From the outside, Australian novelist Colleen McCullough's home on Norfolk Island is prim and picket-fence perfect, a long tree-lined driveway leading to a white two-storey colonial house in a leafy garden. Inside, it's a different story.
McCullough's former housekeeper, Norfolk Islander Rebecca Hayes, stands on the front porch ready to usher our small group into McCullough's inner sanctum.
But first, Hayes asks us not to take photos – and issues a warning.
"There might be some expletives," she says, adding that that is unavoidable when talking about "Col", as she has been since this tour started in 2015, a few months after McCullough died of renal failure at the age of 77.
Expletives of my own come to mind almost as soon as we step through the front door. It's not just the gold crocodile-skin wallpaper, designed by Sydney wallpaper artist Florence Broadhurst. Or the silk Chinese panels, the antique French chairs, the Japanese lacquered cabinets, the 24-carat gold-plated German chandeliers, the Perspex statuettes or the tiger-patterned ceramic pots. It's the combination of all these elements in the entrance hall of a seemingly ordinary suburban home, like a sensory sunburst on a gloomy day.
While we take it all in, Hayes squeezes McCullough's life into a nutshell: her schooling in Sydney's eastern suburbs, her 10 years as a neurophysiologist at Yale, the novel that ignited her writing career (Tim, in 1974) and her mid-life love for Norfolk Island (she moved there in 1979) and Fletcher Christian descendant Ric Robinson, whom she married in 1984.
Our first stop is the dining room, where we stand around a large circular glass table supported by glass dolphins and bearing a Waterford crystal globe, looking at more crystal ornaments in a glass-fronted cabinet that takes up an entire wall, while Hayes name-drops McCullough's dinner guests, including Francis Ford Coppola, Helen Reddy and Margaret Olley.
McCullough loved entertaining, but she also liked to write at night. "So her dinner parties usually ended at about 9pm," says Hayes. "That was her 'f--- off time', as she called it."
We file next door, past a bookcase stuffed with translations of some of her 25 novels, to the engine-room of her creative life: her study.
"Hard work will get you anywhere you want to go," McCullough used to say, and she was prolific by any measure, writing up to 30,000 words a night. The Thorn Birds, which she later called "instant vomit" despite it selling more than 30 million copies, was almost 700 pages and some of the titles in her seven-volume Masters of Rome series ran to 800 pages.
So it's surprising to see no laptop on her desk overlooking the garden, just a buxom IBM Wheelwriter 3000 electric typewriter. She had six of them, all exactly the same so she could keep writing if the one she was using needed repairs.
There is no ergonomic chair either, just a comfy armchair, a red pashmina casually thrown over the back of it as if McCullough had just popped to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. One of her house rules, says Hayes, was "no talking BC" (before coffee).
On the walls are photographs from McCullough's life, and of her beloved ginger cat George. There is also a framed handwritten note to a friend, with a cheque attached: "Johnno – don't f---ing spend it on anything but an airfare home! I love you, you little turd, Col."
We move on to a small laundry-kitchen claustrophobically clad in Norfolk Island pine, from which up to 17 staff ran the house and grounds, and another kitchen with a high marble benchtop where McCullough, who was 1.75 metres tall, loved to cook.
Then there is the conservatory, a madwoman's tea party of a room, where we sit in peach-patterned armchairs around a monstrous table of Mexican agate under a Hanging Gardens of Babylon of potted ferns, trying not to look at ourselves in the mirror-panelled wall.
It's all I can do to sit in the lounge, our last stop, listening to Hayes list the famous artists, including Pro Hart and Luke Wagner, whose work graces the walls in a cacophony of colours and styles.
Then we exit through the gift shop, or rather McCullough's former secretary's office, where hardcover copies of her books sprawl on cloth-covered tables.
As a window into a famous writer's life, the tour is as fascinating as it is over-stimulating and it leaves me with a deep desire to stand under a Norfolk pine, gazing at the sea and contemplating McCullough's island home, her "little slice of paradise".
Air New Zealand flies direct to Norfolk Island from Sydney and Brisbane; the flight time is about two hours. See airnewzealand.com.au
Baunti Escapes offers one-hour Colleen McCullough Home Tours for $57. See bauntiescapes.com
The three-bedroom Auwas Island Holiday Home starts at $144 a night. See norfolkislandholidayhomes.com.au
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism.