Outback MagazineOutback Magazine



A life going bush

Story Sue Neales Photos Bruce Postle

Rex Ellis is ecstatic and it's easy to see why. His little riverboat, the flat-bottomed, open-sided Water Rat, is nestled in the reeds alongside Toolunka Island on the Murray River, while a campfire is blazing brightly and the billy is boiling. But Rex's enthusiasm has a more lofty cause than even this idyllic river setting. In the tall red gums overhead, he glimpses the delicate rosy underside of a Major Mitchell cockatoo just as it stretches its white wings and screeches its raucous cry over the twilight sky.

For the wiry, almost leprechaun-like, bushman with big glasses and broad-brimmed hat, it is a sighting that turns the cool overcast day on the Murray between Morgan and Waikerie into a special treat. Birds are one of Rex Ellis's many passions - along with deserts, the Murray River, camels, Australian flora, his family, outback rivers and his little Jack Russell shadow, 'Stubbie' - and this is the furthest downstream that Rex has ever seen a Major Mitchell cockatoo.

It is a fitting way to start an evening around the campfire yarning about Rex's exploits and adventures - intrepid journeys of exploration by the bushman and naturalist many call the founder of Australia's outback safari industry. Rex won't have a bar of that crown; instead crediting Jeff Findley of the Flinders Ranges' Back o' Beyond Tours with starting safari travel in the early 1960s. He does acknowledge that his forays across almost every patch of outback Australia by old Toyota, camel, Oka, raft and on foot since 1965, may have "broadened the safari concept just a little".

But for hundreds of travellers - from former prime ministers, judges, and corporate chiefs to biologists, ornithologists, writers and artists - who have accompanied Rex on his small-group expeditions, his accomplishments have never been in doubt. If Rex, now 61, had been born a century earlier he would undoubtedly have been called an explorer. Certainly, his camel expeditions across the Great Sandy, Gibson and Great Victoria deserts, taking routes no white man had traversed before, echo with the great names of Australia's inland exploration - Giles, Warburton, Stuart, Gregory, Sturt and Leichhardt.

Rex's other achievements include leading the successful expedition by the South Australian Museum in 1979 to find the rare, possibly extinct, night parrot around Cooper Creek, organising the first commercial tourist crossing of the Simpson Desert by 4WD in 1971, and leading the first group down the flooded Diamantina River by boat and across Lake Eyre in the amazing inland flood year of 1974. Then there's the four engagingly-written books Rex has penned about his life, camel adventures, bush humour and outback characters, and the close family life he has always enjoyed with his unflappable wife Patti and their now-adult two daughters Kate and Georgi (named after his favourite outback river, the Georgina), who have shared in many of Rex's exploits and outback adventures.

There's also the outlandish side to irrepressible Rex Ellis: he owned the Birdsville pub for six years after picking it up in a bush deal; he helped then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser take a bath in an outback bore tank; and as a young jackaroo was saved from death on Lake Everard Station by a bronzewing pigeon, flying as it always does unerringly towards water.

But before Rex tells any more of his rip-roaring stories over kangaroo steaks and tin mugs of red wine around his island campfire, he wants to get a few things straight. First is to make sure no-one thinks he is some sort of fake Crocodile Dundee character, too busy making a noise and chasing media hype while blundering and crashing around the bush to really appreciate its magic and beauty.

"I'm a bit wary of the term 'adventurer'," says Rex, somewhat shyly. "If you must call me something, describe me as a bushman; even a wiry little bushman. 'Adventurer' doesn't sit well with me. It implies a bit of the gung-ho, yahoo approach to the land and that's not what I'm like. You can't be a yahoo if you've been in the safari business for 39 years. I like an adrenalin rush and spontaneity as much as the next person, but what my trips are most about is not leaving an offending mark on the country. You can still have adventure, but you don't have to destroy the country."

It's a maxim that has driven Rex Ellis all of his life, from a childhood spent around McLaren Vale in South Australia obsessed with birdwatching, fishing, camping and trapping rabbits to the decision to go jackarooing in the northern SA desert after leaving school at 16 because of his fascination with parrots. "Then I grew interested in all birds, then botany, and then it all became tangled up with being out on pastoral stations and meeting station people, Aboriginal communities, loving the life and being up against the desert all the time," he explains. "I was always going out to the desert to look for rockholes, because in the desert wherever there is water, there will be other things. That's when the idea for safaris came up, and I decided I had to give it a go."

Rex's first 4WD safaris in 1967 were across the Nullarbor, down to the edge of the Bight and up through the Great Victoria Desert, where he had established a base camp (a tin shanty with a water tank) at a shady grove of marble gums known as Coolgubbin, that he had found while fencing in the area with the local Campbell brothers. Graeme Campbell, who went on to become the outspoken federal member for Kalgoorlie (which covers most of outback WA) describes his old friend as a "rough diamond" and a "contemporary explorer" with a great knowledge of the land and all matters zoological and botanical. "Rex lives by the bush tradition, and will never let a mate down, " writes Campbell in the introduction to Rex's book, Outback by Camel.

His many customers can vouch that Rex is a great man to have around in a tricky situation. Whether a camel is stuck in a gluggy saltpan, a vehicle is bogged on a giant sandhill, a party is running out of fuel or water, or guests are marooned on the wrong side of rising floodwaters, Rex can always find a solution. "A lot of people think they run safaris, but they don't; there is a real difference between so-called adventure tours that depart at 9am each day and a real safari trip," says Rex, explaining that the true meaning of the Swahili word is 'to travel in the inland.' Story end

Bush Safari Company
Phone (08) 8543 2280 fax (08) 8543 2290.
Email RexEllis@safarico.com.au or visit www.safarico.com.au

Full story: OUTBACK, Aug/Sept 2003

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