The Colony: articles

The Stephenson family

The Stephenson family from Yorkshire, England, found the sea journey the hardest bit of their time on The Colony. From left, Liz, Carina and John. Photo: Simon Cardwell

Battling the battlers

The families on SBS’s reality-history show The Colony faced it all: drought, flood, fire… and intense internal squabbling. Karl Quinn reports from the set.

I’m in dense bushland north of Sydney, heading towards the punchline of a joke that begins, “An English family, an Australian family and an Irish family walk into a valley ...” I’m about to spend 24 hours on the set of The Colony, the six-part SBS reality-history TV series set in the early days of white settlement. I’ll be a convict, assigned to the Australian Hohnke family. I have no idea what to expect, but hope it doesn’t include flogging.

As we bump along rain-rutted dirt roads, I give thanks we’re in a Tarago rather than a horse and cart. I’m also pretty pleased about the timing of my visit: the 14-week shoot is nearing its end, and all the hard work has been done. The fields have been hoed and sowed, the logs have been split and cut, the huts erected, the wells dug. As deportation goes, I’m in for an easy ride.

My chauffeur is Deb Szapiro, co-producer of the series. “The Hohnkes have done really well,” she tells me as she steers through bush that looks like it’s never seen an axe. “The English family, the Stephensons, have done really well, too. They’ve built this incredible two-storey house. It’s like the Swiss Family Robinson. Quite amazing.”

What about the Irish mob, the Hurleys? “They’ve struggled,” Szapiro says sadly. “Maurice (the father), especially, has had a bit of a hard time.” After a pause, she goes on. “But I have a lot of time for him and Trish (his wife). I think what they’ve gone through is really heroic. It’s very easy, and very dangerous, to be seduced by people who are good at things, who make things look easy.”

Hmmm. I’m not even in The Colony yet, and already I see it’s not going to be the happy-campers-in-the-face-of-adversity experience I’d imagined. In the hour or so we’ve spent driving, I’ve heard about crew members struggling to remain objective about the conflicts they’re filming; about convicts who’ve done a runner after realising their 15 minutes of fame might involve serious physical labour; a “traditional” Aboriginal family that found life in the bush a poor substitute for the creature comforts of Stradbroke Island; and a sex therapist-turned-convict who could cope with being away from her 12 lovers but could not handle her sleep apnoea without the aid of a machine that, frankly, has no place in the early 19th century.

None of that, though, compares with the real drama of the series: the fact that the Hohnkes and their Irish neighbours, the Hurleys, hate each other’s guts. As I’m about to find out.

First stop in The Colony is a big tin shed that houses the crew and their equipment. I notice a sign on the wall: “Brown snake spotted in here at 11.30am. Beware!” I look at my watch. It’s 11.45am. I pray the snake had somewhere else to be.

I’m soon kitted out as a convict. Calico strides with a button fly so complex it takes me all afternoon to decode; a long-sleeved, collarless shirt made out of cotton so heavy it must have been a tent in a previous life; and a pair of oversized shoes with twine laces and soles so thin I can feel the heartbeats of the insects beneath my feet. Best of all, the wardrobe department has thoughtfully pre-soiled my garments. I haven’t been this dirty since I was five.

The Hohnke hut is like something out of a Tom Roberts painting: split log walls, bark roof, stone chimney. There’s Kerry, the patriarch, leaning over a fence smoking a pipe made out of the crook of a tree branch. Behind him is Tracy, his wife; she’s got a rollie between her dirty fingers and a wry smirk on her face. They both seem amused at my arrival, slightly distrustful of the newcomer, in that classic country way.

They’re friendly enough, though. And proud. As they talk me through the work they’ve done, I feel a bit like Don Burke.

When they first came to this valley enclosed by sandstone hills and thick bush, the three settler families drew straws to see who got which plot of land. The Hohnkes got first pick, and opted for the “abandoned farm”, complete with vegetable patch and a more-or-less liveable hut. The others had to build their houses and plant their crops from scratch, using rusty tools and rock-hard timber.

