The art of governessing in the outback

The West Australian

Hot on the heels of her first two novels, Australian Midwives and An Outback Life, Paula Heelan has once again offered a glimpse into the extraordinarily yet everyday lives of those who live and work in the Australian outback.

For families who live on remote stations, access to education is often only through distance education services and School of The Air, and employing a governess is a normal part of life.

For those “govies” brave enough to venture out into the great unknown, the experiences are often as rich as the landscape.

Ms Heelan has interviewed 14 governesses who have lived in incredibly remote locations, from the top end of WA, to north-east of Alice Springs, to South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland.

All the governesses in this book who have ventured into the harsh Australian outback, often find much more than they originally bargained for, and many end up with a certain bush education of their own.

From droughts, floods, insect plagues and firearms, to camp drafts, rodeos and country races, station life is far from dull and every chapter is packed with personal insights and heart-warming stories.

While the book does have a focus on Queensland governesses, WA readers, particularly those familiar with our station country in the north, will appreciate the stories about the trials of station life.

Among the identities featured are former Merredin locals Brett Cameron and his wife, Ceridwen, who travelled to the Kalumburu Indigenous community to teach 90 students in primary school to Year 12.

According to Mrs Cameron, their move to the north was not without its tough moments, and violence was common in the community.

“At first, we felt the community was erupting with violence, there was a lot of fighting going on, and at times it was a bit hairy,” she writes in chapter three.

“But sadly, we seemed to become desensitised to the violence. The police would ring and say we hear there’s been some violence and we’d look out the window and see it and say oh yeah, there is.”

For Mr Cameron, being a teacher in a predominantly indigenous school was a major learning curve.

“I guess at times I grappled with that whole philosophy of I’m a white middle-class man in their country telling them how to speak correctly,” he said in the book.

“Part of the reason Kalumburu community struggles today is, because having been under strong mission rule for a long time, a lot of the language, hierarchy and traditions have been lost.

“Once the mission pulled out and the community was given back its independence, there wasn’t much to fall back on.”

Despite the hardships, it was an experience Mr Cameron said the couple would treasure throughout their lives, with stories of wild donkeys, mud fights, trips to see breathtaking waterfalls and gorges and ancient rock paintings, fishing expeditions, camping, and the friends they made living in the far north.

The Camerons loved their time in WA’s north so much that they have remained there, basing themselves in Broome.

For those who enjoyed Australian Midwives, Outback Governesses will certainly find a place on their bookshelf.

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