That's the Spirit
That’s the Spirit is a project prompted by, but not about, drought – borne of a need for an injection of positivity in sometimes overwhelmingly negative times. The project, funded in part by the NSW Department of Health, and in part by NALAG itself, is about giving voice to just a small sample of the many positive people doing positive things to keep small communities alive and kicking, as they’ve done and will do for generations. It’s about that indefinable thing we call “the spirit of the bush”. We hope you enjoy meeting these people from a diverse cross-section of our western communities as much as we enjoy helping tell their stories.
*Many of the interviews in this project were conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of social distancing measures.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a collection of excerpts from the stories gathered over the past two years, and is available to order now:
Ahmad “Al” Karanouh - Coonamble NSW
Ahmad Karanouh grew up in a small town in Lebanon, so as a young father he knew there had to be a better place to raise his family than the suburbs of Sydney. Fortunately for the town of Coonamble, that’s where the aspiring businessman’s pin landed 20 years ago. Ahmad, “Al” as he’s affectionately come to be known, is now the town’s mayor as well as proprietor of a popular café that’s become one of Coonamble’s many social and community hubs. He is passionate about not only the town’s economic development potential but the value of a multicultural influence in keeping small communities strong.
Skye Dedman - Hermidale NSW
She came to Nyngan in the late ‘90s as a young early childhood teacher, intending to stay just a year to get a bit of bush experience. Twenty years later, Skye Dedman is now relieving principal of Hermidale Public School, a role she says virtually “chose” her the first time she visited the tiny educational facility. Skye is also part of a family farming operation and a committed local community member.
Brad Haling - Gulargambone NSW
Although he always loved music, formal lessons weren’t an option for young Brad Haling while he was growing up on a farm in western NSW. Now, with more than a decade’s gigging experience and a teaching degree tucked under his arm, the popular muso has brought his twin passions – music and helping people – home to Gulargambone, where he’s teaching a new generation of local youngsters what he wished he’d known as a kid – that playing guitar is cool, and that there’s no reason a small town like his can’t be the centre of the musical universe.
Phillip and Di Ridge - Bourke NSW
The Ridge family has long been part of the rich history of Bourke and the far west region, having ridden the highs and lows of the wool and sheep industries’ fortunes for generations. Phillip and Di Ridge are keepers of the family flame at the iconic Jandra Station, where the couple has raised four sons. While they continue the family tradition of contributing to the district’s social and economic fabric, Di has also helped put Bourke on the culinary map with a gourmet business she built from humble beginnings on the banks of the Darling River.
Greg and Tania Moody - Hermidale NSW
Greg and Tania Moody are farmers from Hermidale, where they run a tight ship both at home and in the community of which they are active members. Their son and his wife are part of a new generation breathing life into a small community that, like farmers in the region, is tough and used to getting going when the going gets tough.
Susie Rae - Narromine NSW
The spirit of community is embedded in Susie Rae’s DNA, but it took a brush with death to fan the flames of a long dormant idea for an event to bring hope, fun and an injection of economic activity to her much-loved patch of central west NSW. The Narromine farmer and artist leads the charge for the region’s inaugural Dolly Parton Festival, and says there’s a fitting similarity between the country music superstar’s resilience and that of her own small regional community.
Marie Knight OAM - Warrumbungle Mountains NSW
Apart from the day-to-day running of a mixed farming business in the Warrumbungle Mountains near Coonabarabran with her husband Tony, Marie Knight is the brains behind the popular Lamb Jumpers project, a
humble idea aimed at protecting poddy lambs from the elements that has grown into a positive way of helping breach the city-country divide. For her services to the community, Marie was also named in the 2020 Australia Day Honours list and has been awarded an Order of Australia Medal.
Christopher "Burra" McHughes - Brewarrina NSW
Christopher “Burra” McHughes is barely into his 20s, but he’s already an accomplished photographer, a seasoned “firie” and a shining example for young people in the communities he serves as a founding member of the NSW Rural Fire Service’s first Indigenous State Mitigation crews in Brewarrina and Bourke. A Ngemba Gamilaraay man, Burra is dedicated not only to his Aboriginal heritage, but to the community as a whole and to strengthening bonds between traditional and modern cultures.
