The Colony: articles

The way we were

The Colony will put an Irish family, an English family and an Australian family (no joke) in a TV version of early colonial Australia with nothing but their wits to survive on. Danielle Teutsch and David Jones report on the task ahead.

As the sun sinks over Bass Strait, Kerry Hohnke knocks the top off his second Boags with a satisfying hiss. “It’s the last one of these I’ll see for a while,” he says, taking a swig. “There won’t be much to drink in the colony, except some dirty undercut rum.

Hohnke moves into the kitchen to put on the kettle to make his wife, Tracy, a cup of tea. It’s the last time he’ll be doing that for a while as well. Sharing household chores is a 21st century curiosity. In the early 1800s, men were too busy splitting wood, making fences and tending to livestock to worry about such women’s work.

In the last few days, such ordinary actions have taken on extraordinary significance for the Hohnkes and their four children—Kashire, 15, Jakob, 12, Eli, 9, and Linkan, 5—who live in Tasmania. Because they are about to be jolted from their comfortable 21st century life and set down in the crudest, harshest period of white Australian history.

Some time in the next two weeks, the Hohnkes will fly to Sydney. From there they will set sail by tall ship and four days later be put down at a secret location somewhere on the NSW coast. With little more than the shirts on their backs and some rudimentary equipment to their names, they will then begin to re-create the life of a farming family in the earliest days of the new British colony. For four months, they will live alongside two other settler families and an Aboriginal clan as they make the documentary series The Colony, which is set to screen early next year on SBS TV and The History Channel in the UK.

It’s not reality television, insists producer Chris Hilton. There are no group votes or prizes or desperate stunts. “I prefer to call it living history,” he says.

“What we wanted was families that were robust enough to continue this experience. It’s much tougher than anything that’s been done before. We need someone with staying power.”

The Hohnkes and the other two families—the Stephensons, from England, and the Hurleys, from Ireland—have been carefully chosen for their ability to withstand the vicissitudes of life in the early days of the colony. They will have no toothpaste, shampoo, sunscreen, tampons, pain killers or insect repellent. There will be no phones, television or music (unless they learn to make their own instruments). The families will construct their own shelters, wash in copper pots, and tend livestock and crops for food. If they want to eat they will have to kill it or grow it first.

“All we know is that we will have a tent to start with,” Kerry Hohnke says. “The rest will be up to us.”

As she sips her tea, Tracy Hohnke watches as Linkan and Eli raid the lolly tin. Normally she would pull them into line but today she lets them empty the lollies all over the kitchen counter before grabbing them by the handful. Considering the ordeal they are about to withstand, they can be forgiven a little indulgence.

“You’re going to miss the lollies, aren’t you?” she murmurs to Linkan, who is busy gobbling up bright red jubes. “I’m going to have to learn to cook with treacle.”

On the table is a copy of Australian Colonial Cookery, borrowed from the library. It is full of recipes for such foods as salted beef, boiled shoulder of mutton and sago pudding. The Hohnkes, accustomed to a diet of Asian vegetables, rice and pasta, will have to adjust their palates radically if they are to enjoy (or at least tolerate) their new monochrome diet.

“You don’t realise how much we have today until you go back in time,” says Tracy. “There will be no Vegemite, no peanut butter, all of those things you normally put on sandwiches.”

Tracy has also been reading up on bush foods, and on how to make soap from ash and lard. She is afraid of the heat, and dreading the ungainly toeskimming dresses she will have to wear. But her worst fear is that the drought will break spectacularly during the next four months of filming The Colony, resulting in weeks of rain, mud and misery. “Drying clothes and lighting a fire in pouring rain will be the hardest thing, and keeping the kids out of soaking clothes.”

The Hohnkes are the kind of self-sufficient, practical couple who can turn their hand to anything. Kerry is a self-described “jack of all trades” who left school at 14. His CV reads like an index of the Yellow Pages—he’s done grape picking, fencing, dairy and farm work, commercial laundering, concrete watertank construction, tractor driving, tree lopping, landscaping and carpeting. Now, he runs a flower farm and works at the Jolly Roger restaurant in the scenic town of Boat Harbour, where the family have made their home for the past two years.

Not to be outdone, Tracy lists some of her skills as tree planting, fabric painting, sewing and crocheting, and sports coaching. She is also home schooling her three elder children. “I get bored easily,” she says.

