One of the oldest pastoral homesteads in the Scenic Rim is named Coochin Coochin, meaning ‘many black swans’, because of the many black swans living on the lagoon. The land, originally inhabited by the Ugarapul people, was first selected in the 1840s when it was a rambling stretch of 120,000 acres.
By the time the Bell family purchased the property in 1882, it had been reduced to 22,000 acres, and the original house had been moved to its existing vantage on the hill. Tim and Jane Bell inherited Coochin Coochin in 1979. The history of the property from 1882 is well documented, as Gertrude Bell, Tim’s great grandmother, affectionately known as ‘Granny’, kept extensive diaries. Over the years, many renowned guests stayed at the now heritage-listed property, including the Queen Mother, the Prince of Wales and Agatha Christie, all of whom planted trees. Having illustrious visitors plant a tree became a tradition at the homestead, and the trees are marked with plaques to commemorate their planting. Once a dairy farm, Tim, like his father before him, runs Santa Gertudis cattle on the forested country, and grows some small crops on the flats.
Can you tell us the history of Coochin Coochin?
The year 1842 is significant because that was when the property was first selected under a leasehold arrangement, and it had successive lessees until it was made freehold in about 1870, or a little bit later. The Bells heard about it — they were living in central Queensland — and bought it in 1882. So, they bought a freehold holding of considerably less area than what it originally was, as a lot of it was resumed once Queensland became a colony in 1859. They came here to 22,000 acres of freehold country, and it took up all of this beautiful valley.
The house has progressed, with the early establishment of a home and then additions when the Bells came here, and as their family enlarged. They had eight children and what was here wasn’t sufficient to accommodate them. There’s been a long line of Bells. Tim benefitted by his father inheriting — from a strange arrangement of a will, but that’s just how the stroke of the pen goes.
Back then, what were they farming?
Grapes, corn … The earliest grapes grown in Queensland were grown here in the Fassifern. I don’t know whether specifically at Coochin, but there were definitely grapes grown on Coochin.
So it is quite cold here in the mornings?
In the winters, yes. Sheep, of course, which didn’t last with the dingoes. Maize. When Tim’s father inherited, they were dairying. They were a big jersey dairy. They had pigs and cream — they were a creamery, really. The milk went to the pigs, and it was that sort of a dairy set up. When he took over in 1965 — Tim’s father, he was a beef man — he introduced beef cattle. Out with the dairy and in with the beef. Santa Gertrudis cattle. And we’ve carried on from there. All the little old crops are gone. We’re mostly into lucerne, soya beans, corn …
How big is the property now?
About 850 acres. The cattle run on the forest country, which isn’t terribly productive. The farm is lovely. We have about 200 acres of Teviot deep soil flats, so they have to be utilised efficiently. Our son grows tea tree here — organic tea tree.
What does your typical day involve?
It is really just managerial, now. Tim has a share farmer running the farm, and he runs it very well. So, Tim is really just managing his cattle. And we have less and less cattle. My day is taken up with what you see: as little housework as possible, and the garden gets a lick and a promise. I give it a lick and promise I’ll come back later. So, a lot of it looks after itself.
How many head of cattle do you have?
About 130. Just breeders. Cows and calves, and a few bulls. We don’t have enough good area to grow out cattle to an older age.
What is the best thing about the lifestyle?
That’s hard to say. I’m a country girl. My lifestyle hasn’t changed really since I was a child. I’ve been in the bush all my life. I grew up further west, at a little place called Hannaford on a sheep property. We had an idyllic lifestyle. Remote. I was one of five, and my mother was an educated woman. And my father. They were sent from Victoria to Queensland to look after a sheep property that they knew nothing about, and proceeded to have five children. We didn’t run amuck but we were given a tremendous amount of freedom — and trust was the biggest thing our mother gave us. Trusting us that we’d do the right thing.
How did you meet Tim?
New Year’s Eve. I’d been around the world, floating around, having a great time. Came home and met him on New Year’s Eve up at Mooloolaba. He was from a cattle place, and when we married I went from knowing all about sheep to knowing nothing about cattle. So that was a big change — to a big cattle station employing five or six men.
Where was the cattle station?
A property called Camboon that the Bells owned, near Theodore. I didn’t know Coochin existed when I married Tim. So, that was a big change of lifestyle. I had no idea this might be my home one day. He inherited in ’79, but the youngest girl was still living here. She was eighty-nine. The unmarried daughter from the home was still here and we couldn’t turf her out when she was in her eighties. It had been her home all her life. She died in 1979 and Camboon was sold in 1979, just about the same time. It was just coincidence; just how it happened. And here we are thirty-six years later.
Do you have a favourite beef dish?
I eat beef every day. I grew up eating lamb then I was thrown into beef. We have lamb once a year now, on my birthday. And I grew turkeys to have a change from beef, as well. They’ve since gone. No, we eat beef every night. A roast would be my favourite, my easiest meal. You throw the roast on, throw the vegetables in and you’ve got a meal, and you’re not in the kitchen doing anything. It does itself. A wing roast is all on the bone and it is beautiful. And the vegetables — roast potato, sweet potato or carrot, with a tiny drizzle of oil. Let it all cook, and you can go out and finish watering the garden or get the clothes in and it is cooking. That’s what I like about it.
Do you enjoy living with so much history?
It is not something I came to because I wanted to. It came with marriage. I sometimes envy people who have a small, easy-to-maintain home. Tim says it is like Sydney Harbour Bridge: you look closely at it and it all needs a paint. It is constant. And it is difficult here from a gardening point of view. We’re on an ironstone ridge, so what you see has pretty well managed to be there on its own accord. There are a lot of old things. I find that a little bit hard, that everything is so old and the place is heritage-listed, but that shouldn’t stop us from modernising our interior bits and pieces. There are a lot of old bits and pieces of which we don’t know the history.
The garden is beautiful.
There are lot of trees planted here. Coochin is famous for the people who have stayed here. Well, the Prince of Wales planted this palm tree, for example, this one just here in the garden. The Queen Mother planted that hoop pine down there. Agatha Christie planted that lovely leopard tree down there. All the trees down there have been planted by governors or governor generals or princesses.
Does the country life come with adversity?
Well, it is amazing how a drought dissipates so quickly. You think you’ll never forget, but suddenly, when the rain comes, the magic of heaven opening up and everything returning to green again, you wonder how the land could have coped for so long without the rain. And then, ultimately, you get a flood, and you are devastated by that because you spend the next six months fixing up flood fences. And you think, ‘When is the rain going to stop? It is never going to get dry again.’ The cycle just goes around and around, and to me … I think I don’t dwell on any of it.
We’ve never got to the stage where you have cattle just dying. We sell off. We did carry a few too many cattle a few years ago when it was dry, but we offloaded heavily. A dry spell doesn’t bother us particularly now because we’re not overstocked, by any means. That’s the biggest thing. It is easy to be overstocked because you have to have the money coming in. You don’t get any more if you have lean cattle.
The garden gets dry, but … As I say, you wake up the next morning when it is raining and it is amazing to think that the nitrogen falls from the sky and just does wonders. It’s magic. Look around now — spring! We haven’t had a particularly good winter, yet everything is springing out. The irises have flowered, the bergenias are all coming out, the wisterias out … They just do it naturally, without any help.