THIS ( RE­MOTE) LIFE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - SO­PHIE STAUGHTON

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.

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