A bundle of energy, Helen Kempe is a dynamo in her Tennant Creek community. 

Story and photos Kerry Sharp

The six bags of mulch and overgrown lawn at Helen Kempe’s Tennant Creek house will have to wait a bit longer. It’s Saturday morning, the sun’s up over the Barkly and Helen and her local Country Women’s Association (CWA) cohorts have a market stall to set up in the town’s main street. Once finished with that, Helen is heading down the Stuart Highway on a five-hour trip to take photos and record-keep at the Harts Range campdraft.  

Since becoming a station governess on the Northern Territory’s Barkly Tablelands 50 years ago, Helen has thrown her heart and soul into this life on the flat cattle country and the historic goldmining town she calls home. Her young station pupils called her ‘Miss Helen’ and the tag still sticks today for this once-shy South Australian bush girl who’s evolved into a much-loved Barkly community champion. Everyone who knows Helen talks of her generous spirit, warm empathy for bush people, and willingness to step up when things need doing. Not surprisingly, she’s been honoured with a raft of awards for her community, bush-racing and work efforts.

When the happy-go-lucky 67 year old with a passion for photography isn’t clicking away at a bronco-branding event or Barkly women’s get-together, she’s manning an Anzac Day sausage sizzle, picking up jackaroos who’ve bussed in for a town appointment, or helping promote a special event – like September’s big church dinner to honour Mother Teresa, who visited Tennant Creek in 1985. 

Helen manages to maintain her whirlwind voluntary agenda in between working a full-time job as the NT Primary Industry and Resources Department’s Barkly branch executive officer. Her office is a popular social hub for station people visiting town to shop, do business or keep appointments. “They drop in for a cuppa and chat, and Miss Helen’s always there to boil the kettle, hand out the biscuits and look after them in her typical warm and welcoming way,” her former boss, retired Barkly regional director and Queensland cattle farmer Jack Peart says. “She’s such a wonderful person, with a tremendous ability to genuinely care about people, and what she does for those on the Barkly is astounding.” 

Jack calls Helen ‘The Voice of the Barkly’. “For many years, she’s been the conduit for relaying vital messages to stations across the region and beyond. Nothing goes on out there that she doesn’t know or hear about.” 

This story excerpt is from Issue #115

Outback Magazine: October/November 2017