Wednesday, December 8, 2010



After taking you all over the world with my 50 Years Travel stories I thought it high time I wrote about home, the incomparable land of Oz.  The country immortalised in verse by Dorothea Mackellar as ‘a sunburnt country’, and in Peter Allen’s  hit song ‘I still call Australia home.’ I’m sure you all remember the tune if not the words...

I'm always travelling, I love being free,
and so I keep leaving the sun and the sea,
but my heart lies waiting over the foam.
I still call Australia home.

All the sons and daughters spinning 'round the world,
away from their family and friends,
but as the world gets older and colder,
it's good to know where your journey ends.

But someday we'll all be together once more
when all of the ships come back to the shore.
Then I realise something I've always known.
I still call Australia home.

If you’re arriving  in Australia by our country’s flagship, Qantas, these will be the words that greet you, played over the aircraft's loud speakers as the plane touches down on the runway in Darwin, Perth, Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne; it is a verse guaranteed to stir the spirit, move you to tears, make you realise how proud you are to be an Australian.

And if you’re a tourist visiting for the first time those words will quickly make you aware that all those tough as nails Aussies you met back in your home town or on the tourist trail in India, China or the former U.S.S.R. are really, at heart just sentimental sooks.

Tucked away as we are at the end of the earth some people seem to have preconceived ideas about Australia itself.  Size for instance.  That little island spilling off the even smaller islands of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, surrounded by all that water, doesn’t really look big enough to be called a continent, does it?  Who are these down under Aussies fooling?

Let’s compare Oz in size to the USA, a country that shares its continent with others.  The United States of America measures a tad over 9 million square km, while Australia has close to 8 million square km.  Not all that much different huh?  Actually a whole lot bigger though than Ecuador weighing in at 256,369, New Zealand at 279,467 or the UK at a piddling 242,900 sq km.

The statistics change dramatically though when we compare population,  The USA  in excess of 310 million people, Australia with  a mere 22 million.  In other words there is still plenty of breathing space left over in this land of Oz, plenty of room to stretch and move about. 

So having established that ours isn’t quite as big as yours, though considerably larger than most, its time to introduce you to my home town, a little dot off the coast of Queensland.

I live on an island, within distant sight of the mainland but still a comfortable 30 minute water taxi ride away, or toting a vehicle one hour by barge. We  two thousand or so residents call the island Straddie.

A small island of staggering beauty, Straddie, or to use its official title, North Stradbroke Island is 30 km long and no more than 15 km at its widest, with long secluded ocean beaches and bay side inlets stretching as far as the eye can see.

 An island where most times you find yourselves the only people on the beach, the only people in sight. Yours the only footsteps in the sand.

I can still remember our first barge trip across the bay, over 30 years ago.  We shared the journey with a number of other cars and one funeral hearse.   Most of the cars were accompanying the deceased home to a traditional island burial in the beautiful little cemetery that looks out over the sea at a point known as the One Mile.

It was a perfect sunny crossing, just a slight breeze stirring the water, the island a green mass of trees and sand drawing us ever closer; on board the background sounds of chatter and laughter with some of the funeral party cracking open a tinnie or two of Australia’s best amber; beer of course.

My husband observing all this reckoned this place we were drawing ever closer to, was an island that surely had its priorities right. 
Later we curious visitors followed the funeral cortege to its destination  and were amused to see an official sign amongst the graves advising horses not allowed - though with someone’s pony already tied to the post. 
Some rules on this island were obviously meant to be broken. (Incidentally some twenty years later that cemetery will provide us with an unexpected and surprising link to the past, but more of that in later posts.)

This first time visit was one of those spur of the moment things, we hadn’t even brought a change of clothes much less a toothbrush, but it probably took little more than half a day of exploring and absorbing the island atmosphere to decide we really wanted to live here.  

We stayed overnight in a rented unit and next morning found the perfect block high on a hill looking out over the bay, the city of Brisbane a smudge on the horizon. 

Actually we found the For Sale sign for that perfect block craftily hidden in the bushes.  As we later discovered our soon to be neighbour wasn’t all that keen to have someone living close by and had decided to make it a whole lot harder to find out the block was even on the market. Sneaky, very sneaky.

By the time our house was finished, many months later, our two families had become best friends, partners in future mischief, and our husbands lifelong drinking and fishing partners. 

That split second decision to commit surprised even me; the man you’ve all grown to know as The Reluctant Traveller usually needs a whole lot of convincing.  But it seemed the gods were smiling down on us that day. Everything fell into place.
For the next twelve years we became weekend commuters, city dwellers during the week, come Friday afternoon rushing to catch the barge to Straddie. Then winding down during the hour long trip with other weekend residents, sipping drinks on the deck with a cool breeze stirring the air, sharing snacks and snippets of news, watching the moon rise above the island as we slowly drew closer.

We couldn’t wait to abandon city life for ever, and about twenty years ago we finally did. Not surprisingly Straddie has become the centre of our lives and we’ve never wanted to live anywhere else.  


Many of the photographs in this post were taken by my friend Kath Kermode from Kyogle in NSW.

Next Part 2: Meet our crafty Neighbour John,  along with miles and miles of beach, bush and island fun.

Robyn Mortimer©2010