Gay Young Couple In Alice Springs

Josephine Jones

Copyright 2018 by Josephine Jones

Photo of the Royal Flying Doctor HQ at Alice Springs.

That was the headline in The Centralian Advocate on Thursday 28th August 1969.  Of course, Gay did not mean then what it does now. Earlier that year July Neil Armstrong had set foot on the moon. Television had not yet reached the outback of Australia so we had seen a film of the landing in the Memorial Hall. This film had been provided by the Americans from the nearby secret Space Base which everyone knew about.

The week before there was great excitement in Alice Springs, Australia. The Duke and Duchess of Kent were coming on an official visit from England. Our laboratory part of the Alice Springs Hospital was asked to cross match 2 bottles of blood each for the Duke and Duchess. This was in case they were in an aeroplane crash. We all wondered what possible good two bottles of blood for each person would be in a serious plane crash. When the couple left Alice Springs to fly to Tennant Creek the blood was to be flown in a separate aeroplane.

When I arrived in work the morning of their visit there was a patient waiting. "Could you do my regular blood test?" asked a man in a grey suit, a rare sight in Australia, "You're a bit early," I protested.   "Nothing's ready yet."

"Come on, it won't take you a minute. "

"Oh, all right."

"Thank you.  I've had a really busy morning. I had to cook breakfast for the royal couple."

"Oh yes."

I then realised he was the owner of the Stewart Arms Hotel where the couple had been staying.

"The day before the Duke said we don't want a big breakfast. Scrambled eggs on toast will be just fine. A really unassuming young couple."

In the morning we were given time off work to stand outside Flying Doctor base at the back of the hospital. The building was impressive--made of smooth white stone with a big metal wing similar to the wings on a pilot's uniform over the entrance. It was surrounded by a green lawn kept watered for the occasion. Nurses took the aboriginal children out in wheel chairs to line the route along with patients who could walk. The couple walked past us. The Duchess wore a navy blue linen coat with a matching straw hat with a pink and blue trim. I wrote to my parents that she was much prettier than in photographs. She was vivacious and friendly. When she learned there were pupils from The School of the Air in the crowd she wanted to meet them, two little boys and a girl spoke easily with her. Having two children of her own back in England gave her an instant rapport with all the children.

The Flying Doctor base had a huge glass window through which we could witness everything going on inside. We watched the Duchess broadcasting to the School of the Air. The good and the great were seated around the room in a circle including the Duke who not surprisingly kept nodding off. It was a demanding schedule for them and of course they would have been suffering jet lag. The Duchess stood up and spoke, her words were broadcast outside to us. She addressed about 60 children on the School of the Air Network, and said what great opportunities there were for them. On the talk back over the air an aboriginal girl Tina Ewen welcomed the Duke and Duchess to Central Australia.

After her speech the president of the South Australia Royal Flying Doctor Service and the base director spoke to the couple. I imagine they told them about the RFDS. It was started in 1928 by the Reverend John Flynn, a Presbyterian minister, and in 1939 the Alice Springs base was opened to provide medical assistance and advice to people in the outback miles away from hospitals. The same radio equipment was used for medical and educational advice. The isolated farms all had radio equipment and a box of first aid medical supplies. Doctors and nurses would give advice and if necessary would fly out to the patient to treat them or transport them to hospital.

Sometimes they would go out to traffic accidents when some vehicles skidded off the dirt roads. That is what happened to the wife of the physiotherapist who died just before I was working there. Sometimes there were head on collisions with the huge road cattle trains that took up the whole of the narrow track. When I was learning to drive in a friend's car he advised."If you see a cattle train approaching just drive off the road into the bush because the drivers never see anyone they get mesmerized with the long monotonous journey. An Aunt wrote to me and asked which was my nearest big town? 

Alice Springs is about 500 miles from Darwin in the North and 500 miles from Adelaide in the South.

Then the Royal couple did a walk about. The Duke in a light fawn suit was tall and shy looking and spoke a few polite words to people. Whereas the Duchess was animated and chatted as if everyone was her friend. When she saw the nurses and patients she asked where the hospital was. I was dreading that she would speak to me. What would I say? I tried to make myself look inconspicuous among the 200 spectators. As I said in my letter home it was the nearest I had been to Royalty. I could have touched her but I made sure I did not catch her eyes.

The School of the Air had centralized teachers to educate children in the outback. Sometimes the older children went to boarding school but some never went to school with other pupils. Jenny, a work colleague, had introduced me to yet another cousin who was in the crowd waiting for the Duchess. She had never been to school and never had the rough and tumble of mixing with children outside the family. She had fallen out with her alcoholic mother and left home to work as a chamber maid in a hotel and was enjoying the experience. Then later Jenny told me that the girl's mother had died so she had to return home to look after her father and younger siblings. What a terrible life for a young girl.

Then the couple were driven away to the top of Anzac Hill where they would have had a good view of Alice Springs down below. I had been there myself and viewed the MacDonnell Ranges, which changed from grey blue to red depending on the time of day. The dried-up Todd River was lined with huge ghost gum trees. At the centre of the small town was the straight main road, Todd Street town with wide streets bordered by buildings with corrugated iron roofs.

It was lunch time by the time we returned to the lab but fortunately there was no back log of work as almost every member of the hospital staff had been outside watching the Royal couple. 

Everyone felt it was an honour that the Royal Couple had travelled 30 hours or more from England to a tiny town in the middle of the Australian outback.

Contact Josephine

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Josephine's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher