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That's the Spirit: Ross Earl - Bourke

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.

Ross: I started in Bourke in October 2012, just after the last flood and it’s been pretty dry ever since actually, until just recently.


Jen: What are the changes you’ve seen in the Bourke community over that time?


Ross: The drought put stress on all the farmers and businesses, with the two largest farming enterprises in town having shed (dozens of employees) – not by choice but economically, they had to make that call – and unfortunately, as happened during the millennium drought, once people leave it’s hard to get them to come back.

Once people come to the bush they’re happy to stay and happy to be here, but the challenge is getting them here in the first place, unless they’re born and bred. It takes a while to immerse yourself in the community and you have to be someone who’s willing to have a crack.

Small communities are all about people who are having a crack and if you think you’re going to escape being a president, secretary or treasurer of community organisations when you come to a town, well you’d better bunker down in your own home!

It’s good for a person coming to a town to be involved in other organisations. The injection of new ideas is good for the town.

Sometimes you tread on a few toes when you come in and suggest a way of doing things that’s different to what’s been happening for the past 95 years. Sometimes people are resistant to change and that’s fine, but I’ve found that most organisations need and embrace that injection of new ideas and new enthusiasm.  And in small communities, people wear multiple hats, so you get an injection of new blood across a number of organisations.


Jen: Do you wear multiple hats?


Ross: Not as much as I used to. My job as general manager (of Bourke Shire) takes a fair bit of my time and I tend to get involved with a lot of things because I have that job.

I’m a Rotarian and I enjoy that. I was president for two years and I certainly enjoyed that, not only just locally but I met a lot of people on a regional basis. Like any kind of organisation, with Rotary you meet a lot of kindred spirits.

In local government we have general management organisations and I’m the regional attendee there. Those sorts of organisations help broaden your friendship base and (a network of) people you can ring up if you have a problem. Let’s face it, everybody has problems and if you’re involved in your community, you won’t be alone, just make a phone call.


Jen: What do you love about Bourke?


Ross: It’s iconic. As soon as you say you’re from Bourke, people say, “Oh yeah, Bourke – geez, I’d like to go there some day, I’ve never been there”.

Bourke is so iconic in Australian bush history, and it has its own rich history. People talk about “the back of Bourke” and when you look at the history and the characters that have been here and drawn inspiration here – authors and poets and artists who have been here, like Henry Lawson for instance.


Ross Earl, Bourke. NSW

Jen: What was it he said about Bourke – his famous line?


Ross: “If you know Bourke, you know Australia” – I think that’s right. And that’s the iconic thing – Bourke is like the quintessential Australia. Or the idea of Australia.

I suppose things have changed a little bit but, you know, going back a bit, it was a rough tough town with a bit of a rough reputation.

There were a lot of workers on the stations and the railway and it was a buzzing place. There were several hotels and a couple of clubs. It was busy and bustling. That’s changed a bit with the times, obviously, but it’s still thriving. Because Bourke is isolated it’s self-sufficient, so there is not much you can’t buy here.

You might not get the degree of choice you want in Bourke obviously – if you want to walk through Westfield Plazas and similar complexes in Sydney you’ll find a greater degree of choice – but if you want to buy electric goods, go to the chemist, buy clothing and furniture, the options are here. It’s only the degree of choice that’s limited.

From my personal point of view, I want to walk into a shop and go, “Which shirt do I want? The blue one, the white one or the pink one?” rather than have 95 to choose from and walk out with nothing.

Bourke is an accepting town. There’s a good mix and everyone gets along pretty well.

You don’t have those differences you see in a lot of other small communities.

For instance, you need 13 players for a rugby league team and 11 players for a soccer team – you have to invite and accept everyone. Sport is great for a small community because it involves people and they meet each other.

When you’re younger you play sport and when you have kids they get involved with sport and you help out, but when you get past a certain age, it’s harder to meet people, so sport is something that can help bring and keep people together.

I’m fortunate in my role that I meet a lot of people anyway, but in a town like Bourke you can walk down the street and you’ll know every second person and that’s what’s good about a small community.


Jen: Do Bourke people pitch in when something needs doing?

Ross: They do. Take, for instance, the Tour de OROC (fundraising bicycle tour around the Orana Region of Councils) – when that came through Bourke, we raised $5500 during time of drought – that’s a lot of money for a small town.

(Note: funds from the Tour de OROC were directed to Macquarie Homestay, an accommodation facility for people and families undergoing medical treatment in Dubbo).

In small towns sometimes people get frustrated because there’s a sense that everybody knows what you’re doing – they know if you’ve been away, or you’ve had a barbie at you place – but when the odds are stacked against you, when a problem arises, you know there’s that camaraderie, that friendship that supports you. People galvanise friendship very quickly and if someone dies or gets injured or sick the townspeople are there to support you. We often have people getting together to fundraise for someone who’s sick or been injured – the fundraising efforts for things like that are tremendous.


Jen: So there’s a sense of circling the wagons when the chips are down?

Ross: Yes, very much so. In other areas you have a kind of, for want of a better term, class structure that divides the community. We don’t have that in Bourke. The place is small so everyone has to muck in together. Everyone is in the same boat.

You don’t have that situation where all the plumbers go to a particular pub and all the accountants go to another one. There’s a sameness here – there have even been poems written about it.

