essay: Nhulunbuy

Nhulunbuy                                                                                            Oct 2012

Nhulunbuy is a very pleasant small tropical town built around sacred Mt
Nhulun (or Mt Saunders – we like our hills!) Stepping out of a Qantaslink
717 at the airport I was greeted by the sign William Gove Airport, referring
to the young airman shot down over Java in 1943; he’s a distant relative,
and I know this thanks to Uncle Bill. Its the land of the Yolgnu, who live
in little houses along gorgeous white sand beaches with turquoise waters, a
rest for the eyes from the red dirt and dust that covers most of the
landscape. The red stuff is what it’s all about. The town services the
massive Alcan bauxite mine about 12k to the south, and its alumina refinery
about the same distance to the north – between the two runs ‘the world’s
largest conveyor belt’ (another Aussie biggest!) a covered structure that
sounds an ear-splitting air-raid siren whenever it cranks up, any hour of
day or night; not so often at the moment, with depressed global economic
activity. Supertankers are pilotted in to “the plant’s” deepwater jetty and
piloted out through the reefs all the way to Cairns and to the north. So
Nhulunbuy is the admin centre for East Arnhem Land, with a Woolies, an
IGA/Mitre10, several other shops, clubs and pubs – including a topless bar
(with ‘toppies’) I’M TOLD; to keep the large number of single miners more
relaxed, I guess. It’s about 5 degrees cooler than Katherine – seems to be
often around 32-3, quite pleasant really, but with high humidity (with
apologies to those folk still enduring Melbourne’s winter)

I am working for the privately run Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation,
which has clinics at Nhulunbuy (the main one), Yirrkala ( on the coast near
the mine), Elcho Island and Gunyangara, where I’m working for my first few
weeks. It’s a nice new little one doc clinic, on an island at the tip of
the Gove Peninsula, not far from the plant and accessed by a short causeway
between those white sands and turquoise waters. Its the home of the
Yunupingus – in fact every 2nd person seems to have that surname. Head of
the clan is Garruluwuy Yunipingu (ex Yothu Yindi lead singer) but he is
frail now and currently off in a big hospital. Pretty much all my patients
are full blood aborigines, rather different from Footscray where almost all
my aboriginal patients are quite pale. A lot of the younger folk are fit,
and football is of course very big up here – most small settlements have a
lovingly tended oval. But, as in other parts of NT, there’s a depressingly
high rate of chronic severe disease – many are dead or bnd before 50.
Yesterday Friday was very quiet; when I arrived at 8am there was a big bus
across the street; it had bought back the body of a resident who had died
elsewhere. Almost the whole village piled into the bus to escort the body
to the Gove morgue. There it will stay for several months in a ‘queue’
awaiting ceremony – these are lengthy over weeks/months, and there are many
deaths, so I guess the morgue has a significant capacity. So, very few
patients yesterday. Petrol sniffing is a problem in these parts, as are
tropical exotica like melioidosis – caused by a very nasty bacterium that
comes up through the soil in the wet season, starting soon. I have plenty
of help from two excellent Remote Area Nurses.

I’m rattling around by myself in a nice spacious 3-bedroom semidetached
house with most mod cons. I have a big old long wheelbase Toyota 4wd to
roar around in, and have managed to cadge a bike and an exercise bike, so
hope to return somewhat less of a man than at present, in preparation for
putting it on again at Xmas. There’s a fine 50m town pool – can’t use those
glorious beaches for swimming because of sea wasps, Irikandji (?spelling –
anyway, v nasty little stingers) and crocs – though I might be tempted to
make a very quick dip and carry a bottle of vinegar; the crocs prefer
balsamic. I managed laps after work every night this week, and the pool is
getting shorter.

This morning Saturday, I drove to Yirrkala, on the coast to the south not
far from the mine. Greg, you gave me a book about it for my 21’st
birthday!!! It’s another little idyllic beach settlement with crowds of
little back children AND a fabulous arts centre/museum, an absolute treasure
trove of bark paintings and painted carvings, often on v light ‘beach
hibiscus’ wood. The coordinator is an ex-Sydney criminal barrister – he
said Rochi couldn’t have his job because its ‘the best’ , if somewhat
isolated; but they grind their own coffee beans – made me feel guilty about
using nescafe.

