Vale Rob Swain 1955-2017

An unsung hero leaves a giant legacy – tributes to Rob Swain

Rob Swain passed away 13/8/2017 in Ravenshoe, Far North Queensland after being diagnosed with late stage melanoma five months ago. He was only 61 years of age.

Rob Swain 1/11/1955 - 13/8/2017
Rob Swain 1/11/1955 – 13/8/2017

We have lost a very special man, friend, teacher and mentor. Our loving thoughts and condolences are with his partner and soul mate, Julianne Hartmann, his family, friends and colleagues around the world.

Rob Swain has left a formidable legacy, which lives on in the countless number of lives he has touched, inspired and empowered, especially in Timor Leste and around Australia.

A brilliant designer, creative and intensely realistic and practical, he worked and shared his knowledge and skills with integrity, compassion and good humour. He was loved and respected by all for his kind nature, generosity and unassuming humility.

I first met Rob when he was a resident at Crystal Waters near Maleny, but it wasn’t until around 15 years ago I really had the opportunity to work closely with him and Jules (Julianne Hartmann). I soon came to value Rob as a trusted friend and colleague.

His wealth of knowledge and passion for bamboo was infectious. As he would say, “Bamboo is totally addictive, handle with care, it’s a love affair that lasts”.

Rob Swain during bamboo construction course at Djanbung Gardens, 2015
Rob Swain during bamboo construction course at Djanbung Gardens, 2015


Rob was a man of many talents, best known for designing and creating bamboo structures, furniture and festival installations, he was also a permaculture teacher, a carpenter, and practitioner of educational kinesiology, massage and Watsu.

Twelve years ago, Rob and Jules moved to Ravenshoe to create a tropical permaculture paradise, growing a food forest and bamboo ecosystem of diverse species, setting up a permaculture and bamboo nursery and teaching permaculture and bamboo courses locally and throughout Australia.

Together Rob and Julianne established their business, “Bamboo Solutions”, to promote the potential for bamboo in Australian landscapes as an essential tool for self-reliance and to reduce our footprint on the earth.

Bamboo shelter over cob oven in Ravenshoe
Bamboo shelter over con oven in Ravenshoe

Over many years, Rob spent time working with communities in various parts of Timor Leste developing on local bamboo skills and materials to empower them with new techniques and designs for housing, village development, furniture making and for cultivating and treating bamboo. He was a contributing author to the Bamboo Chapter in the Tropical Permaculture Guidebook

Here at Djanbung Gardens we are devastated by the news of Rob’s passing. He has left his mark here through his bamboo constructions, the knowledge and skills he shared during his workshops, and most of all by simply being ‘Rob’ — his warmth, enthusiasm, good nature and his loving relationship and working partnership with Jules has been a role model and inspiration for many. We will miss you Rob as you fly free into other realms, but your legacy lives in our hearts and hands.

With deep gratitude.

Robyn Francis, August 2017

Rob Swain, Robyn Francis and Julianne Hartmann Oct 2016, Djanbng Gardens
Rob Swain, Robyn Francis and Julianne Hartmann Oct 2016, Djanbng Gardens


This short video shows Rob at work teaching permaculture students in Mullumbimby.


Sharon Gibson writes: “I am sitting in the shade of the bamboo classroom that Rob helped our community garden build. It is in our ceremony area and it seems fitting to be here sitting in its shade with the sound of birds around me thinking of Rob. This gentle humble man leaves a lasting footprint of goodness on the planet.”

The Bamboo Classroom at Mullumbimby Community Gardens
The Bamboo Classroom at Mullumbimby Community Gardens

Lauchlan MacKenzie shares memories of Rob from East Timor:

I first met Rob (and Jules) in East Timor in 2002. Robs’ generosity, wisdom, hearty laugh and love of a good hug were apparent from then and continued to be a wonderful blessing to myself and all those he met. It was also apparent from our first meetings that his genuine and caring personality was incredibly welcomed and appreciated by the Timorese people during the difficult rebuilding period.

Rob was involved in many projects, many of them voluntary, including working with myself, Ego Lemos and Timorese NGO Permatil (Permaculture Timor-Leste) on the Permaculture Guidebook from Timor-Leste. His knowledge and input into that book and the new Tropical Permaculture Guidebook currently under production is immense. Apart from writing the bamboo chapter with Jules, he provided structural insights and technical details through the entire book, and always with his typical grace and humour. The book is immeasurably better from his work, and we are all much wiser for having worked with him.

Lauchlan McKenzie and Rob Swain working on the Tropical Permaculture Handbook in East Timor
Lauchlan McKenzie and Rob Swain working on the Tropical Permaculture Handbook in East Timor

Among the many other projects Rob passed on his building skills to builders on Atauro, his knife knowledge to a blacksmith in Baucau, his gardening knowledge to farmers in Oecusse and reforestation knowledge to communities in Aileu. And always, to these communities and to Timorese in every district, he gently and passionately guided them to better understand and use permaculture and bamboo.

The last time I saw Rob in East Timor in late 2014, we took time off from the guidebook reviewing to visit a bamboo centre they had advised on, including  choosing and planting the various Timorese bamboo varieties. Rob and Jules expressed trepidation about going there, a few years after their last visit, afraid that it might have joined the long list of failed or abandoned development projects in post-conflict East Timor. Of course their fears were dispelled, and we delighted in seeing very healthy bamboo stands, a huge nursery, a fully functioning production factory and multiple strategies to make it all environmentally sound, minimising the inputs and reusing all waste products. Large bamboo plantations are growing well in 3 districts, with big expansion plans for more. This is one of many hugely positive impacts Rob has left in East Timor and a reflection that when people work together as equals and time is taken to share knowledge properly then great things can happen.

I speak now of my memories of Rob, but with that I also speak of Jules. As a team they complimented and balanced each other so well, and the wonderful times, close friendship and amazing legacy is shared and to be celebrated.

Rob will perhaps not be widely known for what he has achieved and shared and enjoyed. That is mostly due to his humility and style of simply getting on with it. However for those who have been lucky enough to work with, learn from or be friends with Rob, he is a giant. I will greatly miss his generosity, warmth, wisdom, laughs and of course his hugs, but I’m privileged to be able to continue on with work he is a part of in East Timor and through the new guidebook. Rob’s life, and the way he shared it, is a legacy and a blessing that will only grow with time. Thanks dear Rob.

Lachlan McKenzie

August 2017

Photos from Rob’s work in East Timor provided by Lauchlan McKenzie

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