You’ve got mail

There are few more gentle and harsh places than Australia’s outback and most extreme rural reaches – and Kimberley dwellers in north east Western Australia are at the remotest end of a daunting spectrum. There, rains cut communities off for six months a year, provisions must be meticulously stockpiled and all mail – because who can live without the odd online shopping splurge? – arrives by small aircraft, waterlogged runway permitting.

I spent two days with the Australian government’s Remote Air Services Subsidy, or what is fondly known as the mail plane, hopping around the vast and truly wonderful Kimberley, before driving on corrugated roads to its outermost reaches to see for myself how reliant families, farmers and everyone between is on the weekly mail run…

You’ve got mail, Good Weekend magazine, 17 September 2016

There’s no postie on a pushbike out here. For far-flung communities in Western Australia’s huge Kimberley region, letters, supplies and even exam papers arrive only one way – by air.

“There’s plenty of space to get along if we argue,” says stationhand Otto Weisenfield, turning to his colleague Michael “Chappy” Chapman on the ochre earth of the landing strip. “You have that half a million acres and I’ll have this half a million.”

He is not exaggerating. During the wet season – about six months from November until May – he and Drysdale River Station’s Tourism Manager are each other’s only company on the vast, remote cattle station in Western Australia’s far north Kimberley region.

Once a week, their social interaction doubles with the five-minute visit of the Remote Air Services Subsidy (RASS) pilot. Better known as the mail plane, the run is a throwback to the not-so-distant days when Australia Post could afford to send its own small aircraft to the rust-coloured and jungle-surrounded airstrips that dot Australia’s farthest reaches.

Drysdale River Station is one of 366 communities around Australia whose livelihood now largely depends on the subcontracted service, which covers essential passenger trips and the transport of post, goods and medical supplies.

To get there, we’ve taken three planes from Sydney. Leaving Kununurra and heading north, within an hour the only sign of life 3000 feet below our Cessna Caravan is our tiny, fuzzy shadow. There are no roads, no homes, no water tanks. Even threading cattle tracks and termite mounds the size of phone boxes have given way to tawny smudges as we sit at eye level with dusty, lilypad-like puffs of cloud and hum north towards the Timor Sea.

Banking left and steeply carving towards the ground, we circle over a handful of tin roofs to signal our arrival before landing a kilometre or so away from the buildings and coming to a swift halt on the deep red, stony earth. It has taken just over an hour to fly what takes nearly seven to drive on pockmarked, corrugated roads.

Our next stop is 10 minutes away by air, or an hour-and-a-half by unpaved road. At Theda Station, Megan and Brandy Jones meet our plane at the property’s neatly-clipped airstrip, where the temperature is in the high 30s. The daughters of a roaming cattle musterer, the teenagers have no phone or internet and have always been home-schooled. Today, the pilot brings their exams, the oversized envelope 2000 kilometres from its starting place in Longreach, Queensland.

“We are prepared,” says Meg, 15. “I’ve been going on with other units and waiting on this mail. We’ll go back home now and I’ll probably complete this, wait for the mail plane to come back, then post it again.”
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She and Brandy, 13, wear matching shirts, denim jeans, Akubra hats and boots. Their miniscule classroom sits at the end of the bedroom in one of three trucks that form the family’s road train, which travels following mustering jobs for about eight months each year. Its walls are pasted with school sums, horse posters, stickers and maps. For now, university is “too far ahead to think about”, they giggle in unison. But it is not all work. Also in the mailbag are letters, movies and magazines from friends, uncles and their grandmother.

The sisters finish each other’s sentences, a twirling dialogue of excitement and pride in their near-unique isolation. “You don’t need any phones or the internet,” says Brandy. “You just write a lovely letter and send it to Grandma and she loves it!”

Living remotely goes against everything we’ve come to expect in today’s ultra-connected world. But immediacy and convenience are encroaching on life even out here: at Drysdale, a box from budget retailer Target arrives via internet order. At Billiluna, more than 370 kilometres south of Halls Creek on a route that takes us over patches of wrinkled, fingerprinted earth and white ash skeletons of burnt trees, our cargo includes a flat-screen TV, a child’s bike and long rolls of shade cloth.

