Inspiring Lives – Sally May Mills

Sally May Mills Inspiring Lives

 All photos by Sally May Mills

I have stalked the life of Sally May Mills ever since I came across her beautiful blog on her island life, Remote and Raw and you can too!! I have long dreamed of living on an island so I live this dream vicariously through the beautiful Sally May’s photos..

Sally lives on a remote Indonesian island and generously recounts the joys and difficulties of following her dream.. She also shares at the end of this post a smorgasboard of divine addresses (I am saving these)… Big thanks and hugs to Sally..

Over to Sally..

You split time between Australia and Indonesia, where you have been working on a personal building project. Enlighten us a little on your tropical island paradise?

The island is near West Timor (in eastern Indonesia), and its southern tip is the closest Indonesian land to Australian waters. It has a climate and environment similar to northern Australia, with a short wet season and a long dry. The bush is scrubby and harsh, and grazed heavily by free-range pigs, goats and cattle – very different to the green tangle of foliage and terraced rice fields of Bali.

Getting here from Bali is a two day affair, involving a flight, ferry and bus. This means weekend shopping trips are out of the question, but affords the island a remoteness that we treasure.

Our house is on the beach, beneath coconut palms with uninterrupted views of the lagoon and waves. The three pavilions (living/kitchen, bedroom, shed/toilet) are a study in simple tropical design with an Australian shed aesthetic. The design is lightweight and open, and combines local natural materials (eg. coconut leaf thatch) with corrugated iron. The trade wind can be ferocious in the dry season, and we temper the force with shutters and bamboo blinds. We bathe under a cold water shower shaded by palms.

Sally May Mills Inspiring Lives

View From the House

We are among the founding members of a small expat community, predominantly Australian men over 50. There are only three other long-term female foreigners, and a couple of wives that visit for short stints.  There are no boutiques, no cafes, delis or bakeries; but there is a long left hand reef break, which is the main reason we are here.

Socializing is the central land activity, and tea breaks often span the entire morning. Unexpected visitors are common, as everyone is free from office hours and schedules. This can make it hard to get a few uninterrupted studio hours, however we never pass up the opportunity to put the kettle on. We occasionally meet friends for dinner at the resort, which also has a day spa for indulgent pleasures.

We live on the outskirts of the village and have been warmly welcomed into the community, despite the bewildering fact that we are vegan, voluntarily car free, tv free and, most shockingly child free. The islanders are predominantly Christian – a hangover from former Dutch colonization – and until recently, they were mainly subsistent farmers and fisherman. The introduction of seaweed farming brought an income opportunity for everyone, and consequently we have seen rapid changes. With the cash flow has come an increase in rubbish, proliferation of satellite dishes offering seductive television, and the disappearance of traditional houses – replaced by climatically inappropriate cement block boxes – as a flag of new wealth.

Locals are bilingual, speaking their regional dialect (of which there are seven on the island) and Bahasa Indonesia (the lingua franca throughout the archipelago). English is still a rarity. Even though we speak Bahasa Indonesiathe local language is an indecipherable jumble of vowels, and we miss the effect of being immersed in a culture through language.

beach lines.jpg commuting to the office.JPG garden sculpture in front of bedroom pavilion.JPG ikat drying beside hut.JPG lagoon reflections.JPG late afternoon on the road south.jpg

Ikat drying in the sun

What got you started in your photography career?

I am in awe of photographers who pick up a camera and two years later are shooting for Vogue, or signing their first book contract.  My path has been a quiet evolution, with no hero moment or big break; just many frames, little jobs, freebies and trades that edged me to a position of confidence where I could call myself a photographer.

Choosing voluntary simplicity and a goal free life is not conventional career advice, and despite over ten years behind the lens, I still question if my creative pursuits constitute a career; as measured by the western markers of success.

I received my first camera at the age of ten, and as Dad paid for the developing he would rigorously critique every shot. This judgment began to hone my eye and generate patience, as every frame was precious.  Growing up on a farm, I did not have any artistic role models, and photography was seen as no more than a hobby, consequently my path led to a science degree. Two days after graduation I set off with a backpack and my first SLR, and a wild notion that I could be a travel photographer.