The family used to live in the hinterland of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, but decided, on a whim, to move after returning from a 10-month camping expedition around Australia. The trip was cut short when Tracy discovered she was pregnant with Linkan, so after his birth they decided to go to the one state they had missed on their trip, Tasmania.

They crossed Bass Strait on the ferry with a four-wheel drive stuffed with pets, children and a few bags and set up a new home. Just like that.

With an equally impressive lack of angst, they posted off an entry to appear on The Colony after seeing a TV ad inviting people to “Step Back in Time”.

According to Hilton, their application video was so shaky and underexposed that initially they were discounted. But one of the series directors decided to meet them anyway while in Tasmania to interview another applicant family nearby. Immediately, he knew the Hohnkes were the family they were after.

After a round of medical and psychological tests, the Hohnkes were told they had been chosen from the 500 Australian families who applied.

Hilton says the filmmakers were struck by the family’s ease in each other’s company. On the night the director visited, Kashire was lying by the fire, completely blase and uninterested while one of the boys painted her toenails.

“The kids are really relaxed and comfortable with each other,” Hilton says. “The mother, Tracy, is an incredibly nurturing person. She’s terribly supportive of them all. Kerry seems like a good character, and they have a solid relationship. I must say, I feel a touch of envy at their lifestyle.”

Most importantly, Hilton says the family was confident they could travel back in time 200 years. And they’ll have to be; the show’s success depends on all the participants sticking out the four months.

“What we wanted to find was families that were robust enough to continue this experience,” Hilton says. “It’s much tougher than anything that’s been done before. We need someone with staying power.”

The Hohnkes may have some small advantage in the series. Cast as members of the first generation of “true-born” Australians—descendants of the convicts who arrived from England a generation earlier—they will be more familiar with the landscape than their fellow settlers.

But they will be the lowest family on the social ladder. At the top will be the English Stephenson family (more on them later), who will play free settlers trying their hand at farming. In the middle is the Hurley clan. Dubliner Maurice, a teacher in real life, will play a newly released Irish political prisoner who has served a seven-year sentence in Australia handed down by the English. He has decided to remain in the New World and his wife Patricia, 45 (also a teacher in real life), and their children—twins Susan and Declan, 18, Deirdre, 14, and Kate, 10—have joined him. Like the Hohnkes, the 19th century Hurleys would have harboured a deep loathing towards the English Stephensons.

Such social dynamics will be important to the entertainment value of The Colony, as Chris Hilton readily acknowledges. “Will they be likeable? Will they handle the strain? How will they get along with the other people? Now, they are the questions.

“It’s fairly inevitable that national rivalry will come into it, the Poms versus the Aussies,” he continues. “In fact, a lot of applicants for the show said they wanted to do it to ‘beat the Poms’. It will be interesting to see how it develops, if the Australians form an alliance with the Irish.”

The families will be able to trade with each other and, just to make things interesting, a “governor” of the colony will make and change laws determining such things as farming practices and taxes.

Apart from the competitive aspect, Hilton believes Australian viewers will be keen to witness the germination of their own national identity. “In the early days, the Rum Corps was running the place. It was a corrupt authority, so Australians developed a complete distrust of authority, so we hope to see how the unique Australian character is brought out of those elements,” he says. “The Hohnkes represent the first Australian convicts who became free. Essentially, they were the first Australians.”

If Hilton is hoping for a little competitive tension between the families on The Colony, Tracy and Kerry Hohnke seem up for it. The pair share a strong anti-establishment streak and larrikin humour. Neither of them is particularly religious.

Tracy admits she can be “opinionated” and says she is a born stirrer. Already she has delightedly fed the British press juicy morsels about how English culture has forced itself on Australia.

“I have trouble keeping my mouth shut,” she admits. “I don’t like people who put themselves on pedestals. If people are like that, I make a point of bringing them down.”

Kerry is the quieter of the two but confesses he doesn’t like bowing to authority either, and is none too fond of “smart arses”.

While both seem likely to provide the necessary drama needed to fuel the show, the couple are clear that they are doing The Colony because they genuinely think it will be fun.

“The way I see it, we are privileged to have this chance,” says Tracy. “We’re looking forward to leaving behind the bills, phones and especially the driving. It will be good to be able to step back and have this confinement.”