We may be one of the world’s most urban societies, but our identity is so intimately bound with the land that remote Australians today live with the benefit of a weekly, federally-funded connection with the outside world. Australia’s first scheduled airmail service took flight in November 1922, when Qantas began a run between Charleville and Cloncurry.

RASS services have been operating since at least 1994 and now account for all but one of Australia Post’s remote runs. In accordance with the Post’s community service obligations, letters take priority over parcels – of which internet deliveries have boosted the number. And, cost-wise, using the RASS’s freight service is no small fry at $4 per kilo plus a $25 one-off consignment fee.

“It’s all about reducing the isolation,” says Aviair chief pilot Kevin Lloyd. Under contract to the government, Aviair is obliged to follow an order of importance on their RASS runs: people first, then Australia Post letters and medications, followed by freight, then Australia Post parcels. We may be as far from Canberra as is possible on the continent, but the capital has a long bureaucratic reach.

In 2014, Australia Post initiated a slew of cuts to mail planes, including those that serviced the Kimberley. At Doongan Station north-west of Kununurra, manager Susan Bradley greets the pilot with a cold soft drink as her dog Splat lies on the back seat of her quad bike. “We love the mail plane but we’re very disappointed,” she says of the federal government’s continued efficiency measures, which include the end of paying, non-community-based passengers on the service. A recent $5.9 million boost to the scheme did little to quell the sense of a government that is detached from the needs of remote communities.

“We’re absolutely dependent,” she says. “It is just absolutely imperative for us to be able to put passengers on it.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Drysdale’s Weisenfield. “It’s a bit sad,” he says of the shrinking and increasingly expensive service’s effects on everything from family visits to his rations of fresh tucker – or most of it. “We don’t run short of meat,” he quips with a broad, sun-beaten smile.

Doongan Station’s caretaker, Alan Clay, is charged with maintaining the airstrip; mowing its surrounding grass takes an entire day and he must drive at speed along its length before phoning a 6am condition report into Aviair. During the rainy season, he records the depth of grooves left by car tyres as a measure of how waterlogged the runway is.

A few days later we return to Doongan Station by car to sense the spine-jarring journey on corrugated, river-sliced roads and understand just how far some must travel to reach home. Here, roads take a beating from the elements as much as they do from the ragged 4WDs and odd road trains that pile through the emptiness. Before we leave, Bradley has a final message. “Send my best to Chuck up on the plateau,” she says, the bush telegraph as alive as ever.

A further four hours’ teeth-chatteringly bumpy drive north, we find Lyndsay “Chuck” Baker – a contender for the title of Australia’s remotest ranger – fixing a fence near the Plateau Chateau, his stilted home in the Mitchell River National Park bush. In the oppressive late-morning heat, the ranger tells us of his letters to the Department of Infrastructure arguing a case for passengers to be allowed onto the plane, partly to ease the separation from family for his wife, Jazz, and preschool-age daughter, Bean.
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“I have good relationships with everyone in a 300-kilometre radius,” he says. “We all look out for each other. But it’s hard. I’m not sure too many people would put up with the isolation.” His nearest cold beer, he notes with a wry smile, is a 250-kilometre drive away.

Australia’s remote routes mean many hours’ practice for young pilots, not to mention a crash-course in the social rigours of the job. Wednesday’s mail run south from Kununurra to the edge of the Tanami Desert is piloted by Dominic Andrews. Beyond the town of Halls Creek, we land at Balgo, population 460, an isolated community some 1780 kilometres north-east of Perth. Our flight is met by two policemen, who check the only disembarking passenger’s bags for alcohol. “Got any grog, Brenda?” Sergeant Pete Steeger says to the Indigenous woman. The dry community is eight hours from the nearest “full” bottle shop and “grog running” is not uncommon.

“We do what we can; every now and then we get a chance to check and have a little bit of visibility,” says Steeger. “Alcohol is a big Kimberley problem.”

