essay: Tennant Creek

Tennant Creek #1        9/10/10:

You’ll be pleased to hear that these may be briefer than the ones from Kalkarinji last year, as I don’t want to repeat myself.  We’ll see. Tennant Creek in the middle of the Northern Territory is quite pleasant – not so hot yet, treelined streets, quite spread out, several nice eateries, about 4000 (mostly black) people, surrounded by aboriginal camps – neat rows of tiny hot huts.  There’s a strong feeling that you are in another country – lots of blacks sitting about on the ground, the housing pretty dreary looking generally. The media – tv and radio – is of course mostly local NT news and issues, very different from down south.
Flying in to Alice Springs everything looked green after the northern floods – quite unusual – the surrounding desert and ranges an endless red.  Drove a Camry the 500k to TC – it’s a good single lane tarmac, and took about 5 hrs as the speed limit is 130kph, dodging the odd bearded dragon.  Stopped at the few roadhouses and at the Devils Marbles at Wauchope (pronounced war-hope!) about 100k sth of TC – lots of huge boulders  piled on each other over a large area. Had to stay in a motel a few nts with cockroaches and geckoes  while the plumbing in my unit was ‘fixed’ – it’s a well fitted out but v ugly box of a prefab 2br unit set on a large gravel ‘garden’ inside a high metal fence behind shops at the north end of town; not quite the ‘mansion’ I had last year. No hot water for the first 2 days, but I guess the cold isn’t all that cold – though the weather has really been mild and the local pool is quite chilly. Lucy will be devastated – I have a cute, thin  little tabby which burst from nowhere through my legs into the unit the first time I opened it. I shooed it out, but decided to feed it each nt when I learned it had been abandoned by the former occupants, and it lives underneath (definitely not inside).
The first week at work has been quite tiring, as they are – reams of new local info and procedures to remember, and that life and death struggle with Communicare that I remember from my first few weeks in Kalkarinji.  It’s a complex non-intuitive program not really designed for clinicians. I’m getting the hang of it a bit more quickly this time.  Very large and beautiful new health centre, just one arm of the Anyinginyi (say onion-guinea) Aboriginal Health Corporation, along with public health, rural and remote, sports promotion etc (today roaming  around town I discovered a big brand new TC Football Academy!)  There are two other doctors, both young women, but I don’t see that much of them as the patients are divided strictly re gender, as is the clinic – cleaved in two..  So I see only men, no women and v few kids; it’s a cultural sensitivity thing, but not great from my point of view.  The staff  are all friendly and helpful blooding yet another new locum.  There’s a hospital largely staffed by young doctors rotating from Adelaide – we don’t go there.  The health issues are the same as last year – many of the patients are very ill c multiple diseases that will kill them at a young age; alcoholism is widespread and devastating, along with much alcohol-fuelled violence.  I silently rejoice when I meet a fit older person – as yesterday when I met a fit very black old fellow named Anderson – he was so friendly I felt touched. Most are polite and quite dignified, somewhat different from the community I see in Melbourne’s west.
Quite different from working in private practice, as it’s a team approach with lots of meetings and a v strong emphasis on prevention, c teams of doctors and nurses doing mainly full health checks.  The young clinic manager Clarissa is one of those impressive, high powered professionals  who has dragged herself up from a very difficult start – local lass, pregnant at 14 with an abusive first husband .  Her take on getting ahead is that you just have to get a job and your own house – living in a tiny house c many relos makes life very hard.  Many women have to go to great lengths hiding food and money just to feed their children.
Yesterday read a fine review in the Australian Literary Review (published each Wednesday) of my hero Tim Flannery’s latest book “Here on Earth: an argument for hope” – it is apparently wide-ranging , beautifully written, and a kind of antidote for despair about climate change – challenging the grim idea that  humans are basically greedy and therefore self destructive. Reviewed by history Professor Tom Griffiths, it sounds  like a life-changing read – I might buy a few copies if they are out in paperback before Xmas – be warned.
Today Saturday I had a good drive around TC to get my bearings, and a quick look at the big old Peko gold mine on Battery Hill – now a tourism precinct.  There was a big gold-rush here as late as the 1930’s, and it may start again as the price of gold escalates.  There’s still plenty of gold in them thar hills, just deeper.  I’m told that the high level nuclear waste dump at Muckaty Station 100k nth of here has been approved – people here should be terrified, but you wouldn’t know it.  Before coming up I asked ACF if there was anything I could do to help their campaign, but they didn’t get back to me – maybe thought I was an industry mole, or just too old!!  Had lunch at the big new cultural centre/art gallery and outside in the grass picked up the most beautiful big placid gecko –  horny tail, bright yellow mouth, beautiful big pattern on his body with matching eyes! What a fashion statement!
That’s it for week 1.  Cheers and love, Rod

