National Geographic : 1992 Apr
It was 3:30 in the afternoon. I shoveled mud and hauled buckets of rocks in a hope less quest for traction. At 4:30 I saw it was time to gather firewood. The closest trees were a half hour's walk away. I was dragging a second load to my campsite, an island of rocks in a soggy field, as the sun smeared the sky with a lingering peach kiss. It was a beautiful night, and the outback had taught me to carry everything I needed. I was just three hours beyond Boulia, popula tion 300, and only an hour from Bedourie, population 60. Someone would come along and pull me out. No worries. It happened at 7:30 p.m., sooner than I'd expected, because two young guys driving home to Sydney after a charity road rally wanted to catch a rugby game on the Bedourie pub TV. They had a heavyweight pull strap, but a small car. Close behind came a stronger vehicle driven by a young man reporting to Bedourie for his new job as diesel mechanic for Diamantina Shire. Together they popped my wallowed truck like a cham pagne cork. In a thanksgiving at the pub, I was told by the shire's 28-year-old retiring diesel mechanic that I couldn't leave "without meeting the sister," as nurses are called here. "She's been my mother," he said. So, a little later than you normally call on a stranger, I was sitting in Elizabeth Lowson's living room as if she'd been expecting me all day. This is a second life for Elizabeth, a long way from the Melbourne suburb where she raised her children. Bedourie never had a nurse until she opened a clinic in 1990 under the auspices of the Uniting Church in Austra lia Frontier Services. "They asked me if I would be willing to look after Bedourie's spiritual health as well," she said, "so people come to me to talk." What do they talk about? A man is lonely, his wife spending weeks in a city so their child will be born in a hospital with all medi cal facilities; a husband and wife are fighting physically, their children seeing all, the neighbors concerned. The alcoholics, even if they don't want to talk, take comfort from her presence-expressing alarm when she's overdue from a trip. The isolation seems to give an extra edge to every human hurt. But it also pulls people together, Elizabeth said. "It makes us rely on each other." She smiled: "I haven't been so happy in years." I RE THERE REALLY a hundred people Living in Birdsville?" I asked cattle man David Brook as we stood in Australia's most famous outback pub. "Well... maybe 80," he answered. Most are stockmen and their families -a con genial mix one resident described as "white, black, and brindle." But with a boom in tourism, and the business possibilities it offers, the population may once again reach Quaffed as "stubbies"or "tinnies,"beers at the William Creek pub settle a dusty day of brandingfor Stuart Nunn, left, and Anna Creek staff. Ringers also come to use the solar-powered phone outside on the Oodnadatta Track. A new wave of outback tourism keeps the hotel-pub afloat.