Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Tennis,Cairns & Tuna Towers

Tennis, Cairns & Tuna Towers

One of the perks I liked about our home at Lane Cove was I had my own quarters downstairs which consisted of two rooms, a bedroom and bathroom / laundry  where I could come and go asI liked and i would not be waking parents up when coming home in the wee hours. Now that my parents had moved to a unit in Lindfield this was more restrictive so i started to play couch camper , staying on other friends couches when going home was to inconvenient.

Meeting up with old faces and new was easy at Christmas time, as in Sydney there was plenty happening with parties and get-togethers down the Peninsular at Palm Beach and Whale Beach, where I had lived during the days of the "Grape".Catching up, with what friends were doing and seeing who were kicking goals stimulated the brain, to find new endeavours and to look to the future in trying to get something off the ground. 

 An opportunity was forthcoming, through a lawyer friend - Peter Kemp who informed and introduced me to London property group MEPC. They owned a few hectares of vacant land,  on the harbour foreshores at Berry's Bay, where they had been trying to get development approval to build luxury home units - to no avail. MEPC gave me an option of six months on the site and I came up with idea of developing the site into a "Racquet Club" similar to what I had seen in Puerto Rico and California, such as the Le Costa Club in LA.

I approached Don Wyllie an architect who was a local,  and used to be an associate of Peter Muller who designed the Kayu Aya in Bali. He produced  some drawings of the site where we were able to plan for seven tennis courts on the foreshore, there was a disused glass factory on the cliff overlooking the proposed tennis courts which we intended to recycle into the clubhouse.

 Carol Baker was the Lord Mayor of North Sydney Council and offered some advice about lobbying local residents, and our approach to North Sydney Council. After Don had completed some mud maps I organised some evening appointments with some local residents, taking drawings and spreading them out on their kitchen tables, we presented our intentions. The site was bounded by a railway line on the western side and the harbour on the eastern side, above the railway line on a ridge there were several residences that overlooked the site and these were earmarked with visits. They had formed themselves into a 'resident action committee' to fight the MEPC proposal that would have blocked their views and harbour access. Ours did nothing of the sort and was passive,no one at the time objected to what we proposed. 

 It was then decided before submitting a development application we should organise a resident site meeting with the 'residents action committee' that had been formed,to outline the proposed plans. Also to get some publicity, like - editorial in the North Shore Times. I decided to try and get John Newcombe one of Australia's tennis greats involved and phoned his Sydney office and explained what was my intention and they agreed I could use his name. I contacted the editor of the North Shore Times and the next week on the front page of  were the Headlines, followed by a ten paragragh article and informing of the site meeting to be held :

                              PLANS FOR MAJOR SPORTS CENTRE
                             FITNESS, FOOD & TENNIS WITH NEWC.

The following Saturday there was a big turnout of residents with kids and pets,Carol Baker was there and Don and I with drawings. Don chaired the meeting and outlining the intention of the "Colonial Tennis Gardens", which was my name for the complex.That included seven tennis courts, 25meter swimming pool, gymnasium, health spa and saunas, jogging track, child care centre, on- site parking for 120 cars, restaurant and discotheque.

I explained no detailed feasibility study had been done re costings until we gauged what the residents reaction to this proposed passive development would be.Some residents objected that it would not be passive with the traffic generated by the amenities. Including a discotheque was not a bright idea either. 

Carol Baker proposed that a show of hands would determine: if we were to proceed or not, and with that, she asked for those in favour to raise their hands ... very few raised their hands, then she asked for a show of hands for those against.... most of them were raised. With that it was decided to approach NSC to turn it into a park - which it now is... and I went over to the "Four and Hand" Pub in Paddington and got pissed.

Whilst there at the "Four in Hand" I ran into a guy I used to see in London - David Barclay who was considerably older than I and who also had travelled extensively. We got talking and he asked 'what was I going to do now besides getting drunk' and I said 'I did not have a plan'. He then asked 'did I have much money left after my last endeavour', I said 'a couple of grand'. He then suggested, that I should take my new girlfriend and myself up to Cairns  from where he had recently returned. Cairns  was starting to take off as a tourist hub, he thought the two of us would get something going up there.

