Sally Townley
Thu, January 26, 2012 at 16:54
Stephanie Hunt

Mark Graham tells me that Sally Townley is the most interesting person he knows on the Coffs Coast.  Not surprisingly Sally shares Mark’s love of nature, having earned her doctorate studying a native mouse.  But it’s the mention of Sally being a circus performer that makes my ears perk up – who is this fire-breathing ecologist?


Breathing Fire

Did you ever dream of running off with the circus when you were a child?  Well, Sally Townley didn’t. “Circus really did come from left field,” Sally tells me.  “It just kind of happened to me late in life.”  Yet here she sits, owner of the Coffs Coast Community Circus, fire breather, stilt walker, trapeze artist. 

Sally looks the part: the lithe, muscular physique of a gymnast; hair pulled tightly back; her face unadorned with make up and looking younger than her 46 years.  But as she sips her coffee and talks about her 8-year study of the Hastings River Mouse I am reminded that the fire breather beside me is also Dr. Sally Townley, scientist and environmentalist and I spend the rest of the conversation trying to understand this dichotomy.

It’s possible that Sally’s multi-faceted life is all part of a restlessness born from life as the child of an army officer.  “Every one or two years Dad would come home and tell us we’re moving and it was always short notice,” Sally recalls.  “I went to 14 schools and lived in 5 different countries by the time I was 15.” 

The nomadic, restless rhythms of her childhood carried into Sally’s adult years, but one constant was a love of animals. “From when I was 4 my Mum took me riding, and there were always cats, dogs and bunnies,” says Sally.  “I wanted to be a vet.”  In the end she studied Applied Science at SCU Lismore, focusing on zoology and botany.  After 3 years working in Northern Queensland as a wildlife tour guide, she returned to Lismore for postgraduate work. 

With the assistance of National Parks, and eventually a government grant, Sally studied the little known Hastings River Mouse.  “It was a lot of fieldwork, manual labour, driving out to these remote forest locations, carrying boxes of traps around and finding a mouse – maybe two.”  But Sally loved it, which was a good thing because it ended up taking 8 years to complete the study, write up her thesis and earn her PhD.

“I submitted the final copy of my thesis at the end of ’99 at 42½ weeks pregnant saying, ‘Don’t come out yet’.” Sally laughs.  By now Sally was married and had a one-year-old daughter Jaimie, with second girl Quinn on hold until the thesis was complete. Eight months later, with two children under 2 and doctorate in hand, Sally moved the whole family to Coffs Harbour.  “It was only meant to be for two months,” recalls the ever-restless Sally.  “We came down here one weekend, found a house to rent and I started short term work with National Parks.”

That 2-month job lasted 6 years, and contrary to every restless bone in her body Sally is still right here in Coffs 12 years later.  I’m guessing there were times when she would have quite happily run away.  She separated from her husband in 2005.  “It was a really, really, really hard time,” Sally recalls.  A year later a change of government and a restructure led to the loss of the National Parks job she had come to love.  “It was a huge grieving thing,” says Sally.  “It wasn’t the money, I just LOVED my job.”  But through the hard times something has held Sally in Coffs.

Perhaps it’s the circus that has soothed Sally’s restless soul.  She explains that although she had discovered a passing interest in circus activities earlier, it was actually the loss of her job that turned a passing interest into a passion.  “When you get a redundancy you can also get another money for retraining,” Sally says.  “So I spent my government allocated funding on circus training…thank you government.”

Despite what you may think this was not a waste of taxpayers dollars.  Sally has repaid the investment many-fold, using her circus skills to bring joy to the local community.  The Coffs Coast Community Circus came about when the couple that had trained Sally left town and she and three other friends “inherited” the equipment and the classes.  Now operating out of the PCYC, the circus school trains anyone older than three how to hoola, hang from ropes, juggle balls… 

Sally sits forward in her chair and her eyes shine when she talks about the circus.  “There’s no competition and every little bit of advancement is an achievement and it’s FUN, it’s just FUN.”  She explains that the circus is doing programs in schools too.  “Just increasing dexterity has an effect on mental processes, but also self esteem,” she smiles.  “The biggest kick of all is seeing how happy it makes people.”

And Sally is happy too.  She met her new partner Dave 3 years ago and tells me he is awesome.  She’s on the board of the Steiner School where her two girls attend.  The circus is a family affair, with safety specialist Dave now working on the rigging and eldest daughter Jaimie blossoming into an accomplished circus performer.  And for the last 18 months Sally has been back in the bush, on contract with the Pacific Highway project rescuing arboreal animals made homeless by the construction work.  “Most people would think it’s horrible crawling through wet bush, soaked to the skin all day in search of small mammals,” Sally says.  “But I love it.”

Sally talks about moving…maybe a couple of years in Melbourne.  And she tells me that sometimes she wishes she could walk away from the Circus.  But my sense is that juggling life as a circus performer, mother and environmentalist gives Sally enough balls in the air to keep those restless feet on the ground.  Maybe that odd contradiction of fire breather and mouse hunter is what Sally needed to find home.


Sally tells me that Sara Bowen is the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast.  Sally and Sara are both on the board of Casuarina School, but her “day job” is as an artist.  “Sara makes beautiful art using paper and print,” Sally tells me.  But she has a backstory – theology student, punk, motorcycle enthusiast.  Looking forward to this interview!

Don’t miss Sara’s story.  Click here to subscribe for FREE!

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (
See website for complete article licensing information.