Lake Nash is a cattle station that covers 16,000 square kilometres, this is the size of the state of Victoria, and it is situated in the northern Barkly and abuts the border of the NT with Queensland. The nearest town is Mt Isa, the city of lead, about 200 kilometres away by gravel road. The station is bisected by the Georgina River. When the Georgina River flows, it joins the Diamantina River, and in those wet years, it helps fill Lake Eyre. The other rivers that contribute to the lake are the Warburton River and the infamous Cooper Creek. The Finke river usually peters out in the Simpson desert but when it is really going strong it connects with another river and ultimately ends up in, you guessed it, Lake Eyre.
The Georgina can be up 200 meters or more across when in flood. The flood plains can be bigger than that and the effects on the land are visible from our RFDS plane as we circled over Lake Nash before landing. This temporary giant lake gives the station its name of Lake Nash. Even when the Georgina and the smaller creeks are flowing less vigorously, the roads are all cut and the community has no road access for months. Over late summer and then the dry, the Georgina exists as a series of huge waterholes, and these are wonderful places for a sunset stroll or a picnic. Pelicans, spoonbills, swans cruise while brolgas strut in the shallows. The brolgas are easily spooked as we drew near, stopped their loud singing and dancing on the bank, and launched into the air and flew out over the vast waterway. The pelicans were pretty relaxed about us, they were swimming in a long single file appearing as if to consult with a glossy, white spoonbill perched nonchalantly on a branch of a sunken tree. The scene reminded me of the opening lines of the children’s book “Madeline”.
In the early 1980s some of the station land was returned to the traditional owners by the NT Government. The local Aborigines had been displaced in the 1920s when the station was first established. Since then they had lived on the station but without any tenure or security until in the 1980s they were going to be forcibly relocated far away, to Bathurst Downs; a place notorious for poor hunting and no more opportunity for fishing or catching yabbies. This was intolerable as it had no permanent water and was far from what is their country. As as result of their political action they were given land back but only ten square kilometres, called Lake Nash Community or sometimes the original name of this whole area, Alpurrurulam. The station runs 80,000 cattle in the good years, and the last four years have been good years meaning lots of rain filling up rivers and reservoirs, and cattle giving birth to more calves. It has been indeed good years for the station.
The settlement has few houses and only a few hundred people. There is a housing shortage with some people sleeping in abandoned car wrecks and most houses are overcrowded increasing the risk of infectious disease. Very few of the Aboriginals have well paid work, and that’s mostly on the station. On the station, they do mustering, tending cattle and have to use, ride and handle horses. The few men who work there do okay. However, some of the young men do not work at all. And they don’t hunt. And they don’t do culture. They seem to inhabit a void between White ways of life and thinking and the ancient Aboriginal ways. Many of the men do work at Rainbow House, in a work for the dole scheme. Like the station work, it is nearly all outside work, in all weathers and conditions, temperatures in the high forties over most of Summer. There is little respite at night with temperatures rarely dropping below 25 degrees. The main benefit for them beside income, is that they are doing something; here in the centre boredom erodes everything; health, any desire to hunt, or even take proper care of themselves.
Enthusiasm about work, life and culture creates well being and positivity.
The lack of meaningful work is the curse for these small remote communities. There is not the population size here to support businesses as in a town like Yuendemu with about a thousand people. Many more people can work in Yuendemu and do. Here some people do paint, in the small, multicoloured, brightly illustrated house in the centre of the town. The quality according to locals varies from excellent to average and below! One artist sells his work for thousands of dollars. The kids love school… mostly. I saw a little seven year old girl, who had knocked her foot and her Mum brought her in to get her checked out. She was very quiet at first, timid toward me but soon relaxed and talked about school, about the fun of learning words and numbers, and how much she liked her teacher; my patient and her smiling, happy Mum made a delightful pair.
I met many people, and it is indeed the majority of men and women I saw, who impressed me with their sense of humour, their love of this land, and genuine warmth toward the health staff including Jennifer and I. This is our second time here and they often beamed with pleasure on seeing us on our return. Even having the briefest of pasts here is a connection from us to them. I met an old patient of mine from my time in Utopia, and she smiled from ear to ear, when we recognised each other. There is a warmth to relationships here with patients which was the exception and not the rule back home in Launceston or Geelong. Not all communities are like this in the centre but this friendliness is very noticeable here in Lake Nash. Again it is striking how diverse it can be from community to community. When we were driven through town one evening, everybody called out hello and waved. ” Hi Ladies” the nurse called to the ladies sitting under the verandah at the art centre, “Hi Kids” she called to the children gathered on the side of the road and playing with their camp dogs, ” Hi Boys” she said to the young men walking along tossing a football between them in the gathering twilight. And so on.
Then there are the lost ones, my heart almost breaks to see these beautiful young people turn their backs on taking responsibility for dealing with their own serious illnesses; illness which if not preventable due to social, environmental and antenatal factors could still be ameliorated by diet, exercise but above all else, just taking their daily tablets. I met a softly spoken gentle young man who has never taken his medication with any meaningful consistency, and is dying from the effects of diabetes on his kidneys and will go blind from its unrestrained damage to his eyes. Sure I am the first to admit that given time, most diabetics will suffer these complications but it’s a big difference getting these problems in your seventies as opposed to your twenties. Nothing anyone seems to try or say has triggered that spark, that desire to just choose life. He is not the only one, a beautiful women of twenty two is going the same way. However, these are the minority; most of the men and women I met are responding to the care and attention of the health workers by trying their best and reaping the rewards of better health for longer. The longevity and well being of most people here are still below what we expect in Launceston or any white dominated town or city.
I’m not sure why this sense of hopelessness afflicts some people and not others. Too often it can be multigenerational, where the skills to embrace life and cope with it’s many ups and downs were simply never learnt. Yet most Aboriginal people who have had to deal with similar poverty, disease, and lack of work, have a steely resilience, a determination to survive and still enjoy being Aboriginal and all that means and can mean. In medicine, though it’s the least compliant and most sick who dominate our thoughts and time; and it’s also true that most patients do value a kind word, acts of compassion, an explanation well given, timely advice and intervention; these actions can all change life for the better. This is the best part of being a doctor. And then, there are those few I think of as the lost ones, and for them, all we can do is to try and then try again to help them, but as each attempt founders on their lack of engagement, and the situation gets inevitably and rapidly worse, this is the undoubtedly the saddest part of medicine. A dedicated nurse who has worked here for many years said that she wants to protect them, but you cannot. It is a salutary fact of life that each of us has to accept responsibility for what we do and then live with it’s consequences whether for good or ill; Only in games like ” Monopoly” are there ” Get out of Jail free” cards.
Well that’s a wrap for this current trip to the Northern Territory. Hope you enjoyed the blogs. You can check out any old ones on my blog. brucebarker2016.blog. Just type it into google or the funny rectangle on the left top corner of your browser.
A huge thank you to the staff at Lake Nash, that’s Bev, Angelique, Kirri, Clifford, Clarence, Valerie and Michelle manning ( or is it womaning) the front desk.
PS I have just read a book published by a dear friend of mine. I can recommend John Elcomb’s ” The Bounty Share” as a well worth a read. I bought my copy on Kindle. It’s about some modern day pirates and their comeuppance. All set in Tasmania and full of food, wine, local history, fishing, and a submarine!