The eucalyptus trees cast long shadows in the late afternoon. A hot wind ruffles the grass. Curious cattle rush bellowing to the fence, ears twitching, hooves stamping, loudly wanting to know what is going on. In the distance the city of Brisbane shimmers in a heat haze, but here in the rolling, pastoral pocket of Pinjarra Hills, Pip Courtney looks as cool as a mint julep walking down a track with Bella, a resident horse of uncertain temperament.
Bella is being coaxed into posing for the camera by the sugar lumps Pip has stashed in her pocket. The two are old friends. Landline’s esteemed presenter comes here to the University of Queensland’s Veterinary Science Farm every Wednesday to stand among the corrugated iron sheds and wooden fences to film the links for each program. In fact, the queen of rural Australia has been standing in paddocks with cameras and animals for three decades, often filming early in the morning when the light is soft, or in the golden hour of the evening in those moments of luminescence before it tips towards dark. “You’ve got to make every minute count,” she says. “The light is only great for a certain amount of time.”
Landline is much more than a job for Pip; it is a vocation, it is the fibre of her being, it is a community spread across the country that embraced and held her when the worst thing happened. It is home.
“I still get a thrill putting the key in the door of the three-star hotel room in the middle of rural Australia,” she admits. “If you end up with a job you love, it is better than winning Lotto. I always thought it would be the right time to go if I could see someone sitting in my chair and not want to kill them. At the moment, if I imagine someone at my desk, I do want to kill them!”
The job, the deadlines, the kindness of that community and her colleagues were what kept her stumbling forward when her ABC cameraman husband, John Bean, was tragically killed in a helicopter crash on August 18, 2011, while working in South Australia.
“Deadlines are not changeable,” Pip says now of how she kept putting one foot in front of the other in the wake of unimaginable loss. “So I just set crazy deadlines and worked like mad, and that helped me.”
“She works incredible hours,” says her former boss Ben Hawke, “just from dawn to dusk and well beyond. She will be researching and working on her transcripts late into the night, smoking cigarettes and drinking Diet Coke.” Not being a coffee or tea drinker, Pip admits she is addicted to Diet Coke to pep her up.
“The reporters have a quota of stories that they’re expected to do each year,” Pip’s executive producer Cathie Schnitzerling says, “and she insists on doing the same quota as well as presenting the program, even though she doesn’t have to. She is a true journalist who wants to be equal to everyone else.”
“John used to growl at me about it,” Pip admits. “My mum’s name is Robin and my dad Michael was a workaholic, and [John] would say, ‘I feel like Robin half the time.’”
Landline viewers might be surprised by what they don’t see of Pip on camera. The bling, the discreet diamonds, the rings on every finger. The pink socks. The startling amount of pink in the wardrobe she brings for The Weekly’s photo shoot. Pip Courtney, who strides across the landscape in jeans, boots, work shirts and an Akubra hat, is a pink person. Her clipboard is pink – even her washing basket is pink. “I remember a blinds salesman saying to me once, ‘You sure you want to go with the pink blinds, love?’. ‘Yep,’ I said.”
And well, you have just got to say this straight out, she is a cat person, the adoring owner of Burmese cats. She hesitates slightly: “It is controversial with farmers, who sometimes reckon the best place for a cat is in a crayfish pot at the bottom of the ocean.”
John used to tease her about being “the scruffiest reporter in Australia”. He once gave her a book on make-up for Christmas. You had to be careful with John, she says. He started buying his Christmas presents in January and if you happened to mention that you liked something, there it would be on Christmas day. “His diary was full of birthdays and he was always looking for perfect presents. He was a good friend to people.”
But these (more glamorous) days, Pip’s shirts have a bit of a social media following of their own. “My default setting is definitely jeans and boots and a nice shirt. But I do love getting dressed up, for the Logies or Rural Woman of the Year. I like nice clothes.”
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