This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.


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2002 Travels September 17

TUESDAY 17 SEPTEMBER     KINGFISHER CAMP

The camp had a tinny boat, with motor, for hire, in order to travel up the waterhole, which was about 5kms long. Today, we hired the boat and puttered up as far as we could go – right into the section they called The Gorge, too.

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On the Nicholson River – the Gorge ahead

 

There was plentiful birdlife around on the banks of the river, including some brolgas.

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Drying their wings and watching us pass by

It was a very low-key, restful activity – just puttering along and gazing about.

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It was hard to envisage this very benign, peaceful river in flood mode, but we knew that it did do so, especially at times when a cyclone in the Gulf dumped a heap of rain on the region. Near the amenity block there was a wooden marker sign, nailed high up a tree, marking the height that the river in flood reached, at that spot, last year. It was certainly a couple of metres deep, over the campground. It amazed me that, only a few months later, there were no real signs of this inundation at the campground.

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Marker nailed to tree at left, showing level of last summer’s floods


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2002 Travels September 15

SUNDAY 15 SEPTEMBER     KINGFISHER CAMP

John was still trying to work things out in his mind.

I persuaded him into some physical activity – and we went for a walk along a track by the side of the Nicholson River waterhole that the camp was by. The long, deep waterhole eventually began to narrow – in an area they called The Gorge, where the banks became rocky, and we walked that far. It was a pretty walk, and the exercise was good for both of us – walking freely had become yet another rare luxury!

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Walk track from camp to the Nicholson River

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The Nicholson River Gorge near Kingfisher Camp

 

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Walking by a dry side channel of the river

The decision was finally made. We would not go back to Doomadgee today – and probably not at all. John would phone the DP from the telephone box up at the caretakers’ place, and tell her we would not be at school, on Monday.

I went up and paid for another night in camp.

I think we both felt somewhat “lighter” at the thought that this particular interlude was probably over.

Something I had not recorded earlier was that, a couple of weeks into our time at Doomadgee, we had been phoned by one of the Adels Grove staff, to let us know that the boss had gone into labour, early. The Flying Doctor had taken her to Mt Isa, and then on to Townsville, where her son was born. He was premature and small, so the bosses had stayed in Townsville with him. The trusty staff had carried on with running things at Adels – they were lucky to have such people working there for them.

Although we’d had unique experiences at Doomadgee, and earned good money for a few weeks, I still wished we had stayed at Adels. Probably, John was privately wishing the same thing!


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2002 Travels September 14

SATURDAY 14 SEPTEMBER     KINGFISHER CAMP

John sat around and brooded for much of the day. He was still feeling really upset. I told him that the decision about what we did now was totally his. I could put up with staying at Doom, if that was what he really wanted to do. But I also told him that I would be more than happy to resume our travels.

It was not like we ever had any real sense of being welcome and really a part of the school community – quite the opposite, really. We were too old to mix naturally with most of the young staff, who were too busy just surviving anyway. They saw me as allied with the DP, who they did not relate well to. We were perceived as threats to the positions of the older staff – at least until Thursday!

I think that what was probably most disheartening of all was that I could not see that our efforts – even if we stayed a year or more in the place – would make one iota of difference to the young people of the community.

I wandered about and explored the very pleasant environs of the camp area. As with the other places we had escaped to, for weekends, just relaxed and sat about.

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The Nicholson River at Kingfisher Camp


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2002 Travels August 2 – September 13

OUR TIME AT DOOMADGEE

Friday 6 September – Thursday 12 September

It felt like we were settled into a kind of routine now – as much as one could be. There was still the ever-present sense of alertness, because anything could happen. And still the disturbed nights.

I had decided that, next term, I would definitely get my own private food order sent up from Mt Isa – and wear the freight cost. We really did need meat, chicken and the like. The pre-packaged, vaccuum sealed bacon – which was all I was prepared to buy from the “butcher” was not something we could eat all the time. Neither were baked beans. The store did not run to meat alternatives like tofu or even packets of dried beans.

We took ourselves out of town, with the van, for the weekend – to Escott Lodge, just out of Burketown.

