The Colony: articles

group photo

LEFT TO RIGHT: Eli Hohnke, Steve Keogh, Jakob, Kerry, Linkan, Kashire and Kerry Hohnke and Paul Ward at the Hohnke "home". Photo: Lee Besford

Wet and weary

Rain is inconvenient for most people, but when you are living in a timber hut with dirty flooring, it can get downright miserable. But then, life in an early Australian colony was not meant to be easy.

Halfway through the filming of the SBS television documentary series The Colony, Tracy Hohnke’s worst nightmare has been realised.

Mrs Hohnke and her family were chosen from hundreds of volunteers to spend nearly four months recreating life as a group of 19th century settlers on the Hawkesbury River. She confessed before the start of filming in August that she was terrified of hitting a patch of endless drizzle, and last week she did.

The rules of The Colony have been strict. Unless there is a medical emergency, no modern props are allowed. That means no heating, no raincoats and no warm clothes.

Mrs Hohnke, her husband Kerry, and their four children Kashire, 15, Jakob, 12, Eli, 9, and Linkan, 5, have been walking outside barefoot to spare their one set of shoes. And they still have daily chores to perform, such as milking the cow and ploughing the vegetable patch.

The Hohnkes, from Tasmania, are one of three families and a handful of “convicts” who have signed up for the series, which producer Chris Hilton describes as “living history”.

Apart from a small amount of money to compensate for lost income, the participants do not receive any financial reward for their ordeal, nor is there a winner’s prize. Getting through to the end of filming is the sole object.

“Everyone is in survival mode,” Mrs Hohnke said, frying salted beef over the fire. “It has been a roller-coaster ride. It drains the hell out of you.”

The Hohnkes play recently freed convicts and are the poorest of the lot. The Hurley family, from Dublin, play Irish settlers and the Stephensons from South Yorkshire are English and therefore the most privileged.

When they arrived on an isolated riverfront block seven weeks ago, they were given a tent each, some basic provisions and tools, and assigned convicts.

Mr Hilton had predicted before the series that some tensions would arise due to the lack of equity. He also thought there would be national rivalry. Without giving away too much, he has been proved correct.

To be fair, the families and convicts are under enormous pressure. There is the real threat of a bushfire and the site is alive with funnel-webs and snakes. Building houses has been a battle, using local hardwood and a crosscut saw. The absence of toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo and toilet paper means hygiene standards have fallen dramatically. And most of The Colony team have lost weight. Mrs Hohnke has lost nine kilograms, and some of the others have hollowed cheeks and look drawn from fatigue.

But their sheer inventiveness has been impressive. All the families have built small timber huts, fashioned beds out of branches and made bedding out of hessian sacks and bracken. They’ve dug wells, made chimneys and built pens for chickens, goats and pigs. Their skills have been particularly apparent in the kitchen. Until the vegetable garden is ready, they have to endure the monotony of salted beef, flour, rice, oats, split peas and the occasional onion, as well as produce from their animals.

Despite the difficulties, none of the three families admit to missing the outside world much. The only things all of them say they are truly pining for are their dogs.

The Colony starts screening on SBS on Australia Day.

By Danielle Teutsch
October 24, 2004
The Age