August 31st 2011
Christine Assange recalls her Magnetic Island days
“I’ve been approached by journalists from all over the world who I have turned down,” said, Christine Assange, mother of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. “But I called you because I love Magnetic Island and I was really heartened by the quality of journalism in Magnetic Times and I’m comfortable enough to trust you with my story,”
They were comments which made your editor blush to be sure but even more because the opportunity to report on Christine Assange’s Magnetic Island story has been a holy grail for this Magnetic Island scribe for many months.
“I was raised in the country. My parents moved to Townsville from the country. I’m a country person who loves the bush. I was a jilleroo at 16. I love animals, theatre, beautiful tropical islands, puppetry and art and used to sell my paintings at a coffee shop in Townsville. I enjoyed the simple life.” said Christine who lived with Julian and, early on, with husband Brett Assange (Julian’s step father), on Magnetic on three separate occasions between 1971 and 1984.
She brought baby Julian to Picnic Bay as a single mum after Cyclone Althea in 1971. Leading a meagre but obviously contented lifestyle, work for this strong young woman included wielding a machette with Brett; slashing blocks of guinea grass - which can reach two metres following a good wet. “It was cheaper to hire us than bring over a machine from town,” said Christine who, like so many Islanders over the years, spent some of her time also working for one of the Island’s iconic businesses: Rent-a-Mokes.
Young Julian used to play with the children of friends, Sue and Ken. Ken was a local fisherman and Sue’s recollections of the times were sketchy but she said of Christine: “She lived a simple life with her little boy. She was quite an intelligent person as I remember.”
Other friends included a Marie and Andy who ran the Recreation Camp in Picnic Bay and a young marine biology student named Denise or Denny whose son, Maury, played with Julian.
Christine recalls a trip with Ken and Sue to White Lady Bay where Clarrie Scrivener, the original lessee of that idyllic haunt, “made a living betting on horse racing but in a place that looked like something out of the Swiss Family Robinson.”
The trip may well have impressed young Julian too, “He loved to read widely including adventure books like Treasure Island, Tarzan and Swiss Family Robinson.” It’s a childhood that Christine says was similar to her own. “I wanted the same for him.” she said.
Getting close to nature is a Magnetic Island specialty and Christine remembers a brolga which escaped from the (now closed) Koala Park in Horseshoe Bay. “It strolled down the main street balefully eyeing off the tourists who hid behind doors and peeped out of windows. I think it knew too well it was a protected species,” she laughs.
She vividly recalls some of Magnetic’s more colourful characters. Vic McCormick, the tall, tanned, silver headed owner of the Rent-a-Moke firm and a, “simple” fellow who “hung soft toys on his clothes line and also worked on the mokes”. He rang work one morning to advise Vic, “I can’t come to work. God has told me, not today!”. Vic duly noted the problem and a little later rang the true believer back to say, “I’ve just had a word with God myself and he said to cancel the last call - you can come in.” The fellow arrived soon after.
It seems that God was a frequent visitor to Magnetic and spotted by Christine in the shape of a local who was, ”often about wearing a Jesus-like white kaftan.”
“Then one morning we were waiting for the ferry when he showed up. Vic McCormick, the wag, was also waiting to board when he said to messianic-looking fellow traveller, ‘I suppose you’ll be walking to town today’”.
Christine rejects the stereotype that she was a “hippy”. “I wore a sarong and I would put Julian on my back to take him on treks around the Island. I didn’t drink alcohol or smoke dope or follow an eastern religion. I wasn’t a hippy but I think people want to label you because you don’t fit in a box.”
The remaining platform of Pat's (now demolished) hut on
Nobby Head overlooking Picnic Bay
Christine’s favourite Island settlement is Picnic Bay and she fondly recalls climbing up onto Nobby Head, where her friend Pat - “An elegant, refined and retired, English gent and former chef lived”. Pat lived in the now-demolished stone hut which stood on the tip of the headland for many decades, “It had a Mediterranean charm. A bedroom out of the elements and a veranda”.
A safari-suited Pat would visit Townsville and return with foods to make a delicious feast. “He’d invite people up for dinner. No one had any money but from his tumble-down stone shack we’d look down over the crystal blue water. We’d sit on the veranda and think we were totally happy and privileged with Pat asking, in his cultured English voice, “Another pate?”
“Who wouldn’t love the Island?” says Christine. “You didn’t have to have a lot of money to live a privileged lifestyle. It was so beautiful. There was a ‘live and let live’ attitude and at night, when the ferries stopped, we felt cut off from the world and its troubles. There was a sense of safety and security”.
“I would often draw while Julian as a baby or young child slept peacefully alongside under the trees or in the shade of the jetty or big boulder by the sparkling blue sea,” she says.
A sketch by Christine of Julian asleep - aged four (Image courtesy of Christine Assange)
Christine’s first house in Picnic Bay, located on Granite Street and now renovated beyond recognition, had “wooden louvres from ceiling to floor and a big mango tree. It was divided into two bedrooms with a kitchen and lounge and a (now enclosed) veranda”.