Tourle Family - Toongi NSW
Scott and Liz Tourle are fifth generation farmers and graziers at Toongi, near Dubbo, where they not only continue to adapt in an ever-evolving evolving industry but are active contributors to their small community. And now their sixth-generation children – Kennedy, Sam, Tom and daughter-in-law Courtney – are taking the baton. Jen Cowley shared a cuppa on the family’s verandah for a yarn about life on the land and what it means to have a sense of community.
Aileen Bell - Coonabarabran NSW
Now retired from her long-time position as the Warrumbungle Shire’s economic development and tourism manager, Aileen Bell is a passionate Coonabarabran local, who has served the community in both a professional and personal capacity. Aileen is a dedicated Rotarian who has been involved with countless local organisations and causes and, as Jen Cowley found, is keen for people to understand what a welcoming place her hometown is.
Megan O'Connor - Balladoran NSW
Megan O’Connor’s roots run deep in the small communities of both Tooraweenah, where she grew up in the shadow of the Warrumbungles, and Balladoran, where she has raised the fourth generation of her family to call the district home. Through a business run from the family farm, the accomplished caterer has carved out a happy niche giving visitors and locals alike a taste of the region she loves.
Wayne Harrison – Bourke NSW
After some four decades on the airwaves of the west and far west, it’s fair to suggest Wayne Harrison is the voice of the region he’s come to know and love through his “day job” with Bourke’s community-based 2WEB Outback Radio. A passionate advocate for regional media, Wayne believes the strength of small communities like Bourke lies in the way people care for one another.
Ruth and Dick Carney – Narromine NSW
Widely known to many across the region as Uncle and Aunty, Dick and Ruth Carney are long-time Narromine residents, proud elders of the Wiradjuri nation and respected members of the regional community. The couple has been married for 56 years and both have been involved in many community activities and organisations, including proudly co-ordinating and training four decades’ worth of local debutants.
Ross Earl - Bourke NSW
As general manager of Bourke Shire, it’s part of Ross Earl’s job to promote the region, but it’s his passion for his community, its people and the local organisations of which he’s a part that makes him such an effective advocate for the iconic Aussie town. That’s the Spirit’s Jen Cowley spent some time “out back o’ Bourke” with the town’s affable GM.
Joan Jeffrey - Hermidale NSW
At 80, Joan Jeffrey decided it was time to hang up the keys to the school bus she’d been driving for the Hermidale school for 48 years. But after half a century behind the wheel, the spritely octogenarian misses the children and still fills in from time to time.
Rebecca Moxham– Coonabarabran NSW
Now approaching the end of its third decade as a prominent fixture on the regional equine calendar, the North West Equestrian Expo – known affectionately and widely as the “Coona horse expo” – is so much more than a sporting event. Rebecca Moxham is secretary of the expo’s committee whose members collectively embody the culture of community involvement for which the town is renowned.
Days for Girls Group – Coonabarabran NSW
The Coonabarabran chapter of global women’s health initiative, Days for Girls, gathers every few weeks in a humble hall where the production of sustainable menstrual care kits for women and girls in third world countries and remote communities in Australia is just one aspect of the project. Over a cuppa and some seriously good baked treats, the group tells how the regular get-togethers connect them with not only women in third world countries but with each other.
Steve Mudford – Gilgandra NSW
His chosen profession has taken champion shearer Steve Mudford all around the world, both as a competitive sport and a career. Now he’s more dedicated than ever to the iconic Australian industry that he says is still vitally important and has much to offer coming generations.
Fay Chapman – Coonabarabran NSW
For the past two decades, Coonabarabran’s aqua-fitness group has been helping to keep local bodies and minds healthy and active. Fay Chapman is one of the founding volunteer instructors, and says the group is as much about connectedness and wellbeing as it is fitness.
