This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.


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2002 Travels August 2 to September 13

FRIDAY AUGUST 2 TO FRIDAY 13 SEPTEMBER    DOOMADGEE

I have gone into considerable detail in my following descriptions of life here – simply because it was so different and so outside the experiences and comprehension of the majority of Australians. I think it needed to be told “how it is”. I wish I had more photos to illustrate the text, but this was not a place where one felt free to wander and photograph.

The community:

Doomadgee is located by the north flowing Nicholson River, which at that point is wide, crocodile infested, and not particularly attractive. The community is on the west bank of the river. In the wet season, the cement ford across the river to parts east, usually gets covered by water too deep to traverse. All other roads out of Doomadgee are dirt and become impassable in the wet, so Doomadgee gets cut off by road from the outside world.

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The weir across the Nicholson River, just upstream from the road causeway crossing

The surrounding country is flat and the typical savannah mix of shrubs, low straggly trees, and grasses. In August it was dry and dusty.

The community had a population of about 1600. The handful of white people who lived there were teachers, hospital staff, police, workers who kept things like the electricity plant, sewerage system and water supply, going; and council administrators. From what we saw, it was fair to say that, without white people running things, they would grind to a halt.

The place began as a mission settlement – at Old Doomadgee, on the coast to the north – in the early 1930’s. Due to regular cyclones, and problems getting fresh water, the mission was soon moved to the present inland location. Under the direction of the missionaries, the place was quite functional, although the Christian Brethren operated by a fairly strict set of rules. There was a cattle station, a piggery, vegetable growing that supplied the surrounding area. There was a school and sound education for the children, and health care. The mission supplied permanent and temporary stock workers to surrounding station, droving crews, and female domestic staff to the surrounding district.

In the late 1960’s, after some years of agitation by the labour movement, and by urban liberals, it was decreed that aboriginal stockmen and pastoral workers should be paid the same wages as their white counterparts. Many of the northern station owners then decided, that if they had to pay the same wages, white workers were preferable. They were more reliable, not disappearing for ceremonial or family business. The station owners were not prepared to go on supporting the often large family groups associated with the pastoral workers – who lived on the stations, on “their” country – and who had been supplied with food staples and clothing, as part of the workers’ “wages”.

The aboriginal groups thus displaced were forced to move to nearby towns, or to missions. The stockmen who had derived purpose and self esteem from their work, lost this. The family groups became dependent on welfare – mission and government based.

This was an example of a concept, driven by urban white idealists, that seemed fair and just, in theory – but which was not based on the realities of the situation. Aboriginal policy is littered with these! It could be argued that much greater disadvantage came from the equal pay decision, than benefit.

In this way, the population of Doomadgee came to consist of five different “families” or skin groups or clans – who had no natural kinship with each other and who, moreover, had long standing hatreds and feuds between them. These persist to this day, but were kept under some degree of control in the mission days.

In the early 1980’s, control of missions was handed back to “local control” – another idea that seemed right to the distant idealists, but which has proven to have created mammoth problems in the resulting aboriginal communities.

At this time there were some 800 people in Doomadgee. In 1983, control passed to the locals, under a Deed Of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) over a defined area. The last missionary departed in 1988.

So, we found a hugely dysfunctional community, crippled by feuding, totally welfare dependent, with a rapidly growing population as babies were born to teenage mothers, and with major drug, alcohol and gambling problems.

When we were there, the police numbered nine – a large number for a population of about 1600, but necessary. There was a police compound – securely fenced – that contained the police station and some police housing.

There was a small hospital that seemed to be reasonably well equipped. There were two doctors – one was an elderly man, rumoured to have alcohol issues; the other was African, newly in Australia, who was extremely difficult to understand, and who seemed to have limited capacity to comprehend English, let alone the aboriginal version of same! There were a number of nurses – white. The hospital also served the function that a  chemist shop would in a normal town. One could not buy anything pharmaceutical at the store – not even Panadol, or cough mixture (contains alcohol!). You had to visit the hospital and see a staff member to obtain anything like that.

We were soon to find that the Flying Doctor plane was a regular arrival at Doomadgee – sometimes multiple times a day, and at least twice a week at night. Our house was at the end of the airstrip, and the arriving and departing plane flew very low, and loudly, over us!

