Here, Debra, 57, tells the story in her own words.
W￼e might be well over 50, but my husband Peter and I giggled like schoolkids as we whizzed down the snow-covered driveway on a sled.
‘Weeeeeee!’ I squealed in pure delight. We were in a mountainous region of Canada called the Yukon, but it was like another world in comparison to our home in sunny Perth. The temperature outside was a bone-chilling minus 47 degrees Celsius and everything was hidden under a thick blanket of snow. All you could see was white! ‘It’s like living on the moon,’ I laughed in amazement.
During that incredible trip, we celebrated New Year’s Eve with a bonfire on a frozen lake and travelled home on a snowmobile. We even got to see the start of an epic 1000-mile dog-sled race. For many people, that would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it’s just one of the incredible adventures we’ve had since we began housesitting in 2010.
Another memorable moment was looking after a beautiful four-storey chateau in the Champagne region of France in 2011. It was so grandiose with its spiral staircase and we were thrilled to find the owners – who were champagne producers – had left us a bottle of bubbly for every night we were there. Sipping champagne in front of a roaring log fire as the mesmerising tones of French singer Edith Piaf played in the background was pure bliss. Relaxing back into the lounge, I closed my eyes to soak up the ambience and had to pinch myself. ‘Wow, this is the life!’ I said to Peter. We fell into housesitting by accident.
Peter, 64, and I had both retired and we were on a cycling trip through France when we became friendly with a couple who asked us to look after their pets while they went on holiday. Housesitting was a new concept for us but going online, we soon realised there were companies you could register with. Since signing up to Trusted Housesitters in 2012, we’ve travelled the globe non-stop.
All in all we’ve done 94 housesits in many countries – France, Spain, Turkey, Canada, the US, the Caribbean, Thailand and more. Mostly, we arrive the day before the owners are to leave and go through the property so we know what needs to be done. In general, we provide security, clean, look after their animals and maintain the gardens.A common misconception is that you look after sprawling, multimillion-dollar mansions all the time. But most of the properties are normal, everyday homes.
For us, the real excitement is the opportunity to live as a local in some far-flung corner of the world. Our first assignment in Thailand, back in 2012, is a prime example. For six weeks we stayed in a basic one-room house – it had a small kitchen, a two- seater lounge, a bed – and we shared it with four dogs! We weren’t living in the lap of luxury, but it was a wonderful experience. The house was right on the beach in a very remote part of the mainland coast. We’d get up in the morning, take the dogs for a long walk along the sand then come back and rehydrate with fresh coconuts. Delicious!
The local cuisine was to die for, and so cheap it wasn’t worth cooking. Housesitting is a lot of fun, but it can be challenging.
In October 2014, Peter and I were looking after a house in France when there was a huge flood. There was nothing we could do to save the property from taking in water, so we raced to save the owners’ most cherished possessions – family photographs, expensive electronics and important paperwork. The house was gutted and the furniture was ruined, but if we hadn’t been there a lot more would have been lost, and we were able to take pictures of the damage for the insurance company. Grateful for our help, the owners even asked us back the following year.
However, the hardest experience was in December when I had to race back home to Perth from Paris as my father Bob, 84, was gravely ill. I made it home just in time to say goodbye. Losing Dad was a shattering experience. But I know the stories and photos from our travels gave him a lot of joy. Whenever Peter and I went somewhere new, we’d Skype my parents and show them the views from the window. Dad loved being able to travel the world through us, from the comfort of his armchair. I think if he was a bit younger he would have done it himself.
We’re currently in Uzès in the Gard region of France and our next stop is the beautiful market village of Lavaur, also in France. By cooking with fresh food from local markets, over the years we’ve spent no more day-to-day than we would if we were living in Perth. Getting free accommodation brings down costs significantly. Our housesitting membership costs us $99 a year which pays for itself in one night. For Peter and I, having a retirement jam-packed full of incredible adventures is priceless.
Read more in this week's issue of that's life!