Central australia, Central Australia Work

Central Australia Road Trip number 9 Finke

  It’s 3:40 pm on Thursday afternoon and I’m sitting in the RFDS turboprop as it starts its propellor. We are on the way back to Alice Springs after a stint at Finke. Jennifer drove to Papunya, arguably the capital of the modern aboriginal art movement. We have kept in touch each evening by phone as there is no mobile cover or internet here at Finke. I’m looking forward to seeing her photographs of Haasts Bluff which is on the way. 

Finke was originally built to service the construction and later imagined as a base for the ongoing repairs required for the original Ghan Railway. It fulfilled its function and grew, acquiring churches, police station, post office, a hotel, and many houses for the workers and travellers. Many of these buildings are still here but used but not for their initial purpose. Darren is a white fella who runs the local store and is absolutely passionate about Finke, it’s people, history and possibilities. He accompanied Lana ( nurse manager at Finke) and I into the old Hotel. After opening the front door we walked past the old serving rooms and bars, into the large hall at the back of the building. On display are many of the local artists works. Its planned that this will be an art gallery, a dedicated space but a commercial one where tourists and art lovers can buy local creations. 

I have had the great good fortune to meet many of these artists in my short stay in Finke. Kevin makes wire sculptures, he firmly weaves and twists, wire, into horse and rider, then clothes and paints them. These are tremendously realistic sculptures. I met a lady, who makes tiny coolamon. You would know the coolamon is the food and carry all wooden bowl, aboriginal women carry when gathering bush food, filling them with witches grubs, bush tomatos, and other yummy foods. Her tiny coolamon are beautifully engraved with hot wire, she creates complex designs by burning them into the curved wooden surface. 

Many local painters are also represented, one particularly fine young female artist, who has two delightful young children, produces paintings of bold, confident design and rich, “ in your face” colours. She has he own version of the “ seven sisters story “ which I’d like to see if I have the opportunity to come back. 

Many of the paintings are full of story. Stories of movement through the land, of encounters with dreamtime and bush creatures and of the relationships between tribes. Stories of forbidden love and the consequences of going against law.The Aboriginal people who now live in Finke were not the first inhabitants of the town. However, they lived in the lands far and all around Finke but as time went by, they moved into the houses here, and now the local Aboriginal corporation owns the town. The Aboriginal corporation aims to fully realise the potential of this settlement.

The hotel will become an Art Gallery and a place where artists can actually work, making it a living breathing art space. The police station and post office will be restored and be reborn into new uses. There is a plan to create a museum about the Ghan. The building of it, its maintenance , and its many characters both black and white who worked on the line. Legends about the two floods in 1973 and 1974 that put paid to having the Ghan in its then location, and then getting the line moved eastwards. The floods washed away the railway bridge over the Finke River….. not once, but twice! Darren told us that there is a ton of memorabilia, old photographs and loads of stories that should and could be housed for tourists to look at and experience. This will provide job opportunities and a chance for white and black fellas to be together.
The Finke River is the oldest river in the world and there are plans to make one of the restored buildings into a natural history museum devoted to this awesome waterway. Jennifer has seen it in full flood while I could only imagine what it might be like as I drove over it’s now dusty river bed. It would be a hundred meters across. A few hardy tall river gums are spaced it, gnarled and twisted by loss of branches in previous floods. 

There are serious moves afoot to build a a camping and accomodation area outside the town because as the town itself is “dry” alcohol cannot be served or consumed here. There will be a lot to do for any future visitor. One activity mooted is to walk out in the bush with the old ladies, as they gather bush tucker. I met a wonderful young woman who has turned her health around big time. She decided to live and play and eat, Aboriginal style. She spends her weekends walking in the bush with her mums, hunting for bush foods and meats, camping out in the desert with them, sharing stories and time together. There are enough older ones doing this sort of thing here that the prospects for strong transmission of culture to younger one will occur. I was impressed with the health of many people I saw, slim and strong and exuding warmth and confidence. 

I have thoroughly enjoyed my week at Finke. I have met some terrific Aboriginal people who are also artists and strongly cultural. A truly cheeky sense of humour. I renewed a friendship with Lana and Ross with whom I’d previously worked at Laramba. It’s always a pleasure to work with them. Nicole is an agency nurse who is moving north to work long term with her partner a German man called Nikko. He loves the bush and the desert as much as she does. There are some very competent and friendly Aboriginal guys working at Finke Clinic, including Stanley and Rodney. A great team!
My only concern with realising tourism here is the threat to everyone’s ( including locals) safety from unrestrained dogs. They can move freely around and even a long stick won’t discourage them. I had real problems walking even a tiny distance from the clinic but felt very safe walking kilometres in the early predawn along the roads directly out of town. Tourism will require some changes be made to the freedoms the locals now have. Look, Finke is a great place to visit in a car but the danger from dogs mean I could never live there long term. Walking around is the way to meet and talk to people and it would be a shame if it cannot happen with confidence about ones personal safety.

Central australia, Central Australia Work

Central Australia Road trip 6 The Barkly Run

I’m onboard a RFDS turboprop as the door is being closed, and we are about to fly out of Alexandria Station. We will be flying an hour, about 300km back to Elliott. It’s a cool, clear day with a beautiful yellow light bathing and illuminating the station sheds and grassland. A flock of galahs is munching seed about twenty meters from the plane, with only the occasional look up to check how the rest of the world proceeds.
Alexandrina is the third cattle station we have visited on this tour. Every month, Tony ( a nurse usually based at Elliott) goes with the available doctor to three or more cattle stations to see the staff who live there. They are mostly young people who work as jackaroos, jillaroos, bore runners, mechanics, managers. There are some older folk as well. There are are a few children as well, who will be growing up on the station. When they are old enough they will be participating in School of the air. Until then it’s all fun.
The stations are vast affairs. The first one we visited is called Anthony’s Lagoon. It is about forty minutes flight time from Elliott, in the heart of the Barkly. We saw two people from that station but a nearby station called Walhollow sent across about eight people; so it turned out to be a busy afternoon. I have to record my notes on a word file as our normal software system we use at the clinic, is not available due to software and internet issues. It means I will spend the afternoon of my return transcribing it and copying it into PICUS. 
The stations are trim, neat affairs with grassy lawns sporting cane toads desultorily hopping and the occasional King Brown snake slithering around a tree. It pays to use a torch at night as it would not be prudent to mistakenly stand on one, well either actually. Cane toads have recently arrived in the Barkly, travelling down the rivers and lagoons in the wet season. Even sea snakes have been washed here, about five hundred kilometres from the coast in gulf country such is the turbulence and abundance of water, thee can be seen swimming in the huge rivers. The buildings are steel clad, with comfortable interiors and basic but comfortable furniture and bedding. The verandas have chairs to sit and enjoy the evening chill and stretch out the legs. There is a mess hall, with a cooked breakfast at 5:30 am, lunch at noon and dinner at 7 pm. The standard of cooking varies with last nights meal of corn beef and vegetables the stand out. The station staff, sit at the tables, swapping stories about their days. They spend the day moving and managing the cattle, usually on horseback. Horsemanship is a very valued aspect of Barkly Culture.
Tomorrow the Brunett Races and Campdraft will be held about twenty-five kilometres from Brunett Station. Many of the local station staff and locals, will go to see the events and many will participate. Racing is a keen affair, it’s only local horses that can be entered in the events. The festival goes on for three days. There is bush poetry, music but the highlight is the Campdraft competition. Jodie, the receptionist explained what she will be doing when she competes. A fence encloses an area of two hundred square meters. In the square are a dozen steer. The competitor is on a horse, and the aim is to cut out one selected cow, move it into the centre, get it to turn two or three times. Now all this is done using the horse to manoeuvre the bigger animal. Then lead it out through a gate and then back in. The “gate” are two white hats in the enclosure. In real life, on a station, the skills and speed of this sort of activity means the safer movement of stock. The competitor who does it with the most style and speed wins. There is a womens and mens competition but again in the real world of station work, teams of station hands all work together. Some teams of a dozen or more, can be all female. The staff of whichever gender are expected to do the same work. In the evening, the girls are just as dirty and dishevelled from working as the fellows. Frequently, the staff are on camp. These camps can last weeks, working cattle over long distances to fresh bores and feed, while each night is spent sleeping under the stars. 