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Plane departing airstrip – seen from our back verandah

The story was that the medical staff were too intimidated to treat even routine medical issues, but evacuated virtually every case to Mt Isa. This was because, earlier in the year, a toddler had died on the steps of the hospital, as her carers were taking her in for treatment. Because there must be “blame” assigned for such things, this was regarded as the fault of the hospital. So then there had to be a riot, to show their displeasure and extract payback. The fact that it was the Wet season and there was little else to do, may have had something to do with it all. Anyway, riot they did – spectacularly. The whites in the community had to take refuge in the police compound and planes were sent to fly them all out to Mt Isa. Eventually, after much damage about the place, for which the government funded repairs and replacements, things settled down again. But that was why matters medical were sent to Mt Isa, and why we found so much current fear amongst the white population, of doing something that would spark off another massive riot. Probably in the next Wet season!

There was one community store, which was also the fuel outlet. The store was basically a large, shed-like building, cavernous and echoing. In a small side section, opening into the main store, was a butcher’s shop, of sorts. This sold basic cuts of meat, although the cuts were pretty rough, and smallgoods. One paid the butcher in his shop – the meat did not get tallied through the store check out. Unfortunately his establishment smelt very strongly of rotten meat. The meat displayed was often green looking. The butcher himself did not look very clean. He shut the shop before school finishing time, each afternoon, so he could go out and about in the community in his ancient Mr Whippy van, selling soft serve ice creams to the kids. There was no way I was going to buy his meat, having smelled the place, but I had to go in there sometimes, to buy a packet of vacuum sealed bacon, shipped in from the outside world – smallgoods of any sort were not available out in the main store. So it became a matter of rush in, when there was no one else there, and try holding my breath while the transaction was completed!

The indigines were not totally reliant on this butcher, at least in the Dry season. Numbers of them went camping and fishing at the coast – at Old Doomadgee – getting fish and turtle. Some would spend time at Lawn Hill National Park, fishing, and there were other waterholes on creeks closer to Doomadgee, for day trips to fish. From what we heard, at least one of the locals was in the habit of killing cattle out in the bush, and selling the meat.

Fortunately, we were warned, right at the outset of our time there, by one of the other teachers, who worked in the store on Saturday mornings, not to buy any frozen goods from the store. They had been having regular problems with the freezers breaking down. Each of the large cabinet freezers had a thermometer on it. She said that the staff did not bother to read these and usually did not pick up a malfunctioning freezer until the contents had thawed. Then, they simply moved the goods to another one and re-froze them. She said it was quite possible that a chicken or packet of vegetables had been defrosted and refrozen four or five times! This knowledge reduced our food choices in Doomadgee yet further!

The community store was supplied from wholesalers through Mt Isa and, as at Adels, the supply truck came once a week. We soon got to know when that was and would try to get to the store quickly, after school on that day, in order to get the “fresh” fruit and vegies we wanted – the supplies never lasted long. These were horrendously expensive and very varied in quality. Prices were not displayed on much, and so purchasing was a mystery until reaching the checkout. On my first shop, I bought a rockmelon – no price displayed, of course. It was $8!

The store had most basics, though there were a lot of gaps. There would usually only be one brand of anything available, like tinned tomatoes. It also sold limited clothing, and thongs. Batteries and knives of any sort were in a locked cabinet. There were no pharmaceutical items, nor items like turps or methylated spirits (because these could be drunk in place of alcohol). They did seem to have huge quantities of cigarettes and tobacco available – probably the most comprehensive range of anything in the store!

Some local ladies were attempting to run the store. The checkout staff were locals. Working here met their CDEP (work for the dole) requirements. There had been a new, white, manageress appointed at the start of the year – she’d had experience running a community store in a community way down south. We got to know her husband, who was a teacher at the school. It seems she had tried to manage the place along more commercially efficient lines than had the previous manager. One of her innovations had been to instal some monitoring cameras at the checkouts. She then commenced to sack operators who were putting goods through without actually charging for them – apparently a common practice; as was stealing money from the register, and/or giving money to relatives as they came through. All fairly widespread practices, she found. Then the family of one sacked girl got upset, rounded up their friends and they all rioted – again, a common happening in this community. They torched her 4WD vehicle (a “normal” way of expressing displeasure with someone) and attacked the store – especially the cash registers – with machetes, also threatening her with same. This had happened several months previous but she was still down south, on medical/stress leave.