Over many years, and unrelated jobs, photography endured as a passion. Eventually I was able to knit photography into a travel marketing position, and began to build a portfolio of published images. I shot weddings and portraiture for friends, and started a love affair with food photography through my own cooking and hospitality work. Determined to be forever office free and in control of my time, I went freelance in 2007, offering services in marketing, design, photography and writing.

Sally May Mills Inspiring Lives

Sally May Mills

What do you love about waking up each day as a photographer?

I don’t have to go to an air-conditioned box and spend my day ruled by someone else’s whims and schedule. Seeing the world as a photographer heightens awareness of my surroundings, and I am grateful that I am able to record and share simple moments of my life.

What would be your dream photographic job?

An editorial spread with Australian Gourmet Traveller, or an assignment for National Geographic. Please call.

If you could travel anywhere to photograph, where would you land?

A circuit of the Mediterranean coast would satiate my desires for food, architecture, landscape, colour, culture and beauty.

Who do you look to for inspiration for your photography?

I absorb images from Instagram, blogs, Pinterest, and magazines. Unfortunately these sources are severely hindered by our island’s painful internet speed and the absence of a postal system.  I love to see the freedom in children’s photos, and never tire of looking at food and lifestyle photography. My favourite shooters of the moment are Jen Causey, Chantelle Grady, Marte Marie Forsburg, Alice Gao, and of course, the inspiring Carla Coulson.

Sally May Mills Inspiring Lives


Taking time out last year to travel solo through Europe must have been a recharge for the photographic senses. Whilst there you took a photography course – where and how was the course?

My first trip to Italy was everything I had dreamt of, and provided creative injection with every espresso. The contrast from Indonesia to Sicily energized every cell, and I sprouted words and pictures furiously. Any new environment is fuel for the shutter finger, especially one as beguiling as Italy.

I attended the International Summer Academy of Fine Art in Venice for three weeks, completing master classes in photography, painting and sculpture.  It instilled renewed confidence in my photography, and I gained a stock of new artistic skills. The experience was marred only by a persistent heat wave, which I attempted to relieve with liberal scoops of gelato. The art school culminated in an exhibition and I was thrilled to have a friend from Australia present at the opening.

Sally May Mills Inspiring LIves

Reflection on the bay

What are some words that you live by?

I have a tendency to live in the future, absorbed by plans and ideas, so my mantra is “be here now.???  When I am questioning the purpose of it all, struggling with the reality of the moment, I have to remember that “peace is at every step??? and “what other people think of me is none of my business.???

Memorable career moment?

Being an official photographer for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali for the past two years.

Sally May Mills Inspiring LIves

The local well

Life on a remote tropical island sounds so cool…any (or many) hiccups along the way (or daily)?

There is a book’s worth of obstacles, challenges and mistakes we (and the other expats) have overcome, however they are part of the attraction of life in a remote area of the developing world.

In the early years we lived in family homestay, with three meals per day and no housework. There was little privacy and I struggled to find purpose in my day. Then we started building, and for three seasons, I had more purpose than I wanted, living like a pioneer woman in a bikini. We were without power, running water, a kitchen, or furniture. We pulled water from our well, cooked on an open fire and lit our nights with headlamps and candles. Vegetables wouldn’t stay fresh without refrigeration, and I longed for a cold drink. If I wanted a cup of tea, it meant I had to gather wood, light the fire and haul the water; and by then I would be hot and dirty and over the idea.

The most serious incident was Tom’s near death with cerebral malaria. Thanks to excellent medical support from our local doctor and the specialist tropical medicine, I was able to nurse him back to full strength without him leaving our bed.

Prior to 2007 there was no communication – no phone, email or post – and I felt very isolated.  The introduction of the phone tower was a revolutionary shift in our ability to connect with home, manage basic tasks such as banking, and to continue freelance work throughout the year. The internet speed is a daily frustration and it can take three hours to write one blog post or complete a simple online transaction. However, it enables me to stay for long periods without having a social breakdown.

