Mal Leyland has had a life of incredible highs and he’s also survived some painful setbacks over the years.
By ROD BRUEM
His recently published life memoir, “Still Travelling”, is a remarkable story of human spirit.
It tells how he and older brother Mike came to fame in their early 20s by undertaking three record-breaking Australian expeditions they filmed and made into popular documentaries. They were dangerous journeys and each time there were predictions they’d either fail or be killed, yet they proved the doomsayers wrong.
In their thirties they became national treasures via their weekly TV show “Ask the Leyland Brothers”. Again they were told a weekly show like this would be impossible to produce, and again they proved the doubters wrong.
Riding the high of their popularity, the brothers opened Leyland Brothers World theme park, but sadly their luck had run out. As with many other tourism ventures at the time, the brothers lost everything when interest rates became crippling and the bank foreclosed, driving a wedge between the once inseparable brothers.
Not long after, Mal was diagnosed with cancer and told he had just months to live.
Luckily he proved the doctors wrong and from this low ebb, Mal and his partner of almost 50 years Laraine eventually picked themselves up, went back into business and rebuilt their lives.
Recently they’ve finalised plans for their next big adventure, an exciting new chapter in a life spent helping Australians learn more about their country.
It’s a journey that started more than 50 years ago.
In the beginning
Watching BBC African wildlife films as kids, Mal says he and older brother Mike were inspired from an early age to travel and make documentaries.
“I had no interest in anything other than being a photographer and travelling. I wanted to work for National Geographic or Life Magazine,” he says.
The first step on that path came quickly when they left school and both landed jobs in local media; Mal as a photographer on Newcastle’s evening newspaper The Sun and Mike as a cameraman at the city’s new TV station NBN.
They soon hatched plans to make their first documentary. Determined to be famous as explorers, they realised they had to do something nobody had done before.
Through their research, the brothers found out that nobody had ever travelled the entire 2000km length of the Darling River, so it became their first challenge and first documentary, “Down the Darling”.
Soon after, they were the first to cross the continent from Steep Point in WA to Byron Bay in NSW – from the western-most point to the furthest point on the east coast. . Their successful 1966 crossing, which saw the duo battle treacherous desert dunes in early model Land Rovers, became the documentary “Wheels Across a Wilderness.”
In 1968 they made a third expedition, re-tracing an historic voyage of Matthew Flinders. Travelling in an open boat from Darwin to Sydney, they covered 5000 nautical miles in an action packed journey taking just over six months.
At one point Mal was washed overboard in the middle of the night in heavy seas and nearly drowned.
Having surviving that brush with death, he decided it was time to get married, (or at the very least, he says, lose his virginity).
Love at first sight
Fortunately it seemed Mal’s mother also felt it was time her youngest son married and she had someone in mind.
“I was at home one night and Mum was having someone around to flog jewelry, it was a bit like a Tupperware party. It was the middle of winter and it was cold and I was sitting there in a daggy pair of jeans and a threadbare old jumper waiting for Mike. The doorbell rang, mum went to the door, I turned around and there was this gorgeous creature. It was Laraine. She was the demonstrator. She had this beautiful blue dress on. She walked in the door and I was smitten.”
He says he and Mike went out to do some film editing and he was thrilled to return later and find Laraine’s VW Beetle still parked out front.
“What really impressed me was that before she left her car wouldn’t start, so without any fuss she lifted up the back, pulled off the distributor cap, cleaned it out, put it back on and started the car.
“I thought, not only is she gorgeous, but can fix cars too!”