We’ve all encountered them at one time or another. Unassuming rest places for travellers, places often no more than a fleeting memory on a journey to somewhere else. The places in between. However, as I recently discovered on a visit to New Italy – a small place on the Pacific Highway roughly two-and-a-half hours’ drive south of Brisbane – such places also harbour interesting stories.
Once a small farming community, New Italy today comprises two small museums, a café, gift shop and a community hall at the edge of one of Australia’s busiest highways. And whilst I’d driven past the place many times, I had never thought to pay a visit, not until I read a snippet about the Italian immigrants and how they had courageously planted themselves here many years ago.
In July of 1880, 50 Italian families (340 people) set sail from Barcelona on the ‘India’ after the Marquis de Rays beguiled them with the promise that a paradisiacal island named New Ireland, off Papua New Guinea, offered a better way of life. After three months of sailing in appallingly cramped conditions, with scant rations, disease and little ventilation, the India arrived at Port Breton – the ‘capital’ of the Marquis’ fabled empire.
One hundred people had perished along the way, while the survivors now endured torrential rain with no shelter and little to no supplies. Suffering and many more deaths occurred during the next four months until the remaining party made a desperate voyage on the weather-beaten India towards Australia. The vessel made it to Noumea, New Caledonia, where it was impounded for being unseaworthy.
From here the English Consul contacted Sir Henry Parkes, who sent a steam vessel, the James Patterson, to rescue the survivors. The Italians arrived in Sydney in April of 1881, frail and impoverished.
Hearing of available land in the Richmond River District, which English colonists had failed to harvest, a number of Italians made the journey north. An early newspaper reported of their venture, “the Italians toiled from sunrise until dark”….“men, women and children were either using hoe or axe.”
Despite the poor soil and hardship, the Italians persevered to produce corn, grapes, citrus and sweet potatoes in abundance. They worked with what they had and concocted dishes such as the “parrot pie.” A small community ensued, as did a church, community hall and local school, which was eventually closed in 1933. As New Italy was a remote place, the Italians eventually moved to nearby localities such as Casino and Woodburn for steady work.
However, every year, descendants of the steadfast Italian community that had established life in this part of the world gather to celebrate their heritage in New Italy. The pioneers’ houses are now all gone, although the museum, which is run by volunteers, reveals a personality or two of these intrepid travellers.
One resident, Giacomo Piccoli, made the onerous journey across the Indian and Pacific Ocean as a 15-year-old boy. The last of these indomitable Italians, Giacomo died in 1955, aged 90. He stayed on in New Italy long after others had left. If anything, the place became his town in the end.
One man who was born and spent his early childhood in New Italy, Angelo Nardi, had a mountain named after him – Mt Nardi – a glorious place in the Nightcap National Park which I’ve written about here. The mountain was named in honour of Mr Nardi’s contribution to the community of Nimbin throughout his long life. Angelo Nardi died in 1994.
Things to see
Besides the museum, café and gift shop selling Italian paraphernalia, there’s a nice park out the back sparsely populated with trees – planted in honour of the Italian pioneers. Names such as the Scarrabelottis, Rambaldinis and Spinazes are given new life in the very soil these families best turned to their advantage many years past.
Hit the brakes (not too hard)
Next time you’re scooting along the Pacific Highway between Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay, pay a visit to New Italy and peer into the lives of these stalwart adventurers.
Yes, today the place is little more than a glorified road stop, although one that’s well worth a visit.