For years, Leearne Di Michiel would flick through rural lifestyle magazines, dreaming of relocating to the country.
Now she has turned Country Style-fuelled dreams into a rural idyll reality.
Leearne and her husband Paul Di Michiel have sold their home at Wahroonga on Sydney's North Shore and have bought a renovated farmhouse on a two-hectare parcel at Bendolba, about 10 minutes' drive from Dungog.
"We're just surrounded by dairy farms, there's green fields and mountains. There's beautiful peace," said Mrs Di Michiel.
"We keep pinching ourselves. We can't believe it's us.
"I guess we thought it was a dream we'd have to wait for."
The dream emerged out of the nightmare of COVID.
Paul Di Michiel is a career coach, helping job seekers aged over 40. When COVID restrictions took hold, he did most of his work from home via technology.
"Whether I was in Wahroonga or Dungog, it didn't matter; I could keep working," Mr Di Michiel said.
"Paul could work from home, and we didn't have to wait for retirement," Leearne Di Michiel said.
"When COVID came, we thought, 'What are we waiting for?'."
The couple found the property they were looking for, checked out the communications connections, and then secured their new home and life, according to an online report, for $840,000.
Paul Di Michiel said the price was more than he anticipated but considering the property ticked a lot of their boxes - relatively close to Sydney, a well-resourced town with a welcoming community nearby, and a beautiful home surrounded by precious space - it was worth it.
"It's almost like a hidden treasure we didn't know was there, so we think we're lucky to have found it," Leearne Di Michiel said of Dungog.
But Dungog Shire is a treasure no longer hidden, if the figures released this week by the NSW Valuer General are anything to go by.
Among the Hunter's local government areas, the assessment of residential land values for the 12 months from July 2019 showed Dungog Shire jumping the highest, with a 16.2 per cent increase.
The Valuer General's office attributed that jump to increased demand both locally, and from Newcastle and Sydney buyers seeking to relocate.
Not that Tavis Chivers needs those figures to know Dungog properties are in demand.
He is a director of Dillon & Sons real estate and livestock agency in Dungog.
"We've broken all records," he said of business in the recent months. "Volume, time on the market, prices, the number of sales." He said that in the 17 years he has been an agent in town, "I've never seen property on fire, cattle [prices] on fire, and money so cheap all at once".
There there's the COVID factor, particularly for buyers from outside the shire.
"I think what has happened with COVID is people have stopped talking about [relocating]," he said. "They're saying, 'We're going to do it. We've got to act'."
Buyers are acting quickly.
Standing outside his agency in Dowling Street, Mr Chivers pointed to a display window with a rash of "Sold" signs across the listed properties.
Of the 26 properties displayed in that one window, 19 had been sold. Prospective buyers were even trying to buy properties before they hit the market.
"People are chasing whispers, because they're missing out due to lack of supply," Mr Chivers said.
Just down the road, Dee Braithwaite, from Ray White Rural Lifestyle Sydney, is also experiencing a market moving at big-city speed. Whereas some properties sat for more than 90 days a couple of years ago, many are now selling within a week.
"In the last 12 months, we've seen enormous growth and enormous activity," she said.
While Dee Braithwaite's office is in the heart of Dungog, the agency's name gives an indication where business is coming from.
Dee Braithwaite estimated that 70 per cent of the buyers were from Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle. Generally, they were spending up to $600,000 for a place in town, or up to $2.5 million for larger rural properties.
"Dungog has been discovered, and it offers a rural lifestyle not far from the city," she said.
One key lesson from COVID for many was that you could work from home, and home didn't have to be in a city. Or, as Tavis Chivers described the phenomenon, people "can bring their wages with them" to places such as Dungog.
Katherine Ernst and her partner, Joe McFadyen, fit that category. They relocated from a rental property on the Central Coast in December. Joe McFadyen, originally from Sydney, could not believe what $730,000 could buy in Dungog: a home on 2.4 hectares overlooking the town and surrounding hills.
He showed photos of his new home to Sydney friends, who responded, "Oh, you're joking!".
While Ms Ernst commuted to her job in Sydney a couple of days a week, she worked from home the rest of the time. Her partner, a trader for an online bookmaker, worked from home.
"Just a little bit of commute time versus the extra dollar value," said Ms Ernst, originally from Lochinvar. "You can't get this for the same amount of money in other parts of the Hunter Valley."
"And we wake up and get to look at this," Mr McFadyen said, gesturing at the expansive views.
Down the hill are two other recent arrivals. Matt Wakeham and Marty Wong moved from the Sydney inner-western suburb of Erskineville to Dungog in August, pursuing "open spaces".
The couple had been looking for some time, but, prior to seeing an advertisement for the home they bought for $532,500, Mr Wong admitted, "I'd never heard of Dungog".
They fell in love with the renovated cottage, and they liked the sound of the community. Marty Wong said he researched the area and noted the majority voted "yes" in the marriage equality survey of 2017.
What they have found is a place they love, with Mr Wakeham saying his partner has "turned into a Dungogian".
"The community has been fantastic, our neighbours have been fantastic," said Mr Wakeham, who designs souvenirs from home for a national company.
