14 August 2019

Dr Krystyna de Lange reflects on a once-in-a-lifetime Kakadu experience


Whenever you want to be reassured about the future of General Practice, all you need do is have a chat with a bunch of passionate GP Registrars and medical students. That is exactly what I had the opportunity to do this weekend and their enthusiasm was refreshing to say the least. Thanks to Northern Territory General Practice Education (NTGPE) I got to spend three nights camping in Murumburr clan country with a group of NTGPE Registrars and medical students from around Australia.

Arriving at the NTGPE office in Darwin, wearing pointed ballet flats and a leather jacket and with my large suitcase and handbag in tow, I certainly stood out as the city slicker. The wonderful Stephen Pincus, CEO of NTGPE, carefully rearranged his 4WD without batting an eyelid and accommodated my extreme over packing with ease. From here we were off. A four-hour drive into Kakadu National Park, the home of the Kakadu Billabong Safari Camp, where we would be camping for the next few nights. The Camp is owned by Mandy Muir and her family. Their family holds a long and proud history as Traditional Owners of the land on which the camp is located.  As soon as we arrived we received a traditional Welcome to Country on the banks of the billabong; a little bit daunting when we saw a croc lurking in the water nearby. But we all survived and were well on our way to immersing ourselves in Aboriginal culture and tradition.

As well as Mandy and her family, we were accompanied by three NTGPE cultural educators, Richie, Gemina and Lizzie. We were all given names and learnt how we would be related. Not the blood relations that we were used to, but the complex kinship model that has existed for tens of thousands of years in Aboriginal culture. I was Albangardi. I learnt who my mother was, my sister, my brother in law. Who was right skin and wrong skin. I learnt the reasons behind this system and its implications.

Dr Krystyna de Lange
Dr Krystyna de Lange cooking crocodile tail

The three days was jam packed with experiences. We ventured into Ubirr and Nourlangie to walk the trails, see incredible Aboriginal rock art – some of which dates back tens of thousands of years – and get lost in the amazing views of Kakadu. We learnt from Mandy about the history of the art. This important men’s business that had enabled important historical events to be documented in the absence of the written word. We were enriched with the stories that the rock art depicted, stories that had been passed down through generations as teachings to help the young fellas learn important life lessons.

We had the opportunity to visit a remote community, consisting of around 1200 Aboriginal people. We visited the Aboriginal Medical Service there, Gunbalanya Health Centre, and heard about the amazing work they are doing under incredibly challenging conditions. We heard about the GPs, registrars, nurses and health workers there working tirelessly to serve this community. We heard about the breadth of work they do, managing the clinic as well as on call, from chronic disease through to acute emergencies. We got a glimpse of the true challenges faced in these communities – not having access to things as simple as an x-ray means clinical acumen is paramount and not having phone reception or house numbering brings a whole new complexity to recalls and reminders. We got some valuable insights into some of the real issues facing our remote Indigenous communities – over-crowding, poor access to fresh food, poverty and alcohol to name but a few. It was eye opening and inspiring all at the same time.

Back at camp, this city slicker soon got used to the drop toilets and cold showers. I embraced camp life and the learning journey it was giving me. I joined the ladies in women’s business, foraging for the hemadorum and pandanus plants to weave my own pandanus leaf bracelet. I seared and scraped the hair off a kangaroo tail before wrapping it up, cooking it in the fire and pulling the meat off the bone to eat it. I tried magpie goose. I made my own damper in a damper-off (although my team’s rosemary and parmesan damper didn’t quite cut muster up against the medical students’ chocolate delight). I learnt about building a fire and heard many a story around that same fire with the roller coaster of emotions that went with those stories. Listening to Richie talk about how his mum was removed from her own mother and family at just four years old and taken to a mission was made all the more real now that I am a mum myself. But watching as these inspiring Aboriginal people embraced their culture and continue to pass their stories down, not just for their future generations, but for all of the community to hear was uplifting and nothing short of inspiring.

In a fitting decision I chose the book “The Moment of Lift” by Melinda Gates to read whilst on the camp. In the book, Melinda recites some advice she was given when helping people from other cultures, “Their cup is not empty; you can’t just pour your ideas into it. Their cup is already full, so you have to understand what is in their cup.” She goes onto write, “If you don’t understand the meaning and beliefs behind a community’s practices, you won’t present your ideas in the context of their values and concerns, and people won’t hear you.”

Thank you, Mandy, Richie, Gemina and Lizzie for helping me to understand the meaning and beliefs behind your family’s and your community’s practices. It is going to make a huge difference in helping the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients I see in everyday practice hear me. Thank you NTGPE for the opportunity to experience your Cultural Immersion Camp and providing such a wonderful opportunity for your registrars. And thank you for the amazing work you are doing to ensure a sustainable general practice workforce for the Northern Territory despite all the challenges you are facing. I look forward to coming back to the NT soon.

Dr Krystyna de Lange