Below is a travel essay I published in The Straits Times on May 22nd. This is the original, unabridged version.
Humans have evolved to suck on nipples, not fondle them. That is my sobering conclusion after a morning spent pulling vainly at the sausage-like extractions on Zynya, a nine-year-old, off-white cow at the Cedar Glen Farmstay, ninety minutes from Brisbane, Australia.
The day had begun with relative success. Ten of us from the two families on the ranch had strolled around its undulating grass-gravel grounds, feeding a succession of hungry animals. First a clutch of chickens including the unidentified miscreants who had woken us two hours prior. Then a herd of salivating sheep which rushes towards us, causing Amaia, my two-year-old niece, to take cover behind her father’s calf. Aren’t sheep supposed to be sheepish?
We meet the Muscovy ducks, a large, boisterous species native to Central and South America, whose elongated beaks fire away at the food in our white tupperwares. “They’re like machine guns,” warns Nigel Stephens, our host, whose guidance throughout is pitch perfect for urban ignoramuses like us with kids.
The feeding ends with two seven-month-old pigs, adolescents who, to our surprise, have a penchant for grunting, not oinking. Amaia, feeling some camaraderie after touching and feeding them, anoints them with unpronounceable names.
Finally, the milking. In the shed, Zynya’s right hind leg is roped to a pole while a thin chain, glinting in the morning sun, is strapped around her hamstrings. She seems unbothered that humans have chained and started fondling her because she is distracted, having dunked her head in a broad receptacle where breakfast, a grain mix, awaits.
At Nigel’s prodding, we take turns trying to milk Zynya. Yet we are all stricken, to different degrees, by a psychological block: am I okay with this level of mammalian intimacy? Prudishness overcome, I find myself sitting on a low wooden stool by Zynya’s midriff.
I reach out both hands and wrap my fingers around two adjacent nipples, warming my palms. They are squishy, like water-filled balloons. I press my thumb and index finger together and gently pull downwards. A thin, creamy stream shoots into the metal bucket below. My measly contribution has barely registered. It must take hours to fill one pail.
“Press harder,” Nigel repeats, vainly. I refrain, worried that 350kg Zynya might object to a stranger’s roughness on her nipples, and somehow thump me.
As we prepare to leave the shed, it occurs to me how incredibly clean the entire animal feeding and milking experience has been. I somehow expected to be groping around uncomfortably in the mud. Just then, Zynya’s behind fires off a volley of green-brown dung, soiling some of our shoes, ten feet away. Animals One; suaku Singaporeans Zero.
A CENTURY-OLD FARM
The Cedar Glen Farmstay (www.cedarglen.com.au), one of several near Brisbane, traces its roots to the late 1800s, when Edgar Stephens, Nigel’s great-grandfather, decided that Brisbane city life—even then—was not for him.
Edgar started purchasing parcels of land in an area known as the “Lost World”, on the outer edges of what is today the Lamington National Park, a sprawling, pristine sub-tropical rainforest. There he started a dairy farm and in 1901 built a homestead where his wife Mary Ellen and he raised ten children.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the ranch experienced growth then decline. Following Edgar’s death in 1941, the property was progressively carved up among his descendants. Most chose to return to the city.
What’s left today is a farm on 1,050 acres—slightly larger than Marina Bay—in a valley of rolling green hills, ringed almost entirely by low mountain ridges, on whose top rows of trees stand at attention.
Here a coterie of domesticated species, including a herd of purebred Arabian horses, coexist alongside innumerable wild ones, including kangaroos and many birds, such as rosellas, robins, whistlers and whipbirds. The only time Nigel, a forty-two-year-old agricultural major who has lived entirely in the country, is dumbfounded is when I ask him to identify all the birds. “Where do I start?”
Every dawn and dusk we stop and look above, as a flock of white cockatoos migrates from one end of the sprawling ranch to the other. They resemble little white torpedoes shooting across the sky, with demonic screams for some faraway Mordor.
