Adventurer Dick Smith on his extraordinary life (so far)

Dick Smith at home in Terrey Hills. Picture: Geoff Jones

Dick Smith at home in Terrey Hills. Picture: Geoff Jones

Entrepreneur, aviator, adventurer, publisher, philanthropist, provocateur, flat-out Aussie legend ... it would take a book to tell the life story of Dick Smith. It's just as well the Terrey Hills local has written one.

At a time when adventure died a small death, as Australians disappeared indoors to prevent pandemic disaster, Dick Smith sat down in front of his computer at his Terrey Hills home and wrote the autobiography that would become My Adventurous Life.

He'd been working on it on and off for 20 years, spurred on by the many people who kept asking him when he'd write his story; when he'd tell the world in his own words how a Sydney kid who couldn't say his own name - who came 45th out of 47 in fifth class at Roseville Public School - became a multi-millionaire businessman, around-the-world solo adventurer, and bona fide household name.

A national living treasure! declared the National Trust in 1997. Our first president! declared the results of a 1995 poll that asked Australians who should be head of state should we become a republic. He had already been named Australian of the Year in 1986, spending his tour of honour campaigning against cigarette advertising targeted at children.

The Dick Smith Electronics building on the Pacific Highway at Gore Hill.

The Dick Smith Electronics building on the Pacific Highway at Gore Hill.

The 'President Dick Smith' memory in particular makes him chuckle as he speaks with Northern Beaches Review. He's obviously fond of a laugh - two of his favourite TV shows showcase Australian comedians: Tom Gleeson's Hard Quiz on the ABC and the Channel 10 panel show Have You Been Paying Attention.

He's not entirely sure why Australians have embraced him so, across his founding of Dick Smith Electronics in 1968 in a shopping centre car park, then Australian Geographic Magazine, then Dick Smith Foods, and so many other ventures besides: among his aviation records is first solo trans-Atlantic helicopter flight, and he's still patron of the Australian Skeptics, which he co-founded in 1980. The former Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove calls him "a great Aussie stirrer", no doubt in a nod to publicity stunts such as Smith's 1978 April Fool's joke in which he towed a purported iceberg into Sydney Harbour.

"I think most people compare me with themselves, and think Dick is just a car radio installer, but he's done ok," Smith says. "I have always been able to be very open in getting the media coverage and saying things openly ... and I think quite a few agree with what I say.

"I sometimes get called a patriot and I really love that - I don't even know what a patriot is, but I like being called one."

From Roseville to Terrey Hills

As the book recounts, Smith grew up in Roseville as a "free-range kid" who loved roaming the Sydney north shore bush, disappearing every day after school, usually by himself, to explore. "I loved that natural world, with its towering trees, ferns and sandstone cliffs," he writes.

A photo of a young Dick Smith by his grandfather Harold Cazneaux.

A photo of a young Dick Smith by his grandfather Harold Cazneaux.

He was a dedicated Scout which is how he met Pip McManamey, a 17-year-old Ranger Guide from Ruskon Row in Avalon. They married when she was 19 and he had just turned 25. Two daughters, nine grandchildren and more than 50 years later, Smith reports they are still in love.

"She would have never known when she agreed to marry me that I was going to do very risky things, like fly a single-engine helicopter around the world. She couldn't have known that ... but she did know I had an adventurous spirit - and she let me do those things, that many wives wouldn't have."

They moved from Roseville to Terrey Hills in 1979 because Smith - by then (and quite accidentally by his account) a wealthy businessman - had discovered his passion for flying and needed somewhere he could land his Bell Jetranger II helicopter (to this day his helicopter lives underneath their bedroom on a platform that can be wheeled out when required. By a stroke of bad luck, the helicopter was being serviced at Bankstown airport the day our photographer dropped by).

Joining the Boy Scouts changed Dick Smith's life.

Joining the Boy Scouts changed Dick Smith's life.

The three acres of "magnificent bushland" abutting Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park also guaranteed his two daughters, Hayley and Jenny, the same opportunity for the "free-range" childhood he had experienced. There was a little old timber house on the property, which the Smiths transformed into today's mainly single-level home "that's not too big, but just a lovely home - and we have experienced some huge bushfires but we have got through them."

He loves walking in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, and the little Terrey Hills shopping centre where he knows the shopkeepers by name. He loves the beach, too, and he and Pip have a weekender at Avalon, where their daughter Hayley Baillie lives.

"The walk up to Barrenjoey is one of my favourite things, I love doing that, and sailing my Hobie Cat on Pittwater, and visiting my grandchildren," he says.

"I love the northern beaches because there is hardly any high rise, except for Dee Why. I have always been one who likes small populations, and lots of land around.

Dick and Pip Smith on their wedding day.

Dick and Pip Smith on their wedding day.

"You couldn't do better than the northern beaches of Sydney in any part of the world, but I am very anxious that they don't get ruined by huge high-rise - one developer said to me, laughing, 'I can see us getting 50 storeys in at Avalon' and I said 'no way'.

"But you have to understand the greed of the property billionaires is unlimited ... they will want to put 50, 60 storeys wherever they can. And the pressure they will be putting on the politicians to completely overdevelop the northern beaches will be staggering - and that is where we the people who live here have got to be smart enough to say, look the reason we live here is the smaller population.

"We need to be absolutely vigilant, and just say to every politician, 'No, you can't grow forever'."