I had hooked up with a lady called Angela Cameron- MacKay, who was born in Kenya and was the head receptionist at the Sebel Town House at Potts Point. I approached her with this idea which she liked, after a send off party by her room mates at their Double Bay apartment  two weeks later we arrived in Cairns -- with a couple of suitcases each, a couple of addresses, and a couple of grand.

Angela soon cracked a job working in reception at  " Tuna Lodge" one of two high profile hotels in Cairns at that time and owned by Peter Miller, the other was "Trade Winds" owned by the Kamsler Family .Angela was  naturally stylish along with a beautiful smile and that sensational colonial English accent that commands you to listen, she loved to hear and tell jokes and she got on well with people.

Peter Miller was at that time building Cairns first Boutique Hotel "Tuna Towers" a six level building of 75 rooms and suites, on the Esplanade about three blocks from the CBD with a medical centre attached on the other side of the hotel, in partnership with Cairns's Radiologist, Bill Gale.

We became friends quickly with these families.Bill Gale came originally from Sydney and went to Knox and Sydney Uni where he did medicine,he was married to Anne with whom they had three children. Bill was well travelled, cultured, loved his red wines of which we drank copious quantities from his fine cellar in his farm  house at Kuranda. Bill had an engaging personality and endearing stutter, a good looking bloke who was well respected in Far North Queensland.

I often went with him on week ends to " Fairy Farm", his hobby  farm on the Barron River in Kuranda. Kuranda reminded me of of one of the hill stations in the Himalayas, the climate was cooler than Cairns, being on the edge of the Tablelands. It was very alternate, and had attracted  many artists and crafts people with a good splash of indigenous as the Bangara Dance Group had just started. The railway station was a gem of Victorian Architecture in steel and over  the years had cultivated one of the best tropical gardens of ferns and palms which people came to visit for a sticky beak.

Bill had fallen for the area and bought ten years ago, so his place was well established and most weekends saw him drive up there from Cairns. Over the years he planted an eclectic assortment of exotic fruit trees that he had propagated from seeds ; Mammy Sapotas, Florida Star Apples, Durians together with a range of Avocado's and  West Indian Limes, collectively an orchard of several hundred trees. We would spend the day on his ride on mower,  mowing the grass between the trees, slashing underneath near the root system with a whipper snipper and pruning  branches, this would take a weekend, and last a couple of weeks before it had to be done again.The orchard would look like a manicured park by the time we had finished.  We would then adjourn to the farmhouse which was built in the rainforest and hook into his extensive  cellar of Australian and French red and white wines and cook ourselves a a mini grand bouuef. Amazingly you never suffered from a hangover, as the rainforest generates so much oxygen and as we were surrounded by one of the largest in Far North Queensland, we woke up refreshed and ready to go again!!

 Peter was a fisherman from South Australia who came to Cairns about five years ago and opened 'Tuna Lodge'- hence the sobriquet "Tuna" for his property. which had about sixty rooms.Peter saw the potential for further accommodation needs and they decide to join up as Bill owned the land and they both joint ventured "Tuna Towers".Peter was the ultimate host always at the bar in the evenings welcoming guests and locals, tall and fair in complexion, an A grade tennis player, he looked a bit like Rod Laver.Pete was married to Leslie and had a son Darren who was just leaving school.

Both great blokes, in their mid fifties, really into what was going on,  not only in Cairns, but Far North Queensland.Through them both we were introduced to their wide circle of friends and over a period of time they both involved me with their plans for Tuna Towers. Until eventually there were some designated tasks, through my influencing I became the designated interior designer for the  project. My main responsibility was to design  the rooms and suites,restaurant and public spaces with the architect and to source all the furniture, fittings, equipment, art and artefact's.

