Mike Willesee: Five places that changed my life


My first three visits were during wartime, but I also visited Hanoi 17 years later and got to see peaceful Vietnam. I loved the friendliness of the people, the beautiful countryside. There were little roadside stalls which served only one dish and had kindergarten stools out front. Once you sat it was effectively a contract: I have ordered your dish. Delightful.


Growing up in Perth, we sometimes went south for holidays to Safety Bay. People had built illegal fisherman's shacks on the beach which you'd rent cheaply. I loved the village atmosphere and camaraderie. One day I was playing with matches in the dry grass and it took off, threatening the village. Men came out of the woodwork, using wet hessian sacks to fight the fire. The only source of water was a hand pump which I was tasked with pumping. My little arm was nearly falling off, but the guilt kept me going. Once the fire was out a party began. It was a wonderful feeling of community and a lesson at how amazingly people come together when they have a common goal.


It is fabulous to get out of your comfort zone in the city where you have everything you "need" and into the bush up north. My kids came alive. We camped several times with an Aboriginal clan just east of Katherine; after driving through rugged, hot country, bouncing over sharp rocks and getting flat tyres, you came to a beautiful waterhole with a white beach and waterfall. The Aboriginal women caught turtles and threw them on the fire, my girls swam with freshwater crocodiles, and we slept on the beach. Magic.


When we started going to Bali in the '70s we'd stay at a place called Tandjung Sari, in Sanur. When you arrived you could smell the place - frangipani, incense, clove cigarettes, rubbish fires. At night the gamelan would start up. The little girls selling shell necklaces on the beach took our girls under their wings, so we'd let them roam around on their own. One time we came out and couldn't find them - it turned out the mother of one of the girls was braiding their hair. We tried to pay her but they became embarrassed: "No money, no money. They are beautiful. We love them."


I was intrigued to discover there were still tribes living the old ways, untouched by our so-called civilisation, so I filmed a series of docos and began in South Sudan. It had been in civil war for years so the living conditions were harsh and at times we felt threatened. We were filming a tribe called the Dinka, who were the tallest men in the world, when a group surrounded me and started playing with my skin and the hair on my arms. I was defensive and embarrassed. Then one of them spoke and all these giants fell to the ground laughing. My interpreter translated: "This man has never worked in his life." I started to relax. They wanted to feed me and I knew I had to drop my guard; stop being defensive and open up.

Memoirs by Mike Willesee is published by Macmillan Australia; RRP $44.99. See panmacmillan.com.au