Last week I lost a friend. Suddenly. Suddenly for me, anyway. And for many of his other friends and colleagues, who had not known of the illness he had lived with for some years now.
Rob knew – at least for a short time – his time in this world was nearly over. He was able to contemplate that and to help plan his own funeral. He kept his illness private, attended Christmas parties in December and nothing – to those outside his immediate, closest circle – seemed amiss.
The news of his death fractured my morning, bringing disbelief and sorrow. I was not alone; as the word spread among the travel writing fraternity across Australia, tears were shed, phone calls made, memories shared. Facebook posts were full of sadness, as we paid tribute to a man of whom I’ve never heard a bad word said.
Rob Woodburn was a newspaper journalist and editor, a fine photographer and a respected travel writer and blogger. I can’t remember if it was the first time I met him, but certainly I remember the first time I travelled with him. A trip to Queensland’s Brampton Island in 1999, when it rained constantly and we bought the last of the gift shop’s plastic ponchos to keep ourselves dry.
Travel writers often travel in small groups, visiting destinations together as we research stories. The Australian travel writing community is tight-knit, and we get to know each other well if the vagaries of media trips throw us together enough. For a couple of years, Rob and I were on the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ executive committee which meant we travelled together about five times year. Vietnam, England, California, South Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Borneo, among others.
Rob was an inveterate traveller, independent, interested and observant, with a clever and sometimes sharp wit. His passion was Africa, where he had grown up and worked as a journalist and editor before moving to Australia. He returned to his former stomping grounds as often as he could, and wrote about it as we only do about places entrenched in our hearts.
He once wrote that he sorely missed the opportunity to see “wild animals of decent size” and observed that poverty in Africa exceeds anything witnessed elsewhere “yet Africans are imbued with an infectious love of life and a ready humour, in stark contrast to the whinging yet wealthy inhabitants of developed countries”.
He always said it exactly as he saw it. A no-bullshit kind of guy. He was also widely respected for his ethical approach to our profession.
As I write this, I’m on a plane heading off on an overseas travel writing assignment. At the same time, friends and colleagues are gathering in Sydney for Rob’s funeral. I’d like be there, but I know he’d understand why I’m not. One friend, travelling 1000km to be there, explained simply: “He was one of my favourite people.” Me too.
I think Rob would be surprised by the reaction to his death, that he has been in the heads and hearts of so many people whose lives he touched, even briefly. And that we are so sorry we didn’t know he was ill.
It has stopped us in our tracks. Made us hug our friends a little harder when we say goodbye. Another colleague put it well: “Sometimes we say ‘see you later’…and it doesn’t happen.” He’s right. I find it hard to comprehend that I will never see Rob’s infectious grin or hear his clipped Zimbabwean accent down the phone line again.
It has also made me think about how I would live my life if I knew my death was imminent. And I realised I would do the same; draw the wagons closer, let many people fall behind me, taking their place in my past rather than my precious and finite present. Time with those closest to me would be treasured, savoured. Every conversation, every touch, would be important.
In the past couple of days, I came across this quote from Rob, provided a couple of years ago for a magazine, on the joy of travelling locally. It seemed prescient.
“Years of fascinating travel around the world,” he said, “only prove the sense in the old saying that many of the best things in life are often found close to home.”
Fare well, Transitory Traveller. We’ll miss you.
To read some of Rob Woodburn’s work, see his blog, Transitory Traveller.
To donate to the Interstitial Lung Disease Trust, click here
Featured image at top by Rob Woodburn.