Obviously, the women who were trying to run the show had glaring gaps in their expertise. Apart from the freezer issues, ordering was obviously haphazard. They could be out of basics for a week or three.

The old practices in the store were clearly back! My first time in the store, my trolley contained only a few items – the rockmelon, a box of soy milk, a small tin of milk powder, some teabags, some potatoes and onions. The woman in front of me had a trolley piled really high. She asked the register girl for three cartons of cigarettes, too. The tally for her goods was $50. Mine came to $45. I noticed that the cartons of cigarettes were not registered at all, and only every fifth item or so – the cheaper ones – got tallied. I found it hard to believe my eyes – there was no attempt to conceal what was going on. This was before we had talked to our colleague about what had become of his wife – then much became clear.

The local ladies would not work on Saturdays, because the CDEP terms did not require it. The store was only open for groceries and fuel on Saturday mornings because some of the teachers staffed the registers! On weekdays, the store shut somewhere between 4 and 5pm – it was random – so having the teachers volunteer in the store was the only way people like teachers and other 9-5 workers in the place, could shop and get fuel.

We discovered very quickly that shopping in the store could be quite unpleasant because the hygiene of some of the locals was not great. Queuing at the checkout behind a person who had recently been eating turtle was definitely to be avoided!

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The sum total of our living room furniture

Another aspect that struck us on the first store visit was the total lack of any printed material. No newspapers, magazines, books. No advertising material. No labels on things. Very few signs on anything. Reading was clearly foreign to most of the community.

At some stage, there had been a little caravan park, up by the main road, but this had fallen into disrepair. This was a pity, because – at least in the dry season – this could have been a good enterprise, employing locals. Not that we saw much indication that most locals were interested in being employed!

We were soon to discover that the school was unable to find people willing to be employed as cleaners. The teachers had to do whatever cleaning there was done! So the school was far from pristine. I think the hospital had similar issues. It was much easier to claim welfare than actually systematically work at something. Some were on the CDEP program, working some hours at the store, doing a few hours as teacher’s aide at the school, or cleaning up around the township and other assorted labouring work, for the hours required each week. It seemed to us that the CDEP program in Doomadgee was pretty token. The majority of the people did nothing for their welfare money, except – in the case of the teenage girls, breed! This gave them more money.

No one in the community seemed interested in capitalizing on the increasing tourist numbers going past in the dry season. Apart from the lack of any tourist accommodation, of any sort, there was a generally hostile air when tourists did deviate from the main road into the community, to get some fuel, visit the store, or just drive through for a look. They didn’t linger!

When the protracted Native Title negotiations were going on over the establishment of the zinc mine, one of the conditions imposed at the behest of the indigenous leaders was that the company had to train and employ a significant number of local indigenes.  They were trying to do their bit, but had found it impossible to fill their quota with locals who wanted to work. This was yet another gap between theory of what seemed right, and the reality of how it is up here.

One of the main community leaders was a person of very mixed ancestry, only a very small proportion of it actually aboriginal. His reputation in the district was of a thug, and corrupt. He was often in trouble with the law over things like illegal firearms, illegal meat slaughtering and supply – of stolen cattle, assault and the like. After we left Adels, he organized a sit-in at the mine, over some manufactured grievance. It lasted for a couple of weeks and coincided with when he was supposed to appear in court over his latest charges. Of course, he did not attend! The sit-in occupied the mine’s kitchen and canteen area – of course! This ensured comforts for the sitters-in. The mine workers were fed at Adels Grove, for the duration.

Doomadgee was, technically, a “dry” community – no alcohol sold or permitted. But we were told, upon arrival, that a blind eye was turned to having beer. Spirits and fortified wine were out.

There was a steady stream of locals driving either to the east, to the Burketown hotel, or west, to the licensed Hells Gate Roadhouse, to purchase their supplies. Both places were about 90kms from Doomadgee. Under local pressure on the council grader drivers, the road was usually fairly well graded as far as Hells Gate – but deteriorated markedly beyond that. I presumed that in the Wet season, there would be enforced drying out – which might account for some of the aggression abounding at that time.

There was a local “party house” over the road from our place. This seemed to always contain a fairly large number of people. There was not enough housing in Doomadgee for the size of the population. There was usually a campfire going in the front yard of this house, and people sleeping around the yard on old mattresses. It seemed quite anomalous in the morning, to see a carton of long life milk and a box of Weetbix, sitting next to the campfire. They cooked their meat on the campfire, so the smell of charred meat often drifted across the road and filled our house.

It was certainly a noisy establishment, where there was no shortage of alcohol, most nights, although Thursday (welfare payment day) through to Sundays were the worst for noise. After that, we assumed, the money, and beer, were running short. There was much very loud arguing, abuse and name calling, foul language, and regular fights. We were told that someone had been murdered there, with a star picket, a couple of weeks before we arrived. Everyone knew who did it, but no-one was telling the police, it seemed. One of the little kids told John the name of the guy… “xxxx, he did it, Mister”.

Thursday and Friday are pension/CDEP “paydays” – hence the following few days are the roughest in the community. It could be almost quiet by Wednesdays. We became a bit accustomed to the general rowdiness of the place. Apart from the noise of arguments and fights, there were often vehicles hooning about, especially on drinking nights. The roaming packs of dogs fought a lot. There was also a mob of horses that roamed the streets – extra noisy when these were chased around by the dogs. Another party house, a few doors up, often had really loud music going all hours. We could hear it clearly; the couple of young teachers who had the house next door really suffered.

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Looking north along our street – at night the realm of dogs and horses

We did feel really sorry for the police who worked in this place. Theirs was a thankless and unrewarding life, it seemed, constantly trying to keep the peace and protect the people from themselves.

In the scrub, a distance beyond our place, were the remains of the old piggery. We soon found out that this was a not a direction we should go walking in – it was where the local youth, and some older ones – went to smoke gunja and sniff petrol. Both substances were much abused in the community.

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From our back verandah, looking towards the old piggery, in the distance

We made an effort, at the outset of our time here, to go walking, for exercise. But we never felt really safe, doing this, because of the packs of dogs that often seemed like they were looking for an opportunity to attack. We always carried our walking poles, for that reason. During our time there, the pet dog of one of the teachers was badly injured by some local dogs that jumped the fence into its yard and savaged it.

We walked to and from school – only a couple of blocks. We usually did this together. I did not ever feel secure enough to go walking on my own. We knew that a young female teacher had been raped here, last year – and that this was not the first instance of a white female being attacked in the community. So, soon, the only walking we did was going back and forth to school. We felt that the Truck was actually safer from vandalism, parked at the house, rather than at the school!

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The Truck and van parked at the front of our house


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2002 Travels August 3

FRIDAY 2 AUGUST   ADELS GROVE TO DOOMADGEE   125kms

Packing up was finalized – John had done some, after work, yesterday.

Truck was hitched up to the van for the first time in almost two months.

Our goodbyes were said – again.

We took the track north, back across Louie Creek, but at the intersection with the road to Gregory Downs, kept going north, to Lawn Hill Station. Negotiated our way around that and continued on, crossing Lawn Hill Creek not far north of the homestead.

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Crossing Lawn Hill Creek

From there, it was follow the main station track, roughly north, opening and closing several gates encountered.

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We passed what we called “Cow Corner” – a place on Lawn Hill Station where several fences intersected, and where there were water troughs, where there always seemed to be a congregation of cows.

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“Cow Corner” on Lawn Hill Station

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The distinctive hump backed cattle of northern Australia

The track crossed a couple of dry gullies that would be running creeks after rain. Near one of these, a large bustard stood by the side of the track and just watched us pass. I hoped it was a good omen.

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Plains Wanderer

Just north of the fence and gate that was the boundary between Lawn Hill and Bowthorn Stations, there were some elderly truck remains. Just as we reached this, realized that a back tyre on Truck was fast going flat. It was an old, bald tyre, so that was not too surprising.

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This old-timer had seen better days

Changing the wheel was pretty routine. At least there was no passing traffic to worry about.

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Wheel change

At a T intersection, we took the track to the right. The left one was the “back” track to Bowthorn Homestead and Kingfisher Camp, a camping area the station had set up on the banks of the Nicholson River. That took us through to the Top Road – the dry season dirt road that runs east-west, from the end of the sealed road at Normanton, through Burketown, Doomadgee, into the NT, to the next piece of sealed road at Borroloola, some 720kms.