We had to go almost to Burketown, before taking the road to the left, the 17kms  to Escott, which was a working cattle station, with campground and accommodation as a sideline. It had quite a well set up caravan area, with power.

The Nicholson River flows through the station, not far before emptying into the Gulf.

We left straight after school on Friday, and were there and set up well before dark. We enjoyed a full and peaceful night’s sleep!

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Our camp site at Escott

On Saturday morning, after breakfast, we drove into Burketown – we had not been there before. John filled Truck – at $1.04 cpl, it was 16 cents a litre cheaper than at Doom.

I had thought I would be able to stock up a bit on food, especially fruit, vegies and meats, but there was very little in the one store. I was greatly disappointed. The lack of decent foodstuffs is becoming a bit of an obsession!

There was not much to see in the township at all. It is inland from the coast, because of the salt and mud flats closer to the coast. The Albert River goes past the township – both Lawn Hill Creek and the Gregory River join into the Albert, further upstream. Its main reason for existence seemed to be as the headquarters of the Burke Shire – which covers much of this part of the state. We did not linger.

Back at Escott, we explored some of their driving tracks and wandered about beside the river. Then we relaxed back at the van and chatted with some “proper” travellers staying in the park.

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The Nicholson River at Escott

There was a light plane, with pilot, based at Escott, offering scenic flights. The pilot called around, touting business, and we decided to do a flight on Sunday morning.

After another wonderfully solid night’s sleep, and then breakfast, we wandered down to the airstrip. The flight was great and excellent value, we thought. There was just we two, and the pilot.

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We are going flying!

We flew over the lower reaches of several of the Gulf rivers, gained a much greater appreciation of the extent of the mud flats that line much of the Gulf coast, flew over Burketown, and got some good views of the station. We saw a crocodile sunning itself on the surface of the Nicholson River. The various station dams we could see, had cattle pads radiating out from them in all directions. I loved the flight.

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The Nicholson River & the Escott airstrip

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The lower reaches of the Nicholson River

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Gin Arm and the Gulf of Carpetaria

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Burketown

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The extensive mudflats that fringe the Gulf shores

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Escott campground from the air

Then it was pack up and drive back to reality at Doom.

The usual week changed nature mid way.

The woman who had been taking the large class of – nominally – Grade 2 and 3 misfits and challenges, had departed town a couple of weeks back. Her reason was to go temporarily to see a sick sibling, but we all knew she was at breaking point and would not be back. By gathering in all the problem children from other classes, she had created an unmanageable group – and I think was having difficulty acknowledging that she couldn’t cope.

John had been asked, quite often, to take her class. He’d found hundreds upon hundreds of “busy work” photocopied worksheets that the children had worked on, over a long period of time, piled in cupboards and on tables – not corrected or done anything with. It was a measure of how far things had declined.

Even I had been asked to take this class a few times – and teaching at that level was not my forte, at the best of times. I do not have the temperament for a primary teacher!

The kids were mostly hyper-active, to put it mildly. She had obviously been shoving the copied worksheets at them to try to keep them quiet. One afternoon, they got to view a video, while I was supervising them. Shrek. They loved that, and were quiet, and relatively well behaved.

Thursday, as we walked to school, there was a strange, ominous atmosphere about the place. We noticed a number of empty wine casks lying around, which was unusual – in this supposedly dry town, it was tacitly accepted that beer would be obtained from outside, and drunk, but nothing stronger.

The Wednesday night had been very rowdy.

Some of the older students were clustered in little groups in the school grounds, and seemed apprehensive, and then not able to focus in the classroom. There was clearly something unusual and unsettling going on.

We found out later that a supply truck, taking grog supplies to the Burketown pub, had broken down on the road from Gregory Downs. The driver had left the truck and gone into Burketown – ostensibly to arrange repairs, but he may also have – wisely – decided he didn’t want to spend the night alone out there with all that alcohol.

Somehow the word had spread quickly amongst some of the Doom locals, and the truck had been raided. So there had been wine and spirits flowing copiously through the night in town.

