Traversing the desert landscape of outback South Australia, Peter Rowe is the only point of connection for some of the most remote towns and stations in the world.
“People are the most important thing in the outback.” While it might seem like a simple aphorism, it’s a way of life for outback mailman Peter Rowe. The weathered postie has covered more kilometres in his time as an Australia Post contractor than most will ever do in their life. Twice a week, Peter packs up his trusty steed – a beloved Toyota Landcruiser – and embarks on a 600-kilometre round trip of the red outback roads.
Peter is a tethering to the 21st century for each community he visits. Online shopping websites might not recognise the Mount Barry Cattle Station, but he does. Click and collect groceries are a farfetched luxury for the 200-odd people that live in Oodnadatta – but Peter is. He is their bearer of good news and bad, birthday cards and birthday cakes, condolences, and condiments.
While someone of Peter’s vintage would normally be looking to retire – his calloused hands give away the wear and tear of 19 years’ worth of parcels passed on – his work for Australia Post is less a job, and more of a calling. “I first went to Coober Pedy in 1967 on the hunt for opals, trying to make a million dollars,” he explains. “I opal mined for 14 years, never made a million dollars.” Not long after Peter assumed the title of outback mail runner. “The mail run is basically a service to the people that live in isolated areas, to save them travelling hundreds and hundreds of kilometres to get something as simple as a packet of Panadol,” Peter says.
This run sees Peter rise before the sun and set out for Mount Barry Cattle Station, a sprawling 500 square kilometre property capable of running several thousand head of cattle. From there he drops in at several other stations – including the largest in the world (Anna Creek Station) and quirky towns, where he is ushered onto porches and over thresholds, embraced as an old friend and familiar face before being served a country staple – tea and scones. It’s these moments that have given a lightness to Peter, each human connection has contributed to the lines of his smile and the twinkle of his kind eyes. “(People) stand out above all else,” he insists. “You could break down and be 200-kilometres from home, but somebody on the radio would hear about you and come and get you and get you out of trouble.”
But it’s not just the people that pose a strong allure for Peter to continue his vital work. There’s an equally strong force that he has had to contend with that has left him with a deep sense of admiration. The desert. “Everywhere has beauty and the desert is no different, you can drive through with your eyes shut and not see it, or you can drive through and take your time and see the desert for what it really is,” he shares.
“The beauty happens when it rains, and the desert blooms. “The flowers come out, the grasses grow, the cattle get fatter – it’s just a magical place to see.” The outback’s reputation for challenging terrain and temperatures could easily have deterred Peter from taking on the mail job – after all, there are easier ways to make a dollar. But while he might not be of the desert, 19 years in servitude and he reckons he has ochre sands in his veins.
“I grew up around the sea, and while I still love the sea, I’ve got to keep coming back to the desert,” he says.