Darwin, 1st August 2003...
Having left a cold and frosty Lennox Head in Northern New South Wales early that morning, I arrived in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, which was experiencing a pleasant 30C.
First impressions reminded me of St Helier; a small bright and airy town with a busy main street lined with a variety of restaurants, pubs and tourist shops. The N.T. is roughly the size of France with a population of about a quarter of a million people, some areas being very sparsely populated. Large areas of the Territory are categorised as Aboriginal land and a special permit is required to visit or pass through them.
My stay in Darwin was a brief one as next morning I was travelling down the Stewart Highway in my four wheel drive looking forward to starting a new job in a town that I had never seen.
|A road pierces the outback.|
Katherine is situated on the junction of the Stewart and Victoria highways, 340km south of Darwin and gateway to the spectacular Katherine Gorge. The population is bolstered up to about 10,000 people thanks to the nearby Tindall RAAF base. However, 50% of these are indigenous which was to prove quite a culture shock after the comforts of New South Wales.
The job was described in the Weekend Australian as the best Pharmacy Job in the Country and if further encouragement was required, it included full relocation and an air conditioned house.
The position of Pharmacist in charge was at the local 60 bed hospital which provided acute medical services to an area 300,000km in size and containing approximately 24 aboriginal communities.
My adventurous spirit plus a very understanding wife, who was to follow me up three weeks later, had lured us up here for 12 to 18 months to experience life in the outback.
The drive down that morning provided an appetiser of what was in store. A dry and dusty countryside that hadn’t seen any rain for many months flashed by. I passed through towns such as Adelaide River and Pine Creek, often hundreds of kilometres apart and which were nothing more than a fuel station, a store and a pub.
Four hours latter I finally arrived in my new home town ready to start work on Tuesday morning, Monday being a public holiday known as “ Picnic Day.”
Geographically, Katherine was very different from anywhere that I have lived before; a virtual island in the midst of a dusty, rocky landscape which is transformed to a lush green during the wet season.
August was the end of the cool dry season and was quickly followed by the hot and humid build up. This starts in early September, coincidentally the same time as Katrina and Emilyn, my wife and daughter arrived and continues until the rains break in mid-December.
Temperatures regularly reach the high thirties and low forties and it was not unusual for the thermometer to be touching thirty degrees at six thirty in the morning.
As a keen long distance runner and former member of the Jersey Spartan Athletic Club, this made life very difficult as any training had to be done very early in the morning or in the cool of the air conditioned gym. Even the town pool became uncomfortably warm to swim in.
|"One of the fishing holes just outside of Katherine gave up a 4.5 metre crocodile in mid-March, just days after I had been there throwing a line in."|
Swimming, a past time that we loved, became another obstacle. The Territory is crisscrossed with beautiful rivers and billabongs. However, swimming is not advisable in any of them due to the increasing number of large saltwater crocodiles which regularly reach four to five metres in length and are often found miles away from the sea. At that time of the year, they are on the prowl looking for a mate which makes them even more aggressive. Hence, when near any water, extreme caution was required.
The build up was then followed by the wet season which started suddenly with the arrival of cyclone Debbie. Although the days were dry and humid, each evening saw the arrival of the thunderheads and forty to fifty mils of rain in an evening was quite common.
For this three month period, the rivers and creeks are flowing and a lot of small towns and communities become cut off. This can provide a lot of difficulties for ordering in the medications for the hospital as well as the transport of vaccines out to the rural communities. A lot of the roads in the 'Top End' are unsealed and become muddy unpassable tracks at this time.
Katherine flooded on Australia day in 1998, something I remember seeing on the news whilst still living in Jersey...probably the first time I ever heard of the place. This year, the river quickly rose to 17m but there was only minor flooding in parts of the Southside. For a week or so, the only road that remained open was the Stewart highway to Darwin; all routes South (to Mataranka and Alice Springs), West to WA and East to the gorge, were underwater.
The wet also brought in an interesting array of medical challenges with an increase in water borne conditions such as otitis media, melioidosis and the mosquito borne Ross River fever.
This lasted until the end of the first week of March and saw the landscape changed into a brilliant green with headhigh long grass dominating the surrounds. Just as suddenly as it started, so it stopped and was followed by a return to the hot dry weather in a period that is known as the “Run off.”
Fishing in the Territory is a religion and this is when every second Territorian hooks up his tinny and heads to the nearest waterhole in search of the famous barramundi. These mighty fish, similar in appearance and taste but larger than Jersey bass, travel upstream to spawn and in this run off period head back to the tidal reaches of the rivers, feeding voraciously as they go.
Having brought a small 4 metre boat myself, I was soon addicted as once hooked, these fish jump and run like no other fish I yet encountered. The state government is also very mindful of conservation limiting an angler’s quota to five fish after which they must be released. Commercial netting has also been ceased on a number of Top End Rivers, which has greatly benefited the fish stocks and associated tourist industry.
Although harder to see at this time whilst the water is high and warm, the crocodiles are still their in abundance and great caution must be used on or near the water. During the floods, the crocs also move further inland, so even the safe dry season swimming holes, such as Edith falls which is 65km from Town, must be declared safe before venturing in. One of the fishing holes just outside of Katherine gave up a 4.5 metre crocodile in mid march, just days after I had been there throwing a line in.
This lasts for two months and is followed by the cool dry season which goes from June to August. Although the nights can be cool (down to two degrees whilst camping in the Bungle Bungles), the days are a pleasant 25 to 30 degrees. This is the perfect time of the year to take your holidays and camping is a pleasure, even with a fifteen month toddler in tow. We had some great trips to the Kimberlies, Litchfield and the Bungle Bungles.
This is of course if you can find a locum to run the pharmacy in my absence. This took some organising as most pharmacists are reluctant to come and work here due to its isolation and the locum agencies demand an arm and a leg in fees.
|Fishing for Barramundi on the Daly River|
For more of Andrew's tales of life in Katherine, take a look at parts two and three of 'From Jersey Cows to Saltwater Crocodiles' by clicking on the right hand side of this page.