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Utopia – a place where Aborigines live long and prosper

The Times. London

November 13, 2006

From Bernard Lagan in Utopia, Northern Territory

HIDDEN off a long, lonely dirt road in the centre of Australia, the scattered Aboriginal settlements of weathered iron shanties, upturned cars and sullen dogs might be expected to fit the usual description: degradation, disease, filth.

But they don’t. Researchers have found such clear indicators of the wellbeing of the people of Utopia — a 1,160 square mile (3,000 sq km) former cattle station in the red desert dust north of Alice Springs — that policy-makers are having to reconsider the worth of an ancient Aboriginal way of life that rejects much of comfortably off Australia’s eating, working and leisure habits.

Yet those healthy traditions may be under threat. Ministers in the Howard Government have declared small Aboriginal communities to be unsustainable and argued for their closure and the removal of inhabitants to enlarged townships. There, they suggest, better services could be provided.

The argument does not impress Karm Saraswati, the doctor who for 15 years, together with two nurses, has criss-crossed the desert taking aid to the thousand or so inhabitants.

In Utopia’s 16 tiny settlements — known as outstations — infants are fed the blood of kangaroos hunted by their relatives. Old women catch and cook big goanna lizards. People wander the spinifex grasses and dig out succulent honey ants and witchetty grubs for eating. Women make batches of Aboriginal medicines from desert plants, relying on ancestral recipes. Not many people smoke, and only a few drink.

Many in Utopia spend the bakingly hot days in rough shelters, alongside dogs. Houses are often crowded and dirty. Most struggle to pay for food and petrol from the single store.

Yet these people are 40 per cent less likely to die prematurely than other Aboriginals in the Northern Territory. According to researchers at the University of Melbourne, their health approaches — and even exceeds in crucial respects — that of white Australians long expected to outlive Aborigines by 15 to 20 years. The most remarkable result is for cardiovascular disease. Rates of hospitalisation for its effects in Utopia are below levels among the non-Aboriginal Australian population.

Lennie Jones, a senior elder, is certain of the source of his community’s health: “Out here, we live on bush tucker. Old fellows and kids still hunt. We don’t have white tucker.” Another, Albert Bailey, whose 76 years represent longevity unusual among Aborigines, says: “In the big communities the young fellows get on the grog all the time. Here we stop ’em. We stay on the land of our grandfathers, always.”

Dr Saraswati feels no need to lecture these people. He accepts the wisdom of the old men and does as they ask — especially that he and the nurses travel the jarring desert tracks to take medicine to people, rather than wait for them to come into the clinic.

While he accepts that his contact with Utopia’s people has aided their wellbeing, it cannot explain, he says, the vast differences in their health and contentment from that of Aborigines elsewhere. It is, he says, a result of traditional lives that involve frequent exercise to hunt and gather foods that are nutritious and minimise obesity. It also helps that the people are, by and large, contented.

The hard evidence of local people’s health was no surprise to Dr Saraswati: “I have always known there was something different here because I was dealing with happy people,” he said. “I have worked in other Aboriginal communities and you are doing patch-up all the time. You’ve got craziness, grog-fights. Just trouble.”

In Alice Springs, 186 miles to the south, there is nightly violence in and around the Aboriginal squats — fearful places in which hundreds of itinerants who have left their remote homelands spend their days drinking and, often, fighting. There is about one murder a month — nearly always involving Aborigines as perpetrators and victims.

Joanne Boyle, a 25-year-old nurse, came to work with Utopia’s people after spending nine months treating victims of fights and knifings at Alice Springs Hospital. “I am never scared about them yelling or hitting me as I was in Alice Springs,” she said.

Simon Quilty has just arrived for a three-month stint in Utopia. In Alice Springs, violence was commonplace, and the doctor would tend Aborigines dying of heart, liver and kidney diseases at the age of 30. By the end of his first week in Utopia, Dr Quilty declared: “It’s magic out here, mate.”


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Lennie Jones, an Aboriginal elder: “here, we live on bush tucker” (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)