Just a few months ago, we found out that we had ancestors that came to and from Australia in the mid 1800s. My own great-grandmother was born in Australia, and we didn’t know until recently when working on the family tree. I had a vacation booked to Australia this month, so I decided to turn it into an ancestral hunt because it’s SO MUCH MORE FUN THAT WAY.
And, I had a couple of really important questions that needed answering:
Why did my great-great Grandmother leave Sydney where she was living to get married in a tiny town that would have taken a week to get to by horse and carriage?
Why did my family leave a comfortable life in Great Torrington, Devonshire, England to go across the world to Australia in the first place?
Which is how I ended up flying from Sydney to the Gold Coast, then driving seven hours to Glen Innes, NSW, Australia by myself…
It’s been magical, bizarre, healing and defining.
If you’re on a family quest of your own – one might say these are all the steps NOT to take.
Then again, is any journey the right one?
STEP 1. BOOK A ROOM IN THE TOWN WITH LOCALS
“I’m not a local. I’ve only been here 18 years…” Ralph paused for a split second as I took the keys from him. I was about to ask him why he wasn’t considered a local after 18 years, but Ralph, the owner of the old convent I was staying in, wasn’t the type of man to wait for you to ask him a question.
He answered his own questions.
“If you don’t have a grandfather in the Glen Innes general cemetery, you’re not a local,” he continued.
“Ah, I see,” I said, slightly disappointed.
I told him I was looking for my ancestors and any family members who might still be around.
I was aware I might sound crazy. Do people actually do this?
Ralph didn’t know them because he wasn’t a local. He didn’t seem to be worried about me seeming crazy.
I smiled perhaps a bit too big.
Ralph and I had a rough start.
I arrived an hour late to my check-in – not realizing the hour time difference between the Gold Coast in Queensland and Glen Innes in New South Wales.
You have to arrive on time to your check-in at the convent.
Then, I didn’t have a local number so apparently he couldn’t answer my calls.
Oh, and I paid too little for the room on booking.com somehow even though I paid the rate the room was up for.
So, I was on thin ice.
I think my smiles were working.
“Come with me,” he said, walking me through the living space. “Can I ask you something?” He didn’t wait for my reply. “Why do you have a private number?”
I had already explained to him that my phone was from France and that I didn’t have an Australian number, but somehow it didn’t seem possible that I couldn’t have an Australian number. It just didn’t make sense to him.
“And, why doesn’t your phone have internet?”
“It’s like I’m in 1995!” I said, shrugging my shoulders.
He looked at me strangely. “This is Australia. In 1995, we had phones.”
“No, I just meant -“
“I mean, even in the 80’s we had phones we could pick up from the wall,” he smiled largely and mimicked a phone on the wall with a rotary.
It’s like we were speaking two different languages. He didn’t get my jokes, my references. I didn’t get his. But we were speaking the same language! This is where my ancestors split ways, I suppose.
I fake-laughed. I hate fake laughing, but sometimes you just gotta. He was lovely, and I wanted him to like me.
He told me the two men staying had been there for four years. He could lower the rent and fill up the place, but then he’d only get drunks and druggies and that wouldn’t be good for anyone.
He showed me the bed with extra down pillow covers, heated blankets and their own sinks.
“Say, why don’t you have a number that works again?”
“I’m not sure,” I shrugged.
“Alright, well, you should get one. $30 and you can talk as long as you want to. Anyway, any questions?”
“No, I think that’s it….oh, do you have a WiFi password?”
STEP 2. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE AMPLE INTERNET SERVICE TO DO RESEARCH
“We don’t have WiFi here,” Ralph said. “You can go to the Macca’s across the street and sit in the parking lot if you need WiFi.”
“Macca’s?” I asked.
“McDonald’s,” he said.
No easily-accessible WiFi.
Sleeping in a convent with two other men.
No names or contacts.
Just a name of a small town in the middle of Australia and a last name.
BONUS Step 3: Get a Layout of the Town Before the Big Hunt Begins
I drove off before the sun went down to get an understanding of the layout of the town before my big hunt started in the morning.
I drove to one roundabout. Then another roundabout. Saw the Macca’s, the church, the post office, and the Severn Council.
After about fifteen minutes, I came back.
That was that.
I said hello again to the two men who lived in the convent in the common area, went upstairs to my room, and flipped on the very high television on the wall. I cozied in to watch Date Night – a show where Australian men and women swipe with friends and get matched on an app that looked not-so-subtly like Tinder.
I fell asleep with dreams of tea with my relatives, finding out the answers to my questions, and hopefully learning more about myself along the way.
Stay tuned for more in this epic tale of ancestral hunts tomorrow!