Carmell Chester
Mon, July 14, 2014 at 18:11
Stephanie Hunt

Pip Gordon tells me that Carmell Chester is the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast.  The met at the Elders Circle where Carmell has shared many of her stories.  Pip insists these stories must be shared, so I made my way up the Pacific Highway to Halfway Creek for a cup of tea with Carmell.


A Spiritual Journey

“It wasn’t a good time to reincarnate,” Carmell Chester tells me, recounting her birth in January 1945.  It was quiet in Sydney’s beachside suburb of Maroubra when Carmell let out her first cries, but on the beaches of Europe war still raged.

Sixty-nine years later, sitting cross-legged on the front porch of her Halfway Creek Cottage, the wind chimes ringing out their haunting tones, crystals glinting in the afternoon sun, Carmell is able to joke about the bad omens of her birth.  She imagines the spirits lining up for their return to earth and arguing, “You go.” “No.  The war is still on, you go.” Even Saint Jude’s hospital where she came into the world was named after the patron saint of lost causes.

There were events in Carmell’s early life that might substantiate the idea that her birth was ill fated.  Her mother divorced early and went to manage hotels in the country, leaving Carmell to be raised by her grandmother.  A bright, attractive girl with an ambition to be an archaeologist, a young Carmell was scarred by violence.  Bashed, raped and left for dead at 14, she only just scraped through emotionally and lost interest in her earlier ambitions.  

Carmell describes her late teens and twenties as a hedonistic period, and certainly it sounds like fun, in a drifting and relentless sort of way.  She fell in with a wealthy set, enjoyed fast cars, binge drinking and world travel.  She flitted from job to job and experience to experience, indulging her whims.  Seemingly carefree, Carmell carried with her a residue of bitterness and anger.

But not every portent at Carmell’s birth was bad.  She was born under an Aquarian Sun with an Aquarian ascendant.  In numerology she is a nine.  Those forces were destined to pull her toward humanitarianism and spiritual teaching, she realises now.

The phone call that would draw Carmell to her destiny did not come until she was in her mid-30s. “I had my astrological chart done for me.  The guy never visited anyone; it was all done over the phone.  But he rang me up and said, ‘I’ve got to come and see you,’” remembers Carmell.  “He had seen things in my charts that he’d been waiting to see.”  The man gave her a book by former theosophist and occult teacher, Alice A. Bailey. Her life course was changed forever.

Carmell pauses her narrative.  A Lilly Pilly sapling in the garden has come untied from its stake and is being whipped back and forth along the ground.  Carmell stands, finds a longer stick and secures the limp stem.  “I’d better do this now because the wind is picking up,” she says.

The study of spiritualism and the occult became the stake that secured Carmell’s freewheeling life to a steady path.  By 1984 Carmell had left her job and sold most of her belongings to fund The School of Esoteric Sciences and bookshop, which she founded with four others in a Bourke Street squat in Woolloomooloo.  

Carmell threw herself headlong into the school and bookshop, which rapidly grew out of its squat premises and into a two story Surry Hills terrace with the school upstairs and a bookstore below. “I was teaching and totally involved in the bookshop business, responsible for thousands and thousands of dollars…”

These were exciting times but also a period of healing. “I had been angry at times; very bitter, very sarcastic,” she remembers.  “I was on a continuing journey of trying to get in touch with who I really (was) and not feel “poor me”.  Self pity is so easy to fall into.”

“And there was a cycle there where I got too involved in thinking I was superior.  So it was good to really understand what humbleness is.  That was a revelation, and it wasn’t long after that that I met Madhu.”

At the time that Madhu entered Carmell’s life she was seriously considering becoming a Buddhist nun.  But fate had other plans.  In March 1986 she met Madhu at a friend’s weekend gathering.  “It was an instantaneous recollection of something and we talked and talked and talked and talked and talked.”  She smiles at the memory.

Madhu passed away six years ago, but his presence remains throughout Carmell’s little cottage.  His poetry lines the walls; his spirit resides in the tolling of the wind chimes.  Carmell seems to hug herself closer when she talks about the love of her life.  “The bond was just so strong,” she explains.  Looking back to those early days soon after they met, Carmell remembers the words of a visiting Indian astrologer, the seventh son of a seventh son.  “He said that we had waited three lifetimes to be together.

Having found each other in this lifetime, they determined that fate had brought then together to do humanitarian projects.   Within three weeks they were engaged, by December they were married and by 1995 Carmell had disengaged from the School of Esoteric Sciences and she and Madhu were travelling to Dharamsala to begin the next chapter of their lives.

They had come to the home of the Tibetan government-in-exile to find out how they could help.  A road trip through the rolling hills of the nearby Punjab province gave them the answer.

An old truck filled with people rattled along the dusty road ahead of Carmell and Madhu.  When the truck failed to navigate a corner, it tipped over completely, scattering its human cargo like rag dolls.  The couple both had first aid training and they leapt from their car ready to help. “We were able to stop the bleeding for these two guys, sit with them and get them to some sort of hospital.

They realised that their simple act of first aid had probably saved two lives, and suddenly they knew how they could help.  Rural India had so few clinics or trained medicos and people were dying as a result.  What if the Sangha monks and nuns who travelled throughout the community could be trained in first aid?

The couple returned to Australia and got to work.  Carmell took to the phones to raise funds.  They got in touch with St John Ambulance, art therapists, nurses, physiotherapists and other health experts.  Madhu trained as an assistant nurse and first aid instructor and Carmell trained in childcare.  Both got “day jobs” to help fund the cause, while travelling back and forth to northern India to establish training infrastructure.

Caretrain was born.  First the Dalai Llama’s monks and nuns and later Tibetan doctors received first aid and paramedic training.   For over a decade Carmell and Madhu dedicated themselves to the program.

Carmell became involved with the children’s villages in Northern India. Initially set up to house the children of Tibetan refugees while their parents went to work on the roads, these villages became havens for orphans and children smuggled from Tibet.  “We got to know the people, and went into the classes and taught songs,” Carmell remembers. 

She and Madhu had tried to have children of their own, but found her childhood trauma had left her unable to conceive.  “At the baby’s home there was one little boy, he was really lovely,” Carmel says with a sigh.  The couple dared to hope that they could adopt.  “But the problem was you never really knew if they were true orphans,“ Carmell explains.

Carmell is philosophical about this loss.  “In this incarnation I didn’t really need to have physical children,” she says.  After all, she had Madhu and she had her work.  But both began to slip away when Madhu discovered blood in his urine.  

Carmell is getting fidgety.  She doesn’t like to sit for long and this has been a marathon interview.  I wonder aloud if Carmell gets lonely out here now that Madhu has gone.  “There are times when I think, ‘Oh, why did you have to go before me?’ But most of the time I am really contented and happy making a new life for myself.” 

She rises to get one of Madhu’s poems, which she thinks will help to explain how she feels.

I hear you in the silence that pierces even the shadows on the path.

I feel your beauty flowing like a stream of light that touches me with love.

I hear your gentle laughter like a thousand tiny bells within my soul

that bring me to the sweetest songs which carry me away in their unfold.

Madhu is still with her and life is as it was meant to be.  Despite the ups and downs, this has been a good incarnation.


Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (
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