Becoming a Citizen

Every time I returned to Australia from overseas I found myself welcomed by the sound of the magpies. A sound that had once seemed so alien, was starting to bring the comfort of home.

Almost three years to the day since arriving in Australia, we became Australian citizens. For Vaughn it was a moment of elation. He was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in South Africa, but had never been an official citizen of any country before, although he held a British passport. I found myself in a guilt-ridden dilemma. To swear allegiance to Australia felt like cultural treachery.  I had never felt the urge to become a South African citizen, and for all my fifty-seven years considered myself British. But fortunately Australia allowed you to have dual citizenship, so I could still be an Aussie Pom. Or a pommie Sheila.

australian citizenship documents

The year before we went to Tonga there had been a military coup, and our news was full of how the government rushed in to get any Australian citizens out to safety. If that had happened while we were there, would we have been left behind, we wondered, with both South African and Australian permanent residence status stamped in our British passports.

So we went to the citizenship ceremony and pledged our loyalties to the Antipodes. We were greeted by the mayor and treated to songs from a bush band and some Aboriginal dancing accompanied by a didgeridoo. I found the sounds of the didge exciting and earthy and arousing. Then a local primary school choir sang some traditional Australian songs and I had to dig for the inevitable tissue at the sound of children’s voices, especially as there was a young Megan look-alike in the front row.


The thing that really thrilled me about the whole procedure was how welcoming Australians were. People seemed genuinely excited that we had made the decision to become Australian. I could be wrong, but I don’t think you would find that in Britain. We (that would be the part of me that is still English) seem far more parochial in our outlook. If I had been an Australian (or South African, or any other nationality) adopting British citizenship, people would look at me and say ‘But you’re not English. You weren’t born here. Your parents weren’t born here. How can you be English?’

It must be something to do with the multi-cultural society in Australia. Everyone who wasn’t an Aborigine must have come from somewhere else originally. But Vaughn and I noticed a strong feeling of patriotism in Australia that we had only felt in South Africa the one weekend in 1995 when South Africa won the World Cup rugby.

When we told our friends and colleagues that we had become Australian citizens, we received cards, plants, hugs and handshakes. Those people made us feel so welcome, how could we possibly not want to become one of them?

I began to accept that for me there would always be bleak days when the pain of missing my family was just too intense. On those days it did no good to count my blessings and remind myself how many people in the world were so much worse off. Those thoughts were for the good days when I could reaffirm my gratitude for being given so many privileges. Life is an adventure, and although I would never have chosen to emigrate even once, I am grateful to the men who have dragged me kicking and screaming to exotic places.



I was privileged in being able to visit my children and grandchildren every year. The hardest part of being away was the fear of becoming a distant shadowy figure who bought unsuitable presents because I didn’t know their tastes or their capabilities.

I wanted them to know that they could sms me at any time and I would phone them. If they needed to talk, I would listen without judging, and I would try to understand. And although I would seldom be present at their dancing competitions or rugby games, I was with them constantly in spirit. When they did well, I swelled with pride. When life or their own achievement disappointed them, my heart ached to comfort. Those feelings haven’t changed.

Each time I visited, whether it was South Africa or New Zealand, I spent an emotional hour or so in the airport departure lounge writing sad poetry, or depressing observations on the situation and all my scribblings had a certain commonality:

‘The airport again. A sleek white current-day pterodactyl sits outside the window. Curly ornate writing like graffiti decorates its chest. Perhaps it is my plane  –  the monster that will swallow me up and whisk me away from my children and regurgitate me back in another land, another life.

I mentally beat myself up for my thoughts because another love awaits me on the other side. My other half, we flippantly say. But without him I am incomplete. How fortunate am I to be surrounded by so much love?

The plane is gently reversing. It isn’t my plane. More time to sit and watch the travelling world. More time to indulge in longing for those small hands grabbing mine to haul me off to read a story or do a puzzle. More time to think of the things I forgot to tell their mothers, my beautiful daughters.’ (And now, regret over all the things I never had time to tell my precious son)

‘Women waft past my seat drenching the air with duty-free perfume; bumping into furniture with their bags of overpriced souvenirs and cheap booze. Glasses chink enticingly on the bar behind me. But it’s not wine I want. That liquid embrace has no warmth, no love.