From that intersection, we were soon at the ford over the Nicholson River. This was long, cemented, and with a couple of bends that meant one could not see if another vehicle was approaching, on the narrow section. To our left as we crossed, not far from the ford, was a weir across the river that created a long, large waterhole, and helped ensure that the ford was dry, at this time of year.

The Doomadgee community township was on the far side of the river. It was laid out in a sort of grid, stretching back from the Top Road – which meant that travellers only needed to go into the community if they required fuel or supplies from the community store. There used to be a sort of roadhouse and campground at the Top Road, but that was run down and unused in our time there.

It was the school lunchtime when we reached Doomadgee.

I waited in Truck, parked outside the school, while John – who had been the one doing all the contacting and negotiating with the place – went in to say we had arrived, and get keys and directions for our house.

I think it was fair to say that, on first impressions, there was no part of Doomadgee that was attractive, and I remained unimpressed with the venture.

We made our way to 6A Potter Street – half of a high set duplex, on a street corner. There were a number of school houses in a row, here, and the Principal’s house was further up the street. Unfortunately, as we were to discover, the government houses were mixed in with those of the locals.

At first sight, the house looked alright, although I was not impressed with the trails and spatters of dried blood that went up the front steps. This was apparently the result of a recent fight between a couple of locals, and was an indicator that they felt free to intrude on the place, despite fences and gates.

I was never to feel secure in the house, or to go out without half expecting a break-in while we were away.

The other half of the duplex was occupied by the Deputy Principal, who lived there alone, although her son, who worked on Bowthorn, sometimes came to stay a night. I thought she was quite brave, living there alone, and wondered if she was relieved to have someone else in occupancy next door. Our place had been lived in, though, until the end of Term 2, a few weeks ago; then that staff member departed and didn’t come back – a fairly common occurrence here, we were to find.

We were only at the school ourselves, as it turned out, for six weeks, and in that time, three more teachers departed abruptly, and we were the fourth and fifth!

One of the duties of S, the Senior Master, was to oversee the staff housing, and associated matters. So it had fallen to him to ensure our place was in order. He had put in a not unusual, incompetent effort. The house had clearly been emptied of any furniture that others wanted – probably led by S himself. But there was a new bed and mattress, which S had managed to get delivered from Mt Isa. It had only just arrived. We had to assemble it – lucky John carries a range of tools.

The house had two bedrooms, both with built in wardrobes. There was a living/dining room, an adjacent kitchen, and a bathroom. The non-fixed furniture, apart from the new bed, consisted of a fridge – rather miraculously in working order, two rather grubby armchairs, a small dining table with two chairs, a small bookshelf, a telephone table – with phone, a coffee table, and an ironing board. There was a built in cupboard in the living room, and a fair sized pantry cupboard in the kitchen, which had a gas stove – also in working order. The bathroom consisted of a shower recess and basin; there was a separate toilet. There were ceiling fans in most rooms and three split system air-cons, fairly elderly and racketty ones. There were venetian blinds on the windows and security screening over all the accessible windows and doors.

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The kitchen was functional

The place was clean enough – not sure who had seen to that. It seemed to have been painted and refitted fairly recently.

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There was plenty of security screening

Behind the kitchen was a narrow veranda, shared with next door, from which there was another set of steps down. Under the house was a car parking and storage space, and a laundry area, shared between both houses – washing machine and trough. There were two outside clothes lines, and lines strung under the house as well. The area was clearly not used for vehicle parking!

We decided quite quickly to park the van in the yard – it would be too tempting and vulnerable to the attentions of the locals, if left outside the fenced area. It took a lot of careful manoeuvring, and pushing and pulling by us, to get it into the corner, close to the front of the house, where we could keep a bit of a watch on it.

We then had to go, before the store closed, to purchase a power card. This plugged into the meter and then we would have power – until the charged amount ran out, when we would have to buy another card. We guessed this system, which we had never encountered before, avoided issues associated with unpaid power bills! It made sense, in a place like this.

Then we discovered that the two large gas bottles for our house were empty. Not only empty, but disconnected – suggesting yet something else that had been appropriated following the departure of the previous occupant. At least, someone had found two empties for us to get filled. They were in a locked cage, but S would have a key to this, and others might, too. Back to the store!

