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.

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1958. A photograph taken by my Grade 1 teacher, showing Korčula’s Old Town. 1988, Brisbane. Photo source: Salecich Family archives.

The farewell

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.

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1958, Korčula. This is the large group of people who came to bid us farewell. Photo source: Salecich Family archives.

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.

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1958, Korčula. With my brother Dušan and cousin Paulina on the day of our departure. Photo source: Salecich Family archives.

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.)

My school

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.

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1958, Korčula. My Grade 1 class. Photo source: Salecich Family archives.
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1958, Korčula. This is a copy of my first year school report.

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.”

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Inscription inside the front cover of the little photo album my teacher Katja gave me.

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.

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1950s postcard showing Korčula’s Old Town and the prominent spire of St Mark’s Cathedral. Source: Salecich Family archives.

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.

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1958. One of my travel documents. Photo source: Judith Salecich.

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.)

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1950s postcard showing the SS Toscana. Source: Salecich Family archives.

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.

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Two colourful silk scarves my mother bought at Aden. They are nearly 60 years old! Photo source: Judith Salecich 2017.

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.

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1950s postcard showing the SS Toscana (reverse side). Details of our ports of arrival in Australia, in my mother’s handwriting.

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.

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Sydney Harbour and the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo source: Salecich Family archives.

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.

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Our cousin in Brisbane took us to his home, a house just like this one. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2017.

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”.

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1953. The Sunlander, long-distance passenger train between Brisbane and Cairns. Photo source: Queensland Rail. Public domain.

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.

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My father pictured cutting sugarcane near Cairns, North Queensland. Photo source: Salecich Family archives.

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!

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1950s. Cairns Railway Station. Photo by courtesy of Aussie~mobs, Flickr. Public domain.

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.

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Sugarcane fields at Gordonvale, south of Cairns, on the way to Fishery Falls. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2010.

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.

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Fishery Falls. The shed we called home in 1958-1959. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2010.
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Fishery Falls. The windows of the shed were made of corrugated iron and were propped open with a stick. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2010.

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.

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Here I am with my friend Geoffrey, 51 years after we first met. This photograph was taken during a visit to Fishery Falls in 2010. Photo source: Judith Salecich.

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.

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A headland between the sugarcane fields. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2010.

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”.

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1959. McDonnell Creek State School, pupils and teacher. Photo source: Salecich Family archives.

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!

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1959, McDonnell Creek State School. My first school report in Australia.
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1959, McDonnell Creek State School. My first school report in Australia (details).
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1989. I returned to visit McDonnell Creek State School, 30 years later. Photo source: Salecich Family archives.

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.

That’s a story for another time.

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Photo of author

Anthony Salecich

Croatian-born Australian, husband, father and grandfather, former secondary school teacher, Christian minister and Bible teacher. Now a community volunteer, chaplain and pastoral carer. Known for his people skills and sense of humour, Tony loves food, music, singing and sport (especially field hockey). A sportsman through and through.

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24 thoughts on “From Korčula my island home to the canefields of Fishery Falls”

  1. I enjoyed reading your story. My father came out from Vis in a similar fashion to you but a little earlier in 1927.
    I would be interested to here the rest of the story.
    George Sivich

  2. This is an amazing story Tony. I really admire the way you adapted to this new country so quickly. Like you, Our daughter in law arrived in Sydney from Seoul at the age of five with no English. She topped her class by the end of the school year and continued to do so for the next 12 years. She now carries a PhD in Cardio pulmonary physiotherapy. I am really enjoying following Judith’s blog. I especially enjoy the stories of old Rockhampton. Unlike Tony, I haven’t travelled very far in my life. Born in Brisbane and my family moved to Rockhampton when I was a year old and here I have stayed. Interestingly, my eldest son Matthew, proposed to his wife in Croatia. They were living in London at the time and moved to Nuremberg following their marriage. Mélanie was born in Nuremberg and her parents are there. 2 of our grandchildren are bi- lingual at the ages of 4(German & English) and 2 (English/ Korean) and we have a baby grandson who will also be bilingual. What an amazing world we live in. I still often think of you Tony and the wonderful work that you did with our elderly residents here at Alexandra Gardens. I am still working there part time but need to have a bit of a break soon before I move back in permanently. Keep the stories coming Judith.

