Middle Percy: Our Island Home

 By Jon Hickling, SY "Ruby Charlotte"

As we sailed away to the north aboard our 65ft ex Pearling Lugger the "Ruby Charlotte", I turned around for the last glimpse of the tropical island that had been our home for the past 12 years. I couldn't help feeling I might be turned into a pillar of salt for sneaking this last emotional glance…


 The Hickling family... Justine, Liz, Jon and Jacob

  Middle Percy Island had a new owner. The love, time and effort we, as a family, had put into the island had come to an abrupt end. We left so much behind us, the house we had built out of island stone and bush timber. Animals we had hand reared. Fruit trees we had nurtured and planted, machinery and tools plus the only home our two young boys had ever known. The blood, sweat, tears memories and dreams. The islands new leaseholder said he was going to carry on what we had been doing. This meant carrying on the island tradition of not only hospitality but also the maintenance of the whole infrastructure.

In March 2001 when we left Percy Island, that infrastructure included supplying organically grown lunches to the hundreds of yachtsmen/women who stopped off each year to experience the Percy magic. We were supplying home grown produce in the A-frame building at West Bay for sale. We had honey, mango chutney, beeswax candles, marmalades, jams, soaps, tanned goatskin rugs, goatskins for bagpipes, and for drum skins, fresh eggs, fresh squeezed lime juice, and other handicrafts also organic bread was baked to order, and in our spare time we self published an 180 page island history book full of photos, articles and historic documents.

We looked after chooks, peacocks, turkeys, ducks, guinea fowl, milking goats, ponies and cattle. Plus we maintained 3 houses, 5 sheds, lots of farm machinery, miles of fences, gates, a boat jetty and careening piles and kept the roads and walking tracks serviceable for ourselves and the island visitors. On top of all this we were doing five weather observations per day for The Bureau of Meteorology at Brisbane. And the newest project we had embarked on was the restoration of the "Islander", a 30-foot timber boat built at Percy in 1938. Not to mention we had to maintain our own 65-foot ex Pearling Lugger, "Ruby Charlotte".

When we first arrived at Middle Percy in 1989, the place was extremely run down. Andy Martin the leaseholder then 62 years old, had reached his zenith and the sun was well and truly setting on his island empire. He had an extremely bad back was very lame and badly needed a hip replacement.

For our first year and a half on the island, we lived in a tree house built at West Bay beach. Six days a week for this first year and a half we walked the 1 ½ miles up the steep short track to the homestead that was 700 feet above sea level near the center of the island. For the next seven years Andy instructed us and taught us from his personal experience how to care for and treat the island that was his home for 33years. Liz and I learnt how to run the island as self sufficiently as possible.

We planted acres of ground around the homestead with every type of tropical fruit tree and had a veggie garden that would make Peter Cundall say, "Blooming marvelous!" Andy encouraged us to be self-reliant, if something broke we had to fix it, or learn to adapt without it.

I used to sail our boat the 70 nautical miles to Mackay on the mainland (usually single-handed) every three months. In town we sold island produce and procured items we could not make or grow. Day to day life was always a challenge. There were goats to milk, chooks to feed, beehives to harvest, water to pump, wood to chop, veggies to grow, kids to teach, boats and farm machinery to maintain, and that's not even half of it.

Andy Martin who had been the leaseholder of Middle Percy since 1964 left in mid 1996. He returned to England where he had family and friends. When Andy left Middle Percy we had been living on the island with him for seven years. When he left he said that he was leaving the ownership and care of Percy Island to us.


 The Hickling's vessel, the "Ruby Charlotte" at the piles in the lagoon
  We continued living on and running the island for the next 5 years. We paid the rates and the lease payments and even sent money to England to help Andy. He wrote to us saying he would put our names on the lease as joint leaseholders, and he promised to do so, we thought his word was good enough. We out of hundreds of people who had tried to live on the island were the only ones who had stayed continuously, proved our love and loyalty for the island and done the time. Unfortunately, Andy who suffered from mental as well as physical health problems never fulfilled his promise to us.
In December 2000, while on a visit to the mainland we went up to Cairns to try and salvage the derelict hulk of the 30 foot boat built on Middle Percy in 1938 called the "Islander". The White family built the boat out of pit-sawn island timber (they held the lease of Percy for 43 years prior to Andy). The "Islander" had spent the last 8 years on the hard stand at the Cairns Cruising Yacht Squadron in the graveyard section. Over $7000 dollars was owed in unpaid dues. The Squadron wanted rid of this pile of wood, so luckily we came to the rescue.