With that crucial piece of data, I shall say bye-bye for now, cheers and
love, Rod

Nhulunbuy 2


One of the nice features of this place is all the big old frangipanis, some as large as flowering gums. There’s one in my front yard, so I get a waft of their lovely scent as I get out of the car. It’s a green, undulating, well-set-out town. However, much drama in the past week – you probably heard about the abduction and police chase: 4 black youths in a stolen Toyota ‘Troop Carrier’ drew up beside a young Asian woman on her early morning walk, on one of the main streets. One jumped out and clubbed her twice with a nulla-nulla, then dragged her unconscious into the car and took off. The police helicopter somehow tracked them hours later and hovered over the car; they ditched the girl, who wasn’t badly hurt, and were later rounded up. All four youths are from Gunyangara, the little island settlement at the tip of the Gove Peninsula where I’ve been working the past 2 weeks; and at least one of them is a Yunipingu. So there was high drama in the village; the mother of one of the youths really ‘lost it’ and tried to kill herself. I missed all the action as that particular day I was off doing ‘Chronic Disease Outreach’ at Wallaby Beach, a nearby settlement. With 2 nurses in a big Mercedes van/mobile office, we pulled up at a house, plugged in to power, set out mat and deck chairs and started seeing sick old patients close to their homes; made me appreciate working in aircon.

At weekends I’ve been riding a bike about 5k to local beaches – Wirrawuy (Cape Wirrawoi), Gumuniya (Buffalo Creek), Lombuy (Crocodile Creek), Galuru (East Woody Beach)or driving to more distant ones – Banambarrna (Rainbow Cliffs), Binydjarrna (Daliwoi Bay). All are beautiful, with few if any folk about – the blacks often appear late in the day to spear fish with long spears, standing waste deep. They don’t seem as frightened of the stingers as we are. Each beach seems to have a different type of dominant lovely shell washing up; Lombuy had mobs of big hermit crabs, with plenty of evidence of cooked hermit crab feasts at the back of the beach; there was also what seemed to be a grave in the mangroves at one end of the beach – a cleared area with an upright stick wreathed in artificial flowers. There are warnings about stingers, crocs and buffalo – said to be unpredictable and dangerous – haven’t seen any yet, but there’s buffalo poo on the walking tracks. One of our docs did a presentation on stingers this week – of interest was a map which showed their distribution right around the northern coastline from about Port Hedland in the west to Gladstone in Queensland – well north of Hervey Bay! You can get stung all year round, more likely 1st October to 1st June – stinger season, and nobody swims. Today Sunday early I drove south past the mine and airport, onto the Bulman Rd – its the road that crosses Arnhem Land east to west, is broad (about 30m) red and very corrugated. I followed it for about 12k past the airport, then took a rough, deeply eroded track another 12k to Daliwoi Bay. From there I took a bush walking track an hour to Garanhan (Macassan Beach) and had planned to walk further but the heat was overpowering. The track was overgrown but not difficult, other than for many big golden orb spiders stretching their very strong nets across it; they are big and scary but harmless – still wouuldnt like to walk into one. At Macassan are to be found the Stone Pictures – a record on the ground, a few hundred years old, of Yolgnu impressions of the praus of Macassan traders (from present day Sulawesi) who came and traded peacefully with the Yolgnu for trepang (sea cucumber) which they cooked and dried and salted on the beach – it all stopped when the colonial administration started to levy a duty. The stone pictures were a bit underwhelming for such a hot walk.

Living in Melbourne we get used to good meals when we eat out. Last weekend I went to a tavern, reputedly the best feed in Nhulunbuy, and had a truly terrible meal. This Saturday I tried the Arnhem Club, one of those rather swish places where you sign yourself in as a visitor, and had a fine piece of salmon, sitting outside watching clouds of bats and a very big frog – not a cane toad – which hopped past my table. The coming week I’m working at the little settlement of Yirrkala, about 16k from Nhulunbuy, south, past the mine. Cheers and love, moi

Nhulunbuy 3


It’s my second last weekend here, so my second last note as well, you may be relieved to hear, and there’s probably not a lot left to say. I’ve spent the past week working at Yirrkala, that nice little settlement with a wonderful art centre, about 15′ from Nhulunbuy in the big old Toyota Troop Carrier which I now drive. It’s a one doc clinic and I work with a team of nurses (3-4) and an aboriginal health worker, all very helpful and friendly, and outreach teams of nurses who come in and out. The computers are frustratingly slow, but I guess we’re lucky to have a net connection at all, considering where we are. On the brighter side, I’ve ‘reached a new level’ with Communicare, that awful clinical software that has spread like a plague through NT. I now navigate its many layers and use them quite confidently; my God it has taken 4 years! So when the clinic is slow I do recall work eg finding all the rheumatic fever patients who have missed their monthly bicillin injections, or the adults in a certain age group who are overdue for a health check. There’s a much greater emphasis up here on chronic disease management and population screening – there has to be because of widespread severe chronic disease.