As for young Julian, Christine corrected some previous reportage which suggested that, on Magnetic Island, Julian had his own horse, built rafts and went down mine shafts and tunnels. “The story of his childhood was a composite of a few locations.”
Christine’s and Julian’s favourite haunts included the swimming enclosure at Picnic - formerly a slatted shark-proof structure where the seasonal stinger net is now located.
The Assanges also lived in the ground level of these flats on the Esplanade at Picnic Bay. The flats have since been extensively renovated
The Picnic Bay jetty was another. According to Christine, Julian fished but preferred to look at nature. He would snorkel around the jetty where he could see the big trevally - which still come in after the bait fish or, “be off exploring the Island with Poss (Possum), his dog, bringing home nature treasures or climbing up through the boulders, swinging from giant fig tree roots or riding his bike.”
Julian also shared the delight many locals and visitors enjoy, “...exploring Nelly Bay at low tide to observe sea creatures.” He was, like others, excited when phosphorescent phytoplankton would rupture in a green-blue flash as waves broke on the beach.
“He was a very curious, inquisitive child with a great sense of adventure and a great love of the wilderness,” said Christine, adding, “He wasn’t scrawny as somebody said but wiry and nimble.”
Julian at Picnic Bay (Image courtesy of Christine Assange)
Like so many Islanders who remember the experience on board the old timber, mono-hulled, Mandalay, “Julian loved the ferry ride to town with Poss up at the bow sniffing the wind as the boat pitched and tossed,”
As has been reported, the Assanges lived for a time in Horseshoe Bay in a very simple bungalow which burnt down, leaving them with almost nothing.
For Island history buffs the only known structure along that stretch of Horseshoe Bay road at the time, which burned down in 1984, was located in what is now the back yard of Karen Hellum who is excited that her block has a link with such history.
There were rifle cartridges in the house (used for shooting snakes) which went off during the blaze. Christine doesn’t know what caused the fire, “We were out having dinner at the time.”
With most of their possessions gone, Christine and Julian urgently needed another place to live, they moved to what was known locally as, “The Noddy House” on Apjohn Street - a tiny 6 x4 metre single roomed abode with a small front veranda. “We slashed our way to the door and around the the house. With traditional push-out shutters, life was, “very close to nature and possums would run across our beds in the night”.
Julian attended Town High (in Townsville) briefly, but Christine felt it was a bit rough. They left the area soon after in 1984. Julian was 13.
With a deep-felt love for Magnetic Island and for the kind of community she experienced here, Christine reflects, “The Island was a place full of characters - a mix of people who needed to get away from the city, to think or be still, to take a break from the ‘joys’ of civilisation.
“Magnetic Island is well named. People keep coming back, again and again. There’s something special about the Island - not a wealthy place but where ordinary people can take a break.
“I think there should be hefty (ferry) discounts for people who live in Townsville and on the Island. I remember when the costs were not prohibitive for people on low incomes. Magnetic Island doesn’t belong to the tourist industry.
“If you could be bothered coming all the way up (from down south) and want to fit in with the locals then great. But accommodation should just be small and simple with a focus on nature and the unique character of the Island: the night calls of the curlew, rock wallabies on the foreshore at dusk, the visits by mother possums and their babies, the circling sea hawks, the echidnas on bush tracks and the koalas in the trees.
“It’s a pity how big money got hold of Nelly Bay.” she adds.
As for Julian’s feelings toward the Island that was once home to him as a boy, Christine said, “I cant say, except that he still loves to travel to remote wilderness areas and finds comfort and solace in nature and great joy in the challenges of physical adventure.”
Julian sits in a tractor tyre with Poss (Image courtesy Christine Assage)
And while Magnetic Times has sought, mostly in vain, to find Islanders with clear recollections of Christine and Julian, in talking with scores of them over the last few months, the sentiment towards the man, described by Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, Robert Manne as, “undoubtedly the most consequential Australian of the present time,” has been strongly supportive. Often locals would venture an opinion without any prompting and, in so many cases, it would be in admiration for somebody who has stood up to the powerful and exposed many dark truths to a sunlight as strong as that found so often on Magnetic Island.
As a post-script to this story Christine expressed concerns that her son’s story in the wider press had been, “sensationalised, thus distorting the facts”. She told Magnetic Times, “If people are seeking to inform themselves of the truth about Wikileaks and Julian’s extradition case, they could view the following websites.”
1. brisbanewikileaksdefence.blogspot.com (which includes Christine’s hand
written letter to Kevin Rudd)
2. wlcentral.org/node/1414 (Meeting March 2 /2011 Parliament House- legal and diplomatic briefings to MPs re Julian Assange extraditon)
Story: George Hirst
(Magnetic Times has been granted exclusive use of the images above of Julian Assange. Copyright remains the property of Christine Assange)
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