On the long drive from Canberra it was blue sky all the way, but just as I pull up at two imposing gates, emblazoned with "Burnima" in gothic-style font, angry storm clouds begin to gather on the western horizon.
I turn off the yowie mobile and cautiously approach the steel gates on foot. The first thing I notice is the stillness, you can almost hear the silence. From atop the entrance pillars, two gargoyles with grotesquely carved animal faces stare back at me. No matter which way I look their stony eyes seem to follow me. It's as if they are warning me off. But I'm not chickening out. No way, I haven't made the two-hour drive south to one of our region's most historic homes to be scared away by a couple of freaky figurines.
Careful not to look towards either pillar, with head down, I tentatively lean on one of the gates. As it swings open, its prolonged groan breaks the unnerving stillness, prompting a lone crow perched high in a stand of mature pine trees which line the old carriageway, to "caw" ominously and take flight, almost swooping me in the process.
Venturing further along the carriageway, a gentle breeze whispers through the pine needles, as if talking to me in unworldly tones. The pines are so dense that, despite the sun still shining outside it's like a false dusk beneath their cocooned canopy. I half expect Lurch from the Addams Family to jump out from behind one of the gnarly trunks. Instead, as I round the last bend and Burnima's two-storey brick grand facade appears, the silhouette of a man resplendent in top hat, with cane and tails emerges from behind a hedge.
"Welcome to Burnima," calmly announces the mystery man, who turns out to be Steve Rickett, owner of Victorian Gothic-style mansion, hidden away from prying eyes in this remote part of the Monaro.
A former Canberran, Rickett reveals he "fell in love with Burnima as soon as he set eyes on it", and "just had to buy it when it was for sale in 2002". Rickett explains he then lived in the oversized home, just out of Bombala, "as a weekender for five years before moving in permanently in 2007".
Burnima was built by Frederick Young, of Queanbeyan, (builder of the "Yarralumla" residence of the Governor-General) for Henry Tollemache Edwards in 1896 and Rickett's deep admiration for Edwards, or HT as he affectionately refers to him, in establishing this opulent outpost is very clear. In fact, Rickett has embraced HT's legacy to such an extent that on the day he moved in, he embarked on a self-confessed quest to transform this rare 1800s homestead back to its original state. That's not only inside its 10 bedrooms, sitting room, formal dining room, study, reception, billiards room and servants' quarters, but also its four hectares of sprawling Victorian-era influenced gardens.
Rickett divulges he now spends "more money on fuel for his mowers and hedge trimmers than for his car", and when you live in these boondocks, where it's a long drive to just about anywhere, that's saying something. A stroll through the gardens soon reveals why. They are as expansive as they are rambling, with conifers, spruces, and cedars from all over the world interspersed with formal lawns with inviting nooks and crannies aplenty. There are fountains, a maze, an old orchard which still bears fruit, and statues (thankfully more welcoming than that pair of gargoyles) at every turn.
However, the piece de resistance for Rickett is an elaborate fish pond which was once a much-loved oasis for HT's eldest daughter, Miss Edith Edwards, who lived at Burnima and upheld the formality of the Victorian era right up until her death in 1952.
"Although strict, Miss Edith also had a softer side, especially for animals, and she absolutely adored her goldfish," Rickett says. "When she was dying in hospital, she paid a taxi driver to drive all the way out here to feed the fish.
"She'd then pay another taxi driver to follow him to make sure he did it," says Rickett.
Miss Edith's paranoia over the welfare of her fish continues to this day, for her spirit lingers on with a number of sightings of her apparition, including most recently a bulldozer driver who, while waiting to meet Rickett for a landscaping job, spotted "a lady wearing a long white gown walking to the old fish pond, only for her to vanish before his very eyes."
Rickett confesses he walks past the pond every evening in the hope he might glimpse Miss Edith. "Every night just before the sun goes down, I put on my top hat, grab a glass of port and stroll through the garden, wondering what it would have been like for Miss Edith walking around with a couple of servants waiting on her call," Rickett says.
"Around this part of the garden, with the setting sun there's often a sepia-type light; it's almost like walking through an old photograph," says Rickett as we emerge from the garden and approach Burnima's front verandah.
Before we enter, Rickett points to part of the front of the house. "On a full moon the light shining off the windows makes this part of the house resemble a frowning, contorted mouth," he says.
And he's right, even in daylight, the facade does resemble a sad face, but then again it could just be power of suggestion. At least that's what I tell myself as Rickett ushers me through yet another creaking door.
Inside its cold, very cold. "Even in the midst of summer, due to the triple bricks, it rarely gets above 9 degrees," explains Rickett as he leads me up the grand stairwell.
It's as if I've entered a Victorian museum. Using historic photos, Rickett has completely restored every room to its former glory, right down to the antiquarian books and period animal trophies on display in the library. It's an extraordinary effort and testimony to his commitment to bring Burnima back to its glory days of the early 1900s.
While overlooking the southern garden from one of the old servant's rooms, Rickett explains that Burnima harbours a number of macabre mysteries including "the disappearance of a young servant girl who was thought to have become pregnant to HT." "The well in the southern garden was apparently filled in the very day she vanished," says Rickett, adding somewhat morbidly that "her body is most likely still buried at the bottom of the well".
A number of people, including Rickett, claim to have seen the poor girl's ghost. While sleeping in the old cook's room back in 2006, at about 2.30am Rickett was awoken by heavy breathing at the side of his bed. "I turned over towards the noise only to see a girl standing right along my bed," recalls Rickett, adding, "I screamed at it, kicked the doona at it and it vanished."
Not surprisingly, the ghosts of Miss Edith and the young girl aren't the only spooks lurking in Burnima's chilly shadows. Rickett has a long list of other things which go bump in the night, from phantom phone calls, unexplained hammering and even a shuffling wardrobe. Really!
Rickett admits living alone in such a haunted house can be challenging. "After moving in, it didn't take long before I realised there were the presences of others here," says Rickett who, now, to reduce his anxiety, "never watches any thriller television shows or movies as it heightens the senses."
"I'm used to all the ghostly goings-on now as it's been happening for quite some time and no one has been hurt," says Rickett, adding, "sure, it still scares a little bit, but it's no drama any more."
Thankfully, the storm skirts around Burnima but, with darkness encroaching, it's time for me to leave Rickett to his twilight walk around the garden. I hustle briskly back to the yowie mobile, take one last glance at those gargoyles through the rear vision mirror, and floor it.
Treasures like Burnima are rare in a country like ours with such a short European history. Without dedicated, or dare I say it, obsessed custodians like Rickett to maintain and restore them, our rural heritage would be much the poorer for it.
Spare a thought for Rickett bunking down at Burnima this halloween, traditionally a time when the veil between the spirit and real worlds is at its thinnest. I just hope he has a carved out pumpkin or two to leave at the front door, otherwise, surrounded by so many restless spirits, I suspect he may be in for a sleepless night.