On Thursday, John was asked to take the problem class, in the morning. One of the children was a Grade 1 girl, who was quite unmanageable and had been taken on by the misguided woman. She was, we thought to ourselves, probably affected by foetal alcohol syndrome, and was the very spoiled only child of parents belonging to one of the dominant families. They fancied themselves a cut above the rest of the community and swanned about the place. dressed up to the nines – more suited to a city race meeting than poor old Doom! There was something really “off” about them.

Anyway, the girl quietly made herself a very large ball of bluetack – there must have been several packets of this that she had pilfered from somewhere. The aboriginal teacher’s aide lady just sat and watched her do this – they never intervened, even when the children could have done with some “local” authority. She eventually had a ball about the size of a large cricket ball.

The girl then threw the bluetack ball – with some force – at John. he’d had his back to her and turned, at the wrong moment, and the thing landed right over his heart. It kind of winded him – he said later that it felt that his heart actually skipped a beat or two. He went to the girl, knelt on the floor in front of her, took her by the shoulders to get her to pay attention to him, and said – loudly – that she was not to do things like that. The girl started to cry and the teacher’s aide rushed out and came back with the DP.

Everyone got really serious because John had actually laid hands on the child. No concern that he was hurt – later, quite a significant bruise appeared on his chest. Or consideration, that if the heavy ball had hit another student, they could have been injured, like concussed, or worse.

John was quite shaken by the whole event and the way it had been taken, and the DP took the class for the rest of the session. Then the SM took over for the rest of the day. The Principal was away on business elsewhere for the week. The students were actually quite subdued – and they were also intimidated by the SM’s size and authority, so they behaved fairly well for the rest of the day. The DP actually said to John that he should observe and “see how it is done”! So patronizing to a man who had successfully run a primary school of several hundred students, for many years. There was no punishment at all for the child.

We discussed it all at home, that night. We agreed that the child should not have been in the class at all, and John should not have been asked to take them anyway. He was not hired as a straight classroom teacher – would not have accepted such a job, anywhere, after being out of normal classrooms for over twenty years, as a Principal. He had been hired as a literacy specialist, to work on that side of things, in small groups, and assist teachers in working on same.

John was apprehensive about possible repercussions if some of the locals decided it was a major deal – and we knew that any excuse to make an issue where whites were concerned, prevailed amongst many here. The DP and SM said they would try hard to defuse the situation. In a normal school, of course, the family would have been called in, and the child disciplined and probably excluded for a time.

We discussed going away somewhere for the coming weekend and working things out for ourselves then.


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2002 Travels August 2 – September 13

Our time at Doomadgee

Friday 16 August – Thursday 22 August

The 16th was Reporting Day. The students’ progress reports were given orally to those parents who could be bothered coming to the school to get them. Nothing went home in print here. The reporting process did not affect us, as we had not yet taught.

By the end of the week, I had the same bug that John had last weekend, and had Friday home in bed, anyway. Temperature, shivers. cough, headache, sore throat. With his prior example I did not bother trying to get medications from the Hospital, but used what was left of what he’d had.

We had been told that everyone who came new to town, got sick, and that we should, when better, arrange to get Hepatitis B shots. Very Third World…..

I was already making a list of things to buy in Mt Isa or Townsville, in the next school holidays. Panadol – lots of it. Chicken noodle soup packets – for some reason this was not stocked in the store. Lots of chicken, meat and fish – even if I had to buy dry ice to transport it back.

We spent a lot of time in the evenings, and over the weekend, trying to work out teaching programs. I decided to do the simple cooking things with the boys. The girls doing the VET course would do some cooking too, mixed in with their theory sessions, and to illustrate the basic points of those, like food handling hygiene! I would start the Mothercraft with pregnancy care, maybe with the signs of pregnancy. The store did not stock testing kits! I was sure, though, that these girls had friends who were not attending school, who were already mothers, so they would not be ignorant about it all.

On Sunday, we did some exploring around the area. I was feeling up to this by then, and willing to grab any chance to get out of the community.

John had gained permission from one of the elders to drive out to the site of the Old Doomadgee mission, on the Gulf coast, near Bayly Point. We knew that the local people went out there regularly, fishing and hunting for turtles, at the coast. It was about 100kms away.

