Words by Roy Weavers  |  Images by Raine Ward


Nicky Swan, CEO Botanic Gardens, Mossman 

This area is unique and a land of opportunity. 

It’s not often you are lucky enough to meet someone in tropical north of Queensland who has walked to the North Pole, loves to holiday in Africa and counts herself as lucky to have discovered her beloved Daintree Rainforest home just by sticking a pin in the map!! 

But Nicky Swan, CEO Mossman Botanic Gardens is just that character.  Coming originally from the famous borough of Notting Hill in West London, she admits she had no idea what living ‘off the grid’ meant, and that that ignorance was bliss and generated a lifestyle that she had only previously dreamed of.  It obviously agrees with her because she is now a 21 year resident of her secret idyl in the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest and has filled her life with a myriad of achievements that would leave most other people in her wake.  Not least of which was walking with her then husband to the North Pole in 1994.   

She admits she had no idea what living ‘off the grid’ meant, and that that ignorance was bliss and generated a lifestyle that she had only previously dreamed of

Nicky has always considered Australia to be a land of opportunity and since arriving back in 2000 has put her considerable energy into everything she has undertaken. 

Many Port Douglas locals will remember her amazing gift and fashion emporium called No.5 down on Wharf Street.  She describes it more as a destination rather than just a shop.  It had an energy of it’s own and attracted both locals and tourists and on more than one occasion entertained many of the rich and famous of the day.  She was once asked to shut the shop to accommodate a Hollywood star, who was filming in Port Douglas, for some private shopping.  Nicky refused the request and met the actress to explain that the whole experience of the shop was the fusion of all creatures great and small and persuaded the Hollywood star, much to her handlers chagrin, to pop in.  She consequently chatted with other shoppers without annoyance or interference and had a ‘fat old time’ checking out all the amazing ‘assemblage’ of goodies, and much to Nicky’s relief, spent a fortune!! 

This personifies Nicky.  She is a ‘Big Picture’, positive person who has to believe in whatever she takes on.  She loves holidaying in Africa where she enjoys it’s majesty, breath of environment and the warmth of the people.  So it’s not surprising that she admires David Attenborough because, as she explains, he never waivers from his quest for the environment and it’s importance. And that is how she feels about all her ambitions for this area.  

Her father was a great influence in this philosophy.  It is a serious talent but comes with great responsibility.  Because you have to be sure you are right! 

This determined attitude is very much Nicky’s mantra.  She has such a powerful personality which more often than not means she gets things done her way but she never disrespects her opposition or the counter argument.  Her father was a great influence in this philosophy.  It is a serious talent but comes with great responsibility.  Because you have to be sure you are right! 

Her current project is the building and opening of the Mossman Botanic Gardens.  She was part of the original team that set out the Master Plan and Business plan for the Gardens and is working tirelessly now as CEO to get the architectural plan finalized and the formidable funds ($70m) raised.  In just the last year (2021) her organizational skills have seen the first stage open with the ‘Garden of Woven Memories’ being established.  With the political and philanthropic support she and the board of Directors are gathering, this global venture will be built in the very near future and generate the acknowledged wealth of opportunity for Mossman and the Douglas Shire. 

Nicky has no time for people who have entitlement as a community background.  Anything that is worth having is worth working for and often that requires a change of approach.  She believes, that just as with the ambition of the Botanic Gardens, Mossman is completely unique and a region of opportunity and if we could only stop referencing elsewhere we will all realize just how amazing this location is already and allow the area to embrace the progress within it’s grasp. 

Her tropical tip is a simple one, ‘Find a local and ask them where they go to spend their leisure time.  The secret locations revealed will undoubtedly excite and enthrall you and most locals are more than happy to share’.  

And finally Nicky confirms that the most important thing she has learnt in life is to smile every day. Oh, and only drink expensive champagne at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  She explains, “It doesn’t matter how pressured life gets, a smile will always make you remember that it’s life that matters, treating people the way you want to be treated and choosing projects that make a difference…I’m lucky I’m on that path!!” 

Ashleigh Ernest Owner, Out n About Sportfishing 

Time is precious, make it count 

My next guest, Ashleigh Ernest, is the owner of Out n About Sportfishing which has an outstanding reputation for both quality and quantity of fishing success. At the young age of just 29 years old, and in spite of the ridiculously tough past two years, she still thoroughly enjoys running her fishing venture.  “We are exactly where I hoped we would be following our decision to buy the business back in October 2020,” she told me. 

Originally trained as a hairdresser, it may not have seemed the obvious career choice for Ashleigh. However, when the opportunity arose to join the team at Out N About Sportfishing as Reservations Manager, she jumped at the chance and this new challenge. Not one to shy away from hard work, she quickly picked up the ropes and worked alongside then-owners Syd and Tessa. She gained experience whilst she nurtured her personal love of fishing!  

Not one to shy away from hard work, she quickly picked up the ropes and worked alongside then-owners Syd and Tessa

Ashleigh felt Syd and Tess had done a great job with their business, excited to see the success of a fishing tour, run by  a local family. (And we all know it’s the locals that know where the best fishing spots are!) Gaining confidence and eager to continue to expand her business acumen, when the couple announced they were selling, Ashleigh felt the time may be right for her to step up and take over the reins. She admits that initially her husband Paul had some reservations.    

Paul knew his energetic wife was more than capable of achieving anything she put her mind to. However, his concerns were purely based upon the lack of full time support that he may be able to offer her. As a Marine Engineer, Paul’s work was based in Skardon River, North of Weipa in Queensland and it was a role that required him to work as a FIFO (Fly in and fly out worker). The couple’s daughter Samantha had not long turned two years old and these initial thoughts did not yet include their now five-month old son, Grayson. 

The couple took their time, working through the pros and cons and together they decided to move on the purchase of the business. With the support of family and friends, hard work and perseverance they continued to build on the company’s reputation and created a new chapter of their own. 

With the support of family and friends, hard work and perseverance they continued to build on the company’s reputation and created a new chapter of their own

Fast forward to today and perhaps some super human organisational skills, the couple are innately proud of how far their family business has come. Like many small business owners Ashleigh manages her time between caring for her young family and being on call. Working in the business, she manages bookings, the company accounts and the day to day operations. The good news, the business has continued to see growth, with a fully booked schedule most days.  Ashleigh believes their success thus far can be attributed to many factors.  

Naturally, the product - each of their two boats can carry up to six guests, making it ideal for families and small groups who want to enjoy a day out on the water. Despite working away, when her husband Paul is home he uses his professional knowledge and skills to ensure their vessels are always in tip top condition.  And then there is their brilliant team of Skippers and Fishing Guides who bring a wealth of experience. Ashleigh adds,” It is an all round team effort working towards one mission, to ensure our guests have a once in a lifetime experience, whether they are fishing up the river or out on the Coral Sea.” 

When asked to think of an appropriate word to describe herself, she laughs: “Insane might be a good definition!” However, the more we chat the more I think that brave is probably a more apt representation. Always on the go, time is precious but Ashleigh certainly appreciates that more than most, “Enjoying quality family time is essential and the more we can involve our children in outdoor activities the better.” She laughs, “Our daughter Sam has been camping and boating since she was six weeks old and had her sea legs well before she could walk!” 

Any other tips for our readers? 

“Yes, the discovery of this homemade recipe for insect repellent - just mix ¾ baby oil with ¼ Dettol and shake. It is hands down the best at keeping those mozzies at bay.” 

“Oh and grab a cold beer at the end of the day, after all it is the perfect accompaniment after any great day Out n About.”

Joanie Doran, Co-Owner Cafe Fresq 

What is for you won’t go by you 

As I sat down to meet my next interviewee in the Woman of Douglas series, Joanie Doran and co-owner of Café Fresq in Port Douglas, her partner Aoife (pronounced Eefa) welcomed me with coffee and the warning that I was about to enter the world of Joanie the chatterbox!! 

As a person who admits she was happier to be in the background before they jumped headlong into owning Cafe Fresq, Joanie laughs and adds that she prefers to call the chatter “networking!” Judging by the loyal following of their “regulars,” and the rave reviews from visitors, it’s easy to see why Joanie’s networking style, coupled with Aoife’s food, has created a cafe vibe that is relaxed, delicious and fun!   

As a place they loved the feel of, it reminded them of home and their county towns of Southern Ireland. 

But how did these two lovely Irish ladies find their way to these parts? 

Both keen travellers, Joanie and Aoife met in Australia in 2007. Keen for adventures they continued to explore the country for the next couple of years before settling in Western Australia. Finding work as a social worker and operations manager in Port Hedland would be their stepping stone to enable a move to their favourite holiday destination, Port Douglas. As a place they loved the feel of, it reminded them of home and their county towns of Southern Ireland. 

First, they purchased an investment property, a holiday home in Port Douglas.  Their friends in WA still questioned though what, if any job opportunities might be available should they make the move permanent? They would reassure them with humour, “It’s ok,” they said, “We will just have to buy our favourite holiday restaurant, Café Fresq!”  I guess the universe had a similar idea. Later that year they arrived in Port Douglas, only to find that the café was indeed for sale!  “Well we believe that, ‘What is for you won’t go by you,’ says Joanie, “It was meant to be, so we put our best foot forward, bought it and have never looked back!” 

They consider themselves very fortunate almost every day.  “We live and work in paradise and we have an awesome team of core staff and loyal customers who have joined us on our journey.  The good times, and of course the more eventful recent times that have on occasion felt like a matter of survival.  Our team are true professionals, troopers and we love them all.  And yes it’s true, “ she chuckles, “We do have a bell that they can ring to reign me back in if I’m networking a bit too much and they need all hands on deck.” You can’t help but feel Cafe Fresq would be a great place to work, with humour being an important part of the team ethos. 

“We do have a bell that they can ring to reign me back in if I’m networking a bit too much and they need all hands on deck"

Under the capable guidance of Aoife and the team Joanie was fortunate to be able to take a back seat for a while last year, to care for a very special someone, their two year old son Billy.  Family life seems to come naturally to the girls and Billy has already seen his fair share of travels, with visits to Ireland to soak up his Irish heritage and no doubt some family cuddles.  Closer to home, Joanie and her family, “Enjoy being a tourist in our hometown. We love dining out. It’s a treat for us and there is always something to learn from the other great local restaurateurs for our own business.”  She smiles, “Besides it is the perfect opportunity to do more ‘networking’ but without the fear of a bell! And on those nice calm days, you will find them out on the water, sailing to one of their favourite spots around Low Isles, teaching Billy about the iconic Great Barrier Reef.  

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed my morning catch up with Joanie.  Her humour and positivity is infectious, and as I left her I thought to myself, if their moto, “What is for you won’t go by you,” is going to ring true for me then I’d best take her on her parting words, “Make sure you have a cocktail in the swimming pool later!”  

Say no more, consider it done. 

Chrissie Mclaughlin, Australian Artist and Galley Curator 

“Even on my rare days off I like to paint” 

My final guest is Chrissie McLaughlin. An accomplished artist, art consultant, gallery curator, event organiser and artist mentor. In fact, by her own admission there isn’t a much in the art world that she hasn’t lent her skills to and she loves it all! And she’s very good at it all too! 

Her passion for all things art and artist related has been acquired during her life’s experience and her extensive travels. She grew up in Coffs Harbour and from the age of 18 years old spent a decade in Sydney before travelling and living in Europe for another decade. She arrived in Port Douglas early 1990. She was thrilled to discover a wealth of beauty and a multitude of amazing local artists who were interpreting and illustrating the region’s natural wonders in their own different ways. 

She arrived in Port Douglas early 1990. She was thrilled to discover a wealth of beauty and a multitude of amazing local artists...

Over the past few years she has been focused in her pursuit of councils grants. Representing creators, securing equipment, trying to ensure visual art has a strong presence in the Douglas Shire. Projects such as the Art in Transit, Port Douglas Artists, Call of the Running Tide, and the hugely successful exhibition Retrospective, Past, Present and Future. This exhibition alone celebrated the works of 58 local artists and helped raise more than $75,000 in artwork sales. Working closely with Catseye Productions, the team also produced a mini-documentary to lobby for a permanent visual art space in the Douglas Shire.  

More recently, Chrissie has been consulting at The Lyons Gallery Port Douglas, Sheraton Mirage and now opening in Cairns. “Dealing with artists that are international superstars like Picasso, Warhol and Banksy is a total buzz” and having a mentor in Gallery owner Darryn Lyons has opened a new and exciting inspiring world for me.”  

Her description of the Douglas Shire is fun, she describes it as totally unique and wonderfully eccentric … “Eccentric landscape, eccentric environment, eccentric people” and “I love it with all these traits, as just that! It really is like nowhere else in the world”. 

She laughs out aloud when I ask her if she can pick one word that best describes her. “Well, perhaps this should be my second career because I would say, a juggler!” “With so many projects on the go at any one time, ideally I need to be an accomplished one at that! Whether it is time, focus, budgets, people, grants, and so the list goes on … if I can just keep all of those balls in the air and on the move, then success and enjoyment will follow. Hopefully, too, it will allow me the opportunity to make a living in a world I have a passion for, art.” 

if I can just keep all of those balls in the air and on the move, then success and enjoyment will follow...

She is well respected among all her fellow artists for her hard work and tenacity, but a person she says she most admires also works within the creative field. Chrissie cannot sing praises enough for close friend Alison George from Catseye Productions, a local photographer and videographer. “She is just so professional, creative, generous and emits a partnership atmosphere that generates easy cooperation. In so many of the events we have been able to bring to fruition, much of their success has been thanks to her hard work, input and creativity. And for that, I am ever thankful,” Chrissie said. 

Whilst she must have the energy of an Olympic athlete to realise all these tasks, she confesses there is nothing she loves more than enjoying the rainy season, or the Green Season as she prefers to call it. “Watching everything come back to life is simply amazing. It’s the best time for blooming flowers and fruits to ripen, and the wildlife is never slow to take advantage of this activity. It is nature’s inspiration and so very special.” 

“During this time of year, everyone should take advantage of it, get out and take a walk in the rain in the rainforest where you can stay cool and appreciate the incomparable beauty that surrounds you.” A timely reminder, though, her pet peeve, rubbish! “I see so many cans and bottles discarded among the rainforest and surrounding hinterland.” Her advice: Cash em in, don’t’ chuck em out! “I just can’t comprehend how people can live and travel around this amazing environment and not realise the damage they can so easily do. It’s so fragile. Anyone who comes into contact with this region should appreciate it for its treasure.  

I must say that having spent this short time with Chrissie, I see her love and enthusiasm for the area, and art is second to none. Generated by her quiet army of local artists, it is there for all to see, and it should be celebrated. I’ve already earmarked my next exhibition for 2022, anything that Chrissie is organising! I know her positivity and passion will shine through, and the art will be the only hero. 

Rachel Hodges, General Manager Mossman Gorge Centre 

Respect is a two way street 

My fourth guest for this edition is Rachel Hodges, General Manager of the Mossman Gorge.  She has enjoyed a remarkable success story since starting originally at the Centre as Operations Manager on Day One over 10 years ago.  

 She was quickly recognized by the founding Father Roy Gibson as someone exceptional.  In fact he gave her the language name ‘Wawu Jirray’ which means ‘Person with a good heart, someone who respects others’. She is proud to report that Roy is still a close mentor and friend, almost more a brother than a traditional Uncle. 

This recognition saw her quickly rise through the ranks to Assistant GM then on to Acting GM and finally to being promoted to General Manager.   

She studied Media studies at Toowoomba University before coming up to the Douglas Shire over 22 years ago. Her greatest goal, even before the Centre was completed was to be involved with teaching and empowering her local community to be sure of a path of succession.   

She acknowledges that her greatest challenge will be to ensure the Centre attains and maintains profitability.  And that the Centre increases it’s indigenous staffing levels in preparation for a closer corporate involvement within the regions local community.   

She is confident her current team has all the skills required to achieve her goals.  She leads by example and there is no doubt she is up for the challenge.  She feels that irrespective of the current Covid situation, the Centre will continue to progress.   

She has the support of her community, she is proud of the fact that the Bama (local population) are such a caring and giving people.  This gives her her purpose and drives her to push forward through all the global difficulties that all businesses are experiencing today. 

When asked who she most admires .  Who has made a difference in her life she doesn’t hesitate in naming her younger Sister, Renae.  Renae is ten years younger than Rachel and works for Queensland Health but Rachel says that she is a wonderful sounding board.  She is so level headed and very strategic, a real smart person.  It’s perfect having Renae by my side to talk things through. 

Passion for these treats comes from contact with Chinese neighbours in her early life

On a personal note, she considers her new house at Cooya Beach to be her most treasured possession.  It means another goal in life has been achieved.  Her secret indulgence is ‘Salty Plums’ which apparently are available in the local supermarkets.  Passion for these treats comes from contact with Chinese neighbours in her early life.  The delicious way she describes them makes them almost irrisistible.  I’ve got them on my shopping list!! 

Her favourite time of the year is the wet season when everything is regenerating and the flowers and fruits are in abundance. Rachel asserts that If tourists only come in the traditional season they miss so much of the rainforest and the wildlife that inhabits it.  The rain’s no problem, it’s so warm and comforting and without we wouldn’t have a rainforest…the clue is in the name!! 

And finally the biggest lesson she has learnt in life is to appreciate that ‘Respect’ is a two way street.  She is certain she wouldn’t be in her present position if she didn’t apply this lesson to her own pathway. 

With this attitude to life and the formidable positivity that Rachel conveys I think we can safely say the uniqueness of the Gorge is in good hands.  She is going to take us all on a fantastic journey.  I look forward to seeing the Centre flourish and develop over the next few years….Respect!!