Bushie's lifestyle a labour of love

VETERAN bushie Malcolm Douglas, the bearded outback wanderer, is standing in a pool of sweat in a telephone box some- where in the Flinders Range in South Australia making contact with the outside world. He is calling his daughter in Sydney to wish her well with her Year 12 exams, and the telephone box affords him some protection from the flies which a few minutes earlier had threatened to rip his head off.

The previous day he had spent hours crouched in the red dirt, camera trained on feral goats attacking trees, an experience which - although full of what is known in the business as good vision - gave him no pleasure. The country, he says, is being stripped bare by drought, goats and rabbits and no one seems to care, least of all the Prime Minister.

The next day he plans to capture further evidence of outback rape - rabbits stripping bark off stringy trees on the edge of the Simpson - but in the meantime there's a daughter to call and an evening meal to cook (curried rabbit most probably) and eight hours good kip beneath a mozzie net.

Malcolm Douglas is back on the track. He's been criss-crossing the nation for 30 years - 20 with camera in hand - first for Seven and now for Nine. When he got married he told his wife, Valerie, that he'd be away for six months every year and he's been as good as his word... but they still get on incredibly well with each other. Malcolm Douglas, who showed his first outback movies in Perth Town Hall, is on a conveyor belt of his own making. Every four months he delivers an outback documentary to Nine, then spends a week or two at his crocodile farm in Broome before hitting the trail again with camera, cook pot and a 4 TV Extra comrade to help lug the equipment and provide company round the camp fire.

He goes where he wants, films what he likes, then edits it all at home in Sydney. He's a self-taught film-maker whose style owes nothing to film schools, and his documentaries strike a responsive chord among viewers who would secretly love to sample the wide open spaces. The Douglas documentaries offer a mass of information - from bogs through mud ovens, to the fragile nature of Australia - but what is really on offer is a sense of escapism. By industry standards he's cheap. Douglas says he could do four hours of television for $350,000 compared with $4 million for the ABC's Bush Tucker Man. "I make good wages out of films," Douglas says. "But then I work twice as hard as anyone else and that's a matter of choice too. No one's twisting my arm."

That may be true, but the crocodile farm at Broome - in which he has so far invested $800,000 and seven years work - is putting the bite on much of his finance. And right now Douglas would like a piece of the State Government. He's angry over the apparent refusal of the State Government to allow him to take more than two male crocodiles from the wild to help his breeding program, and he's even considered moving his operation to the Northern Territory where the government is anxious to have his crocodile farm and his expertise.

"If I was Smart I'd sell out and retire, but I like crocs," says Douglas, who once shot them for a living. "The public will never come to love crocs, but they should be able to respect them and work out how they fit into the whole ecological system." Why crocs? "Because they've been around for 200 million years and you can't tame them," says Douglas, who might prove a difficult man to tame himself. "They're big, aggressive and incredibly interesting."

The State Government is one of his problems, the outback with all its attendant plagues is another. "There are 1000 trees a day dying out here because of rabbits stripping the bark," says the outback adventurer making a sweaty plea from a lonely phone box. It's a national disgrace. That's why I'm filming it. Bob Hawke runs around telling us to plant trees, but he should get out here instead and start getting rid of a few goats and rabbits. Soon there won't be any trees left."

He thinks he will call his latest documentary Journey into the Simpson and in time it may go the way of most of the others. Last month he sold 15 of his earlier films to Italy and another 30 to Germany. But for the moment he's out there in the Simpson, filming, driving, sweating and sleeping. And next year he'll be back again. At 50 he wonders how long he will go on. Someone suggested he might in time do a documentary called Wheelchair Through the Kimberley. And Malcolm Douglas laughed and said what a great idea.