An hour to wait before I leave this land and family behind me. Numbness seeps out from my core, and I wonder at the insensitivity of people who cheerfully and glibly describe the world as a global village.

I distract myself by looking at the traveller’s sensible travelling shoes. Heels ten centimetres high. Pointy toes with squared off ends. What misshapen feet lie within? Do they squirm and cry out in silent anguish? Flip-flops or thongs expose the hearty and the casual. Unpolished toenails and cracked heels. Will they freeze in the air-conditioned cabin? Runners new and ‘Omo-white’; runners old and favoured; pumps, pretty and delicate, dainty and frumpy, fussy and simple, on feet that could never dance. Or maybe they could. Who am I to judge?

I have ten minutes till boarding. Everyone will rush to the gate and stand in a queue. But we all have a seat, so why the rush? And when we land, even before the seatbelt sign is turned off, people are standing up, opening up baggage lockers in a frenzy to get to their phones within. Message peep sounds fill the air. And the people stand and stand and stand. And wait and wait and wait. Eventually the queue moves and we all meet up once more waiting endlessly for our luggage, watching the blue suitcase and black tog bag that nobody claimed go round and round and round.’airports



One thing that validated my existence was being back in the workforce, particularly doing a job I felt had some value. During my Aged Care course, I had to find myself a residential facility in which to do the required hundred and forty hour’s placement. I had noticed an aged care hostel just behind our local shops, and I had a strong feeling I should apply there. I put it off, never being fond of the phone, nor of pushing myself. They accepted me for my placement and kept me on as a casual PCA (Personal Care Assistant). Suddenly I had a job and I was being paid. I had finally re-invented myself and I had a sense of purpose.

I grew to love the residents and their stories and humour. One morning, I went in to make Albert’s bed, and have a chat at the same time. He was looking pretty smart, so I asked him if he was going out that day.

‘I think so,’ he said. ‘My son should be coming to pick me up later. But I don’t know what time. He’s always busy. You know what these young people are like.’

I was a bit taken aback, as Albert was in his nineties, so I asked him how old his son was.

‘Oh he must be about seventy,’ replied Albert.

These young people!

Moira who was suffering from shingles, was sitting in her room looking very sorry for herself. She had just been on the phone to her daughter, who had a cold.

‘Please could you phone her back for me, dear?’ Moira asked. ‘I don’t want her coming all this way when she’s not well. It’s all right for me. I’m ninety-eight years old and it doesn’t matter if I catch any more germs. But my daughter is only seventy-two and she’s got the whole of her life ahead of her…’ Such a different perspective. They made me feel like a spring chicken.

Then of course there were the residents with dementia.

‘Thank you for helping me, Jane. Your name is Jane, isn’t it?’

‘No. I’m Marian,’ I replied.

‘Oh. I wonder where I got that name from?’

‘Maybe I look like a Jane.’

‘Oh.’ Pause. ‘Well, goodnight then Jane. You are Jane, aren’t you?’

‘Um, I’m Marian,’ I replied.

‘Oh. I wonder where I got that name from?’

‘Maybe I remind you of someone called Jane.’

‘Oh.’ Pause. ‘Well, goodnight then Jane. You are Jane, aren’t you?’

‘Yep. That’s me!’

One day an old lady came up to me looking very upset. She said ‘I’ve lost my son’. I wasn’t sure if her son had died, or if she was back in the past looking for a small child. As I was delicately trying to ask the right questions it dawned on me that she was actually looking for her Sun newspaper!

Obviously all the names are fictitious, but the stories are fact. I reminded myself constantly that all those ladies were mothers and this could have happened to my own mother. Alzheimer’s is no respecter of academic or sporting achievements. In the Care Home there were doctors, teachers and ex-athletes, and I am proud to have had a part in maintaining their dignity and quality of life.

After assisting a group of ladies to make a Christmas banner I was invited to run some diversional therapy sessions on Saturday afternoons, which entailed keeping the residents stimulated and entertained. Every week I was nervous, and every week I reminded myself I was the facilitator not the entertainer. But actually I was the entertainer, and invariably I got home full of excitement because the ladies had enjoyed the activities and been really appreciative.

So when I had the opportunity to do the Lifestyle course, I leapt at it. When the low care ladies were encouraged to share stories from their youth, I always came away fascinated and humbled. Once I asked them ‘What was the naughtiest thing you ever did as a child?’ Their responses were shocking! One lady found green paint in the garage and proceeded to paint everything green: the doors, the walls, the car…..

Another saw her younger brother being bullied so joined in and punched the bullyboy. She knocked him out cold and thought she’d killed him.

Luckily they were all so busy laughing at each other’s misdemeanours that I didn’t have to to confess to mine, which, of course, would have had them all yawning with boredom after their own wickednesses!



Back at home I still had days where waves of homesickness and nostalgia swept over me. Victoria was suffering severe drought. From the time we arrived we watched green fields turn grey.

One morning in the middle of March, the temperature was already twenty-eight degrees at six o’clock. By eight the sun was filtering through the grey eucalyptus trees. In another mood the leaves might have looked silver, or tinged with blue, but that day they reflected the sombre tones of another forty-degree scorcher. The constant heat was debilitating nature. The earth was the colour of ash, the remains of life that once lived. Even the birds were quiet, flown to a more fruitful harvest.


Our house backed on to a reserve, through which I walked each morning. My feet crunched slowly through the forest, the ground crisp with dead plants and twigs. The dog rolled, looking for cool relief but finding only dust and dried leaves. The water level in the pond had dropped another hundred millimetres, increasing the concentration of algae that clung to the rocks and branches now visible on the shallow bottom. Ducks sat aimlessly floating on the thick surface, some paddling lethargically towards us in the hope of some seeds.

We did put wild birdseed and water out in the garden, but only the pigeons remained loyal to us. Lorikeets and rosellas had flown away, taking their bright splashes of colour with them.


The ‘hardy native’ shrubs withered before my eyes, more greyness above the grey mulch, although strangely, some of the imports survived.

The smell of dust took me back to a holiday we had in Bognor Regis as a child growing up in England. I remember walking along a hot pavement in anticipation of an ice-cream. Music and sounds are renowned for evoking memories, but I began to notice how many smells also took me to other places and other times. The scent of Australia’s yellow pollen-filled wattle flowers reminded me of my childhood at ‘Delapre’. In one of the greenhouses my father proudly grew a mimosa, although I never really knew why, as he suffered badly from hay fever, and the pollen can’t have been good for him. But he took pride in growing unusual plants, so I daresay it gave  him pleasure, as did the memory for me, so many years later.



More of Tonga

On the Friday we tucked into our breakfast without reserve. No boat trip looming ahead wagging its cautionary finger as we dug into the omelettes and pancakes. No fears of the marine toilet as we poured our second cups of coffee.Our ‘Whaleswim’ experience was over, but there was still more of Tonga to explore.

We took advantage of the conveniently low tide and walked across the rocks to the nearest island. To a non-geologist like me, the rocks were fascinating. Some were clearly volcanic, black and sharp-edged with no mercy. Some were white and looked like the frosted up icing on a Christmas cake. In other places the rock seemed to flow like molten lava embedded with petrified sea creatures, the Tongan Pompeii. All along the shore were strange-shaped small rocks that could have been the fossilised excretia of prehistoric life.


As we snorkelled over the corals we saw beautiful tropical fish  –  butterfly fish, emperor angelfish, triggerfish, parrotfish. A puffer fish was clearly taking a chance as he swam into a bush of coral. He didn’t get far before a shoal of iridescent blue fish chased him away. One coral had bright purple-blue tips and I thought it looked like a fibre optic Christmas tree.

The next day we flew to Nuku’alofa in the same rickety twelve-seater plane we had arrived in, but this time I had the ear plugs ready to mute the deafening engine noise.

On Sunday morning we were woken around five o’ clock by loud church bells. It would seem the Tongans have a short night on Saturday, as the roadside markets had been trading their kumara, coconuts and bananas until midnight.

We had booked an island tour, which involved hour-long trip on a dodgy boat. We made it safely to the Royal Sunset Island where we were greeted with a refreshing fruit cocktail. There were about nine people on that boat, people from all over he world. During conversation it transpired that one couple knew my daughter’s sister-in-law, who lived in  New Zealand.

Sometime over the previous few days I had managed to cut my foot and it was now beginning to turn septic, so I was anxious to get it into the sea for some relief.

We ate a barbeque lunch washed down with a couple of local beers before clambering aboard an even more dilapidated boat that would take us to the reef for some snorkelling. Fortunately the reef wasn’t too far out because as one person after another put their foot through the false bottom of the boat, I had a premonition we would be swimming back.