We decided on colour schemes, which pissed of the project manager/ builder, Watkins - I suggested pastels through the rooms - pinks, pale yellows,turquoise. The project manager, at one of the monthly meetings, got the shits!! with me, when I presented the colour scheme for the complex.This was to enable the paint contract to go out to tender and  he commented- "their all poofter colours" I asked what do you want "all cream or beige" - of course!! every one else backed me, so we got our pastels.

We were the first hotel in Cairns to commission local artists, potters,iron workers  for different pieces throughout the property.Local artists painted scenes; from the reef and rain forest,  images of the local fauna and flora in different mediums: gouache, oils,watercolours and charcoal, that were hung in the rooms and corridors. In the restaurant Steve Stapleton who was a sculptor made a beautiful wrought iron screen about fifteen foot long and seven foot high that separated the bar from the entrance as you walked into restaurant. Ray Harrison made  fifteen large ceramic pots, a metre and half tall, which he painted in his own inimitable  style, then glazed - these we placed through the lobby, restaurant and gardens.

 A group from the Atherton Tablelands,  in Kairai, called the Gadencliff Group,comprised of a bunch of blokes, their wives and girlfriends, who collectively started several joint endeavours such as : joinery shop,pottery and acupuncture clinic,were retained to build some of the architectural features for the complex.  They all were in their mid twenties and thirties and had different disciplines, two of the youngest Leo Von Gemmett and Ross Penman were studying acupuncture and similarly learning stone masonry and boat building, others were painters, healers, potters, each teaching and learning from each other.

 They  were retained  to build the licensed bar, as one of them -  Gerry McKee a Californian Surfer, was a boat builder and surfboard shaper and experienced with fibre glass.
The bar we designed was oval shaped, half indoor and half outdoor,that could seat about thirty or so around it with further standing space. Constructed from "sea ply"and  fibre glassed to withstand the tropical weather of constant heavy rain over a sustained period, the three of them built the carcass in their workshop in the Tablelands, transported it to Cairns and installed it by crane. 

I  loved visiting the guys, to see how how the different projects were  progressing. The Tablelands was such a beautiful place - Lake Barine, Kuranda, the Barron Falls, parts of it reminded me of Africa and other parts - the rolling hills similar to Devon and Cornwell. Often I would stay the night at the  Yungaburra Hotel which was like a time warp, run by two old ladies and staffed by their eccentric friends - breakfast there reminded me of boarding school, with servings of porridge, corn fllakes and boiled eggs with white toast.

There was an enormous inventory to assemble in the fit out of the interiors; bedding, lights, soft furnishings, fabric selections for drapes and upholstering,the suites all had small kitchens, out door furniture, commercial kitchen equipment,plus the fit out for a  hundred seat restaurant. There was quoting, tendering and price comparisons,  sourcing of suppliers, obtaining samples and renderings all to be compiled and presented at the monthly meetings. 
Then the ordering, payment and delivery to be synchronised for install with the construction time lines and the grand opening.Eventually  I managed to pull it altogether over a seven month period sourcing  locally or in Brisbane and Sydney. 

With great local fanfare "Tuna Towers" opened in November 1980, it was Cairns first high rise hotel, all of six levels.At the time it was the biggest  in Cairns and was an instant hit with locals and tourists, the restaurant and bar quickly established themselves as  popular hang outs and did not take long to develop a steady patronage.

The money I made from that, about $30k, I invested in buying a third share in one of the most popular restaurant in Cairns - "Barnacle Bills" which was in the CBD on the Esplanade across from the waterfront. Originally called "The Tropicana" it had had several owners, mostly Melbourne blokes, of which there were plenty of in Cairns at that time, and one of them changed the name to" Barnacle Bills" and  served local seafood of which there was a wide choice, fresh and available daily.
The building was a free standing, weathered clap board two level building, with concertinaed aluminium sliding glass doors that opened up and fronted onto the footpath. Sitting seventy, with a bar down the back and kitchen behind it was a great casual dining spot frequented by locals and tourists.Bill and I bought  the business with another local John Dowson.

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