Over three years of building we traced the evolution of society, from the cave to the present day. Every small step was monumental, and a gas stove, water tank, fridge, furniture and a flushing toilet now afford us relative luxury. Town electricity is provided at night, and we have a shared generator that we crank up for building projects and emergency smoothies.

These days, the struggles come mainly from within. Exempt from the usual stressors of western society, I am acutely aware that discontent arises within my own mind. Unhelpful thoughts still find their way to paradise and I have bouts of guilt, questions of purpose, and mild identity crises that overshadow the sheer joy of the moment.  The lack of stimulation and external structure can be very de-energizing, and while I have ample time for projects, I often lack the resources required to pursue them.

Sally May Mils Inspiring Lives

The local fresh food market

I am thinking palm trees, hammocks, crystal clear water and I am ready to pack my bags and move…what do you love most about this life?

You have the vision splendid, minus the hammock – they are overrated and make me seasick. I’m a sarong-on-the-sand kind of girl.

Other than the obvious passion I have for the sun, beach and ocean, I love spending every day with my husband, in a lifestyle congruent to our shared values. We treasure the simplicity and the freedom to create our days. Our situation evokes an awareness and appreciation for the basics, and I am grateful for the opportunity to tread lightly on the earth.

I cherish outdoor living and being in touch with nature – seeing the changing phase of the moon, marking time by the tide, and sensing every change of wind direction and temperature on my skin.

I love being part of a community where relationships are paramount, where no one asks – or cares – if you are busy, and there are no external expectations.

And I love never having to wear much more than a bikini.

Sally May Mills Inspiring Lives

Sally’s gorgeous hubby

Island food?

It is certainly not a gourmet destination. The local cuisine is bland and uninspiring, based on boiled rice, chilli and MSG. We are vegans that follow a mainly raw, high fruit diet. The weekly market is our source of fresh produce, with a selection of organic vegetables, rice, tofu, tempeh and pulses from the island. There is one main shop in the village that stocks processed packaged items like instant noodles and biscuits.

Fruit is limited to bananas and papaya, with mangoes making a thrilling addition come October. All of our fruit is organic and home delivered on foot from the village gardens. I have a small patch where I attempt to grow herbs and salad greens, against the forces of hermit crabs, ants, salt and heat. We picked our first papaya this season, but otherwise I am doing a fine line in bonsai mizuna and rocket. Despite living in a coconut grove, we don’t utilize many, as we can’t climb the damn trees. We requires the agile skill of a passing local to climb up on our behalf.

Our inbound luggage is a finely measured stock of goodies. Our main imports are rolled oats, dates and almonds, with a few packets of chickpeas, lentils and blocks of Lindt dark chocolate rationed for special occasions.  Our idea of an indulgence is “fruit with bits???, where the rudimentary island two-fruits are spunked up with chopped dates and a sprinkle of oats.

I love to bake, but don’t have an oven, so I have learnt to make steamed cakes and stove top treats, with the occasional camp oven bread in a beach bonfire. There is a pizza oven in the making, which will expand my repertoire.

Sunday is the gustatory highlight of the week, as the power continues through to 2pm for church activities, and we can indulge in spontaneous smoothies.

Sally May Mills Inspiring Lives

Where do you call home in Australia? What inspires you to return?

We hang on through the humid build-up to the wet season, then when the onshore winds begin to batter our beach and turn the wave to slop, we return to the hot, dry summer in Busselton. Located near Margaret River, in the south-west of Western Australia, it is picturesque, has great beaches, and is home to both our families. After eight months I welcome the change of environment and an increase in external stimuli; my senses are charged by the grey-green Aussie bush, warbling magpies, soy lattes, and stone-fruit. We go out daily for coffee, visit friends, and celebrate Christmas, then stay until early autumn, when I delight in cool mornings and new season apples.

Sally May Mills Inspiring Lives  Coffee Bali

What was the moment of clarity to you wanting to purchase your tropical island land?

