Life + with Fiona Della Sale: The life of island lady Maria Pastrikos, from big business to Pt Moore cottage

Fiona Della SaleGeraldton Guardian
Maria Pastrikos at home in Point Moore.
Camera IconMaria Pastrikos at home in Point Moore. Credit: Fiona Della-Sale

With the sweet scent of fig carried on a wafting, gentle sea breeze, fruit-laden branches of olives trees and a vegetable garden springing up from limestone sands, one might well be on a Greek island.

Stepping into the back garden of Maria Pastrikos’ Point Moore cottage is reminiscent of her home on the island of Kalymnos in Greece, but from the back deck, the iconic red and white bands of the lighthouse remind that we are in Geraldton, her home for the past 22 years.

As with most home gardeners of Mediterranean migrants, talk naturally centres on the home grown; the plants that bring joy and food to the table, that connect with the old country. Maria points out her various chilli plants and the flowers of rocket greens attracting bees. There’s purple sweet potato runners asserting their dominance, spreading wild across the garden, of which both the tuber and leaves she consumes. Ornamental, sweetly scented honeysuckle climbs the fence and a big prickly pear stands statuesque keeping watch over the garden. “That”, advises Maria, “produces a flower which once cooked up and eaten provides prostrate protection for men.” Prickly pear grows wild over her home island and it was a traditional health remedy.

King of her garden, is the Kalamata olive tree, most ubiquitous across Greece and revered here too for its big bodied fruit. It is also the reason for me meeting Maria. A few years ago, on the beach nearby we met and struck up conversation and before long realised we shared passion for food and cooking, of travel and meeting new people. Maria noted my Italian ancestry, and a married Greek name so was keen to discuss the finer art of olive pickling. I was keen to pick the brains of a seasoned preserver. And so, on a windy summer’s beach day, a long way from her childhood home, Maria’s eyes glinted with excitement, hands gesturing and with an accented voice, the method was shared.

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Life hasn’t always been as serene as her back garden for there’s other unexpected chapters in Maria’s life — of the tropics, island resort owning and financial misfortune. Of boom and bust. From one island to another, with 12,000km in between.

However, even before venturing onto Australian soil, the story begins back in Greece. Born in 1944, childhood was tough for Maria. Kalymonos, of the Dodecanese islands was “so close to Turkey, we could hear roosters crowing from across the waters”, recalls Maria. Dominated by rugged mountains and largely non-arable, Kalymnos back then was also ravished with post-war poverty. Her father had a small boat and sailed to nearby Kos Island for much needed food in the way of vegetables, as little grew on their island. He also had a small furniture shop but work eventually dwindled. The local families were able to share what they produced and they got by. Nowadays photos portray a thriving tourism destination of white beaches, turquoise marinas and world class rock climbing.

Kalymnos was best known, however, for its sponge divers, young men who for centuries, free dived over the Mediterranean Sea as far as North African coastlines for valuable sea sponges. It long brought prosperity to the island, but not for the Pastrikos family, and so they joined the mass migration scheme sponsored by the Australian government in the 1950s, with its plan to recruit Kalymnians- sponge divers to work in the Darwin local pearling industry and other men for various trades. Most of Darwin’s Greek immigrants originated from this island. So many, says Maria, “that if they all returned, Kalymnos would sink!”

Maria’s father signed up to the scheme and spent a year in Darwin employing his building skills, before the family, his wife and four young daughters also emigrated. Maria was just 10 years old.

The 25-day voyage to Fremantle was rough and long but Maria, the only family member with sea legs, was able to run below and bring food up to those wallowing on deck. Finally in Australia, the flight on a plane from Perth to Darwin was for many their first aviation experience so they were terrified and crying; not young Maria who was excited!

Childhood in Darwin was more prosperous than back home, but for Maria, that chapter ended abruptly when her family arranged her marriage at 16 years old. Easter is usually a time for great celebration in the Greek Orthodox community, with midnight street processions of candles, holy icons and singing, later a roast lamb lunch and the traditional “tsoureki” of dyed red eggs and cake. However, it was during one of these days many years ago when a young Maria tried hiding to avoid going to church, the place she was to meet her prospective husband. Sadly, her mother had no sympathy and her father was keen to strike a business partnership with the same man, so it was a frightening fait accompli for young Maria.

Unhappy as she was in marriage, she worked to support the rise of the family’s building and housing development business, amidst having three children. She recalls her husband framing his first hard-earned pound note, but with Darwin growing, the business thrived and the pounds rolled in. Like a game of Monopoly, their acquisition of land and multiple house builds soon saw them trade up to a motel, which expanded to include 50 rooms and a 300 patron nightclub, Aspa City Motel and Club, named after their youngest daughter.

Then came Cyclone Tracy in 1974. The city was ill-prepared, and the nightclub was heaving on that catastrophic day. Maria opted to stay at home where she sheltered with her children under a big steel desk in the house’s office. Maria shudders still now when she recalls that night. “It was like an atomic bomb; the noise was the most frightening. The tin rooves being ripped off and the colliding metal sounded like a thousand trains overhead,” she said.

Fortune found Maria this time in her life; her home and motel survived relatively unscathed. In a town largely devastated, the motel was offered for emergency accommodation, the restaurant used to feed the families that found refuge there. On investigating the local damage, Maria cried when seeing the nearby botanical garden where snapped off trees looked “as though a giant had swung an axe through there.” What lay beyond in the town was worse, as lives lost were counted in scores and buildings ruined, in the hundreds.

Surviving the cyclone personally and business-wise, Maria held new resolve to make some changes in her life. Rare as it was in the late 1970s and for a Greek woman in Darwin, Maria filed for divorce and was met with great scrutiny from the community. Not knowing where to start she visited a legal aid firm and was shocked to hear the solicitor tell her he couldn’t help “because you’re a millionaire and I help those who struggle financially”. What struck her most was the fact the family business, having grown from meagre beginnings, had significant worth but she saw little of that in real money. Long court battles ensued, some up to the High and Supreme Courts. Finally, in 1979 it ended and Maria finally felt liberated.

Some years later, Maria met a well-known yachtsman and developer who’d won the prestigious Admiral’s Cup in England. With still one child at home, she moved with him to Singapore. Friends at the local Greek embassy warned against undertaking any new entrepreneurial pursuits but she returned to Darwin where business projects were booming and together, with her new partner they purchased a small island close nearby. A solicitor friend had agreed it was a good idea but forewarned of the hard work that would follow. And it was, for in 1985 an island without freshwater or even electricity, that evolved to have an airstrip and a Malaysian village-styled resort, became a labour of love. Planning applications, financial negotiations, construction to at first accommodate workers and then a staged program building became Maria’s life. The island’s unique shape leant itself to the new name of Crab Claw Island. It became a destination for yachties and fishermen.

Unfortunately, the business partnership soured, there was financial upheaval which followed with banks, receivers, lawyers and deep disappointment. Feeling in ruin, Maria one night saw an Australian consumer affairs television series. Feeling her plight needed attention, she made contact and was supported in recovering some losses.

The funds allowed her to move to WA where eventually she settled in her cottage at Point Moore. Far from the wheeling and dealing of big business, and no longer on an island, but surrounded by water on three sides, Maria feels more grounded and content as ever. It seems that the connection to the sea runs deep, as one daughter in Exmouth has a boat charter business and her son on the Greek island of Kos has the same. She loves hearing of her grandchildren’s surfing and fishing successes.

Maria mentions several times that Australia is the best country to live in the world and that her home is “a little bit of Greece and much more”. Any lessons she has from life, I ask, and she responds: “I may have lost millions, but now I’m rich with millions of stories!”

I scan her garden, the lustre of the lighthouse contrasting against the blue sky, this lady seated in the sunshine before me, background ocean sounds, photos of smiling grandchildren and I nod in agreement.

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