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An Outback Nurse, страница 1


An Outback Nurse

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An Outback Nurse

  First published in 2014

  Copyright © Thea Hayes 2014

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.

  Allen & Unwin

  83 Alexander Street

  Crows Nest NSW 2065


  Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100

  Email: [email protected]


  Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available from the National Library of Australia

  ISBN 978 1 76011 132 8

  eISBN 978 1 74343 906 7

  Cover design by Darian Causby

  Typeset by Midland Typesetters, Australia


  Congratulations to Thea Hayes for writing this fine book and to Allen & Unwin for publishing it. Far too often, the people with the ‘real’ stories to tell get passed over by publishers on the grounds that they are not known, or ‘might not find a market’. I know from personal experience that there is an audience out there that craves the genuine article. I also know that the best advertising is still word-of-mouth. So I predict that Outback Nurse will go very well. I hope so.

  Thea represents those many ‘bush women’ who have done it tough, have known privation and disappointment, have had to work long and often thankless hours without the back-up and assistance they deserve as a result of the loneliness in which their lives are led. But they have known loneliness only in terms of vast distance, for the family lives they have created are indeed joyful, productive and not to be swapped, no matter what the circumstance. Laughter is an essential component. I wrote about them in my poem ‘Bush Woman’:

  She’s the backbone of this country

  She’s alive and well today

  She’s the mainstay of Australia

  And that’s all there is to say

  Thea brought security to many lives through her dedication to the people of the Outback, as a nurse and as a kindly, generous wife on one of Australia’s biggest and most famous cattle stations, Wave Hill. She is the widow of Ralph, one of the great cattlemen. They had to be tough, resolute people, but the rigours of their lives were softened by the level of fair play that they sought to impose on all situations. There is no better example than in the famous ‘strikes’ at Wave Hill. Thea and Ralph had to take particular managerial stances in those troubled days, but at all times they showed their respect for the Aboriginal people that they had known from childhood and with whom they had shared the responsibility of running the station effectively and productively over so many years.

  I know that the ‘bushies’ will love this book and I hope it sells by the thousands.

  Ted Egan AO

  Alice Springs



  1 Sydney, Australia

  2 The interview

  3 My early adventures

  4 Our farewell party

  5 A disorganised organised tour

  6 Alice Springs to Wave Hill

  7 ‘Jinparrak’

  8 My first day

  9 A Wave Hill awakening

  10 The cracked hide and the watering hole

  11 Bushfire

  12 New responsibilities

  13 Initiation

  14 The stock camps

  15 A big surprise

  16 Christmas at Wave

  17 The engagement party

  18 The horse muster

  19 The drover

  20 Wedding at Limbunya

  21 My first Negri

  22 Our wedding

  23 The honeymoon

  24 Back to Sydney

  25 Twins

  26 My second Negri

  27 The Americans

  28 Relieving at Gordon Downs

  29 The curtains

  30 Cudge and Jack

  31 The big wait

  32 Back to Gordon Downs

  33 Me Missus Cook

  34 Opening night in London’s West End?

  35 Halls Creek

  36 Number three arrives

  37 Drought and flooding rains

  38 The Wave Hill Walk-off

  39 Months of measles

  40 An unwelcome trip

  41 Romance comes to Gordon

  42 The long weekend

  43 Going back to Wave

  44 Rat plague and the Hong Kong flu

  45 Visitors for Vincent

  46 Making a showpiece

  47 Great additions to the station

  48 Educating the children

  49 The problems of stress

  50 A penny for our thoughts

  51 Christmas 1974

  52 The Handover

  53 Well-intentioned men

  54 The horse sale

  55 The cat

  56 Success at last

  57 The social club

  58 Tales from the Territory

  59 The Kookaburra

  60 Where did we go wrong?

  61 Aboriginal customs

  62 Bidji Park

  63 Leaving the Outback

  64 Murrawah



  To the memory of Ralph Hayes and to the many people of the Outback, both white and Aboriginal, who contributed to the lifestyle that made this book possible.


  The Northern Territory Outback is mostly a wide brown land with vast expanses of desert where spinifex grows: a sunburnt country. Then there are the rich pastures that extend on flat black soil plains for miles towards the horizon. Rugged mountain ranges and huge monoliths reach for the sky, interspersed with gorges gashed out of rocks from thousands of years of wind and rain.

  The first inhabitants of this beautiful but harsh land were the Aboriginal people, believed to have been here since the Ice Age, around fifty to seventy thousand years ago. These nomads treated the country well as they saw the land as an extension of themselves. Hunting and gathering, they lived on yams, berries, grubs, grasses, fish and native animals.

  When white men came with their cattle to the centre of Australia, life for the Aboriginal people changed forever. Existing on the outskirts of the huge stations, they gradually became involved in the workings of the cattle industry, losing in the process a great part of their nomadic lifestyle and culture.

