In 1788, when Captain John Hunter, the first recorded Scotsman to step foot on Australian soil finally regained his shaky landlubbers legs after two hundred and fifty two uncomfortable days at sea, he undoubtedly gazed around in bewilderment at the harsh dry environment laid out before him and wondered at what sort of adventures lay ahead for him and his family.
Two hundred and thirteen years after John Hunter’s arrival, flying at some 26,000 feet over the New Territories or ‘The Top End’ as the Australians fondly call it; I too was staring down at a red dusty soil below, also speculating as to what form this new chapter in my new life was to take.
Eighteen years had passed since1983, when I had last visited Australia, on that occasion participating in an exchange arrangement between the British and the Australian Army. Although from that experience, I had a fair idea of what Australia and its people were about, I was still acutely aware that a country and its culture could change dramatically over that period of time, particularly a country which over the last two centuries had developed swiftly from its unique beginnings as a harsh convict settlement into an economically strong, modern, multicultural society, full of fiercely determined and independent people now well able to take their place among the other major league governments on the world’s stage. Unlike my fellow countryman, Captain Hunter, I knew that there would be no fierce indigenous natives, waiting on my arrival, endeavouring to force me, spears drawn, violently from their historic land… but there was still the Immigration Department to deal with…!
Let me explain. Australia has extremely strict immigration laws and gaining a residency visa is not unlike squeezing blood from a stone. There are the hundred and twenty-seven pages of various decipherable forms, posing all sorts of meaningless questions about your race, religion, income, parents, parent-parents, what food you eat, where you shop, what you watch on television and what colour socks you wear on a Tuesday. Then there are the medicals, chest X-rays, blood tests, flexibility tests, immunisation records, police background checks (evidently it is not a pre-requisite for entry to have a criminal record today), more questionnaires, interviews at the High Commission, affidavits, statements, more questions, more forms, more interviews and copious amounts of other red tape mumbo jumbo to complete, all this taking about nine months to accomplish. Being married to an Australian as I had been for the past seventeen years doesn’t, as you would think, make it any easier or speed up the process …! Rest assured the jubilation in finally being issued a visa is tantamount to receiving a personal invitation from the Australian Prime Minister to join him for lunch.
Despite all the form filling now being behind me, sitting on the Qantas 747 which by now was turning onto its final approach, for its scheduled 5.00 am arrival into Brisbane International Airport, I was sat gazing at the precious visa now firmly glued into page 7 of my passport, praying that there would be no problems passing through immigration and eagerly looking forward to again seeing my wife and kids who had left a month before on their Australian passports, whilst I had finished off much of the tiresome administration in the UK. I pictured that they would be by now, standing at the passenger arrival gate eagerly waiting my arrival. Again reassuring myself that I had checked and double-checked everything and that there just couldn’t be any problems, I fastened my seatbelt for landing.
After the plane touched down and taxied to the gate, I nervously took my place in the by now growing queue marked “Non-Australian Passport Holders” and anxiously awaited my turn. I had visions of the large, burly, stern faced immigration officer in the white shirt and gold braid epaulettes, now checking passports at the front of the line, checking my visa, sucking his teeth, shaking his head, and summoning a gang of immigration department heavies to drag me kicking and pleading my innocence, out of the queue, and throwing me into a dark and windowless holding cell to await the next flight back to UK, stamping my passport “Refused entry into Australia as the letter ‘t’ not correctly crossed on visa”……!
Eventually, I arrived at the front of the line and finally stood face to face with the official. “Passport please,” he requested in a tone frequently used in war films by Gestapo soldiers as they knowingly check the papers of escaping prisoners of war on the Switzerland bound train out of Berlin. “Of course,” I replied, hoping that he hadn’t noticed the tremor in my hands and the single bead of sweat now working itself slowly and agonisingly towards the tip of my nose. He grasped my passport, staring at my typically unfetching photograph, looked up at me for a moment and then turned to page 7….! After what seemed an eternity, of scrutiny, he looked up again, and uttered “This visa hasn’t been stamped,” “Oh no!” I thought to myself, as my knees visibly weakened, “I knew it…!” “So, is this your first entry as an immigrant…?” he inquired, “Y..Y..Yes…!”, I stammered. “Well mate,” he bellowed as only Australians can, stood up and walked from behind his desk, now wearing a huge friendly smile on his face, his hand thrust forward in my direction, “Let me be the first, to welcome you to this great country”, he beamed, his hand now firmly shaking mine, “It’s great to have you aboard, you’ll love it…..!”
And do you know what…I do…..!
So what’s a loon from Montrose on the wild north east coast of Scotland, doing living in Queensland, I hear you ask. Well, it’s a long story, and a story, which over the next weeks and months I’d like to share with you, as well as describing the ups and downs, advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons and differences of daily living in a sub-tropical climate on the other side of the world. The story itself It starts in Montrose nearly thirty years ago and ends in Brisbane, but in between involves many interesting and fascinating parts of the world.
It all started one day in July 1977 standing outside the Army Recruiting Office in Dundee….!