But the police at Balgo are far outnumbered by representatives from the local school, medical clinic, parish, youth and arts centres. They load waiting 4WDs with boxes of medicine and dialysis kits. In the peak of the wet season, when even the plane can’t land, the local shop runs out of money, and court documents and banking operations are all delayed. A delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables usually arrives each fortnight. To supplement their grocery supplies, children fish for bream and hunt for goanna, black-headed python and bush turkey.

The airstrips provide emergency assistance, too. When Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared from radar screens in March 2014, Doongan Station’s Susan Bradley received a call from authorities asking her whether a Boeing 777 might have landed unnoticed on the strip, not 200 metres from her yard’s meticulously watered bougainvillea. Her instinctively Kimberley-minded first reaction was to wonder how on earth she’d be able to bake cakes for hundreds of unannounced visitors.

But in truth, little is left to chance when life is so isolated. Remote living can be at once cruel and gentle but it is always accompanied by scrupulous planning.

At Theda, we meet a pregnant caretaker whose recent deliveries are mostly nappies. The 24-year-old has a set of options ready should her final week of pregnancy – and RASS plane to Kununurra in time for the delivery – not go to plan. “We always have the RFDS [Royal Flying Doctor Service],” she adds with admirable calm.

Still, it takes a near-crisis for the flying doctors to be called. Ellenbrae Station (which, if there was one, ought to win the Remote Scone Award, so many freshly baked scones march out of its tin-roofed, open-sided kitchen in the dry season) has been scratched from the plane’s route this week. After breaking his leg, the property’s manager had driven himself for more than four hours on unpaved roads to Kununurra – and changed a tyre on the way – before being flown to Perth for surgery.

As we fly from Faraway Bay – its name an understatement as it sits perched on the edge of crocodile-infested waters of the Timor Sea – towards the quiet cattle shipping port of Wyndham, a bushfire stretches into the distance, its white rim a wide, fizzing bite mark. “That’s a tiddler,” says chief pilot Kevin Lloyd. “You get used to what’s normal.”

Like many, the Kiwi pilot loves remote flying for the characters he comes across, the terrain he traverses and the daily oddities that pepper his shifts. Among constant packing and unpacking of the Cessna Caravan’s cargo, logging passengers and seeking traffic advisories, Lloyd has the spectacle from his cockpit to keep him company. During the wet, he steers around lightning and great, dark columns of storm clouds.

His colleague Dominic Andrews dreams of air acrobatics, and after also training on the “half as long, half as wide and surrounded by mountains” runways of New Zealand, the Kimberley’s wide expanses look easy. We fly at 300km/hour over the landmarks he has come to know so well: the ever-expanding and -contracting Lake Argyle, the 600-metre deep Argyle diamond mine, the tin roofs and rusting car yards of Turkey Creek.

As we criss-cross the land, from sandalwood plantations to snaking rivers, scorched bush to the soupy, cappuccino mud of the Cambridge Gulf, there is not a soul below us who does not depend, for some months of each year, on our small craft and its vital, inter-community hops.

Back at Theda’s mustering camp, Megan and Brandy’s mother Annette Jones, who doubles as camp cook, feeds up to a dozen men three times a day. Her daughters tend to the poddy calves and dogs, but school is their priority, even in the middle of the Kimberley bush. Their father, Andrew Jones, is a fifth-generation drover and revels in being shielded from the news of the outside world, even if it comes at the cost of wrangles over the distance education of his daughters and their unusual upbringing, devoid of peers.

“I reckon we’re normal, but what’s normal?” he says, wary of the vagaries of modern life. “We’re very protective. Eventually the girls are going to have to go but I don’t think they’ll go too far.”

He has watched communities close and the pull of the city’s bright lights drain the verve from once-lively remote areas. Two satellite phones and the mail plane are all he and his family have to connect to society when on the road for eight months of each year.

Today, the girls have stopped school for an hour to meet the plane, and tonight, they’ll work longer to make up for it. Tomorrow, they’ll do the same if their father needs help mustering.

“That’s the beauty of doing this, you can stop and you can have a smoko,” laughs Annette, “or stop and get the mail.”

Read the SMH’s far more beautiful version of the story here.

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