A funeral seems an unlikely place for the genesis of an unusual community project, but that’s just what happened when author, Bron Blake attended the funeral of 94-year-old, lifetime Gulf of Carpentaria woman, Ethleen Burnett in 2015. Listening to her history she was convinced that Gulf women’s stories like Ethleen’s should never be lost.
Shortly after, Bron attended a Royal Flying Doctor Service [RFDS] evening sponsored by the Gregory Downs CWA, and was impressed by the care the women took for each other and their far-flung community. She approached the Gregory women with the idea of editing a book as a way of preserving their stories, and as a potential fundraiser for their community projects.
So, the seeds of the anthology ‘Gulf Women’ were sewn in Gregory: a tiny township of about 40 people, 400 kilometres north from Mount Isa, and 120 kilometres south from Burketown on the Gulf. The heart of Gregory is its women, and ‘Gulf Women’ grew from here. Grew and grew, until it encompassed the NT border stations, the Gulf itself, across to Normanton and reached south taking in stations towards Cloncurry and Mount Isa!
Two years and 450 pages later, the stories of fifty-five women, unique to the Gulf of Carpentaria region, are now recorded in the anthology ‘Gulf Women, voices from remote North-West Queensland’. These writers, with great pride, are about to launch their book in Burketown, Queensland, on the 30th September 2017.
Half the women writers live and work on the vast cattle stations of remote north-west Queensland as owners, managers or stock and station workers. The other authors live on country, work in businesses, tourism, education, health and aviation, or live and work on fishing boats out in the Gulf.
‘As their editor, I feel closely connected to these women who gifted me windows into their worlds so different from most, and was fortunate enough to be told the story of their lives, warts, joys, terrors and all.’
The women are self-sufficient, generous, and cope with almost anything that life and the environment throws at them; floods, drought, sickness, emergencies … all the difficulties that come with running a cattle station and its staff, a fishing business, a family being raised and educated, or managing an enterprise far from anywhere.
They are forthright, outspoken and don’t take kindly to being told by outsiders what they can and cannot do, should or shouldn’t think. But what they can do is love their soul country, manage the challenges of isolation, the Wet, and the totally unexpected.
They are also very modest about their considerable skills… ‘Yes, I was a bit unsure of this book as my husband and I are quiet, private people but I am quietly very excited. Thank you for putting it together and recognising the majority of us who are the quieter ones, but very productive.’
When Bron Blake began facilitating the ‘Gulf Women’ anthology, she and the contributors agreed that all work would be voluntary so all profits could return to the Gregory region for community projects.
Bron says, ‘As their editor, I feel closely connected to these women who gifted me windows into their worlds so different from most, and was fortunate enough to be told the story of their lives, warts, joys, terrors and all.’
This powerful book gives women a voice to tell their own stories of managing distant stations and stock camps, handling terrible accidents, floods, bushfires, and droughts.
They are also the mothers who are the nurse and teacher, who can’t shop at the supermarket, and order food and essential supplies from far away centres, delivery weeks or months. Who can’t send kids to school so supervise each lesson, and educate their children through Mount Isa School of the Air. Who can’t visit a local GP when the kid’s cough sounds bad, so rely on the RFDS for medical advice and retrieval in an emergency.
There are stories of new mothers on properties isolated and inaccessible for months in the Wet, women giving birth at home with only neighbours to assist, reminiscences from last century and World War II, and accounts of fishing in the Gulf in sometimes unimaginable conditions. …
Interestingly, some comments from amongst the women were: “I didn’t know that about you!’ or, ‘I hadn’t heard that before… even amongst ourselves there are new things to share.’ ‘They told me,’ says Bron Blake, ‘that there was: “Nothing to write about, really.” It was brushed off with: “So ordinary it’s boring.” “Just what you do.” “Just life.”
Listen to this:
My name is Gabe Kennedy I am a Registered Nurse and a grazier, married to a helicopter pilot and manager of Escott Station. Escott homestead is 20km south of Burketown, 440km north of Cloncurry, 560km north of Mount Isa.
After meeting with Bron, I walked away feeling I had no stories to tell about my life in the Gulf and voiced my opinion to some of the other ladies, who looked at me in disbelief. We then started to discuss a few, which to our everyday life are not that exciting, but to people who do not live in our world would be amazing.
We do have an extraordinary life and live in an amazing environment but it does become the normal way of living, and frequently the amazing life can become very frustrating, isolating and very lonely. We all interpret isolation and loneliness in different ways, and until you have experienced isolation and remoteness it can be very difficult to explain.
It had wrapped itself around Billy ready to choke and swallow., Pulling and unravelling, and with Billy running in the opposite direction to my husband, we managed to remove the snake! It was an unbelievable, and very traumatic experience. We were still removing python teeth from Billy’s arm six months later.
Distance and weather are huge factors in our lives. We always need an extra day to travel for simple trips to town, but when the weather is wet how do you plan? We have survived most wet seasons, but this is the toughest time for me; wet, very humid, and no simple means of getting in and out.
Escott Station is situated on the Gulf of Carpentaria with Escott’s most northern boundary the coastline of Australia. It is unique and beautiful with amazing bird life and very diverse country.
The Nicholson and Gregory Rivers run through it and meet the salt water creating another beautiful icon of Escott… the miles of salt arms that stretch out at the mouth of the ocean. The property has over 300kms of waterways, fresh and salt water.
…. My two younger children could yell ‘Snake’, and get a gun before their wider vocabulary formed. One night in the hot, wet month of January, very humid with the torrential rain that can come with the wet season, at 2am my eldest son Billy was yelling, and not sure what was going on we managed to flick a light on to see a two-metre python swinging off his left arm. It had wrapped itself around Billy ready to choke and swallow., Pulling and unravelling, and with Billy running in the opposite direction to my husband, we managed to remove the snake! It was an unbelievable, and very traumatic experience. We were still removing python teeth from Billy’s arm six months later. To this day, we do snake checks in the house under beds and in cupboards. And the doors are always closed.
We live on the bank of the pristine Nicholson river, known widely for the beautiful barramundi and the salt water crocodiles. We fish on this river and crocodiles are a huge part of our environment. From our kitchen window, we have a clear view of the river and often see them swimming past. We had a baby croc, about 1.5 meters, in one of my garden hedges; it must have got disorientated from the river. The kids were ecstatic they kept it for a day as a new pet, but it was quietly put back into the river when the kids went to bed.
What a rich vein of gold we tapped into asking these women to tell us about their ‘ordinary’ lives, and in writing their stories, I hope these women see in print, for all time, just how extraordinary they are. How proud we are of them.
‘Gulf Women’ can be purchased through email@example.com . $30 plus postage, with all profits returning to the greater Gregory region.