Greta John's path from South Africa, to England, to Tasmania

CREATIVE OUTLET: George Town woman Greta Barber shares her unique story. Picture: Phillip Biggs
CREATIVE OUTLET: George Town woman Greta Barber shares her unique story. Picture: Phillip Biggs

Craft and a love of animals always influenced Greta John's life but the death of her father shook her to the core. The George Town woman sat down with HAMISH GEALE to share her story in her own words.

I was born in 1975 in Johannesburg, I’m a second generation South African.

My great grandfather was a civil engineer who was behind Luna Park in Victoria and he got commissioned to go to South Africa and help build Witbank Dam, so that’s how they ended up moving over.

My parents divorced when I was 14 months old and at the age of four both of my parents had remarried and had another child with new marriages, so I grew up with my mum and her two daughters and my step father.

I was a very hyperactive child, in those days they didn’t know it was called ADHD, it was hyperactivity - I was fun-loving but very excitable and like an electric current through the house.

I used to drive my mother insane, but I loved animals and I loved life, so I think she excused a lot of my behaviour because I was such a loving little creature. 

My dad was always very loving and very different, my mum had been brought up in a strict Catholic academic background whereas my dad chose to go down the vegan and Hindu route and was very technically-minded.

My father suffered from bipolar and manic depression so he would have extreme highs where he’d do incredibly well, then his depression got the better of him and he slumped really badly and he lost absolutely everything. 

He wasn’t a big influence on my education but he was a huge influence on who I was spiritually, he was always working on my inner being.

He taught me so many valuable lessons that I’ve always held really close to my heart that have equipped me as an adult to handle a lot of what life has thrown at me.

EARLY YEARS: Greta with her parents. Probably 1978 at her 3rd birthday or Christmas.

EARLY YEARS: Greta with her parents. Probably 1978 at her 3rd birthday or Christmas.

MOVING TO ENGLAND

When I was 21 I had decided to go overseas, I had a friend over in England and I thought I’d go backpacking and base myself in England.

In the first week I met who ended up being my husband and that was in 1997, I met him through my friend and we then ended up living in England for 10 years together.

I ended up working at some really good restaurants in England, saw heaps of famous people, I met Whoopi Goldberg, Jo Collins, Ian Brown - it was quite a trendy cafe.

Kylie Minogue used to be there all the time with Dannii it was quite funny, and Eric Clapton used to come sit at the bar all the time. 

After my last job in waitressing I was fed up with doing that, it served a purpose but it wasn’t me and I missed animals terribly, so I started volunteering at London Zoo.

After six months a position became available on the bird section - birds are my first and foremost love.

I’ve always wanted to be a bird and I’ve always admired them flying - when I was a kid I used to watch them flying in the sky and wanted to be a bird.

I applied and got accepted which I was not amazed about because I’d worked really hard and they could see I had a genuine passion so I’d made sure it was obvious I wanted to do this.

LEARNING: Greta and her father in Kwazulu-Natal in 1979 with Vervet Monkeys.

LEARNING: Greta and her father in Kwazulu-Natal in 1979 with Vervet Monkeys.

MOVING TO AUSTRALIA

I was at London Zoo for five years - that was a fantastic experience but then we decided we wanted to start a family so I came here to live in 2006.

I fell in love with Tasmania and absolutely loved it, I loved the big open space and the beautiful greenery and the wonderful animals as well.

We got married in 2008 and it was in Pongola in Nkwazi Lodge, it was just in the middle of nowhere and we had friends from here and different places in the world so it was a nice experience.

From there we carried on our life in Australia and my husband carried on doing fly-in fly-out and we had two kids, they’re now five and seven.

Then life got really hard for me.

I had no family of my own here, I had his family but his mum and dad passed away a few years in between.

There were times when I wouldn’t see any family for easily two weeks or more and when you’re doing it on your own and you’ve got no husband there and two kids in nappies, it’s hard.

So I got very lonely and started losing the plot to be honest. There were many times when I was actually very suicidal, I was suffering a lot of depression. I tried to reach out to my husband a lot about this, he knew I was struggling and he struggled himself, he was just trying to do his best and provide for his family. 

He ended up working in Barrow Islands for three years and that roster killed us, it was like a month on and six days off and it starts to distance you more and more, and with the problems you have the communication breaks down terribly.

I was operating on no sleep and I got into such a bad habit now that I still only go to sleep two or three hours every night, I’m one of those people who has learned to live on very little sleep.

Last year enough was enough for me.

I moved out in October and decided that I was going to make it on my own and that was really tricky.

I hadn’t worked with the kids because my husband had been FIFO so I had to build myself again, so I had to apply for welfare and I’m so grateful for the system we have here. I would never be able to do what I’m doing now in South Africa because there’s nothing like that supporting mums, so I’m ever grateful for what Australia has.

I often hear people moaning about Centrelink but I think it’s amazing and I’m so grateful.

TAKING OFF: The Tas Rocks phenomenon.

TAKING OFF: The Tas Rocks phenomenon.

TRAGEDY IN SOUTH AFRICA

In January one night when I was making dinner for my kids I got a phone call from my sister to say that my Dad was in intensive care, he’d been attacked in his lounge room at his home in Johannesburg and it wasn’t looking good.

They’re often racial attacks and they are towards white people, especially old white people and they’re generally done in the disguise of a housebreak. 

I phoned my husband up and said can you come around here, because he’s still my family at the end of the day and I know I’m still his family.

I got a phone call from my sister a few hours later and she said that Dad had actually died. So I was on a plane 7 o’clock the next morning and it got me to South Africa really quickly.

I ended up cleaning the murder scene as well myself because it was my way of connecting. We had that service offered to us but I had to do it I suppose.

It took me an hour to clean away everything but it was like a cleansing process for me to connect with my dad and understand what he went through and say goodbye. We had to go and identify his body in the morgue - that was another horrific experience because they had that many bodies in the morgue that were unidentified because of the crime rate in South Africa, they have so many bodies.

There’s well over 350 reported rapes a day and there’s so many unreported incidents.

My Dad’s death didn’t even get reported in the local paper - it’s not news, that’s how scary it is. 

FAMILY: Greta John with her children McKinley and Sofia Barber.

FAMILY: Greta John with her children McKinley and Sofia Barber.

MOVING FORWARD

I got to a really sad point in my life with my Dad and I went crusading on Facebook on (violence in South Africa).

After a while I decided that I needed to stop because I was killing myself inside with all the violence I was witnessing online and probably people on Facebook totally switched off from me.

I had a bit of a break on it all and I painted some rocks for my Dad as a memorial on his birthday, we’re going to do that every year for Dad.

That’s what led me to see the WA Rocks movement on Facebook and that’s why I started up Tas Rocks.

I am also starting my own business where I will make craft packs to sell, because a lot of things are very hard to source even online.

I also want to one day head up Tasmania’s premier wildlife rehabilitation, conservation and education centre. 

I’ve gained so much strength over the years from all the adversity I’ve gone through that I have no doubt I’ll be able to do it, it’s just a matter of time.

Greta’s website can be found at www.gretajohn.com

Her craft pursuits will soon be online at www.craftmylife.com.au

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