It was the beginning of October 1958. On Korčula Island the weather was cool, the sky clear and a gentle afternoon breeze was blowing. The ferry for the mainland was moored at the pier. An adventure was before us. At last, after more than two years, my mother, brother and I were off to Australia. We were going to join my father Petar on the other side of the world, at Fishery Falls, south of Cairns in North Queensland. When my father left Korčula for Australia in May 1956, my brother Dušan was just 8 months old and I was 5. At the time I was known as Ante Salečić.
My mother’s friends, neighbours (from Naselje, a new development of town), cousin Paulina and a few of my school friends and their parents came to bid us farewell. They gathered outside the Admiralty Office, which was located near the western harbour by Tower Kula Morska Vrata (Tower of Sea Gate). My best friend Gordon (pronounced Gorrr-darn) was there, which made my heart glad. I would miss him. Gordon and I sat next to each other in class and used to play together in the small quadrangle during the one short break we had during our school day.
The three of us wore white. My mother Anđelka looked smart in her white jacket and skirt and Dušan and I wore loose fitting white coats and shorts, white socks and black shoes. We were spruced up for the occasion, topped off with a new hairdo (mother) and haircuts for my brother and me.
My cousin made a short speech, which my mother acknowledged. Many tears were shed. I can still hear the cheers and shouts of good wishes as our ferry pulled away from the quay.
The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
These lines, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Part I), resonate with my memory of leaving Korčula that day. (I was in Year 12 at Cairns State High School, 10 years later, when I first read these lines. At the time, they reminded me of my departure from Korčula and evoked emotions I had long forgotten.)
As our ferry pulled away, I could see my school “Osmogodišnja škola Korčula”. Its buildings dominated the north-western sweep of the bay, from the shore front across the lower hillside. There I completed my first year of schooling and commenced second year. (The school year began in September.) My lessons were held in the morning; others were held in the afternoon. At the end of our “day”, we had to pack our school books, pens and pencils in tote boxes, which were stored in tall cupboards at the back of the room, because other children used our classroom in the afternoon.
I thought about my first year teacher Katja. She was firm, gave clear directions and made sure we did our work. None of us dared misbehave – we didn’t want to displease her. From the start she was warm, welcoming and showed a keen interest in each of the 30 odd pupils in our class, including me. When she learnt that I was leaving for Australia, she gave me an autographed photo album in which she wrote:
“Sa najljepšim uspomenama iz rodnog kraja, ponesi sa sobom kroz život I sjećanje na svoju prvu učiteljicu. Katja.”
Translated, it reads:
“With the very best memories from your birthplace, carry them with you through life and remember your first teacher. Katja.”
Off at last
The three of us were excited, although Mum was clearly pensive about the journey ahead of us. I think her blood pressure was up. (She had been hospitalised previously due to high blood pressure.) Mum was exhausted from all the preparations she had made. Our luggage included a large chest that contained many of our meagre possessions – things like sheets, cooking pots and kitchen utensils, our “heavy duty” overcoats (little did she know we would never use these where we were going) and clothing.
As our vessel cleared the harbour, we soon dropped below Katedrala Sveti Marka (the “kirk”), a magnificent 15th century church that dominates the main square of Korčula’s Old Town, and it was not long before Naselje on the hill behind it became a blur. I could feel my heart beating. I was filled with mixed emotions – excitement, apprehension and a sense of adventure. The spire of St Mark’s Cathedral, which towered high above the Old Town, doubled as the lighthouse in Coleridge’s poem. I had often been to that church. I would not forget this view.
Back on dry land, briefly
Our trip to the mainland took us north to Split, a large coastal city of Dalmatia (the coastal region of Croatia). Here we had a short stopover with Mum’s sister Paulina before boarding a train first to Zagreb, then to Trieste, a seaport and city in north-eastern Italy. For my mother, getting our gear on board, making sure her boys did not get dirty and checking she had enough money in case she had to bribe the border guards, weighed heavily on her mind. She was desperate to ensure our passports and other travel documents were in order and at hand. The sisters said their tearful goodbyes. Their words “Nikada te više neću videti” (which means “I’ll never see you again”) echoed in my ears.