  It was in this vastness that I found myself as a young nurse. The Northern Territory was to give me a home with more love in it than I ever expected. And, also unexpectedly, this vast land was to be the backdrop for one of the most momentous struggles in the fight for equality of the Australian Aboriginal people.


  Sydney, Australia


  I was coming home after a year of adventure overseas: living and working in London, hitchhiking around Europe with my friends, and returning via the United States and Canada, where I had visited my adventurous brother Tim in Vancouver. Tim had settled there when he’d taken a job with a surveying firm, and he and his Australian fiancée, Faye, drove me to the harbour in their car, festooned with yellow and green streamers and cut-out kangaroos.

  SS Lakemba didn’t look too bad, and was larger than I’d expected. It was a less than state-of-the-art freighter carrying eight cash-strapped passengers, plus crew
, and laden with timber. We were meant to set sail at 12.30 p.m., but visitors still being on board ruined that. There was frantic waving and screaming from all as the crew attempted to depart on time.

  The trip back from Canada was slow. The Lakemba chugged away for eleven days before arriving in Honolulu, where we stayed for only one day, much to our disappointment. A few of us managed to do a quick tour of the town, ending up at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel sipping whisky sours on their patio beside Waikiki Beach. Too divine for words.

  On to Suva where the crew unloaded their timber: this was to take three days, so a group of us hired a car and spent an exciting time at Korolevu Bay, on the western coast of Fiji. We danced every night in a thatch-roofed beach-side nightclub. With the right company it could have been very romantic, but this was a group intent on getting home rather than forging lifelong relationships. However, the sweet sounds of a traditional Tongan orchestra did not go wasted on travellers who were experiencing their last taste of exotica before returning to staid 1950s Australia.

  Next stop: Sydney.

  It was a glorious day in March when the Lakemba sailed into Sydney. As we steered past the coast’s spectacular heads, I viewed the most beautiful harbour in the world. How fortunate I felt to be an Australian, and particularly to be home. I was excited at the thought of seeing my mother again, and eager to catch up with my boyfriend, Colin, whom I’d met a year before leaving Australia. Colin was a civil engineer, a gorgeous guy and a conservative type, often wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pipe.

  But I was also a little anxious. Would Colin still feel the same way about me after a year’s absence? And would I feel the same about him?

  After the ship docked I soon found myself in Colin’s arms. It was both thrilling and strangely uncomfortable.

  Several days later when he invited me to dinner I found out why our reunion did not feel right. My gorgeous Colin had metamorphosed into my heartbreaker: he’d shifted his attentions elsewhere while I’d been overseas. I was brokenhearted and cried on my mother’s shoulder, but at least I was home. Damn it, I thought, why did I come back so early? I could have still been overseas with my friends.

  I quickly decided that I’d best get over this dismal period and do a course. I was accepted into the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Surry Hills, Sydney, for the twelve-month Certificate in Obstetrics, beginning in August.

  About twenty of us, all registered nurses, started together. We thought we knew everything, but at Crown Street we found we knew nothing. As trainee midwives we were not allowed even to test a wee without having it checked by a superior. However, we coped with being put down by the registered midwives who, despite us having completed four years of nursing training, treated us as if we were ignorant. We took it in turns with the medical students to do our fifteen mandatory deliveries.

  In my last six weeks at Crown Street I decided I’d had enough of hospital work. Carefully, I read all the positions in The Sydney Morning Herald for double-certificated nursing sisters that were not in a hospital, looking for that perfect job, applying for several potentials.

  One evening I had a phone call from Wylva, a friend I’d met overseas and with whom I’d shared a flat in Kensington, London. ‘I’m going on a trip to Ayres Rock and Alice Springs. Why don’t you come with me?’ she suggested. ‘It’s being organised by students from the CSIRO research division—they’ll do the driving.’

  ‘That sounds great, what date do you leave?’ I asked, as I still had another three weeks to complete my course.

  ‘Not until the end of the month.’

  ‘Wonderful,’ I said, ‘I’ll be finished two days before.’ I can always look for that special job when I get back, I thought to myself.

  When I graduated it was time to farewell the friends and classmates with whom I’d lived and worked for the past twelve months. We all exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and promised to keep in touch. Everyone wished me well on my trip to Ayres Rock. My reply: ‘I’ll be back in three or four weeks. I will ring you then.’

  In my two free days before the trip, I moved to a shared three-bedroom flat in Edgecliff, not far from some close friends in Darling Point. I didn’t unpack. I put together a small suitcase of clothes, then rang my mother in Wollongong.

  ‘Any mail, Mum?’ I asked.

  ‘Yes, darling, a letter from the Australian Investment Agency.’

  ‘Have I really?’ I asked, taken by surprise. ‘I applied for a job with them, weeks ago, but it was for a triple-certificated nurse, at least twenty-five years old. And you’ll never guess where it is: a cattle station in the Northern Territory. Quick, please read out the letter.’

