Apr 22, 2016

Footy and Politics in the Red Centre

Behind the scenes, it was an eventful off-season for the Central Australian Football League (CAFL). The fixture was released in early March with only one noteworthy change – a new team, Plenty Highway, will replace MacDonnell Districts in Division One. This might seem insignificant but the absence of MacDonnell Districts is but one indication of some earnest politicking in a complicated region.

The dry river bed of the ephemeral Todd River, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Sid Anderson is an important man in Central Australia by any measure. He is a life member of the CAFL and a former captain and former coach of the Papunya Football Club. He recently retired as President of MacDonnell Regional Council, but continues to serve as a Councillor of the Luritja Pintubi Ward. He has served on the board of Central Land Council, Papunya Community Council and Ngurratjuta/Pmara Ntjarra Aboriginal Corporation. Undoubtedly, Anderson is a leader in the community.

Karl Hampton is a former Northern Territory Minister for Sport. He served in the NT parliament as Member for Stuart from 2006 to 2012. He serves as Chairperson of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) and as a board member of Imparja Television. Hampton is also on the committee of the Redtails Central Australian Football Club and his son Curtly plays for Adelaide in the AFL. There can be no question of Hampton’s influence on politics and football in the Central Australian community.

Seemingly at odds with his life membership of the CAFL, Anderson has been a driving force in trying to establish a ‘breakaway’ competition, the Wilurarra Tjutaku Football League (WTFL). Hampton has worked with Anderson to get the WTFL operating for the 2016 season. The plan involves teams from remote communities such as Papunya, Yuendumu, Areyonga, Laramba, Nyirripi, Mt Allan, Kintore, Mt Liebig, Ikuntji and Ltyentye Apurte playing in a community-based competition instead of the Alice Springs-based CAFL. Both men have called on the Northern Territory Football League and the CAFL to support them in their endeavours.

There is no suggestion Anderson and Hampton were doing anything but trying to act in what they believe is the communities’ best interests. Both men are concerned by the alcohol and anti-social behaviour young men from remote communities are exposed to when they stay in Alice Springs. By keeping these young men away from Alice Springs, they hope it will lead to healthier men and stronger communities. Although a noble goal, the WTFL proposal ignores and underestimates some significant issues while introducing a whole raft of supplementary problems.

Although broad descriptions with some unsavoury undertones, ‘alcohol’ and the attendant ‘anti-social’ behaviour are relatively problematic in Alice Springs. Indeed, statistics paint a horrifying picture in which the rates of drunkenness, domestic violence, assault, and damage to property far exceed the national average. Nevertheless, the remote communities are not somehow immune to these same problems. The suggestion that avoiding Alice Springs  will somehow insulate against social problems is demonstrably false.

Many people from remote communities spend a significant proportion of their lives in Alice Springs, football or no. Some work or go to school in town. Others visit family members or access service providers such as the Alice Springs Hospital or Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. While some young men who reside in Alice Springs are keen to play football for their home community, the difficulty in traveling hundreds of kilometres out of town may mean they are unable to play for their preferred team. The WTFL proposal seems to assume 22 players will be available and in their home community for each game.

Federal Demons train in preparation for a game in the Central Australian Football League

Long-distance travel is an unfortunate fact of life for people from remote communities. Hours spent in hot cars on the red, dusty, un-sealed roads of Central Australia are commonplace. On the surface, having a home game every second week is appealing when you live in Papunya. But this ignores the players who reside in Alice Springs. More pertinently it also ignores those communities who are in a geographically different direction. All of Papunya, Mt Liebig, and Haasts Bluff are near to each other, approximately 200-250km west of town, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Santa Theresa/Ltyentye Apurte is about 80km south-east of Alice Springs and footballers would have to travel through Alice Springs to play almost every other team in the WTFL significantly increasing their driving. Similarly, although Yuendumu is about 150km north of Papunya as the crow flies, the Tanami road runs back toward Alice Springs making this the most efficient route.