The four kilometres from the Farmstay to the entry gate of the “Lost World section of the Lamington National Park” is a gradient from (relative) civilisation to wilderness, allowing visitors to easily bridge the divide between humans and other species. While Amaia converses with the pigs and rides on a pony, my mum, younger sister and I go hiking.
The forest’s diversity bewilders us. There are hoop pines, eucalyptuses, she-oaks, and the occasional shock of yellow or pink lantanas. We spot enchanting green goblets bouncing waist-high in the wind—not poppy but wild cotton bolls, which will eventually burst, exposing their familiar white fluffs.
After an hour, and two river crossings, we realise the forest has thickened, the light has dimmed, and the moist path has narrowed. We know our time in the Lost World is up when we see a safety sign: “Are you carrying a topographic map and compass?”; “Do you understand that a search will not usually be started until you are 24 hours overdue?”
On the return hike, my sister slips while crossing the river, bruising one ankle, and losing her espadrilles, i.e. what a Singaporean wears to hike. Thankfully, home comforts await.
Three of the four cottages at the Cedar Glen Farmstay are part of the original 1900-01 homestead. The six of us (including Amaia) are in the 1940s “Dairy Cottage”, a delightful green-roofed abode on stilts, whose two double bedrooms and two bunk rooms together accommodate eleven. It has been minimally renovated to achieve a fine balance between rustic, clean and modern.
The beds are inviting and the electrical sockets accessible. There’s an abundance of hot water in the shower and drinking water in a dispenser. The oak floorboards creak gently when we walk; the ageing white gas oven and stove take some getting used to before performing gallantly; two flies seem hell bent on annoying us; while two red-headed, white-breasted birds (sparrows?) prance around our patio.
The homeliness is fostered by books, boardgames and quirky black-and-white photographs on the cream wooden walls, which show a bygone era of different social mores. “Milking at Cedar Glen before 1920” depicts rows of cows waiting patiently on a broad plain as ladies in ankle-length frocks and summer hats sit by them on stools identical to the one we had used. In the foreground is a boy under ten, posing in a white shirt and cowboy hat pulled back, sitting pretty on top of a stoic stallion, in seeming command of all earthly life.
Thankfully the farm stay is not, as I had feared, some zoological prison. The cottage itself, the solitude and the inspiring 360-degree views are sufficient for a few therapeutic days away from the grind.
In the evenings, my mum shuts herself off with a book; I stand in the patio, nursing my scotch, while the cool wind caresses my ears, listening to the odd Arabian horse harrumph; and my younger sister stands under a large tree ten metres from our cottage, her face illuminated by a screen, ecstatic at having found the point of peak mobile data coverage. At A$2 (S$2) per day for a prepaid card installed in ten minutes at the Brisbane airport, it’s a wonder anybody still roams.
FROM BRISBANE TO FARM AND MORE
Getting to Cedar Glen from Brisbane is easy. A ninety-minute drive takes us out of this two-million-person city on broad lanes among patient drivers, and then onto a multi-lane motorway, and finally National Route 13, which narrows to a single lane slicing through dairy farms and glistening acres of wheat, passing towns with names like Beaudesert and Jimboomba. Along the way, road signs signal change: “Cattle crossing”; “Kangaroos next 3km”; and, most ominously, “Floodway” alongside markers up to 2m, higher than our car.
Having read poor reviews of Cedar Glen’s catered food by Singaporeans on TripAdvisor—their only complaint—we first visit the Eagle Farm Markets in Brisbane. Like other farmer’s markets that have proliferated in the West, it offers everything from heirloom vegetables and fresh meats to the latest local attempt at fusion.
We leave with a stuffed cooler bag, the highlights probably fresh parsley with an intoxicating, spicy bouquet; a whole 2.6kg Australian wagyu tenderloin for A$106, which lasts five meals; and a Moreton Bay Bug, a slipper lobster that looks like a cross between a crayfish and a regular lobster, and tastes like an ocean butter. Sublime.
