Busy adventurer now living the dream
By Ieva Tomsons
BEFORE dropping anchor in Toodyay in 2012, Helen Shanks fished the Singapore Strait, immersed her family in remote Aboriginal communities and worked as a senior executive writing ministerial submissions.
For a kid who grew up on a wheat and sheep farm in Lake King she has packed a swag of vastly different experiences into her life.
“My father was progressive and taught his daughters to drive tractors, trap rabbits and take a lead in decision making.”
Helen Shanks at home in her Toodyay permaculture garden.Read more
In the early ’70s Helen’s family moved to an isolated pastoral lease near Onslow in the Pilbara where Helen became fascinated by the Aboriginal families her father had encouraged to return to their land.
“Going with the families to catch eels in the creeks and dig reeds is something we did.”
She won a scholarship to Methodist Ladies College in Claremont but the strict boarding house regime didn’t suit Helen and she returned to Onslow to work for the Shire of Ashburton as shire clerk secretary, switchboard operator and tourism officer.
“They were my wild fun-filled hippy days with weekends on a friend’s prawn trawler or exploring our bush and creek surroundings catching mud crabs.”
By now Helen had met her future husband Les and they pooled resources with another couple to sail to Bali, buying bars of silver to trade which they hid in the oily sludge of the trawler’s bottom bilge tank in case they were ambushed by pirates.
“Back in the day you didn’t need all the necessary papers to get into Bali, all you needed were a few gifts.”
While the friends prepared the boat for commercial fishing in Singapore they lived in a traditional village in Seminyak enjoying the cultural experience of Balinese ceremonies and dodging a cholera outbreak in a neighbouring area.
Dirty fuel caused motor problems halfway to Singapore and “we limped into the very remote island of Bangka” to make repairs.
Sailing during the monsoon season when the swells are eight storeys high was no picnic but had the bonus that fewer pirates who preyed on Vietnamese asylum-seeker boats would be operating in the Java Sea.
After a month at sea the couples decided to take a break from boat life and lived above a brothel in Bugis Street in Singapore’s red-light district where local restaurant owners would give them discounts to sit outside to attract tourists.
They fished the Singapore Strait for a few months and once scooped up a fishing boat in the trawler’s boom.
“We were the only ones operating with lights and you couldn’t see the small wooden boats. It took us a few hours to untangle everything but no-one was hurt.”
Helen was pregnant with their first child and they returned to live in Carnarvon, got married and had another two children in quick succession.
Les obtained his skipper’s ticket and continued working in the prawning industry while Helen discovered her enduring passion for permaculture while raising their kids as sustainably as possible.
In the mid-1980s Helen accepted an administrative job with the Aboriginal Medical Service in Roebourne which was still reeling from local Aboriginal man John Pat’s death in 1983 which sparked a WA Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
“All our kids went to the local school and there was an incredible sense of community.”
It was in Roebourne where she drew the blueprint of her ideal permaculture garden and started studying herbal medicine by correspondence.
“Wherever we went, I grew vegies.”
After a few years in Roebourne Les landed a job skippering pearling maintenance boats north of Broome at Cygnet Bay where the kids attended a 12-student school built from sandbags at the high tide mark.
The family lived in a bush camp and Helen worked as a remote weather observer for the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) collecting data.
On April Fools’ Day in 1989 she submitted a report forecasting “snow and blizzards” for the Cygnet Bay area.
“It must have caused a blip on BOM’s records but no-one got back to me on that one,” laughs Helen who said she seemed to be “forever moving pythons from their house yard and warning the kids to camp well away from the shore to avoid crocodiles”.
In the early 90s the family moved 800km inland to the Pilbara’s Little Sandy Desert where they spent seven years living with Martu people in Punmu and Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, and later at Irrungadji near Nullagine.
“As coordinator I was involved with managing community matters and liaising with all levels of government and we established large community vegetable gardens as part of the communities’ employment programs.”
The remote location and lack of a regular medical service resulted in Helen and Les learning how to stitch large wounds, administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and, on one occasion, use radio instructions from the Royal Flying Doctor Service to deliver a premature baby.
“I witnessed a traditional medicine man healing people and it was a real privilege experiencing Martu culture and travelling with the mob to desert cultural events.”
Before leaving Nullagine, Helen was elected to the East Pilbara Shire Council where she lobbied to get Martu representation on council. It was the start of her “dabbling in politics”.
The kids were in boarding school in Perth for their high school years when Helen and Les amicably parted ways.
Helen headed to the “big smoke” of Port Hedland where she met her current partner Bob Neville while working on a project supporting disadvantaged youth.
During short-term contracts with South Hedland Aboriginal Medical Service Helen learnt the ropes of developing policy and strategy and conducted a ‘drink driver/drunk walker’ education program.
In 2000 Helen’s contribution to the North West was recognised and she was awarded the Commonwealth Centenary Medal accompanied by a letter from the Queen.
Her interest and experience at a grassroots level of Aboriginal affairs and growing understanding of government led to Helen’s appointment in 2005 as Pilbara Director for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) where she dealt with the Aboriginal Lands Trust, heritage matters and community issues.
Helen also started writing ministerial briefings and critical reports, including one on the incorporation of Aboriginal reserves into local communities which became State Government policy in 2016 and is still being implemented today.
Before retiring a few years ago she was overseeing the six DAA regional offices before transferring to the Department of Premier and Cabinet where she helped set up the Aboriginal Policy Unit.
Helen may have officially retired but since moving to Toodyay she has become a director of the Wheatbelt Natural Resource Management board, helped found the Toodyay Farmers Market, coordinated the production of promotional tourism videos for the local chamber of commerce and volunteers support for various Noongar Kaartdijin Aboriginal Corporation projects.
“After many years in Aboriginal affairs it feels like I can give back and this is the best-governed community group I’ve ever experienced.”
Helen (63) is living her permaculture dream and continues to study herbal medicine.
“Every job is the next step of where I am meant to be and I feel I’ve come full circle.”