Tennant Creek #2, 16/10/10:

Not so much to say now – said it all last year, I think. A better week at work as I’m more or less up to speed with communicare – that complex, non-intuitive bugger of a computer program.  Again, I’m struck by the prevalence of severe disease out here – so many people whose kidneys and hearts are stuffed by 30-40.
Began the week with a 6k Sunday walk to Mary Ann Dam, a pleasant picnic spot.  My knees didnt like the 12k, but are getting over it. It’s all red semi-desert and big red mesas, lots of big locusts and a few lizards.  Back at work, my nurse aboriginal health worker (both  male) had ‘gone walkabout’, so it was a bit lonely by myself on the male side of this big new clinic.  It’s physically split down the middle, re gender, so I see no females and v few kids.  I’m not sure that’s a good idea to have built it this way (a concession to cultural sensitivities) but it’s a  debate long pre-dating me.  This week I’ve also been the doctor on duty for PKK (long indigenous name) the local nursing home – all black residents, and more or less like nursing homes everywhere with mostly frail old folk with dementia.
On Wednesday a meeting of the whole Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation, lasting 2(!) hrs, chaired by our very able white CEO Trevor Sanders.  A few interesting presentations: our Eye Team has done excellent remote work (think Fred Hollows) and gave us the same spirited presentation they’d just given to an international indigenous conference in Hawaii – next year it’s in Alice.  Then a searing powerpoint presentation on suicide, which is rife up here. A number of people had to leave the room. The presenter, a most articulate staff member, included photos of her cousin’s grave.  The next day, Nick who looks after the Anyinginyi gym, came to see me with insomnia – his brother had killed himself 3w ago.  During the meeting a tubby white fella on the other side of the room seemed to be making eyes at me.  After the meeting he came up, and said Hi Rod, to my confusion – it was Kim Yeoward, last seen at  school at least 45 years ago, then a rather fit young man, now the corporation’s accountant.
Yesterday Friday an Aboriginal lass  was selling her quite pleasant dot paintings to a departing group of nurse trainees, so for $40 I commissioned one – comparable works in the new Nyinkka Nyunu cultural centre here fetch about $250.
Domestic chores day today Saturday, but I’ve managed to cadge a bike, so today rode back to Lake Mary Ann – about 20′ cf a one hour walk; big locusts all the way and they hit you with a real thud.  It has been surprisingly cool and windy since yesterday (now heating up again), but I found a sheltered spot by the lake, watched the pelicans and other birds like small giraffes, and, you’ll be pleased or concerned to hear, read some poetry.  Dr Tim Metcalf, the hospital  director here, is a published poet, and lent me 2 of his books – quite inspiring, and although some of it’s a bit oblique, I am starting to enjoy reading poetry – I do better if I go with the flow rather than the meaning. Eve, could you see if Penguin has an anthology with both Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and Dante’s ‘Inferno’  – seriously. Tonight I’m trying out the chinese restaurant in the local sport’s club, and tomorrow Sunday it’s pancakes for brunch with the other 2 docs; I actually managed to find some real (and real pricey) maple syrup in the local Foodland.
That’s it for week 2, love, moi