  The letter was from a Mr Alan Perry, the company secretary, and said that the Australian Investment Agency would very much like to interview me.

  I considered it and decided that as I didn’t have much to do before we left, and I’d already packed, why not have an interview with this Mr Alan Perry? I thought the property could be just outside Alice Springs, or even on the way to Ayres Rock. Wylva and I could probably be taken out there. How exciting! We’d be able to see a real live cattle station in the Northern Territory.


  The interview

  Having rung to say I was on my way, I caught a taxi to the Australian Investment Agency. It was upstairs on George Street, just above the entrance to Wynyard Station.

  I didn’t have to wait long before I was ushered into Mr Alan Perry’s office. I was feeling quite nervous, as I was there under a pretext: I’d only come for the interview because I was curious to see an Outback cattle station.

  Mr Perry stood when I entered the room. He was a fairly short, well-dressed gentleman with a warm, welcoming smile that made me feel completely at ease.

  ‘How do you do, Thea? Do sit down,’ he said, indicating a chair. ‘So, you’re interested in going to Wave Hill Station as the nursing sister?’

  ‘Well, yes,’ I said hesitantly, ‘but I’m about to leave on a trip to Alice Springs and Ayres Rock, so I’ll soon know more about the area.’

  ‘I’ll tell you about Wave Hill,’ he began. ‘It’s a large cattle station, the second-largest property in the world under one management. It has an area of six thousand square miles or about four million acres, and is situated about five hundred miles north-west of Alice.’

  There goes Wylva’s and my firsthand viewing of a cattle station, I thought.

  ‘So who owns Wave Hill, Mr Perry?’ I asked.

  ‘The Vesteys, one of the richest aristocratic families in Britain. They’ve built up a worldwide empire: they’ve got interests in property development, grocery wholesaling, supermarkets, insurance and travel, and they own shipping lines and wool mills, and cattle properties in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, as well as in Brazil. They’re the world’s biggest producer and retailer of meat. Lord Vestey died a few years ago and his young grandson Sam has inherited his title.’

  Wow! I thought. Wave Hill is sounding very interesting.

  ‘The manager is Tom Fisher, who’s worked for the Vestey Company for many years: an excellent manager. He was recently divorced from his second wife, which means the nursing sister must also be housekeeper and hostess, as Wave Hill receives many visitors.’

  ‘The job sounds fascinating. How many people live at Wave Hill?’

  ‘There are thirty whites and 240 Aborigines on the station. You certainly won’t get bored. In fact, I’m sure you’ll love it up there.’

  ‘What about women? Are there any white women?’

  ‘Yes, the mechanic and the bookkeeper both have wives.’

  He sounded so keen to hire me that I started to panic. How could I refuse, when he was being so helpful?

  ‘Mr Perry,’ I began, ‘I’m afraid I haven’t got three certificates. I’ve only got my general nursing and midwifery, and you did advertise for a triple-certificated nursing sister.’

  ‘I don’t think we’ll worry about that,’ he said with a s

  My heart sank. ‘You also wanted someone over twenty-five,’ I tried again.

  ‘Oh! That’s perfectly all right. You’re obviously a very competent nurse, so what’s a year or two?’

  Oh dear, I’m not getting out of this very well, I thought. All my friends from my course and overseas trip lived in Sydney, and I suddenly realised I didn’t want to leave. We’d shared a wonderful time, and I envisaged the fun ahead.

  So what on earth was I doing being interviewed for a job in the middle of the Northern Territory?


  My early adventures

  My mother, Nancie Osborne, started her nursing training at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. There, two years later, she met and fell in love with the handsome William McGovern, a brave ex–soldier.

  My father had grown up on a Black Mountain farm in the New England district of New South Wales, and at the age of eighteen had enlisted with the Australian Imperial Forces in Armidale on 3 April 1916. A month later, with the 36th Battalion, he sailed off on HMAT Beltana to Gallipoli. He was a corporal, then a second lieutenant. After being wounded and transferred back to England to recuperate, he was sent to officer school at Oxford, receiving his commission as lieutenant. Later he was wounded again in Messines, France, and finally came home at the end of the war.

  My parents were married at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. After they went on a golfing honeymoon, Dad was posted with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to Wagga Wagga, where my two older brothers, Tony and Tim, were born. My family then moved to Albury, a large town in the Riverina district on the New South Wales/Victorian border, and Dad managed a bank branch there. I and my younger brother, Terry, were born in Albury some years later, before my family moved once more, this time to Melbourne. When World War II started, Dad joined up again, now as Captain McGovern. In 1942, he insisted that we be evacuated to stay with his mother in the small town of Guyra, New South Wales, because of the fear of a Japanese invasion. That same year, two Japanese mini-submarines came into Sydney Harbour.

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