distance that allowed me to work through it on my own terms, was – in hindsight – a real privilege.
Jumping With Both Feet
We’ve always been quite cautious people. Besides starting the business when we were 25, we haven’t taken many big steps (well, besides having two kids, anyway!).
So this move has been bigger and more consuming than anything else we’ve ever done.
It’s been stressful, distracting, discomforting and contentious (at times).
But it’s also been tremendously exciting, bracing and – hopefully – put our family on a new, positive path into the future.
Or it could end up being one of the biggest mistakes we’ve ever made!
Either way, I’m keen to see how it plays out.
Because we’ve jumped in with both feet. And as I get older, the more I appreciate how powerful that can be.