Story of survival
Monday, 25th May, 2015
By Darrin Manuel
The legend of Alexander Selkirk may have been immortalised in the tale of Robinson Crusoe, but in the mid 1970s local man Peter Connelly set out to find the truth behind the stories.
Selkirk was a Scottish sailor who was famously marooned on the island Mas a Tierra off the coast of Chile in 1704, and his story of survival is widely believed to be the inspiration behind novelist Daniel Defoe’s fictional character.
Peter’s own journey of discovery began hundreds of years later in 1972, when he split with his first wife and moved to Castle Hill near the NSW coast to pursue work as a motor mechanic.
It was there that he met documentary filmmaker Michael Shean, and the two instantly formed a rapport and began working on films together.
Peter had various sound recording equipment, and he joined Michael over the next three years making documentaries around Australia covering everything from numbats to the Great Barrier Reef.
In 1975, the duo was drawn by the lure of South America, and set sail for Chile in the hopes of working in construction and making films in nearby Brazil.
Their initial arrival was met with mixed fortunes however; Peter would meet his second and current wife Ninfa at the airport, but they would be barred entry to Brazil.
Previous filmmakers had upset the Brazilian government, and Peter and Michael were denied passage into the country.
Their disappointment was soon allayed as they heard of nearby Mas a Tierra - better known as Robinson Crusoe Island.
They departed for the island and undertook weeks of research about the island itself, Selkirk’s life of isolation, and the local inhabitants.
They encountered a variety of interesting people and places including ancient rusted defensive cannons, various caves and prisons, and even the granddaughter of the island’s original governor, Baron de Rodt, who held power between 1877 and 1905.
After weeks of documenting the island both in notes and on film, they set sail back to the mainland but soon met with disaster.
Their boat was hit by a large wave just off the island and capsized, destroying most of the work they had filmed and photographed.
Shipwrecked and with the majority of their work ruined, the duo would have been forgiven for being completely crestfallen.
However, Peter said he and his partner “took it quite well”, although they were a bit annoyed at their ship’s captain, as they believed he could have handled the choppy seas a little better.
They flew back to Chile with what remained of their research and tried to piece together what they could.
After the project, Ninfa and Peter married in 1976 and settled in Chile’s south in the village of Castro, with Ninfa working as a teacher and Peter opening a photography studio.
Peter returned to Australia with his new wife in 1977, and found work in various places as a motor mechanic while Ninfa taught Spanish to the locals.
The couple arrived in Broken Hill in 2003 after Peter gained work with the local National Parks service, although they are now both retired.
While enjoying his retirement Peter, now 73, let his mind drift back to his adventures on the island and in Chile, and remembered a manuscript that was given to him by Michael in years gone by.
The piece was written by Michael and originally titled “Una Isla Para Te” (One Island For You).
With most of the film from their expedition destroyed, Michael had chronicled the island’s past and present and the pair’s own adventures in writing, and dedicated it to Peter.
Michael had later revised the writings under the new title of “No Friday - The True Story of Robinson Crusoe” and submitted it to Australian Geographic in 1993, however, he was informed that they had sufficient written content at that stage. Michael would pass away in the same year on Christmas Eve.
Peter said he had only recently remembered his old friend’s writings, and was now hoping to see his work published posthumously.
“I don’t know what it was, it just came into my mind. It’s been sitting there in the cupboard all those years,” he said.
“There were no sandy beaches, no cannibals and no cockatoos like you see in the movies, but it was still a fantastic story.”
Peter said he would now gauge publishers’ interest in the manuscript, and keep the BDT informed on any future developments.