The hills are in the East and they are soft blue at this time of year and if you go up into them on a quiet weekday you will be a world away from the suburbs they rise up from.
I took a right turn off the highway and away from the furniture barns and the traffic snarls and the giant intersections that would take five minutes to cross on foot, and pointed the car into the relative quiet of the lower slopes. Then we climbed.
The first thing you notice up here is the size of the plants. Everything grows larger due to the crisp air, the cooler temperatures and the rain. I rounded a sweeping curve and an immense photinia hedge came into view, glistening in the sun and hiding an old house except for the top of its faded tiled roof and a red-brick chimney with twin terracotta pots. Viburnum with dense clumps of white flowers gave way to rows of camellias and an occasional jacaranda. Eucalypts made a grey-green background and, around another curve, a massive late-flowering rhododendron canopy appeared, almost too red, as if a sloppy artist had painted outside the lines.
More winding and climbing; tighter now, with hairpin bends. And then the mountain ash appeared. Nothing prepares you for these. They are jaw-droppingly huge and they grow next to the road. The bases of some of their boles actually encroach into the roadway. Drive carefully here.
The gates of the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens were open but the gardens were not doing much business. I crunched into the car park, a flat gravelled parcel cut into the gum trees on the opposite side of the road to the gardens. A sign told us where to cross the road and we crossed the road and paid some coins into the honour tin inside the gates. '$6.70 for adults?' Tracy wondered, 'on an honour system? Wouldn't it be easier to have a round figure? Who's got the right change?' I thought about it for a while but couldn't think of a reason, so I slipped fourteen dollars in coins into the slot and took a flyer out of the perspex-flapped timber dispenser. We walked along a gravelled path towards the lake, following the map on the flyer.
Alfred Nicholas didn't invent aspirin; but he and his brother were granted the rights to produce it in Australia when they replicated the formula after supplies dried up during the First World War. The laboratory was right up here in the hills of Sassafras, next to the gardens, which Alfred lavished with imports. The story goes that he imported a Scammel truck from England in 1930 and drove it around the streets of Melbourne buying mature European specimens and trucking them up here to plant in his garden. Imagine: it's the Depression and everyone is short of money and someone pulls up outside your house in a giant truck and says, How much for the elm in your front garden? There's a movie script in this.
The gardens are twenty acres and they fall away into a natural valley and at the bottom of the valley is a little lake, very shady and with a kind of Japanese theme - cute little raised timber bridges, water trickling from a mechanised waterfall and cherry trees spreading over the scene. They were in blossom.
We sat on a sweeping lawn beneath a giant sequoia overlooking the lake and ate a picnic lunch. The sequoia wasn't giant yet, but that is its name. It was maybe fifty or sixty feet tall, just a baby.
Then William presented Tracy with a little wrapped package that we had smuggled in. It was her birthday present.