A Melbourne man’s return to Bonegilla 54 years after first landing in Australia has prompted memories of a shortage of women, the transformation of Australia’s cultural landscape and a young couple’s unexpected wedding “in the middle of nowhere”.
Croatian-born Ivo Srsen’s Australian journey began in Austria in 1967 when he and a friend saw a sign advertising immigration to Australia and the young men decided to satisfy their yearning for travel by agreeing to live and work in the great southern land for two years.
The 24-year-old Ivo later heard that “there were no women in Australia”, dampening his enthusiasm, but by then it was too late - he’d already signed up to go.
In March 1968, he found himself on a flight to Melbourne, accompanied by two other young immigrants, a man and a woman. None of the trio knew each other previously but by the time they landed, the young man and woman travelling with Mr Srsen had formed an attachment.
It was at Essendon Airport that they learned that only single men and married couples would be sent to Bonegilla and unmarried women must remain in Melbourne. It prompted a remarkable decision.
“So they decided to pose as a married couple so they could stay together,” Mr Srsen said.
It worked – at least at first – and that night, Mr Srsen and his “married” travelling companions were sent to Bonegilla.
They arrived by bus in the middle of a rainy night. The next day, Mr Srsen inspected his new home – and was not impressed.
“We slept late that morning and when we woke up and walked out of the barracks looking at many trees and barracks, I said, ‘what is this, is this what Australia is about, it’s in the middle of the bloody bush’!” Mr Srsen recalled.
He thought he would not stay for long, a feeling that was reinforced after a breakfast of “horrible food”.
There was another setback when the authorities discovered the “married” couple’s ruse and they were told that the woman must return to Melbourne or the couple should make arrangements to wed. They chose the latter option and a few weeks later they were married at Bonegilla.
By then Mr Srsen had left Bonegilla for Sydney and over the years he forgot the names of his young companions but when he returned to the Bonegilla Migrant Experience (BME) in September, 2022, memories came flooding back.
The BME team helped Mr Srsen find the couple’s wedding records, confirming they were married just 11 days after arriving at the camp.
Now, he hopes to find out more about the young couple with whom he shared a journey and a subterfuge that led to a real wedding in a tiny church at the bottom of the world.
“I’m going to talk to some of my (other) friends to see if we can find out what happened to them (the married couple),” he said.
“I would love to find out because we did share the joke – getting married in the middle of nowhere – and this type of thing is a special memory.
“If I met them and they married in Vienna it would not be as significant as it happening here.”
*In the next edition of Mr Srsen’s story, learn how he and a group of friends changed Australia by lobbying the Federal Government to bring about reforms that helped to transform Sydney and Melbourne from “huge villages with nothing in them” to the modern, multi-cultural cities that they are today.