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Regular CRANAplus Magazine writer reflects on the 2015 conference in new book

5 Dec 2023

In the 2010s, Journalist Rosemary Cadden travelled from Adelaide to the Top End in the footsteps of explorer and fellow Scot, John McDouall Stuart. On the way, she attended the 2015 CRANAplus Conference in Alice Springs, an experience she discusses in her new book, McDouall Stuart Hitches a Ride. Here's what she had to say.

I thought of anoth­er con­nec­tion with McDouall Stu­art. He still had to do sur­vey­ing work for Cham­bers and Finke on his ear­ly expe­di­tions. I’m the same. I’m fund­ing this trip with a writ­ing gig in Alice Springs at a remote nurs­es con­fer­ence. That means I’m trav­el­ling through the cen­tre a bit lat­er than I’d like. McDouall Stu­art, too, didn’t have a choice on the tim­ing of his trips.

I go straight to one of the car­a­van parks and pitch my tent which looks small and lost among the motor homes and trail­ers. I head for a café along the road to check my notes about bush tuck­er and bush med­i­cine and hope­ful­ly get a decent cof­fee. Despite the noon­day heat, I’ve cho­sen an out­side table in the gar­den. I’m not quite ready for walls. Am I turn­ing into McDouall Stu­art? Heav­en forbid.

I’m lov­ing this rein­tro­duc­tion to refined liv­ing; inter­net access, a com­fy chair and a decent cof­fee, a fan waft­ing the air and an awning shield­ing the lap­top screen from the sun’s reflec­tion. Sheer lux­u­ry. At this very moment, a room is being pre­pared for me at a posh hotel not far from here, where I’ve got three days’ work at a remote health work­ers’ con­fer­ence. Fluffy pil­lows and a mat­tress off the ground. Will I want to return to basic camp­ing after that?

One of my aims on this trip is to explore how much bet­ter McDouall Stu­art might have fared if he’d been able to chat with the locals for tips on which plants to eat…

Stick to bush tuck­er,’ one of the teach­ers says [en route to the con­fer­ece]. Stay away from Abo­rig­i­nal issues. You’ll be delib­er­ate­ly mis­un­der­stood by one side or the oth­er, and prob­a­bly both.’ I’ve no inten­tion of stay­ing away from Abo­rig­i­nal issues. Remote and rur­al health work­ers from all over Aus­tralia are attend­ing the con­fer­ence where I’ll be writ­ing sto­ries about the pro­ceed­ings. That gath­er­ing won’t flinch from talk­ing about inequal­i­ties in Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties. The pre­sen­ters know their stuff about health con­di­tions that per­sist in remote areas of Aus­tralia, dis­eases that shouldn’t be tol­er­at­ed in a first-world coun­try but are. I’ll ask about scurvy.

Ah. The Abo­rig­i­nal prob­lem.’ What’s to be done.’ No one has the answer.’ Now we’re onto respons­es that usu­al­ly stop any fur­ther debate, fol­lowed by a com­mu­nal help­less shak­ing of the head. I point out that the par­tic­i­pants in the con­fer­ence will be propos­ing all man­ner of solu­tions, from path­ways for Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple who aspire to study health at uni­ver­si­ty to pro­grammes with­in com­mu­ni­ties, such as car­ing for coun­try, all of which could have pos­i­tive effects on health out­comes. But I’ve lost their atten­tion. The teach­ers are more inter­est­ed in my hotel room. We’ll take it off your hands,’ says Jean, lust­ing after the mat­tress off the ground. Plump, fluffy pil­lows,’ sighs Sue.

I lis­ten to a pre­sen­ta­tion writ­ten by Pat Ander­son, Alyawarre woman, found­ing chair of the Low­it­ja Insti­tute. First Nations peo­ple find they are not spo­ken to, rather they are spo­ken about, she point­ed out.

It’s a tragedy that racism still exists in Aus­tralia,’ is the mes­sage in the address from CRANAplus CEO at the time, Chris Cliffe. The evi­dence is clear: racism has a direct and pro­found impact on not only the emo­tion­al but also the phys­i­cal health of victims.’

Our nation is a wealthy, well-con­nect­ed, peace­ful, devel­oped coun­try,’ he said. But still, the fur­ther away peo­ple live from a cap­i­tal city, the worse their health becomes.’ This is because of the inequity of ser­vices in remote areas com­pared to the cities.

And a call to action comes from Pro­fes­sor Roianne West, born and raised Kalka­doon on her grandmother’s ances­tral lands in North West Queens­land, who out­lines her vision.

I want to see my peo­ple social­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly includ­ed in the nation. I want to see our kids edu­cat­ed, healthy and with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to grow up and get jobs and to be engaged in mean­ing­ful activ­i­ty. I want to see our peo­ple liv­ing in good hous­ing. I want our chil­dren to have good food to eat, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink.

Not too much to ask.’

Book blurb. Jour­nal­ist and adven­tur­er Rose­mary Cad­den gets more than she bar­gained for when explor­er and fel­low Scot, John McDouall Stu­art, joins her on a road trip to retrace his tracks from Ade­laide to the Top End of Aus­tralia. They are a tetchy cou­ple but rub along as they dri­ve around moun­tain ranges, through sandy deserts and into the lush trop­ics in Bad-Ass Bet­sy, the ever-reli­able Toy­ota, deal­ing with flies, leech­es and howl­ing din­goes. In a time when many of us want to bet­ter under­stand our his­to­ry, the explorer’s con­stant pres­ence on the trip and the peo­ple she meets along the way force Rose­mary to ques­tion what she knows and how much she still has to learn about this coun­try she now calls home.