Russell Osborne found the perfect outlet for his restlessness and altruism when he and fiancee Ros Consoli walked across australia with a team of camels.
Story By Nick Cook
CRACK! The air shudders with the sonic boom of a lightning bolt that splits the sky, terrifyingly close. Eight startled camels unfold gangly limbs and scramble to their feet, eyes rolling wildly in fear. Mountains of flesh beneath a shagpile carpet hide, they dwarf the people who had been frantically unloading them in an effort to escape the storm.
Everybody darts backwards, away from feet as round and flat as saucepans that slam into the sodden earth. Only one man stands his ground. Oblivious to the stinging hail and torrential rain that has plastered the clothes to his skin, Russell Osborne lifts his arms and calls to the frightened beasts in a voice that is both commanding yet soothing. Incredibly, they listen, one by one sinking back to their bellies in the mud. It’s an impressive display, though no surprise considering Russell and his fiancée Ros Consoli have walked beside these animals every step of the way from Katherine in the Northern Territory – more than 6000 kilometres away.
The rain puts an end to the day’s walking, after eight kilometres instead of the usual 20 or more. They’d known when they set out that the weather forecast was not promising but decided to risk it. Their eagerness to keep moving wasn’t just because they’re merely days away from the end of their two-year journey at Kilmore, Vic, nor that they wanted to leave their makeshift camp alongside the busy Hume Highway. There’s a natural restlessness to Russell that makes him uncomfortable with sitting still. It was evident the previous night when he sprawled across his swag, repeatedly shifting from one position to another and plucking blades of grass as he spoke, as well as in his circuitous career path.
Russell was born and raised in Melbourne, but his heart was always elsewhere. “I spent a lot of time on farms up around Shepparton way,” he says. “I just wanted to be out bush. Even as a kid I’d come down the old Hume Highway and see Melbourne and all I’d want to do is turn back.” He got the first clue of the direction he would take when his mother took him to a museum where he first saw Aboriginal art. “I thought, who are these people? Who drew this? Throughout my teenage years nobody could teach me anything other than that before Captain Cook the Aboriginal people lived in tribes throughout Australia. That’s when I decided to become a teacher and go live in Arnhem Land.”
He headed to the Northern Territory, during only his second year of teaching, and quickly found that he thrived in the outback. However, he didn’t settle down.
Russell’s approach to life seems to be that maintaining forward momentum is the most important thing. He once turned down a teaching job on a remote Northern Territory island because it was “too beautiful” and he knew he wouldn’t have left. “There’s just too much in the world to do and see to get stuck in one place,” he says. Instead he went home to his family in Melbourne, working at a department store, then spent two years teaching in Indonesia before moving back to the Northern Territory where he became a tourism subcontractor. Now, in his 40s, he’s still pushing forward and has no intention of going back to his old life in the north. Rather, he and Ros have bought a property near Streaky Bay, SA, where they and the camels will base themselves once the trek is over.
The defining moment of Russell’s life came 13 years ago, when his mother died unexpectedly. At her funeral there were hundreds of people he didn’t know, who turned out to be from Melbourne Children’s Hospital where she had done voluntary work. “I realised then that I didn’t really know my mother,” he says. It was a thought that played on his mind over the following weeks as he fell into a depression so severe he stopped leaving the house altogether. The remedy came when he unexpectedly found the purpose that has driven him ever since. “I was sitting at the dinner table one night with my flatmate and I just said, ‘I know what I’m doing. I’m going to walk across Australia for a charity that helps kids’.”
The charity he settled on was the Children First Foundation, which occupies an unassuming terrace house in North Melbourne. On one wall of CEO Marg Smith’s office is a world map decorated with colourful pins – stretched from East Timor to Ireland – that mark the homes of children who’ve received life-changing operations, while on the other are pictures of the children themselves. With obvious, almost grandmotherly affection she recounts their stories, among which are an Albanian girl whose face was eaten by a pig, a Somalian boy whose fingers were fused together when he fell into a fire and an Iraqi boy who suffered birth defects, was given two prosthetic legs and is now in the training squad for the Paralympics. In pride of place behind her desk is a picture of the Bangladeshi conjoined twins, Trishna and Krishna, who beat incredible odds when they were successfully separated at the children’s hospital late last year.
“When Russell first called I couldn’t believe somebody was thinking of walking all that way, but he kept touching base with us until I realised he was actually going to do it,” she says, attributing much of his success to his quiet determination and what she calls his beautiful soul. “He’s got a lovely manner about him and is very easy to deal with. Many people just couldn’t do enough to help him.” So impressed is the foundation that it has invited Russell and Ros to be its official ambassadors.
This story excerpt is from Issue #69
Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2010