However the boat proved more sound than it appeared and we returned safely to Heilala Lodge, where we sampled a platter of local cuisine, of which the only flavoursome item was the grilled fish. When we were told it was the same parrotfish we had just been admiring in the sea, it rather lost its appeal.


The swim had not done much to cure the cut on my foot, but one of the other guests at the lodge suggested I make a bread poultice, so I taped a slice of bread to my foot and covered it with a sock before going to bed. I  expected to wake up with the first signs of blood poisoning, but instead, the bread had drawn out all the pus and the foot looked healthy enough to get me home.

We considered ourselves really privileged to have that holiday when we did. Our finances weren’t great, but somehow we managed. Our feeling was that commercial enterprises would soon be moving in to create a more sophisticated holiday environment, which would possibly result in stricter regulations regarding swimming with whales. We were really fortunate to see Tonga when we did. And above all, we swam with whales.


Our first morning in Tonga we awoke to grey skies and strong winds. The feeling was that the whaleboat wouldn’t go out today, so we relaxed with our books in a semi-sheltered spot on the beach. However, it wasn’t long before someone came running to tell us our boat was here.

We flew up to the fale to grab our gear and were rowed through clear turquoise water that was only waist deep to the waiting boat, where we were introduced to Anna the guide, and the rest of our group.

The boat stormed over the waves in search of the elusive whales, but luck wasn’t with us. We were about to jump out for some snorkelling in a sheltered bay when our skipper spotted a whale. As we approached we saw him curve up and out of the water. Then his tail came up and smacked the water before he disappeared from our sight. We returned to the relative calm of the sheltered bay where the brave ones dived through a dark tunnel into a cave.

whale 1

I came to the unpopular conclusion that women have better peripheral vision than men. I suppose it comes from the hunters and gatherers days. Men, the hunters have had to focus on a specific point, while we gatherers notice things of interest at the far parameters of our vision, be it whale spouts, edible fruits or shopping bargains. I once gathered children, now I gather memories.

The following morning the weather seemed better and we downed a breakfast of bacon, eggs and Kwells in a spirit of optimism.

We followed several fast-moving whales until we found one that wasn’t in a hurry. Anna only allowed four people in the water at one time. The first group slid into the water and appeared from our perspective on the boat, to be within touching distance of the giant humpback.

Then it was our turn. Before I had time to get nervous, we were in the water and doing the ‘Whaleswim shuffle’ towards the whale. This ‘dance’ had proved to minimalise splashing and cause less anxiety to the whales. It consisted of head down, bottom up and legs riding an imaginary underwater bicycle. As we approached, the whale swam to the bottom. The water was clear but very deep, so our visibility wasn’t good enough for photos.

Then she came up, bringing her calf with her. The calf swam around and moved on to the mother’s head where they rested for a while, and we gently trod water, transfixed.

I raised my head to clear my snorkel and saw the hump of the mother literally a metre away. Then I realised she was moving towards us and the rest of the group were back-pedalling away fast. I looked into the whale’s eye and it seemed as if time stood still. So much wisdom, so much peace, as she regarded me with mild curiosity. She glided past, so close I could have touched her, but she steered her calf gently by before swimming into deeper waters.

We were all on a huge adrenalin high, not through fear, but absolute awe. For me, it was as if there had always been an unformed question in my subconscious, and now I had an answer. I felt as if I understood something I never realised was a mystery. It was nothing tangible but a spiritual feeling that was still very much part of this world. I felt humbled that so huge a creature had been so aware of our presence yet unafraid of us. She had shown off her baby as any proud human mother would have done.

Later we followed a pod of four whales whooping through the water at great speed. In the lead was a female with her calf, closely pursued by two testosterone-loaded males.

On our final day we were treated to the sight of a mother humpback teaching her calf to breach. They appeared to be having such fun in the water, oblivious of our existence. Yet for us it was a spectacular personal performance, outclassing any aquarium super-show. They rolled over, they lobbed, they breached, each activity greeted with an ‘ooh’ or an ‘ah’ and a battery of clicking cameras from the boat. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day to complete our Whaleswim experience.