Some of the young people are locals who were born here, some are long term visitors from Europe or the UK. From the dinner table, you can hear German, upper crust English accents and the drawl of NSW rural Strine. Its definitely an eclectic mix. There are some Aborigines but really, very few, and usually born on the station and as they have never left, never having experienced tribal life in a remote community.

The medicine is typical white fella medicine, contraception, smoking, and trauma mostly. There is none of the diabetes and kidney disease rampant in any Aboriginal community. 

You may recall the photos I sent of Marlinja. Marlinja consists of a pleasant Aboriginal community, on land that was returned from the vast Newcastle Waters Station in the seventies: the station itself and between the two the ghost town of the original Marlinja. Here we parked the car, and walked through the old buildings. There is the abandoned Jones Hotel, the general store, and the petrol station with its old fashioned bowser. Marlinja was a thriving community, and the shops operating in the the locals lifetime. When there were poorer roads and few vehicles, it took a whole day to get to Elliott which is thirty kilometres away, it made sense to have amenities close by. Now food and supplies are flown in directly to the station. The famous Marrinjah ( Way stock route that enable stock to be moved from WA to Queensland brought huge mobs of drovers into the Jones Hotel for beer, shower and a comfortable bed. This stock route was also called the Death Way, as it went through desert, jungle, crossed lagoons and often flooded rovers, with snakes, crocodiles, all together a challenging journey for men and beasts. There is a very good book written about this which I will try to obtain if not in Tennant Creek, then on Booktopia.

When I look up from my writing, I can look across the wing and see down onto the Barkly, vast mottled and hazy regions of green in the now desiccated lagoons and desperately hugging the few waterholes still remaining. The rest is a brown flat land scarred by the sinuous paths of now dead rivers and the long, straight dirt roads connect bores and stations. 
By the way, a bore runner is a person who drives from bore to bore checking they are working. Some times they are diesel mechanics but generally, they are people who love isolation and quiet. 