I suppose it’s like that old saying: If he’s shouting his turn, he’s a good bloke.

There’s a degree of acceptance for who you are – that you’re taken on face value.

I suppose the down side of Bourke being that it’s remote and if you want to see family and friends or go to a family function or whatever, it can be a long way to travel, which can be a pain.  


Jen: What are some of the misconceptions about Bourke that you’d like to dispel?

Ross: People have this idea of the “back of Bourke” being that there’s nothing out here.

I suppose you don’t want to dispel the mystique of the “back of Bourke” isolation because that’s part of the identity, but at the same time we don’t want people thinking it’s a wasteland. Our tourist centre is certainly national class and probably international class. Among other things, we offer a paddle steamer or paddle boat (when the Darling is flowing). People come here and say with surprise, “Oh! You have green grass! “You can get coffee!” 

Well, what were you expecting? We’re not sitting around under the tree boiling a billy to get a cup of coffee, are we? The fact is that we have all kinds of things here. Just because we’re remote doesn’t mean we’re backward.


Bourke NSW

Jen: So you manage that mystique of the bush with a cosmopolitan edge and with being part of the global world?


Ross: Exactly. There’s an old saying that technology joins the world very quickly. If you’re a journalist or a business person, for instance, you can run your operation or company from Bourke quite readily, quite easily you know.

That’s not unusual. It’s quite do-able, no problem.

The idea that Bourke is far flung is part of the mystique and part of what makes Bourke iconic. It’s steeped in history and you don’t want to destroy that mystique, that’s for sure. So that’s a balancing act.

The only problem is it’s a long way from everywhere. Bourke gets very dry, that’s true, and in summer, 45 degrees is not unusual, but at the end of the day you don’t run a marathon when it’s 45, do you?

What you try to do is make the place your own. There are always things that frustrate you and you can only do what you can do, and everyone is doing what they can here.

Good things happen here but it’s because people get together to make things happen. That’s true in the bush generally. The communities that are buoyant in the bush are where there’s strong leadership and where people get together to make things happen. That might be a service club like Rotary, or just individual people, but wherever you have people who will muck in and have a crack, things get done.

Small communities don’t expect to have 16 different restaurants or whatever, but they’ll get in and have a crack to get what they need for the town.

One thing I’ve found different living in a place like Bourke, as opposed to somewhere like Mudgee or Sydney, is that you have to make use of the opportunities you have. When you go out in Sydney, you think, “We’re here for three days so let’s go to this restaurant and that restaurant and let’s do this, and that…” because you know you can do these things if you want because it’s there.

You avail yourself of what opportunities you have – and it’s the same in a small community. The advent of the internet has closed the gap hugely. For instance, my wife learned to play the bagpipes from (a teacher in) America!

Technology means we can do that sort of thing.

We’re very fortunate to have good medical services here – the flying doctors (Royal Flying Doctor Service) provide a great service and we have a lot of visiting specialists who come to Bourke.


Jen: You have the best of both worlds, then?


Ross: Look, sometimes we might miss the proliferation of services and we don’t have the choice others might have, but there’s not a lot we miss out on.


Ross Earl, Bourke NSW

Jen: What do you see as the future for Bourke?


Ross: As a tourist destination, we’ve spent a lot of money in Bourke over the past few years trying to make the town prettier, more attractive. It’s a bit of an oasis.  When people come here, they say “Oh wow - you’ve got green grass!” What were they expecting, the Sahara Desert?

We want the town clean, we want it welcoming and we’ve spent a lot of money in the main street.

We want to showcase Bourke. We want people to be proud of the town and I think generally they are.

It’s easy to slip back into complacency and into accepting mediocrity and not recognise what you can achieve. You don’t want to do that. Just because we live out west, doesn’t mean we deserve a lower level of service than anybody else.

The GDP (gross domestic product) that comes out of a mining town or an agricultural town is vital to the national economy.

You’re not going to run cattle in Sydney and you’re not going to grow food there, are you? It’s all very well to be critical of what happens in the bush – growing sheep or growing cotton or whatever it may be – but people are dependent on those products for their livelihoods, and nationally we depend on their products.

If we depopulate the bush we’re going to have trouble getting people out and then everyone suffers.

So we need to maintain health and educational services and retail businesses and professional services like everywhere else. If we don’t do that, we’re not going to encourage people to come out here.


Jen: So it’s up to people to keep the bush spirit alive and keep, as you say, “having a crack”?


Ross: Yes, it is. We have the attitude that Bourke is open for business. If someone wants to come here for business purposes, we do what we can to help. We recently had 16 blocks (of land) for sale and we’ve sold them all.

We have a $60million goat abattoir opened last year and that has the potential to generate 200 jobs and many of those employees will come to town from elsewhere.

The future, I think, is relatively bright.

The state government really has to focus on decentralisation, not centralisation, and to understand that while most people live in the cities, we need to maintain critical mass in the bush. Lose that critical mass, you lose the services, you lose the people, you lose the products they contribute to the national economy. Unless that critical mass is maintained, the bush won’t survive.  

NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020. ​​

Click here to order a copy of the 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book.

Editor's note:

Since this interview and the publication of That's the Spirit, Ross has retired with his wife Annette to their property in Mudgee.

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