Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Dear Wilcannia...

Dear Wilcannia,

I had the sweetest experience of you last week.

Some long term medical issues had me doing the 110km dash to your hospital for my regular blood test (Don’t worry folks, I’m fine!). Usually I’ve been going to the Cobar pathology (400km return drive) for this, but I had visitors this week and didn’t want to miss too much fun at Burragan, so the Wilcannia hospital said it had an employee driving west to Broken Hill on this particular day who would kindly take my blood all the way to their pathology instead. Now that’s service!

Rocking up to the nurses’ station I was greeted by SIX smiling faces… two nurses, two third year medical students on their rural rotation from University of Sydney, and two nursing students. Like many rural hospitals, there is no full time doctor in Wilcannia. Instead the hospital is serviced by fly-in fly-out clinics from the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) three days a week, while local nurses hold down the fort the rest of the time, 24 hours a day.

One of the med students was keen to have a go at taking my blood, so I offered up my best veins for her to drain. I’m quite the regular pathology goer these days so although I do stare intently at the opposite wall, make awkward conversation, and try to drift off to my happy place, I am ultimately at ease with the process and was happy for the med student to use me for practice.

Unfortunately my veins weren’t cooperating as well as usual, so the local nurse came to the rescue. Half way through draining my other arm she tells me, “I’m your neighbour actually.” Suffice to say I was surprised. But yes, it turned out she lived “just down the road” from me and although we’d never met in my 2.5 years at Burragan, she recognised the name and address on my pathology form and knew who I was. “You’re not like what I imagined you to be,” she said honestly.

“Oh!” I replied taken aback, “What did you imagine me to be like?”

“I’m not sure really. You’re a journalist, aren’t you?” she queried.

Was that what she’d imagined me to be like? Some stereotypical, preconceived notion of a journalist? What is that stereotype anyway… that we’re all blood-sucking, story chasing, pompous, alcoholics? I’d like to think only one of those descriptions fits me… and it’s the only one involving scotch whisky.

“Well, yes,” I said, “but I don’t do a whole lot of that these days. Mostly I’m just out in the paddock with ST.”

“LS (another mutual neighbour) tells me you’re a writer. She speaks very highly of you,” she continues.

And as the conversation went on I realised there’s a lot to be said about reputations in rural communities. Obviously I’ve gained myself a bit of a preconceived persona which walks into the room ahead of me. I’m sure some people assume that persona is anything from naive and bitchy to… well… I can’t come up with any nice words right now without also sounding pompous, but feel free to add your own in here.

But like anyone, the truth is the real me probably lies somewhere in between. I’m wouldn’t say I’m naive, but I’m not afraid to admit when I don’t know or understand something. I don’t go out of my way to be a bitch, but like most women I sure know how to turn it on when I want to. I’m not out to get anyone, not out to be the new person in town who barges in trying to change things, not out to big note myself, or pretend that I’m the most hard done by woman in the world. I’m well aware there are people out there living in far more isolated areas than me, working twice as hard to survive, and doing far more exciting and interesting things than I. But I am not those people; I am me. And I enjoy writing, and appreciate honesty in writing. So that is why I do what I do – reputation, perceptions and assumptions be damned!

The thing is Wilcannia, you too are fighting a reputation you’ve gained over the last 30 years, which doesn’t really represent the real you. It would only be honest for me to say that you and I don’t always get along – but last week your inner good shone through in way that deserves a little piece of your negative persona to be chipped away.

As the blood finished pumping from my arm and it was approaching time for me to leave the hospital, I began feeling light headed, my vision was blurring and my hearing fading. Quietly concerned I would faint if I stood up, I clutched my water bottle and asked my Neighbour/Nurse if it was OK to sit for a few minutes before heading off. She immediately offered me a cup of tea and delivered it shortly after, along with two Arnott’s biscuits. She pulled up a chair, sat down with me and started chatting about writing, nursing in country hospitals, gardening and living out of town. In 15 minutes I was feeling buoyed and uplifted, and actually impressed with the service Wilcannia could deliver.

From the hospital I made my way to the general store…

And from the general store I made my way to the small coffee shop in the main street. The owner’s grandkids were visiting for the school holidays and I helped them set up the chairs and tables out the front as their Gran warmed up the coffee machine for me. Their beaming smiles and the friendly conversation with their Gran, along with the aroma of fresh coffee, continued my good mood for the drive home.

The difference between us though, Wilcannia, is that I can pick and choose the details of what I let out into the world, while you are stuck at the mercy of what others do and say about you. I’ve heard you used to be a thriving major centre. And judging by the gorgeous heritage buildings that line your riverbank it’s unfortunate the current negative reputation is continuing to hinder your grand potential. From what I see recently, change is a comin’ in Wilcannia. Historic sandstone buildings are being renovated and re-purposed, tourism ventures are making their way back to town, and caravaners are pulling up for a coffee rather than driving straight through.

I think you know you’ve got some issues, just as I know I’ve got issues too. But ultimately our success lays in finding a focus on the good points, and hoping the rest of the world likes that and runs with it while we work away quietly in the background to improve the bad points.

Lovely locals, a great health service and nice coffee are a good start.

I think you and I might end up liking each other after all.

Until next time,

Editor's Note: Want to find out more about Wilcannia or thinking of stopping by next time you're in the region? Check out the Wilcannia Tourism website HERE.


  1. lovely to see Wilcannia thru some one elses eyes .... well done Bessie .. EWE BEAUTY

  2. Hey Jess I lived in Wilcannia 40 years ago, (I had my 21st there) You are right like all small towns including Tibooburra there's the good the bad and the ugly, but generally underpined by some fantastic people. Still remember Mrs Clarke washing my footy gear so I didn't look bad in the mighty Tigers, and I think it was about 18 "orphans" had Christmas dinner on her front verandah, becasue we had no family in town, same good fare as Roo, Blue and Torro.

    1. I love how you say "generally underpinned by some fantastic people"- SO TRUE and well put!

    2. Bessie, Sorry I put Jess, fat fingers and iphones don't work. Or it could have been to much hospitality in Wilcannia years ago

    3. No worries at all!
      I figured it was just a typo :)

  3. Hey Bess. A great insight into a struggling town that has much to offer. Keep these great stories coming.

  4. My Dad grew up on the Darling south of Wilcannia...born 1928, and tells wonderful stories of the town. Whenever I drive through I try to imagine it's past. I think it will be wonderful in time and I reckon a turn around is happening. It has so much to offer the people of suburbia like peace and quiet and amazing scenery and the river! WEll done Bessie for bringing it to our attention again.

    1. I really hope wonderful things happen for Wilcannia, it has SO MUCH potential. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Well written Bessie!!! Being someone who has both met and been interviewed by you I can vouch for how absolutely gorgeous you are - a real genuine person... :)

    Wilcannia does have a bad reputation, such a pity as it looks like such a gorgeous place lays there hidden, waiting to be reborn...

    Cheers - Jodie

  6. Beautiful words! Brilliant to read about what gives Wilcannia it's heart and soul. I hope the rejuventation of the town and all its glorious old architecture continues... K x

  7. Well done Bessie, you tell a great story as always. Wilcannia is fortunate to have you as a local!

  8. During my nursing degree we learnt about Wilcannia, and it wasn't a positive for the little town.
    But having worked in two small rural hospitals I now know how wonderful they can be. The personalised service, friendly and willing staff.

    1. So true - and the nurses who work there, and Drs who fly in and out, do an OUTSTANDING job. I'm sure they'd have some stories to tell! Thanks for reading! xx