This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.


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2003 Travels May 3

SATURDAY 3 MAY     ADELS GROVE

I was on shop today. This was a little scary, as I was kind of solo, for the first time.

The current arrangement was that the main shop person for the day started at 10am, and finished about 6.30pm, closing the shop at 6pm and then counting and balancing the till. Whoever looked like having a fairly quiet early morning, looked after the shop until 10am. Or the boss did it.

For me that meant a nice, slow, start to the day, and a bit of a sleep in. The down side was that it also meant showering after tea, in the dark – and there were no lights in the showers.

B was supposed to be on shop/kitchen, but was hardly sighted through the day – don’t know where she got to.

I had to clean the amenities in the main building when I started, as it had not been done.

It was busier today. It was the weekend of the big Gregory Downs canoe races, so there were more people up this way, and some coming past to have a look at the National Park who often called in for ice creams and cool drinks. It was also the Labour Day long weekend.

Some campers arrived – without bookings. They had been disconcerted to find the camp areas at the Gregory really crowded, so came on here. We had plenty of space for them.

A couple came from Doomadgee to stay in a DBB tent. We’d worked with one of them at Doomadgee last year. So we heard all the school gossip from there – new Principal and Senior Master this year. A number of the staff we’d known had moved on. The secondary girls’ teacher had been raided and found in possession of contraband, so she had left. They said the school had deteriorated from last year – very few students attending. Apparently the DP had received an award for services to aboriginal literacy – possibly on the strength of John having organized for the literacy tests to be done properly and training the kids for being tested, so the results appeared to have improved. What a joke! They said she was now away down south on extended leave – and they thought the place was much better without her.

Other news was that the store manager (who had been absent when we were there, as the aftermath of an attack on the store) had returned, and caught – with indisputable camera evidence – the employee who had been cheating the store till, with help of her family members. It was calculated that her thefts  cost the store at least $60,000 – but she received a week’s community service order! Great deterrent to others.

With all the talking to the couple, I only entered $2.80 on the EFTPOS charge, instead of $280! So the till didn’t balance at the end of the day. The boss found the error. I saw the man at dinner and organized for him to come by the shop in the morning and pay. That was a lesson to me, to try to really concentrate on what I was doing!

My operated-on leg was hurting a bit, from all the standing.

Recent days had been windy, so there were leaves all over the verandas. Some of the trees appeared to be dropping their leaves for “winter”. Up here, I think that is determined more by soil moisture than by temperature.

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Lots of leaf litter on the ground in the Grove

John was on yard duties and filled some spare time by painting the downpipes on the new building – green, to tone in with the rest of the structure.

Lulu was successfully drinking from a temporary “bottle”. Good news. If she survived long enough, she would be taken to the wildlife rescue service in Mt Isa, next time someone was going who could take her.


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2002 Travels August 2 – September 13

OUR TIME AT DOOMADGEE

Friday 2 August – Thursday 8 August:

I have already described our initial arrival tasks and things we had to organize. We moved most of our possessions from the van to the house – mostly for their security.

We would be paying rental – a token amount – for the house, to the Education Department. This would be a deduction from our salaries.

We decided that the house would “do” – it was big enough for us. The second bedroom took the things we wanted to store, from the van, plus the ironing board that came with the place, was set up in there.

John decided that his main task for the weekend would be to burn the long grass around our fence line – before the locals decided to put a match to it, and maybe burn the van! It took him a good part of the two days, doing small sections at a time, and patrolling carefully with rake and hose.

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Making our perimeter safer

Made our initial foray to the store and was very unimpressed with what was (not) available. I did manage to get some soy milk, which was a bit of a surprise. Also bought Weetbix and some elderly potatoes and onions. No fruit available. We did have some food from the van freezer, but it was obvious that meals would become a challenge, without a decent meat source, and not being able to trust the frozen products. Rice and pasta would have to star! I also had some vegies and eggs that I’d bought from Adels.

I would get a better idea when able to get to the store within a couple of hours of the weekly truck arrival, of what fresh and perishable produce there might be.

A few weeks later, I was planning that I would bring back a supply of frozen meats, when we returned from the outside world, after the Term 3 school holidays. I thought I might be able to set up an arrangement with Woolworths and Ringrose Transport in Mt Isa to get my own private supply on the weekly truck.

