Call of the Outback by Marianne Van Velzen

untitledJust in time for International Women’s Day…a story about a remarkable woman.

Call of the Outback by Marianne Van Velzen was  published by Allen & Unwin in February.

This is the story of the Australian novelist and journalist, Ernestine Hill. Ernestine Hill wrote stories about the outback which were hugely popular in the 30s and 40s. What made her so singular was that she travelled the outback by herself, hitching rides to isolated campsites and towns to gather her stories, taking hundreds of photos, and meeting an amazing array of characters, living rough if she needed to. Her readers devoured her articles and her books did very well too.

Ernestine was born in 1899 in Queensland. She was noticed even as a child in her early years at school for her unique writing talent. She won awards and had work published even before she was an adult, and this helped assured her of her future work. Ernestine eventually worked for a newspaper which was managed by Robert Clive Packer who founded the Packer newspaper dynasty. Her indomitable spirit and resilience was demonstrated when, even though she ends up having a child to Packer, who was married, she continues with her work, and decides to become a travel writer, writing primarily about the outback. So began the career which saw her meet and befriend people such as Mary Durack, Elizabeth Drake-Brockman, Daisy Bates, Katharine Susannah Prichard and many others. She travelled the outback, sometimes with her son and mother installed in country towns, following up on stories. She was a very unusual  woman for her time, never marrying, and supporting herself and her son.

ernestine hill

Ernestine Hill lived in Perth at various times, although she moved all over Australia, nomad at heart that she was. She was never comfortable staying in one place for very long.  Western Australian readers will find the people and places around Western Australia that are mentioned of particular interest. It is a lost Perth and a lost Western Australia that is described.


I did think the biographer jumped about a little in her book – sometimes there is a throwaway line that merited some previous background, such as that Ernestine’s mental illness had intensified, when there had actually been no great mention of it previously, but all in all it is a great story about a very unique woman who was a trailblazer in more ways than one.

Interesting article at Inside Story here

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