Owner and operator of Willis’s Walkabouts, Russell Willis has been talking bushwalkers out into some of Australia’s most remote wilderness since the mid 80s. As such, he is extremely familiar with places such as the Kimberley, Kakadu and many other of Australia’s iconic landscapes.
While he remains robust of mind and body despite his age, yet Willis has indicated that the time he spends administering his business from behind a desk is begin to wear on him. As he begins to consider how he can retire from paperwork and spend more time in the field, Wild took the opportunity to ask him about his life spent in the outdoors.
The following is an edited transcript of that interview, first published in Wild‘s 151st issue.
Can you tell us about one of your early wilderness walking experiences?
It was in New Zealand. I was based just outside of Wellington and actually I can’t recall what little walk my walking club took me on first, but I can remember my first solo walk in New Zealand. I have still got a newspaper clipping that reads “American lost on Egmont”. I wasn’t lost; I knew exactly where I was. And I knew how the weather was, and I wasn’t going outside that hut, thank you.
They were worried about you?
Well, they’d found the rental car I’d hired, and it was sitting in the parking lot for a couple of days. I’d found a hut with a sign, which read, “in case of emergency, break glass”. I waited up there and I kept thinking, “It might clear at the top, so I could continue my walk”. I was at a place called Phantom’s Peak. The hut had huge steel beams stuck into the side of the mountain to hold it down, but it was still shaking to the point where I wouldn’t sleep on the top bunk. Before the storm really hit, I’d started back down and the wind just picked me up… If it had dropped me down I would have kept going down, but it dropped me more on the uphill side of the wind tunnel. I scrambled back up and waited two days until the weather changed.
How did Willis’s Walkabouts come about?
I was teaching at a high school in Darwin and there was an ad in the NT News in June ‘74 saying, ‘anybody was interested in starting a bushwalking club, come to a meeting’. It was a lunchtime meeting, but I had a spare lesson, so I went in, and was involved in setting up the Darwin Bushwalking Club. I was a very, very active for the first six years and then I took a year off to go travelling, before returning and becoming president again for a while.
Some bits of being a teacher weren’t very interesting, but I’d had a great time taking kids bushwalking. One day I just had the idea: ‘I wonder if I could make a living out of that?’
I put a little ad in the Weekend Australian, and I got two clients for two wet season trips, one on each – in 1984. I had some friends who made up the numbers. So my first commercial walk was in the wet. A year later, because the NT Education Department has a four-week school holiday in the middle of the dry season, I tried that but didn’t get a customer. I thought about it more, and at the end of ‘85, I put a little ad in Wild Magazine. I’d also taken some long-service leave at half pay, bought myself a proper four-wheel-drive, and lo and behold, there were more customers.
How do you go about recruiting tour leaders?
Mostly they find me. At least three are former clients. Two, one of whom may eventually take the business over, are locals. She’s about to take a year off to go travelling with her husband and family but is hoping to come back after they’ve been travelling for six months. One of the blokes who did a couple of trips for me years ago now has started his own business in Queensland.
What has been your favourite walk in the Top End?
There is no walk that I would like to do over and over and over again. Any walk that I list in my program is one that I’d like to do at least sometimes. If I had to pick, there’s this place called Dinner Creek in southern Kakadu where I had my single most memorable moment ever on a bushwalk. I refuse to tell people exactly what it was except it was a geological feature that was unexpected.
But for an experience of about a week, there’s an area called Graveside or Bilkbilkmi. You need a permit just to drive in, and there’s no point in driving in unless you’re going to go for a walk, because the old waterhole where people used to camp is inhabited by large reptiles. But if you go walking into these other gorges, it’s just a beautiful, leisurely walk. I’d set up a base camp for a couple of nights, explore two gorges all day in the shade and do lots of swimming in spring-fed creeks.
What has been your favourite walk overseas?
There’s a two-day walk called the Harkerville Track in the Western Cape province of South Africa. There’s the famous Otter Trail, which is always heavily booked out. The Harkerville is just as spectacular, and in some ways more so – it‘s shorter, you’ve got a nice hut at the halfway point so you don’t have to carry a tent. But you do have to do things like hang off chains as you scramble around with sea waves breaking underneath you. It’s just spectacular.
