In Suzy & The Simple Man, you see another side of Jon Muir to that of intrepid walker, mountaineer and sailor but you can discover this for yourself when you see the film… And maybe it was just the mood I was in when we talked on the phone for this interview, but he made me laugh. A lot. I wasn’t expecting that. Jon’s not like anyone else. Watching him, on screen, trek across four deserts with his Jack Russell terrier Seraphine, in Alone Across Australia (a film he made with Ian Darling in 2004) left me understanding, immediately, how quickly I’d die out there. Probably on the second day. The guy knows things.
SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen the film, you might want to hold off until you have before reading this interview and Suzy’s.
PJB: When did you know that you wanted to be an adventurer?
JM: I’ve forgotten. I’m a simple man.
PJB: OK then, when did you have your first adventure? Help me out here, Jon, cast your mind back….
JM: Children play, with boys in particular it’s rough and tumble…we come from a long line, thousands of years of playing… life is an adventure.
PJB: My brothers, sisters and I spent our early childhood years in the country and I vividly remember that freedom: being able to run and play all day, sometimes alone, or with our animals—minimal parental interference. But it’s not like that for a lot of kids today.
JM: Yes but it was for us… We were right on the edge of suburbia. I had two worlds—one was inside with the television, and outside was this huge playground… the huge playground won out.
PJB: Did you train to do anything else, did you study, learn a trade or go to university?
JM: Yes, I spent many years in the university of the wilderness. I majored in rock climbing and mountaineering. Did a PHD in it, in fact. Then I diversified… My formal education ended 2 November 1977 when I left school at sixteen; my only regret was that I wasn’t allowed to leave 18 months earlier because I really knew what I wanted to do, deep in my soul.
PJB: Climb mountains, cross deserts?
JM: Yeah, it was… but as the years rolled on, I realised my interests were far broader—I was interested in Survival. It’s about a survival game that we’re all removed from. We’re all alive but I wanted a rawer experience of survival, and in radically different environments: the sea, the mountains, the vertical cliffs, the Polar Regions, the highest mountains in the world, the deserts.
PJB: All the things you wanted to do in your youth: challenge yourself at the extremities is understandable but I was also interested when you say in the film that you go on all these adventures but you didn’t know how to grow food for yourself…was that when you moved to ‘Inanna’ ?
JM: The focus of my career, I guess like everybody’s in life, wasn’t linear, neat and clear. There were always big overlaps: people still say to me because I’ve been sailing yachts recently, (basso voice) “So you’ve given up the deserts now have you?” …They think I close one door and open the other. I got my first chickens in 1993, long before I got ‘Inanna’. I was growing vegetables in 1990, I think.
PJB: And that was the first time you met Suzy, in 1990 wasn’t it?
JM: Yes, it was.
PJB: When you first met Suzy what were your first impressions of her as a person?
JM: That she was very strong. I’ve always been attracted to strong, motivated, energetic people. At the time, she was at a little bit of a loss in terms of her direction in life. She’d finished university, was doing occupational therapy and she had moved up to Wimmera.
PJB: You asked Suzy to marry you in 2002, two weeks after inviting her up to ‘Innana’. Why did you want to marry Suzy?
JM: By then I had known her for 12 years and I knew what her interests were and what she was about; I’d always been attracted to her because, as I said, she’s strong and energetic but at the same time, she’s calm in a deep and powerful way. And so two weeks sounds like a short time but we had been close friends during those years. We hadn’t always seen a lot of each other but there had been this thread of connection… She’d built her own house with her own hands… While in the early 90s she’d been at a bit of a loss, she had a solid direction and I liked the direction she was going in as well.
PJB: What was that direction?
JM: It was her direction. And about taking responsibility for as much of your needs as possible, and the most important needs as well: food, water, employment.
PJB: Were you in love?
JM: Yeah, yeah.
PJB: Watching the film, what I think is so powerful in your relationship is the respect and support you show each other as individuals within the marriage. I suppose what I’m asking is that when you discovered you were single and you could have called anyone, why did you call Suzy?
JM: I had always loved Suzy. In our society, love is commonly thought about as a love between a couple but they forget other kinds of love: brotherly love, sisterly love, love between friends—it comes in different shapes and forms. I’d always had a very strong emotional feeling for her; I’d say the same for some of my close male friends—
PJB: But you’re not shacked up with your male friends
JM: That’s true… because that’s not what I want.
PJB: I get that.
JM: I’d always loved Suzy, I was single, I wanted a partner in life. I’m a bit of a recluse so I wasn’t going to go to parties and hope I met somebody. I have strong female friends who I love… There was no question in my mind that my future person was someone in my life I already knew. And it was Suzy.
PJB: When Suzy first received the cancer diagnosis, do you remember your first emotion?
JM: I felt uncertainty because I didn’t really understand—I didn’t know the ins and outs of it but, you know, I face challenges with resolve.
PJB: You’re a good man to have on your side in a crisis. On that, I was moved by how you gave Suzy the space to choose what she wanted to do, you didn’t project anxiety or the terror of your possible loss—not everyone does that in those situations. You weren’t thinking about yourself, you were thinking of her. I was moved by that.
JM: Yes. I felt strongly that at the end of the day, they were her decisions.