Central australia, Central Australia Work

Central Australia trip to Elliot

It’s Monday night and I’m sitting in my camping chair at the Outback Caravan Park, in Tennant Creek. We began our drive yesterday morning, travelling from Alice Springs to Devils Marbles. It’s 398 kilometres of the Stuart Highway. I took us about five hours including a stop at Ti Tree for lunch. A fine sunny day for driving.
Devils Marbles is one of the highlights of the Stuart Highway. Jennifer and I have visited this park before but it was always a rush, this time we could explore and take photographs at the two best times with no need to scuttle back to work and before it got too dark to drive safely. We walked on the many trails amongst the rock formations. The setting sun sets the rocks red aglow, the grass is backlit as it swirls in the wind, and the gums provide dabs of green and white through the landscape. Devils Marbles are the eroded superficial remains of a much deeper granite massif that arose under an immense layer of more ancient sedimentary rock, sea floor rock, then as the softer surface rock was eroded away the tougher granite remained. But this granite had already been altered, cracked, and split and when it arose into the light of day, these cracks filled with mud and water, splitting the rocks into the weathered Marbles we see today. 
We arrived back at our campsite just as it was becoming dark and cooling down. Overnight it’s very cold so it’s great to be able to rug up in our comfortable camper trailer, under a generous doona. We awoke at seven am, and walked another trail amongst the Marbles and again, were busy taking lots of photographs. We left at 10 am and drove 100 kilometres to Tennant creek. This had very little open on a Monday holiday but the Battery Mine was open. This is a retired mine and processing facility for the gold found in Tennant creek. Beginning in 1926, Tennant creek has been a reliable producer of gold. In all by 1996, 130 tonnes of gold had been recovered. As well as 270,000 tonnes of copper. What makes this area so unique is that unlike Victoria, and most other gold rushes , the gold is in ironstone and not quartz. Quartz is relatively easy to separate from its contained gold, it’s much softer and the gold is often in chunks or nuggets. In Tennant creek, the gold is in fine fragments, too small to even in see most circumstances. Lumps of ironstone, need to be crushed into dust to gather the gold inside it. The ironstone located beneath the water table is generally richer , it’s called magnetite. And you guessed it, it’s strongly magnetic as well. The denser the ironstone, the more magnetic the ironstone then the more gold will be in it. So remote sensing can be used today to locate more gold bearing deposits. 
In the early days, mining businesses were small concerns, one or two blokes, both worked a mine in truly appalling conditions. One man would be lowered down a mine shaft in a bucket, using one leg, to push off the mine shaft wall, then at the bottom use a pick to break off fragments of ironstone. The actual shaft went down through mudstone, as no one can go directly through the ironstone deposit. You have to shimmy up to it and chip off the bit in front of you. It was hot and incredibly dusty. The town grew but it was mostly men. The isolation and lack of female company, made life pretty dangerous at times. Was it worth it? For those men who worked the mines, most did little more than pay their way, but some did do well eventually becoming truly big mining companies but overall the capital and size needed to make a go of this sort of mining, ensured it was the big players, the ones who arrived in the 1950’s which made the really big money and still do. 
We did two tours. The first tour was through a “mine” built deliberately by Normanby Mines to be used for tourism. They had the expertise to make it as realistic as possible. Along the mine, the guide, showed us examples of mining, form the very early days, to the much more mechanised mining on the 1950s and 1960’s. We were shown the drills, the explosives, the crib room where the men sheltered during blasting, the Beethoven box used by the “powder monkey” to set off the explosives. We saw the mine shaft and the ladder ready and waiting to provide an exit for flooding in the mine. Huge pumps at the base of the mine kept the water out, but as the mine was a kilometre below the water table, a failed pump lead to rapid flooding. The second tour was of the stamping battery. This facility ground up to mined ironstone into a fine dust, you could then use mercury to bind the gold. The amalgam so formed had to be heated in a retort to seperate it from the gold, then the gold had to be heated to fen higher temperatures in a crucible to remove final impurities. A whole years work for a miner in the early days, would produce one or at Most two ingots of gold. An ingot was worth 50,000 dollars, that was a for a year, of 16 hour days, in hot, dusty, noisy and dangerous conditions. 
Afterwards, we drove back to our campsite to relax before dinner. It’s getting cold now. I can hear the cars and trucks on the highway, but only faintly. And that will be us too, as we compete our trip to Elliott tomorrow.

Central australia, Central Australia Work

Central Australia Road Trip number 4

This week I have spent working at Laramba from Monday morning to departure on Friday morning. It is easily the most friendly place I work, and this trip did not disappoint. I drove up north along the Stuart Highway, to the turn off to Laramba. It’s an eighty kilometre stretch of sand and dirt, and the troopie struggled. The old problem with these otherwise legendarily tough vehicles is the narrower wheel base of the front versus the back wheels, that makes them slidey slippery on sand. Any how, low 4 WD got me out of trouble, albeit being very slow; well at least I kept moving. 

The week has gone well, gradually and methodically working through the listed patients. Francis and Isobel are the two Aboriginal workers who take the clinic car, and try and locate them in the community.
On Friday, I was at the final meeting for the week before the drive back to Alice Springs. I’m very glad I took the option to stay longer because of a wonderful dinner with Helen and Brian, at her place and the chance to talk with Robbie Charles. He is arguably the most articulate and clear thinking Aboriginal person I have met. Robbie is the Project Officer for the transition to having a Community committe in each location  that will meet regularly, and to meet with clinic staff and the district manager of the health service. There are already committees that meet representatives from public services such as for housing, power and water. Usually the same key people are in most committees as throughout human history!
The community group cannot force the clinic or health service to do anything but will be a regular source of advice for the clinic, as well as giving the communities the opportunity to air grievances or suggest ways of improving health care delivery. It is to be a two way process where clinic managers can point out ways the community can contribute to improving health, such as financing a regular bus to town. It’s quite an exciting prospect and it’s being rolled out by aboriginal people from these actual communities.