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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Strahan is very similar to Kathmandu

The Mercury: Best of both worlds [27nov05]

Live in Tasmania and work in Tibet? One couple does, Luke Sayer reports

TASMANIA'S wild West Coast is now home for a couple who used to have the rooftop of the world as their back yard.

Gary McCue and Kathy Butler still run tours to the Himalayas but now call Strahan home.

They say there is something about the small town on Macquarie Harbour that draws them back.

Gary, who has had a link with Strahan since the early 1980s when he worked there as a river guide, said they couldn't find a place where they would rather live.

He first arrived the day before the Gordon River blockade erupted, a young visitor from the US keen to work as a river guide.

He began a long friendship with former Strahan warden Harry McDermott that endures to this day and was vital to the couple's return to Tasmania.

In between seasons as a river guide, Gary began leading treks in the Himalayas with an Australian company, eventually moving to Nepal.

He and Kathy met in 1985, and the following year the nurse from Jamberoo in southern New South Wales also moved to Nepal to live.

"I worked as a nurse in Kathmandu for a year and then started leading treks," Kathy said.

In 1987 Gary began writing Trekking in Tibet, published in 1991, which has become as the definitive guide.

"As the book was close to being published we moved to leading private tours and groups," he said.

"Since then Tibet has really become our specialty.

"Growing political problems in Nepal made us realise it was going to be more and more difficult to operate in."

Kathy said Kathmandu was still a wonderful place but had changed, so they began looking for somewhere else to live.

"You couldn't really go out for a pleasant walk down the street," she said -- which is what began leading them back to Tasmania.

"We always said if we ever leave Nepal, Tasmania's our first choice," Gary said.

They had kept in touch with the McDermotts and used Strahan as a base for their search across Tasmania for a new home in 1999.

A circuit of the state failed to inspire them until they returned to Strahan and found the house across the road from the McDermotts was being cleaned up for sale.

"Within about three days we'd bought it," Gary said.

A key factor was the arrival of a reliable internet service at Strahan, which gave them what they needed to keep their business running.

"It meant we could conduct our business from here, and that really was the last piece of the puzzle," he said.GARY'S last visit to Tibet was a trek in temperate rainforest with amazing similarities to the Tasmanian wilderness.

"People think of Tibet as being just big and barren, but it's very amazing," Kathy said.

The couple's love of Tasmania is also beginning to rub off on their trekking clients around the globe.

While there hasn't been a rush to Tasmania from their regular customers, it is starting to grow.

"Once we get them here they're blown away," Kathy said.

Gary said one of the drawbacks in Tasmania was that many people felt they could find their own way around -- but not so in Tibet.

"But we haven't really worked that hard on marketing Tasmania, mainly because we operate on word of mouth, and that's what works for us.

"Our client base is getting older and older, as we are, and we think more and more will come to Tasmania."

One of the similarities between Tibet and Tasmania, Kathy said, were the amazing characters they met.

"In Tibet we meet wonderful people and have been fortunate to spend a lot of time there," she said.

"And the people we take along can have really nice interaction with the people.

"It's the same here in Tasmania; the people are very friendly."

Gary said returning to Tasmania was destined for him.

"After we bought the house [at Strahan] I found my journal from the day before I left Tasmania and it said 'I hope to come back here one day, perhaps even live here'. I'd forgotten I'd written that," he said.

In an odd way, Kathy said, Strahan is very similar to Kathmandu.

"Kathmandu is now a mega-city, but when we first went there it was a real community, very much the same as here."

For now the couple are content to retreat to Strahan and continue their regular stints at the roof of the globe -- knowing they have the best of both worlds.

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