An unanswered question regarding the WTFL is would players support it, or would they jump ship from their communities for the chance to play on a bigger stage. Footballers of all abilities enjoy playing on immaculate grounds. The red dirt football games create a beautiful and iconic Australian image, but players would much prefer to be jogging out onto the MCG. The main ground in Alice Springs, Traeger Park, is of a high enough standard to host an AFL game each year. Growing grass is easy with plenty of sunlight and a consistent water supply. It is easy to imagine a car-load of footballers travelling along the road from Ntaria looking wistfully at the green expanses of Traeger Park or Albrecht Oval before continuing their long drive to the red dirt oval of Papunya or Yuendumu.

With the fixture released, it appears the CAFL will proceed largely as it did last year. The five town teams will play on Saturdays in Premier League while the ten community teams in Division One and Division Two will play on Sundays. The obvious exception to the participating community teams is MacDonnell Districts who are based around Papunya, Anderson’s home community. All CAFL games will be played in Alice Springs on Traeger Park, Albrecht Oval and Jim McConville Oval.

Practicalities aside, at its heart the development of the Wilurarra Tjutaku Football League is a play for power and influence. Anderson and Hampton want to see community people take control of their lives and recreation. Meanwhile, the established CAFL are loath to lose players and the accordant funding which would see their influence, control and power diminished. Changing demographics have already had an impact on the dominant and powerful town teams in recent years. Established footballing interests would not like to see this continue.

A quirk of Central Australian footy is that town teams are allowed to play a few registered community players in their Saturday games. The players can then play the next day for their community. Both of last year’s grand finalists, Federal and Wests, recruited heavily from remote communities to bolster their teams. Wests were a powerhouse in the early 2000s, winning five premierships. What followed were some lean years and dwindling numbers. David Wongway was one of Wests’ best in a losing grand final team, but he also rolled out for Ltyentye Apurte in Division One during the 2015 season. Similarly, Papunya’s Marcus McDonald was in Federal’s premiership side but spent his winter Sundays playing for his community team MacDonnell Districts.

Kicking a goal for the Federal Demons in a big win over Pioneer

Central Australia is a complicated region with Alice Springs at its heart. The complexity of social problems is unparalleled in modern Australia and football is but a reflection of this. Politics, power, money, race, and football – Hampton and Anderson have stirred up a hornet’s nest. Meanwhile, the CAFL have worked quietly behind the scenes refusing to comment publicly on the WTFL proposal. This weekend, under the big blue Centralian sky, attention will return to the field as young men from all over the region forget their woes and play football again.

Mar 10, 2016

Resuming The Dangerous Dance With Traffic

Continued from A Typical Alice Springs Morning Ride and Dark and Hazy Days In Hospital

It has been over six months since I got knocked from my bike. I rode over 100km a weekend or two ago. I went in a triathlon and won. My right hip and gluteals are still limited in their range of movement but it doesn’t affect me too much. I get sore if I don’t rest and don’t stretch, but this is relatively normal for a man of my age.

The most significant problem that remains is the memory. I went for a ride this morning and pulled off the road twice as trucks went by. My anxiety rose every time a car went past. I pulled over at one point to take a photo of the sunrise and half-climbed over a fence to be as far away as possible as a sedan went speeding along the road.

The sun rises over the Telegraph Station near Alice Springs on the North Stuart Highway

More than one person has told me I am crazy for going cycling on the road again. But I don’t quite see it that way. I have been through the accident a million times in my mind and still think about what I could have done differently. Quite rationally I conclude I did all I could. The most likely scenario is that the truck driver fell asleep on the long road from Tennant Creek to Alice Springs and I was an innocent victim. No amount of light, no amount of reflective gear, no amount of armour is going to protect you from bad luck.

I called the police less than two weeks after the accident and was told the case had been closed. I asked a few questions of the responsible policeman and while he was amenable to my suggestions, I heard nothing further. I don’t resent this decision, as police in Alice Springs have much more pressing matters, but I do feel that more could have been done. That is a fact of life with an over-burdened public service.