Yet the gastronomic fears are overblown. The one meal from Cedar Glen, a picnic lunch by a creek, is sumptuous. After our swim, we dry off to find Nigel ready with three kinds of sandwiches—beef, egg curry and chicken—and a surprising corn quiche that is the first to go. We end with carrot cake, strawberry pie, and hot tea, whose preparation allows for a bit of outback theatre.
Nigel first boils black tea in about four litres of water in a black “billycan” over a wood fire. Tea steeped, he then grips the can’s thin handle in his right hand, the weight causing his right shoulder to droop. He steadies himself, initiates some circular momentum, and then swings the can up in the air, full circle, with the form of a backstroke.
Not a single drop is lost, and all the tea has settled at the bottom. “That’s known as ‘swinging the billy’,” he says.
For a day I have been biting my tongue, but I now finally muster the courage to channel my inner Singaporean.
“Can we eat any of the farm animals?”
“Yes, the beef in the sandwiches, the eggs, some milk we got this morning, that’s all from the farm.”
Earlier, Nigel had prevented us from drinking Zynya’s fresh milk because of strict pasteurisation regulations. But it is permitted when cooked in the quiche.
“How about the Muscovy ducks?”
“No, we don’t eat them.”
And, just like that, my dreams of sautéing the biggest duck liver ever vapourise in the autumn sun.
The end of March, as it turns out, is a perfect time to visit Cedar Glen. The burning summer is long gone, yet the winter crowds have yet to arrive. The Farmstay is busy in June and July, when lows of above 10º C attract Australians escaping harsher climes elsewhere while also making for suitable school-holiday timing for tourists from China, Malaysia and Singapore.
It is a rather long trek from Singapore to visit Brisbane just for a few nights on the farm. But that’s why proud Brisbanites love their city. Within two hours drive one can reach wine country inland, the untouched splendour of Noosa up north, or world-famous Surfer’s Paradise and bohemian, chic Byron Bay to the south. A farm stay, then, should ideally be part of a week-long Queensland jaunt.
THE PASTORAL SINGAPOREAN?
For Singaporeans, farm stays are all part of a renewed interest in agriculture and food supply. Over several decades of intense, urban-focussed growth, Singaporeans have grown somewhat divorced from the realities of food production. An old anecdote describes a Singaporean schoolchild, who when asked to draw a chicken, very quickly produces an image of meat in a styrofoam packet.
In recent years, however, there has been a stirring of animal, environmental and food consciousness in the country. Edible gardens, heritage grains, farm-to-table and terroir have evolved from pretentious clichés to genuine concerns.
Yet there is still some way to go. After we’ve all “milked” Zynya, Nigel takes over. His hands shake up and down, alternating with the smooth synchronicity of a maracas player. He fills half the bucket in under a minute.
“Is it strength, technique or rhythm?”
“All of the above,” Nigel shrugs.
Nipple fondling may not be in our nature but apparently it can be nurtured.
Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Qantas operate daily non-stop flights between Singapore and Brisbane.
Car rentals at the Brisbane Airport range from under A$30 (S$30) per day for a compact car to A$100 per day for a seven-seater. (www.vroomvroomvroom.com.au)
Depending on the cottage, prices at the Cedar Glen Farmstay (www.cedarglen.com.au) range from A$240 to $330 per night for two adults and two children on a self-catering basis. Additional adults are A$55 and additional children A$30 per night. Different meal plans are available on request.
Other notable Queensland farm stays include Clandulla Cottages (www.clandullacottages.com.au), Lillydale (www.lillydale.com.au) and Tommerups Dairy (www.tommerupsfarmstay.com.au).
Below is the version published in our local papers (click for a bigger image). The team there is fine with me publishing the full version here on my blog.
More photos from the farm: