Back Out in the Outback
We made the most of our remaining days in Cairns. I walked through its beautiful botanical gardens with two other spouses from the conference. The girls and I really enjoyed Hartley’s Crocodile Experience and learned the difference between salties and freshies while Paul attended his last day of the conference and participated on a panel about anesthesia procedures in rural settings. Our flight to Darwin was our last within Australia (I took a total of 14 domestic flights over the 4 months) and almost our last car rented (in 4 months we drove a total of 10 unfamiliar cars). It was HOT and still humid, although the dry season had officially begun! It is so different to the dry heat I was familiar with from living in Echuca and the dense vegetation is so different as well. Rather than eucalypt, one smells frangipanni and other tropical flowers. With their fronds lifted overhead on their branches, the pandanus trees look to me as though they are cheerleaders.
While Cairns seems mostly about tourism plus some sugar cane production, Darwin appears much more a working city – fruit growing, uranium mining, LNG, military (Australia, US, and occasionally other countries), with some local tourism as well as tourism to Kakadu National Park and points beyond. There are no old buildings in Darwin because 80% of the structures were wiped out by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. The present architecture incorporates a lot of primary colours, well suited to the climate. Compared to Melbourne, the people are much more likely to greet you and much more likely to wear white than black. I can’t pin the vibe down. There is a cosmopolitan element rubbing up against a frontier element – high heels/dress shoes vs bare feet/Blundstones. Similar to Tasmania, the TV ads in the Northern Territory aren’t known for their subtlety.
It is striking how heterogeneous the population is, especially compared to the homogeneity of Tasmania where the local Aboriginal population was exterminated and fewer immigrants flow in. Darwin is home to Chinese (most recently dating back to gold mine days but there is evidence Chinese and certainly Indonesians arrived before European explorers), Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, etc. The percentage of the population that is Indigenous is much greater in the Northern Territory. It is distressing to see how marginalized they are. In Darwin, it almost appears that there are two parallel societies, somewhat reminiscent of our brief exposure to South Africa without the underlying threat of violence. While some individuals must cross between the two societies, it disheartening to see the wonderful Aboriginal designs appropriated for all manner of gifts being sold in stores that do not directly employ Aboriginals (and I have naively purchased such gifts both in Canada and in Australia).
We took a 2-day tour from Darwin, spending the first day in Kakadu. We saw many species of birds on a cruise that traversed part of the South Alligator River, named by a cartographer who had been working in the Americas and assumed the animals he was seeing were alligators, when of course they were crocodiles. On the second day, visiting Arnhem Land (an Aboriginal land that also warrants a name change as it is named for one of the Dutch explorer ships, which was named after the town in the Netherlands) was a highlight for all four of us. I even enjoyed wading through the water and climbing up to see some rock art (but was relieved not to acquire a leech although Paul was not so fortunate). We were interested to hear from our guide that more Aboriginals in the Northern Territory have retained their languages and spiritual traditions compared to those in other states of Australia. It was also refreshing to visit Injalak Arts Centre (http://injalak.com ) in Gunbalanya that directly benefits the many artists who work there in different media, including print-making, and provides an opportunity for collaboration with textile workers in Cambodia.
I had not read enough to understand the wet and dry season in the Top End versus the usual seasons elsewhere. Lushness is still present as the wet season winds down and seeing the acres of lilies in the waterways in Kakadu and Arnhemland was like a scene from Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It is difficult to imagine the many waterways in Kakadu drying up. The dry season is aptly named: 7 months with virtually no rain. The consistency of the weather is a bit disconcerting to people who have experienced three seasons in one day in FSJ.
The 320 km drive from Darwin to Katherine was eerily similar to travelling in Zimbabwe – relatively flat, red-soil terrain interrupted by numerous large termite mounds and areas being burned off. However, the flora is much more diverse and the highway is much better maintained compared to Zim. The speed limit is 130 km/hr and when the large road trains (a semi pulling three or even four trailers) pass, one’s ear drums note the change in air pressure. There are few curves in the road, another stark contrast with Tasmania. The population density of marsupials is lower than in Tasmania and thus the road kill rate is much lower, with butterflies the most common casualty we witnessed.
Katherine began as an outpost for the Australian overland telegraph route, has a population of over 6000, with fruit and vegetable production and some cattle ranching on surrounding properties, and gold mining, and it is the nearest base to explore the Nitmiluk Park/Katherine Gorge. Katherine had its own catastrophe in 1998 when much greater than normal flooding of the Katherine River required many people to evacuate and a great deal of reclamation afterwards.
Our unit in Katherine feels very spacious, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Rather than herons outside our window as we had in Zimbabwe, here there are whistling and black kites and red-tailed cockatoos. We live less than 1 km from the free local hot springs, which are only tepid compared to Liard Hot Springs but when the ambient air temperature is 30 degrees at 5 pm, tepid is fine. A pop-up café sets up near the springs each morning and has become our ‘local’, especially for Rachelle and Thea as there is free Wifi there. There are some trails along the river for running and cycling. The town has a 50 m outdoor swimming pool. It is funny to us Canadians that the pool is not open for lane swimming in the early morning hours in the dry season because it is too cold out (i.e. 20 degrees at 6 am). Tourism is ramping up in the dry season, with tourists of many nationalities driving Land Rovers and stocking up on supplies in town.
We are getting quite a few mosquito bites so I purchased some insect repellent that is 80% DEET just because it was available. Rather frightening when the directions read: Avoid contact with eyes, mouth, cell phones, spectacle frames, other plastics, painted surfaces, vinyl seat covers, and synthetic fabrics.’ ‘Dispose of empty container by wrapping in paper, placing in plastic bag and putting in garbage.’ Sounds like the stuff should come with HAZMAT training; I didn’t anticipate that wearing repellent was going to be one of the most dangerous undertakings of the trip.
At the time of posting Paul has completed his first two weeks at work. We were worried that Paul’s disc problem would preclude him from working as planned but he is coping so far although the 10-hr evening shifts are going to be a challenge. His mum’s expression of her leg “tiring out” from her back problems seems the most descriptive. The hospital is reasonably well staffed, with medical students and residents rotating through. He is appreciating the opportunity to work in an emergency department with other medical staff on duty as it helps the exchange of ideas, which in turns enhances the patient’s care and helps mitigate that feeling of being overwhelmed. It also helps that the NT emergency transfer service, CareFlight is very efficient and appears well resourced so that the truly sick patient who needs transfer to Darwin achieves that transfer quickly. There are the challenges of providing care where the underlying issues are the social determinants of health or lack of community supports; however, these problems present with their own local flavor peculiar to the Northern Territory and, in particular, the at-risk Aboriginal population. The hospital serves a resident population of about 19,000 (of which 85% are Aboriginal) as well as the 500,000 visitors per annum. These “Grey Nomads” (as they are semi-affectionately referred to in Australia) obviously present their own health challenges when they have need for emergency care. All these elements are part of the learning curve, as well as adapting back to shift work from the regular hours of East Coast Tasmania. Everyone has been gracious and kind as he hobbles about with his hiking stick shortened to function as a cane, even the one patient who exclaimed, “You’re not House so don’t go poking me with that thing!”