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The Colleen McCullough Home Tour

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by Nadine Cresswell-Myatt (subscribe)
Freelance writer exploring Melbourne and beyond. If you enjoy the following article click on the Like button, Facebook it to your friends or subscribe. I'll update you with yummy and often free events. Like my photos? I instagram @redbagwilltravel
Published May 27th 2019
She once guarded her privacy but now you can visit her home
Colleen McCullough
Photo Nadine Cresswell-Myatt

Many Australians kept up with news of Colleen McCullough after reading her novel The Thorn Birds. We were agog at the US 1.9 million she pulled off as an advance and how this novel, dubbed Australia's Gone with the Wind, sold over 30 million copies There was also 'that' mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward.

McCullough referred to the American screen adaptation, 'as vile vomit.' Telling the press: 'The filming was done in Hawaii, there was only one kangaroo on set and everyone sounded American except Bryan Brown, whose Oz accent stuck out like a dingo's bits'.

McCullough was always outspoken, a trait that made the public sit up and take notice.

If you have followed her life story, you will know she turned her back on the limelight, bunkering down on Norfolk Island in 1979, thousands of miles from anywhere.

'It isn't what you are, it's who you are in a place like this," she told the London Times. "It's incredibly beautiful and peaceful and remote…. I get a heck of a lot of work done because there is nothing much else to do."

Anson Bay Norfolk Island
Anson Bay Norfolk Island. Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt

Then a few years later she married Norfolk Islander and Bounty descendent, Ric Robinson in 1984. He was some 13 years her junior.

Her life during those years became a closed book. But since McCullough died in 2015, a chapter has been reopened with Baunti Escape Tours, now offering exclusive tours of her property.

Quizzing tourists who had already taken the tour, I found mixed reactions. All enjoyed the experience but, the property, known as Out Yenna, didn't meet pre-ordained expectations of what a famous writer's home should be.

'I thought it would be a grand mansion' said one. 'She was probably a hoarder,' said another.

Intrigued, I booked myself on a tour.

Entering the long driveway was like arriving at Sleeping Beauty's castle, as overgrown Fiddlewood branches whipped the sides of the small tour bus.

'Out Yenna' is on a remote part of what is already a remote island and even then hidden behind palm trees — a legacy of her husband's plan to start a palm seedling business.

Our driver told us, 'Col valued her privacy and bought out her neighbours' properties.' The sense of secrecy continued. We were under strict instructions not to take photos when inside. Most of the images in this piece are from advertising and don't reveal the priceless glassware, statutory and famous paintings you get to admire on this tour.

Compared to contemporary outer-suburban homes in Australia, I could see why some might consider Col's house 'cosy'.

Colleen McCullough House Tour
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt

It is two-storey but the ceilings are quite low and the rooms too small for so much grand 'stuff'. There was already a small house site when she moved in and she then had a series of sprawling extensions and additions tacked on. These renovations are also how McCullough met her future husband.

Our guide, Rebecca Hayes, told us: 'Ric was doing some of the painting but funnily Col was never quite happy with the colour, so he had to keep coming back Ric always says 'he heard her before he saw her", she continued. ' Col loved restaurants but didn't like eating alone and she asked him if he would chaperone her. The rest, as they say, is history.'

Her last sentence seemed apt, given that during their 34-year marriage, McCullough researched her ancient Rome series, writing seven compendium size books (average length about 700 pages) covering over a century of battle-filled history and earning herself a Doctor of Letters from Macquarie University in the process.

On the tour, you get a brief glimpse of McCullough's extensive research library housed in a room just off her office. Her is desk weighed down with the hefty tomes of Latin dictionaries.

Colleen McCullough House Tour
Source Baunti Escapes

She hated technology, instead of banging out between 15,000 to 30,000 words a day on a heavy electric typewriter. Not just on the Roman series, but also on her detective novels, cookbooks and other historical novels, including Morgan's Run, inspired by her husband's family. The singer, Helen Redding, was Ric's cousin and also lived on Norfolk Island. She supplied the genealogical research needed for the novel.

Colleen McCullough House Tour
Source Baunti Escapes

Despite this prodigious output, I noticed a sign near McCullough's desk: "My mind doesn't just wander sometimes it f---s off completely.' A reminder that even the most successful people have concentration issues.

Like one of McCullough's famous guests, tourists are only taken into the downstairs rooms of her home. So, you don't go into any bedrooms.

There is the dining room with a round table and seating for eight. 'Col felt this the perfect number for conversation', said Rebecca. 'But she was a workaholic working late into the night. So if you were still there at 9.30 pm Col would tell her guests to F--- off so she could work.'

Not sure if she used this expletive on all her guests considering they included the Archbishop of Sydney, the Duke of Norfolk and movie director Frances Ford Coppola. But as she was so outspoken — possibly.

While she may have worked well into the nights she also slept well into the mornings. Rebecca said: 'She had a good relationship with her two stepchildren, saying that because she married Ric when they were older they came already house trained. But they knew there was no talking before B.C and that meant before coffee.'

The entry hall features huge paintings of McCullough and her husband Ric and these have an imperious Roman air.

Colleen McCullough House Tour
Source Baunti Escapes

And elsewhere is artwork by Norman Lindsay and one by the surrealist painting James Gleeson, I believe. But I did have a momentary glitch of concentration when Rebecca told us that the children called the nude on the wall with a prominent Venus mound, Miss Pussy.

