Warwick Deacock,1926 – 2017 Pic: Colin Monteath/Hedgehog
Major Warwick Deacock’s erect bearing and bronzed craggy features evoke his British military background, his crooked nose that of a former sportsman. Striding into my Kathmandu office with his wife Antonia in his wake, Warwick’s thick steel grey hair is swept back with comb marks visible, his safari shirt immaculately rumpled.
“We have run away from home, Lisa,” he declares in a booming Anglo-Aussie twang, his bright eyes creasing in the corners. “Antonia and I want to do our own thing and will walk the length of Nepal at our leisure, no set itinerary, we will follow our noses, away from the guidebook trails for as many months as it takes.” Antonia appears just as strong, but smiles resiliently. “As long as it takes,” she echoes.
It is typical of Warwick that he and the intrepid Antonia consider a major traverse of the Himalaya is the sort of activity to celebrate escape from the office. It is 1988 and the Great Himalaya Trail is yet to be conceived. In fact their trip took eight months of “mountain travelling” as he called it, five in Nepal and three in India. Periodically they reappeared to restock and resupply, never looking bedraggled or even much worn, then off again with glee for the next uncharted section.
The grand old man of Australian adventure tourism is ebullient, pithy and passionate, his words famously difficult to follow – I struggle to stay focussed as he rambles on, his conversation meandering through a range of zany tales and obscure memories. But there is no doubt that Warwick is the real thing. A soldier, sailor, mountaineer, adventurer, conservationist and visionary, he is credited with wild adventures from India and Pakistan, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, to Alaska and the Antarctic, and counts Bill Tilman and Ed Hillary amongst his pals.
And Antonia keeps up with him, relishing their reputation as a formidable couple. An architect from South Africa and newly married, she was one of three housewives in 1958 to drive across Europe to India then walk to Zanskar, having charmed Prime Minister Nehru into giving them special permission to cross the mystic ‘Inner Line’.
Together they made a business out of what they both liked doing best, daring to be different. Warwick introduced Outward Bound and Duke of Edinburgh Awards to Australia where they migrated from the UK in 1959, following a British Army and SAS career. In 1965 Ausventure became the world’s first adventure travel agency, putting together groups of Australians and New Zealanders for the world’s first trek operator, Colonel Jimmy Roberts who had established Mountain Travel Nepal in 1964.
As Warwick put it: ‘We all owe much to the dream that Jimmy Roberts had. We were both very lucky to be present when a good idea arrived.’ A year later Leo Le Bon founded Mountain Travel USA in California, and throughout the 1970s Warwick and Leo provided Jimmy with most of his business.
Warwick wrote: ‘We worked together very well over the years and I admired and respected Jimmy’s respect in turn for the people of Nepal and the Sherpas in particular, coupling this with an honesty that was refreshing in terms of honoring our duties to clients.’ The first commercial trip to Nepal from Australia was a 25-day Dolalghat to Everest Base Camp trek in December 1967 for a group of four women and two men.
Ausventure prospered, offering desert camel safaris, extreme skiing, river descents and Tasmanian rambles in addition to Himalayan trekking and climbing. With a young family to support, Antonia had given him five years to make a success of the enterprise, but he was solvent after four. Ausventure arranged the first Australian commercial mountaineering expedition to Mulkila, Lahul in 1975, and the first Everest clean up trek in 1977 to highlight environmental threats, even back then.
Warwick led over 100 treks and expeditions worldwide. “Ask my knees,” he joked. But the Himalaya remained central to the Deacocks, sponsoring students, organising volunteers and serving as Nepal Honorary Consul General to Australia. Their son Nick married Beant, a colleague from Mountain Travel India’s Delhi office, further consolidating the family South Asian connection.
A couple of years ago in his late 80s, Warwick visited Kathmandu and the Khumbu for the last time, arranged by his kids Kate and Nick but now ‘mountain travelling’ alone as Antonia had died in 2012. Warwick was looked after by two of their protégées Sonam and Lakpa, sons of late Dawa Norbu Sherpa an original Mountain Travel stalwart.
With Warwick and Peter Hillary, I attended the ribbon-cutting inauguration of Lukla drinking water improvements organised by Lakpa with local communities and funding from the Himalayan Trust. It was a fine clear day and Peter was called on to extinguish a blaze with the new fire hose as part of the water supply demonstration, an entertaining diversion for the village. Warwick was in fine form, slightly thinner on top but as dapper and incomprehensible as ever, full of enthusiasm for the mountains, his Nepali friends and relived memories.
Seeking to make the visit of this aged giant of Nepal trekking a bit more comfortable, I had arranged with the Australian Embassy that he use the VIP facilities and a wheelchair on arrival. His flight landed, the Embassy staff were briefed and in place, but Warwick failed to emerge as the anxious Sherpas waited outside at the crowded airport curb. Eventually Warwick was wheeled through the normal channel, undaunted and grinning. He had presented himself at the VIP lounge, only to be told that Warwick Deacock had already arrived and been received – just the kind of mix up he relished.
For those of us who knew him, there will only be one Warwick Deacock – the one who lived life to the full and left a footprint in Nepal. Warwick died peacefully on 3 April 2017 aged 90, following a stroke and surrounded by family. Farewell.
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