The train from Zagreb to Trieste was stuffy and overcrowded. The hissing of the steam engine and clickety-clack of the wheels was ever-present but somehow soothing so, for the most part, we slept. At least my brother and I slept. I awoke with a start when the train stopped at the border between Yugoslavia and Italy. (At that time, Croatia was one of the six republics that made up the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.) All was silent, apart from the banging of doors, which resonated through our carriage as the border guards made their way down the narrow aisle. When our turn came, all was in order and there was no need for money to be exchanged. My mother was greatly relieved. She looked happy at last.
Our ship, the SS Toscana
It was morning when we arrived at Trieste. We caught a taxi to the harbour where our ship the SS Toscana was awaiting at the quay. I had never seen a ship this big. Its hull was corrugated and painted white at the top and black the rest of the way down to the water line. I didn’t notice at the time, but it had massive mid-ship sponsons running along each side of the ship. I have learnt since that they were designed to stabilise the vessel, to keep it from rolling in rough seas. (Not that they worked very well, as we soon discovered.)
Our cabin was small and rudimentary, but at least we were together. Mum explained that our father worked hard to earn enough money to purchase our fare. He had booked our passage on another liner, a bigger one, but my mother chose this ship because she wanted to travel with some folk she knew from the island. She warned Dušan (aged 3) and me (I was nearly 8) to stay away from the porthole adjacent to the top bunk and instructed us never to go outside on the decks without her.
Most importantly, we were given the times and sittings for meals in the dining room. We were hungry after our overnight train journey. Our first visit to the dining room must have brought amazed looks to our faces, because of its size and because we were not used to formal table settings. Happily, the food was plentiful and delicious.
Trieste to Port Said
All went well during our voyage across the Adriatic (“Jadran”) and Mediterranean Seas to Port Said in Egypt. The three of us made friends with the lady and her children in the cabin next door and together we began to explore the ship. We all loved visiting the upper decks where, on many a day, we soaked up the fresh air and sunshine and enjoyed the sight of endless blue sea.
With my new-found friends, I began to experience some freedom as I got used to the ship and Mum was satisfied that I understood its dangers. In reality, during part of the trip across the Mediterranean, my mother had no choice but to leave my brother and me to our own devices or in the care of the lady next door. She had succumbed to seasickness!
Via the Suez Canal to Aden
From Port Said (pronounced Say-id) our ship travelled south by way of the Suez Canal. The narrow man-made canal is a shortcut from the Mediterranean Sea via Egypt and the Red Sea to the northern Indian Ocean.
We were captivated by the scenery as our ship made its way through the canal. I am told it took about 24 hours to traverse the 193 kilometres (120 miles) from Port Said (in the north) to Port Twefik and the city of Suez (in the south). The desert was clearly visible on either side of the canal, camels and date palms appeared as expected and the locals wore what we thought were “long dresses”. The ship was stable on its passage through the Suez Canal and relatively so as it traversed the Red Sea to Aden, so my mother felt a lot better.
Aden to Colombo
During our voyage across the northern Indian Ocean from Aden to Colombo, my mother was seasick again. It was so debilitating for her. She showed great fortitude as she tried, day after day, to cope. Once in Colombo harbour, she recovered, so we hoped that was the last of her seasickness.
The Toscana berthed in Colombo (the capital of Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka) to refuel and take on supplies. The passengers, not allowed to go to shore, had plenty of time to barter with the local hawkers. They came in their small flat-bottom boats, with local wares (such as silk scarves and tablecloths, all sorts of cotton goods, trinkets, wood carvings and metal figurines) displayed on crates so we could see them from the decks, far above. Money and goods were exchanged via wicker baskets tied to ropes lowered and hoisted from the ship. It was a funny sight.
Colombo to Fremantle
My mother was not over her seasickness. Far from it. On the next leg of the voyage, across the Indian Ocean from Colombo to Fremantle (Western Australia), Mum spent most of her time in the ship’s sick bay. (I don’t think I realized at the time, but she nearly died.)