We set out on the road from Doomadgee, to the north, but turned back before we got near the coast, because there were starting to be lots of side tracks and we had no idea of the right way to go. There were no signposts, of course – the locals know the tracks, and tourists are not permitted to travel the local roads. The road was surprisingly good, though – regularly graded, it was clear. The country was just the same old flat savannah scrubland.

Back in town, we drove out to look at the weir on the Nicholson River, and the ford. The river was really attractive here – although it would contain crocodiles.

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Nicholson River

This week saw us commence taking classes. My first cooking session with the secondary boys went better than I expected. It was unusual to be teaching with another teaching watching on, though. I presumed that the SM thought he was needed to keep the boys under control, but it may have been a cultural thing, to have the male presence. Then again, the SM may just not have wanted to give him free time!

I did not appreciate having to do the shopping for the classes. It was a real hassle, and hot, walking to the store and back, carrying the shopping. The office lady made me feel I was imposing on her, needing to do the Requisition Form.

I encountered some unexpected issues in my first lessons. I’d assumed the students would have a basic knowledge of measurement – hadn’t even really thought about it. Not so – no concept of fractions like half a measuring cup! So we had to do some learning, with measure cups and water, at the sinks.

Another concept was time. We had a morning session and I asked – if we wanted the food for big lunch, at 1.30pm – and it took 40 minutes to cook, what time did it need to go in the oven? 10 o’clock, missus? 8 o’clock, missus? All answers wildly out. These were kids aged 14+. What hope would they have in the normal, outside world? What on earth had teachers been doing with them for 8 or 9 years?

I sat in on the meeting led by the DP, with the teachers, to plan their main teaching unit, or theme, for the term – nearly three weeks into same! This is something I would have thought should have been done last term, in preparation, but who was I to know? S decided to do a newspaper theme with the secondary girls, and produce one at the end of term. With no newspapers available in the community, rather an abstract idea, to my way of thinking.

John and I talked about what came next, as we began to settle in. We decided we’d take the van out, in the September school holidays, and try to arrange storage for it and Truck – maybe at the Ringrose Transport yards, in Mt Isa. We would fly back to Doomadgee. Then, at the end of Term 4 – on 6th December – we would be able to fly to Mt Isa on the daily plane, collect the van, and head south for Xmas. If we did not get it out in September, early wet season rains could close the Nicholson River ford and we would not be able to get the rig out. We did not want it stuck in Doomadgee, with the risk of floods and cyclones either.

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Approach to the Nicholson River ford – flooded in the Wet Season

The Principal already seemed to be trying to get John to think about taking over as Principal when he finished his two year stint here, at the end of the year! He definitely wanted me to take over the SM’s job! But I thought we were too inexperienced in local ways, not to mention those of Qld Education, to do so.

The SM did seem to have one role he did well, and which I could not do – yelling at the older boys when they misbehaved. He seemed to be able to intimidate them into some form of obedience, just by bulk and loudness.

John liked the respectable wages we received here. He was talking already about perhaps returning in 2003 – or applying to work up on Cape York! I had my reservations about all this.

John had talked with the man who ran the Council workshop about how to get a tyre to replace the one we’d ruined on the drive up here. He phoned and ordered one from a tyre place in Mt Isa, to be brought up on the next Ringrose transport truck. The workshop man would help John fit it. This was going to be an expensive new tyre! Because the spare from the caravan was interchangeable with the Truck, we could use that as a spare, so we could still go places while waiting for the new one.

John started a vegetable garden in the back yard. He used the spade we carry, to dig some beds, and had brought some packets of seed with him from Adels Grove.

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John’s new vegie patch

I was finding the interruptions to our sleep, every night, quite wearing. On top of the party house across the road, and the dog packs fighting amongst themselves and chasing the mob of horses around the streets, there was the noise associated with the emergency night time visits of the Flying Doctor, to evacuate someone to Mt Isa. The plane would come low overhead and depart the same way. There would be a number of cars escorting the unfortunate patient, screeching round the corner in front of our bedroom window, then returning after the plane left. We needed to get out of the place, just to get a couple of solid nights of sleep!


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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