AYE AYE CAPTAIN: Alex McKay on his beautiful Lowood property.
AYE AYE CAPTAIN: Alex McKay on his beautiful Lowood property. Francis Witsenhuysen

Variety the spice of Alex McKay's long life

MOST days, Lowood's Alex McKay doesn't know what to do first on his five-acre property - whipper snipper or mow it.

Nothing strange about that, you might say.

But there is when you're rising 98 years old, and live by yourself.

This remarkable near-centurion, a widower for a decade since the death of Joan, may live on his own, but he's rarely alone.

"There's barely a day that passes without someone or other dropping in to see that I'm still alive,” the spritely former ship's captain said.

"My daughters Christine, Maxine and Paula visit every week, and there always seems to be someone buzzing about the place.”

Not only is Alex an interesting man, but he has lived a varied life, either in his chosen vocation on the high seas, or during his time in the American Navy.

Born in Broken Hill, New South Wales in 1919, Alex hankered from his youth to travel, feeling there was more to life than station work, rounding up brumby horses and roaming the countryside, fencing and doing odds jobs - whatever it took to survive during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

"They say tough times don't last, but tough people do, and I guess that was the way of the world then,” Alex said.

There was more to that, though, which Alex found the first time he saw the sea, as an 18-year-old in Adelaide, South Australia.

"I said to myself 'this'll do me' and it did,” he said.

Alex worked his way through the ranks on various ships, firstly handling menial tasks, before studying to become a ship's captain.

"I have always functioned with the use of only one eye, and another ship's captain mate of mine, Bruce Fitzgerald, only had one hand,” Alex said.

"When the Second World War broke out we decided to enlist, but because of our disabilities, the Australian Navy wouldn't take us - what a double we must have been.

"So we both signed on with the American Navy in Small Ships, and we were sent to Papua New Guinea where we delivered supplies and collected the wounded.

"I tend not to talk about the war now, but it allowed me entry to PNG, where I then took my family, and where we stayed for more than 30 years.”

Alex and his brood were based at Rabaul, the capital of East New Britain Province, a shipping port and former home to the Japanese troops in the South Pacific in the Second World War.

"The local New Guinea-born people there speak pidgin and Tolai, so it came as a bit of a shock to a family with three teenage daughters from Oyster Bay in Sydney,” Alex said.

Alex at one stage worked for a company owned by the family of Sir Julius Chan, who served as Prime Minister of PNG from 1980 to 1982 and from 1994 to 1997, and is presently Governor of PNG's New Ireland Province.

Because Alex held an Unlimited Master's Certificate, he was able to drive any ship in-and-around the waters of Papua New Guinea.

He was often called to oversee rescue operations for ships which had been grounded on the treacherous coral reefs.

Most times, though, Alex could be seen at the bridge with a crew of up to 20 or so on the larger ships - they weren't luxury liners, but rather merchant ships.

That all ended with Alex's retirement in 1991 when he needed to bring his wife back to Australia for medical reasons.

Because their three children - adult daughters and their families - were living in-and-around Brisbane, the choice of retirement location was easy.

"We didn't fancy the idea of suburbia, though, so we found this lovely plot right on the Brisbane River at Lowood,” Alex said.

"These past few years I share my breakfast with a family of magpies, and during the summer months there's thousands of bats which die on my property due to the heat... you'd nearly call it a menagerie.”

When Alex gave up his car licence at the age of 90 he cycled into Lowood most days for three years, but now is a stay-at-home type, always ready to welcome his vast - and seemingly endless - array of visitors.

"As well as the weekly visits from my daughters, so many people call in to say g'day, including policeman Darren Rumbelow, who I was fortunate to meet when he saved my life during the big floods six years ago,” Alex said.

"Judy Schmidt, who volunteers at the local RSL, calls in four times a week, just checking to see if I'm eating enough and dressing any little wounds I might have, while my closest neighbours, Irene and Merv and Dennis and Liz are treasures.

"I've probably missed a stack of people, and I'm sorry if I have - often times friends will be here when others turn up... and they sometimes cook a meal for me, too!

"I get up every day about 4.30am to exercise for a half-and-hour before I watch the sunrise, then I'm a lucky man to most days have someone call by to have a yarn before I settle down on the veranda again to watch the sunset at five o'clock or so.

"It's been a great life, and still is - I wouldn't have missed it for the world!”

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