In times of TripAdvisor, online forums, blogs, Instagram and Facebook posts, it can be difficult to imagine what travelling was like back in the 1970s.
Particularly in the developing countries that Leura resident Christine Osborne frequented, like the Gulf States, Jordan, Morocco, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Gambia and Bangladesh.
As a freelance travel writer and photographer, she saw the world at a time before mass tourism and has the adventure stories to prove it.
Such as this experience during her visit to the United Arab Emirates in 1976.
“My $70 a night hotel in Abu Dhabi had no hot water. When I turned on a tap it ran mud. During celebrations for UAE National Day, they held a falconry conference attended by all the rulers including Sheikh Zayed.
They put the birds in one of these $70 rooms, then moved them out as guests were complaining about noise and smell. I had a quick look inside – the walls were splattered with blood from servants throwing them raw meat.”
Her interest in the Gulf States arose in the mid 1970s after she arrived in London, escaping a Sydney nursing career and ready to be a freelance writer and photographer.
She had done some photojournalism work for Australian newspapers and magazines but that didn’t cut it in the UK.
“When I turned up in London they said, ‘we don’t know who you are, kid. If you want to make a name for yourself in England, you’ve got to write a book.’”
She pondered what to write about until a trip back to Australia provided the inspiration.
“I stopped in Dubai on my way home for Christmas one year,” she says. “I knew that was the book.”
The Gulf States and Oman was her first published book, but it came about only after some rather adventurous research in a very undeveloped part of the world.
“When I was writing about Dubai they still had a sand patch for the camels in the middle of what is now the CBD,” she says.
Her escapades, many of which feature in her book Travels with my Hat (just published as an e-book), can be hair-raising. But the frustrations they engendered are obvious in a letter to her mother, penned in December 1976.
“Am fed up with the thing. Couldn’t think of a more difficult region to write about. One night in Sharjah I had to sleep among cockroaches on my driver’s kitchen floor as the only hotel was full of oilmen.
“Fujairah (the smallest state on the Arabian sea) has no hotel at all. There I slept in the desert beneath a Range Rover with a pistol under my pillow.”
Intrepid is surely the only way to describe Osborne, a young, attractive blonde travelling in a world of some dangers.
“I didn’t go out much after dark in many of those countries,” she says. “I couldn’t go out by myself. In Pakistan I used to stop the traffic in the daytime – sometimes I had 30 or 40 people around me – men, of course.”
She was robbed on a beach in Gambia: “Two men took everything. Not to worry as I was unhurt although they stuck a knife in my ribs – it was blunt.”
She has also written books about Oman, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, as well as about food and drink in both the Middle East and South-East Asia.
In 1979, Osborne was accredited to the Buckingham Palace press corps to cover the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s tour of the Gulf.
In one of the delightful anecdotes from that tour, she recounts difficulties at a traditional Bedouin lunch outside Doha.
“Every plate had a moisturised tissue in a packet to clean hands but the Queen’s. ‘Where is Her Majesty’s tissue,’ I asked of one of the Pakistani helpers. ‘Queen will wash hands outside,’ he replied. ‘Where,’ I asked him. He indicated a wooden hat stand plunged in the sand. A neatly folded orange towel hung from a hook and a pristine cake of pink Lux toilet soap sat on a wooden side table.
“‘Bearer will pour water for Queen to wash.’ Picking up a kettle, he rehearsed the procedure. Now thoroughly concerned, I explained that Her Majesty would probably prefer to use a tissue. ‘The Queen does not normally wash in public,’ I told him gently.”
Eventually another packet of tissues was found to spare the Queen a public display.
Osborne ultimately specialised in religious photography, fufilling a need for serious pictures of religion, setting up the World Religions stock image library which documents people and their faith.
Osborne herself concentrated particularly on Islam and has now been to more than 30 Muslim-majority countries.
“People practising their faith is very sensitive and very private,” she says. “When they understood what I was doing, the Muslims were the most co-operative; Christians and Jews most difficult. Christians tended to be a bit suspicious.”
She describes her own spirituality: “I say my prayers every night without fail but I’m not a practising Christian. I suppose, like the majority of people, I believe in a higher power.”
Her latest book, Among Believers, uses many of the image library’s photographs to explore the world’s 11 major religions. The book covers forms and places of workshop, beliefs, rites of passage, festivals, education, pilgrimage, art, days of remembrance, even sacred foods in some cases.
It looks at Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Taoism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism and Baha’i.
Osborne would dearly love to see the book used in schools to help overcome misconceptions about other religions.
Among Believers is available from firstname.lastname@example.org. Travels with my Hat from amazon.com.au