Like all renovators, the Hohnkes like to talk up their efforts. “She was in a terrible state when we found her,” says Kerry, his words sliding out sideways through a tangle of beard and smoke. “The roof was half caved in, the chimney smoked somethin’ fierce. The floor was just dirt. With the fire goin’ and people kickin’ up dirt inside, you’d only have a narrow band at head height where the air wasn’t clogged with dust or smoke.”

“You couldn’t bloody breathe,” says Tracy, a little redundantly.

They take me inside to show me what they’ve done with the place; they fixed the chimney and roof, and are especially proud of the stone floors.

If theirs wasn’t a close family before, it is now. Kerry and Tracy have spent three and a half months living in just one room with their three boys - Linkan, 6, Jakob, 12, and Eli, 9 - and 15-year-old daughter Kashire. At one end there’s the fire, kept going 24 hours a day for heating and cooking, and a long table with bench seats on either side. At the other end, there are two sets of bunks. The parents’ double bed is in the middle. One of the great challenges of colonial life must have been finding a private moment to make more colonial babies.

Kerry sets me to work collecting water from the creek, 100 metres away. He hands me two wooden pails and points me in the direction of the sandstone well one of his other convicts built (each family got two convicts; the Hohnkes have somehow gone through four). By the time I’ve taken three steps back towards the hut, I’ve filled my shoes with water. A dozen paces more and I feel like I’ve pulled a muscle in my shoulder.

Trying desperately to make it look easy, I hoist one of the buckets to the lip of the huge wooden barrel (lined in black plastic, a concession to hygiene made after a bout of dysentery) and pour. Mostly onto my feet. I do better with the second bucket, and think, “Thank God that’s over”.

“OK, convict,” my master’s voice booms out. “Keep it comin’.”

Bloody hell. He expects me to fill it. “Think yerself lucky,” he says. “We used to have to fetch it from the river.”

How far’s that? “’Bout a kilometre either way.”

A dozen or so trips later, the barrel is full, or near enough. There’s no sign of my cruel master, so I wander off to check out the other huts.

First stop is the Hurley family, otherwise known as “the Irish” (everyone here is simply “the Irish” or “the English” or “the Australians” it’s like some weird Amish thing). At first, I think I must have wandered into the chicken hut, the structure is so small. But then I notice the beds. Seven of them, crammed into a space smaller than a child’s bedroom.

The Hurleys do their eating outside, near the stone fireplace. Their hut is on stumps, about a metre off the ground. When the rains came six weeks into their time in The Colony, the water lapped at the floorboards. Trish Hurley, a teacher back home in Dublin like her husband Maurice, had to cook for her brood in thigh-deep water (they have four kids - twins Susan and Declan, 18, Deirdre, 14, and Kate, 10).

At least they all knew what they were getting for dinner. There’s a sheet of paper tacked to the wall of the hut, with the name of every meal they’ve eaten here written in pencil. Today’s lunch is number 79, and it’s called “Stewpendous”. The other 78 meals were stews too.

Maurice Hurley is tall, with a thick thatch of black hair and deep lines in his thin face. When he started this adventure, he was a much fleshier creature; now he looks rather defeated. Trish is sturdy, with short blonde hair and, I can’t help but notice, grime in the lines around her neck. What are you enjoying most about this? “Just the experience of it, being here, in this place,” she says. And least? “The dirt,” she says, pronouncing it “doort”. “I never expected it to be so doorty. Ye can never get clean. It’s disgusting.”

I wander over to the English hut. Or mansion, more like. Two storeys, a sundeck outside the top-floor bedroom, a winding staircase up the side of the sandstone boulder against and on top of which it’s built. It’s fantastic.

“The reason ah wanted to coom ‘ere,” says John Stephenson in his thick Yorkshire accent, “was to build a ‘ouse. And ah’ve doon it!”

John and his partner Liz have the bouncy optimism of people who’ve just been plucked from the audience on The Price is Right. That their enthusiasm has survived 13 weeks of this seems remarkable to me, and more than a little admirable.

Back home, John is the handyman for the estate of an English lord. Liz is a teachers’ aide For kicks, they renovate houses. They have his and hers power tools in England, but here they’ve had to make do with the same rusty axes and saws as everyone else. Making a house like this is a serious achievement.

“For me, it’s bin froostra’in’,” says Liz, her accent every bit as strong as her husband’s. “John can say, ‘Ah built this’. But everything ah’ve med has gone down the toy-let.”

