Monday, September 17, 2012

The Dr Tabubil Files: The Road to Isa

My sister, the estimable Dr Tabubil, is spending ten weeks on a rural clinical rotation in Cloncurry, a small pastoral town in the Queensland Outback.  It's a fantastic place, and together we have collaborated on a series of guest posts  all about living and working in the Red Centre.  Enjoy!

After three weeks in Cloncurry, I hit a wall.  It’s lonely out here.  It's a tiny town, with very few social opportunities besides the pub, and there's nothing much around but scrub - for hundreds of miles in every direction. I was given a shire council car when I arrived, but it's a compact European make and totally unsuitable for driving outside city limits.  Ten months ago, the doctor in my position drove up to Isa and back.  She came home late at night, which for city folk is a huge danger:  there are cows out here in cattle country - black cows that wander onto the roads at night, where the bitumen is warm through retaining the heat of the day.  All that you can see of them are their eyes, usually at the moment that they fly through your windscreen. 
            This doctor missed the cows, but she hit a large kangaroo. Kangaroos cause a significant number of accidents on Australian roads - in fact, they're probably the one thing that actually scares country people.  They can bash up your car pretty good - particularly if you're in a small-ish sedan, but the real danger is if they go through the windscreen: they come through and they keep kicking.  In this particular case, the doctor was uninjured, but the car was in the shop for 10 weeks.
            As a consequence of the accident, I have the car, but I'm not allowed to drive out of town in it - just in case.  You can imagine how frustrating this can be.  So when I hit this wall, I begged and I pleaded (I might even have groveled a little) to be allowed to drive to Mt Isa  - 120 kilometers to the east, for a few hours change of place.  I had a real reason to go - a friend  was flying in to visit her sister, who lives there, and we really wanted to catch up.
            My begging and pleading paid off, with restrictions: I could go, but I could do no driving between 5pm and 9am to avoid the ‘roos and the cows.  I was more than happy to comply, especially when the Powers That Be suggested that I stay in Isa overnight and drive back the next day, even offering to re-schedule my patients for the morning so that I could drive back in daylight and in safety! 
            The drive was beautiful.  The road is well travelled, and has recently undergone some major improvements, most notably the addition of real overtaking lanes every 20 to 30 kilometers.  This has been a major useful change to the road - particularly in the places where caravans (carrying hordes of Australian Grey Nomads)  and road-trains with two or three trailers behind them, slow down to struggle up the shallow hills. 

The Road to Isa

The road meanders through low red hills,  covered with bush grass and spinefex, and scattered gum and bloodwood trees. It is pure desert out here.   Straight out of the movies.  The only things missing are the saguaro cactuses - you know, the ones that look like fingers - tall and skinny and cinema-shorthand for Hot and Dry and Empty.   
On the way up to Isa I stopped at every single stopping bay, often just a fifty meter stretch of dirt along the side of the road, to look out at the bush.   Occasionally, there are stretches of sidewalk, that start randomly, run for five meters, or fifty meters, and stop again, just as randomly.  I’m not sure who uses them.  Nobody seems to know why they were built.
            It’s a pity none of these stopping areas touched on a creek – I would have loved to photograph the creeks here, but the traffic runs so fast and fierce that it’s far too dangerous to stop on the roads. They have quintessential bush names like Dingo Creek and Gum Creek, but there are a few wilder names - such as Salmon Gorge Creek.  It’s probably the most unassuming creek around. Flay and dry and lots and lots of nothing.  No gorge anywhere. All the creeks out here are all bone dry.  They range from 3 to 20 meters across, flat beds of red sand and not a spec of water.  There are empty creek beds everywhere across this country.  The country does flood in the wet season (in fact, one of the nurses at the hospital hitches a ride to work on the family’s helicopter when the roads are flooded) but right now it’s simply impossible to imagine what they would look like full.
            Although it's the dry season right now, there is still a little water in the Chinaman Creek Dam.  One day last week I drove up to the dam and stomped about (dodging black flies, rural Australian style, all the way) taking photographs, to show you what this country looks like in the wet.  They say that there are snakes out here.  I haven't seen any  - it's winter and it's too cold.  But I saw a snake's slither track once.  Does that count?
The biggest culture shock I've experienced out here in the Red Center isn't the desert stretching out all around us, with its hundreds of miles of nothing there but kangaroos, ta ta lizards, and cows, but the lifestyle of the country folk.  There’s a little bit of everything out here.  The ones I love the most are the young men and women who work out the stations.  I get a secret little thrill and tingle down my spine when they say, “I’m a Jillaroo at Devoncourt" or “I’m the Jackaroo at Fort Constantine Station”.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up here in Australia - where our cowboys are known for fair dinkum drovers, where the jackaroos and jillaroos muster cattle by the hundreds of thousands, and horses by the hundreds (as working horses for the mustering of the cattle) across thousands of square kilometers of Australia, and drive them across the country to cattle-yards for transport on road trains to the slaughter house in the city, over a thousand kilometers away.  It's something that I’ve never been exposed to before, nor ever understood – until now, out here!
            And then we’ve got the truckies - the modern-day drovers, whose sole purpose of occupation is transporting goods back and forth across the millions of miles of road in this country.  Out here, road trains go from the East Coast (Brisbane or Townsville), through Emerald or Charters Towers, then they roar down the main road of Cloncurry and pause for a rest at the Road Runner Road House or the Coyote Inn and plow on through to Isa, where they stop for the night before  dropping down onto the endless plains across to Alice and even further beyond that, Perth.  

The Road Runner Roadhouse in Cloncurry. 

 There are a lot of drugs out here among the truckies, and there are regular drug screens by trucking companies and rail companies.  At a barbeque I overheard one manager of a train company- who is an ex-truckie himself -say, “I bring my guys in for drug screens all the time.  It’s the speed.  I know the signs.  I’ve been on it so many times myself.”  He used to do a round trip from Toowoomba to Perth in 8 days.  That’s over 6000 kilometers of straight road where there’s nothing to break the monotony of empty horizon except kangaroos waiting to be hit.  Truckies swallow amphetamines like candy.  It keeps them awake and gets them home faster for an extra day with their children before they are on the road again.  

And the road goes on - all the way to Perth.

The distances that my patients travel as matter of course - without even thinking about it - are huge.  People from the further stations can travel almost two hundred kilometers of dirt roads before they even meet bitumen.   
            One jackaroo I saw – he had been rolled on by a cow during a muster, and wounded, and had come in to town so that I could change the dressing on the wound for him.
            “Right.  I said.  I’ll need to see you again the day after tomorrow."
            He blinked twice, but said nothing. Just nodded stoically.
            “Erm.” I said. “How far away are you again?”
            “Four hours, each way.”  He said. He had come 150 km, on an ungraded dirt road that most of the time was a cattle track, just to see the doctor.  And didn’t think that it was anything special.
            Right.  So the nurses taught him to clean his leg and change his own dressing.  I saw him two weeks later – which is still really soon for a trip like that.

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