She is hoping to get fit, too, while Kerry is looking forward to learning leatherwork and other crafts. The boys see it as one big adventure.

The only reluctant participant is Kashire, who at 15, is at that delicate teenage phase where intrusion into her life of any sort is unwelcome. If she does crack, she has the cold comfort of knowing that it will be recorded for the edification of an international television audience.

Tracy, as usual, remains resolutely confident and optimistic that Kashire, like all of them, will pull through with grace and humour.

“Our life philosophy is centred around our family,” she says. “We will be together through thick and thin.”

The Stephenson family’s handsome threestorey detached house in the Yorkshire countryside—which they built themselves to enviably professional standards—is abuzz with last-minute preparations. John, the father, is trying to make a mosquito net without string or mesh, while his partner, Liz, is thinking up tasty recipes for freshly skinned wombat, snake and kangaroo roasted over a brushwood fire.

Meanwhile, their daughter Carina, 16, has abandoned the internet chat rooms to surf for information about funnel-web spiders and other poisonous creepy-crawlies that might threaten the family’s safety out in the bush. And her brother, Tyler, 12, has pitched his tent in the garage to get used to sleeping outdoors.

Given the Stephensons’ resourcefulness, they will surely be ready for anything Australia can throw at them. But John is a tad concerned that Liz, who is as trim and beautiful as she was when they met on a kibbutz in 1985, might fall for one of the muscled young “convicts” who will be assigned to work for them. “She’s very bossy, so she scares men who think a woman belongs at the kitchen sink,” he says. “But if she gets friendly with one of those 18-year-old Aussie lads—well, you never know what might happen, do you?”

John, 41, is the maintenance man at Cantley Hall, a Georgian mansion on a 160-hectare estate in Doncaster, and Liz, 37, is a special needs teaching assistant. As free settlers in The Colony they will be given 40 hectares of land—significantly more than their Irish and Australian neighbours—plus basic provisions and tools, including a tent to live in while they build a cabin.

The Stephensons won the chance to portray the family of fortune-seeking migrants leaving Yorkshire in 1800 after spotting a newspaper advertisement headed “Up For a Challenge In Oz?”. On meeting them, it is obvious why the production team chose them from among 2000 applicants. They are spirited, unflappable, self-reliant and work as a team—one look at their DIY house tells you that.

“We could have so easily gone for an arrogant, upper-class English family to fulfil the stereotype,” says Chris Hilton. “But they would never have stuck it out. In the end, we went for a down-to-earth Yorkshire family. The Stephensons are very likeable, and viewers don’t want to watch people they don’t like. The daughter is very strong and determined, the mother always burns the dinner, and the family always laugh. They are brilliant.”

But why would anyone in their right mind volunteer to spend four dangerous, dirty, lonely, undernourished months re-enacting the experiences of the first free settlers? There are no prizes for winning The Colony—the aim of which, says Hilton, is simply “survival with grace”.

When they land in Sydney, the Stephensons will meet their fellow settlers, the Hurleys and the Hohnkes, and be given new identities. Intriguingly, John and Liz will portray a couple who are, in many ways, a 19th-century version of themselves—adventurous, aspirational Yorkshire folk, out to improve their lot by their own endeavours.

Today, they have become relatively affluent by improving or rebuilding a succession of houses, then selling them at a handsome profit. They live in a million-dollar home with no mortgage. In classridden 1800, however, their only way of joining the landed gentry would have been to take advantage of the new, get-rich-quick scheme offered by the Whig government.

Keen to colonise the vast new island discovered by Captain Cook in 1770—and populated only by nomadic Aborigines and a few thousand convicted criminals shipped from England as punishment—the British government offered sizeable chunks of land to anyone brave or foolish enough to risk sailing away to a new life in the South Seas.

Though their landholding puts the Stephensons at an immediate advantage, none of the participants will be kitted out luxuriously. The men will dress in simple cotton shirts and loose-fitting hose to suit the Australian summer; the women will find comfort more elusive. Modesty being a prerequisite of the day, they must swelter under woollen bonnets, ankle-length dresses and tightly buttoned tunics.

