A bridge on the Stuart Highway over the Adelaide to Darwin rail line has been renamed the Nannette Helder Overpass after the late pioneering Northern Territory Surveyor who was one of the first women to graduate from UNSW with a Bachelor of Surveying degree – in 1986.
The bridge rail overpass is located 10 kilometres north of Katherine on the Stuart Highway, and the rename was agreed by Katharine Town Council in 2021 in honour of its prominent former resident, who had provided dedicated, quality professional services to the remote Katherine region, and was a keen supporter and participant in the local community.
Nannette Johanna Michaela Helder was born in Groningen, the Netherlands, on 23 April 1962. In 1981, while on a working holiday in the Swiss Alps, Nannette formed a friendship with an Australian, whom she joined in Sydney the following year. In 1982 Nannette was one of only two female students out of a cohort of about 60 studying surveying at the University of New South Wales.
Undeterred, Nannette completed her Bachelor degree in 1985, graduating in 1986 and was one of the first women graduates (Rosilah Sani was the very first - in 1983). In the late 1980s Nannette took up a graduate surveyor opportunity with an American oil and gas exploration company, Western Geophysical. This brought her experience to the remote and challenging work environment of outback north-western Australia.
In 1992, Nannette decided to call Katherine, Northern Territory (NT), home; and with her partner welcomed two daughters: Zoe in 1992 and Georgia in 1994. Nannette worked a variety of jobs in Katherine, including mapping all the power poles in the greater Katherine area, surveying segments for the Alice Springs to Darwin railway, and surveying the record breaking 1998 Katherine River flood.
In 2001 Nannette became the first female licensed surveyor in the Northern Territory, and in 2002, she cofounded Territory Development Consultants (TDC). TDC provided professional surveying services to a region almost half a million kilometres square; between the Western Australian and Queensland borders, and from Pine Creek to Tennant Creek.
In her capacity heading a remote surveying business, Nannette single-handedly provided survey expertise distinct for its breadth of works, and was committed to supporting local business with local proficiency. Nannette's focus on and commitment to resident, regional services were recognised in 2008, when she became the first Territorian, and the first female, to win the Asia Pacific Spatial Excellence Award for Spatial Professional of the Year.
Nannette remained committed to providing dedicated, quality professional services to the remote Katherine region in, what compared to urban experiences would be described, a challenging work environment. Nannette also demonstrated her enthusiasm by voluntarily sharing her knowledge with the wider community; of note, public stargazing opportunities and mentoring local high school students in their maths studies.
In 2014 Nannette semi-retired and moved to Alice Springs to spend more time hiking, camping, canoeing and gardening. She was a keen gardener and landscaped her garden to ensure it was a sustainable and natural habitat for local wildlife.
She also became the first female member of the NT Board of Surveyors, representing Central Australia from 2017-2020. Nannette was an advocate for greater opportunities for female workers and for flexible working arrangements for men. She maintained a life-long love of the outdoors, bushwalking and gardening, and despite her self-declared dislike for the heat, never looked back on her escape from city life for the outback NT.
Nannette passed away in Alice Springs on 11 April 2021. Our sincere condolences to her family and many friends.
Image from ABC news
History of the School of Surveying and Spatial Systems 1949-2007