Breaking Bread: Graham Murphy, businessman and Antarctic adventurer

RICH LIFE: Businessman, adventurer and author Graham Murphy at lunch with Scott Bevan. Picture: Simone De Peak
RICH LIFE: Businessman, adventurer and author Graham Murphy at lunch with Scott Bevan. Picture: Simone De Peak

THE winter westerly is whipping along the harbour front, clawing its way through layers of clothing, chilling the skin and bones of anyone on the foreshore.

“It’s cold out there,” I offer to Graham Murphy, as we sit in the sheltered outdoor area of Honeysuckle Hotel.

Then I realise my definition of “cold” and his are probably poles apart.

“I still feel the cold,” Murphy says, as he orders fish and chips. “So no special benefits from having been down in Antarctica.”

Back in late 2003 and early 2004, Graham Murphy experienced a new meaning of “cold”. He also lived the definition of “adventure”, when this businessman from Maitland joined the crew of renowned Lake Macquarie-based sailor Tony Mowbray for a perilous voyage to the ice continent. 

“I broke the mould and stepped out of my comfort zone big time with Tony,” says Murphy. “Anything after that was going to be easy in life.”

"Solo Globe Challenger" negotiating an iceberg in Antarctica. Picture: Courtesy, Graham Murphy

"Solo Globe Challenger" negotiating an iceberg in Antarctica. Picture: Courtesy, Graham Murphy

GRAHAM Murphy’s early life was far from easy.

Murphy was born in 1953, the youngest of three children, and he was raised in a public housing development in Sydney’s south-west. His parents separated, with his mother leaving the family home, when he was 12. 

Graham chose to stay with his father, despite his heavy drinking, “because home was home”. 

“From that point, I had to be self-sufficient. I sort of took over the running of the household, I did the shopping,” he recalls. “So you become independent, resilient, I guess. You become hard-working at an early age.”

While those circumstances compelled him to develop qualities that he would need as a sailor almost 40 years later, Murphy says he wasn’t an adventurous kid.

“I think it was about struggle more than adventure,” he says. “It was more about keeping your head above water.”  

Murphy left school just before he turned 15 and worked in a string of jobs, before joining the Postmaster General’s Department (a precursor to Telstra) as a lineman.

When he was 23, Murphy met his life partner, Sue, at his older sister’s house: “I walked in the door and went, ‘Wow!’.”

Businessman and author Graham Murphy. Picture: Simone De Peak

Businessman and author Graham Murphy. Picture: Simone De Peak

Murphy’s job led them to the Central Coast then, in the early 1980s, to Maitland. The couple had two children, Amy and Brad, and Sue had been waitressing to help the family get ahead. 

But with the move to the Hunter, Murphy recalls her partner telling him, “I’ll clean toilets before I waitress again”.

As it happened, he connected a line for a cleaning business, which was seeking workers. So Graham arrived home with the news, “Guess what I’ve done. You wanted to clean toilets. I’ve achieved that for you!”.

A short time later, the couple began their own cleaning business, with Graham grabbing the scrubbing brush after finishing his day work to help Sue.  

These days, Gabes (an acronym for “Graham, Amy, Brad, Employees, Sue”) has more than 100 staff, cleaning and maintaining commercial properties, including buildings along the foreshore where we’re sitting.       

So who cleans the toilets at home?

“Sue does still,” replies Murphy. “She does it far better than I do.”

By May 2003, life was pretty good for Graham Murphy. He was about to turn 50, his family business was building. He was in a happy routine. Then he heard Tony Mowbray being interviewed on the radio. 

Murphy had listened to Mowbray before. He and Amy had attended one of the adventurer’s talks, after he returned from his solo around-the-world voyage in 2000-2001. Murphy had even bought a commemorative poster to hang in his boardroom.

Tony Mowbray celebrates at the end of his epic solo around-the-world voyage in 2001. Picture: Ron Bell

Tony Mowbray celebrates at the end of his epic solo around-the-world voyage in 2001. Picture: Ron Bell

Now Mowbray was talking on the radio about a new adventure: to sail his yacht, Solo Globe Challenger, to Antarctica, to visit the huts built by Sir Douglas Mawson and his expedition team in 1912.

And he was looking for crew members.

“I would like to do that”, Murphy said to himself, secure in the thought he wouldn’t actually do it. “Because as a non-sailor, you don’t think about the things you can do outside your comfort zone.”

He told Sue about the new Mowbray adventure. 

“And that was it for me. I’d lived the trip already,” says the self-described daydreamer.

AUTHOR: Graham Murphy, with his book on the table, and Scott Bevan at lunch.

AUTHOR: Graham Murphy, with his book on the table, and Scott Bevan at lunch.

But it wasn’t enough for Sue. She phoned Tony Mowbray. 

“And he rang me and said, ‘I understand you want to go to Antarctica?’,” recalls Murphy, whose answer was blunt. 

“No! No, I really don’t want to go!. I’ve lived that dream while I’ve been working and driving.”

But Mowbray invited him to meet on the yacht on Lake Macquarie.

Murphy accepted: “ The intrigue was there. It was more about, ‘What can he offer, what he can say that would entice me to really want to go?’

“I’d never stepped foot on a yacht in my life until that day I went down for the interview.”