    • Dear Jane. How wonderful to hear from you and to read your response to Tony’s story. We read it together, and Tony was most touched by your kind words. Your family situation is so interesting, with lots of cross-cultural relationships. You are very blessed. Our son is married to a German girl, and they both speak English and German. Currently, they live in Germany. We Skype regularly. Re my stories, I’m so encouraged that you are enjoying them. I hope to keep them coming. Lots of love, Judy (and Tony).

  3. What precious memories of your adventure to your new homeland. Loved reading your story Tony. I always admire the courage of people like your parents who left behind a life and home they were so familiar and comfortable with, family and friends and set out to a far away country that probably back then they had only heard stories of or read about in a book. Australia is certainly the richer for having families like yours. Love the description back then too of these folks – “New Australians”. So much more friendly than what is used today. Waiting now for the next interesting chapter.

    Well done Tony.

    Thank you also Judy for your stories. I do enjoy reading each one and often have my memory jogged about the history of “the old home town” – a lot of which I had temporarily forgotten.

    • Dear Betty and Ian. Greetings. It’s wonderful to keep in touch. Thank you for your thoughtful comments on Tony’s story. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m also really glad I encouraged him to write it for my blog. It’s a great addition. Regarding the blog, it gives me much joy and satisfaction to write these stories, and share them with others. Hopefully, the Lord will give me time and opportunity to keep doing so. My love and best wishes to you both, and to your extended family. Judy. xx

  4. It is always good to hear people’s stories and to be a little involved in the lives of others. Nice to see a few photo’s of your visit and being able to travel around with you when you took some of these photos. I look forward to the next edition of you life Tony.

    • Thanks, Wendy, for your feedback. Yes, you were with us that day we visited Fishery Falls, and the Zanetić farm. You drove us there. I’m glad you remember. It was very special for Tony. Love, Judy. xx

  5. I loved your story and was disappointed when I realised I was at the end. Will look forward to the next. I was born 1953 so I felt very involved along the way. Just loved it.

  6. Hi Judith thank you for sharing your husbands story my husbands family also migrated to Australia in the fifties my father in law Ivan Zaknich arrived 1955 to sugar Cain cutting my mother in law Katica followed with their son Marko 1956 my husband Tony (Anthony) came along 1957 by them they had bought a Tabaco farm together with Ivan and Mara Zuvela where they lived till 1974 when they moved to Sydney. I my self am also from the island Korcula (Blato) we migrated 1968. It’s wonderful reading your husbands story it takes me back when I left Croatia and now in my 50’s we travel back almost every year pkead bring the next chapter on soon

    • Dear Mira. Thank you so much for your feedback, and for sharing a little of your own story. You ended up in the same part of the world as my husband! I will let him know that you are keenly awaiting the next chapter of his story. Best wishes, Judy.

  7. Hi Tony and Judy,
    Thank you for sharing your story, Tony. We Aussies who who are born here take so much for granted. It was wonderful to learn of your trials and tribulations in getting here.

    I have to ask, may I please share a photo and the link to Lost Cairns & District – with due credit of course?
    Cheers, Marjorie

  8. A wonderful story… Iintended to skim through and then return later… instead I couldn’t stop reading… As a grandchild of migrants on both sides of the family, I would have loved to have heard their stories…Sadly, my beloved Greek grandfather died when I was just 5 and my grandmother struggled with English.
    I never knew my Irish grandmother…
    Thank you, Judy and Tony… I look forward to the next instalment.

    • Dear Chris. Thank you so much for sharing your migrant connection. Yes, it’s a pity you didn’t have the opportunity to hear the stories of your grandparents. These people were very brave, and they had a tough time settling in a new land and learning a new language. I admire them greatly. Yes, Tony is working on the next installment. I’ll have to encourage him to “get his skates on”. Best wishes, Judy. xx

  9. I came across you story when I was looking for website that was devoted to migration from Korcula to Australia as I have some old photos. My father came to Australia in 1927 when he was 15 with his cousin who was also 15 but almost a year older. His town was Znovo. My cousins are still living on Korcula. Is there a site that collects old photos of families from Korcula?

  10. My father came from smokvica we lot of stories of family in fishery Falls tony family is related to zanetic family our father side mira is dad side first or second cousin is the family still around in fishery Falls or they still on cane farm


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