There is a place called Whoop-Whoop! To an average Australian it is either a picture on a postcard, a scenic 4X4 trip through red canyons, a barramundi fishing bonanza or a stop-over in Alice.
I never imagined I’d see a place resembling the highveld in the middle of this continent, and neither did I expect such difficult conditions. Working shortterm as a medical student in a remote health clinic gave me just a hint of the enormous need some parts of Australia experience, despite the ease of life we enjoy in the prosperous and booming coastal cities.
To me, Whoop-Whoop now has a proper name - Timber Creek. A day’s drive from Katherine in the middle of the Northern Territory will take you to this small town, population of around 150, mostly aboriginal people and a handful of remote farmers. The living conditions in some of the communities could almost be described as third-world.
Though I never saw anything close to a shanty town like I’ve known in Durban, I did get a wake-up call of the disparity between the aboriginal communities in which I worked, and the comfort of Brisbane.
Access to health care is extremely difficult for people living in towns like Timber Creek. One doctor services up to 30 communities spread out over a large distance - even up to an hours flight by light aircraft away. The doctor at the clinic had been in Timber Creek for six years, by far the longest serving practitioner in the region. Some staff only stay for as little as a month.
This lack of health care, combined with factors such as extremely limited work opportunities, poor hygiene, little education and alcohol problems make for a society prone to curable but destructive conditions. It is well documented that aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders have a mortality rate of up to three times that of all Australians, and a life expectancy around seventeen years shorter.
I could not even count the number of kids who arrived at the clinic with partial deafness due to unnoticed and untreated ear infections. Chronic Suppurative Otitis Media (ear infection) is very uncommon in first world countries and is best regarded as a disease of poverty. In aboriginal communities, children are affected by up to ten times the rate the World Health Organisation says is indicative of massive health problems.
The limited schooling these children receive is made even less effective by such a condition. Kids drop out sooner, acquire language later, and the condition ultimately contributes to the poor health spiral.
The school teacher at one of the outstations to which we flew told me of his struggles in the town of about 80 people. Having recently been threatened with an axe for attempting to help one of his pupils, he was just so grateful for our assistance with the kids. I was even given the opportunity to organize some health education for the boys, focusing on what such communities term ‘Men’s Business’. I think I learnt more from the boys than they did from me!
In a nutshell, there is a world of opportunity in the bush of Australia.
Nestled in spectacular scenery, no doubt with some of the best fishing and 4X4 possibilities in the world, are people in need. Wherever we go in the world, we will always have such people, and we would do well to keep our eyes and hearts open.