LOOKING BACK: SUE RAE
As one of the first real estate agents in Port Douglas, Sue Rae has clearly put her stamp on the town, as Pam Willis Burden explains
People don’t know that and that annoys me so much, when they talk badly about Skase because he stopped Port Douglas from becoming just a mess of horrible little houses
Born in England, Sue travelled overland to Australia and after working in Thredbo and Tasmania, she arrived in Port Douglas in 1977 to take over the lease of the Coconut Grove Motel under the impression that occupancy was 99%. She soon discovered it was only 19% for the 15 rooms, so she and her husband made the restaurant and Jungle Bar their money-spinner. Cane farmers from Mossman loved drinking there and enjoyed popular dishes of the day including prawn cocktails and Chicken Kiev. When Sue devised the signature dish Grove Chicken – prawns stuffed into a chicken breast and deep fried – it was an instant success.
“You never knew people’s surnames, it was just nicknames or first names. Like Kenny Chemist, and Kenny Fruit who ran the fruit and veggie shop which was opposite where Coles is now. When I got quite busy in real estate I was called Sting Ray.
“People think Carnivale started in the 80s or 90s, but we had our first Carnivale back in ’78 when the pop group Skyhooks came, and we had 4,000 people here in a fenced lot in Warner Street. We had fancy dress competitions and bicycle races on the beach and we called it Play Day. Diane Cilento and Tony Schaffer were judges and Daryl Greer, the local solicitor, was dressed as Carmen Miranda.
“We only had a few shops, one of which was a big hardware shop, which is quite amazing because now we don’t have a hardware shop here. The National Bank which was then called CBC, used to come once or twice a week, and set up on the end of the fish and chip counter and that was how you’d do your banking. The old post office had the timber desk and holes in the floor and was run by One-Eyed Bob.”
In the early 1980s Sue sold the lease at Coconut Grove and returned to the profession she followed in England, real estate.
There were only 300 people living in Port and two other estate agents, Rosie and Bruce Denshire, and Dave Thompson who worked for George Quaid. Sue worked from home and joined Quaid’s agency when Dave left.
Sue bought a small piece of land where the Iron Bar is now, and built a pretty Mediterranean style arcade of shops, the first new ones to be built in Port Douglas.
She opened her real estate office there and as a drawcard, arranged with the new postmistress Enid Paris to relocate the post office. In the arcade, there was also a dress shop, a delicatessen and Dr Doug Quarry’s surgery. By this time, 1983, Sue estimates Port’s population had grown to about 1500 people.
In an article about the development of Port Douglas in Business Review Weekly, Sue was quoted as saying “I didn’t come here to get rich quickly, it just happened.”
After Sue sold the arcade in 1989 a TAB was installed but was not successful and it was demolished to build the Iron Bar.
The town was growing and the post office wanted to expand, so in 1989 Sue again collaborated with Enid and built Macrossan Centre which still houses the post office. Later she changed the building’s name to Lakshmi after the Indian god of wealth and prosperity.
Around 1983, Sue teamed up with Alan Chamberlain and they built the first strata-titled units, Las Palmas in Sand Street which still stand. She also bought the run-down house next door and restored it to become a graceful Queenslander.
Sue lived in Sand Street for 38 years and went to the beach daily. Stingers were not a big problem. “In those days they used to say don’t swim between Christmas and Easter”, but she doesn’t remember anybody ever being stung.
The real estate business was steady. “In 1982 or ’83 I remember I sold about six blocks of land to fishermen all in Ti Tree Street for $4000 or $5000. Prawn fishing was a very lucrative business. They’d make a lot of money and they’d own a lot of property.”
Land that Sue owned in Garrick Street was developed to become Beachcomber Villas, the first ones to be sold off the plan.
“After that I was swamped with other people wanting to do the same, so I sold the old Banana House, which was owned by Maxie Bowden and Diana from Nautilus. It was just a ramshackle thing surrounded by bananas at the end of Macrossan Street.
“A lady from Innisfail bought it and we designed Mantaray Apartments and sold all those off the plan and then we did Driftwood next door. Then we did Heritage Villas. She used architects and my input was to decide which attractive features we should put in, like marble or brass taps or timber. We didn’t need to advertise much because you had Tablelands and Cairns people buying.
“Then Christopher Skase arrived.
He came to my office and said he wanted to buy a beach house or a unit on the beach. So I took him up to the lookout and showed him the expansive beach and he said ‘What’s happening to all that land from the end of Sand Street to the end of Four Mile?’ and I said ‘Actually the Lands Department have plans for that, they’re going to cut it up into 600 square metre blocks’ and he just shook his head.
“People don’t know that and that annoys me so much, when they talk badly about Skase because he stopped Port Douglas from becoming just a mess of horrible little houses. So he said ‘I want that’ and I said ‘Well, you want part of that for your beach house’ and he said ‘No, I want all of it’. And he got it.
“But he did buy from me. He bought the whole building of the Terraces on the Esplanade and he bought all of North Terraces, and they were the largest sales in Port Douglas ever. I think one was one million and one was two million. That was 1984.
“In all my dealings with Christopher, he was just an absolute gentleman and straightforward and really good to deal with. He set the standard with the Sheraton.”
Sue thinks he and John Morris developing the Reef House, or Rendezvous as it is now called, was a very good idea because it was built for the Sheraton staff.
“You’d get the people who were working shift work all together in that area, and they wouldn’t be disturbing other people when they came home.”
Sue didn’t use a computer until 1996. She did all her invoices by hand and mailed the contracts interstate. She still doesn’t have a mobile phone.
“I had people coming into my office, my regular clients who bought a lot and they’d sign a blank contract and say ‘Sue if you think it’s good, go ahead, anything up to a million dollars’ which was a lot of money in those days. That’s how we did business - on trust and our word. Many were Melbourne people, friends for life. I still have them asking my advice today about real estate and values.”
In 1992, Sue went to India to do voluntary work. “I got fed up with talking about money and property 24 hours a day. I thought there’s got to be something more to this life. And I’d done well and it was time to give something back, to do something else.” She stayed in India for six years.
She’d put a manager into her agency and sold it in 1994. She also sold Macrossan House for strata offices and regrets that her flourishing palm trees and window boxes of bougainvilleas are no longer there.
“When I came back from India I had the holiday villas built, Om Kara in Sand Street. I lived in one and rented out the other two.
“I only have one left now, which I’m trying to sell. I feel there’s enough holiday accommodation now and it’s encroaching too much on the residential areas of town.
“When I first came here, there were a lot of pole homes and people used to build in the tropical style. There’d be a hand basins made out of clam shells, and you really felt you were totally in the tropics, with no air conditioning and no fly screens.
“Now everybody wants everything enclosed, a house like they’ve had in Melbourne or a house like they have in Sydney, and it’s lost that tropical feel to a certain extent.
“But now it’s so diverse but it’s still lovely. You can still have a wonderful life here.
“Waking up in paradise every day, really I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t say how lucky am I, when you look at the planet and all the awful places there would be to live, and you wake up here.”
Sue Rae today. Inset above: Featured in BRW in 1988. Right: At Las Palmas with blockworker Frank Bills