During our second year in Australia we had the opportunity to fulfil a lifetime dream. When Vaughn and I lived in South Africa we paid an annual pilgrimage to the Cape coast each September to watch the southern right whales. Every year between July and November, whales come into Walker Bay to breed. Cows bring their calves in so close to the shore one could almost touch them, if that were allowed. We used to walk along the rugged shoreline until we found a whale or two playing in the shallows, then sit and watch until they swam away.

When we came across an advert for a holiday in Tonga where you could swim in the water with whales, we booked straight away.


Even before we arrived at the Whaleswim destination, the Tonga we saw was a another new experience. We flew into the airport at Tongatapu, where any thoughts of buying lunch were a Western World fantasy. There were none of the duty-free shops or fast food outlets that we were used to. Just some plastic chairs and an empty coca cola machine.

As we came out of the International airport locals approached us offering taxi transfers to the domestic airport, trips to town and full island tours. Vaughn seemed to be accepting an offer, but I clearly retained some of my South African mistrust, as I didn’t feel comfortable and was sure we were going to be ripped off or abandoned somewhere in the jungle.

At the domestic terminal our tickets were not available so we accepted the offer of a ride into town, sceptical though I was. It would be an adventure. Better than sitting in the airport for five hours on hard plastic chairs.

We passed a large building that we were told was the king’s palace. On the opposite side of the road, discreetly shielded by a clump of trees, was the house of the old queen. At intervals beside the road we saw colourful graveyards consisting of three or four mounds of sand topped with flowers, garlands and banners.

We drove through the thousands of coconut palms we had seen from the air. From above it looked like neat allotments, rectangular and separate. From the ground it seemed haphazard, the random scatterings of nature. Our driver told us the plants between the palms produced tapioca.

Fortunately his taxi had good brakes, because the road was owned by fat lactating sows, followed by piglets the size of rabbits. Dogs of undetermined genealogy roamed freely.

We reached the town where the majority of buildings had been flattened during the previous year’s coup. The remaining shops contained half-empty shelves. We stopped for a cool drink, but there was no bottled water, no fruit juice, nor any sort of sugar-free soda. We later heard that diabetes is a big problem in Tonga.

From the town we drove out through roads of increasing rural appearance. My apprehension grew in direct proportion to the decrease in the width of the road. Strangely, the sight of a trampoline in someone’s garden seemed reassuring. The comfort of the familiar.

We stopped under a tree where our gaze was directed upwards to about a hundred flying foxes or fruit bats hanging like Halloween decorations. Without thinking I put my hands to my neck as a Dracula-like shape flew over my head.


From there we drove to the Blow Holes. All along the shore the thundering crashes of waves echoed as fountains of spume erupted through the tight holes in the rocks. The air was full of a power that was almost physical. I could have stayed longer, absorbing energy from the ocean, but it was necessary to return to the airport.


Although there was no sign of either our tickets or a voucher, we were eventually told we could board. Every passenger was weighed with their baggage, and the total weight  called out loudly for all to hear, while the pilot made some basic calculations. There were a couple of very large Tongan gentlemen present, so my eighty  kilograms seemed modest.

The twelve-seater plane was loaded although there were only six of us on board, plus the two pilots.  The safety drill was so casual that several people looked surreptitiously under their seats to check if they had life jackets. For a deafening hour we bounced through the clouds until with a roar and a screech we made a perfect landing in Neiafu.

We ran through the rain into the tiny terminal building, where we were relieved to find someone waiting to meet us. Into a taxi and on to a boat we piled our paraphernalia, smiling to ourselves at how our children would be amused that we had as usual, brought the rain with us on holiday. The sea was choppy and I was sitting dangerously close to a stack of two hundred and forty eggs.

It took over an hour to reach our island resort, but we arrived without mishap and were shown to our gloriously unsophisticated fale. The resort had been built, mostly from local materials, in an area hand-cleared of dense jungle. Our cabin or fale was made of wood with walls of woven palm leaves.


After a cursory wash in the open-air shower we went to explore. The island was totally wind and solar-powered, hence the stipulation that no hair-dryers were allowed. We found the four windmills whizzing round furiously in the strong wind.

As darkness fell, we weaved our way up to the bar and restaurant where we met members of the previous Whaleswim group.

After a meal of delicious fresh tuna, as good as any meal you could get in Melbourne, we retired early. Considering the noise of the elements, and pillows that felt like bags stuffed with tennis balls, we slept well, excitedly anticipating  getting up close and personal with whales the next day.