I am number 5 in a line of 6 girls and grew up on our family farm in Kilkenny, Southern Ireland. Castle Blunden has belonged to our family since it was built around the 1720's. It is a beautiful Georgian house, with many happy memories, which luckily has remained in the family in the capable hands of my eldest sister's son, Patrick. I think growing up in a house that had no central heating with icy draughts coming through the windows and doors, pre-disposed me to a life in the sun! A glutton for punishment, I spent a further chilly three years in Edinburgh at the University and had the great good fortune to meet up with a wild Australian girl from Wagga.
She convinced me that it was time to spread my wings and see what life was like on the other side of the world. So I sold all my worldly possessions (the chief of which was a purple Mini car) and used the proceeds to get a ticket to Australia. Landing in Sydney, 25 years ago, slightly shell-shocked, I looked for Tania and she was 45 minutes late, my first introduction to the laid-back Aussie life style! Little did I know it then, but Australia was to become my home.
Nick (who I had met at his 21st birthday party) and I married in Ireland in 1985 and moved permanently to Cairns. We both loved the bush, and without too much thought, set up Mungumby Wilderness Lodge near Cooktown, thinking "if we build it...they will come"!
And they did. We met and looked after an amazing cross-section of people who were adventurous enough to find us. For the first few years we relied on our neighbour and a 2 way radio system to organize our bookings. I went for 3 whole months once without ever leaving the property which says a lot about the magic of that special place. There were many funny stories to unfold such as a large python falling out of the ceiling in the middle of dinner, and greeting guests at our neighbour's air strip with a 'Happy New Year' only to find we were a day late! The pilot looked at us with amusement and asked them if they really wanted to stay.
When we returned to Cairns, we bought a large block of land with plenty of trees on it around an old Queenslander house and settled in to life in the suburbs. At this time, Edmonton was considered to be "out in the sticks". Now we are firmly connected to Cairns by non stop housing estates. Cairns Holiday Homes was created partly out of the frustration of trying to find somewhere to stay with 4 children on the various trips that we made, and the fact that we enjoyed working for ourselves. We decided that there must be others who wanted to rent a house for a few days that was comfortable, clean and well equipped. We continue to build our business while our girls are at school and then, who knows...we'll be off to the bush for more adventures and tall tales.
After leaving school in 1972, I spent 6 months hitch-hiking from Kenya to South Africa. I was brought up on a farm in England, and this was my first experience of the broad horizon of a continent. Australia came soon after when I hitched a lift with a plane load of horses to Melbourne in 1974 to work in horse racing. My father, Bryan, was a great horseman and jockey whose career included winning the Grand National twice in succession for the legendary trainer Vincent O'Brien. My mother, Mary, was also a superb horsewoman who represented Great Britain in the British show-jumping team at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
I enjoyed my time working at Randwick for TJ Smith and JB Cummings but the lure of the Outback would soon overcome the novelty of living in the city. Having obtained a job with an exploration company after 3 phone calls and a parking ticket (which caught up with me 20 years later at Mungumby), I set off for WA in my tiny Suzuki jeep.
The field-assistant job was on Lake Way, near Wiluna, and we were looking for uranium. So began my aussie education in being resourceful and self-sufficient, as all those who live miles from anywhere have to be. If you broke down or had a puncture, you had to fix it.
My first experience of Aborigines was at Lake Way. An ancient greyhound bus arrived in our camp one evening with several families of aborigines and their dogs on board. They had travelled from Docker River, about 1000km east, without a radiator cap across a desert! I guess you learn a thing or two after 50,000 years of making do in the bush. Their mission was initiation of the aborigine boys in Wiluna and a rain ceremony. Rain duly came the following week. Buckets of it followed by a remarkable transformation of the somewhat drab reddish bushland to an extraordinary carpet of flowers in all directions. A couple of weeks later, it was all gone again.
In 1980 I was lucky enough to get an introduction to a remarkable man called Jim Edwards who with his friend and partner, Chuck McDougal, had pioneered wildlife tourism in Nepal. As a result, I was offered a job as a naturalist at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in the Royal Chitwan National Park. After 6 months in Chitwan, I was more than ever convinced of the importance of carefully managed tourism in the preservation of these marvelous wilderness places. In the back of my mind was planted the seed that would eventually lead me into my own tourism venture.
After several years working around Australia, I joined my brother Andrew on a trip to North Queensland. We spent two wet seasons exploring Cape York Peninsular around Weymouth Bay and Lockart River. This area was remarkable for its diversity of species and with such charismatic creatures like the Palm Cockatoo, would have been ideal for a wilderness camp. The problem, though, was distance and expense.
In 1986, having married in Ireland the previous year, Lizzie and I found 80 acres adjacent to an enormous forest reserve, 35 km south of Cooktown. We built a lodge and 10 cabins and opened for business in 1987. Over the next 15 years we ran Mungumby Lodge, met many wonderful people and had 4 children. Eventually, the educational needs of the children took precedence and so we sold and moved back to Cairns.
As a child, I was lucky enough to be taken for an overseas holiday every summer. My parents always rented a house as our base for the 2-3 weeks holiday. We hired a car and explored everywhere within a day's drive. I always thought this was the best way to travel rather than moving somewhere different every few days. It takes time to get to know a place well. We found the best fun by immersing ourselves in the locality and the greatest bonus was making friends with the local children.
So things have come full circle and we now rent out family homes for visitors who want to stay awhile and have all the advantages that a home can offer.