THIS ( REMOTE) LIFE
LAST night, 50 wild camels came to watch basketball opposite my house but there was no one playing. The young Aboriginal fellas who usually play late into the night, stereos blasting in their battered Holden Commodores, had gone home. No one likes to be out in the dark when mamu ( evil spirits) roam.
We saw the camels at midnight, just before the streetlights switched off. It’s hard to know how long they were there, drawn in by the scent of water. More frequently the camels lurch around the airstrip, causing problems for the ‘‘ doctor plane’’ and my partner who has to set out the airstrip lights by hand.
Even the water they sought was a mirage. The night before, my partner and I were zooming out to the only working bore, 18km away. The water had stopped pumping again. There are three bores for the community. Only one is working. The contracted electrician who services the bores and power station for our region of more than 250,000 sq km in remote Western Australia resigned five months ago. There is no one yet to replace him.
Hastily filling buckets before we left, we prepared for the worst. Days without water in the searing heat of a central desert summer. Only this time, with a large ‘‘ sorry camp’’ on the edges of the community and numbers swelling for a funeral later that week, no water would be a disaster. I started to wonder about evacuation plans as I filled the sink to almost overflowing. The aged- care centre in our community has water tanks, but hardly enough to last us for more than a day. Our store, built 18 years ago when the community had 50 people, is too small to meet present needs, let alone hold emergency bottled water. With a community of more than 200 residents and growing, and in excess of 300 mourners, we were stretched to the limit.
To make matters worse, while my partner was digging the grave for the funeral ( he’s a handy chap), the powerhouse went down. Again. There are too many old airconditioners, working at peak inefficiency.
That was the fourth time the power had gone out this week. There are three diesel generators. Only one is working. Thankfully, my partner has done this a few times, so with some advice over the satellite phone, we were back up and running. Running, in fact, over the border and into the Northern Territory on a 400km round trip to collect the mail bag. It had been left behind in Alice Springs by the weekly air service. We hurriedly arranged for it to come on the ‘‘ bush bus’’, but that service stops at the border. Mail bags are the top priority, along with medicine for the clinic.
Unfortunately, not everyone in town understands this when deciding what has to be left behind. The box of pamphlets we got was not nearly as important as the family payment cheques. Many community members rely on this to make it through the weekend, with their incomes the second lowest in Australia.
While we were collecting the mail, we called into the local government business manager’s office and sounded him out on possible changes now that Labor is in power.
Kevin Rudd says he is interested in the infrastructure needs of remote communities. Perhaps the real costs of servicing the powerhouse and bore might be realised.
More importantly, perhaps we could finally get some funding for a new store, so desperately needed here in Wanarn. In the meantime, the camels advance closer, our store gets smaller and we wait.