Angie Armstrong – Buddabadah NSW
Angie Armstrong is essentially a city girl turned passionate country advocate; a dedicated “foodie” and tourism entrepreneur who, together with fourth generation farmer husband Michael, is developing a tourism hub at Callubri Station, an historic working farming and grazing operation at Buddabadah (between Nyngan and Tottenham) that has been in the family for 140 years.
Amy Naef - Gilgandra NSW
Artist Amy Naef doesn’t believe in helplessness, no matter the scale of the challenge. It’s a mindset she credits with having grown up in a small town, and it’s what drives the creative single mum to take “action through art”.
Cleaver Family – Nyngan NSW
The name “Cleaver” is synonymous with Nyngan’s renowned Duck Creek Races, but the farming family – Lyndal and Rowen (“Spike”) and their four children, including Tom, who is helping to run the family business – are also, in many other ways, deeply invested in keeping the social and economic fabric of their community strong.
Patty Mitchell - Trangie NSW
By her own admission, Trangie’s Patty Mitchell has “been around a bit” and has her finger in a number of local pies, including the inaugural Trangie Truck and Tractor Show, held in the middle of a roaring drought in 2019. She spoke for many Trangie-ites in describing the town as a “friendly, humble place” that pulls together when the chips are down.
Stacey and Michael Wells-Bud - Hermidale NSW
It’s been more than a decade since Stacey Wells-Bud left the lush green of the UK for the wide brown land down under, and four years since she and her husband Michael moved back to his old home territory of Hermidale. Along with the family’s farming operation, the pair has added a couple of new balls to the juggling act in the form of a baby daughter and what they call a “one stop community hub” – the Hermidale Pub.
Kate Davies - Purlewaugh NSW
At the age of 50-ish, Kate Davies answered the call of agricultural adventure and left the family farm at Purlewaugh near Coonabarabran to take on a four-month stint as a “tractor driver” in Myanmar (formerly Burma), an experience she says helped expand her own world view and hone her skills in the business of farming. She’s confident in the future of agriculture in the hands of the coming generation, including her own son, with what she says is “a wider vision and more portable skills in a connected world”.
Brian Mockler - Tooraweenah NSW
Being part of a tight-knit, supportive community has made riding the waves of life’s triumphs and tragedies more bearable for Tooraweenah man Brian Mockler. The semi-retired legal consultant, active Lions Club member, Show Committee life member and Gilgandra Shire Councillor – to mention but a few of the “hats” he wears – says getting and staying involved in community builds resilience and is vital for maintaining good mental health during tough times.
Maxine Mackay OAM and Kristy Kennedy - Bourke NSW
Maxine Mackay has devoted her adult life to promoting educational opportunities in her home town of Bourke, a lifetime of commitment that earned her an Order of Australia Medal (OAM). Her passion for education and community was instilled by her mother, and Maxine has in turn passed on that dedication to daughter, Kristy Kennedy who, after studying and practicing in the city, has returned to Bourke with a law degree and a determination to advocate for the community she loves.
Rod Sandell - Warren NSW
After his family’s three generations on the land at Warren, Rod Sandell reckons he’s just about earned the right to call himself a local. The dedicated Rotarian and community stalwart says there’s a lot Warren folk miss out on – traffic, smog, the rat race – and he wouldn’t have it any other way in a town he believes survives thanks to a history of community teamwork.
Melissa Irving, Audrey Weston and Ros Jackson - Warren NSW
They have an eclectic range of skills and a diverse background in life and business, but the three “faces” of the Warren Weekly – Melissa Irving, Audrey Weston and Ros Jackson – all share a love of their small town, a commitment to its future and a belief in the value of local media as the glue that helps hold regional communities together.
Sally and Hugh Beveridge - Armatree NSW
For dynamic husband and wife duo, Sally and Hugh Beveridge, there was never any doubt about an eventual return to the bush. Born and raised at Armatree, Hugh spent time in the big smoke’s corporate world before heading back to the farm with landscape architect and city-girl Sally to raise a family. With a diverse raft of interests and skills, the couple is living proof that life in a small community need never be boring.
