For her latest book, Australian farming families, author Deb Hunt took herself to some of Australia’s most far-flung locations and immersed herself in the stories of eight host farming families.
For a Gloucestershire native who has lived in some of the biggest cities in the world, some of the outback locations must have seemed like another planet.
Contrary to being alien, however, she found the land and its inhabitants more of this world and real than most.
“What I must stress is I had the best fun researching this book as every family was incredibly entertaining. Some of them quite eccentric, but all of them entertaining,” Deb enthuses.
To illustrate her point Deb relates a story from the book from Ian Jackson who lives at ‘Tirlta’ Station 100km northeast of Broken Hill.
In the story Ian and his three brothers take their governess for a drive to do a bit of 'roo' shooting. Once the governess is out of the car, having been told it is her turn to shoot, the cheeky lads take-off on her leaving her alone in the outback.
“It took Ian’s parent’s hours to find her, the poor sobbing governess,” Deb says.
“There’s a lot of room out there and a lot of room for diversity. I think in some of those more remote places people are more willing to accept that we’re all different but we’re all in it together.”Deb Hunt
Through their stories the families give insight into life on the land and how they continue to thrive at what would be a challenging life for most, their passion and gritty determination evident on every page.
“None of the families’ think there is anything extraordinary about their lives even though clearly there is. They would say I don’t know why you would want to come and interview me,” she says.
Deb went into the project believing everybody has a story to tell and spent time with her chosen families getting to the heart of their rural farming driven lives.
“I was looking at who was the most open in the story they had to tell and for those I interviewed I was bowled over by how honest they were and how willing they were to share their stories.”
“I came away from every family I visited thinking I would love to live there, but knowing I would never make it. Knowing I just didn’t have what it takes.”
She says her subjects have discovered how to thrive with a slower rhythm of life.
“We get so caught up in the city with the frenetic pace we live at – on the land there is much more of a slow measured understanding that I found incredibly attractive. They have a pragmatism and acceptance that, yes you make your own way as far as you can, but also there are forces beyond your control which you just have to live with and this makes for a different way of life,” she says.
Deb’s love of the Australian outback came during a stint working for the Australian Flying Doctor Service in Broken Hill
“I worked in Broken hill and that was where I was the most restful and most peaceful I've been in a remote area. I live in Sydney now but it is just a staging post to wherever we go next. Hopefully somewhere out of the big city.”
Growing-up in small village, Deb moved to London for work as an events manager and worked in this capacity in lots of places around the world before coming to Australia for love.
While that relationship didn't last, her passion for Australia and the land did and her desire to write about it grew.
Her links with the Royal Flying Doctors helped find families for the book and as word spread more and more subjects came forward.
While the list appears quite random, Deb was motivated by a desire to make sure she covered as many parts of Australia as possible. This she has achieved with farming families from Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania represented.
For her, all of these stoic, fun loving families are extraordinary for different reasons.
“Ian Jackson in Broken Hill stands out as it was such a different landscape and he was so passionate about his family history. He had collected so much you could have been in a museum there was so much stuff,” she says.
Lyn French from ‘Gilberton,’ 450km inland from Townsville impressed Deb with the ease at which she was at home in one of the most remote places visited.
“She (Lyn) couldn’t read and write when she got married but learnt how to along with her children. She went to Canberra to lobby politicians and the hardest thing she found was wearing shoes,” Deb says.
Michelle Reay and Jon Cobb run Durham Downs, 350km west of Quilpie in South East Queensland, one of the properties of the famous Kidman family's vast pastoral empire.
“Michelle came out as a back-packer fresh out of university and wanted to travel up the coast as they all do, but decided she would go inland a bit. Twenty years and four children later she is still there at this historic homestead and remote cattle station, ‘Durham Downs’ one of the most prestigious Kidman properties,” Deb says.
While there were many differences between the families, what was true for all of them was their unshakable conviction that they wouldn't live anywhere else.
“They might move onto a different property or a different station but they would hate to be separated from the land,’ she says.
This love of their way of life continues despite difficulties inherent in farming in Australia and how remote the location can be.
Some of the difficulties of remote living, that for Deb and many city dwellers would be a deal breaker, include things like access to healthcare and education.
“The big issue for me would be healthcare and the things we take for granted like nipping to the physio or GP."
“Also how do you educate your children when you are hundreds of miles away from primary and secondary schools or any child care?” she says.
Where these farming families excel she says are in their connections to each other, their animals and the land.
“Australian farmers really care about the animals and about the land and each other. There is an incredible connection. It’s like a network out there that keeps them connected and binds them together.”
Through good and bad times these connections remain strong especially when things get tough like when there is a serve weather event.
“They don’t think of it as lonely at all and in many ways they know more about a neighbour 40km away than I do my next door neighbour,” Deb says.
“There’s a lot of room out there and a lot of room for diversity. I think in some of those more remote places people are more willing to accept that we’re all different but we’re all in it together.”
Deb hopes the book will give people a clear idea of what is involved in life on the land, particularly in terms of family.
“Some of the families have Interesting stories of what their childhoods were like with governesses and teaching your children at the kitchen table. Those kinds of things I find fascinating,” Deb says.
The book celebrates the outback as a vast place but one we can all be connected to largely through the farmers and people who live out there.
“When you live in cities you have no idea what goes on out there.
“In some ways it is more startling and more extraordinary and in other ways more normal than you would expect,” she says.
Australian Farming Families by Deb Hunt, Macmillan Australia, RRP $29.99, is out now.