We discovered the first afternoon that the sun sets behind the house – the late afternoon sun came through the kitchen window. Sunsets here were very pretty. Not much else was!

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Sunset seen from the back verandah

We went for a walk down our street, towards the main road. We did not feel all that secure about doing so, because of the packs of dogs that were around. I had a feeling that we would not be getting much walking exercise in this place!

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The back of the house – gas bottles in locked cage

Monday was our first day at work. We both felt eager to discover what plans they had for us. The answer very soon became apparent – no one had really thought about it!

The SM took us to a securely locked storeroom – of which he was the key’s only custodian – and issued us with things like pens and writing paper. Despite how far it was into Term 3, he still did not have a timetable worked out for the secondary students – all three classes of same! There was only a handful of elective and TAFE programs to be allocated time slots. It certainly was not rocket science! He had been telling the teachers to figure out for themselves, what to do with the students!

John made it clear that he believed he was here to work on literacy programs. Through the week, he met up with the staff lady who dealt with the remedial work for students, and also the occasionally visiting psych lady. Neither seemed at all interested in working with him on remedial literacy programs. In fact, they gave off a definite aura of hostility.

Eventually it was sorted out that John would have – for some of the time – a small class of boys who needed remedial reading work. John said he would fill in elsewhere as needed – definitely not a wise move!

We just puttered about, through our first week, trying most of the time to work out what the hell was going on.

Thursday was Sports Day – like a house athletics competition. We helped out with the oversight of some events. I was already getting to know a few of the older girls’ names and was able to spend some time chatting informally with them during the sports.

One funny episode occurred during the sports, which were held on the school oval. A couple of boys, probably aged about 12 or 13, were walking back from the direction of the store, towards houses beyond the school, carrying a couple of bags of shopping. Seeing the sports happening, they just dropped the shopping, left it where it fell, and raced onto the oval to join in the sports.

John refuelled Truck at the Store, this week, paying $1.22 cpl.


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2002 Travels August 2 – September 13

The school:

On paper, there was an enrolment of 360 students, in Years 1-10. There were 28 teachers, plus about 16 aboriginal teachers’ aides- only a few of whom turned up on any given day, and not in any predictable manner. These were all women. An aide would sit in a classroom – chosen by her – and watch proceedings, but did not actually do anything else. So they were more observers than any actual help to the teacher.

One of the several major problems for the school lay in the clan group/family warfare of the community. Certain groups of students would not attend school when other groups were there. Ditto the teachers’ aides. Classroom and playground dynamics remained a mystery to us.

The enrolment figures were derived from the start of the school year – in the Wet season – when Doomadgee was cut off from anywhere else. So, going to school was something to do. By August, there were about 60 students who attended fairly regularly. Others drifted in and out, from day to day, depending on what else was going on in the region, and their mood, and whether there was something like sport happening.

It was obviously very hard to run classes systematically, when no-one knew until 8.45am, whether there would be 0 or 50 kids in a class! Some primary classes had been formed from fairly regular attendees, and teaching here could be a bit more predictable and able to be planned. An example was a composite class of Years 2,3 and 4 of regular attendees. Other classes were designated for catching the day’s unpredictable arrivals. An example was a Year 2,3,4 class of irregulars – on any given day there could be no-one, or 50, in this group! So teaching bodies had to quite often be shuffled around at the start of each day.

For some of the irregular attendees, it might be their first day back at school for a week, or a month, or a term! They may decide to leave again, part way through the day, and not be seen again, maybe ever. Trying to deliver any meaningful or effective schooling to this group was well nigh impossible.

There was one secondary girls’ class, covering, nominally, Years 8-10. The 14 girls in this group attended most days. I use the term “nominally” because the achievement levels of these Year 8-10 girls ranged from about Year 3 to Year 7, as we would understand it. There was a smaller, equivalent boys’ class – usually about 7 of them. As well, there was a class of “feral” secondary age boys – fairly regular attendees but basically un-educable, due to their lack of any discipline or self control, and/or any accumulated learning to date. The school was obliged to do something with them. Two young male teachers were usually assigned to this group, together – to take them to practical, physical and outdoor activities, totally removed from the rest of the school. They were, essentially, uncontrollable and at times a danger to themselves and each other, not to mention the teachers!

The Principal – who had been responsible for persuading John to come up here – seemed to spend a lot of time away from the place. He was on various committees, union and working groups that met in places other than Doomadgee – Mt Isa, Cairns etc. We actually wondered if he was somewhat wary of being in the place, and possibly inadvertently doing something that would spark another riot.  He usually drove to wherever his meetings were, rather than utilizing the daily Mt Isa-Doomadgee-Cairns plane, so the time taken driving added to the time he was required to be away.

The Qld Education Department offered inducements for staff to go to schools like Doomadgee, Mornington Island, places on Cape York. For someone who took on the Principal role – and he was quite young for this – two years running Doomadgee would guarantee him Principalship of a better school. The majority of the teachers were in their first or second year of teaching, and for most of them, this was the only way they could get accepted into the Department. If they lasted two years, they became permanent. So, from their cohorts of recent graduates, they had not been chosen for other schools. So, the majority of the staff were enduring their two years. But there were some who were trying their hardest to make a difference.

The Deputy Principal was the lady who lived in the other half of our duplex. She was middle aged and an experienced teacher. We found her really genuine in her efforts to improve the quality of educational delivery in the place, if somewhat idealistic. I guess one had to have hope and idealism to survive in such a school. The teenage girls seemed to respect her, as much as they did anyone. Under her guidance, the focus of the school was on literacy and trying to improve same.

The Senior Master had spent time on Mornington Island, before coming here, so he was experienced in difficult indigenous schools. He was a loud and bulky man and these qualities seemed to have some disciplinary effect on some of the boys. He was responsible for the daily organization of the school. When we arrived, it was weeks into Term 3, and there was still no operating timetable!

There was a part time, experienced,  lady designated as the literacy/special education director. She seemed to see John as a threat, from the outset, and was not at all helpful.  Another experienced lady came in part-time from somewhere else, a few times, as the Psychology advisor.

A woman who had been teaching for a few years was the secondary girls’ teacher. She took them for all core work: literacy, numeracy, social studies and the like. In the time we were there, she never worked a full five days straight – always taking off either a Monday or Friday, each week. She was quite open about this; there seemed little the admin could do about it. She consorted with some of the locals and went off on three day camping weekends with them. The leading women in the community disliked her intensely – apparently she had offended local custom by giving the girls some rather frank sex education classes. But the girls obeyed her – albeit in a fairly surly way. I didn’t see much evidence of respect for her, though. I will refer to her as “S” – for secondary.

S had also clashed, earlier in the year, with the teenage daughter of one of the prominent community families. Daughter had gone off to board at Shalom College, in Townsville, at the start of the year – nominally at Year 10 level. However, Shalom posted her back home, sometime in Term 2. The girl was semi-feral and very disruptive – possibly because she was, under it all, quite intelligent. She and teacher had then clashed, on a school trip to Cairns, and the girl had brandished a pitchfork at the teacher. Student had had a period of exclusion from school but after that ended, refused to attend. S refused to have her back, so it was a stand-off. By my standards and expectations, she’d have been permanently expelled and not allowed back at all.

Unfortunately, when S was on one of her weekly days off, somehow the word would get round that I was taking the girls’ group, and the disruptive girl would show up. I wished she wouldn’t! She was insolent, totally full of herself because of her family’s prominence, and even after the Shalom experience, showed no indication of being motivated to improve her low standards, despite said intelligence. As far as I could tell, she came to school to make the point that she could – and to swan around making a pest of herself in class. Fortunately, the rest of the secondary girls were quite pleasant, and willing to try in class.

The experience of this girl was typical of what happened to those students who were sent away to other schools. They just didn’t last out there. There was too much of a gap, in learning terms, between where they should have been, and where they were. The same often applied to behaviour too, especially in a boarding school context. Very sad.

S’s teaching methodology was to get the girls to work on photocopied handout sheets – taken from various sources, not made up herself to suit the kids. From the piles of these in the classroom, it was clear she didn’t bother to check or correct the sheets they completed. There was very little actual instruction on how to do anything. I formed the impression that this sort of handout work was the main way of trying to keep the kids busy, in many of the classrooms.

The girls did enjoy the time, each morning, when S read to them from a novel. A book was quite a novelty.

