In this new nostalgia-inducing column, Maeve Galea asks her subjects to reminisce on a time they experienced the kind of intense, frenetic, passionate and carefree romance that can only blossom when the pressures of everyday life are removed.
I had had a really bad year. I was 32 and I’d been living in Australia on and off since I was 26. After six marvellous months back home in Ireland, I’d just returned to Sydney, Australia. Then, my boyfriend dumped me and my job went a little haywire. I didn’t know why I’d come back. I was feeling a bit edgy about life and trying to decide what was next.
At the time I was finishing my masters at UNSW and I’d met some girlfriends who I was enjoying spending time with. One night my friend Rita began showing me photographs of a holiday she’d been on, staying on an island in the Great Barrier Reef. It looked amazing. It was organised by this guy she’d met at uni, Paul Galea. I had met Paul a few times and I thought he was a bit of a chancer. He was a very big personality, and at the time I thought he was very up himself. Rita was planning to go away on a similar trip again that summer and asked me if I wanted to come too. I remember saying to her, “I really like the look of that holiday but I just wish someone else was organising it.”
A few months later my younger brother in Ireland told me he was going to come to Australia to visit me. I said to Rita, “Look, I can get over the whole ‘Paul Galea running it’ thing now that my brother is coming over, but I don’t know that I’d have enough money to pay for the trip.” I was paying a mortgage and the job thing had been a bit up and down, so my money situation was not too terrific. Rita told me to ring this guy (Paul) and just tell him that I had a teaching job and was good for the money, but that I might not be able to pay the whole thing upfront. I left a message on his answering machine and later he rang me back and told me I could pay when we got back.
To get to North West Island you have to drive or fly up to Gladstone, and then it’s a seven- or eight-hour journey on the boat to get to the island. We flew up just after Christmas and spent the night in Gladstone before we got on the boat at midnight. That evening, I was having a bit of a deep and meaningful with Rita. “Look,” she said to me, “I’m just warning you that Paul doesn’t have a great track record with women. He’s a bit of a one-night-stander.” She told me that her friend had had a fling with him the last time they had gone to the island that didn’t end well. “Between me and that guy?!” I said, “You must be joking! He’s a bum! I’m here to have a holiday with you and with my brother. Even if he was the last man on earth there wouldn’t be anything happening between us.”
Arriving at the island as dawn broke was magnificent. It’s a pristine, tropical Barrier Reef island. White sand, palm trees, and just the bluest sea… The whole works. There’s nothing. You’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There’s not a light, no running water, there’s barely a toilet except for the composting drop toilets. You feel like you’re on the edge of the world.
It was the first night, after dinner, and we were all sitting around in a circle playing celebrity heads. My brother Phillip and I were so strapped for cash we had decided to only buy one carton of beer in Gladstone to last us the full two weeks. I think Phillip and I drank probably half our supply of beer on that first night. At the time I had a real crush on the French actor Gerard Depardieu. He was much younger then (he’s pretty ugly now) but at the time I thought he was gorgeous. So when it came to one of the celebrity heads, I put Gerard Depardieu on Paul’s head. He definitely looked a bit like him with his long blonde hair and big strong nose, but after about the 10th beer, I began to think he was Gerard Depardieu. I can get a bit amorous when I’ve had a few drinks and between that and being faced with Depardieu’s doppelgänger… let’s just say I made my interest known.
I was sharing a tent with Rita and the next morning when we woke up she said to me, “Oh my god! So much for ‘if he was the last man on Earth!'” I was mortified. I just wanted to go and find a tree to climb up and hide in and not come down until the boat was leaving to take us off the island. This was the first of 10 nights and I said to Rita, “I can’t go to breakfast.” At that moment I heard Paul laughing outside the tent, “What about you two last night. The whole island is talking about you two!” He must have known I was a bit embarrassed, and I could tell he was trying to be kind by making a joke of it. I liked that, it impressed me.
We had a lovely day on the island just snorkelling and swimming. When we got back to the camp that night I could feel something between us but I was so embarrassed from the night before that I was sort of ducking and weaving and making jokes about it too. The next night there was a full moon and a few of us decided that we’d sleep on the beach. I remember I put my blanket down on the edge of the sand and he came over with his blanket and put it down beside me. I always remember he had these sort of jam jar glasses and he looked kind of daggy, which actually made him all the nicer. I think I kind of melted. That night we had our first kiss on the beach.
For those 10 or 11 days, we were doing everything together. I remember the further you went into the island the denser the vegetation became and in the middle of the island it was basically like a rainforest. So if you wanted a bit of privacy, you could go for a walk across the island. We would do that a lot. It was pretty intense. If you’re dating you might see somebody once or twice a week. It was like a year condensed. I got to see him 24/7 and I saw lots of different sides of him within a short period of time.
I suppose as the holiday drew to a close, we probably said to each other, this is all very well, but what would it be like in the outside world? I mean honestly, you’d have a romance with a pea on North West Island. You have nothing to think about except: will we go snorkelling or go for a walk across the island or do some star-gazing?
On my way back to Sydney I went to Brisbane for a few days to visit friends and I remember my friend saying to me, “Look, you have to prepare yourself that this could be just a fling.” If the truth be known, at that age I think I probably was ready to meet somebody. I was unsure if it would turn into anything and that made me nervous because I was pretty smitten.
