In an exclusive extract from her book The Royals in Australia, Juliet Rieden, Editor of The Australian Women's Weekly, reveals what really went on behind the scenes of that landmark tour and how - back in 1983 - there was no question this was a royal couple in love.
Princess Diana was adored all over the world, but in Australia she was – and still is – an icon.
A main contributor to the unique relationship between the Princess and her people Down Under was the groundbreaking 1983 tour.
It was the Princess's first official overseas tour and no one could predict how she would cope. Following the birth of Prince William, news reports had hinted at a possible 'slimmer's disease' brought on by the extreme pressures she now faced in the media spotlight. This tour would only magnify that pressure.
When, at 7.34am on 20 March 1983, royal nanny Barbara Barnes descended the aeroplane steps in Alice Springs with a nine-month-old Prince William in her arms, she was making history. Not only was the baby Prince the youngest ever royal to visit Australia, his mother, Princess Diana, had shattered royal protocol not only by insisting on bringing baby William on this, her first overseas royal tour, but also by ensuring the whole family travelled together on the same plane.
Diana would have had to ask permission from the Queen to make the journey, but she was clearly starting her life as a young mother as she meant to go on, and it was an approach Prince William echoed when he brought his son Prince George on tour to Australia in 2014 at just eight months old.
Back in 1954, when the Queen first visited Australia, she had sailed away on the Royal Yacht leaving a distraught three-year-old Charles behind. Her Majesty was Australia's new Queen, duty called and it would have been unthinkable in those days for the monarch to cross the world with her young children in tow. But Princess Diana didn't want this abandonment for her son, and the tour program was specially choreographed to allow Prince Charles and Princess Diana days and weekends off to spend quality time with baby William.
In the lead up to the tour, royal watchers in the UK had speculated whether the 21-year-old shy Princess was ready for the onslaught of a lengthy overseas tour, but right from this first move Diana proved she was stronger than she appeared.
Nanny Barnes stepped onto the red earth at the bottom of the aeroplane steps and immediately handed her charge over to his mother. Sitting on his mum's hip, the second-in-line to the throne squinted into the Red Centre glare, camera shutters clattering in his ears, and started to perspire while Dad batted away an insect. 'The first fly on him already,' said Prince Charles chuckling. It was a very informal royal arrival, designed to introduce the Princess gradually to a nation that would soon engulf her.
The tiny hamlet of Woomargama in the New South Wales Riverina was to be the Australian base for the royal couple and their son. Here Nanny Barnes would take care of Prince William, with his parents checking in every few days and staying most weekends.
Meanwhile, his parents with their twelve-strong royal party, including three Scotland Yard detectives, two private secretaries, three press secretaries and a hairdresser for the Princess, were introduced to their Alice Springs home for the first couple of days – and it wasn't what the royal aides had expected. The area had been in the grip of a four-year drought, then just before the royal couple arrived 14 inches (356 mm) of rain had fallen – 'the Pommie effect'. Out in the outback desert three days of rain causes serious erosion.
The causeway to the shiny new $16 million Casino Hotel where the royal party was supposed to be staying had been washed away and the quick fix was the rather kitsch and modest Gap Motor Inn.
'This is a big day for us,' said manager Wayne Thomas, who suddenly had to instigate an emergency refurbishment and allocated the royal couple his only two suites with all mod cons – colour TV and a cedar jacuzzi! The newspapers had already ironically dubbed the motel 'the Palace in Alice'.
'I was there at Alice when they landed and the day before the Todd River had flooded and the road to the original hotel was impassable, the bridge was down. So they put them up in a motel. It was pretty funny,' remembers the London Sun's veteran royal photographer Arthur Edwards. 'We went to the motel and conned our way into the room, and the big feature was this huge hot tub. Priceless!'
The motel was immediately staked out by reporters and photographers, who lined up outside. Stockmen and local Aboriginals also came along to see what all the fuss was about. Prince Charles and Princess Diana took the whole thing in their stride, even spending an afternoon cooling off in the nearby swimming pool of a local car dealer. They managed to escape the media – or so they thought.
'The biggest mistake I've ever made was when I was in Alice Springs,' Arthur Edwards confides. 'Everyone was settling in and I thought, "I'm going to walk down to the motel on my own," and I took a long lens. As I got there, Diana stepped out of the pool dripping wet and I photographed it and there was no film in the camera. It was my first big day, they would have been sensational pictures and we'd have got away with it then because it was the eighties and anything went. I've never told anyone before, but that's definitely the biggest mess-up of my career,' says the 74-year-old who still works as The Sun's royal photographer.
The following day, Australia heard Princess Diana speak. At the Alice Springs Royal Flying Doctor Service School of the Air, 16,000 children were waiting patiently on cattle stations scattered across 1.68 million square kilometres to talk to the royal couple on the radio. Their question-and-answer session was relayed via specially erected loudspeakers to thousands more children who had gathered outside in the sunshine. Questions about Prince William dominated the historic broadcast.
Like his son 31 years later with his new wife, Prince Charles was very protective of Diana. He put his arm around her waist, held her hand, whispered guidance in her ear and was always there to help and lead when situations became overwhelming. Prince Charles was teaching his wife about the life that lay ahead for her, work like no other that can only be learned on the job.
Next stop was Uluru and one of the most iconic photographs of the tour. The royal couple met the Indigenous owners, who, to the great dismay of the private secretaries, invited the couple to climb their sacred site. 'Come on, darling, let's go up for a few minutes,' coaxed Prince Charles as he took Diana's hand and led her a few hundred metres. 'You know, back then if you climbed the rock you'd get a badge saying "I climbed Ayers Rock". So we bought a badge and gave it to Diana. It made a funny shot for the paper,' recalls Edwards.
'It was chaos; everyone was running around. We were getting great pictures of Princess Diana….Diana put her heart and soul into it . . . She always knew where the cameras were.'
Extract continues after video
After a flying visit to check on Prince William, the couple moved to Canberra, where Diana fever started in earnest. The screaming crowds were enormous.
The crowning moment of the tour came later when the couple tore up the dance floor at a charity ball at the Wentworth Hotel. Prince Charles spun his wife around the ballroom to 'The More I See You'. The Princess clung to her Prince as he navigated a path through the crowds, simply tucking her head into his neck and following his lead. The reports in the newspapers the next day were unanimous – this was a royal couple desperately in love.
News of the tour had reached the royal family back at home. Guided by Prince Charles, the new young Princess had learned the royal ropes incredibly quickly, and in a letter to her grandson the Queen Mother praised the couple.
After the tour, the Queen Mother wrote to Princess Diana personally, congratulating her granddaughter-in-law on the success of her first overseas tour. Diana replied in a letter now kept in the Royal Archives:
This is an edited extract from The Royals in Australia by Juliet Rieden, published by Pan Macmillan.
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