Tjuntjuntjara is located 660 km east of Kalgoorlie, in the Great Victoria Desert. It is considered to be one of the most remote communities in Australia.
The local people are known as ‘the Spinifex People’. Their determination to live on country and provide strong local governance and stability makes Tjuntjuntjara a unique place to live and work.
As with many remote communities, staff turnover is a challenge and Rural Health West staff Kerida Hodge and Brooke Wilson were invited by Spinifex Health Service to visit, to assist with recruitment efforts to the community.
The Spinifex Health Service, managed by the Paupiyala Tjarutja Aboriginal Corporation (PTAC), is responsible for providing health services to the community, through both resident and visiting health services, including GPs, remote area nurses, podiatrists, environmental health teams and Aboriginal Health Workers.
Visiting health staff come from a variety of locations; some making their way from Kalgoorlie or Perth for semi-regular visits, others based out of Adelaide, and a small cohort, including the dental team, travelling a quarterly circuit through a cluster of outback communities.
“We joined a charter flight from Kalgoorlie airport transporting nephrologist Dr Mark Thomas, Hearing Australia audiologist Heidi and technician Ian,” Brooke said.
Visiting services only recently resumed to Tjuntjuntjara, with many health services delivered via telehealth since 2020.
The health clinic is a regular gathering place and a number of women and children gathered on the front benches during our visit. Some were waiting to be seen by Dr Mark (as he is known by the community), others were waiting to be seen by remote area nurse Helen, others gathered to pass time and chat.
Mark’s work translated to the Telehealth platform extremely well, so while he hadn’t been out to community for nearly three years due to COVID precautions, his patients had been well cared for during that time.
“Tele-nephrology represents good value for money for the health system, but it is also important to form a connection with patients, particularly the older and more traditional people from community. This visit is important in renewing those face-to-face connections and relationships,” Mark said.
Aboriginal Health Worker and local Elder Winmati gave us a tour of the town. In addition to Spinifex Health Service, PTAC manages a range of facilities and services in the community, including:
• the community store, which is stocked with goods driven in from South Australia each fortnight
• an Indigenous sport and recreation program (the basketball court, affectionately known as the Rage Cage, is popular with younger community members)
• a community resource centre which hosts banking services and adult education classes
• the Community Development Program
• a Women’s Centre.
The Spinifex Arts Centre is popular with community members, with a broad range of artistic styles on display during our visit. The community is home to a number of internationally renowned artists, whose artwork is showcased in galleries around the world.
“From the arts centre, we joined community support worker Bonnie as she set off on her twice-daily meal delivery around town to around 20 local residents,” Brooke said.
“Meals are prepared by local workers and Bonnie before being delivered – either directly to patients or left in blue plastic tubs out of reach of the community dogs.
“School had broken for lunch time, so we caught up with principal Rhonda,” she said.
The school supports around 32 children from kindergarten to Year 12.
“Traditional high school subjects don’t have as much relevance here, so we’re introducing more pathways into adult education and train our students up for roles in the community in health, mechanical, or to work at the store of the arts centre,” Rhonda said.
“Most students don’t want to leave the community, so our education needs to support them to find their place in the community.” “It is a great community with a gentle culture. There’s also a strong sense of community among the workers.”“I encourage people to give it a go.”
Rural Health West funds a range of visiting health services to support the Tjuntjuntjara community, through the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care’s outreach programs.