With a mix of biting commentary and sharp satire, Hugh’s alter ego Joe Merino has helped bust some myths about farming and regional Australia through his popular short films, while Sally has “retired” to her own sprawling backyard after successfully helping design some of the most stunning gardens in the district. She’s also a long-suffering sounding-board for “Joe’s” endless ideas.
Kelly Sinclair - Warren NSW
Kelly Sinclair is the Executive Officer of the Warren Youth Group, established in 2014 with the aim of supporting local youngsters into employment. No stranger to Warren, Kelly says the group – established through the generosity and vision of local philanthropist Tony McAlary – is making a positive contribution not only to the town’s youth but to the community as a whole.
Dave Thwaites - Walgett NSW
From behind the counter of his newsagency and sporting goods store and cafe, Dave Thwaites has a unique perspective on the town he and his family have grown to love in the 15 years they’ve called it home.
Walgett, he says, has great spirit and a rich history and, like the affable businessman himself, is a book that can’t be judged by its cover.
Ash and Lib Walker - Armatree NSW
In a little more than a decade, Ash and Lib Walker have managed to put not only the Armatree Pub but the tiny locality itself on the tourist map, with the popular local watering hole being named the state’s best bush pub two years running. The busy couple has deep local roots and are no strangers to rolling up their sleeves, but Ash says it’s the wider community’s collective refusal to “roll over and play dead” that largely deserves the credit for the district’s remarkable resilience.
Amanda Ferrari - Trangie NSW
She has a list of community roles as long as your arm, but it’s as the founder of hugely successful fundraising event Macquarie Matrons that Trangie’s Amanda Ferrari is best known around the regional traps. Although born and raised in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, her heart and feet are firmly planted in the western plains where she has made it her business to ensure that the diverse skills women bring to the region are put to good use in support of community.
Deb Kiem - Mendooran NSW
Self-confessed “country girl through and through”, Deb Kiem, is a staunch advocate for Mendooran and woe betide anyone who has an unkind word for the small town where, she says, there’s more going on than meets the uneducated eye.
Geoff Smith - Narromine NSW
Geoff Smith came “home” to the west nearly two decades ago and says that although his career took him to the nation’s capital for most of his working life, his heart never left the bush. Since settling in Narromine, he’s dedicated his time to helping address the drift of young people away from agriculture, through a skills-development project he established under the Rotary umbrella.
Lee O'Connor - Coonamble NSW
Over the course of her working life, Lee O’Connor has devoted her time through various organisations to making sure regional communities have a voice. It’s a pursuit that has brought her, fittingly, to the helm of the Coonamble Times as owner, editor and keeper of the important local flame of public record. Community spirit, she says, is a relay not a marathon and she’s committed to ensuring her home town keeps passing on the baton.
Tony McAlary - Warren NSW
Tony McAlary might be retired from farming, but these days he’s as busy as ever, stepping up to help his home town’s youth to lead more productive lives. The self-effacing, long-time Warren local doesn’t believe in doing anything by half, and has put his money where his mouth is in establishing the Warren Youth Group. In the six years since its inception, the group has helped brighten not only the younger generation’s future, but that of the town itself.
Lester Thurston OAM - Tooraweenah NSW
He came to town to help out his uncle for “a few weeks” in the early ‘80s. Now, in nearly four decades behind the counter of his rural supplies store at Tooraweenah, Lester Thurston has seen generations of the same local families come and go - he’s farewelled old faces and welcomed new ones, kept confidences and helped save lives. He’s been mentor, friend and accidental counsellor, and has in turn earned the trust and respect of a community to which he has dedicated his adult life.
Ben Rasmussen - Nevertire NSW
By day, Ben Rasmussen is a mild-mannered professional who’s embarking on his career as a graduate accountant. Come the weekend, he swaps the suit for the saddle, travelling the length and breadth of the state in pursuit of competitive rodeo. It might sound like an unusual mix, but he’s putting the combination of skills together in support of his much-loved home town of Nevertire, helping to reinvigorate the local rodeo. He’s an ardent fan of life in a small community, where he says there’s opportunity aplenty for those willing to have a crack.
Reg Sweeney - Mendooran NSW
While many other small towns’ iconic annual shows are under threat from changing demographic and economic climates, Mendooran’s seems to go from strength to strength each year, global pandemics notwithstanding. Proud current show committee president, Reg Sweeney, says that’s a reflection not just of the strength of his fellow team members, but of the town itself, a community with a spirit that simply refuses to lie down and die.
Pip Archer - Mendooran NSW
After more than three decades at Mendooran, Pip Archer has seen the district and its people at their best and their worst and all points in between, and says there’s beauty all around, even in the toughest of times – you just need to know how to see and appreciate it.
John Sinclair - Narromine NSW
With roots that run deep into the soil of the western plains, John Sinclair’s diverse career paths have given him a unique view of the region. By his own admission, he’s seen “the good, the bad and the ugly” over the years, but he wouldn’t hang his hat anywhere else. John is profoundly connected to the west and its people, and sees it as both his pleasure and his path to “give back” wherever and however he can.
Col Ryan OAM - Gulargambone NSW
He’s the recipient of a number of awards for services to his community, including an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in 2016, but Gulargambone farmer and Lions Club president Col Ryan says his greatest reward is simply the joy of helping people.
Bill Kennedy - Walgett NSW
He’s been a shearer, a councillor, a deputy mayor and mentor, an administrator and an advocate, and in his 73 laps around the sun, Walgett’s Bill Kennedy has seen and helped make a few changes in and for his community. The proud Gamilaroi man lives by the mantra that if you want something done, it’s up to you to stand up and speak up.
Kelly McCutcheon - Trangie NSW
Family and business brought Kelly McCutcheon to Trangie, but it’s the opportunity to immerse herself in community life that’s won her heart. The young mum and career professional believes there’s as much – if not more – opportunity in small regional centres as in the city, as long as you’re prepared to “get in and have a go”. Trangie, she says, is one such community that gives as much as it gets.
Collie CWA Day Branch - Collie NSW
In just five years’ time, the day branch of the Collie CWA will rack up a century of service to its community – no mean feat given the fluid nature of the region’s fortunes and the changing nature of the bush over the past 100 years. The still fiercely feisty cohort says these days their get-togethers are more about staying connected than being agents for change, a baton they’re carefully and gradually handing over to their mentees in the “younger” brigade of the newly-formed Collie evening branch.
Camilla Herbig - Collie NSW
By her own admission, Collie’s Camilla Herbig has an “extensive hat collection”, wearing many professional and community caps at any given point in time. She works in rural mental health, is a founding member of Collie’s evening CWA branch, a former Royal Agricultural Society Showgirl, a Rural Young Woman of the Year finalist, a farmer and a staunch advocate for the wellbeing of rural communities. Being involved in a number of state- and region-wide organisations and voluntary activities has given the born-and-bred local a voice and she’s not afraid to use it in the pursuit of a stronger future for regional Australia.
Lucie Peart - Gilgandra NSW
Lucie Peart’s journey to Gilgandra, and to the owner-editor’s chair of the town’s 110-year-old newspaper, has been a series of happily serendipitous events. The industry isn’t without its challenges, but Lucie says the value of “the local rag” in holding the community fabric of a small town together can’t be overstated.
Sally Gavin - Cumnock NSW
A love of horses and a passion for rural life run in equal measure through Sally Gavin’s veins, so there was never any question that she’d choose the bush over the big city after leaving university. Her roots run deep in the Cumnock community and the central western region, where she says technology and a growing cohort of enthusiastic and visionary young people mean opportunities have seldom looked brighter.
