No matter where he flies, the international pilot has a freshly written letter from Barbara Audas somewhere in his suitcase. A prolific letter writer who has travelled the world, Barbara’s hand-written messages changed his life. While mobile phone facetime allows her to call daily from Black Rock to her husband Brett overseas, her letters have never stopped. She tucks them into an old silver Arabic case which she hides in his luggage.
A volunteer at Sandybeach Centre who helps in art classes, and presents armchair travel segments for elderly audiences, Barbara leads an extraordinary life. She was 26 when she met her first husband Tony Stevenson, a pilot from New Zealand flying in New Guinea. They lived in Wau in a house among the trees next to the runway.
Eight months after they were married he died tragically.
“Tony was coming down a runway on a very high mountain and had an engine failure right on the end of this mountain, and crashed down into the valley,” Barbara says.
Brett Audas and Tony were close friends. Barbara had not long been in Papua New Guinea. She did not know where to turn after the tragedy, which happened in 1987.
“I wanted to have some ceremony up there,” she says. “Tony was loved by so many people, he had been up there for five years, working as a Catholic overseas volunteer. Tony had amazing stories of bringing people from remote villages into emergency medical help, he would fly through treacherous weather. He was my angel.”
She was visiting one of her brothers in New Guinea when she met and fell in love with Tony.
Back in Australia after losing Tony, Barbara would write to Brett in New Guinea, and re-visit places there. Gradually as the exchange of letters continued she grew fonder of him.
“It was lovely, very romantic. I started gently saying that I liked him because I knew he is such a gentleman he would never have approached me,” Barbara says. Years later they married. They lived in a gated community in Lae, where she learned to speak Pidgin.
When they left, their security guard, who belonged to a local tribe who once were head-hunters presented Brett with his bow-and-arrow and spears.
Today Brett flies for Fiji Airways, and is based in Fiji. Barbara runs their business, Melbourne Seaplanes. This is except for Mondays, when she volunteers at Sandybeach Centre. She begins and ends her shift greeting and farewelling art class members with a warm hug. “I help them off the bus and bring them into the class and welcome them,” she says. “Just to be there for them, it is a lovely community.”
Barbara has painted since her childhood. She helps set up the classroom, helps the class’ tutor Jenny Jessop and works one-on-one with participants. She fetches paint colours and palates and makes fresh curried-egg sandwiches in the kitchen for afternoon tea.
Invited to present an armchair travel segment at Sandybeach she drew on her first hand experiences from the jungles of New Guinea to the desert of Dubai, and India.
Learning snippets of foreign languages has endeared her to many new friends. A lady from Iran in the art class has bonded with Barbara, turning to her one day and saying: “You are the daughter I never had.’’
Volunteering began suddenly, when Barbara was driving along Beach Road and saw an invitation to volunteer outside of Sandybeach Centre. She has always helped other people, beginning when she helped her mother with raising her eight siblings at Templestowe.
“Everywhere I have lived I have volunteered,” she says. “In Papua New Guinea I walked through jungles, helped weigh babies in villages and checked their health.”
Volunteering continued while in Dubai with Brett for 11 years. At other times she has worked alongside church parishioners in Brisbane feeding people camped under bridges, in an orphanage in Cambodia and with people with special needs in Dubai.
On their return to Australia the couple bought a scenic flights venture, Melbourne Seaplanes at Williamstown, and as the operations manager Barbara feels she is the next (meteorologist) Jane Bunn because she studies the weather so closely. “I wondered why I was learning about my Nimbus and Cumulonimbus clouds at school, now I know why,” she says with a laugh.
The woman who began her career as a pharmacy assistant has written and produced flight brochures, employs a pilot, juggles bookings, and has developed a network of top hotel concierges and tourism contacts. This enables her to promote scenic flights from shimmering sunsets over the Yarra River, sweeping views over the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the neatly-clipped Botanical Gardens or tracking the coast after passing Brighton’s golden mile of exclusive homes.
“Over Sandringham is a Second World War sunken submarine that I didn’t even know was there,” she says. “It is among the sailing boats, you can see it from the air. It is just magical being up there having a look from 500 feet. I left Melbourne 25 years ago, for me I’m re-living my beautiful city.”
Far from being her dream job, taking control of what can be a fickle business was daunting. But two years on Barbara is in control.
“I am really enjoying it now. I didn’t know anything about it (in the beginning). All I know is I love flying. In lots of ways it has been really good for me. It has enriched my life even more.”