Brendan Sullivan speaks with Bill King, who has retired after more than 30 years travelling the heart of Australia.
When it comes to taking tourists into the Australian Outback, Bill King is truly a pioneer. It all started when he listened to the fascinating Outback stories his father told around the family dinner table.
“Those stories stuck in my mind,” says King. Leaving school early, King worked as a mechanic, driver, panel beater and coach-builder at his father’s fledgling bus company in Glenroy, Victoria.
Things changed when he met John Knox one day in 1968, who introduced him to “selling travel.” It not only increased business, but it would lead King to start his own business—Bill King’s Northern Safaris. “That’s when my dream started to come to life,” he says.
In 1980, he amalgamated with Australian Accommodation and Tours (AAT) and the business became known as AAT Kings. King went on to win the Australian Tourism Award for Excellence in 1984, for tourism marketing excellence in the category of Outstanding Contribution for an Individual. He was also inducted as the first honorary life member of the Australian Tourism Export Council that same year.
In Their Footsteps
Listening to King, you soon discover his genuine love of the Australian Outback and a strong interest in the country’s early explorers. Men like Burke and Wills, Charles Sturt and Harold Bell Lasseter inspired him so much he started chartering tours that retraced their steps.
One of his first was the “21-days Burke and Wills Safari: In Search of Burke and Wills, 1860 Expedition.”
His first small group of passengers travelled deep into the Australian Outback. They left Melbourne, going to places like Tibooburra (a town in the far northwest of New South Wales), the famous Dig Tree (in Cooper Creek, under which Burke died), the Birdsville campsite, Mount Isa and further north to Burketown in Queensland, 3000 kilometres away.
They also saw Kata Tjuta (also known as The Olgas), renowned for their beauty at sunset, and Coober Pedy, believed to be the opal capital of the world—King was beginning to open up the Outback to the world.
King is probably the only person to describe the Land Rover as both a “sturdy little vehicle” and, in the same breath, “the most uncomfortable machine ever devised for the carriage of man.”
Land And Creatures
King marvels at the beauty and attractions of the Australian Outback.
“Inland Australia is a place where one can briefly escape the influences of modern society,” he says. “It is a place with a strange beauty, a place where people can find peace and solitude while still pursuing their spirit of adventure in complete safety.
“Where else can anyone travel on such a large land mass that is free from borders, regulations and bureaucratic influences? Or have the simple pleasures of pulling up on a dry creek bed under a shady coolabah tree, gathering some wood and sharing yarns while cooking your meal?”
So where would King, someone with a lifetime’s worth of experience travelling across Australia, recommend visiting?
Gunlom Falls, in Kakadu National Park—“It’s the most picturesque place in the whole of the Northern Territory. A place where the water comes down off the Arnhem land high country and through its journey, tumbles over a series of small falls before reaching the edge of an escarpment, where a waterfall plunges more than 70 metres to a pool below.”
King also has a love for the Australian wildlife. He is appreciative of the beauty of Australian parrots, and even started one tour called “Seek the Rare Parrot.”
On the expedition, he took people to see the eclectus parrot, one of the most colourful Australian birds, in the Cape York Peninsula, the spectacular displays of the palm cockatoo and our smallest parrot, the fig parrot.
At Coongie Lake, a place in the middle of nowhere, there was “more bird life than I had ever seen before,” King says.
During his long career, King spent many years promoting the Australian Outback overseas. Now, he says, “if it weren’t for overseas visitors, many of the tour operators would not survive.”
King believes that although there are a lot of television documentaries and debates, most Australians do not tend to venture beyond the fringe. In fact, most Australians’ holiday priorities, “are dominated by overseas destinations, even though the presentation and management of Australia’s natural attractions are equal to any in the world.”
Travelling through the Outback has also changed dramatically. In the early days, King jokes, when things went wrong, it was a matter of having not just a Plan B but also a Plan C and even D.
There were many times when the vehicle broke down, and he has lost count of how many times they got bogged. There were sand storms and long waits while mechanical repairs took place. Today, parts can be flown in by air.
To give his passengers a “feel for the country” and to be touched by it, they camped in tents at night and their guide prepared food from simple recipes. There wasn’t any modern-day entertainment like the television; campers simply sat around and talked—exchanged yarns.
Doing To Others
No-one truly understands the vastness of the Outback until they are in it. During one tour, a young passenger’s luggage fell off the vehicle and nobody noticed until the late afternoon. The driver left the group in search of the luggage.
Night had fallen when someone in the group said, “There he is. It won’t be long, I can see his lights.” It was over an hour before the guide arrived back at the camp.
This vastness can be further exemplified by the fact that there is a property at Bowen Downs, Queensland, that measures nearly 2 million acres.
Despite the beauty, King admits that his job driving on the tours could be a very lonely one, which was one of the main reasons he decided to work in the office.
As for his great business success, he attributes it to a rule he’s always tried to follow whenever dealing with his customers: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a verse taken from the Bible (see Matthew 7:12).
“If it wasn’t good enough for me, it wasn’t good enough for our clients,” King says. “I believe that if one conducts oneself with honesty, tolerance and good manners, people will respond.”
The entire time King was in business, he never concerned himself with being the biggest in the industry. Rather, his goal was to become the best.
Now, King says, retirement is a wonderful time. “It enables us to pursue all manner of travel experiences.” He greatly enjoys the freedom to travel now, to see the sheer beauty of Australia, to catch up with old acquaintances and recollect some of the most enjoyable times in his life.”
People say it’s a harsh and beautiful country, but the Australian outback has also provided some memorable experiences for King and his tour group in his 30 years of travel. here are some of King’s highlights:
- Meeting a fellow who opened his fridge door at night when the temperature was below zero to preserve his food, because his fridge didn’t work.
- Gingerly driving past a buffalo called old one horn that “hated vehicles.”
- Camping on the concrete floor of an aban- doned old shed, only to wake up in the middle of the night to find nearly every snake in the area also lying there, sharing the warmth.
- Checking the river’s edge for a potential fishing place, only to notice a one-metre wide crocodile silently lying in the water near the bank.
- Meeting a nomadic Aboriginal tribe who had rarely seen a white person and children as old as 14 from the outback who had never seen rain.
- Having dozens of bandicoots jumping all around camp at night, some even brave enough to jump on and over him as he tried to sleep.
- Seeing the rain fall, transforming what once seemed dead into the most beautiful of sights.
King of the Outback, by Bill King, is published by Allen & Unwin (2012).