Alex Fullerton has been highlighted in the HT before, for her successful operation of the Sunshine Coast Women Entrepreneurs organisation, and her visit to Nepal with Shed the Light, with her two children alongside. But this just touches the surface of Alex’s story…

by Gay Liddington

“I was in Cairo when the Gulf War broke out, in Moscow during Glasnost, in Berlin when the wall came down, on a beach in Thailand during the Boxing Day Tsunami, and in the room when love walked through the door.

“Life is full of amazing moments, and we never know when they are going to happen. Some would say it’s luck, but I think it’s just life, and if you aren’t out there living it, you won’t be there when it happens.”

Words like inspirational and courageous fade into insignificance when one is in the presence of Alex Fullerton, a woman who has faced life head on, stared down its barrel and survived—several times. Despite the challenges, Alex’s warmth and vivacity shines through.

Acres of pineapples surround the Fullerton home that stands in the shadow of Coonowrin, one of the Glasshouse Mountains. Alex sits opposite me. Her tales weave a generational tapestry.

“We are a family of barefoot travellers and builders! My father, one of the founding fathers of Thredbo, was born to Austrian parents and grew up with no shoes in the Solomon Islands. 

“They moved back to Austria, where my father walked back with no shoes from a prison camp on the Russian front when the war ended. He started with no shoes and finished with no shoes. My grandfather was a timber merchant, my dad a builder, and my son, a carpenter.

“My Mum, who is of Irish ancestry, was a schoolteacher, then a business owner, and in retirement became a book editor.”

Alex was born in Lindfield, Sydney, the second of three children. Her love of English was the anchor that kept the youngster in school.

“I went to an acceleration school for gifted children for the last couple of years of primary school, but I was bored and dropped out by Year 10.

“My parents were very forward thinking. They believed in doing what fills your heart—doing what makes you happy, and I wasn’t happy. They gave me a choice: Go to a different school for Years 11 and 12 or get a one-way ticket to Byron Bay and a backpack for my birthday. That was in 1982.”

With traveller’s blood coursing through her veins, Alex chose Byron Bay and found a companion to accompany her on the road.

“I travelled alone, often barefoot, mostly in northern New South Wales and Queensland, and did a bit of hitch hiking. It was during a storm that I found my dog, Buddha. She was in a phone box in Tugun and had been shot with an air rifle. She was tiny, only a few weeks old—wounded and dumped.”

Buddha and Alex toured Australia, living out of a HT Holden, then a Kombi. 

“She was like my little shadow. I was her person. I didn’t have to teach her anything, she just knew. She was amazing.”

Alex speaks of her journey as though life is on a travelator and tells a fleeting tale of “a bit of a run in with cervical cancer”, which took her back to Sydney, surgery “that didn’t go well”, then a $50 courier airplane ticket to England. It was at the airport Alex met her future husband.

“We backpacked around the world for ten years. Back in Australia, we travelled the country in a Kombi, upgraded to a troop carrier and went up through the centre where we lived at Uluru for the winter and worked on the new resort. Buddha came everywhere with us.

“I spent a lot of time with the Pitjantjatjara people. Uluru had just been handed back, and they were taking over management. I went on tours with them and learnt how to throw a spear and light fires the traditional way.”

In 2004, divorced and with two children, Flynn and Ella, six and four years old, Alex moved to Thailand intending to teach English.

“We backpacked around for a couple of months and then went to Ko Phayam Island up near the Myanmar border. We were living on the beach when the Boxing Day tsunami came. There was no warning.

“We had just come to the café for morning tea. The initial wave hit at the mouth of the bay, about 100 metres out. It was like a barrel. It kept coming. The sound was like being on a tarmac with a jet plane landing. I saw my four-year-old daughter standing on the table screaming, but I couldn’t hear her because of the noise. The wave swallowed up the beach and kept coming.

“I grabbed Ella and ran out the back door. Flynn, who had climbed a tree to get out of the water, also appeared at the back door. We connected and dashed into the bush. Too slow. An English backpacker threw Flynn over his shoulder and ran.

“We climbed a cliff and then the waves started hitting the cliff. It had been dug out by bulldozers to make room for a few more huts and I thought, this is not safe. So, when the wave receded, I grabbed my children and ran down the cliff carrying Ella. Voices behind called, ‘Don’t go, don’t go’.

“I ran, then turned for a moment and looked back. Everyone who was on the cliff was following me. We ran through the bush and up the mountain.

“That was a major turning point in our lives. I was a bit of a mess when we came back from Thailand.”

November edition of HT: Single mother Alex sells her furniture to pay for a business course. She starts the Sunshine Coast Women Entrepreneurs and in 2015 is a Businesswoman of the Year finalist. Within a year, tragedy strikes. A motorbike accident leaves Alex with an acquired brain injury.