When we started, there was a local lad on the teaching staff, who had qualified to teach in some sort of special program for aboriginals – he was a real success story. Doomadgee was his first teaching post, and he turned out to have made a mistake in coming home for it. Not long into our stay, he resigned – because the living conditions in his family’s home, and the lifestyle the family expected him to participate in, was not compatible with working standard days. Sleepless nights, inability to do any work at home, or keep any school materials safe there, contributed. It was very sad, but symptomatic of the barriers facing those who have more ability and drive than the average community member.

An American drama/music teacher who was there when we arrived, disappeared a few weeks later. He disgraced himself on a weekend visit to Escott Lodge, with some extremely drunken behaviour, and was banished.

One of the primary teachers was a bit older than the average – around thirty. She worked in a Grade 2-3 class – not the best of these groups – but seemed to be constantly gathering in students outside that range, that the other teachers found hard to work with. I couldn’t tell whether this was to try to help them survive, or to demonstrate her own superiority. The result was that her very large class contained some challenging behaviours. Later in August, she – supposedly – left for parts south, to see a sick sister. It was fairly obviously an excuse to get out of a situation in which she was not coping. We knew she would not return.

Through much of Semester 1, there had been a Home Economics teacher, but she had fled in Term 2, and not been replaced. Our house had been hers.

After a few weeks, I decided that, of the entire staff, there was only one I would definitely have in a school I was leading, with another two possibles. Forget the rest, in terms of being, or becoming, talented and enthusiastic teachers.

The school had a canteen, run by local mothers. School staff input was not welcomed here. It would not have met any canteen standards in a normal school, in regard to hygiene, food preparation, adherence to use-by dates. During the mornings when lunches were being prepared, toddlers in filthy nappies and with streaming noses, played on the floor or were sat on the benches to watch. A number of dogs wandered in and out. The canteen did not open regularly, but three times a week provided “free” (government funded) lunches for the students. These were usually white bread sandwiches, dim sims, and the like.

The brown kites – of which there were large numbers around the community, due to its volumes of rubbish lying about – were very well fed on free lunch days. Kids would take a bite or two from a sandwich, decide they didn’t like the filling, and chuck it away.

One local lady ran a breakfast club, of sorts, to give some children breakfast before school. It operated very intermittently and unpredictably, and only fed a few kids. I suspected there was some government funding for this, and that the few who were thus fed, came from her own extended family.

There was so much money being poured into the school and its associated programs – and so little return for same. So much waste. There was a room full of expensive musical instruments – many broken. A program would be proposed, be equipped and begin, then the teacher would be gone, and that was it.

There was funding for sporting excursions – which meant going to places like Cairns. At least, the kids enjoyed those and benefitted from glimpses of the world outside the NW Gulf country.

A (funded, again) visiting chef/cook came for two days while I was there, and ran a program with the better behaved secondary girls and boys. Supposedly, it was to show them what work in the food industry was like. However, she did most of the work, assigning the students to basic tasks they could manage, without them really knowing where what they were doing fitted into an overall plan. The students could not really relate to the processes that resulted in the array of food served to their parents and some community elders, for lunch on the second day. As I had already found, their kitchen skills were rudimentary, at best.

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Visiting chef with course participants

There was a small house-like building, off to one side from the school, that was used for accommodation for outside advisors, and similar visitors to the community, who needed to stay overnight. There was no other guest or commercial accommodation in Doomadgee. Visitors rarely stayed in the community; some went to great lengths to avoid doing so! The preferred option was to stay in Burketown and drive the 90 kms or so, of rough road, each way, even doing so for days in a row.

Qld was introducing the Prep year of schooling in 2003, and there was talk in the school of housing the Preps in that building.

The Technology room, and the Home Economics room, each had an array of school shoes, of varying sizes. The students had to wear shoes in these classes, to adhere to safety standards – mostly they were barefoot the rest of the time. This ensured a degree of punctuality to these classes, as the later comers had to take what shoes were left, regardless of fit.

There was a room equipped with computers – enough for maybe 25 students at a time. This was able to be linked, via Skype, to the outside world. The best teacher – of the best attending kids – had her students doing a regular hook up with those from a southern school.

There did not seem to be any shortage of sports or PE gear. There was a hard surfaced playing area – quite sizeable – that was roofed, and with basketball rings. This area was used for school assemblies too, with the students sitting on the hard surface.

The school had a swimming pool – not in use while we were there, because it was the “cold” time of the year. It also had its own LWB Coaster bus.