Trevor is the nurse-manager here, a pleasant man very experienced at work in the Top End (seems preferable to the Bottom End, doesn’t it; sorry). The other day he helped me change a wheel, which was nice of him because those Landcruiser wheels are very heavy and it’s hot – not great to start the day drenched with sweat! He told me that before this he’d been working at Wadeye (Port Keats), the place where there has been rioting recently, and it was hard: much worse problems of alcohol, gambling and violence, with children badly neglected. He said his house was often broken into, especially if out on a call; for example he’d be called to a sick patient after hours at the clinic, and someone there would ring their burglar mates to say “he’s here now” and later “he’s coming back”. That makes Nhulunbuy seem very friendly. Yesterday we did a home call on a very old woman who was too weak to get up – she has some rare leaky kidney problem with normal kidney function. Stick-thin, she was sitting on her decking with her family, and beside her were 2 worn, leather-bound books – in fact the old and new testaments, completely translated into Yolgnu. She had been one of a group of old women who had achieved this remarkable feat. It was interesting to thumb through the pages; Yolgnu sounds like yabbayabbayabbayabba to me, and that’s exactly what it looks like, with few if any word breaks.

It sounds as if the refinery will be closed soon, permanently, though the mine will keep operating and shipping out unprocessed bauxite, I guess. I imagine the impact on Nhulunbuy will be significant, as the refinery is a big employer; I wonder how many local services will remain, though of course my employer Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation will not be much affected.

Cheers and love, moi

Nhulunbuy 4
It’s my last weekend in Gove, and I’ve really enjoyed it here – hot but not as hot as the interior, nice sea breezes, a pleasant town with good amenities, so may well return next year. In fact tried a long shot to get Rochi and I working up here for 6-12 months, but I don’t think it will happen; a long shot, as I say. I’m working mostly at the main Miwatj clinic in town for my last 2 weeks, and it has been a bit slow and quiet, though still challenging at times. I asked about this, as it’s quite a big spacious med centre, and learned that it’s because few Yolgnu actually live in Nhulunbuy; most live in the outlying small communities. I think Miwatj is going to rationalize their resources. Yirrkala was best – I was moderately busy there, and will try to work there next year. I was walking along town beach after a bike ride this AM, picking up nice shells and could see several little tents along the back of the beach. One very old couple motioned to me to come over, and we chatted a little, but they seemed to be speaking only Yolgnu – it’s not uncommon up here for the Yolgnu to speak little or no English. I think they just wanted to check me out. A little later the old woman walked past me and said “You’ve seen my husband” meaning ‘at the clinic’ I guess, in good English.


The clinical services manager here is interesting – she’s a Kenyan, mid-fifties, married to an Australian. You don’t so much talk with Jeni as listen to her long stories – she really rattles on – it seems she was quite a ‘princess’ (and still is); her father was a politician who was locked up with Jomo Kenyatta (became the first President) by the British pre-independence. They still have the family farm in the cool highlands of Kenya. Not much else to say about Gove, so here’s something else. All those years ago in PNG I was friendly with a young Scots volunteer working at a Catholic mission 12k up the coast from Kerema. Unbeknown to me he’s had a stellar career as a writer, broadcaster, activist and ‘Professor of Human Ecology’ in Scotland, and on a whim he tracked me down and we skyped recently – I’ve read his best known book while up here and here’s what I thought:
Subject: Soil and Soul

Alastair, here in East Arnhem Land I’ve just finished reading your very fine book, and I can easily agree with all the critics who raved about it. Aside from it’s inspirational quality, I really like the book’s structure, the device of weaving your own story into the history of Scotland, Celtic culture and mysticism, leading into your theme of community v capitalism and the successful campaigns. I enjoyed the historical discussion of logos, mythos and eros; and related with ‘knowing sadness’ to the way the bad guys undermined your position at the university. You said quite a lot about what it is to be a campaigner, and how to keep going.
I was a forest campaigner, one of only 2 paid (v little) forest campaigners in Victoria, for 4 years, and in the end I burned out; partly that was my own fault – trying to juggle too many balls, a lot of it was from bitter quite personal attacks by people ostensibly on the same side – this seems to happen in the conservation movement.
You clearly believe in God, and that fusion of religious belief and celtic mysticism seems to have given you strength at difficult times. That isn’t something an atheist can easily draw on. If I have a god, I guess it’s Gaia or the universe – comforting for me in part because it’s not a human construct, like God – by those who can make the ‘act of faith’. And there’s that rather stupid and off-putting problem of fighting over whose God is right.
Alistair, in this book you seem to bare your soul very generously, and it has been of great interest to get some idea of what the young man I knew in Kerema has done with his life – and in so doing has become a ‘wise man’, not unlike the shamans we used to talk about.
I might try something light before I tackle my other McIntosh title.
All the best, Rod



I’ve just finished reading another very fine book “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, which won the Man Booker in 2011. The little novel is written with a crystal clear style about an ordinary person and fairly mundane events but builds great tension up to the surprise ending very well, with great characterizations.


I’ll be back in Melbourne next Saturday and a week later Rochi and Lulu and I will hit the road in the little old Mazda, hoping it has enough life left to get us to Hervey Bay. Then home again early December, cheers and love, Rod




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