Dogs, dust and long days in the stone country
By Cameron Raw
I am sitting with my legs stretched out over bags, veterinary supplies and banana boxes packed with our food for the next two weeks. Ochre dust kicks up from under the wheels and the back door squeaks rhythmically as we round a final corner towards Gunbalanya. Herons crouching around the nearby billabong give us little attention, ever wary of hungry reptilian eyes sitting just above the surface. Injalak and Arguluk hills rise up before us as we enter the settlement and the great stone escarpment stretches off over the horizon, a vast interlude to the surrounding floodplains. While the floodplains are green, it’s July and the middle of the dry season – which is just as well. The only way in or out of here during the wet season is by plane or boat.
For the next two weeks I will be working in a group of eight providing veterinary services to remote Indigenous communities as a part of the Western Arnhem Land Dog Health Program, or WALDHeP. Dogs, locally known as durruk, are such an important part of the community in areas such as this, and indeed are part of creation stories concerning the lands surrounding Gunbalanya itself. The human-animal bond is a central part of life here.
For almost 10 years the program has been travelling to this part of the world, and each year the evidence of the impact that previous years’ work has made is profound. With the nearest veterinary clinic four hours’ drive away, this is the only veterinary attention that most of these dogs will ever get. As our troop carrier turns down the main street I can see some of the patients of last year’s trip hoping for some food outside the local shop. They’re healthy looking dogs from any standpoint – they’ve been desexed, which decreases dog-to-dog and dog-to-human aggression and allows them to maintain a better body condition, and they have been treated for parasites, leading to healthy skin, healthy digestive systems and less parasite spread to humans. The program and the treatments really work.
As our first week in Gunbalanya ends, we prepare to head out to the associated outstations of Kabulwarnamyo, Malgawa, Manmoyi and Gamargawan with our basic but very effective mobile treatment facilities. Days of driving are rough, with around seven hours out to the furthest outstation, crossing rivers, sand stretches and rocks, but this is more than made up for by the immense diversity and beauty of the surrounding stone country.
As a veterinary student it’s something I’ve been looking forward to all year. An opportunity to undertake an incredibly unique project and experience, to practice field surgical and anaesthesia skills – not to mention it’s a welcome break from the regular stresses of hospital rotations.
As an Indigenous person it’s something I have wanted to do my entire life. To be able to combine my passion for veterinary medicine with work in Indigenous communities to help bring about better health outcomes for both animals and humans has been something I have always hoped to be a part of. The chance to connect with and experience life in a remote Indigenous community is a privilege I will always treasure.
ILLUSTRATION: ROBIN COWCHER
Cameron Raw’s work with WALDHeP was made possible partly thanks to the Arno Herpe Memorial Foundation Scholarship. The Scholarship honours the late Arno Herpe, who left a bequest to the University of Melbourne to support Indigenous students in the South Pacific area, including Australia and New Zealand. The bequest continues to make an enormous difference to the lives of today’s students. Read more about Cameron and the Scholarship on the website for Believe – the Campaign for the University of Melbourne.