The Colony: articles

Luana Walker and Kashire Hohnke

Luana Walker and Kashire Hohnke in The Colony.

Grime and punishment

For 16 weeks, a group of volunteers lived as early settlers for SBS’s The Colony. For two days, Richard Jinman was their convict.

‘Jeez,” said Wally Greenhalgh when I changed into my convict’s costume. “They’re going to have some fun with you.” Wally had a point. My immaculate striped shirt, pale blue trousers and purple scarf seemed rather dandified for a convict—an effect the jaunty straw hat did nothing to ameliorate. I looked more like Simon Le Bon, circa 1985, than a transported criminal, circa 1805.

Greenhalgh, a local bushman hired as a consultant on SBS’s locally produced historical reality series The Colony, was anxious to roughen me up. My fellow convicts had already endured seven weeks of hard labour, he said. They were dirty, dishevelled and authentically pungent. A good flogging, a spell in the stocks or an encounter with a ferocious pig would help me fit in. The fact that he said all this without smiling made me want to get back in the car and make a bolt for Sydney.

The Colony has been described by its production company, Hilton Cordell, as a “living history series”. Like Frontier House and The Edwardian Country House, it catapults modern families back in time and records their experiences on camera over four months. In this case, families from England, Ireland and Australia were asked to replicate Australia’s early colonial period from 1800 to 1815.

In late August, the families and six male “convicts”—each family was assigned several indentured labourers—boarded a ship and sailed inland from Broken Bay. Transferring to longboats upstream, they rowed to a secret valley location in the Hawkesbury region.

On disembarking, they soon discovered their new home was already occupied. Two Aboriginal families—one from Stradbroke Island, the other from Bowraville—had been recruited to play the role of a local indigenous clan.

The colonists were issued with primitive tools and some basic provisions. Each family was allocated a cow and a few pigs, goats and chickens. They built cabins from the valley’s timber and sandstone, and dug wells by hand. A horse-drawn plough prepared the ground for the planting of crops.

This back-breaking work was only part of the challenge. The settlers had to learn to live together, trade and co-operate. And they had to do it all under the unrelenting gaze of several camera crews.

My visit to The Colony began on a hot morning in October. After changing into my dandy convict’s costume, I surrendered my watch, glasses and mobile phone. Contrary to instructions, I kept my 21st century underwear. If I were going to be flogged or mauled by a pig, I wanted to do it in decent undies.

Richard Jinman

Richard Jinman collects water for The Colony.

Visitors are given strict instructions before they enter the valley. “Don’t give them your clothes when you leave,” said a production assistant, who explained that clean, untorn clothes were highly prized by the colonists. “And never discuss current affairs.”

This news embargo had effectively sealed off the colonists from the 21st century. The Australian participants had voted in the recent federal election—absentee forms were delivered to the valley—but they had no idea which party had won. Most didn’t seem anxious to find out.

My new masters were the Hohnke family from Tasmania. They took one look at my freshly laundered convict’s outfit and tried not to laugh. “Feel his hair,” said Paul Ward, a Melbourne stonemason and the family’s indentured convict. “It’s all ... soft.”

Kerry Hohnke, 42, his 37-year-old wife, Tracy, and their four children were almost unrecognisable as modern Australians. Their period clothes were discoloured by mud and smoke; their hair wild and matted after weeks of neglect. Looking at them, it was as if a painting by Frederick McCubbin had miraculously come to life.

Tracy handed me a chunk of damper from the stone oven and poured cups of billy tea. Everyone had lost weight, she said. There had been plenty of inter-family arguments, two convicts had quit and the Aborigines had gone walkabout. Those colonists who remained were constipated as a result of eating too much white flour and salted beef and not enough vegetables and fruit. The days were passing slowly.

“If you have a late night, it’s probably only 9pm,” she said. “But it feels like 1am.”

Several of the Hohnke children had been injured. Linkan, 5, required stitches after slicing his hand with a knife, and Jakob, 12, had sprained his ankle. Kashire, 14, was missing her friends, movies and the Tasmanian surf.

Even so, the Hohnkes appeared to be enjoying their experience. They had befriended the Aboriginal families and had defiantly raised the Aboriginal and Eureka flags on a pole outside their cabin.

I asked Kerry what he missed most. He scratched his beard and took a while to reply.

“I suppose I’d love to sit down and have a cold beer,” he said. “And I’d like to take the old girl out for a tea just to give her a break.”

Giving Tracy a break was my job. She suggested I start my stint as a convict by replenishing the water in the pigsty. It seemed like an easy task until I came face-to-face with Bodey, a gigantic sow with cruel yellow teeth and evil eyes. She had recently given birth to 12 piglets, but had crushed two of them beneath her huge body.

The Colony’s human inhabitants were less intimidating. Well, mostly. One by one, they walked down the valley to meet me. I felt like a minor celebrity until I realised their curiosity had little to do with my personal charisma and everything to do with the lack of alternative entertainment.

The Stephensons from Yorkshire were enjoying themselves apart from the flies and the abundance of creepy crawlies. The Hurleys from Dublin were also surviving, although Maurice, 48, and his wife Patricia, 45, found the cameras intrusive at times.

A miner from Kalgoorlie introduced himself as “Kio”. He claimed he was sacrificing thousands of dollars a week to be a convict (the producers cover participants’ costs such as mortgage repayments, but there is no fee or prize), but it was obvious he was having the time of his life. “His real name’s Steve,” said Kerry Hohnkes as Kio walked away. “But if you call him that he’ll throw a knife at you.”

As the day unfolded I realised that life in The Colony was a mixture of gruelling chores and simple pleasures. Milking a cow by hand and swimming in the river were fun. Cutting a bloodwood log with a rusty crosscut saw or lugging endless buckets of water from the well were less enjoyable.

The buckets’ iron handles made my hands blister. As I lurched across the field for the 10th time, I wanted to quit, call the HR department or fire off an email to my union. But I was a convict—a man with roughly the same rights as Bodey the pig. The pumpkins needed water and without pumpkins we would starve.

Yet, despite the hardship and monotony, life in the colony had a simplicity that was oddly addictive. Tracy Hohnke had come to believe the valley was full of spirits and, when the afternoon sun cast long shadows through the gums, it was easy to believe her.

In this world, simple events took on a new significance. Tracy recalled the day the children found a stray orange floating down the river. A few months ago, they wouldn’t have given it a second glance. But in a community starved of fruit, it was a momentous occasion.

“And you know what?” Tracy said. “There was a segment for every kid.”

By Richard Jinman
January 18, 2005
Sydney Morning Herald