After I had scrubbed the blood off the front steps, we made trips up and down, moving things we might need into the house, and things we just didn’t want to leave in the van.

We had some foodstuffs in the van – basic staples and some frozen meat, but I decided that tomorrow morning would have to see a visit to the community store, to see what was available, especially in the fruit and vegetable line.

This day had been an exhausting one. Despite noise coming from what seemed to be a fair sized and rowdy crowd at the house across the road, partly drowned out by the rattles from the air conditioner in our bedroom, we did get some sleep.

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2002 Travels June 17 – August 2

Our Adels experience comes to an end…..

Despite the occasional anxieties of the cooking role, I was really enjoying our stay at Adels, and hoping they would want us for weeks more to come. But my hoped-for longer stay was not to be.

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Cook and John-of-all-trades

During the Qld school holidays, in July, a traveller who stopped in for fuel and  a tyre repair, turned out to be the Principal of the Doomadgee School. He and John, who was serving the fuel that day, got chatting, and next thing, he had convinced John to go and teach at his school! I initially thought this was because John had been a specialist in literacy/Special Education, but eventually realized it was probably more due to a general teacher shortage there – any body would do! But he promised work for both of us, and a house to live in.

So, John was fired up about moving to Doomadgee, and “making a difference” in aboriginal education. And earning better money! He was never reconciled to what he regarded as our low wages. I could never convince him that – allowing for keep and the superannuation contribution – it was not that bad.

I was categorically against the idea of moving to Doomadgee. I had spent time exposed to the realities of aboriginal education – and community life – via the links of my previous school to one in Darwin, and the annual student visits I had led to the Top End and the Tiwi Milikapiti community on Melville Island. I did not share John’s naive idealism. At Adels, we heard quite a bit on the local grapevine about the nature of the Doomadgee community – none of it positive! The whole idea was distinctly unattractive.

I suggested that I remain working at Adels, John go teach at Doomadgee, and come back here for weekends. He wouldn’t agree to that, of course.

However, before we could be employed by the Qld Education Department, we had to be registered. That was automatic for me, because of my existing independent schools registration, but John had to go through the process. I had hopes that it would not happen – or would take so long that he would give up the idea.

There were phone calls to our house sitter to find and forward John’s necessary documentation from home. It took a few more weeks, but of course the man from Doomadgee was pushing for all the processes to be hurried up, and eventually we were both so employed.

John used one of his days off to drive up to Doomadgee, some 125kms away, by the station tracks – firstly, to check out the route, mindful that we would be taking the van that way. Secondly, to check out the place and ensure we really would have somewhere to live. The Principal was away, but John met the Senior Master who assured him that, although there was not much furniture in the house, he had some on order to come on the supply truck from Mt Isa.

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Lawn Hill cattle by track to Doomadgee

The Adels people did not want us to go. I had already heard much about the Doomadgee community – one could not live in these parts and avoid hearing how bad it was there. We knew the community was prone to violent riots. We had seen some of the residents come through, on their way to and from the National Park, where they went to fish, and hunt the wild life – including endangered species! White people were not allowed to use guns, spear fishing gear, or light fires indiscriminately in the Park, but no such rules applied to the natives, in “their” Park. We had heard of the main self-appointed activist community leader – and not in a favourable way; he did not even have a great deal of aboriginal blood in him, and was widely regarded through the Gulf country as a ratbag, out to benefit himself.

So, I had to accept the fact of our move.

I spent any free times during our last few days at Adels, wandering around the grove area and along the creek, feeling so sad, and yearning to stay in this beautiful place.

When I phoned daughter to tell her of our impending relocation, she informed me that her first baby was due in February – another grandchild! Great news.

Our last night at Adels was one of some ceremony. The dining deck of the new building was able to be used, for the first time, for that night’s meal. After dinner, we were given a little send-off presentation by the bosses, with gifts of caps, badges and stubby holders. Nice things were said. Everyone on staff knew of my great reluctance to go.

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In the background, the dining dck set up and in use for the first time

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Last to be served…..

At least, from the viewpoint of the management, the main part of the tourist season was tailing down, by the time we left in early August, so there was not so much pressure on the kitchen.