We bought the hull for $500 (money we had raised by selling booklets we
had made of this famous boat's history). The Squadron agreed to wipe the debt off the boat if we guaranteed we were to do something with it. Five weeks later, and after lots of hard work, 14 planks were replaced, all the ribs and the floor timbers renewed, the entire hull re-caulked and re-fastened.


 The vessel "Islander" was hand built by the White family that Andy bought the island from. They cut the planks from native trees in a saw pit and assembled the boat up the hill by the homestead. When completed they diss-assembled the whole thing and hand carried it down the hill to re-assemble near the water..... Very tough and self reliant people.

  It was during this re-build that a man called Mick arrived on the scene. This man had spent 3 months as a 13-year-old youth with Andy on Percy. He became involved with us after seeing an article in the Cairns Post about the restoration of "Islander". Mick offered to help. He donated a small amount of timber and found us some free accommodation.
The 75ft Herreshoff yacht "Circi" owned by Frank Cooper, a jovial and capable man who we had employed to help us with the work on "Islander", towed the newly rejuvenated hull from Cairns back to Percy Island. Mick asked if he could come as crew so Frank agreed to have him on "Circi"
as his crew. Jacob our eldest son (then 13), was aboard "Islander" with me.

Back at Percy with the "Islander" moored safely back in the tidal lagoon, Mick & Frank were shown all facets of island hospitality. Mick left with goatskins, honey and mango chutney as presents. He re-paid us by taking Andy's address (which we naively gave him), and on returning to Cairns he flew to England and convinced Andy that he was going to lose the lease of the island because it was not being looked after.

"Meanwhile, back at the ranch", we discovered these goings on purely by accident. A brief phone call to Mick's house in Cairns to see how the sail back had been, and his wife told us that Mick was flying Andy from England back to Australia. This started alarm bells ringing..

Mick drew up an agreement for the transfer of the lease and for the grand sum of "ten" Australian dollars. The lease was signed over from Andy to Mick.

We called up Mick's house a few days later to talk to Andy and find out what was going on. Andy in a very frail voice told us he was sorry, and that he would compensate us for our time, effort and money we had spent on the Island (something he never did). He said he had been promised a large sum of money which was to follow after the transfer was complete (we don't
believe he got it), and was persuaded into believing that a radical change of residents would some how help the Island, which had been running it smoothest in years.

It was after hearing this that we decided to leave our island home out of "protest", because of the way the so-called sale and transfer of the lease had been carried out.

Now 2 ½ years later, Mick lives on the mainland, and the island is in a shambles. There have been occasional caretakers. The homestead is often deserted. The "Islander" still lies in the lagoon.

In late 2002 Andy flew to Percy by helicopter to see for himself what was going on with his former island home. He spent 5 days on the island and on his return to the mainland, he claimed it was now uninhabitable.

On May 3rd 2003 Andrew Charles Martin died aged 76. He died a sad and disgruntled old man. We believe Andy was mentally unstable and not in his right mind when he transferred the lease for this ridiculous sum. He was convinced that the island lease was to be taken off him by the Department of Natural Resources, something that simply was not true.

Andy's cousin Cath, his carer for the last 20 months of his life, who spent lots of time with us on Percy, and has a deep love and connection with the island, is continuing with the battle to get the lease back and has asked us to go back as equal partners with her if and when she gets the lease back.

While living on Middle Percy Liz and I wrote a 180-page history book on the Percy Islands, and it is available on C.D. ROM. It contains hundreds of photograph's, articles, stories, anchorages and maps. It is available for $30 and can be ordered from Jon and Liz Hickling, c/o rubycharlotte@hotmail.com.

Editors note:
The Hicklings and Cathryn Radcliff contend that there was an agreement with the transfer of the lease to Mick Cotter, that stated that if the Island wasn't improved, the lease was to pass back to Andy for the same $10.00 of the original transaction. Further, they alledge that Andy was pursuing the return just before he died, and intended to leave the Island lease to Cathryn if he succeeded.

Though we had requested documented evidence of these issues from Cathryn, and had been promised them in December, 2003, they had not appeared by press time, January 2004.

Facts are, the current residential lease was taken in 1998 for a ten year period. In the unlikely event the D.N.R. does not allow renewal of the lease in 2008, the terms of the current agreement require the removal of all structures and "rehabilitation of the area."


Editors up-date: The documentation mentioned above was later produced by Cathryn, including a copy of a valid will that did state the issues claimed.