She’s being a bit harsh. Liz, who studied joinery in England, did build the queen-sized bed she and John share. But playing the lady is clearly not her style.

Back at the Hohnkes’, Tracy has more or less resigned herself to that role 24 hours a day. It’s cold in the hut at night, hot during the day, but she leaves it rarely. Most of the time she’s tending the fire, making damper, trying to find new ways to bring a little 21st-century cuisine into this colonial kitchen. She’s made quiche. She’s made pizza. She’s made apple pie. All using the camp oven, a big cast-iron pot with a lid. If there were a CWA cook-off out here, Tracy would win hands down. (Liz and John’s 16-year-old daughter Carina would, however, get an honourable mention for her grilled cheese on toast, made by using two burning sticks as an overhead element.)

Tracy and Kerry are from Queensland originally, but now live in Boat Harbour, a town of 50 or so people in north-western Tasmania. They grow native flowers, work in a local restaurant, and home-school their kids. They do things their own way, and don’t much like authority, or the English, or teachers. No wonder there’s been tension.

Early on, Maurice Hurley called a meeting between the three sets of adults. He wanted to establish some ground rules for the community he thought they were going to build. The Hohnkes said to hell with that, sort your own lot out first, then we’ll talk about community. “They said, ‘We don’t like neighbours, we just look after our own’,” Maurice told me. He might have had more time for that view had he not felt the Hohnkes had been given such a massive headstart.

Three months on from that meeting, the settlement is split down the middle. On one side are the Hohnkes and the Aboriginal camp, which consists of two adults (Anto and Lorna), two teenagers (Luana and Jarlo) and one young girl (Amber, Anto’s daughter). On the other are the Hurleys and the Stephensons. But the core beef, it seems to me, is between the Irish and the Australians.

“It’s not between us and them,” Maurice corrects me. “Nobody likes the Hohnkes.”

That’s a bit harsh, I say. They get on well with the Aborigines. “That’s because they’ve told the Kooris a whole lot of lies about us and the Stephensons.”

Well, they’ve treated me well. This, Maurice puts down to the Australian family’s very 21st-century grasp of media opportunities. “We came here for the experience,” he says. “I think they came here for a TV show. When the camera is here they act differently than when it isn’t here. They act like this old-styled independent family, they won’t take assistance. But off-camera, they take all that is offered - and more.”

Surely you’re not suggesting there’s skulduggery afoot? “All I’m saying is their allotment is kind of magical. Things just appear there.”

The Hohnkes tell me tales of their own about the Hurleys. “He’s bloody stubborn, that Maurice,” says Tracy. “You can’t tell ‘im nothin’. We had cabbages and offered them to ‘em, for nothin’, and they wouldn’t take ‘em. They traded with (the production crew) instead.”

Maurice counters that the key moment for him came five weeks in. While the Hohnkes had fixed up their house, built their well and tended their already established vegetable patch, the Stephensons and Hurleys were still living in tents and cooking on open fires. The drought had not yet broken, and when the temperature soared past 40 degrees, the set was hit by a total fire ban. “No fire means no food,” says Maurice. “The only people who had a fireplace at the time were the Hohnkes. They said, ‘You can use our fire if you trade with us’ - under very bad terms. They saw it as an opportunity to trade; I saw it as total blackmail.”

Down at the river, the Stephensons and their convict, 19-year-old Andrew, are splashing about. I dive in and start to swim out to the middle. “Watch out,” someone yells from the riverbank. “Don’t go through those grasses, you’ll get stung.”

Ha ha, very funny.

“No, seriously, there’s poisonous fish.”

Yeah, right.

“Trew-ly,” says John. “And-ay got stoong and ‘e were sick fer four days after.”

OK. Now I’m worried. It turns out there’s a fish here called the fortescue. It’s a lot like a stonefish, with poisonous spikes. It generally lives on the river bottom. Andy apparently found one when he dived into shallow water headfirst and ploughed into the mud.

Certain I can avoid the spikes if I just remember I’m not a dredging boat, I swim out to the middle of the river. There I find Liz standing on a sandbar in water that is waist deep, crystal clear and warm. In both directions, trees rise up the hills on either side, as the sinking sun glistens off the water’s slick surface.