Tom first visited the island in 1996 and was smitten. We got together in 1999 and it was clear that the surf lifestyle and Indonesia were part of the package. In 2003, when the first foreigner built a house and moved out of the homestay environment, I knew that having our own place was a way to manage longer stays; but the exact process was obscure.

The opportunity came while surfing with an Indonesian friend. She asked if I could help – she had bought land on behalf of another Australian and the deal had fallen through – would we be interested?

It was the fastest paddle back to shore in my life.

Any words of wisdom to people reading and wanting to make a similar move?

Be brave, live with intention, and don’t listen to anyone that says it isn’t the “real world.???

Sally May Mills Inspiring Lives

All Photos by Sally May Mills

Bali Bonus

Vegan/Healthy eats :

Zula Vegetarian Paradise Jl Dhyana Pura, Legian

Bali Buddha, Jl Jembawan, Ubud

Kafe, Jl Hanoman, Ubud

Café Zucchini, Jl Laksmana, Seminyak

Sari Organic, Ubud

Coffee :

Sea Circus, Jl Laksmana, Seminyak

Revolver, Jl Laksmana, Seminyak

Biku, Jl Petitenget (also offer the best tea selection)

Seniman Coffee Studio, Jl Sri Wedari, Ubud

Sunset Aperitivo :

The Rock Bar, Ayana Resort, Jimbaran

Potato Head Beach Club, Seminyak

Breeze at Samaya Hotel, Seminyak

House Shopping :

Jengalla Ceramics, outlet on Sunset Road or main showroom in Jimbaran

Bali Zen, JL Raya Seminyak, Seminyak

Geneva Handicrafts, JL Raya Kerobokan

Along Jl Batu Belig, Jl  Basangkasa and Jl Petitenget in the Seminyak/Umalas area

Mountain Retreats :

Como Shambhala Estate, Ubud

Bambu Indah, Sayan, Ubud

Sarinbuana Eco Lodge, Mount Batukaru

Alam Indah, Ubud

A giant island hug to Sally May for living a life away from the rat race. If you would like to stay in touch with Sally May you can follow her on Remote and Raw,  Facebook or Pinterest..

“Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the center of your life.??? Ray Bradbury




If you know someone who would love this inspiring life please share.

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Margaret | Destination Here&Now

Inspiring indeed Carla. Thanks for the introduction to Sally May’s blog. A gorgeous discovery. We camped as family once on a national park island in the Whitsundays for 12 days. Nothing but a solar toilet on the island. Probably the closest we’ve been to Sally May’s experience. One of the best holidays we’ve ever had but 12 days is very different to 8 months a year. Tell her she’s welcome to join us if we get our circuit of the Med off the ground in 2016 🙂 I’ll go to bed with thoughts of white sand and palm trees – a nice change from the snow clouds. A lovely interview. x

Joanna Brazier
8 years ago

Hi Carla from Perth,
Thanks so much for Sally May’s story and the link to her most interesting blog – inspiring reading indeed.
On my next visit to Paris I just may have my daughter and granddaughter visit and hopefully we can finally succeed in booking a fun portrait session with you.
Would be very special.
Your work is fabulous and it is so obvious that you are such a generous spirit!

Peggy Braswell
8 years ago

loved this interview + Sally may’s blog.

8 years ago

How gorgeous is Sally May Mills. And her husband too! I enjoyed reading their story. I could see the big picture and the nitty gritty bits of day to day living. Sally expresses frankly the reality of living in a remote location but then shares the joy of connecting with it. Her photos are an extension of this human modernity lifestyle. After reading this, I feeling the need to book an island holiday, take up art classes and start eating more pawpaw.

Melissa Gaggiano
8 years ago


Sally May
8 years ago

Thank you Carla for the opportunity to share on your blog and for the supportive comments from readers. I hope you all can find a moment of quiet in the sunshine, with or without a hammock.

8 years ago

I was enthralled by this interview with Sally May. Such an inspiring and humble young woman with a genuine artistic talent (and a very attractive husband). Thanks for sharing with us Carla.