Monday 19 January 2015

False Vampires – Bats and Doctors: The Dirt on The Isa

Aerial view of the Mt Isa Mines as we flew in.

Mission – two weeks in the outback at Mt Isa hospital E.D.; side-kick – moi; code names Doc and The Mrs. Modus operandi, go incognito: Doc - jeans and check shirts –check; moi- I think I  got away with the usual – red lipstick – well, it’s kind of camouflage, there’s a lot of red dust here I’ll have you know, therefore I’ll give that a check! We flew over the mine site, a massive 5km sprawl with a huge open cut scarring the surface and landed in what locals affectionately call The Isa. Red dust, spinifex, tin roofs of mineside and townside homes, separated by the Leichhardt River, the giant lead chimney stack and the smaller red and white stripped copper stack that constantly spews forth sulphur dioxide gas dominate the town from any aspect. Fork-tailed kites soar the thermals and at night ghost gums are silhouetted in the moonlight.

It happened to be raining as we drove to our mineside house the hospital had given us at Soldiers Hill and after a three year drought, nek minnit, the river was flooded and all but one of the roads crossing into town and the hospital were impassable.
Road over the Leichhardt River flooded at sunset
Bloody big road trains with not just two, not three, but FOUR trailers thundered past us carrying goods to and from the coast. At the house they had thoughtfully supplied us with fresh ground coffee but nothing to make it in. Luckily I had brought our trusty Vietnamese coffee filters - #1 travel tip, always travel with trusty Vietnamese coffee filters!

Overnight everything around us turned green. That wasn’t the only thing that was green. It turned out The Isa was a perfect location for viewing the comet Lovejoy as it continued on its trajectory north between Andromeda and Perseus. Well it would have to be wouldn’t it, being in the MFN (middle of f*cking nowhere) and therefore having minimal light pollution. Occy captured the comet with his camera.

The comet was discovered last August (2014) by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy – actually it’s his fifth discovery so total brownie points to him. Oh, and did I mention it’s green?  The green glow comes from molecules of diatomic carbon (C2) fluorescing in ultraviolet sunlight in the near-vacuum of space. (Cyanogen (CN) can add some violet to the green, but our eyes are fairly insensitive to violet light, which is a shame because it makes it sound really exotic.) The gaseous tail of the comet points directly away from the Sun and is tinted blue from fluorescing carbon monoxide ions (CO+) but unfortunately we couldn’t see that either which is a total poo!
Occy went off to work the next day and we regrouped in the evening for a debriefing at ‘the Local’, the Barkly hotel, where they did a very decent roast of the day for ten bucks. It was roast pork and veg. In fact it turns out it was roast pork and veg every day. Occy asked for the crackling and the cooky-boy said, ‘Sure, if the staff hasn’t eaten it all.’ 
I thought to complete our incognito cover we should order beers, you know, when in Rome and all that. I think I might have blown our cover though when Occy asked me at the bar which one I’d like and I said, ‘Oooo, I’ll have the one with the cute Tasmanian Devil on it?’ The barman asked me, ‘Would you like a pint or a schooner, luv?’ Schooner? I thought that was a ship!  ‘Just a glass is fine,’ I replied.