The only luxury items handed out by Britain’s colonial governors in the standard “settler’s pack” were unscented soap and a mirror (ironically, the Stephensons do not have one hanging in their house in Yorkshire). “It’s a good job we’re not manicured, get-your-hair-done-every-week types,” says Carina, a plain-speaking tomboy who wears combat trousers. “But I’m a bit put out at having to wear a dress. I don’t even own one.”

Once the families are rowed ashore from the tall ship, they will need to think about protecting their meagre provisions from goannas, wombats and the like. The settlers will receive salt beef and tinned pork, vinegar, spices, rough wine, fishing hooks, a saw and vegetable seeds. They will also keep farm animals—but first they will have to catch them and construct wooden pens to keep them in.

Each family will be allocated three convicts—two men and a woman—to help with their chores. These servants must work from dawn until dusk, with just two breaks: 30 minutes for breakfast and 45 minutes for lunch. Slackers can be punished any way their masters see fit (though flogging is forbidden).

As Chris Hilton says: “It will be fascinating to see how they react in the early days. It’s up to them to decide what to do. They might enclose the animals first, or build a house. They might compete with one another or co-operate. It is really man versus nature; their experiences will be driven by their need to survive. And, of course, there will be some unexpected hurdles to keep them on their toes.”

The Stephensons look well suited for the task at hand. Neither John nor Liz is particularly academic, and both are small in stature, but they are physically and mentally strong, and were raised to a life of practicality. John left school at 16 to become an apprentice engineer. He now does all the maintenance on the estate of Cantley Hall, where he works, and can tackle almost any task.

Although Liz looks very feminine, with blonde hair and blue eyes, she is also an ace handywoman with what John laughingly calls “a fetish for wood”. Both her parents did manual jobs, and at high school she was thrown out of the French class and made to do metalwork. She has since completed a joinery course.

The youngsters are chips off the old block—Tyler has just built a superb den in the woods and Carina helped her mother to tile their roof. They will need all their skills to construct a log cabin, even though an old bushman will be on hand to help them to master such arts as chopping and scaling a stringy-bark tree.

For Liz, however, there are more pressing worries. “My main concern is the children’s safety,” she says. “There are going to be dangers and you’ve got to protect them properly.”

Filling their stomachs presents another problem. Both John and Liz are animal lovers and the prospect of slitting a pig’s throat or strangling a chicken does not appeal.

Nor does hunting with a woomera. “It’s not nice,” says John. “But it’s different if you have to feed your family. I’d rather catch fish, but I will kill a pig if I have to.”

Liz says: “I think it’s going to be hard eating a meal that was walking around your plot just before you cooked it. The original settlers used to have to kill and eat a sheep on the same day, otherwise it would be crawling with maggots.”

Just in case their nerve fails them at the last, they have gained weight to put off the effects of near-starvation. “I’ve been diving into the biscuit tin whenever possible,” says Liz.

“I always had a six-pack, but now I’ve got a onepack,” adds John, grabbing his modest spare tyre.

Since their cabin will be a single room crammed with beds, a wood fire, and whatever furniture they can make, the four are resigned to living on top of one another, and believe they will get along without squabbling. But John and Liz accept that their love life will suffer. “If he gets giddy I’ll send him down to the river to cool off,” giggles Liz.

“There’ll be nothing going on in that cabin,” he says.

The couple believe they’ll mix well with their Irish and Australian neighbours. However, the treatment of the convicts is a matter for debate.

Liz is all for working with them “shoulder to shoulder”, but fears John will act the colonial landlord. “His first reaction was to tie them up at night,” she says.

“It’ll be nice to boss people around because I do what other people tell me most of the time,” John counters. “I think I’ll enjoy that. I’ll work with them, but maybe not do as much manual labour.”

So what will they miss most about home? For Liz, it’s her new king-size bed; for Tyler, his den and his dog. John can’t think of anything much, apart from tuna sandwiches. As for Carina, she wishes they could live in The Colony for longer than four months.

“I’ll quote you on that in a few weeks’ time,” smiles her father, adding: “I think there will be tears, and tempers are bound to fray when you have sleep deprivation and not enough food. That said, I think it will be a life-changing situation. The excitement’s starting to build now, and I feel like a kid at Christmas waiting for my presents. We really don’t know what’s waiting around the corner.”

- With The Mail on Sunday

By Danielle Teutsch and David Jones
August 22, 2004
The Age