Down by a creek off the Brisbane River, nestled in mangroves and dappled light, sits afloat on the muddy green waters a houseboat. For over 25 years the houseboat has risen with the tides, and again, fallen, in the place it has been moored on that estuary creek.
The skyscrapers loom just kilometres away and clackety trains on distant lines carry commuters home. But unbeknownst to them the houseboat sits, steadfast in its mangal sanctuary. And sanctuary it is – for all that find it and cross its rickety wooden gangway know they are where they need to be.
The gangway was damaged in the 2011 floods but not the houseboat, and as the rest of the city was inundated it rose up with the waters, and again, sat back down to remain loyal to its position on that estuary creek.
The house behind it was never rebuilt and remains abandoned to this day, but the gangway was hammered back together, and the parts that then washed away replaced with whatever had then washed ashore.
But this is not just the story of a houseboat – it’s the story of a cat (and a human) and as I step onto that rickety gangway, steadying myself with a hand on the rope railing, Cicci and Lily welcome me to their houseboat home.
It is here that Lily and her Siberian Cat, Cicci, have taken up residence since March this year – but what you must know is that Cicci is a travelling cat and before arriving in Australia they had visited over 25 countries since leaving their home in Italy in 2016.
As I make a final shaky step up onto the boat I’m honoured to have been accepted for surely at any moment the gangway could have discarded me into the river. Now I am met by the brightly coloured fabrics wrapped around the posts as an entrance way to the porch sitting area – complete with an old bar and daybed.
Having just arrived back after a week at a friends farm, Cicci is quick to do a circuit of the boat to ensure all is in order.
She loves this place so much, Lily tells me as she shows me around. She’s been looking after it for a friend’s dad who originally built it all those years ago.
Inside there is a kitchen and living room, bathroom, and two little bedrooms. After being left unoccupied for many years it has been Lily’s responsibility to clean the place up and redecorate. The place has a distinct cosiness and warmth built upon its utilitarian design – a sharp contrast to the stark white walls of modern living that many of us are used to.
We settle back outside with a drink as I ask Lily about leaving her home country to travel. Cicci keeps watch out over the creek as a crew of rowers row past.
Cicci arrived in my life when I’d already decided to travel. My idea at that time was to go to South America, but as anyone with cats will understand – life with these furry friends never goes according to plan.
It was not long after Lily dreamt of a white tiger that a friend of hers sent her a photo of 6 kittens. The owner was giving them away, and Lily – not one to disregard her dreams – was quick to seize the moment.
Cicci was a purebred silver-shaded white Siberian with golden tarnishing down her back and eyes as ice-blue as a subarctic lake (her very own miniature white tiger), and all the owner asked was that she was given a good home. But what did this mean for Lily’s travel plans?
Lily had what others described as a perfect life. She had done everything society had told her would make her happy. She went to university, got a degree, and for six years she had built up a business as a wine maker. She had a partner and a house – but when her friends commented on her amazing life she felt uneasy.
So she did what others have only dreamt of – she left it all behind in Tuscany – and with just Cicci and €6,000 she drove 16 hours to London (sharing the drive with a Romanian backpacker!).
Now, as some may say, the universe always has a lesson to teach, and it was in that first week in London that her bag went missing with that €6,000 in it.
It was like the universe telling me – you wanted to start from zero? well THIS is zero, Lily joked.
Lily and Cicci did find their feet (paws?) in London and it wasn’t long before they were road-tripping around the UK in a VW Golf. They visited castles in Dorset, explored beaches in Wales, hiked in Snowdonia, and stayed in an old cottage in York – and travelling Cicci took it all in her stride.
In the beginning Cicci would always be on a leash but as their trust in each other grew she would accompany unrestrained and their cat backpack would get them from A to B when they really needed to move. The more they travelled together the more that trust grew.
She needs to enjoy, and to have fun, and it can’t be my fear stopping her from living, Lily tells me.
After truly proving that trust around UK they caught the ferry to Rotterdam to start their time in the Netherlands where they took in the many canals and even a few bike rides.
In Germany they took in the autumn colours, castles, and watched the boats on the Elbe River in Hamburg. In the Czech Republic Cicci took many a nap in the forests and enjoyed the architecture in Prague. Then it was on to Austria and Serbia.
It was on the Trebižat River in Bosnia that Cicci drank from the cool water below the Kravica waterfalls – a most idyllic location for a drink.
Croatia. Albania, Greece, I think I’ve missed a few. The stamps in Cicci’s passport were adding up, over 25 in fact. This little cat had lived out most people’s European dream holiday and she hadn’t even turned 4.
They returned to Italy on the ferry from Greece at the end of 2018. One would be forgiven for thinking that the adventure was almost over but just weeks into the new year they were boarding flights on their biggest adventure yet – Australia.
Why Australia? I asked.
That’s the point, I don’t know. I could barely name a city. I just wanted to go there!
And in the true spirit of adventure they arrived in Melbourne at the end of January 2019.
Now, I may have just rendered their voyage to the Terra Australis as a whimsical odyssey, but, make no mistake – bringing a cat into Australia took months and months of planning, blood tests, paper work, and 2am phone calls to Australian government departments.
However, it is not without great reward – they were reunited after Cicci’s 10 day quarantine with many kisses and nose boops and in their new van named Doug they drove to the beach to watch their first Southern sunset together – the very beginning of their Australian road trip adventure.
And 19 months later – sitting right before me now – is that cat. The cat that is 16,000km from her hometown. The cat that had travelled on sailing boats, ferries, aeroplanes, trains, subway, and who knows the London underground like the back of her paw.
The midges are starting to bite and it’s time to go inside. We sit around the dining table that had been crafted for the houseboat decades ago. Cicci is quick to find her spot on the seat next to Lily and nestles into her as she receives some pats. Lily reflects on what she has learnt over the years they have been travelling.
Many people spend their lives chasing happiness from the outside that will never come. We feel our happiness depends on the things we consume, and the things we own instead of what we do and how we relate to others.
Truer words have never been spoken and it seems especially so as we have this conversation on a well-weathered and much loved houseboat just metres from multi-million dollar waterfront properties with their unused yachts moored outside.
Lily speaks of their time on the houseboat with the greatest fondness, but as for the time ahead, this might be one of their last nights at their little river sanctuary. The abandoned house behind is due to be demolished, and as another million dollar mansion pops up the future of the houseboat is undecided – the houseboat that has risen and fallen with floods and tides of the Brisbane River for decades.
Outside the fairy lights glimmer, moonlight ripples through the mangrove water, and it pains me to think of this place not existing.
My dream would be to buy it and move it to a new mooring, Lily reassures me and Cicci looks up at her in agreement.
But just as she trusts in the universe that brought her the white tiger from her dreams, she trusts the future will reveal itself.
And as for Lily’s dream of visiting South America, they might just be taking the long way around – she is already discussing plans with a friend to sail with his dingo-cross to New Zealand and then onto French Polynesia.
Wherever they do end up there is one thing you can count on, at the end of a long day exploring Cicci will be falling asleep in Lily’s arms. The little white fluff ball of love that has accompanied her halfway across the world and onto many more adventures to come.
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Wow! What a cat! Cicci sure has the lonely pages of my passport talking. I wonder how Willow feels about a Euro road trip? It was so nice to spend an evening with Lily and Cicci. We had a lot to talk about and her story of leaving life behind is so similar to mine – and of course she took her beloved cat with her!