As the small aircraft approaches the dirt airstrip in the remote outback, my heart is in my mouth as the reality of a decision we made just a few weeks earlier is appearing before my eyes. It is early February 1996 as we prepare to land in Kalumburu, a community of just over 200 people at that time, in the north-west of Western Australia. We were about to start a new chapter in our lives and work as volunteers at Kalumburu Aboriginal Mission, the most remote mission in Australia. The first stage of travel was a flight from Brisbane to Kununurra which included a brief stop at Darwin airport and by the time we arrived at our destination, we were tired but excited about our future as the next morning we would be flying to Kalumburu. We had been told that someone would collect us from our motel early the next morning when flying conditions were optimum.
Our driver was a young man, probably in his mid 20’s and as he threw our luggage into his yellow flower-painted VW Kombi Van, we climbed in, still not quiet awake at first light. On arrival at the airport, we discovered our tiny four seater plane, a single engine Cessna waiting for us. Our handsome young driver then loaded our luggage on to the plane and to our surprise, soon realised he was also our pilot! Flying over the Kimberleys at dawn at low altitude was truly majestic; the colours of the earth, the sky; the size of the Ord River, Lake Argyle; the enormous cattle properties, the vastness, the isolation.
Kalumburu is approximately 600 kilometres north-west of Kununurra, in the Kimberley region of Australia, on the King Edward River and is just a short 30 minute drive through the dust and sand to the beaches of the Timor Sea. We landed on the dirt airstrip and were met by a long-time resident, Anscar McPhee, a Benedictine Monk. The community comprised two elderly Benedictine Sisters who left Spain in the 1950’s to work at Kalumburu, Royal Flying Doctor nurses and staff, the principal and teachers from the small school, the couple who managed the community shop, about five other volunteers and the aboriginal people of Kalumburu. This was a “dry community” so alcohol was completely banned. We were to live at the mission where our shared accommodation in a small house was adequate and clean, though again we found ourselves sleeping in single beds that despite our determination, when pushed together, were never the same height.
Our daily duties were to do whatever needed doing. The mission provided hospitality, accommodation and meals for the many visitors to the community so I was kept busy washing and cleaning and preparing the single bed motel rooms (dongas – transportable buildings with single rooms). The visitors included the pilots, government workers, and tourists. Officials from the government were recording the language, the history, the stories, the art; medical workers were trialing new medications; research was undertaken concerning the health of the community.
The mission operated a games/food shop three nights and Saturday afternoon each week when the entire community would pack into the small hall and eat chicken wings/legs and pizza slices and play extremely loud music and dance. I became responsible for reporting the weather three times a day to the Bureau of Meteorology – this was a new skill I learnt and it provided a small income for the Mission.
Greg was kept busy mowing lawns, mending everything that broke, operating the small service station and garage, refueling the light aircraft and maintaining the airstrip. In the dry season when 4-wheel drive vehicles made the tough, difficult and adventurous journey by road to Kalumburu, the service station was kept busy selling petrol and repairing and replacing the damaged tyres. It is recommended that to make this trip over the Gibb River Road it is necessary to travel with 4 spare tyres, because it is likely you will need all of them.
I had never experienced heat and humidity like this before, even though I was born and raised in Queensland. Our bodies were totally covered with heat rash, our leather shoes and watch bands rotted from perspiration and our clothes stained from sweat, dirt and dust. Our clothes needed to be soaked in the huge concrete tubs in our outdoor laundry for a day or two before washing in a hope of removing some stains. Once, a huge snake curled up on top of the water in the tubs to enjoy some reprieve from the heat and for a couple of days, those clothes underneath the snake stayed in the water. We had to walk past the tubs to use the toilet which we did so reluctantly and quietly until the snake chose to leave. Before taking a shower, we would need to run the hose outside the house for about 15 minutes until the water became cool enough to stand under. We worked from early morning until lunch when we stopped for siesta until mid afternoon then returned to work until dark.
Every second Thursday, a plane would arrive with our supplies for the fortnight so we had to ensure that nothing was forgotten. We waited impatiently for this flight as it would bring the newspapers from the past 14 days and any mail from home, family and friends. Community meals at set times were provided for the volunteers, mission staff and visitors. Cattle were farmed and killed for our beef; there was plenty of chooks and eggs; bread was made by the Spanish Sisters in their huge brick oven and some vegetables were grown locally. Everything else was either frozen or came in a can. It took some time to feel comfortable eating this food but the greatest challenge was drinking water. Every morning during the wet season Greg would fill jerry cans with water from the creek and when the dry season came, we drank water from the river. The trick was to fill the glass with water, add about 3 spoons of Staminade (probably the first type of Sports Powder), close our eyes and drink just half the glass, never the whole glass as the sediment on the bottom was rocks and pebbles and a variety of unusual items from the creek and river. The best approach is to simply eat the food, drink the water, become extremely sick, do it all over and over again and eventually your body will adjust and no longer be affected.
We were both paid AUD$20 a week and our toiletries were provided free of charge. We were expected to pay for our phone calls (when the phone was working), our clothing, our medical expenses and any travel. Electricity was provided by a generator so restrictions on the use of electric fans and air-conditioners and televisions were required as fuel supplies diminished and the arrival of the next fuel tanker was uncertain. We had to cut our own hair or worse still, my husband cut mine! Six months later when we left Kalumburu we had saved enough money to be able to have a short holiday in Broome, before flying to Sydney, something we would never have achieved prior to becoming volunteers when we had careers, a mortgage and vehicles.
Huge verandahs covered the house where we lived and the head of our bed was placed against two windows in the room in a hope that we might capture a little cool air during the night. Early on Sunday mornings as we slept in the bed, whispers and giggles would waken us as standing on the verandah and looking through our windows were the beautiful smiling faces of the children asking if we would take them to the beach. This ritual became a weekly occurrence and the answer was always yes. So we would take the mission vehicle, a utility (no brakes, no windscreen) with as many kids as we could fit in the back and head to the beach. Honeymoon Beach was a favourite spot for locals and tourists and the kids would take turns to stand on look-out for crocodiles while we cooled off in the beautiful blue water.
Swimming provided me with a new and unusual challenge as I am a good swimmer, but the aboriginal people of Kalumburu believe that female thighs are sacred and must be covered at all times. In fact, despite the heat, women were expected to cover their arms as well. Personally I was delighted to think that anyone would consider my thighs sacred, but I respected their culture and would swim in knee-length shorts and a T-shirt to ensure my body was adequately covered. The two Spanish Benedictine Sisters loved the beach and would swim every Sunday fully clothed in their white dress and veil and at the end of the day it did not matter how we looked because for a brief time at least we were cool.
For more information about Kalumburu visit
More tales from our time in Kalumburu will be published in future posts.