The Kimberley wilderness couple, 30 years on

Susan and Mike Cusack in 1987 at Kunmunya - Aurora Expeditions
Photo of Gemma Nisbet

In the late 1980s, Mike and Susan Cusack spent a year living in isolation in WA's remote North West. Three decades later, the adventure continues to resonate. 

“Imagine spending a full range of seasons either on the north-east coast of Cape York or the rugged Kimberley coast; perhaps the magnificent south-west of Tasmania or a remote island somewhere around Australia.”

So suggested a short article published in the October 1986 edition of Australian Geographic magazine, which called for “a couple who would like to have the experience of their lives by spending a year, virtually isolated, in one of Australia’s wild places”.

And so began the adventure of a lifetime for Victorian couple Mike and Susan Cusack, who were chosen from more than 500 applications to spend a year living in isolation at the site of the abandoned Kunmunya Mission in the remote Kimberley.

The concept was the brainchild of Dick Smith, the founder and then-publisher of Australian Geographic, who’d come across the mission while researching Charles Kingsford Smith, who had made an emergency landing in the area in 1929 en route from Sydney to England.

“So in the process of researching that aviation history he found out about the mission and thought, ‘Oh, this would be a good place to drop a couple of poor unsuspecting people’,” Mike jokes over the phone from Victoria. 

In his preface to Our Year in the Wilderness, the book that the Cusacks wrote about their experience, Smith wrote that he knew “very well” that the year at Kunmunya “would be a genuine test of any wilderness couple”.

What he didn’t know was that Susan and Mike were keeping a secret from him: though they’d been married for 14 years, they’d been living apart for the previous four. Indeed, it was Susan’s sister Bronwyn who’d seen the article and suggested it could be not only a great adventure but a chance at reconciliation.

The Cusacks arrived at Kunmunya in mid-1987. In the end, their biggest challenge was one that neither they nor Smith could have anticipated.

“It ended up being the driest year for 30 years,” Mike says. “It’s an area that has an annual rainfall of around 1200mm but the previous couple of years there hadn’t been too much at all — we got 16 inches of rain (about 400mm), and half of that was pretty much in one go. So it was a bit dry, and that obviously had its consequences.” 

There were the difficulties in finding and carting water, as well as the physical and mental effects of dehydration. Then there was a bushfire, and the sapping tropical heat and humidity, and the sheer physical slog of survival — not to mention the snakes, the feral cattle and donkeys, the saltwater crocodiles and, worst of all, the flies. 

However, as Mike puts it, “hope springs eternal”. And there were upsides, too: the waterfalls that appeared after the rain, the characterful “ta-ta” lizards and tree frogs that made the camp their home, the couple’s growing understanding of the landscape, the chance to explore the Kimberley coast in their small boat, and their friendships with the few visitors they did receive, including a memorable encounter with an elderly Worora woman who had grown up at the mission.

“As far as we were concerned, there was no suggestion of giving up,” Mike says. “I think at one stage, Australian Geographic asked if we wanted to be relocated, but to me that defeated the purpose of it.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Cusacks’ year in the wilderness, and it seems to be the positives that have lingered longest in Mike’s memory.

“The one thing that stuck with me was the insignificance of us as two people out there,” he reflects. “You have to be extremely arrogant to think you can take on the Kimberley and win, so it’s a matter of accepting that you are this small part of a great whole, and that was very liberating because you couldn’t help but feel humbled by the power of the landscape itself.

“Particularly coming across the indications of the original settlers, the Worora people, who’ve lived up there for tens of thousands of years. That was quite magical, coming across the paintings and things of that nature. And nature itself — just being there and having all this natural world play out around you, almost completely oblivious at your presence.”

The Kimberley has continued to exercise a strong pull. Alongside a long career with Parks Victoria, Mike has made the journey north each season for nearly 20 years to join Aurora Expeditions’ Kimberley coastal cruises as an expedition leader. 

He’s seen many changes in the time, but says the region’s remoteness and isolation, along with the “almost austere beauty”, continue to resonate.

“I’ve been going back there each year for 20 years and even though we do virtually the same voyage and destinations each time, each time is different,” he says. “It has not lost its excitement at all.”

This season — Mike’s 18th with Aurora — will comprise four voyages between Broome and Darwin. Each will include Mike’s presentation on the year in the wilderness, as well as a guided walk inland to Kunmunya, where a few elements of the simple home the couple built remain, alongside the ruins of the mission.

“For a number of our passengers it’s a highlight,” he says of the latter, “actually getting out and walking in the Kimberley.” 

There are also plans for Susan to join Mike on one of the voyages, along with her sister Bronwyn and the couple’s two sons. They’re still married, Mike confirms — so you might say that as far as marriage counselling goes, the year in the wilderness was unconventional but effective.

“It worked,” Mike says. “A pretty radical bit of therapy, but there you go.”

Picture at top: Susan and Mike Cusack at Kunmunya in 1987.

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