Most people are lured to the Pilbara for the opportunity to work hard and earn big. Judy Knowling, however, was drawn to the remote North West in a very different way.
Tiny-framed but enormously energetic, Judy came to the Pilbara nine years ago as a Frontier Services Patrol Minister to provide a source of practical and emotional support for the people who lived there.
During this time, Judy has literally clocked up hundreds of thousands of kilometres traversing the rugged desert country of the Pilbara. She has spent much of her time simply listening to people who face the daily challenges of isolation, providing a reassuring presence and a depth of care and commitment that has helped many families and communities hold it together.
Judy is just about to say goodbye to the Pilbara after nine years in this role, but her impact on the region will linger for many years to come.
Incidentally, when Judy first arrived in the Pilbara, she had no experience of the outback at all.
“I was a city girl,” she says. “I’d never driven a four-wheel-drive or experienced living in a remote area.”
However, it didn’t take her long to fall in love with the Pilbara’s ancient landscape. “It is stunning. The red desert colours are wonderful. When the rains come through, everything is a beautiful green.”
Equally, Judy has become accustomed to the harsh side of the Pilbara environment, from the extreme heat to fierce cyclones, earning enormous respect for those who stay. “The people are incredibly resilient and flexible,” she says.
Judy is based out of Tom Price, a 5000-strong mining town, 1500km north of Perth. She has become a part of the fabric of the community and her four-wheel-drive has been a regular sight across the whole of the Pilbara as she has built relationships across the region.
Her impact has been wide and varied, from working as a chaplain at a fly-in, fly out camp, to getting involved with the local neighbourhood centre, to performing a blessing for one of the area’s major roads.
She has attended camps for the School of the Air and was Treasurer of the Pilbara Branch of the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association for five years.
Cindy Parsons, who lives on a remote cattle station two hours from Tom Price, describes Judy as “a fantastic support to us all”.
“Nothing is too much trouble for Judy. It is a great comfort to know we have someone we can talk to whenever we need to,” Cindy says.
One of the most rewarding and yet difficult parts of her job has been supporting families through harder times. For many families struck by cyclone and flood, Judy has been one of the first to come and visit.
“It is about spending a day with them, cleaning saddles or doing the gardening; just being there as a support to let them know they are not alone.”
Looking back, Judy is enormously grateful for her time in the Pilbara. “It has been one of those amazing opportunities that came my way,” she says. “It is a huge privilege to be welcomed into people’s homes and lives to share some of their journey.”