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Millions of Australians are emerging from isolation. For Andrea, it's a permanent way of life.

As Sydney and Canberra emerge from their months-long lockdowns and Melbourne gazes towards the easing of its latest round of restrictions, life in the cities is beginning to return to something resembling 'normal'.

At least some of the hallmarks of pandemic living will soon be left behind. At-home learning for school children. Social isolation. Limited access to shops and services. Incomes snatched away by something far beyond control.

But for those Australians who live in rural areas of this wide, brown country, these things remain a permanent way of life. 

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Andrea McKenzie lives on a 24,300ha station in central Queensland. It's roughly 180 kilometres from Cunnamulla, a town of roughly 1,100 people on the Mitchell Highway.

Andrea, a veterinarian who was raised in the coastal city of Gladstone, met her now-husband, Ben, at university and followed him southwest roughly eight years ago. They now have a nearly two-year-old son, plus another due later this month.

It took Andrea some time to adjust to remote living, to recognise the subtle changes in the landscape that locals lean on day-to-day.

"The tagline 'you can't miss it' always gets added on to directions. But you most definitely can. So there was lots of nearly getting lost," she told Mamamia. "I remember driving out there, for one of the first times and thinking, you know, it's just lots of trees, and that's about it. 

"So for me, it was learning my way around the paddock, learning how to keep my sense of direction — north, south, east, west — when everything looks the same. Learning the different country types."

She's also had to learn to navigate long stretches in which she sees no one, other than whoever is on her property (even their neighbour is an hour's drive away). 

Navigating her new normal, Andrea discovered the ways in which people around her had adapted to meet the challenges of their daily lives. 

One being, as she puts it, constantly 'smelling the roses'.

Andrea is featured in the new book 'Bush' by photographer, Sam Thies. Image: Supplied.

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"Day to day, there's a lot of hard work and a lot of mundane work in farming. But then there are these snippets of just amazing things that you become so appreciative of. Like my husband will come back from a paddock and he's seen plovers hatching, or he's found a puggle," she said.

"That ability to really latch on to the good things and just enjoy them is a big part of the mentality out west and what keeps you going."

Another is resilience.

"So much of what we do and how successful we are is based on the weather, and that's completely out of our control," she said. "So it really forces you to focus on what you can control and put the effort into that and not see it as a failure.

"That's not to say it's not hard. We've just come out of very difficult, dry years. If you talked to me 18 months ago, I probably wouldn't be quite so positive. But even then there were so many amazing people around me who have been through these things before going, 'Yeah, it'll rain, and until then, this is the best that we can be doing.' It's pretty amazing to see people respond like that."

It's precisely the advice those in suburban lockdowns have been handed in countless articles, TV and radio segments. Appreciate the good things, the little things. Accept what you can't control. Swap expectation for hope.

And no wonder, Andrea said.

"I can draw a lot of similarities between lockdown and our day-to-day life. We mostly only socialise with members of our household. We only leave the house for essential purposes — basically work and exercise. And we have to plan groceries ahead of time, and all the rest of it. So especially me, having a little fella, I can get a bit housebound."

The fact that people in urban Australia can suddenly relate, has made things easier in surprising ways.

"If anything, it made people very understanding of my situation. The odd time where my son was in the background of a Skype call or something, everyone was so understanding and so used to it," she laughed.

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Listen: The founder of The Resilience Project shares the three traits and behaviours that are key to resilience. (Article continues below.)


In fact, she notes that the pandemic has meant a number of positive things for communities like hers. Telehealth being accessible on Medicare, for example. And organisations making it easier to work remotely.

"It's been amazing for rural women, in particular, to have had the opportunity to work from home as a result of COVID. It's probably one of the very few benefits. I'm a vet by trade, there's a lawyer next door, there are finance professionals; there are all these really highly qualified people that until recently haven't been able to use their skills in a rural setting because they haven't been able to find flexible work opportunities."

But she acknowledges a key distinction in those two kinds of isolation: choice. 

Her community has been mercifully untouched by the pandemic, so they've been able to engage with each other when possible. There's the local horse racing club. Polocrosse. An arts group. There was a ball a couple of years back. And some people are now trying to get tennis fixtures up and running.

"The psychological impact of not having that choice, and not knowing when that choice will come back to you, [must be really difficult]. We just haven't had to deal with that, which has been very lucky," she said.

After all, community, she said, is a big part of why she and her husband love what they do and where they live.

"It's in tough times that you really lean on each other. And whether that's through social events and getting people out of their place, or just talking to other people, having a laugh and remembering that we're all in the same crappy boat," she said.

"Just finding ways to keep that connectedness and perspective on what the bigger picture is, and what really matters at the end of the day."

As the southeastern states begin to gather together again, and as divisions over borders and public health measures seem to deepen, perhaps that's the next lesson we city folk need to learn.


More of a glimpse into Andrea's life, as well as those of other outback Australians, can be found in ‘Bush’ — a new book by photographer Sam Thies. 'Bush' offers a collection of conversations and photographs that bring regional Australian lives front and centre, sharing their stories of community connection, mutual respect and shared purpose. 


Feature image: Supplied/Sam Thies.

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