essay: Katherine

Katherine                                                                                                                  Oct 2011

You know the drill now; I get bored with the weekends in these isolated spots, so begin to contemplate my navel. Well I would if I could, so I’m going to sweat off a few kilos in Katherine’s fairly constant 38 degree heat. So here we have it, the first 2011 instalment.
It has been a heavy month – too many balls to juggle, trying to get Hervey Bay ready to rent and get ready for Katherine and Thailand – though just now it looks like much of our anticipated break may be underwater. Hervey Bay became a bit complicated with problems getting renovation quotes, so the weekend to go up and stock the cottage had to be delayed until end September. Poor Rochi had to work at the Gallery, so Eve and I had a tiring / enjoyable 4 days working hard to clean and stock 115 Truro St, Torquay, HB. It’s not often these days one gets to spend 4 intense days 1:1 with an offspring – a bit of a privilege really, and very enjoyable for me, and I think Eve enjoyed it too. She is a can-do type with a funny, generous personality. More info about HB coming soon, once the external painting is done.

We flew back late on a monday night and 5 days later I was on a plane to Darwin, then a Greyhound 300k south to Katherine. It started inauspiciously. My airport taxi sailed through a red light in Port Melbourne, didn’t even see it; so I cursed him and watched his driving rather closely after that. I think I’ll drive through green lights more watchfully in future. Then Qantas lost my luggage, but managed to retrieve it and freight it to me after 24 hrs. A septic finger (memo: wear gloves when using potting mix) detracted from my first day on the job, as did the obligatory relaxation phase migraine. Wurli Wurlinjang MC (from the great mosquito dreamtime legend) must have thought they were getting a real crock, so I’ve been trying to look fit and young and enthusiastic since then.

I have quite a nice apartment in the middle of Katherine and a Toyota Camry. The first week in these jobs is fairly intense,not least because of orientation to a big new organization. Wurli supplies health care to the town and a forty km radius; my old employer Katherine West Health covers a vast territory to the west and south and another outfit called Sunrise looks after the east of north central NT. The hardest part, once again, is Communicare – the complex, clunky set of health computer programs only to be found in NT; the good news is that on my third visit I’m up to speed, more or less, after 4-5 days; last year it took about 2 weeks and before that the whole 5 weeks of the job. The staff are all friendly and supportive, and I’ve been doing a bit of teaching with the young GP registrars. Wurli has a number of outlying enterprises, and yesterday I worked at Strongbala (creole for strong fella) – the Men’s Health clinic. I worked in a very hot, dirty little room without functional aircon in a dodgy disorganized building up a bush track several km south of Katherine. I saw a lot of patients, many of them recently out of gaol. They preferred to come to the (rudimentary) health and legal service here rather than in Katherine, partly out of shame I think, though I need to explore that further. Many men were lying about outside, waiting for a bbq meal that is turned on each day. Most of them were living rough in the bush, without power/refrigeration etc, and it was a poignant reminder of how little some people have in the lucky country. Getting drunk on pension day is one of the few distractions, so talking to them about the drinking and smoking that is killing them sort of sticks in your throat.

Part of the challenge of the first week is getting set up at home too, especially the home internet. Managed to crank up Skype – what a great program – and had a funny video chat with Rochi and Lulu, and a really good one with dear old ami Marcel in France.
That’s enough excitement for one letter; tomorrow Saturday I’m going to get a helmet and sweat blood riding to some of the sights around town. I’ll save the big one, Katherine Gorge, for maybe next weekend. Cheers and love, Rod


