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Nikitas Kardoulias: Surviving Darwin’s Cyclone Tracy and life in Central Africa

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Nikitas Kardoulias was born in 1951 on the Greek island of Kalymnos. He lived on the island with his mother as his father had migrated to Darwin in the Northern Territory and was working as a painter to support the family. But in 1965, at the tender age of 14, Nikitas joined his father in Darwin, quickly learnt English at night school and then began to work with him as well.

“Life was difficult when he came. He was a small kid. Australia wasn’t like it is now where it has all these amenities. At first, he would live in the homes of strangers with his dad, he would wash his own clothes… Darwin was like a village. It’s not like how it is now after 40 years,” Nikitas’ wife, Helen Kardoulias, tells The Greek Herald.

‘We will rebuild’:

It was during this time that Nikitas and his family also lived through Cyclone Tracy, which was a tropical cyclone that hit and devastated Darwin from December 24 – 26, 1974. Nikitas tells The Greek Herald it was one Christmas he will never forget.

“We didn’t expect the cyclone to be so big but as the days passed, things were getting worse. I was with my mum and dad at the time in our house… which was very close to the ocean, maybe 100 metres, and the wind was very strong,” Nikitas says.

Nikitas with his wife Helen. Photo: Georgia Politis Photography.

“At around 1am to 1.30am, our roof had completely blown away. I took my mother and father and we left to find a safer place to stay because it was dangerous. When I was driving, marinas were flying, wood was flying, rocks were flying, everything. We couldn’t even see.”

Eventually, Nikitas and his family reached a police station, where other people had also gathered, and stayed there until the morning after the cyclone had passed over Darwin.

“When I returned home, there was only the floor left and one standing wall. It was difficult [to see] but I had my parents with me and I didn’t want to show them I was scared. I told them, ‘Don’t be upset, we will rebuild it’.”

The family moved to Sydney for a while and stayed with some cousins before they returned to Darwin and started rebuilding their home.

Years later, Nikitas visited Kalymnos and married Helen. The couple returned to Australia after they married and had a daughter but eventually went back to Kalymnos and lived there for about ten years. Nikitas was ‘boomeranging’ between Greece and Australia at the time, as he was working to support the family.

The Kardoulias family. Photo by George Politis Photography.

“He was leaving and returning for the best of the children so maybe they would stay in their homeland. Australia is great, but every father wants their children to grow up in their homeland, to learn the language, culture and traditions.”

Living in the Congo during the dictatorship:

In the end, the Kardoulias family couldn’t stay in Kalymnos long term, but they still had an exciting stint overseas. In fact, Nikitas and Helen, along with their daughter and son, also lived in the Congo in Central Africa for a short time.

Helen says they opened a supermarket there for a few years, but life was difficult as they had to live under the Mobutu dictatorship.

“At some stage, people revolted against the government and they started to damage shops, they lit fires… we were impacted,” Helen explains.

“All the women and children had to leave so my brother, to save us, sent us away and we left the Congo at night-time, and we went to South Africa where it was quieter… Nikitas, my brother and my uncle stayed behind to see whether they could salvage any of our belongings.

Photo: Georgia Politis Photography.

“I was eight months pregnant at the time… It was difficult because we left and we didn’t know what would happen to the men.”

The women ended up staying in South Africa for a month before they, along with the men, returned to Kalymnos. After giving birth to another son and indulging in the Greek village life for a little bit longer, the family made their final journey back to Australia in 1993.

Helen says it was the right time to return and now they’re retired and happily reflecting on their incredible life.

“We’ve been together for 43 years now. We’re happy and fruitful. Two of our children are married, we have six grandchildren… so we are looking after our grandchildren now,” Helen concludes with a smile.

*All photos copyright by Georgia Politis Photography. Republished with permission.

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