PJB: You’ve made films before—
JM: Five films. I’ve always enjoyed the process of filming. I first filmed on the west ridge of Everest in 1984 and I went on to film in the Himalayas the following four years. Out of that came a couple of short films—one of them was used as a motivation film for the Australian military; one was an extended 730 Report (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Another, my favourite, was a spectacular climb in the Himalayas. I had always filmed expeditions—polar walking, desert traversing. That had been great but it’s actually really hard filming yourself.
PJB: I remember being in the audience at a screening of Alone Across Australia and someone behind me saying: “Is someone with him? Is he filming? How does he do that?” What’s your process?
JM: Well, in Alone, it was ALL that. It’s hard filming yourself but it’s also hard filming hanging off the side of a mountain in the Himalayas or in the Polar Regions where it’s minus 40 with a stiff wind blowing.
PJB: Can’t think about that too much or I feel sick—
JM: The main motivation of Alone Across Australia was to get these really basic messages to the wider audience: to survive you need water and food. People obsess on small things—someone spills a cup of tea and you’d swear there’d been a nuclear disaster.
PJB: You’re interested in the fundamentals of survival in everything you do.
PJB: How did this film come about?
JM: I did think that maybe I should set myself an easier filming project… I’d been dwelling on that for some time. I thought with our little world of ‘Inanna’ we had something to offer. It was a privilege for me, once again, to work with the dynamic duo Ian and Sally [Fryer]. I’ve known Ian for 25 years and we’ve been on a lot of expeditions together—we’ve been in the nitty-gritty…
PJB: And you trust each other, which I think is integral to a successful filmmaking relationship.
JM: Exactly. With Alone Across Australia and this film there was always an understanding that we had the final say but we wouldn’t insist that something be cut out unless we had a good reason—
PJB: So in a way you were able to take more risks—such as choosing to keep on filming when Suzy’s cancer diagnosis happened because if, ultimately, if you didn’t want that on screen, you had that option.
JM: That’s right. So we thought, this is what’s happening in our life—let’s keep filming.
PJB: When Suzy is talking, in the film, about what’s going on for her, or you two are having a conversation—do you turn on the camera and see what happens or set up the conversation before filming?
JM: Typically, it’s a bit of middle ground. We’ll have a chat broadly about what we might talk about and then roll the camera.
PJB: But do you know what you’re going to talk about specifically?
JM: Sometimes but not always. We might know we need to have a conversation about something and turn the camera on, but we forget it’s there.
PJB: When people see the film what would you like them to take away from the experience?
JM: That there’s another way. Another path. And it’s very fulfilling. There’s a better way to spend your time than watching the latest reality TV show. That anybody has the capacity to follow another path—to a certain degree. I feel like we’re getting further and further away from the fundamentals of humanity: it’s not healthy for individuals, for society, for the planet… Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” So with this film, and sharing how we live, is to contribute, in our tiny way, the change we want to see… and help people get back on a more sustainable track. Sustainable is over-used as a word—
PJB: And that’s why this film works, you don’t have to rely on words: you’re showing how it’s done. People can read about going bush or growing your own vegetables and killing what meat you need or want to eat but in reality, they don’t really know what that is. I asked Suzy to describe a typical day—in so far as there is one—in summer, tell me about a winter day. What time do you wake up?
JM: There isn’t a typical day because there’s a lot going on all the time, and it’s not all the same. But we tend to get up with the light—especially in winter when the days are shorter: we try to make most of the daylight. We always have a cuppa in bed; I love a cuppa and look out the window and see what’s going on. This morning I noticed a mother roo with small three joeys hopping behind her… I put another log on the fire because the fire would have burned down overnight and it runs 24/7 during the winter months… Then the chicken run, it’s a morning ritual.
PJB: Collecting the eggs?
JM: There’s more to it than that… You need to stay in touch with the flock, ask them, “What’s goin’ on?”. Out there at the moment, there are three flocks—with their own roosters… chicken world is a big place. It’s an empire. And there are kingdoms within the empire. You need to ask the chickens where they’re at. You check in on the hierarchy. You don’t just pour the food out and fill up the water and leave it at that. You look, you stay in touch… is somebody not here or unsettled? You have to get in touch and in tune with the flocks. Suzy takes over when I’m away and when I come back and do the chicken run, the chickens will be frightened of me, “Is he the one who kills us occasionally. Can we have Suzy back?”. Over a few days, they settle down… The sun was shining; I did the washing. We use solar and try to do things we need to do when energy is flowing through our energy banks. We took the dogs for a walk earlier than we usually would because we knew we’d be talking to you…Every four days I have an hour-long talk to my mother. I’m preparing for the trip coming up. Tying up loose ends, mail… I’ll bring in some fire wood I’ve had to chop and collect, bring in washing, I’ll pick up Miranda, our 12–year–old friend who comes here once a week—we take her rock climbing and walking, and read to her in the evenings.
PJB: One of the things that came up in the film that I wanted to ask you about…You require an extra income to live as you do at ‘Inanna’. You don’t survive entirely off the land financially?
JM: That’s right. It’s possible with the acreage we’ve got that we could go into something specialist or other, and potentially make an income off this land but it’s not our area of expertise. We could extend our vegetable garden and make a living that way but I’ve got this career I’ve had since I the early 80s and I like my job—I get to take people on adventures. There’s photos, books, films, but the mainstay of our income is the Guiding and it’s the bit I like the most because I’m a person of action.
PJB: And it gets you interacting with people some of the time but not all the time.
JM: It’s important and the people I’m closest to are the people I do things with—and share difficulties with.Tags: Alone Across Australia, Ian Darling, Suzan Muir