One of their neighbours is Brandi Palermo. She was born and raised in Dungog. Her parents live across the road from her house. Brandi Palermo said Mr Wakeham and Mr Wong bought the house from another Sydney couple, "and they've both been lovely".
"Well, let's say they haven't annoyed us yet," she laughed.
Brandi Palermo observed how, unlike with her yard, her new neighbours used the whole of their 2000-square metre block, planting trees and creating gardens.
"To us, you've just got it," she said of the land. "And to them, they never had it before, so you can tell they enjoy the space."
While Mr Wong is building "the Taj Mahal of chicken coops", Mr Wakeham had been developing the gardens, with the aim of growing a lot of their own food.
"In Erskineville, the most I had was a two-by-four-metre garden, and now I've got half an acre, which is keeping me very busy, and exhausted quite frankly,!" Mr Wakeham said.
Marty Wong had taken up woodworking and planned to build a bridge over a watercourse on their property. Both also intend to build bridges in the community, looking at volunteering and contributing to Dungog life.
"We came here for the way Dungog is - for the community, the country feel - rather than change it into anything we want, because we love it as it is," Mr Wakeham said.
But change is evident in Dungog.
In the historic buildings along the main street, there are markers of a different kind of money flowing into town, including interior design businesses, art galleries, and a string of cafes.
Even the local branch of the Country Women's Association reflects a changing community. Its president is Julie Fitzgerald, a former senior public servant in Canberra who moved to Dungog about a decade ago.
Asked if she made jams and baked scones, Miss Fitzgerald replied, "I'm the president who doesn't cook or sew. I bring it all together."
Those organisational skills help coordinate a membership of 43, with the numbers having doubled since the pandemic emerged, as people sought to learn new skills and use their time productively. The members' ages range from 90 to just 10. A couple of school-age boys have also joined the branch.
While the CWA's building may be almost a century old, the sewing machines whirring inside its walls on Thursday were helping confront a contemporary issue: replacing single-use plastic bags with something reusable and more sustainable.
The women behind the machines were creating Boomerang Bags, which have been gradually replacing plastic bags locally in the past five years.
"We've made over 5500 bags," said Michelle Dado-Millynn, the leader of the volunteers making the bags.
Michelle Dado-Millynn and her husband moved to Dungog from Sydney's Northern Beaches almost a decade ago.
"A lot of us are from Sydney, blow-ins, so it's an interesting blend of old and new," she said. "It's a beautiful place. That's why we moved here, that's why so many of us are here."
Initiatives such as the Boomerang Bags project, Mrs Dado-Millynn believed, added to the appeal of Dungog.
But as the attraction - and the population - grows, how does Dungog retain what makes it so appealing to so many?
"It's a very difficult thing to walk that fine line," acknowledged the Mayor of Dungog Shire, John Connors. "I think it could be done in the short term, at least."
Councillor Connors said a lot of the growth in the shire was happening outside the town of Dungog itself. He said areas within shorter commuting distances of Newcastle and Maitland had grown the steepest.
The mayor said of the 246 development applications that had come before council in the past year, 130 of those were for around the Clarence Town area, 73 for around Paterson, Vacy and Gresford, and 43 for in and around Dungog.
Among those who have been part of the change in Dungog is Stephen Orr, the owner of the Dead Dog Cafe. He moved to the area from Sydney 12 years ago when, on a whim, he bought "eight acres of paradise".
"I was certainly not somebody who was looking for a tree change, but when I came up here, there's a freedom and a beauty of living in the country that I never even imagined," he said.
When asked about the 16.2 per cent rise in local residential land values, Mr Orr replied, "I'm surprised, but to be honest, I look at what Dungog has to offer and I think, 'Why didn't it happen sooner?'.
"This is an amazing town."
He said there was an element of city-meets-country in Dungog, with the people who had moved in, but "they haven't turned it into Byron Bay".
But some are wondering if those who have always lived in Dungog can afford to stay.
Brandi Palermo said the growing appeal of Dungog to outsiders was "a good thing", because "small towns can get set in their ways".
"But for the young locals of Dungog, it's getting harder to buy," she said. "But that's the same everywhere."
Stephen Orr saw the growth as not a force driving away locals but helping assure them of a future.
"I would turn it around the other way and say look at the opportunities now here for kids," he said. "I think there's going to be opportunity here for long-term employment."
Dungog mayor John Connors believed the area would continue to attract new residents.
"I think there'll be a continuing move for people to work from home and outside the major urban areas, technology will get better, and more and more will find they can work from a lifestyle place rather than a traditional, dormitory-type place," Cr Connors said.
In the meantime, Paul and Leearne Di Michiel have been preparing for their Country Style life. She has joined the CWA, and he is finding new landscape subjects for his hobby, photography.
Both were not surprised by the growth in local land values, saying, "A lot of people like us are moving out of Sydney looking for greener pastures".
But having found those pastures, Paul Di Michiel added, "I'm reluctant about you doing this story, because others may do the same!
"I just can't believe it's ours," Mr Di Michiel said of their new home. "We don't have any second thoughts, any doubts. We're incredibly fortunate."
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