BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Chronicle of a world we have lost
, February 14, 2015
AN OUTBACK NURSE
by Thea Hayes
(Sydney: Allen & Unwin)
Paperback: 288 pages
Reviewed by Julia Patrick
Thea Hayes’ book is about her life in the ’60s and ’70s at the huge Vestey pastoral property, Wave Hill, in the Northern Territory. Life was rough, amenities basic, experiences sometimes heart-stopping; but it was a happy, communal life where all, blacks and whites, pulled together to make things work.
It is a disarmingly frank and sometimes very funny “conversation” with the reader, told with a matter-of-fact simplicity, often a naïvety, in describing exciting, scary, amusing, dangerous and occasionally outrageous experiences. Through all the ups and downs, the author’s fun-loving and happy nature shines through.
The story begins with Thea as a typical teenager deciding what to do with her life. “Nursing was touch and go for a while”, she said, as was studying ballet: “I wanted to be a ballerina.” Eventually, reality clicked in.
Three years on, her friends were having pre-wedding teas where the “glory boxes” of the era were laid out for inspection — but this was not for Thea. Instead she went off for a year hitchhiking in Europe “with the most wonderful companions”. Baby-sitting, selling ladies’ suits and Kent hairbrushes and nursing at the London Clinic, Harley Street, paid the bills.
Back home in Australia she found that an erstwhile boyfriend “had shifted his attentions elsewhere”. A year’s obstetrics course overcame this “dismal period”; then, impulsively, she accepted the advertised position of housekeeper/hostess/nurse at Wave Hill Station 500 miles north-west from Alice Springs and a world away from the party life of Sydney.
Suddenly apprehensive, Thea reassured herself: “If you don’t like it, you can just leave....” But, of course, she didn’t; and her book, a collection of anecdotes and the author’s own experiences, is the intriguing result.
On arriving, “I was amazed,” she writes, “at the organisation of the station.”
“Everyone, white and aboriginal, had their jobs and seemed to do them so enthusiastically. Everyone respected the role of everyone else.”
She takes us from bush fires, floods and plagues, where rats chewed through saddles, bridles and boots, to stock camps, horse musters outback Christmases and aboriginal customs. And there’s the excitement of engagements, weddings and parties for special occasions.
The stockmen, jackaroos, fencers, butchers, bakers, boundary riders, saddlers and bore mechanics were all Thea’s companions at the station. Affectionately, she describes one of them, Chisel, as “a very sweet, very large aboriginal man who was completely dedicated to his vital job of fuelling the Station’s stoves and wood heaters”.
Thea writes affectionately of her “faithful house girls” and their “adorable children”. The girls helped in the kitchen, laundry and dining room and were “often moved around depending on who was pregnant or on walkabout”.
Although the “smoko” veranda was the informal hub of the station, meals were remarkably formal: everyone followed the station manager, Tom Morris, into the dining room in order of seniority; and, despite the heat and with no fans or air-conditioning, men wore long-sleeved shirts and long trousers for dinner.
The station’s supplies came every six months, but a doctor was in two-way radio contact and flew in monthly. The Flying Doctor flew urgent cases to Darwin.
Thea’s “clinic” had the bare essentials, and “under its cement floor lived a million cockroaches” — but they only appeared at night. “Thank the Lord,” writes Thea “ I wasn’t called out at night very often!”
After the young overseer, Ralph Hayes, came to her aid when a drunken stockman intruded into her bedroom on her first night, the pair thereupon become “mates, best friends” — but then, just six weeks after her arrival, Ralph announced to Thea, “I’ve told Tom I’m going to marry you!”
Thea recalls: “… and the next things we knew, we were having a wedding. There was no mucking around in the Territory.”
Everyone pitched in: the post mistress sent invitations by telegram, the policeman’s wife donated the wedding dress and cake, the settlement schoolteacher loaned the veil, and “the smoko veranda was turned into a church with branches strategically placed around the walls.... [T]he front seat from a jeep, covered with a white sheet was used for the bridal pair to kneel on”.
A man from the station, who needed a lift, joined them on their honeymoon drive to Darwin, during which their vehicle got bogged in dust several times.
Over the next 20 years, four Hayes children became part of the community. But, with several difficult pregnancies and later concerns over schooling, it was not all plain sailing.
Being hostess for a continual stream of guests, from the Governor-General to Texan cattle-ranchers, was all part of Thea’s role; but the highlight of the Territory’s social calendar was the Negri Races.
Fashion dictated that the women wore hats and gloves. There was much entertaining in the different camps, and copious amounts of alcohol were drunk, while hawkers, descendants of the Afghan cameleers whose camels now plague the Outback, set up their displays. Apart from the horse races, there were rodeos, buck-jumping and tugs of war. Everyone had a marvellous time.
Thea deals objectively with the much-publicised Wave Hill walk-off of 1966. Ralph had recently accepted a promotion to become manager of Gordon Downs station on the Northern Territory/Western Australian border, when news came that 240 aborigines had walked off Wave Hill and gone on strike.
“We were flabbergasted”, Thea writes, “only 20 months before, everyone seemed so happy”. Wave Hill had become the first claim for traditional land in Australia.
Wave Hill had been leased land, so the region given to the Gurindji was taken off the Vestey lease. Thea is restrained in describing what must have been a very emotional time as she and Ralph listened to the then Labor Primie Minister Gough Whitlam’s short speech of official handover to the new aboriginal owners.
An Outback Nurse is not a book for the sophisticated and trendy; the author simply presents life as she saw it; and, while aborigines are integral to the story, contemporary aboriginal issues are not part of it.
It’s a pity there’s no map and sometimes too many names disrupt the flow.
But if you like an unpretentious story revealing the thoughts and experiences of a fun-loving but dedicated outback nurse, this book is a little piece of social history you’ll enjoy.
Julia Patrick is a freelance Sydney writer on social issues.