Jen and Steve Greentree - Bourke NSW
Like many before them, Jen and Steve Greentree’s intention was for just a short stint at Bourke when they first moved here for work. That was more than 20 years ago, but neither droughts nor flooding rains could drive them from their adopted home, where their gallery is now as much a part of the remarkable landscape as the iconic vistas Jen paints in her thriving practice with entrepreneur Steve by her side.
Belinda Colless - Brewarrina NSW
A dyed-in-the wool child of the western region, Brewarrina’s Belinda Colless believes we get to choose what our own community looks like and that happiness is a choice. It’s a choice she puts into practice every day, stepping up to an exhausting number of community roles while running a business and living with the “new normal” of Multiple Sclerosis.
Emily Ryan - Coonamble NSW
Emily Ryan says her ambition is to engage young people with their rural communities, but this civic-minded, Coonamble-based primary school teacher doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk, taking on an exhausting number of different sporting and community roles in the pursuit of professional and personal goals.
Sue Armstrong - Tooraweenah NSW
When Sue Armstrong and her husband Brian retired to a farm at Tooraweenah, the busy professional couple thought they were moving to a sleepy little hollow where they could just kick back and enjoy the nothingness for a change. That was ten years ago and Sue has scarcely had time to stop and reflect on how wrong they were. As immediate past president of the town’s show committee, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jillian Kelly - Coonamble NSW
She spends her days “elbow deep in sheep’s guts” but there’s a “girly girl” side to popular Coonamble born-and-bred vet, Jillian Kelly. Her alter ego, Miss Vet, is an artist whose whimsical works have almost as much power to heal as her day job. They’re both equally passionate about keeping what Jillian calls the true heartbeat of Australia pumping in small communities.
Peter Hazelton - Gilgandra NSW
Friends describe him as “Mr Gilgandra”, but accolades don’t sit comfortably with Peter Hazelton. So why has the long-time president of the town’s rugby league club, the mighty Gil Panthers, done so much for the sport and his community over the years? Simple, he says: “I just do it because I love it.”
Bill Fisher - Coonamble NSW
Over a lifetime in the district as a farmer, a councillor and an amateur thespian, Coonamble’s Bill Fisher has seen the town’s fortunes wax and wane along with the seasons and the shifting forces of population and economics. One thing that’s remained constant, he says, is the spirit of Coonamble’s people who are used to rolling up their sleeves in the face of adversity.
Janell Yeomans - Walgett NSW
Janell Yeomans is used to running teams. From the Walgett hospital where she works as a registered nurse to the myriad sporting arenas and community committee rooms where she spends so much of her free time. But the energetic mum of five says her greatest satisfaction comes from coaching the home team where the most important lesson is the lifelong skill of commitment.
James Cleaver - Nyngan NSW
Despite the siren call of a promising career in law, Nyngan-born-and- raised James Cleaver quickly realised he wasn’t cut out for an “inside job”. He decided his legal and economics qualifications could be put to better use in supporting the small communities and primary industries of Western NSW which for which he’s an ardent advocate through his work in rural resilience support.
Pat Canty - Bourke NSW
When she was growing up in Bourke, Patricia “Pat” Canty, never dreamed she’d ever join Rotary, let alone take the reins as the local club’s president for two years running. As an Aboriginal woman, the perception was that Rotary was about as far from a “good fit” as she could get, but in recent years, the club has pioneered the breaking down of those barriers through what she says has been “a wonderful shift” in that reality.
Simon Archer - Merrygoen NSW
Simon Archer first pulled on the uniform of the Merrygoen Rural Fire Service brigade as an 18-year-old. Now in his mid-50s and captain of the outfit, the third-generation local farmer says his passion lies not in fighting fires but in his community.
Christine Corby OAM - Walgett NSW
Christine Corby grew up in western Sydney, but moved back to her Gamilaroi mother’s country as a young mother in the mid-1970’s. It was a spur of the moment move that she now credits with, quite literally, saving her life. Now, the long-time head of the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service has a career spanning more than 40 years in the service of her community, for which she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal – an accolade she says belongs to Walgett itself.