This part of the trip (it took 11 days) was often rough. The ship would rock to and fro as it was tossed about on the wild seas. It was really scary. I remember being amazed at the horizon disappearing as the ship made its way through the swell of the open sea. All I could see was the top of the waves. It was during these times that I realized the Toscana was not as big a ship as I first thought!
On good days, my friends and I wandered the decks and ventured into the lounges and entertainment areas. We played hookey (hide-and-seek) and skittles. The lady in the cabin next door looked after Dušan on many an occasion. Sometimes I was put in charge of my little brother, which was quite a responsibility (I wasn’t yet 8). He was often a handful. Whenever we visited Mum in the sick bay, she would encourage us, through a blur of nausea, to behave ourselves. (I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I realise the doctor had her sedated.)
Mum did not appreciate hearing our stories about the Captain Neptune celebrations on the ship as it crossed the equator. We told her how the sailors and passengers dressed in costumes and partied loudly through the night. She scolded us and told us we were becoming “divljaki i slobodni” (wild and free). She was right. We were getting restless after several weeks in the confines of the ship. Its novelty had worn off. Each day seemed to drag and even the food was becoming monotonous. Not having our mother around much of the time didn’t help.
On 8 November 1958 our ship arrived at Freemantle (Western Australia). Unfortunately, the Toscana was not able to enter Fremantle’s inner harbour (I’m not sure why). Instead the ship dropped anchor at Gage Roads, an anchorage at sea between Rottnest Island and the mainland. Some passengers disembarked. They planned to settle in Western Australia. In fact, at the time, my mother’s sister Jagoda and my cousin Tanja lived in Fremantle.
Fremantle to Sydney
The next leg of our journey, from Fremantle to Melbourne across the Great Australian Bight, passed without incident. Mum spent some more days in the sick bay and my brother and I were once again called “the orphans”! The lady in the cabin next door had gone ashore at Fremantle, so another kind traveller kept a watchful eye on us in my mother’s absence.
The final part of our long sea voyage took us north along the south-eastern coast of Australia, from Melbourne to Sydney.
After 6 weeks, the three of us heaved a huge sigh of relief as the Toscana sailed into Sydney Harbour. I know for sure my mother was looking forward to being on terraferma again! We were baffled about the pronunciation of “Sydney” (maybe we didn’t hear it correctly) given the letter “y” was not in the old Serbo-Croatian alphabet. We pronounced it “Sit-knee”, which I think was pretty close to the English pronunciation.
Back on land, finally
Mum recovered enough to look reasonably “human” by the time our ship berthed. In Sydney we were due to meet some of our relatives: my father’s brother Paul, his wife and two sons; Mum’s sister Jaka, her husband and children and my father’s brother Frank, his wife and daughter. Uncle Paul and family were thrilled to see us and gave a glowing report of life in Australia. The others seemed somewhat dispirited and didn’t have a lot to say to us.
We were only too happy to board the overnight train from Sydney to Brisbane, a distance of almost 600 miles (about 960 kilometres). When we arrived in Brisbane (which we pronounced “Briz-baa-ne”), at the South Brisbane Railway Station, we were met by a distant cousin, his wife and daughter.
They were elated to see us. Our cousin, whom I remember as a jovial somewhat corpulent middle-aged fellow, was keen to show us hospitality. (We had a few hours to wait before we had to board our next train at the Roma Street Railway Station on the other side of the river.) He took us to his home, which was not far from the South Brisbane Station. The house was a highset timber building, on posts (“stumps”), with a small verandah at the top of the front stairs. Extending from the front door there was a passageway that took us right through the house to the back door. I had never seen a house like this before.
Brisbane to Cairns
Our train trip on The Sunlander from Brisbane to Cairns, a distance of 1042 miles (nearly 1700 kilometres), took almost two days. It wasn’t so bad, because the train was air-conditioned, there was hot and cold water, and we had a cabin with sleepers (bunk beds) and meal tickets.
The attendants were patient with us and most of our communication was done using sign-language. My mother and I, it seems, constantly thought about this strange new language (English). For example, we wondered how we should pronounce “Cairns”. We tried to copy the locals, but all we could manage was the old Serbo-Croatian phonetic version: “Ts-aaa-e-rrr-ne-ss”.
