Sydney-based writer and journalist, Sue Williams says wandering around Australia, collecting material for her latest book, Welcome To The Outback, has changed her city-slicker outlook for good. She chats to The Starfish about the book (published by Penguin)
Sue, you’ve written many books. Why is this one your favourite so far?
I love travel; I love Australia and I love writing, so to be able to explore some of Australia’s outback, which many of us don’t know much about, was an enormous privilege. With this book, Welcome to the Outback, it felt like I’d hit the trifecta!
Why did you write this book and what did you set out to achieve?
So many people who live in Australia’s outback talk about it with such love and passion, I really wanted to find out why. As a city person through-and-through, I’d go out to the outback and marvel that there was nothing there bar dust and dirt and flies and snakes, so I wanted to glimpse the true heart of Australia and find out what makes it beat so hard for the locals.
Did you surprise yourself at some of the things that found yourself capable of, out in the bush?
Yes, I did, frequently. I was so much a fish out of water, many things were quite tough for me – going to sleep in a swag on the ground in the middle of one of Central Australia’s worst mouse plagues and being advised to take a sleeping pill as then I wouldn’t notice if mice nested in my hair … getting on a horse for the first time and going droving … not only going to watch the fighting in Fred Brophy’s legendary boxing tent, but having a fight myself too. I think the publishers sent me as they knew I was the worst possible candidate to spend time in the outback – after all, I don’t drink, I don’t eat meat, I don’t drink tea and I live in a high rise apartment in Sydney’s Kings Cross – so they thought it would be a great joke on me. And it was, but I was often surprised that I actually coped – although I didn’t win my fight!
What was the most memorable place you visited?
I loved Winton in western Queensland, which felt to me like the quintessential outback town: friendly and charming and stuffed with so many colourful characters and amazing sights. Could you imagine living out in the middle of the outback for months on end? Port Hedland in WA was also memorable – but often for the wrong reasons. As a hard port town, it was a real eye opener, especially when I found myself in what’s billed as Australia’s most violent pub, and I was the only woman in there fully dressed …
You met many characters on your travels. Who stands out in particular?
In Karratha, there’s a fabulous woman called Heather Jones. She is a truckie by trade and ended up running her own trucking company. It’s a tough male business, but she thrived, and still managed to retain her femininity even behind the wheel of so many tonnes! She hit hard times later, but is proudly working her way back up to the top again. She had a great sense of humour, and I loved spending time with her.
You now know more about Australia than many Australians. Would you recommend we all take a few months to get to know and explore our land?
Absolutely! Recent research has found that one in four Australians don’t ever even leave the cities. I hope this book, with its tales of extraordinary landscapes, amazing people and wonderful things to do in the outback, lures more people out there to try it. We’re lucky to have such a stunning land and it’s such an iconic part of our identity as Australians we should all take some time to get out there and see what it’s all about. And it’s surprisingly easy to travel around these days, with a great road network, trains, long-distance buses and regional air carriers.
Is there such a thing as a typical character of the land?
No, I don’t think so. Everyone was so different. But the one thing they all have in common is that they seem to take the time to have a chat, spin a yarn, and they’re genuinely interested in others. It’s not like in the cities when we’re too busy and too stressed to stop; there they usually take real pleasure in getting to know newcomers. As one person told me, you know you’re in the outback when ‘the handshake’s a little stronger, and the smile lingers longer’. I love it!
How has this book changed you?
I look at Australia quite differently now. I realise that we in cities can lead very small lives and can be quite out of touch with other people, and nature and our land. I have a new respect for those who live in the outback and battle against, and work with, the harshness of the land, the deprivations of distance and the difficulties of our climate – drought, flood then plagues of locusts and mice. I think I’ve learnt to value the more important things: time, the kindness of strangers, having a laugh with people and watching the sun rise and set.
What’s the next book you’re writing?
I’m back in the outback again! I’m writing a book called Heroines of the Outback, a book about some of the incredible women who live fascinating lives in the outback, as a follow-up from an earlier book I did, called Women of the Outback, which proved incredibly popular. I’m thoroughly enjoying this one too, travelling the length and breadth of Australia and unearthing some amazing women. One runs a crocodile farm, another runs cattle in the most remote station in the world, another has explored all our great deserts on the back of a camel, another has fostered over 200 children … How come the outback has much more than its fair share of amazing women? I’ve loved meeting them all.
Welcome To The Outback, published by Penguin, is out now.