‘Well,’ I asked Occy over a mouthful of pork, ‘how was the first day?’
He squirmed a bit in his seat and said ‘I felt like Frank Abernathy in ‘Catch me if you can’ playing Dr Conners.’
‘Really?’ I asked, ‘Why on earth was that?’
‘Well, you know how we thought there were only three doctors here? Well there are only three senior doctors here, and there’s a whole load of younger doctors – PHOs, registrars, interns and medical students.’
‘Oh and what’s wrong with that?’
‘Well I’m one of the three senior doctors and I’ve got this whole team of doctors (this said with an almost horrified look on his face) that have to report their cases to me and check that they’re doing the correct treatments and so on so I really had to step up and look like I knew what I was doing, which I did, it was fine, but I almost felt like asking them ‘So do you concur?’’
I just laughed my head off! Yes, it’s a bit different to being the sole doctor in the ED department of Manji, but to his credit it only took a few days for him to slip quite comfortably into his new role and realise that he did actually have quite a lot of experience and knowledge. 
 At the back of the hospital we discovered Australia’s only Underground Hospital. The first hospital in Mount Isa had been nothing more than a row of tents operated by the mining company. In fact most of the early houses in the Isa were tent houses and apparently they were far better that the tin roofed houses that followed them because at least you could water the canvas down and the tent would be cooled by evaporation.
Mount Isa Mines eventually opened a 40 bed Community Hospital mineside in 1929 and that was latter replaced with the current state hospital townside. 
Actually as it turns out the Isa is bit of a big sneaky because it was also the catalyst for the Royal Flying Doctor Service being set up. What happened was, in 1927, one Dr George Simpson accompanied a Qantas flight to transport an injured Mount Isa miner to the hospital in Cloncurry. The dramatic rescue highlighted the dangers and struggles faced by the pioneers of the outback who didn’t have sufficient access to medical care, and clearly demonstrated the need for an urgent response medical service that could access these remote regions of the west, ergo the Australian Inland Mission’s Aerial Medical Service   was set up in 1928, now known as the iconic Royal Flying Doctor Service. And, that’s not the only thing born in the big sneaky Isa. Pat Rafter and Greg Norman were also born here, not to mention my girlfriend Christina Callaghan!
Abyssinia Cafe
By the end of the week, having sampled a few of the local eating and watering holes, (the strangest being the Abyssinian CafĂ© – I know right, who would have thought in the middle of the outback you’d find an Ethiopian restaurant – but surprise, surprise, they did a very good wat, the traditional Ethiopian curry) we took up an invitation to dine at the Irish Club with one of the other SMO’s Peter, John the anaesthetist and his wife Pam who were from Ireland/Scotland, and chief medical director Uli and his wife Sabina who were from Germany and subsequently ran the hospital like a jolly friendly but firm WWII U-boat captain – no mucking around, initiate strategy to 4 hour end targets at all times or the self-destruct and eject will be deployed, ja! At 8pm the glasses rattled as the nightly scheduled mine detonation went off and no one batted an eyelid.
The following week we had dinner at ‘The Isa’ hotel with a bunch of nurses, doctors and med students for one of the PHO’s who was leaving. (I asked Occy what that stood for and he said ‘not sure what the P is, something House Officer, so I decided it was ‘Pet House Officer’) Occy had studiously omitted to mention any females whenever he recounted his work adventures so you can imagine I was somewhat surprised to find myself surrounded by afore not mentioned females. One of them, Sarah (who was not averse to telling a tall tale or two herself), expressed surprise that I followed Occy around (causing the med students to glibly comment that that’s what they did all day too):
‘Because a lot of the SMO’s that come out here don’t seem to have very happy home lives or relationships, you know, they come in drenched in aftershave...’ she explained as if that was the marker for ‘I’m available’.
I gave Occy the death stare because he ALWAYS goes in drenched in aftershave! This of course meant I immediately went into high alert status and hoped Occy would enjoy his lunch the next day - and every other day we were in the Isa - lovingly prepared by moi with a mother lode of vampire warding off garlic. You're welcome!
Me with Bowie about to get all down in our crib an' all