Spreading messages and wealth

And so we have arrived at the cause to which Dick Smith's has directed his considerable energy in recent years: his deep concern about overpopulation and the pursuit of economic growth that never stops, on a planet that clearly can't handle it.

Filming for a documentary film during one of his helicopter adventures.

Filming for a documentary film during one of his helicopter adventures.

"We have got to get our politicians showing leadership and explaining you can't grow for ever in a finite world," he says. "It is quite pathetic that our present politicians must know in their hearts that it is impossible to grow forever, but they don't say anything about it; they don't say, 'we have to have a plan'. There is no comment," he says.

"The whole world has to live in balance one day ... and we should be looking at that now."

He has also been on a mission to get the government to make the wealthiest one per cent - including himself and those billionaire property developers - pay a lot more tax, "which we could easily do".

Kneeling on thin ice at the Magnetic North Pole.

Kneeling on thin ice at the Magnetic North Pole.

If the government won't take his money, Smith will continue his long-time commitment to sharing it around himself, through the Dick and Pip Smith Foundation.

To mark the launch of My Adventurous Life in November, the Smiths donated $5 million to nearly 70 charities and organisations, including the Northern Beaches Women's Shelter.

I sometimes get called a patriot and I really love that - I don't even know what a patriot is, but I like being called one.

Dick Smith

A cool $1 million went to the Scout Association of Australia to which he has previously credited a lot of his success, not least because it taught him "responsible risk-taking".

"I spend a lot of my time running the Foundation - we get lots of requests and have to decide how we're going to divvy up the money," he says. "We're also trying to assist people overseas who are in a desperate situation - the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and also South Sudanese refugees."

Death-defying days behind him

At 77, Dick Smith concedes he is not as adventurous as he used to be. He's done pushing his luck: the process of writing the book has driven home just how lucky he is not to be at the bottom of an ocean somewhere.

Pip and the girls help get the first issue of Australian Geographic out in the mid-1980s.

Pip and the girls help get the first issue of Australian Geographic out in the mid-1980s.

"The thing I reflect on is I can't believe I am alive," he says.

" I am being a lot more careful now - because I am still alive after five flights around the world, three of them in single engine aircraft. I owe it to modern technology, it is so reliable."

On the count of author Peter FitzSimons, Smith's "extraordinary Australian life" is "one that he was lucky not to lose on about 10 occasions".

All of my heroes, people like Kingsford-Smith, and Bert Hinkler, they all lost their lives because they kept pushing their luck.

Dick Smith

The worst moment in Smith's telling came over the freezing Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland, on the Atlantic leg of his first solo helicopter trip around the world in 1982.

"I was halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, in a single engine helicopter, and the weather closed in, and I decided I would have to go back to Greenland," Smith says.

"I turned around in a very rough ocean and the weather had closed in behind me. I was circling with bad weather all around me, and in the end I thought, I just have to head towards Iceland. I felt sick inside."

By sheer luck, the weather improved and he made it to Reykjavik - and he continued over many more adventures to evade disaster, unlike so many pioneering aviators before him.

Says Smith: "All of my heroes, people like Kingsford-Smith, and Bert Hinkler, they all lost their lives because they kept pushing their luck; I am not doing that, I am not taking those types of risks anymore."

The years of living safely

There are still adventures, mind, but of the kind where Pip is at his side, and friends as well. In July, the couple and about a dozen mates are chartering a small expedition boat to explore the Norwegian archipelago of Spitsbergen, just about as close to the North Pole as you can get "and one of the most beautiful places".

With Pip and daughters Jenny (left) and Hayley.

With Pip and daughters Jenny (left) and Hayley.

But first, there is an Australian trip to complete: he and Pip are halfway through a drive around Australia which COVID-19 lockdowns forced them to abandon six months ago in Darwin, where their four-wheel-drive is locked up, awaiting their return. "In June, we drove from Perth to Broome, then up the Gibb River Road and eventually got to Darwin - we're now planning to head into Arnhem Land then drive across the Gulf of Carpentaria." It is their second drive around the continent; Dick has also flown back and forwards across it in both his beloved helicopter and fixed wing Cessna caravan, an aircraft in which he has also flown twice around the world.

His favourite place in Australia is Cooper Creek at Innamincka, on the border of South Australia and Queensland. He likes to get there once a year. "It has got beautiful river red gums, corellas in the trees - it is an arid zone but the Cullyamurra water hole is always full. It is just the most beautiful place."

Lord Howe Island is another destination close to his heart. He went there first in 1964 with the Rover Scouts for an unsuccessful attempt to climb nearby Balls Pyramid, the world's tallest sea spire (a rare feat Smith subsequently achieved in 1980).

He and Pip honeymooned there after their 1969 wedding, and his daughter Hayley today owns with her husband James Baillie the exclusive Capella Lodge retreat, where the extended family will be celebrating Christmas.

His plans from here on include spending time with family, "watching our grandkids grow up and giving them some advice". As he writes in the book, the years ahead will also be about giving back: "I feel my responsibility is to this world and the people we share it with," he writes.

As he has looked back over his extraordinary life, I ask if there is anything he would do differently, given the chance. There is a pause at the end of the line as Dick Smith, AC, has a think.

"Nothing," he eventually replies. "Isn't that ridiculous? I have just been so incredibly lucky."

  • My Adventurous Life by Dick Smith is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP 39.99

Have something to say? Send a letter to the editor at:

Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can access our trusted content: