On the bright side: Find a work-life balance in Victoria’s high country

Find a work-life balance in Victoria’s high country: when Matt and Britt White decided to return to Australia after years living and working in the US, they had a pretty definite wish list for their new home.

They wanted to live in the country, but not too remote. It had to be close to the ocean for Matt’s passion for surfing or near the mountains so they could pursue their mutual love for cycling and skiing. They needed access to good coffee shops and a few nice restaurants would be a bonus. It didn’t take them too long to work out the high country of north-eastern Victoria ticked most of the boxes. It took some searching, but finally in 2017 they bought a historic cottage surrounded by a nut orchard. It’s at Wandiligong, just south of Bright, a former gold-mining town turned summer tourist mecca, which swells the population of 4000 to around 30,000 when visitors descend on the district to hike, mountain bike, cycle the hugely popular rail trails and taste at the emerging cellar doors.

Where there’s wine, there’s good food and Bright is well endowed with fine restaurants and stylish accommodation options, cool cafes, galleries and other shopping and produce haunts. Car and motorbike enthusiasts also love the scenic backroads, and there’s another influx of tourists during the cooler months, when visitors come to experience the glorious autumn colour and the ski slopes just an hour from town. Matt initially studied landscape architecture in his hometown of Sydney, but never pursued that career. Instead, he turned his love for the snow into a ski instructor’s job. He spent a decade dividing the year between the snowfields of Canada and the US and the Victorian alps, where he was the head coach of the Mt Hotham Racing Squad. Britt, meanwhile, studied marketing, also in Sydney. “Although we both grew up on the North Shore we didn’t meet until 2008,” Britt says.

On the bright side: Find a work-life balance in Victoria's high country, exterior view of a cabin style house in the country.

“My friends used to talk about this guy who was always away skiing, and when we finally met and started dating, I knew many of his friends, so it was as if it were meant to be.” They’ve just celebrated their 12th wedding anniversary. In 2014, Britt’s marketing expertise took her to a job in IT sales in San Francisco and Matt, who by this stage had also studied business administration, “went along for the ride” – very modest code for gained a position as vice president of a global marketing firm. While they were not unhappy with their lives, by 2016 they’d decided to push pause on their careers and took an extended break travelling across the States ending with four months in the ski fields of Breckenridge, Colorado. For Britt, it was time to acknowledge that she was not finding her career as fulfilling as she might like and to indulge her creative side.

By the time they came back to Australia in 2017, she had already decided to study interior design. Matt also had an epiphany of sorts and, as well realising he wanted to get closer to the land and grow some fruit and vegetables, answered the call of the wild suggesting they look to the high country. They found the Wandiligong property, one of the oldest farmhouses in the district, which was built for the Clarke family in the early 1900s. While the house had good bones, it needed some TLC and Britt says it’s still a work in progress. Nonetheless the couple has made the place their own and modified a connected, but separate extension to create two guest rooms, which they use for visiting friends and family and AirBnB rental. “We also use it to accommodate WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms,” during the nut harvest,” Britt adds.

“In a sense we have become accidental nut farmers. We have six different European varieties of hazelnuts in the orchard as well as walnut and chestnut trees and we harvest around 330kg of hazelnuts a year. Hazelnuts and chestnuts need to fall from the tree before they are ready to eat, so they have to be harvested from the ground. While it’s lovely to hear them dropping in bed at night, it’s back-breaking work picking them up. That’s why we hire WWOOFers as they are professionals at the task.” Matt adds that while it’s nice to carry on the property’s nut-farming tradition, the orchard is ageing, and they lose at least a couple of trees a year. “We’re also keen to introduce more native trees to bring more birdlife to the garden,” he explains. One tree that will remain, however, is an apple, which the Clarkes’ neighbour and a member of the Nightingale family – still one of the largest apple growers in the country – grafted to four different heritage varieties.

On the bright side: Find a work-life balance in Victoria's high country, interior of a cosy cabin style home.

The Whites have also created a productive vegie and berry patches and enjoy the bounty of citrus, plum, peach, nectarine, quince and cherry trees. Britt has brought her signature flair for colour, eye for a quirky find and love of mid-century modern to the home’s interiors. She confesses to bowerbird instincts and blends souvenirs from their extensive travels, photographs and op shop finds in an appealing mix. From the home office for her interior design business, Britt White Studio, she works on the full gamut of projects from bathroom and kitchen renovations through to full home and huge hotel and ski lodge fitouts. “Most of my bread-and-butter work is in the region,” she says. “But one thing recent years have taught us is how to work remotely and I also take commissions interstate.”

Like many of their fellow tree changers, both Britt and Matt have traded reduced income for enhanced lifestyle. As well as helping with marketing for Britt’s business, Matt has taken on marketing gigs for Tourism North-East and the cycling apparel company, MAAP. “When I first started coming here for the snow, Bright was a place for retirees,” Matt says. “Mountain biking was in its infancy. But now there has been an influx of youngish, former city dwellers and cycling has taken off. There are more than 100 kilometres of purpose-built trails in Mystic Mountain Bike Park alone.” “We’ve met so many like-minded people who enjoy outdoor pursuits and they’ve become great new friends,” Britt adds. “At the same time, we haven’t had to sacrifice too many urban comforts. In many ways, we feel we have the best of both worlds.” Find a work-life balance in Victoria’s high country!

Photography by Ken Brass

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