Murphy remembers Mowbray’s first words – “If you come on this trip, there’s a real chance you won’t survive” – but that didn’t worry him because he wasn’t going. 

“I’m just going down to find out if I was good enough to go but not ever really expecting to be selected.”

WONDERLAND: Graham Murphy with penguins. Picture: Ron Webb

WONDERLAND: Graham Murphy with penguins. Picture: Ron Webb

The next day, the skipper phoned and told Graham he was the sort of person he wanted to come along:  “As soon as he said that, the whole ball game changed. I was good enough. I was able to stand up and be counted, as good as the next person. 

“Growing up in my environment, I’ve always had an inferiority complex, ‘I’m never really good enough’.”

Murphy sailed with Mowbray to Broughton Island. He did a snow survival course. He sailed from Lake Macquarie to Hobart.

All the while, Murphy still wasn’t certain if he would – or could – sail with four others to the bottom of the world. He was fearful of water, of huge waves. He could die out there.  

Which is one reason why, just a few days before sailing to Hobart, Murphy finally married his great love of more than a quarter of a century: “I always promised before I died, we’d get married.” 

Graham Murphy. Picture: Simone De Peak

Graham Murphy. Picture: Simone De Peak

Murphy never did ask his wife why she contacted Mowbray in the first place. But he figures it was her giving him the chance to go on this adventure, if he wanted to. 

“She’d done her bit by opening the door or leaving it ajar, and she was kind of hoping the door would shut before I got through it,” he muses.

“Even up until the last day when my apprehensions were such that I said to her in Hobart, ‘If you ask me to stay, I won’t go’. She  said, ‘No, I can’t do that’.”

“Were you hoping she’d do that?”

“I kind of was, because the butterflies in the stomach were enormous. The sick feeling. All of a sudden, the water was real.”

Indeed, from December 19, 2003, the daydream turned into a beautiful, terrifying, arduous reality for about a month. 

Building seas as a storm approaches, as seen from the yacht "Solo Globe Challenger". Picture: Courtesy, Graham Murphy

Building seas as a storm approaches, as seen from the yacht "Solo Globe Challenger". Picture: Courtesy, Graham Murphy

Murphy and his fellow adventurers had to pick their way among icebergs and were tossed around in storms.

When the 43-foot yacht was knocked down in massive seas, Murphy broke a few ribs and desperately held onto the idea of survival. 

“You didn’t think about dying at the time,” he says, “because you always had faith in Tony and the boat.”

He split his head. He experienced seasickness and homesickness.

Graham Murphy and his fellow adventurers outside Mawson's huts in Antarctica in 2004. Picture: Courtesy, Graham Murphy

Graham Murphy and his fellow adventurers outside Mawson's huts in Antarctica in 2004. Picture: Courtesy, Graham Murphy

And there was the incessant cold: “The whole time, your whole body is quivering from cold. It just doesn’t go away, and you can’t get warm no matter what you’re doing until you get into bed.

“And you’re only there for such a short while, and then you get out and put the same wet clothes back on.” 

Then there were the pinch-yourself, life-affirming moments: the elation of stepping onto the frozen continent for the first time, and “onto solid ground”; seeing artefacts from the Mawson expedition, and opening the door on one of the historic huts, “on living history”, only to be confronted by a wall of ice.

"Solo Globe Challenger" in Boat Harbour, Antarctica, with Mawson's hut in the foreground. Picture: Courtesy, Graham Murphy

"Solo Globe Challenger" in Boat Harbour, Antarctica, with Mawson's hut in the foreground. Picture: Courtesy, Graham Murphy

By the voyage’s end, Graham Murphy had learnt a lot about who he was and what he was capable of.    

“How long you can go without bathing,” he chuckles about one lesson. 

“I think I can achieve anything. I think if I can do this, I can do anything in life. And I think that was one of the major things that I learnt.

“My wife said when I got off the boat and when I got home that I was a physical and mental wreck.

Graham Murphy in Antarctica, 2004. Picture: Courtesy, Graham Murphy

Graham Murphy in Antarctica, 2004. Picture: Courtesy, Graham Murphy

“I think I was extremely hard to live with, I think I remained aloof.”

Yet as he processed what he had experienced, Murphy began talking about the adventure. And now, 14 years on, he has written about it, publishing a book, “Safe Return Doubtful”.

What began as an audio diary for his family has blossomed into words and images on the page, as its author makes his notch in history to say, “I was there”.

“I wanted to have a record of who I was and what I’d achieved in life, and what I’d done,” he explains.

Just last week, while visiting the Maritime Museum of Tasmania, Murphy saw his book placed between Mawson’s memoir, “The Home of the Blizzard”, and Peter Fitzsimons’ biography of the explorer.

“That, to me, was the most exciting moment, seeing my book between some great authors and explorers of Australia.”

Graham Murphy now refers to himself as an adventurer. But he says everyone has the makings of being an adventurer. 

“I think [it’s] anybody who is prepared to step out of the comfort zone,” he explains.

“Somebody who goes on a camping trip for the first time, because they’re so used to staying in motels, is an adventurer. 

“It’s an adventure if it’s something different to what they normally do.”

Penguin outside Mawson's huts. Picture: Ron Webb

Penguin outside Mawson's huts. Picture: Ron Webb

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