In 1999 my husband and I purchased a couple of tired sheep paddocks in a narrow valley surrounded by high hills 20 km from the town of Mudgee in the Central West of New South Wales. We had lived in the Inner West of Sydney for 30 years and had miniscule garden, but longed to experience living in the country.
Although we didn't realise it at the time of purchase, the fact that the land bordered the Cudgegong River was gold in this often very hot and dry area. During our inspection we had noticed the clear swift stream and admired it, but it wasn't until later we realised how important it would be to us. After our purchase, we set about building a house and creating what we hoped would be a beautiful place to live, making a huge garden and planting olive trees.
It was a very steep learning curve for an ex-banker and an ex-schoolteacher. We had never been involved with irrigation, water licences, tractors and the like, but learn we did, and loved every moment of it.
During our time on the farm we planted over one thousand trees. Of these, 500 were olive trees. Quite how we went from a plan of living in the country with 'a couple of olives' to 500, I've never been quite sure, but that is what we did, with every hole being dug by hand and every tree being nurtured as if it were the only one. There was often great disappointment as kangaroos would use the little trees as sparring partners, and quite often we would find one broken off at almost ground level. But olives are very resilient indeed and the poor little stumps would regrow and eventually, after some years, almost all of the 500 were out of danger. Our first harvest was very exciting, and sitting the front veranda in the sunset, absolutely exhausted after picking all day (not missing a solitary olive) and dipping crusty bread into our own peppery oil was a very special moment indeed.
We were very lucky that our neighbours had an olive press, where we could have our olives processed, because speed is of the essence when dealing with olives. The longer the olives sit around before pressed, the less likely the oil is to be extra virgin and extra virgin olive oil is the olive farmer's aim. Our olives were pretty much straight off the tree and into the press.
That first harvest took one day, but our best harvest took two weeks even with the help of friends and family!
We had this property for 15 years and during this time I learnt a great deal (but not everything) about gardening in a harsh climate: about which plants could survive temperatures from -8 to 40 degrees celsius, and which could tolerate lengthy periods of dry weather.
With a water licence and plentiful water from the river, we were able to maintain our garden and trees through the most challenging weather, but eventually the dragging around of hoses in boiling weather (amongst other things) got the better of us, and we decided to sell and move into the town of Mudgee.