Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised that the following piece contains the names and voices of people who have died.
ON A NUMBER of occasions over the years 2005 to 2007, I worked as a relieving doctor in the Kimberley. Three times I was in Halls Creek, and once each in Balgo, Ringers Soak, Mullum and Fitzroy Crossing. In these desert places I saw degradation and I contracted a condition new to me: a sort of hopeless resignation.
Later I made single working visits to the coastal communities of Bidyadanga, Lombadina, One Arm Point and Beagle Bay. Here I contracted a reverse condition: a sort of elated hopefulness.
From time to time I'd visit headquarters in Broome. Unreal city. Tourism and natural gas have overthrown a town that overthrew the tribes. The gas and the resorts exert their gravitational pull, and tides of people flood in and flood out, distorting life in the town. Blackfellas who merge into the employed classes, and thrive as citizens, remain cultural question marks – as do the smaller numbers who clutch bottles in brown paper bags and congregate in the parks, going nowhere in a go-ahead town. Neither group is a reliable signpost of Indigenous wellbeing. Unreadable, Broome town is unrepresentative even of itself.
I went to each community to allow a longer-term doctor to take a breather. I banked on extending the doctor's tenure and usefulness. I saw myself as a sort of rescuer for the real rescuers, those doctors who came and stayed. The metaphor was of a raft saving people from shipwreck.
I went to work as a doctor; soon I found myself writing a book, Raft. The book sold out. I hoped that I had not done just that myself. Now, in 2010, I was going to the Kimberley to work once again. I wondered what I'd see, how much I'd blush over the judgements I had written.
BIDYADANGA: IN 2007, I saw a gateway of hope here. Excited, inspired, I wrote hopefully of the community. This time I try to look beyond the gateway. I go to work again at the clinic. Dr Larni – bright, idealistic, solid, practical Dr Larni – who told me she wanted to stay, has gone. I look around: lots of nurses, none familiar.
I start seeing patients. The receptionist greets me: 'Hello, Howard. Welcome back.' She remembers me from my earlier visit. Her name is Christine Shovellor. 'My family's band is playing tomorrow night. Come along and listen.'
The staff are new, but the atmosphere in the clinic is the same: still the informal respect, the calm, opportunistic medicine. The patient – here, now – presents an opportunity to improve health. Beyond the need of the moment, beyond filling a prescription, bandaging a finger or suturing a laceration, the nurses seize the chance to do something broader and deeper. They look at that whole person who is the patient: does her family suffer from diabetes, heart disease, violence? Are her immunisations up to date? How's her blood pressure, her blood sugar level, the penicillin cover for her rheumatic heart disease?
Throughout the Kimberley they have a new computer system for health records. As it is new there are teething problems. There are grumbles about its slowness from computer sophisticates and tremors from the computer-naive. I am one of the tremblers. But, thanks to the tiny Polish-Jewish pharmacist in Broome who created the system and enforces it doggedly, the old chasms of inconsistent medical records are closing. Wherever a patient moves in the Kimberley, her medical data precede her. No matter that she has no mind for drug names, and the names and nature of her tests remain elusive, and her frames for time are not linear or calendrical: we health people can retrieve the information we need.
I ASK A teacher at the school: Do you still have the walking bus that visits every household, every morning, and pied-pipers the kids to school?
'No. Its time has passed. There's a new principal, new ideas. The old head has been moved on.' Incredible. All too credible. And disappointing.
The swimming pool, gleaming sapphire in this red country, is closed. The temperature will reach 30 degrees today, but the pool is closed for winter. Too cold, says the teacher.
Another disappointment: last time I was here they had a 'no school, no pool' rule. What does the closure do to school attendance?
Later, another teacher at the school gives cheering information: 'In the days of the walking bus school attendance was eighty per cent. Now it's ninety per cent plus.'
The teacher has children of his own at school. Ambitious, gifted, highly motivated, these kids are in years nine and eleven. They study a specific curriculum by correspondence. I wonder why.
'It's not that the school's not good enough. It's a matter of subject choice. Country schools can't offer Indonesian and French and other subjects that my kids want.'
I ask the teacher where he's from. 'Near Beechworth, in northern Victoria. Before that, Newcastle.'
When will he be moving on?
'I plan to stay. We are making our lives here. When my term's up the department will move me on for a bit, but I'll wait out my time, reapply and return.'
OUTSIDE THE CLINIC, something is missing. Wandering on foot through town, running the tracks in the early morning, there's something I'm not seeing: where is the litter? Where are the carcases of derelict vehicles? Bidyadanga is one remote community that doesn't mock its Tidy Town sign.
Bidyadanga is a dry-ish community. (Is there any place that is truly grog-proof?) Bidgy is dry not by fiat but by assent. The locals do not permit alcohol in town, except in the precinct of the old Mission. Some hangover from communion wine. And you can take grog beyond town, to the beach.
On my first night I'm invited to a send-off party in the Mission precinct for some veteran nurses. Whitefellas and blackfellas attend; alcohol is consumed legally and moderately.
