Reviewed by Gretchen Winters
Ewan McHugh is a journalist who has written for Australian newspapers, television and radio. His previous books include The Stockmen: the Making of an Australian Dream as well as other untold stories of Australians as diverse as bushrangers and outback pioneers. His latest book Outback Legends, contains remarkable biographies of the lives of unsung Aussie heroes, although three of them have gained national recognition and been awarded well–deserved OAMs.
Evan McHugh takes us along for the ride as he drives across the open roads of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Northern Territory and Western Australia. The men and women he interviews along the way possess the qualities most Australians admire, resilience, inclusiveness and gritty determination, either against the challenges in their mostly physical occupations, or the forces of nature they have to deal with in our wide brown land.
Whether the author is in Birdsville or the Pilbara, the wonderful characters described in the fourteen chapters are all unique individuals but their histories also contain common threads.
Two examples of the outback lifestyle he describes, that is so different from the life we experience in our large coastal cities of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, are Fred Brophy and June Andrew. Boxing impresario Fred turned the negative response to his entrepreneurial idea of ‘You can’t’ into the positive response of ‘I will’, and June, born in Devon England took over the only nursing position in the remote town of Marree South Australia in 1982, and is still there today, much loved and respected by the community.
A travelling bookmaker, a champion shearer, an entrepreneur who runs a bistro which mixes memorabilia from years gone by with local produce and homeware are all there in the book. They represent real people who tell their stories with humour and dismiss the hardship they have endured to establish themselves against the harsh Australian landscape with its loneliness, unsealed roads, floods, heat and difficult terrain. McHugh also displays his keen sense of humour during the long drives to his destinations as he is prone to rating that great Aussie tradition – the meat pie lunch.
McHugh combines travel, history and geography along with the human stories of the people he meets. Of course, technology such as the internet and two-way radio now play a part in keeping them connected to their friends and neighbours, despite the fact that their nearest neighbour could be 100 kilometres down the road. Women in remote areas demonstrate how important human contact is with the Barkly Women’s Group who have met for one day every year since 1995 in a roadhouse near Tennant Creek to have fun and connect with each other.
The locations of McHugh’s interviewees may not be on any of our bucket lists for a must see visit, but his simple direct style of narrative suits the unembellished conversations he must have experienced in order to extract details of the lives these extraordinary people lead.
Recommended reading for those who are curious as to why some people elect to reside in these quiet out of the way places, whether they have been there for generations or came one day on a whim and have never left.
I agree with the final commentary “none of these people have sought fame but every one of them deserve it”.
by Evan McHugh
$35.00; 336 pages