Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Heart of Australia

I took my nephew Michael on a trip to the outback. Alice Springs is the town right in the heart of Australia, and it serves as the hub of the outback. Yes, it is not "a town" in the outback, but rather "the town." It wasn't until the 1980s that there was even a paved road into Alice Springs. The isolation is incredible.

We took a flight to Alice Springs from Sydney (which is on the coast and in New South Wales, which is the state where Rachele's family lives, for those of you who don't know about Australian geography). The flight took three hours, and throughout the majority of the flight Michael and I looked out the window and marvelled at the fact that all you could see was a huge expanse of red, dry, cracked earth. You really feel like you are going out into the middle of nowhere.

When I stepped off the plane in Alice Springs, the first thing that hit me was the intense heat. It was about 1pm, and the sun was beating down. Even the wind was hot. The air was so dry you could almost feel it pulling the the moisture out of you. You don't need to bother drying your hands after you wash them, just step outside the air does it for you. The earth is bright red, and it gets into everything and leaves its mark. My formerly white sneakers will now forever serve as a reminder of this trip. Worst of all are the flies. The place is swarming with flies that are not shy about crawling all over your face, into your ears, nose, mouth and eyes.

And for some reason, I fell in love with this place. It might have something to do with the beautifully bright sky, the crystal clear air, the stunning sunsets and sunrises, and a night sky that is so thick with stars you feel like you could reach out and touch them. It is a place where you can literally drive for hours and see nothing but the little two-lane road you are on and land rolling by on either side. You pass at most a handful of other vehicles, the drivers of which all smile and wave. Of course they do; who knows when you will see another person? It is like no place I have ever been.

A glimpse of the outback.

Check me out - I'm petting a dingo!
(Please ignore the fact that it is chained up, tame, and asleep.)

Alice Springs is home to two unique and quite impressive systems developed to deal with the isolation of the people living in the outback.

There is the "School of the Air", which consists of teachers instructing students all across the outback via radio. They have recently started doing it by satellite so for the first time these students are actually able to see their teacher. On standardized testing these students score well - usually in the top 10% - then often go on to boarding schools for high school.

Alice Springs also serves as a base for the Royal Flying Doctors Service. This was started in 1928 to provide emergency care for people in isolated places. I read a story about a man who was in a farming accident, so they brought over a neighbor who had done a first aid course. This man then contacted his first aid teacher in Perth who instructed him how to do surgery through morse code, using only a pen knife. The man actually survived the surgery, but died of a burst appendix during the many-day trek to the nearest hospital. It was stories like this that prompted the development of RFDS.

Here is the Alice Springs base. Inside there is a small radio control room where they take the emergency calls. They have doctors and nurses on call to fly out and help these people, treating them in the on-board emergency room then taking them to the closest hospital. The RFDS services an area the size of western Europe.

Many of the homesteads have a medical kit which contains a chart to help the patients describe their injuries. There is also a medical chest that contains a variety of medicines which are each assigned a number, so the physician can easily prescribe the medicine they need.

This is the body chart. In addition to the grid, it lists words to describe the kind of pain they are experiencing (sharp, throbbing, etc).

This is a medicine chest from the 1960s. There was a joke in the museum about a man who said they had run out of #9 pills, so he just gave his wife a #4 and a #5 and she was just fine.

Needless to say, I really liked Alice Springs. I will write about all the adventuring into the outback in the next post.

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