Tennant Creek #3,  23/10/2010:
It’s my Saturday arvo email ritual – I cycled over for a swim, but the pool was absolutely chocka with black families, no room for one old whitefella to do laps, so I chickened out.  This morning cycled out to the lake again and read some more poetry from an anthology of recent Australian poet/clinicians – it’s a pretty spot so it’s a nice thing to do.  Some of the verse inspiring, some of it incomprehensible drivel – or arse-dribble as Stephen Fry would call it.  Reading  the second of his autobiographical series at the moment, alternately touching and VERY funny – I think I chuckled for 5 minutes after one of his dirty jokes; don’t know why, it’s just advanced schoolboy smut, maybe not so advanced.  It must be the heat up here.  Yes it’s HOT again and the pool has warmed up enough for me to start laps again.  Well the heat has got to me, because I’ve begun writing some verse and am quite enjoying it.  It’s what you do when there’s not too much else to do.  Fry writes  a funny and touching piece about old Alistair Cooke, of Letter from America fame, who also founded one of the great Cambridge Uni drama clubs where so many British actors and  comedy greats got their start – think Fry, Rowan Atkinson, Ben Elton, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and many more.
In fact there’s a lot more to do than at Kalkarinji last year, so I’m more engaged with the local community eg gym after work each night, which is rather nice as it’s a big tin shed with the sides opened up onto courts and playing fields.  So pedalling away to rock I can watch the black kids playing netball; they definitely have natural grace and ball skills.  It’s also visually obvious why so many get Type 2 Diabetes at a very early age – as young as their teens, which is rare in our community.  They are lithely built with long thin limbs; so if they put on weight with the rivers of grog up here and a poor quality western diet, as so many do, diabetes soon follows.
This week I swapped with one of the 2 female doctors, so I went to the female side of this rather palatial clinic – seeing women and children after 2 weeks of just men made it a better balance for me.  And a new ‘permanent’ male doctor has arrived; he’s a north American, SDA, very pleasant and about my age  but quite disabled by what seems like quite rapidly progressive MS, so walking is slow and difficult.  So I’ve been driving him around a bit, and tonight I’m having dinner at the Memorial Club with Carville and that “boy” from BGS who I hadn’t seen for 45 years.
During the week there was a one-woman show at the Civic Centre.  Tammy Anderson is a much-lauded performer who has been taking her energetic performance around the world for 10 years.  She lives in Melbourne and is a part-aborigine born in Tasmania, now 42.  The show is really her life story, all about multiple homes and caravans between Vic and Tassie as she grew up, lots of violent men, and pretty grim stories – told with songs, clever impersonations, lots of blue language and raunchy dialogue, occer, matter-of fact, and completely without props.  So it’s about an impressive individual rising above domestic violence and very unpromising beginnings to be a star performer.  Strong stuff.
I’ll finish with food, which I’m thinking about a lot, as I’ve been trying to lose a bit of weight.  I’ve developed a taste for  pawpaw, never a favourite of mine before.  Someone gave me a ‘red’ pawpaw from their backyard, and it doesn’t have that ‘sickly’ taste of some other varieties; particularly good with hommus for lunch.
That’s it  for week 3. Cheers and love, moi
Tennant Creek #4, 30/10/2010:
You’ll be relieved to hear that this is the last letter from TC. The time has passed quickly, but I’m looking forward to 10 days in Bali with Rochi, who arrives on the 2am bus on Monday.  Then on Friday we get the 3am bus to Bali via Darwin.  Great bus timetable.  I’m a little weary – clinic hours are 8-5, Mon-Fri, a bit more than I’m used to.  The good news is I’ve lost 5kg these past 4w just by understocking the fridge; gym and swimming helped a little.
My new pal Dr Carville Tolson is a devout SDA, a 3 times divorced creationist who doesn’t believe in Darwinian evolution and  doesn’t like Obama, who he thinks is leading America towards socialism.  Odd couple, you think? Well, it is Tennant Creek.  I’ve been driving Carville around quite a lot, while he’s waiting for an electric wheelchair.  He is badly affected by MS which seems of the aggressive variety; has only had it 3 years and one leg is useless – he walks with great difficulty.  He’s a pleasant fellow, and deals bravely with a bad deal.
I’ve saved the best of Tennant Creek for last, and it’s a tree.  I’ve been able to tolerate living in an ugly little unit because, whenever I walk outside I can look across the laneway at one of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen.  It’s a flame tree, and Google tells me that a good number of species get this nick-name. This one is a large spreading tree completely covered with bunches of bright red/orange flowers, and a few white ones, and its hues change with the light – really spectacular! What’s more, the flowers last for maybe 3 months up to Xmas each year.  It’s a Poinciana, and they are all over Tennant Creek, but the best one is right here.  Nobody up here seemed to know what they are, so a little research told me they are P. delonix regia, and they come from Madagasgar.  Apparently they are common in the old suburbs of Brisbane; how they came to Tennant Creek seems to be a lost bit of history. In fact lots of things up here are big, though not all beautiful.  The cockroaches are big as dogs – they make the notorious Sydney variety look like silverfish. On a brighter note, the mangoes on sale up here are large and perfect.  And there’s a heavily laden mango tree beside the Poinciana, but it’s out of reach behind a fence -damn!
Tuesday night is soccer night – there’s a keenly contested competition played with ?8 a side on the tennis courts here – black and white, men and women all in together, and very good-natured.  That same night I saw on ch2 an Australia wide ad by a very impressive young black girl, spruiking the Generation One website – it was a plea to try to give jobs to young blacks, the aim being to close the employment gap in one generation – 20 years.  Great idea, so I signed up as a supporter. Last night Friday an amazing tropical storm started as I was leaving work – sheets of rain driving in horizontally, and lots of minor flooding – there’s a big trench “the gutter” right around the town to cope with these occasional deluges.  And, incredibly in this hot place in mid-NT, hail – the blacks seemed quite excited about it, and one told me it hasn’t been seen here since the 80’s.
Last bike ride out to the dam this AM, read some poetry and returned home morally uplifted to find that Tate had emailed to me a Canadian website flogging cheap Viagra.  Cheeky bugger.  Well, that’s it for Tennant Creek. We’ll be back home 18 November.   Love, Rod


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