Heidi helped free friend Peter Greste while establishing wilderness retreat

F2C9A7183or 400 days Heidi Ross ran the Free Peter Greste international media campaign.

How she did it – and where she did it from – defies most media campaign strategy rule books.

The communications hub for the worldwide campaign was Heidi’s 104ha property on the border of the Lamington National Park, in the Gold Coast hinterland.

She relies on satellite Internet and admits she lives in something of a bubble, with limited access to news and media.

But as a long-time friend of Peter Greste, Heidi knew she had to help free her friend.

Heidi and her husband Steve were preparing to open a luxury wildness retreat, Nightfall Wilderness Camp, when she received the call for help from Peter’s family.

“I was Peter’s best man at his wedding, he’s like my brother and his parents have been my second parents,” explains Heidi.

“They have always been a really, really close part of our family. Peter’s mum, Lois, made my wedding cake and Peter’s father, Juris, made the tables in our tents here.

“When Lois rang it was like hearing someone in your family had been arrested. Of course you rally to help.

“I thought ‘It’s a mix up, a stupid situation, and that he’d be released within a couple of days.”

Heidi’s background as a journalist, which included time working in London producing stories for the ABC under boss Mark Colvin, made her an obvious choice to advise the family on their media strategy.

She had successfully spearheaded a campaign in her local region, the Scenic Rim, to chase away mining companies who saw riches under the ground of this spectacular region.

The Keep the Scenic Rim Scenic campaign was so successful it elicited a decree from then Premier Campbell Newman that the region was off-limits to coal seam gas companies.

Nightfall Wilderness 2Armed with this campaigning pedigree Heidi launched herself into the battle to have her friend, colleague and former flat mate freed from the Egyptian jail where he was being held.

That task alone would have been enough for one person, but Heidi and her husband Steve were immersed in Project Nightfall, an ambitious venture featuring three luxury eco tents perched on the side of a mountain overlooking the Christmas Creek.

Virtually everything that’s on the site has been built by hand by Steve, Heidi and their willing band of workers and volunteers.

As Heidi sewed the large heavy-duty canvas tents on her industrial sewing machine, conscious their first guests were booked in and the opening date was fast approaching, she took calls from the world’s media.

With the phone wedged between her ear and her shoulder and the whir of the sewing machine in the background, Heidi imparted information about her friend Peter and negotiated with international journalists to ensure the coverage did not threaten the delicate negotiations happening in Egypt.

While Heidi was sewing, Steve was trying to complete construction of the tent podiums. Construction coincided with a record eight-month wet season, which made it impossible to access the site with machines and forced Steve and his crew to carry the 180kg frames onto site by hand.

“I initially thought Peter’s situation would be over in a couple of days,” says Heidi.

“Over the course of his imprisonment we ran 22 press conferences and had contact from 400 journalists from across the world on a regular basis.

“The phone just wouldn’t stop ringing.”

As if those challenges weren’t enough, Heidi was also caring for an orphaned baby wallaby, Lillypilly, giving her two-hourly feeds and nursing her in a pouch bag across her chest.

Where ever she went so did Lillypilly – including a press conference at the ABC building in Brisbane.

“I had this bag around my neck, I had to take her with me as I was the only one who could feed her,” recalls Heidi.

“I remember there as an English journo absolutely agog. He said ‘This is what I dreamt Australia would be!’

“I know him quite well now and he knows it’s not so normal for Australians to be carrying wallabies around.”

Heidi sat in her open-air lounge room, with the sound of the Christmas Creek rushing in the background, and took conference calls with legal, media and public relations experts.

“My main job was to co-ordinate media and press conferences and work with the family to ensure we didn’t say anything that offended anybody,” explains Heidi, who at one point relocated her office to a Laundromat so she could wash the sheets for her business.

“There were times when it was appropriate to do interviews and times when it wasn’t.

“You just keep going. I had moments of ‘What am I doing?’ My husband had moments of ‘I’m going to divorce you if this keeps going’.

“The media was instantly supportive and we ran a very open campaign. The Greste’s are in incredible family, they have an incredible ability to connect and from that point of view it wasn’t a hard campaign.

“The difficulty was having to constantly keep up the energy and be very careful of what we said.

“There’s a lot of logic in these things, it’s about keeping the issue in the public eye. I learned bucket loads.”

Nightfall Wilderness CampOnce Nightfall opened in early 2014, Heidi’s workload increased again, as the first guests were welcomed to the wilderness retreat.

Heidi says she was upfront with guests about the reason her phone was ringing at all hours of the day and night and she believes many guests now feel invested in Peter Greste’s journey.

“It was relentless,” she says.

“All our lives were impacted – the Grestes, my family and the lives of our guests who shared the journey.”

Heidi and Peter first met on Melville Island, off the Northern Territory, where they were both covering a story.

Their friendship endured postings to Adelaide and London, where they shared a flat.

Heidi remembers Peter’s interest in war reporting was obvious even in those early days.

“He went on his very first mission to Bosnia and I remember him being very much filled with trepidation,” she says.

“He came back with the most incredible stories and that’s always been his passion. He’s always had moments in his career where he’s come very close to danger but there’s danger in much of our lives.”

Finally early in February this year Heidi received the phone call she had been waiting 400 days for.

“The phone rang and it said ‘overseas’ and I thought ‘Oh my God it’s a journalist’. Then I heard this voice that sounded like a child who had eaten thousands of lollies.

“Peter was hyper and excited, it was hilarious. These stories were tumbling out of his mouth.

“I dropped everything, as I had done all those other times, and drove to Brisbane to ensure Lois and Juris weren’t overwhelmed by media. We developed a really unusual relationship with the media, there was huge empathy and a phenomenal connection and respect.”

Now that the campaign is over Heidi is focusing on her tourism business, which has flourished in the short-time it’s been operating and in December won a Queensland Tourism silver award for New Tourism Development.

The luxury tents are booked solidly – the first Saturday isn’t available until June – and guests are rebooking, enamored with the ‘back to nature’ experience offered by Heidi and Steve.

“Nightfall is huge. It’s everything and more we dreamed of,” she admits.

“I grew up in Africa and I know Australians love camping but I never understood why luxury tents weren’t bigger in Australia.

“For me it’s about returning back to my childhood. I was born in Uganda and raised in Kenya. My child was all about tented camps, it just makes so much sense to me.

“There’s something incredibly liberating about living in the wilderness without the shackles of how society says you need to live.

“There is a raw simplicity here but our guests are still able to keep the luxuries – we got rid of everything you don’t need in life, even fixed walls. But there’s still hot running water, vintage baths, champagne, great food and espresso coffee.

“Nightfall is about a real genuine connection with people. At night we light 101 lanterns and spread them around the creek so guests can dine along the creek and feel really special.

“We can buy material things, but experiences are a little bit more precious.”

Peter visited Heidi and Steve’s property the year before he was arrested and Heidi says he will return soon to see how they have transformed the property.

She jokes she might put him to work to help repay the many hours she invested in ensuring his safe release.

“Peter came and visited the year before, he was part of a community function out here so everyone out here knows Peter and everyone has been intimately invested in his journey and in our journey to build Nightfall.

“He has no way of realising how much this occupied his family and the team behind them.

“One of the key things we have said to him is we all grew from this. The more you give the more you release how resilient you are and how much we all have within us to keep going. You pull strength you didn’t know existed.”

* This story originally appeared in the Gold Coast Bulletin Eye Magazine