Lolo Houbein; Author & Conservationist

Text and Images: Elisabeth Anderson

Around 2006 a department at Curtin University set out on a quest to preserve the Dutch cultural heritage of Australia’s immigrants. As part of their research the History of Migration Experiences Centre gathered stories Australia-wide for its website Dutch Australians At A Glance and, as a contributor, I saw this as the right opportunity to shine a light on well-known Adelaide Hills dweller, accomplished author and conservationist Lolo Houbein, whom I had previously met at her writers’ workshops in Stirling’s Coventry Library.

Lolo, who was born in Hilversum in the province of North Holland, came to Australia from The Netherlands with her husband and children in 1958 at the age of 24. She spoke no English yet eleven years later she matriculated as an adult student, continued her studies and became an accomplished writer in English, with an impressive list of awards and commendations.

Lolo in Amsterdam in 1951

Lolo achieved her Bachelor of Arts in Australian Literature, Anthropology and Classical Studies through the University of Adelaide in 1975 and then furthered her studies at the University of Papua New Guinea before gaining a Graduate Diploma in Teaching from the Adelaide College of Advanced Education in 1978. This was also the year when she received her first literary prize, the Rolf Boldrewood Short Story Award, for No Stranger, at Eaglehawk in Victoria.

The genre of the novels, histories, poetry, essays and short stories that followed would reflect sensitivity to a life enriched by travel, cultures, migration and also the environment. 

A critic described one of her early works, a 1988 autobiography of race and identity titled Wrong Face in the Mirror, as an “elegant testimony to her command of the learned language”and it earnt her the Dirk Hartog Award for Migration Literature (Amsterdam).

Her novel Walk a Barefoot Road, published in the same year, depicted “with numbing clarity the alienation and solitude of the migrant”, in the words of the reviewer, and for this she received the ABC Bicentennial Award.

Lolo Houbein’s novel Walk a Barefoot Road winner of the ABC Bicentennial Award in 1988.

Lolo also assembled Australia’s first bibliography of ethnic writers, now part of the Australian Literature Data Base.

Much of the foregoing can be found in more detail on – “Art and Culture”, the website created at Curtin University. And those who wish to touch more than the surface of Lolo’s fascinating life story and view of the world will find her autobiography Wrong Face in the Mirror (1988) an absorbing read.

 But her story continues. Out of her profound personal childhood experiences of famine during the food shortages of World War 2 has now emerged a trilogy of beautifully produced books in which Lolo guides households to her way of achieving fertile vegetable gardens and nourishing meals and so steer them through climate change, global warming, and “what’s to come”.  

Her first book, One Magic Square: Grow Your Own Food on One Square Metre (2008), is a hands-on guide for growing organic vegetables. It won a Gourmand Award in 2009 and was short listed for the Le Cordon Bleu Best Food Book in 2010. It is also published in New Zealand, North America, South Africa and Great Britain and has never been out of print.

Its companion book, Outside the Magic Square: A Handbook for Food Security, followed in 2012.

By 2019 she and co-author Tori Arbon had collaborated to complete the trilogy with Magic Little Meals: Making the Most of Homegrown Produce. Many households now have and use all three publications.

In her foreword Lolo reveals her passion for the land and expresses concern about the speed at which the Australian environment is being logged, mined out and sold off. It is an issue that had already demanded her attention nearly four decades earlier. In 1981 she and long-time partner Burwell Dodd established the movement today known as Trees for Life in South Australia. Millions of native trees have been grown and planted since then to change the landscape of this State.

In 1996 Lolo founded, and then co-ordinated for six years, the South Australian branch of the voluntary movement Wrap with Love. She inspired many to knit and crochet wraps for people exposed to the cold and susceptible to hypothermia and especially those who had experienced loss and trauma as a result of war. Wrap with Love continues today as an autonomous movement. It has a world-wide outreach and in 2019 contributors made 25,295 wraps distributed to 17 countries as well as Australia.

Portrait of Lolo by Dutch-Australian photographer Eric Algra

Lolo admits to an endless list of other things that she would have liked to do or write and feels that life is simply too short. Meanwhile however, suffice it to say that her far-reaching endeavours were officially recognised in 2002 when she received the Australian Medal for Services to Literature and the Environment.

Learn more about Lolo Houbein in our Gardening topic here.

Do you have stories or memories of Lolo Houbein and her time in the Adelaide Hills?

Contact us at or drop into the History Centre at the Coventry Library, 63 Mount Barker Road, Stirling.