Melody Tan chats about respect, dignity and good old-fashioned values with television's Getaway presenter Catriona Rowntree.
There is a special kind of brightness surrounding Catriona Rowntree. Perhaps it’s her long, blonde hair and ease with which she graces everybody with a smile. Or maybe it’s her bubbly on-screen persona when introducing viewers to exotic locations and experiences all over the world, on Australia’s longest-running travel television program, Getaway.
In an industry known as much for its dark secrets as for espousing glitz and glamour, Rowntree seemingly skims across the surface unscathed, a beaming light of wholesome happiness and positivity. For that, Rowntree has her family to thank.
“Everything that I am now is a credit to both my parents and my nan,” she says. “Certainly, if I’ve had any success in life, it’s because of the code of conduct that [my nan] instilled in me.”
It’s a code that has been intimately shared in Rowntree’s latest book, A Grandmother’s Wisdom: Lessons Learnt at My Nan’s Knee. It’s a book that is part self-help, part tribute (her nan, Riria, and co-author, passed away midway through writing the book), part memoir and completely something Rowntree never intended to write—“I always thought I would do a travel book. But I had a publisher approach me and say, ‘I love the way you always talk about the relationship you have with your nan, the advice she always gives you. How about the two of you write a tips book?’ And at the time, Nan and I were so surprised.”
The book speaks volumes of Rowntree’s relationship with her grandmother and is filled with pieces of advice Rowntree received from her over many years. And one tip Rowntree implements to the letter is this: “Nan recommends you shouldn’t do anything that you wouldn’t be proud to see on the front of a national paper; don’t ever do anything that you truly think is beneath your own personal standards and beliefs. If it makes you cringe, if you wouldn’t be proud to wake up and have others read of your actions . . . don’t do it. Don’t go there.”
It is little wonder, then, that the most controversial result from a quick Google search on Rowntree is an inaccurate report that her contract with Getaway has not been renewed. Her nan would most certainly be proud.
Speaking to me from her home in rural Victoria, Rowntree admits that at the moment, she’s just “a little bit mental.” Having just returned from a three-week work trip to South America, Rowntree is now spending much-missed time with her two young sons—and also cooking for shearers (her husband James Pettit is a farmer).
Her voice, however, is upbeat, revealing none of the weariness or jet lag one might expect. When it comes to life, Rowntree says she loves having a full plate, but also admits being afraid that things would fall apart with the birth of her children (her first son Andrew was born in 2009).
“But the sky didn’t fall in! I suppose it is something a lot of women go through: when you have children; you just don’t know what’s going to happen, but it has been fantastic,” she says.
“From my experience, you need to prioritise what makes you happy. And for me, if the relationship with my husband is not being cared for, it really destabilises me. I want my children to be around happy parents. I want them to see that as a daily example. That’s how my parents have been with me and I am of the belief that that is one of the greatest gifts that you can give to your children: a harmonious household, a loving household.”
Rowntree grew up on Sydney’s North Shore, living in her grandmother’s home with her three siblings and parents, who were making a living flipping houses. It’s a childhood that made her realise how fundamental the family and extended family is for a child’s development.
“Being the youngest of four, I grew up in a really crazy household and my nan kind of picked up the slack with me, but there was never a sporting event that my dad wasn’t at. When God created the most beautiful parents, that’s what He placed in front of me,” she says.
“You are so far ahead of the game if you are able to say that you come from a stable family environment. What I’m relieved to be able to tell you is if you have not grown up with that, that doesn’t mean that you can’t create that. It just requires a lot more effort. I just think that it’s a wonderful foundation.”
Nan Riria’s words of wisdom
The foundation that Rowntree’s family provided isn’t some complex formula, but one based on unconditional love and simple, old-fashioned values.
“The legacy that my grandmother gave me was to choose kindness, to treat other people with kindness,” she says. “So that is a sort of mantra in my life. When I’m stressed, when I blurt something out off the top of my head, you just need to take a breath and choose kindness.”
A few minutes later, when loud clanging noises in the background interrupt our phone conversation, Rowntree politely asks me to hold. It turns out her four-year-old son is throwing toys across the room. “Andrew, please don’t throw that,” she instructs him in a firm but calm tone, before telling me, laughter tingeing her voice, “See, I’m choosing ‘kindness’.”
It is this sense of kindness and politeness that permeates our conversation. “I had a grandmother who showed me the right way to treat people and who showed me how important it is to treat them with respect. Whether you’re sharing a train carriage with a group of people or a dinner table with very influential company, that same code applies.”
And Rowntree certainly speaks with care and is careful not to offend. When she remarks that “God isn’t going to give you anything that you can’t handle”—a biblical concept—I’m prompted to ask if her background is Christian. Rowntree credits her grandmother for passing on her beliefs but is also quick to point out the contributions of other religions.
“[We need to] be respectful of other people’s different outlooks. Just because you may not share them, doesn’t mean they’re not of value to another person. But if it’s a faith in God that’s your moral guide, then I know that that can be a beautiful thing.”
When you speak with Rowntree, you discover that people and relationships really matter to her. It’s about being caring to her loved ones “because you have to think about what your life is going to look like at 60. It’s not about accumulating trinkets; it’s about tending to the relationships that you most value.”
And she warns of society’s current obsession with burying our noses in our mobile phones all the time: “I do think that social media, whilst it can be a beautiful thing, I would place good manners ahead of it.”
She tells of an experience at a restaurant one evening, when she noticed how completely absorbed the people on another table were with their phones. “I didn’t notice any great conversation, I didn’t hear any laughter. It was four very isolated people connecting with people who weren’t even there.
“You’re not going to have a meaningful relationship if you are indicating that the phone is of more value than the individual in front of you.”
And that certainly isn’t the kind of relationship Rowntree has with those who matter in her life. Respect, dignity and kindness: three simple and what some might label attitudes of a long gone era, but nevertheless qualities Rowntree exhibits as best as she is able in everything she does.
A Grandmother’s Wisdom: Lessons Learnt at My Nan’s Knee, by Catriona Rowntree, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $24.99, out now.