The next night I drive down the beach to listen to the Shovellor Band. My nightlife is picking up. A mixed audience of some hundreds sits, picknicking on fish and chips, listening to old covers and fresher material of the Shovellors' own. Hundreds of fish and spuds beyond counting disappear. Is there alcohol? I can't remember anyone drinking.
In three days, among nine hundred people, there is no drunkenness. It's un-Australian.
LAST TIME I was here, I was honoured to make the acquaintance of an illustrious traditional owner. Aged and skeletal, gracious and enormously proud, the old man was a member of that group in Bidyadanga that has always resided here. There are four other groups whose ancestors were desert people.
I had not contemplated the resulting natural hierarchy: the coastal group has a moral authority over its ancestral lands, which is expressed in decidedly material ways. Tradition is tyrannous. Democracy is an alien concept. On this visit I hear murmurings of discontent. Those in power are 'holding the town back' in some unspecified way.
The desert mob are in perpetual exile. The result of this is great art. A painting movement has exploded over the past five years or so, as desert elders, the last of the generation of first contact, who 'came in' in the 1950s and '60s, paint their pain and longing onto canvases that sell out as soon as they reach the market.
Back in Broome, I go with my wife to the gallery in Short Street that is the painters' exclusive conduit to the public. This sort of monopoly might be anything from efficient to exploitative. The young woman in the office, Concetta, invites us to The Bungalow, where the old folks paint when visiting Broome. Here we encounter the works of Weaver Jack, the oldest of the oldies. Raw power, a passion for the land where she will never live again, cries out from the canvases. They grip us. Power of this sort threatens serious assault on the wallet.
We sit and listen as Concetta describes the painters and their work. Concetta confides that she was brought up in a home where much was taught, but religion was entirely absent. She and her sister are just starting to read the Bible. They want to encounter foundation stories of their own culture. Concetta's bearing is animated and almost yearning as she recounts the famous return to country of the old people, after fifty years or more of exile. She was a member of the convoy that travelled for days over trackless dunes, guided by the old people, who relied on their memory of that great trek to the coast when they were young. All the way, the old people sang, sang the land, its stories and contours, its shapes and its echoes.
Concetta breaks off her narrative now, leaning forward, smiling, as she listens to dim sound from the next room. 'They are singing now,' she says softly. 'They often sing as they paint. Weaver and her friends, they paint their country and they sing.'
Eventually, the old people arrived at the place of desert water. Concetta and the other whitefellas saw only the same unending dunes. The old people got out of the vehicles, and dug. Their uncovering of the Jila, the place of water, was a consummation. The people and their land were again one. That moment, that journey, sustains an art movement. It seems that this was Concetta's exposure to a defining spiritual life. She became a witness. As she gives her ecstatic account we sense not exploitation but its opposite. Concetta is in spiritual thrall of the custodians of that country.
WEAVER AND OTHER old ones paint like there is no tomorrow, knowing that to be true. Meanwhile, the young blade who led them back to the homelands on that epic return paints too. Although greatly in demand he refuses to paint fast. He is not tempted by commercial opportunity. 'He is young,' says Concetta, and smiles as if to say: the young have plenty of time.
Back in Bidyadanga, there are others who are working like there's no tomorrow. These are the builders. They start work at six in the morning and work through until nightfall. They work like this six days a week. 'I'd like to work Sundays too,' confides one. He comes from Victoria. He and his mates are erecting new houses in the community. They reckon they'll be here for the best part of a year. 'The money's good. Government money, you know...'
I do not see any blackfellas working on site in Bidgy. But in Beagle Bay, where streets of new houses are going up, I see blackfellas working sites in hard hats.
WHAT IS HAPPENING on this raft? Whitefellas are drawn to it, as if to encompass the mythic or the heroic. Whitefellas built it, to save non-whites. Somehow, we seek out the raft, in all our variety, and we clamber aboard and we seek to steer it. But the land, the spaces, the silences, the emptiness, all crowd in on us and we surrender, like drowning men, to our own salvation.
At the nurses' farewell party that first night I hear Kiwi accents, and a variety of British inflexions. They tell me the pay rates for outback nurses are 'pretty good, better than New Zealand'. The builders come from Victoria. The art assistant in Bidgy is from Malaysia. Concetta at the gallery is from Sydney; her offsider, Hermione, comes from South Africa, via Melbourne.
And what of the visiting doctor? They allocate me a new two-bedroom house, spacious and equipped with modern gadgets too advanced for me to operate. And the money's not too bad either. Elsewhere in the Kimberley, they give me a tiny slum shack without insulation.
While I am in Broome the local bookshop holds a book event featuring Raft. Afterwards people come forward bearing copies of my book for me to inscribe. As at all such events I meet young, eager people who have decided to teach or nurse or doctor in outback communities. These are not venal people.
All of these people from Somewhere Else, all of us congregating and deriving livelihood in Aboriginal Australia, all of us with our lofty motivations and our generous emoluments. It is confusing.
The raft is heavily laden, leaning on an uneven keel, its course uncertain. When we make our landfall who will have been helped?
Some names in this piece have been changed.