After my mother died in 1969, my family was fractured for many months. Everyone was experiencing their grief in a different way. My father had taken a painting job in Weipa, Queensland, and my gran held the fort at home. At the end of the school year in 1970, I left school and started a new job in January of ’71. My sister completed her studies and went on to become a police officer.
It was 1974 and I decided the time was right for me to leave home. It was all part of a ‘grand plan’ my friend, Kerry, and I had. We were on our way to New Zealand.
We’d prepared well, had enough money in our bank accounts at home (just in case we got homesick and returned) and had set off by train from Brisbane to Sydney. It was an overnight trip, so we’d booked a sleeper cabin. Boy, did we feel like royalty! We had a comfortable bed on which to rest our heads and in the morning we were presented with a freshly brewed cup of tea before our arrival in Sydney.
Before we could board the ship taking us to New Zealand, we had to get our luggage to Circular Quay for loading. Sydney was so busy, no one had any time to help us find our way, and we lugged our bags all over the place before reaching the Quay. That experience was enough to put me off Sydney for life!
Owned by a Greek shipping company, the Patrice would be our home for the next three days. It was nothing fancy, but then neither was our budget.
We spent three or four days in Wellington before deciding we’d head to the South Island. Our first stop was Christchurch, a very pretty city, but there was no work or accommodation. We went further south to Dunedin, finding accommodation at the local YMCA and jobs for both of us at the Cadbury chocolate factory.
What an eye opener that was! Hygiene may not have been top of the priority list in the mid-’70s and I can’t say I’ve eaten a chocolate fish since we worked there.
Joining four other Australian girls staying at the YMCA, we hired a van and travelled to Te Anau. I remember it was late-May early-June and winter was upon us. We had to put chains on the tyres to prevent the van sliding on the icy roads. It was quite an experience driving in those conditions.
When we stopped in at the Te Anau Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) to have a meal and enjoy the evening’s entertainment, it certainly created some attention from the locals. The assistant manager, his name was Graham, asked if Kerry and I would like some work at the hotel. She stared at me, I stared at her and we both said, ‘Why not?’
Graham met us the following morning and showed us to our on-site accommodation. Given the name ‘The Nunnery’ it was a block of individual rooms with a communal kitchen for tea and coffee making and bathroom facilities. We were going to be working as waitresses at the hotel.
When we fronted up for work we were met by the chefs, who were all suffering a hangover by the looks of it. It was not the most welcoming atmosphere. One of the guys asked me for a cigarette and I gave him one. For whatever reason though, he’d decided that I was a stuck-up b**** from Australia.
I hated waitressing! When the opportunity to work in the bar cropped up, I jumped at it. There was something unexpected I discovered during my time living in Fiordland of the South Island of NZ … Love. You see, the grumpy chef who’d written me off changed his tune and we started spending a lot of time together. On our days off we’d join other hotel staff and locals we’d come to know and visit local areas like Milford Sound, Manipuri Dam, Queenstown and the like.
Just after celebrating my 20th birthday, he had to return to Wellington. He was a chef in the NZ Army and his ‘tour of duty’ had ended, which is how he’d come to be in Te Anau. He asked me to go to Wellington with him, but I was undecided. Sure, we’d had a good time and we enjoyed each other’s company, but I had reservations about leaving Kerry and being stuck on my own back in Wellington.
He somehow managed to convince me though and I’m not sure I was prepared for what came next …