Dušan was often restless. Mum tried to distract him and keep him and me busy by encouraging us to look out the train window at this new and strange land. More importantly, she reminded us that we would see our father again soon and we should be thinking about what we would say to him.
It was hot and humid in the afternoon of 22 November 1958 when The Sunlander pulled into the Cairns Railway Station. Being the end of the line, it was all systems a-go and porters, railway workers, passengers and welcomers bustled around on the platform. As we stood on the platform in our whites looking around for a familiar face, my father appeared, accompanied by his employer Kuzma Zanetić and his wife Mira. My father worked on their sugarcane farm at Fishery Falls.
We were all somewhat guarded at our long-awaited meeting. There were a few tears and obligatory hugs. But there was no big outward show of emotion. However, I’m sure my mother was overjoyed, as I was, and greatly relieved to be here at last. After all, we had been on the move for nearly 8 weeks!
Cairns to Fishery Falls
Actually, we were not yet at our final destination. We still had to take a 25 mile (40 kilometre) car trip south from Cairns to Fishery Falls, where my father was working as a cane cutter on the Zanetić farm. The Zanetićs brought two cars to transport the three of us, and our luggage, from the railway station to Fishery Falls. I remember being driven along a single bitumen track, crossing narrow wooden bridges and passing seemingly never-ending fields of sugarcane.
When we reached Fishery Falls my father showed us our new home, a big shed situated near the Zanetić family’s farmhouse. (At the time I was oblivious to my mother’s utter dismay about the state of our accommodation and living conditions. Fortunately, several months later, we moved up the road to a small farmhouse that became vacant.) The shed had a bare concrete floor, corrugated iron roof and walls with prop-out corrugated iron “windows”, two small “rooms” including a kitchen/dining area, wood stove, beds with mosquito netting, one light per room and cold water. The toilet (“dunny” in Australian lingo) was outside, in an outhouse about 10 metres from the concrete apron of the shed. I recall there was a shower, somewhere.
This was my first “home” in Australia.
Because we arrived at Fishery Falls in late November, my parents decided I wouldn’t start school until the new school year. In Australia, the school year commences at the end of January. My parents wanted me to settle in to our new life and learn some English before I started school.
The Zanetić’s youngest son, Geoffrey, was the same age as me and we spent much of the next two months together over the long summer holiday break. I began to learn the language. By the time I started school in January 1959, I was able to speak and understand the basics of English.
My new school
The nearest school was McDonnell Creek State School. It was located about 3 kilometres by road from the Zanetić farm, so we usually walked to school. Geoffrey showed me a shortcut through the canefields, along the headlands and beside the cane train tracks. The canefields harboured snakes and rats, and we spotted them occasionally. Most of the time we took the shortcut to and from school, but sometimes we walked home the long way via the highway (a single track of bitumen in 1959). Whenever it rained, Geoffrey’s mother Mira would take us to school by car.
McDonnell Creek State School was a small one-teacher school of about 20 pupils across 8 year levels, Grade 1 to Grade 8. Our teacher was Mr Grimmer. The pupils included white Australians, a couple of “New Australians” (like me), a couple of Fijian Indians and about eight children from Aboriginal families. We were a “mixed bag”.
I began my first year of schooling in Australia in Grade 2 but by Term 2 I was promoted to Grade 3. My Grade 1 teacher in Korčula (Katja) did a good job teaching me mathematics – I was well ahead of my peers at McDonnell Creek State School. The only problem was that I had to learn the new currency (pounds, shillings and pence) and the imperial system of measurement (in Europe we used the metric system). Importantly, I was quick to learn how to speak, read and write in English.
Even though Mr Grimmer had 30+ pupils to teach, he gave me lots of one-on-one help. Why? Because whenever it rained (and it rained a lot in North Queensland), at least half the pupils (including the Aboriginal children) stayed at home!
Fishery Falls to Freshwater
As a family, we spent just one year at Fishery Falls. The following year (1960), the four of us moved to Freshwater, on the northern outskirts of Cairns. My father had bought a house there. It wasn’t big or particularly attractive. But it was a proper house and it was our house. There we started afresh (excuse the pun). It was the beginning of a new chapter of our lives in Australia, our adopted land.