“Look at this,” says Liz. “It’s joost bee-yew-tee-ful. I never want to leave it.”

She’s right. It is beautiful.

Liz is wearing one of her two dresses, hitched up to her waist. I’m wearing a pair of boxer shorts I smuggled past the crew. As we chat, I wonder if Michael Parkinson conducted many interviews in his wet undies in the middle of a river.

Liz tells me she thinks the experience of being on The Colony has been absolutely worthwhile for the family, especially for her 12-year-old son Tyler, a shy boy who’s flourished on a diet of spear-throwing and swimming. The tensions are a bit much, but the place more than makes up for it. “We just keep more or less to us selves,” she says.

It suddenly hits me that projects like The Colony probably say a lot less about the past than they do about the present. It’s tempting to think you can put a bunch of modern people in a historical scenario under historical conditions and thus produce “living history”, as the series producer Chris Hilton labels it. But what you really get is something else. You get 21st-century people bringing their knowledge, attitudes, prejudices and desires to bear upon whatever constructed historical moment they find themselves in. What you get is a culture clash, between “now” and whichever “then” you like.

Back at chez Hohnke, it’s dinner time. Tracy has whipped up a surprisingly good milk and vegetable stew (who knew fresh cow’s milk was so sweet?), mopped up with the ubiquitous damper. When we finish, we head to the Aboriginal camp.

Anto brings out a couple of bottles of beer. It’s cold, fridge cold, and it’s Carlton Draught. I’m not sure it’s strictly in keeping with the “just-like-it-was-back-then” policy, but there’s no camera around so who’s to know? Nor, it strikes me, is the profusion of cigarette lighters very authentic. Not to mention the battery-powered lanterns. (Safety considerations, it seems, have had another impact. Oil lamps were dispensed with after the Stephensons almost burnt their house down.)

Anto talks about the spirits of the valley, claims he can feel them, says the place where the Aboriginal camp was set up first was bad ground. A couple of the female convicts have come here tonight, too, to sleep in a cave - a sacred female site - in order to make up for the fact they strayed yesterday onto sacred male ground. “If ya don’t make amends,” Anto tells them in a mildly menacing way, “’oo knows what might appen?”

Rachel, 25, an environmental science student in the outside world, says, yeah, she definitely does feel something spiritual here. Shelley, 22, is a little more sceptical - but since she’s six months pregnant, she’s not willing to take any chances. As they head off to the cave to sleep, we head home under the bright light of a full moon. There may or may not be spirits here, but it is a magical place.

Back in the hut, I am given my bed: a wooden bench with a blanket on top, right by the fire. It’s a good spot (better than outside, anyway, where the convicts normally sleep), and to earn it I’m charged with making sure the fire doesn’t go out during the night.

When I wake up next morning, there’s no fire. Deeply embarrassed, I go outside and forage for kindling. I toss it on the fire. It refuses to catch.

To add to my shame, I need the toilet. I spot a thunderbox, pull back the hessian and find ... a porcelain pan. Not very roughing-it, I think, but that’s fine by me. I need some paper. I notice the floor of the loo is covered in sheets of paper bark. This is settler-era Sorbent. At least it’s not she-oak.

Mission accomplished, I head back inside. “Nice work with the fire,” says Kerry.

To make amends, I spend the morning chopping, sawing and stacking firewood. I feed the pigs; the mother is an enormous beast covered in mud and smelling like ... well, like a pig; she nearly takes my arm off as I offer a bucket of leftovers. I fetch some more water.

In truth, there’s very little to do on The Colony this late in the piece. Everything is winding down. Soon, the families will all head back to the things they’ve missed most - Vegemite on toast for the Hohnke kids, the dog for the Stephensons, a decent bath for the Hurleys. There are no prizes on this show other than the knowledge that you’ve made it through.

And now it’s time for me to leave, and I feel I’ve earned the right to give myself a little pat on the back. I’ve made it through my harsh sentence. An afternoon, a night, and the following morning.

“So, how was it?” asks my driver for the ride back to Sydney.

It was tough, I say. Real tough. But I got there in the end.

By Karl Quinn
January 16, 2005
The Age