The High Country is famous for fly fishing. It’s also the home of another national treasure (well, in my humble opinion any way) called Helen Packer…
Helen, affectionately known as ‘Packer’, ‘Granny Packer’ and a scramble of other nicknames among those who loved her, was a matriarch of the mountains who passed away in February. She was a dear friend and someone who connected me to the Victorian High Country in a deeply spiritual way. Through her I made new friends, healed a broken heart, learned to trust myself and caught some of the best fish of my life. Her departure has left a massive hole in my heart and the High Country community’s. I’ve been wanting to write this tribute for ages but up until now the tears just kept smudging the ink. But I’m ready now. So, here’s to you Helen, you bloody legend.
I first met Helen in 2012 when looking for the perfect spot to go fly fishing and horse riding on Australia Day. Her website caught my eye. A quick look around was enough to convince me we needed to go. So I picked up the phone and instantly knew I was speaking to someone pretty damn special. However, she didn’t actually have room for us at the main house so said we should stay at a lodge just up the hill - somewhere we’ve now stayed every Australia Day (bar one) since! But there was certainly no keeping us away because Helen’s house was a hive of rebels, cowboys, and alternative types who gave the mainstream the middle finger. Suffice to say I felt right at home drinking gin and listening to Helen’s stories of crossing the Namib Desert on horseback and skiing her way around Europe.
It was at Helen’s that I met Scott McPherson, a brilliant fly fisher and now great friend, who introduced me to fly fishing in Australia and taught my rookie friends how to cast a line. Scott took us to some magic water in the back of beyond on the Bundarra River. I still remember the demo he did… he managed to hooked up to a good fish on the first cast. It’s fair to say expectations were high but the reality was more humbling! However, two of us managed to land dinner-sized trout and brought them back to the house. Helen was the first to congratulate us with a large drink and an invitation to raid her veggie garden for our feast. That night we stumbled up the hill laden with goodies, cracked open more wine and had a riotous night putting the world to rights with Scottie and his second guide Cliff.
The next day, we went horse-riding to break the hangover. And it was here I saw who Helen really was… an incredible horse woman and fierce free-spirit. When she was around horses and out in the elements, it was as if she was in a different realm. A kind of peace, softness and strength radiates from her and those who speak the same spiritual language are drawn to it. But with Helen you didn’t necessarily need a horse to converse, just a soul and a sense of adventure, and then the conversation would be effortless. When we headed out on the trail and rode out into thick bush I remember thinking I could lose my heart to the wild out here. And I did.
Fast forward several years and things changed. We returned to the Bundarra Valley and Helen was in a wheelchair and in pretty bad shape. There she was still handling horses in the yard but she cast a very different figure across the dust. I remember walking up to the fence and her giving me a look that said: ‘don’t you dare pity me’. So I said: ‘you been hitting the gin too hard and fallen down the stairs, girl?’. She gave me wry smile and said: ‘Ha! You can come up to the house’.
It was over a mug of tea that I heard about her struggles with cancer and a rare debilitating condition called amyloidosis. But Helen was having no sympathy because these things were just obstacles she was confident she could overcome. She was determined to give the doctors who said she’d never walk again the finger. And she did walk again, although with less frequency as time marched on. She also managed to fit in a good number of rides and adventures up to the Kimberly and Whale Beach before she left us.
A few years before she died, I spent a month with her and cemented a friendship that will last forever. It was one of the best and worst times in my life. I’d just fought a legal battle (and won) with a former employer and I was coming out of four years of an IVF battle that nearly claimed my marriage. I picked up the phone and said: “I’m unemployed and I’d like to work for you. I cook, clean, ride horses, fly fish and can fix stuff, will you have me?”. She said: “Let me get back to you”. That afternoon I was signed on to be one of her ‘pet slaves’ for the whole of January 2017.
I was in my absolute element and it remains one of the happiest times of my life. Whoever knew shoveling horseshit, scrubbing floorboards, mending fences, guiding rides, catering weddings and doing laundry could be so rewarding! Everyday was an adventure and the chance to meet a new person. There was Tom the ex-pro snowboarder who showed me how to use a chainsaw, Luke the electrician who taught me how to tie a hitch knot and pull a generator on the back of a ute, Oliva who helped me not fear being thrown off a horse and Cath the farmer who showed me how to do pretty much everything else! And then there was Helen who was at her happiest joining in on all the swearing and carrying on. And it was her who gave me back my smile - a gift I shall be forever grateful for.
Helen’s final months were particularly hard for her and those who loved her. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with her a few weeks out from when she passed. She fought right up until the end. Like her life, Helen’s memorial was full of brilliant people, good banter and tears of laughter. It was the best funeral I’ve ever been to because it was a celebration of someone who really did squeeze all the juice from the fruit. I know she would have loved to have been there. But I’m not too worried because I’m sure we’ll meet again in the High Country one day because that is where heaven is for me.