I was living in my little terrace in Surry Hills and when I came back to Sydney he came over and we went to the Shakespeare Hotel for a drink and then next door to Mohr Fish for dinner, and then he came back to my house. It was a bit flat, to be honest. I started to think that maybe this was just a holiday romance. In the morning we went for breakfast and had a bit of a laugh. I walked him to the bus stop and watched him get on the bus back to Tamarama. Looking at me out the back of the bus window he pointed to himself, drew a love heart in the air and then pointed at me. “I love you,” he mouthed.
I moved in with him a few weeks later. He never asked me to marry him but one night we were in bed and he said something like “Oh well, in a few years when…” And I woke up the next morning and I said to him, “Did you mean that when you said that ?'” And he said, “Yeah, I suppose I did.”
I was about to turn 33 so it was at the beginning of 1993. I’d been overseas from when I was about 27 to 31 and had done plenty of amazing things in that time. I’d backpacked across Central America, lived on a kibbutz in Israel and spent a year travelling from Nairobi to Cape Town. When I came back to Australia in 1991 I had bought into a sea kayaking business in Queensland, and I thought I wanted to keep living that exotic lifestyle. But the second I got to Airlie Beach, I went to the phone booth and rang my mum and said, “I made a mistake. I want to come home, I’m feeling homesick.” That was bizarre because I’d never been homesick once in the whole time I’d been away. I came home and I sort of knew I was ready to more or less start thinking about settling down or at least living a much more “normal” life.
I had been to North West Island once before, and the previous summer I’d brought a group of 12 people to nearby Masthead Island for a two-week trip run by me, my brother Matt and my best friend Toshy. We called ourselves “Kingpin Tours” which was basically our attempt at trying to make a business out of things we liked doing. We would throw parties on Fort Denison Island and at Tamarama Surf Club, and we had a few massive harbour cruises. A ticket to the party would get you entry, unlimited drinks and some (pretty terrible) food. We used to serve Jean Pierre “champagne” which we bought for $1.99 a bottle. It was never super successful in terms of making money but it was very successful in having fun. As with all these things, the idea itself was good, the product was good but it was just tough getting the message out pre-internet. Our motto was “sell, sell, sell”. We did it for a few years and we never lost any money, we just didn’t make much money either.
When we went on this trip in the summer of 1992/93, I was in a much more settled state of mind than I had been for a while. We were just hoping to have a good time and use the money we made from doing it to more or less pay for our holiday. The group was a mix of people – most we knew, a few we didn’t. My mum was there and so were a few of my best friends from growing up and people I had met at uni. When Rita mentioned she had this friend who was thinking of coming, I didn’t know who she was or what she looked like. I only knew her from one thing: she was the boofhead who had been on one of our harbour cruises, spinning her purse around over her head and it had accidentally fallen into the harbour. We desperately needed two more people so when I spoke to her on the phone about it I told her she could pay when she came back. Sell, sell, sell.
That first night she was all over me like a rash. I was very aware that it was going to be a long trip if this went physical and became very awkward. I’d been stuck on that island with a girl before and there’s nowhere to hide if things go south. The next day we walked out to the reef and we spent a lot of time together because it’s a long walk out. The actual reef itself is like a highway and you can walk all the way down along the edge. We walked a million miles that day. We spent about two or three hours just walking so we were talking and talking and talking. We talked about a lot of stuff and we had a fair bit in common, we realised.
The night of our first kiss was the 4th of January. We were sitting down on the beach and it was very romantic. The breeze was blowing, the waves were lapping at the shore, I think there was a full moon. And yeah, we just had a kiss and that was it. Even though it was just a kiss I distinctly remember thinking ‘Wow, this is something special.’
I guess you could say it was love at third sight. I went from being footloose and fancy-free to a one-man woman in a space of days. There was something about her that was different to all the other girls I’d ever met. I loved her joie de vivre and her adventurous spirit. She was fearless. When we went snorkelling she was out there with sharks and stingrays and eels and never flinched. I still love that about her, it makes her an excellent travel partner.
My mum always tells the story of my dad picking her up from Sydney Airport after the trip. Mum told him, “Paul’s met the female version of himself.” I don’t know Aine would be wrapped on that, but there’s some truth to it. I know now that she wasn’t sure if things would work out when we got back to Sydney. Truthfully, she had a right to be concerned. I wasn’t exactly “Mr Romantic” at the time. I used to go out with girls on Wednesday or Thursdays nights because that meant I didn’t have to miss going out with my friends on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But this felt different. I was pretty sure I loved her when I told her [out the back of the window on the bus] and I was pretty sure that the timing was right as well. You know, and I often say this, had that happened even a year before, nothing would have happened. I wouldn’t have been ready.
On the 27th of September that same year, we got married. We went back to the island the following summer for our honeymoon and we’re pretty sure that’s when our twins were conceived. We went there every summer for almost 10 years, firstly with our twins and then when our youngest daughter was born, all five of us. It was a place we loved to go and just enjoyed being there and it was, and I’m sure still is, a very very special place. Spectacularly beautiful and just almost untouched. As nearly as untouched a place you can go I think. I am definitely going back one more time.
At the end of 2019 – nearly 30 years after we met on North West Island – Aine and I were in the beautiful Azore Islands, a thousand kilometres off the coast of Portugal. We were talking about some of our most memorable travel adventures and she asked me, “Do you realise we nearly always go to islands on our adventures?” We started to check and she was right. We laughed that this was the first time we’d noticed it, but in hindsight it makes a lot of sense.