Not long after I’d arrived at St. Vigeon’s, I found myself alone at the homestead. The men, having risen before sunrise, had gone mustering – catching wild cattle for the Darwin export market. My husband and five workmen had set out in two vehicles, one a land rover, the other a Toyota. My brother-in-law, the pilot, always performed the aerial mustering, that is to spot cattle and then fly low, like crop dusters used to do, to “buzz” the bovines into the open. He gave the other men a head-start before he flew away in a 1958 model, single engine, four-seater Piper PA Super Cub, an old but very serviceable plane. He’d taken time over coffee that morning to scribble, in his almost illegible handwriting, the alphabet with a code word for each letter. I read down the list: A – alpha, B – bravo, C – Charlie, D – delta, all the way to Zulu for Z. Notations for numbers followed. The only exception was nine, where he’d jotted the word niner.
“It’s the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet,” he had said as he gulped his remaining coffee. He’d also taken time the evening before to show me the basics of operating the two-way radio. “This is our lifeline to the outside world in case of emergency. You’ll need to get on the radio daily to Darwin’s Land Management. The agency takes a roll call making sure every station is okay. If there’s an emergency, call them anytime to get the flying doctors.”
It’s not that the Northern Territory didn’t have telephones. Darwin and towns like Alice Springs, Katherine, and Mataranka had plenty of them. But not the Outback. Communication here depended on two-way radios. Every cattle station, rural police post, dinghy owner cruising the rivers, and company that dealt with the pastoral industry counted on them. The flying doctors relied on them. Food orders were placed by two-way radio to stores in either Perth or Brisbane that delivered essential food and supplies by barge on navigable rivers to the jetties at outposts like St. Vigeon’s and Arnhem Land’s settlements, such as Roper River. They also delivered to sparsely populated coastal hamlets, including those on Groote Eylandt, an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
“Just remember, be careful of snakes,” my brother-in-law said over his shoulder as he headed toward the Piper Cub. “The flying docs can’t do much about poisonous bites.”
I stared at the alphabet on the piece of paper I held, wishing he hadn’t mentioned snake bites. Perspiration dripped down my face onto the paper. Wiping it off with my fingers, I dried my hand on my pant leg. At night, for three hours, we turned on the electric generator to operate the fans inside the house and give everyone relief from the hot climate. And to keep our meat supply frozen in the stand-alone freezer. During the day, we simply endured the heat and inevitable prickly heat, a rash, brought on by the hot temperatures.
Coffee’s getting to me I thought, embarrassed by my profuse perspiration even though I stood alone on the veranda. I watched the Piper Cub take off on the dirt runway visible from the house. Or was it my brother-in-law’s parting comment about snake bites that made me sweat?
NOTE: My own photographs of Australia are not only limited, they are the old 35mm film in dismal condition. Consequently, I’m dependent on pictures from the public domain or creative commons. https://ccsearch.creativecommons.org/photos/