What is the main difference with organising overseas walks?
I hate to say it, but it’s getting easier to organise walks overseas than in Australia. I could harp on about the nanny state. There’s too many things that, “Oh, that’s dangerous, you can’t do it.” Or you’ve got to fill out your 32nd form.
You’ve been quoted as saying that mental fitness is more important than physical fitness – how has that played out on the walks you’ve led?
I think the ultimate example was in the early 1990s. I had a wet season trip in Kakadu, divided into a number of sections. A 29-year-old athlete from Melbourne was one of the people who signed up. There was also an English couple in their 60s who’d just come straight out of an English winter. In terms of fitness, the Melbourne guy had it – far, far fitter. But at the end of the first section, he was the one who left because he couldn’t take it anymore. The 60-year-olds were quite happy – it was a mental thing. The Melbourne bloke expected something else. It was more challenging being out there away from everything. These days, of course, the challenge is being offline and disconnected.
What has changed most over your 30 years of walking in Kakadu?
Environmental changes, most of which are for the worst. Parks and Wildlife has never had the resources to properly manage it and many don’t see the biggest changes because the most sensitive animals are all nocturnal, but the small mammals have been in decline for at least 20 years. All the studies say they’ve been going down. Northern cypress, Callitris intratropica, I’ve watched that disappearing from too much burning. I actually get very excited when I find, say, a one-and-a-half to two-metre-tall tree because they’re so rare. That’s through almost everywhere in the north – too much burning; it’s too easy to get fires going. Then of course there’s the cane toads. They’ve had a massive impact. Some things are starting to recover, which I’ve been really pleased to see. When the cane toads first hit, the water monitors pretty nearly disappeared. We’re starting to see them coming back.
Freshwater crocs started disappearing in the high country long before the cane toads got there. When I first started walking in the ‘70s we’d see them very often and then mostly they disappeared. Not all, but the numbers declined… you just didn’t see them anymore, except on rare occasions.
How has the giving the land back to the Aboriginal people and getting them involved in park management worked out?
Kakadu, as an example, has always been managed by traditional owners, whereas other areas are being given back for traditional management. There is a culture thing there – and it’s kind of hard to argue with culture – but if an accident happens on Aboriginal land the traditional owners are somehow at fault, no matter how stupid somebody has been. I had heard that many times, but didn’t grasp it until a very senior person came to the tourism committee I sit on, to talk about a man who had possibly drowned after having a heart attack at Jim Jim. The dead man was somebody he’d never met, didn’t know, but he died on his land. And the incredible distress, I mean, we can’t relate to it, but in some cases that results in areas getting closed.
There was an area at the top of Twin Falls we used to have a wonderful time going down to different levels, watching parents and kids going down there. And the tour operators got a hold of it, and then they got worried about scaffolding and worried about safety and they made some rules. And you had to do A, B, C, D, if you wanted to take your tour group down there. And I think all but one organization was found not doing what they should have been doing; so it got closed, which is sad, because it’s a fantastic area. Somebody had been killed by playing around too near the edge. Then again, you could probably get killed playing around up near the top, too.
In your last newsletter you announced you were heading for a ‘grand finale’. What’s involved in the grand finale?
It involves getting me out of the office. If I can get somebody to do more of the office work then the business may continue in a very similar way. It is not big enough to support a full-time office resource, but I’m finding that I’m coping fine with the bushwalks, but I’m just not coping with the office work – I don’t like the sitting there and doing all the paperwork.
So I’m just going to pick the trips I most want to do. I have started giving the other guys even more responsibility. I’m going to be rewriting the program; I’m not sure quite how. I know that there’re trips all over the world I want to do, and I’m going to spend the next two years doing them. Some of the trips I desperately want to do are in the Top End and Centre.
How would you sum up your experiences?
It’s been a wonderful 30 years and I hope that I’m still going in some form in another 10. Or if I can emulate the man who I learned about only from his obituary, maybe I can still be going in another 25. He was a mountain guide in Switzerland and he’d led his last trip as a guide at the age of 95. So that’s something to aim for.