Throughout the tour, I kept thinking of that saying: 'People who live in glass houses should not throw stones' as there were glass objects everywhere.

We even had to leave bags at the entry in case we brushed against and knocked over a priceless object.

There was an imposing wall of glasses in a backlit cabinet, endless rows from Milan, Napoleon Bonaparte glasses and Roman glass from 4 A.D. We marched past carefully passing the display in single file.

Underneath a chandelier (gold-plated no less) sat a heavy Waterford Crystal globe of the world. This was on a glass dining table and even that sheet of glass was mounted on glass dolphins.

There were strikingly modern stained-glass windows, created by Cherry Phillips, who also worked on the designs for Parliament House. She needed to spend a few months living at McCullough's to create this masterpiece.

Designers shouted at each other across each room as their creations scream for our attention. Think materials by Christopher Essex and metallic wallpapers by Florence Broadhurst and then the fact that McCullough collected unusual one-off chairs like other women collect handbags.

We entered the kitchen. This holds industrial stoves and was a hub for the 17 staff who ran the house and 10-hectare property.

Even here you could see Colleen's stamp as everything was methodically labelled. 'Colleen had run laboratories' said Rebecca. 'You could be sure that on the second door on the second shelf you could reach in blindfolded and know you were pulling out chicken'.

Off this larger hub was McCullough's personal kitchen. As she stood at 5ft 9, she had granite benches installed the height of those she had used in laboratories. 'She would spend days perfecting a recipe,' said Rebecca. A Chateaubriand sauce might take four days for example. But Col hated vegetables so didn't much cook them and she was a heavy smoker'.

We entered the conservatory another room used for entertaining guests. 'Col refused to let anyone cut back the fronds and they trailed downwards almost covering guest's eyebrows as well as trapping in the plumes of cigarette smoke.'

Colleen McCullough House Tour
Whatever you do don't prune the ferns. Source Baunti Tours

In the conservatory, we were comfortably seated on the psychedelic-swirled upholstered chairs and Rebecca fielded questions about McCullough's life.

We learnt she grew up in poverty, of her brother's death by drowning off Crete although McCullough felt it was suicide and her difficult relationship with her parents who disagreed not only with their daughter's educational ambitions (McCullough became a neurophysiologist) but also with each other. Apparently, they were always sparring

One can't help wondering whether McCullough didn't over-compensate for the emotional deprivations of her childhood by filling her home with things.

A number of questions were raised about topical events such as McCullough's views on Australia's takeover of Norfolk Island.

Rebecca, a young woman who had worked for McCullough as a housekeeper and is also related to Ric, had firm views on the subject. She did recommend reading McCullough's biographical work Life Without the Boring Bits. I borrowed it from the library and let's just say the chapter ' 'Portrait of a Colonial Overlord' tells you much about Col's views and those of her husband, who I saw in Burnt Pine with green hands on his car, a local symbol that screams hands off Norfolk Island.

One of the sadder aspects of the tour was passing by the small elevator Col needed to have built into the house during the last years of her life, so she could manoeuvre her way upstairs. Claustrophobically small, it looked like it would hold no more than one person seated in a wheelchair.

McCullough became reclusive towards the end of her life but continued working up until six weeks before her death. She died at the Norfolk Hospital aged 77.

Officially she died from renal failure but the last few years of her life were plagued by a number of health issues including cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, mobility issues and the most debilitating for a writer—severe macular degeneration.

On the way back to town, Les Quintel who was in filling for our bus driver told us he had spent 5 years working for McCullough as a builder in his early 20s and was a pallbearer at her funeral.

Tales rolled off his tongue many concerning Col's generosity and excesses.

Colleen McCullough House Tour
Photo @nadinecresswellmyatt

He reminisced over French champagne served from handpainted bottles, fancy dress parties where she would grant the winner a return plane ticket to Australia or New Zealand. And of the limousines that would meet her planes at airports. 'She kept a pad in London, a house in Connecticut, Cessnock and owned five on Norfolk Island,' he said.

At this stage, I noted that none of the guides had said she was difficult, rather simply spoken of her forthright personality. 'She called the shots. It was Col's way or the highway,' Les said, as Out Yenna disappeared from view behind its thickets of secrecy. Then as Les fell into a silent reverie so did the rest of us as we really needed to process all the eclectic wonders we had seen that day.

Colleen McCullough House Tour
Colleen McCullough's fed her beloved cats prawns for dinner every Friday night. Source - Baunti Escapes

If you are only going to Norfolk Island for a few days, book early so you don't miss out.

For other great tours of Norfolk Island,click here.
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Why? She had many treasures that are now on public display
When: Runs On: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Two hours including the bus from town.
Phone: 672 3 23693
Where: Norfolk Island - only through Baunti Tours
Cost: $57
Your Comment
Fascinating Nadine.
by May Cross (score: 3|8225) 1288 days ago
Beautifully written Nadine. Colleen was/is one of my favourite authors. I'm surprised that there were tours of her home as a recent Martin Clunes. "Islands of Australia TV series on Norfolk made no mention of her. Your article is well deserving of the gold. Neil.
by Neil Follett (score: 3|4476) 1288 days ago
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