Flying Docs




In Alice Springs and Katherine, David Whitley discovers how people living in the remotest parts of Australia remain attached to the rest of the world.


The real Outback?

On my journey through Australia, I have been travelling across what I deem the Outback. In reality, I’ve been sticking to the main highways with the odd diversion up a short gravel track. It’s still more than many Australians will cover in their lifetime, but I’d be deluded if I tried to convince myself that I was really living the Outback life. For a reality check, a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Centre in Alice Springs is in order. The RDFS is a truly remarkable organisation, and one that literally keeps the people of the Outback alive.


Flying Doctors

For some people living in remote Aboriginal settlements, cattle stations and roadhouses, the journey to the nearest hospital with adequate facilities can be measured in days rather than hours or minutes. The Flying Doctors provide an essential lifeline, and run regular emergency missions to dirt airstrips in the middle of nowhere which are being lit up with car headlights. That’s the showy part of proceedings, but the more mundane day-to-day tasks are equally as vital as the nick-of-time airlifts. The Flying Doctors also distribute medicine chests to key spots such as police stations, pubs and homesteads. The drugs inside are labelled with numbers so that people have to phone for diagnosis rather than self-prescribe, while body charts are divided into segments so that the ill/ injured party can explain what hurts and where. The Flying Doctors also run regular preventative healthcare clinics amongst the Aboriginal communities on their patch – and for the Alice Springs base, 90% of the 30,000 people in the area it covers are Aboriginal.


RDFS base visit – Alice Springs

A visit to the base is utterly engrossing. Come on a weekday and you can watch the controllers in action, while comparing modern equipment and resources to those the RDFS had in the past is an eye-opener. The 1958 medical cabinet has a nice bit of cocaine in it, while the pedal radios used to keep the line open to the doctors up to 600km/h away would have been of limited use if you’d just broken your leg.


World’s biggest classroom. 

Another insight into Outback life comes a lazy 1,000km or so up the road in Katherine. The School of the Air here boasts that it is the world’s biggest classroom. And given that its catchment area is three times the size of the UK, this is probably a fair call. Yes, that was three times the size of the entire United Kingdom. When we show up, there are precisely zero children in the building, but the teacher is plugging on regardless. With pupils living up to 1,100km away from Katherine (and even further for those based overseas in the likes of Kazakhstan and East Timor with their miner/ charity worker parents), turning up every day just isn’t practical.


Schooling by satellite

So instead, children living in Australia’s most remote spots are home-tutored (usually by their mother) and have proper school lessons conducted via satellite. The set up is remarkable – the teacher sits in what looks like a radio studio, using cameras to point to what she’s talking about.The kids, meanwhile, interact by satellite phone and a little chat frame in the bottom of the screen. It’s a high-tech set-up and, by and large, it works. That said, choir practice can be a little interesting with the phone lag... Up until 2006, this was all done by (rather crackly) radio. But now the kids can see the teachers during lessons. It’s a huge leap forward, and watching the system work brings a tear to the eye. It’s a privilege to come across children that cherish their school lessons and the interaction they bring to their lives. It’s also yet another amazing achievement in taming some of the harshest, most isolated country on earth.


More photos here