Back Out in the Outback

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 ( ) 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!” 

A Minor Setback

A Minor Setback

Where people know her name

The past few weeks we have focused more on renewing relationships rather than being tourists, although Thea, Paul, and I did visit the Immigration Museum in Melbourne. We caught up with various friends of Paul’s from high school, internship, med school as well as my friend Leesa and we enjoyed BBQs, hiking, consuming lunches, and drinking wine. We were also fortunate to be able to take in a couple of events at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, including Simon Taylor stand-up and a Harry Potter improv for our niece’s 15th birthday.
Being fashionable with cousin Katie
Paul and I travelled to Albury and en route had lunch with Mal and Jill, the couple we did the practice exchange with in 2001, as well as Kate, who was Jeryn and Liam’s carer 1-2 days per week. Euroa has had some positive changes since we were there and is maintaining its population, unlike some other rural towns. Mal and his partner developed an amazing new medical clinic, the local thoroughbred racing stable is employing a large number of people, and there is a lovely venue for weddings that is popular with couples from Melbourne.

In Albury, while Paul updated his obstetrics knowledge (i.e. got his necessary credits for the next three years), I was thrilled to spend time with my two housemates (and their partners) from my time in Echuca. It was a bit surreal meeting up in a different border town on the Murray River from the one we all lived at 25 years ago.

Being energetic with cousin Lexi
On leaving Melbourne, it was poignant saying good-bye to Paul’s brothers, our sister-in-law and the nieces; we have spent more time together in the past 12 months than ever before and the cousins had so much fun together. We are grateful to all our family and friends in Melbourne who accommodated us and entertained us. Also a special thanks to Auntie Noelle the Great (and David) who looked after us especially well while we were in Tassie. 
From Melbourne we travelled to Western Australia, with a transit stop for several hours in Adelaide so we could not only check off another state on our travels but see a dear friend and two of her boys. Michelle provided a delicious lunch and a rainbow over the pier.

In Perth we stayed with Paul’s cousin David and sampled the vibe of Subiaco. David took me around the Lions Eye Institute and I got to meet people I have known for years via email, corresponding about David’s manuscripts. David also gave me a tour of the University of WA and the campus alone makes me want to go back to university – stately buildings, numerous majestic trees, access to the river, an outoor theatre (!) and even an occasional peacock strutting around. Actually I’m not sure I could be bothered to go inside to attend lectures if I enrolled for courses there.

One evening our family wandered around the well-preserved port of Fremantle and watched the sun set, grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed many glorious sunrises on the most eastern point of Tasmania and now to view the sun setting on some of the most western geography. After sunset, we had dinner with a long-term friend and her family. I met Elise backpacking in Europe in 1988 and we last saw each other in person at her wedding in 1997. Elise also joined us for a walk in John Forrest National Park. We got to see Karen and Craig, a doctor-nurse partnership who worked in FSJ in 2002/3. Their curling mentors in FSJ will be pleased to learn Karen and Craig are members of the Perth Curling Club. With Karen, Craig, and their children, we had a full tour of King’s Park, which turned into a Full Monty-tour when a person experiencing ‘the best day of his life’ stripped down and cavorted on one of the pristine lawns. We suspect his day went downhill from there as the local constabulary arrived. As Craig said, at least the police didn’t have to worry about concealed weapons.​

We had a wonderful time with Paul’s med school classmate Sue and her family in Bunbury. Our family did some short walks further south and two of the four (guess who) of us climbed the epic, 75 m high, Karri look-out trees. We tracked down some of the locations where the movie Jasper Jones, which we saw in Perth with David, was filmed. Gnomesville provided a cultural highlight.

Then Paul and I took his Dad and Sandra around the Margaret River region for several days. We visited the thrombolites, Cape Leeuwin, several wineries, the Boranup forest, Mammoth Cave, the Canal Rocks, and Busselton jetty.

Cape Leeuwin
Meanwhile the girls enjoyed hanging out with Sue and Steve’s girls. Notably Kate sacrificed studying time to take them to a cave and on a hike and they also got to go boating with friends and see dolphins.
Breakfast at Rawlinna on the Nullarbor Plain
Paul, Sandra, and John returned to Perth to catch the train to Sydney and Thea and I joined Sue and friends for almost 60 km of the Cape to Cape hike over 4 days – definitely the toughest physical challenge I have had in years. After hiking with a full backpack for several hours I was sure I resembled Quasimodo shuffling along the beach. The views were a helpful distraction; I think the western coastline scenery rivals that of the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. Sue and Steve’s friends were so welcoming and inclusive and the memories will last long after the sore muscles have improved. 

Our family reunited at Brisbane airport. Another friend from Echuca days, who we hadn’t seen since his wedding 18 years ago, met us for supper. Mick and Paul were able to commiserate about the patchy performance of the Collingwood Magpies this season and Mick and I caught up on mutual friends and career and life trajectories.

I was thrilled that we were upgraded at our hotel in Cairns to a three-bedroom apartment that was larger than the unit we occupied in St Helens for 3 months. We were spoiled with an amazing view of the esplanade and it was a treat to have a full kitchen and laundry facilities. Unfortunately, Paul suffered an L2-3 disc protrusion just before getting on the train in Perth and so was limited in the tour options he could choose during the course of the Perth-Sydney train trip. It is somewhat ironic that his most comfortable position is sitting up because when we caught the train from Melbourne to Perth 25 years ago, sitting up was the only choice. This time he had a compartment, where he had been looking forward to sleeping lying down for the three nights on the train. Nonetheless he was able to board another tourist train the day after we arrived in Cairns. He and I enjoyed the trip to Kuranda and a relaxed walk around the village, including a stop at the Australian Venom Museum. This is a delightfully tacky museum that also supplies tarantula venom for medical research. The gondola ride down over the rainforest was spectacular. We all went snorkeling at the outer reef one day, which was fantastic (even better than the Harry Potter Experience according to Thea). 

It really felt as though our time away had come full circle when the couple who generously hosted Paul and me in Victoria when we dropped Liam off at university in September were able to join us at our hotel apartment for a get together of several of the Canadian and Canadian-by-choice doctors attending the World Rural Health conference. We had also really looked forward to seeing a Zimbabwean physician couple from Nyanga at the conference but frustratingly they could not obtain visas in time. Paul has also met up with an American doctor who just finished a short stint at Bwindi.

Paul missed some of the conference attending physio appointments and getting an MRI but is doing an excellent impersonation of Hugh Laurie as House (although less irascible) using one of his hiking poles. We hope his injury proves to be a minor not a major setback to working in Katherine