Soon after my parents separation when I was 16, Dad spent some time in Peru living and working as artist in residence at a couple of eco-lodges in the Amazon Rainforest.

Through the sale of his paintings he'd managed to get use of a block of land on the Tambopata River, adjacent to Tambopata Jungle Lodge, near Puerto Maldonado in South East Peru. After spending a year at Kalang near Bellingen, NSW, James and I went to join him. We arrived at our new camp at the end of the wet season and began the muddy work of setting up a butterfly house and studio where we sold paintings and hand-painted t-shirts to passing tourists.

James was only 12 at the time, and after about 6 months the isolation and captivity was too much for him. He was fascinated by the wildlife and the biodiversity, but he was lonely and needed to be around kids his own age. Dad and James decided to return to Big Bush, where James stayed with Dad until he completed high school.

I had no reason to return to Australia and even though I wasn't yet 18, I was determined to stay in Peru by myself. I continued living there alone on our block of land, hand-painting t-shirts and selling them to tourists who visited Tambopata Jungle Lodge. I had a biscuit tin full of mouldy 10 and 20 American Dollar notes which I spent on fortnightly trips to Puerto Maldonado. I got rides into town and home again with tourist boats which departed the lodge at dawn for the 2-3 hour boat journey down river in order to catch the daily flights in and out of Puerto Maldonado.

It was a rugged, precarious lifestyle, very much at the mercy of the seasons, but the sheer excitement and beauty of the place made it worth all the hardships. I sold everything I painted and for a time I was relatively financially secure.
I met Nando just before my 18th birthday at Tambopata Jungle Lodge where he was a member of staff. We fell in love and were married a year later when I was 19. By marrying Nando I was able to apply for Peruvian residency work legally, so I got a job as the assistant manager of Tambopata Jungle Lodge, now Tambopata Ecolodge.

A couple of months later I was put in charge of the lodge when the resident manager abandoned her position. Just before my 20th birthday I became resident manager of the lodge and in the middle of the tourist high season, suddenly I was in charge of managing and feeding 18 staff and guides, maintaining all lodge buildings, boats, and trails, organising fuel, food and accommodation for up to 50 guests (who were arriving daily), and communicating everything to everyone at all times.

I held this position for two and a half years (which was a record for resident managers at Tambopata Jungle Lodge) and transformed a chaotic, neglected, conflict-ridden lodge into a thriving, growing,
fun place to work and visit.

After 2 high seasons Nando and I had saved enough money to start making plans to move on. We felt we weren't learning anything new and decided it was time to go to Australia. We applied for an Australian residency visa for Nando, and while we waited for the visa to be approved I took a temporary resident manager position at another lodge on Ese'eja Indian community land at the Sonene Community on the Heath River, on the border on Peru and Bolivia.

Within 6 months Nando's visa was approved. We were young, full of ambition, all packed up and ready to try our luck in Australia.