In the admin area, there was a well-locked room that was the supplies store, where teaching requisites were kept. This was a school where students were issued with basic needed materials – to be kept in the classrooms at school and not taken home.

There could be no homework given – the majority of students did not have necessary requirements (like writing implements) at home, nor an environment conducive to same. Anything sent home would be lost, damaged. There could obviously be no such thing as a home reading program. Students at all levels wrote with lead pencils, kept in a container in the classroom. Sharpening these to a real point, and using them to stab others, was something we had to watch out for.

Some classrooms had old, tatty, carpet on the floor, complete with a quota of fleas, in some rooms.

All the school windows had heavy duty crimsafe type screens. The secondary girls’ classroom had all its windows heavily draped with blackout curtains. Once the girls were inside for the session, the door to the outside was locked and covered with its black curtain. This was because males from the community would otherwise be hanging about outside, and making pests of themselves, to the extent that some of the girls would not feel safe – teachers too!

There were a couple of occasions, in the uncurtained Home Eco room, where small packs of roving males did peer in the windows and make obscene comments; the door was very securely locked, though, and this room was in a more central part of the school, where they were less likely to venture – compared to the girls’ classroom which was at the edge of the building cluster.

Despite the security mesh or bars on the school windows, there was regular breaking of glass by stones thrown after hours or at weekends. The resulting broken glass lying around was of concern, given that many of the students went around barefoot.

Some 80% of the students had some degree of hearing loss, as is the norm in such communities. All the classrooms were equipped with the Sound Field system, where the teachers wore a box that amplified their voice in a way that allowed all students to hear more clearly what was being said. This in itself was a considerable capital investment.

The childrens’ hearing loss was mostly the result of untreated ear infections when younger. Or poorly treated ones – the chances of a child in the community actually completing a course of prescribed antibiotics were very low. To help counteract the issue of ear and sinus infections, first thing every morning, each primary class was taken outside, by their teacher, complete with large box of tissues, and bin. The students sat for ten minutes, blowing their noses, supervised by the teacher. For some reason, nose blowing was not the norm for younger community children – they just ran, dripped, or got blocked! This was a less than charming way to start the day!

Too many of the students were malnourished and hungry. Scabies was endemic, we were told. As were head lice. We were told by the Senior Master that he put undiluted hair conditioner liberally on his hair, each morning, and did not rinse it off, and this seemed to keep nits at bay. It did nothing for his looks, though. Within days of our arrival, I phoned K and P and asked them to buy and mail up the most effective head lice treatment they could find. There was nothing like this available in the store.

Kids came to school tired, because they roamed the streets freely until all hours, or were on the fringes of loud, all-night gatherings of adults. Even those families who tried to run what we would see as “proper” households, were grossly overcrowded, with 10-20 people per house, and disturbed by the noise from neighbours.

Things that we take for granted in our lives were not present here. Like having a clock, or watch. The school siren was set to be able to be heard over most of the community, as a signal that it is time to come to school. So it was sounded a couple of times after 8am each morning.

A lot of the students were fascinated by the watches that the teachers wore. In that same vein, being allowed to write for a short time with a biro was a great reward.

Children often did not know how old they were, nor when their birthday was. Some of the teachers, who had such data for some, made birthday cakes – often the only indication the child had that it was their birthday.

We take print around us for granted. Not so, here. The school had a library, but these were the only books in the community. There were no newspapers or magazines sold in the store, nor written information around the place. In a culture that is oral based, teachers had to try to change childrens’ mindsets to even think of print as a source of information or entertainment. Though maybe the coming age of computers would kind of jump that step?

School started at 9am and ended at 2.45pm. After roll call and nose blowing, the whole school completed a two hour literacy session. This was the key focus of the school. Then there was a 30 minute “little lunch” break. Then followed 40 minutes of numeracy across the entire school. I felt there should perhaps be less of an imbalance in the times devoted to each of these. After this, the secondary students went into 80 minutes of TAFE programs, three days a week. The TAFE programs on offer were wood/technology related, hospitality or (for a selected very few) computing. The other two days, in this time slot, they did art, woodwork, home economics, mothercraft, computing and the like. “Big lunch” – 30 minutes – went from 1.30pm until 2pm. Numbers of the students did not reappear after this, so the 45 minute afternoon session was for odds and ends – like PE and sport – which had some chance of making them reappear.


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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.