 Anyways, when I wasn’t studying I spent my time romping around the town digging up the dirt on the Isa. I went on an underground tour of the mine, into the belly of the beast so to speak, which was hot, noisy and interesting. Our guide Bowie had worked the mine for 36 years, was partially deaf as a result, but full of amusing tales. I can actually say, in my best black gangster voice of course, that ‘I got all up in ma crib an’ all!” because we finished off in the ‘Crib Room’ where we had coffee & biscuits, watched over by a vintage poster board of the Phantom reminding miners to turn on switch #247, whatever that was. 
The 'Crib'
False vampire bats ghost bats
Carnivorous bats of the Riversleigh area
In one of my romps I stumbled across some fascinating information on my favourite thing – bats, and not just any bats, CARNIVOROUS BATS!! Not that far away from here lie the Riversleigh fossil deposits and you’ll absolutely never guess what they found there! The false vampire bat from the Middle Miocene Gotham City site (how Batman is that!). These prehistoric bats were about the same size as the living Ghost Bat found in caves around here today. The Gotham City deposit appears to have been the floor of an ancient cave. The remains of their prey have been found in the limestone of the cave floor - frogs, fish, skinks, birds, bandicoots, and a very small koala – wholly crap man, these bats were totally carnivorous! What’s more, the modern day ghost bats that we thought only ate insects? Wrongo! They are also totally carnivorous as in a big way. In fact, one was found dead with the remains of a cane toad in its guts and scientists are now speculating that it’s this habit of snacking on the old toxic toad that could be leading to a decline in their numbers!
Of course there were other weird fossils also discovered, dating back 25 million years, like giant, toothed platypuses, leopard-sized carnivorous lions that looked a bit like over-sized wombats, giant plant-eating marsupials as big as a rhinoceros, a couple of mammals SO bizarre that no existing names could be applied to them and they became known among the researchers as Thingodonta and Weirdodonta, giant long-armed flesh-eating kangaroos dubbed "Fangaroo" (Ekaltadeta ima), who came equipped with a set of dagger-like canines. Its skull was found in the imaginatively-named “Camel Sputum” rock - how did they think that one up? Imagine if town planners cottoned on to that, then we might be sayig 'Oh yes, I live in Rhinoceros Rectum Road!' I mean seriusly?! They also found a giant sperm of some mollusc thing and the sperm was longer than the male’s entire body, but tightly coiled up inside the sexual organs,  and kindly preserved by the droppings of thousands of my Gotham city bat friends. You're welcome!
Top: Finnish grave at the Sunset cemetery. Bottom: Traditional Finnish wedding circa 1930
 We had promised one of the lovely nurses in Manjimup, Karen, that we would visit the cemetery and try to locate the graves of her grandparents who were tragically killed in the early 70’s travelling thru the Isa when their caravan caught fire. Walking into the cemetry between an avenue of tall tress I was delighted to find them full of roosting flying foxes - my favourite bats! The hunt for the graves proved an impossible feat. Even though we scoured all the headstones they must have been laid to rest in unmarked graves, of which there were A LOT! We noticed that many of the headstones belonged to Fins and this was because of the influx of post-war immigrants, in particular a very large Irish and Finnish contingency, in the early 50s. Today their descendants, Pekkas and Paddys, compete in their iconic Akubra hats at the annual infamous rodeo. The main street, Rodeo Drive, which boasts a monument to old Milesy who founded Mt Isa (his ashes are buried under it), has plaques in the pavement, Hollywood style, commemorating rodeo greats through the years. 
Left: John Campbell Miles monument. Top: Rodeo Drive plaques. Bottom: Locals in their Akubra hats
  So how did the Isa come to be here? Well as usual there’s a nice story mixed in with a dirty tale of sordid and violent colonialism. In 1923, lone prospector John Campbell Miles, while travelling on a gold prospecting trip to the Northern Territory with his trusty steed Hard Times, that the mine was first named after, camped by the banks of the Leichhardt River. Sampling a nearby rock outcrop, he realised that it was heavily mineralised – well this is the brochure story anyways. What really happened was that he was taken to the deposits by a young aboriginal man by the name of Kabalulumana of the local Kalkadoon tribe.
Anyways, on with the story – turns out old Milesy had stumbled on to one of the world's richest copper, silver, lead and zinc ore bodies. In a fit of great imaginative creativity (I am being sarcastic here) he decided to call his discovery "Mount Isa" after the stories he’d heard of the Mount Ida goldfield in Western Australia and the mine was born.

On the left: John Campbell Miles with the first staff of the Mt Isa Mines
 All very nice you might say. Well it was particularly nice of Kabalulumana because he could have quite righteously ignored old Milesy after what the whites had done to his people back in 1883. You see all of this land belonged to the Kalkadoons but of course that wasn’t acknowledged back then, or today really. So as it transpires there was this new hotshot Sub-Inspector of Native Police that had been appointed in nearby Cloncurry; twenty-five year old Frederick Charles Urquhart. The power obviously went to the little shit’s head because the first thing he did was round up all the scattered horses in the area and buy or commandeer (read steal) more. He drilled the Native Police troopers ‘with all the vehemence of a Prussian Sergeant-Major’, moving their camp twenty-five miles out of town to maintain discipline.  The Kalkadoon leader Mahoni made the mistake of challenging him to come out into the hills, saying they would finish him off. Urquhart wasn’t going to let his ultimate authorita be questioned and was obviously just waiting for an excuse to get down and nasty, because when James Powell, was speared to death while mustering cattle on his station, co-owner Alexander Kennedy joined forces with Urquhart and trapped the  Kalkadoon war party who had gotten wind of Urquharts intentions in a gorge. The Kalkadoons fought hard but seriously, when you’re facing a carbine and all you've got is your best boomerang and spear, you really don’t have a hope in hell do you? One eyewitness said that ‘men, women and children were killed, but mainly men’.
The event which led to the final battle of the Kalkadoons was the murder of a Chinese shepherd on the Granada Station. Worried about his stock, the station's owner, Hopkins, gathered a large body of men to augment Urquhart's Native Police. Pastoralists and farmhands came from all over the surrounding area to take part in the in what became known as the Battle Mountain massacre. Observing this large body of whites gathering, messages quickly went through the Kalkadoon network for the warriors to assemble.
Urquhart tracked the Kalkadoons, now 600 strong and led by a man wearing a headdress of white down, and a ‘thick possum-string hanging around his neck and attached to another string passing around his waist’ to a spot atop a boulder-studded hill. It was an excellent tactical manoeuvre, overlooking the plain below and the Kalkadoons had laid in large stocks of spears and boomerangs for just such a siege.
Sub-Inspector Urquhart started the battle in typical ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ fashion by ordering the assembled warriors to ‘Stand in the Queen's name’. The Kalkadoons, who probably didn’t give a hoot about the lady in the funny headdress, replied with a hail of rocks and missiles and a ‘roar of defiance’.
Urquhart then ordered the now famous cavalry charge that finally led to the deaths of 200 of the finest Kalkadoon warriors. Not happy with the slaughter - well they didn't get all 600 did they! - Urquhart and his troopers, who would have been right at home with the KKK, continued their ‘cleaning up’ operations for several days.
Top: Kalkadoon tribe Bottom left: Kalkadoons were famous for their stone axes which were traded all over the country Bottom right: Cave paintings at the intitiation site at Sun Rock for Kalkadoon boys
Even in 1960 it was noted that ‘for decades, the hill was littered with the bleached bones of
warriors, gins and piccaninnies’.  An anthropologist in 1890  said of the Kalkadoons in the area ‘I saw men and women, their faces sunken in, their bodies so shrunken, and eyes so small and far back in their heads that at first sight they appeared like mummies of centuries
gone by walking about the camps.... Lake Nash has some bad cases and white travellers do their very best to disease the black gins. I saw one poor child not 12 years that had syphilis for 12 months or more, can anything be more horrible than this, it is bad enough to know how they have been shot down without allowing these things to continue'.
But things did continue like this for a long time, look at this excerpt by the American birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger who quite casually wrote in her papers What Every Girl Should Know (1920): "The aboriginal Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets". 

So, what did I learn from this jaunt to 'The Isa"?

  1. Always travel with #1 travel tip, Vietnamese coffee filters
  2. Buy plenty of garlic to ward of potential vampires #1 WAGs tip
  3. A schooner is not necessarily a ship! 
  4. A crib is a tea room - next time I hear some homie rapping about 'gettin' all up in ma crib' I'll know he's talking about having a nice cup of tea 
  5. Gotham City is real and if I ever see a bat from there I can get out my best Twilight line and say 'I see you brought a little snack!'
  6. Terrorism isn't just a modern issue
  7. Margaret Sanger was a bitch!