Big Red Tour
Through Outback Australia

Chapter 16
Doctors and Nurses

© Jens Hültman

R.F.D.S Emergency

I had booked Fidelity into a local service station. Dr K could not attend to her until the next day. Dr K appeared to be a mechanic to be trusted. He had a ponytail, tattoos, a workman's shorts, shirt and the obligatory Blundstone boots. He had had a look at Fidelity's ailments and provided me with a credible explanation as to the source of her troubles. He thought he could fix the problem in a couple of hours.

' No worries, mate, she'll be right.'

I needed to kill time. It's no fun being stuck in a small outback town like Derby. I had a look at an old hospital turned into a museum. Among other things, it told the grim story of how an epidemic of leprosy had wiped out a large portion of the Aboriginal inhabitants early in the 20th century. The building provided shade and shelter from the heat. The streets stretching out for kilometres were deserted except for the odd 4WD cruising up and down.

I visited the ladies at the Royal Flying Doctor's Service radio station. The Valkyrie-looking lady who gave the station tour looked at me with mild annoyance when I asked her how they really managed to get people out who had broken down in the bush. If you are far out, there is no place to land an aeroplane.

'We have never failed to get a victim out' she stated. She looked me straight in the eye. 'Never!'

She had a heart of gold. She gave me a private lesson on how to use the HF-radio. She encouraged me to make frequent test calls. She would stand by in case I wanted to try it. I never did, which in retrospect I regret. She sent me off to the hangars to talk to the staff. I drove out there and met John who worked as a nurse. He was a friendly-looking, slender man with a trimmed beard, dressed in a uniform. He showed me one of the small planes.

'Just like in the TV series', I said, well aware that this must be the most common line they hear.

'In fact, it's not at all like on the telly', he said with a slightly tormented look.

He told me about their work out in the Aboriginal communities. This is their main duty, not salvaging hurt station hands or lost tourists, as you get the impression from television. Bad sanitary conditions are the main source of health problems in the communities.

'Couldn't things be improved?' I asked him.

'If people started to wash and didn't throw garbage right in front of their doors, then they would be healthier', he told me. Better eating habits would also improve health. He saw no value in traditional Aboriginal medicine or their traditional lifestyle, which he saw as superstition and savagery, respectively.

When I returned to the caravan park, Irish Charlie was in his element. Lance the Teacher and his wife Del, a couple from Sydney who travelled in a Toyota van, had moved in at the campsite next to Charlie. Lance had a big, black beard, glasses and a reasonably educated look. His wife Del was a handsome woman in her forties with short, grey hair. Lance was a prime example of people from the cities who go through a metamorphosis when they travel in the outback. Maybe he sported that big Eureka Stock Brigade beard at home, but I doubt it. I couldn't be sure, but I guessed that his accent at work in Sydney was a bit more educated. Schoolteachers tend not to speak like wharfies or station hands on a cattle station, but now he did. No more Chardonnay for Lance. City people who travel in the bush quickly turn into experts on cattle and the local flora and fauna. The city cowboys impress naïve visitors from overseas. They can pose as much as they like. They are still not the real thing. The locals loathe and despise them, however much they try.

Lance and Del had taken seats at the table at Charlie's campsite. Dieter, a short Swiss boy with a grungy beard sat next to them, smoking. So did the young Dutch couple. Charlie had an audience and looked as content as an abbot in a nunnery. He was preaching to his congregation about the crimes and cruelties of the British tyrant. As he thundered away, he got back to the treatment of the Aborigines. His explanation of their plight was the inherent cruelty and ferocity of the Anglo Saxon race. They are savages with a thirst for blood that is programmed into their DNA, according to Charlie. No wonder the Aborigines suffered at the hands of these bloodthirsty monsters, according to his logic.

'Not many Australians are proud of the Aborigines' situation', Lance replied.

The government does a lot to help Aborigines get a start in society, Lance explained to us. Well-meaning authorities attempt to give them education, a loan to buy a house, a government-sponsored job, and demand work as a requirement for social welfare, etc.

'However', he continued. 'It will take a long time, maybe generations before the results will show up.' Lance represented the social worker view. The Aborigines are victims of circumstances, sadly caught in a Stone Age culture that they should leave as soon as possible. If only enough gentle and caring social engineering were applied to them, then they would become well adjusted Australians. Presumably, they would go to work in an office or at a factory every morning. After having spent the day at the pub planning the next strike, they would go home to the ritual desecration of a pile of meat and snags at the BBQ in the garden in the evening. They would live in a suburb in Sydney. Their favourite pastime would be to watch cricket on the telly with a tinny in their right hand, safely parked in their fake leather sofa. They would be just like any other Anglo, except that their skin would be black.

My own opinion is that everybody should be allowed to live their life according to their own rules. The Aborigines' culture has a value of its own. They should neither be chased out into the bush to live the life of their forefathers, nor be forced to become middle-class Anglos. This, I told Lance.

'But how can they live their own lives according to their own rules?' he asked me.

Irish Charlie, who had fought for land rights for Canadian Indians, told Lance that the solution is that the indigenous people be granted land rights. Then they should allow companies to use their land and get a percentage out of mines or tourist operations. This is actually taking place in some parts of Australia—a solution that is not that bad. But as Lance pointed out to Charlie, this is no solution if a community lives so far out in the bush that tourists would never want to go there and if there are no natural resources to mine or harvest.

Charlie would not give up his point. What had worked for the Canadian Indians could work for the Australian Aborigines. Lance got tired of him and started to stir him, a treatment that Irish Charlie did not take kindly to. 'Bloody ignorant race, the Anglo Saxon, can't teach them nothin',' he muttered to me later when he offered me a cup of instant coffee. He preferred obedient disciples like me who didn't talk back to him.

Dr K had promised me that he could heal Fidelity in two hours. Meanwhile, I lay waiting on the grass in the nearby park. Two Aboriginal men came up to me. Would they initiate me in some secret songline that told the story of how the ancestral beings had created the Earth? No. They asked me if I had any drugs to sell. They left calmly when I told them I had nothing to sell to them.

Dr K took three hours rather than two to finish with Fidelity. He told me that they had replaced the oil in the front diff. It had been full of grease leaking in from the hubs. The seals on the hubs had been tightened up. A leaking seal had also been changed. This sounded perfect. I asked him if it was safe for me to travel in the Kimberley and use the 4WD. He assured me I had nothing to worry about. The bill was surprisingly low. I thanked him. I told him that it was a pleasure to deal with a professional. Toyota in Broome had been wrong after all. He took my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and smiled the heart-warming smile of a saltwater croc.

Chapter 17 →