That's the Spirit: 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. JEN COWLEY paid a visit to the quirky outback shop and its equally remarkable keeper.
Dave: My wife Nancy and I own and run the newsagency and sporting store (hunting, camping, fishing gear) at Walgett. We originally came here 15 years ago – just on a whim.
Initially we bypassed the town of Walgett and just stayed on our farm and the kids did distance education but then we scratched the surface of the town and got to know it and the people.
At first glance, Walgett is a pretty harsh looking town but, like most western towns, you really need to look past that and see beyond the surface.
Blink and you’ll miss it and if you form an opinion just by passing through, you’re never going to get the full or right picture.
That happens a lot. People form opinions of the place just at first glance without bothering to peel away the layers.
But we were intrigued because we came from a much bigger town in the Hunter Valley where there was a lot more happening, to a township probably a tenth of the size, and found we had so much to do here and with the town.
When we decided we would like to go into some kind of business, Walgett became the town of choice because it had so much to offer in so many ways – not just in terms of this kind of business, but in terms of community and lifestyle.
Jen: What is it about the community and lifestyle that strikes a chord with you?
Dave: All the simple things: there’s a roundabout (laughs)! Oh, and maybe a stop sign or two and a pedestrian crossing…so they’re the only traffic considerations you have to take into account. How easy is that to get around?
The ability to get around the district, too – in 45 minutes or so, you can be at another township in a relaxed fashion, even though it’s more than 100km away. It’s not like you have to battle traffic to get to work or to the other side of town!
That’s just one silly little thing, but we have great services for such a small town – health and education, for one thing. And the people. The people are great.
Dave Thwaites, Walgett NSW
Jen: Tell me about them.
Dave: The best thing about a town like this is that you get to know people really well. You can have a conversation anywhere, anytime in any place and any shop, in the street, out in the back-blocks, in the supermarket, in the paddock…you can stop and have a yarn because you know people and they know you. They’re familiar, an extension to your own little family.
What’s really important is that you get to know who the people are who you can really, truly trust as well as those who you don’t want to associate with. You get to know all that.
There’s a network of support. You only have to ask a simple question and you’ll get an answer. Someone will know where you can go for help. Sometimes, you might just need a hug. In the city, people will walk straight past you but here, they’ll look you square in the eye and say, “G’day mate.” Maybe they’ll stop for a conversation, maybe not – doesn’t matter. The thing is that here, because you get to know people, you can also pick when someone is in need, work out if they’re feeling down.
Jen: Is that a skill you think you’ve honed even more because of being here behind the counter at the shop? Sort of an “accidental counsellor”?
Dave: Yeah, true. Particularly now after years of drought, and all the talk for years has been “drought, drought, drought”, and even after it rained, it didn’t rain money. We get it all the time, people come in and they mightn’t have any money to buy anything, but they just want to stop and have a yarn, so we stop and have a yarn. You try to lighten the mood, even if you’re feeling a bit down yourself. We suffered financially too, but we weren’t on our knees, so I always feel like we can do that small thing – have a chat and say a few positive things, even if it’s just a quick joke or whatever. People will walk out with a bit more of a spring in their step.
They know we’re all in it together and there’s a lot of hardship, but we’re in the same boat.
Dave Thwaites, Walgett NSW
Jen: Why do you have faith in Walgett’s future?
Dave: From lots of different perspectives, I have faith. I believe we have brilliant medical and educational facilities here, and that gives me faith for Walgett’s future. The people that work in those services are fantastic people – they’re committed and caring, and they are really dedicated to the people of the town because we’re all connected here, we all know each other. There’s a great spirit here. There’s a sense of doing it for ourselves, of supporting each other and the town – there’s such a great community spirit here.
Jen: You mentioned the tendency of people to judge Walgett from the driver’s side window as they’re passing through. What are some of the misconceptions about the town that you’d like to challenge?
Dave: Doesn’t matter which small town you’re talking about, there’s always a story or a tale from 20 or 50 years ago that people will use as a judgement on the town today. That happens everywhere, not just Walgett, we’re not an exception. There are all these old stories out there, and I guess the internet search engines are largely to blame for that because you type in “Walgett” and up comes the nasty stuff from years ago. So you’re on the back foot with people from the start. They’ll say, “Oh, I hear such-and-such happened in Walgett?” and you say, “Well, yeah, but that was 30 years ago…where are you from?” And often they’re from Melbourne or Sydney and I’ll say, “Righto, when was the last gory thing that happened there?” and it’s usually last night.
We have one thing happen and we’re judged on that for the next three decades.
A town like Walgett is its own little case-study, though, because we’re a river town. We’re not even sure when it was settled – maybe 10-20,000 years ago – but it was settled because it had water, food, fish and it’s been here forever, so it has a beautiful cultural history.
It has a lot of things that have happened subsequently that aren’t great, but it has such a rich history as well so it has a really chequered past and there’s a lot of healing to be done.
That’s an important role for people like us to help facilitate that healing, to have empathy and understanding and to try to learn more about the past and then how we can change things in the present.
Jen: What are the sorts of things that you and Nancy are involved with in town?
Dave: It’s been difficult because we are so busy with running a business and raising children, but we support community events through the shop. We have two footy (Rugby League) teams in town: there’s the Walgett Dragons, terrible side (laughs) and the Newtown Wanderers, which is the best side! Nancy sponsors the Dragons and I sponsor the Wanderers! It’s a small bit of financial support, but it’s more about moral support. It’s fun, and there’s great banter when people come in to the shop.
Jen: How important is sport in town like Walgett?
Dave: Vital. Sometimes it’s the only thing that’s either holding someone here or it’s the only thing they’re clinging to. You imagine someone who’s lost their employment, maybe because of the big “D” word, or because of their cultural heritage or their lack of opportunity… there may not be much else, but there’s rugby league.
We’re more than happy to support those teams because if you don’t support a footy side in Walgett, you’re out of the picture. It’s not necessarily about the sport itself, it’s about connection and it’s about community. From the first kick-off of the season, the first NRL game of the year, right throughout the local derby until the grand final, that’s something we all have to talk about.
It’s a terrific language out here that everyone can talk and that’s a great cement for a community.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Dave Thwaites, Walgett NSW