I’ve just finished my 4th week in Katherine, Rochi comes up here in a few days and we’re off to Thailand (what’s still above water) on 6th November. As one becomes more au fait with the job and the organization, these locums settle into a quiet rhythm, though the amount of severe illness still shocks, and Communicare still frustrates. We’ve had a bit of a focus on Rheumatic Fever in the past week as a few diagnoses were delayed last year, with disastrous consequences. Like syphilis, its a common condition up here and one seen hardly if at all down south. It can be quite hard to diagnose even once it’s on your radar.
For my first few weekends I did a bit of exploring around town on a bike, and there’s a nice bike path for about 10k along the Katherine River. Heading east you reach the old cemetery with lots of big old magnolias and a grove of mango trees which I’ve raided a few times – bags of free mangos are a definite perk of living up here. Then you reach a nice local museum on the site of the old airport (pre-Tyndal) – it details local history, and rather deifies an old pastoral family called the Tapps, who ran big local protests against land rights. Oh well, it is ‘the frontier’. There’s also, in a big hangar, the old Gypsy Moth biplane of Dr Clive Fenton, a doctor/adventurer who flew umpteen thousand km bringing healthcare to isolated folk in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. A little further east is Nott’s Crossing, original site of Katherine and now just a lovely shallow swimming spot on this large and beautiful river – keeping a wary eye for crocs. Head west to the other side of town, and you first reach the hot springs, a series of natural clear blue pools, nicely landscaped, in bushland and shaded by big trees in the riverbed – full of black kids and by then I was very hot so leapt in too; no warmer than the (quite fast flowing) river, which is at bath temperature. A little further along is the Low Level Nature Reserve, another fine, popular river swimming spot which I enjoyed after a long hot ride out to Springvale homestead, said to be the oldest in NT, set right on the river in a grove of massive African rainforest trees with little leaves like poicianas. It was one of a few big cattle stations (including Victoria River Downs and Newcastle Waters) which were established across the north to try to extend the empire – but frontier life was hard, and most of these more or less failed in that endeavour. After that swim I was taken to the Golf Club by some work mates I met on the bank. A rather lovely spot for a beer and a barra, and an empire outpost surviving well. Now I know where all the whites hang out, and more well-to-do blacks. That’s almost the only bit of socializing I’ve done – quite different from Tennant Creek last year, where the CEO was a single bloke who liked to party.
Then started venturing further out and one Saturday drove early to Katherine Gorge, where I’d hired a tiny plastic canoe for 4 hrs. Paddling upstream for an hour against waves, wind and current was ‘challenging’ – I discovered my paddling muscles – the deltoids – long dormant, but seriously aroused after 3-4 hrs. The gorge ( or the first 2 gorges that I accessed with a 4hr hire) is a vast area of great cliff walls, beaches, flat rocks and rapids leading into the second gorge. There’s ancient rock art under the overhangs, and little signs on several beaches saying ‘Do not enter – crocodile nesting area’, happily obeyed; also crocodile traps along the banks, providing ambivalent feelings of security. After the paddle I treat myself to a caramel Magnum ice-cream and am rather surprised by this gargantuan piece of confectionery. Double layers of thick chocolate, with caramel sauce between, enclosing a small amount of vanilla ice-cream as an afterthought, or concession to the genre. I reckon it was equivalent to a medium sized box of chocolates. There are lot of very fat people up here – a fair proportion of the whites and most blacks with a job, it appears. Rubbish food is very popular. I guess if people with little education or understanding of health/ nutrition have Magnums to aspire to, obesity and the epidemic of diabetes and all its complications must follow.
Last weekend I ventured to Edith Falls, about 65k north – it’s a gorgeous series of big deep pools and falls on the Edith River, and quite like parts of spectacular Lychfield NP near Kakadu, where Rochi and I stayed 2 years ago. There’s a 3k rock scramble of a circuit to the top pools – had the heart pounding in 40 degree heat!
It looks as if Bangkok and many low-lying areas to its north are underwater, so I’m attempting to reorganize our holiday; so far emails and one phonecall to Thailand have not proved useful communication. A more churlish fellow than I might think that Qantas strikes and monsoonal flooding were conspiring against our holiday; I doubt all the displaced Thais would feel much sympathy. Cheers and love, Rod


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