I don’t retain any particular feelings for the driver. I would like to have a quick chat with him, just to show him my scar and explain the disturbance that it caused in our lives. I don’t think this would change anything.

A lone rider ascends a hill toward the Alice Springs Telegraph Station with Mt Gillen in the background

Certainly it wouldn’t change those first few weeks out of hospital. The two months on crutches were difficult to say the least. My head was constantly hazy with medication and I was unable to sleep soundly. I caught a virus which slowed me down for a few days. My wound leaked through its 52 staples into my clothes and bed sheets. I couldn’t walk, ride, or drive making appointments a logistical nightmare. I had to arrange time off work and accident compensation. And I had an active 2 year old to chase. A pregnant Mrs Bugler was magnificent.

I went to the gym on crutches and rolled weights to benches. I brought my array of thera-bands to add some resistance to the simple range of motion exercises set by the physio. I graduated to easy leg weights with as few kilograms as possible. I cannot emphasise enough how quickly I improved from going to the gym 2-3 times a week. I would see other rehab patients at my regular hospital appointments and feel guilty that they didn’t have the resources or wherewithal to visit the physio and the gym.

I was back on a stationary bike just over a month after the accident. Although horrendously boring, sitting still and spinning my legs over was another thing that accelerated my recovery. It gave me some strength without putting too much stress or impact on my leg. After I concluded the accident was not my fault, I returned to the road. My first forays onto the road were rather timid affairs. I avoided traffic like the plague, stuck to quiet roads and bike paths. I felt like I didn’t belong on the bike.

The cycling bunch descends toward Alice Springs on the North Stuart Highway

Inevitably, my story has become old. I listen to other people complain about their aches and pains, and no longer feel like I can trump them. I think I have almost showed everyone in Alice Springs my scar – the first time I had a couple of drinks it was on show most of the evening. I’m still happy to show anyone who cares to ask, but everyone has an horrific story to tell.

Other than the feeling of not being as fit as I was, the thing that continues to frustrate me most is the fatuous bickering regarding cyclists. The absurd arguments that categorise and pigeonhole cyclists as though they/we somehow don’t drive cars or walk on footpaths. The sense of superiority and self-importance that seem to take hold as people curse cyclists, motorcyclists, truck drivers, Volvo drivers, or some ‘other’ road user, questioning the validity of their reasons for using the road. How did public spaces become so exclusive?

Of particular poignancy over the past few months is the victim blaming. I cannot countenance the idea that I was ‘asking for it’ by going for a ride on a road that also carries trucks. In much the same manner as rapists, the victim blaming somehow legitimises and excuses the truck driver. If the very same truck driver fell asleep and drifted into my path as I was driving my wife and kids on the same stretch of road what would be the reaction?

The bunch rides west away from Alice Springs on Larapinta Drive

I’ll get off my high horse but hopefully it is food for thought. Thanks for the messages of support – I’m happy to be alive, riding, running, and Bugling.

Feb 17, 2016

Dark and Hazy Days In Hospital

Continued from A Typical Alice Springs Morning Ride

It took about 15min before the reassuring sight of red and blue flashing lights appeared at the top of the overpass. My ability to endure pain was sorely tested when I realised it was the police. By this stage the pain in my hip was made worse by violent shivering from the cold and shock. The police were surprised to find only two cyclists. When Rod was requesting an ambulance, the 000 operator didn’t ask if the driver had stopped. Understandably, the police assumed the driver would be at the accident. The police most likely went past the truck as they were driving north and the truck was heading south on the same highway.

A diagram drawn in hospital explaining how to get hit by a truck

Another 5min elapsed before the ambulance finally arrived. By this point my reserves of pain tolerance and patience were nearing their end. I wanted to be warm and I wanted the ache in my hip gone. Neither happened quickly. The paramedics were more concerned with other injuries. I was sitting and they began asking questions to ascertain if I had a spinal injury. It didn’t help when I said I had numb hands and feet. I stood up to demonstrate I was OK. There was a pool of blood where I had been sitting. I had been trying to reassure people I was fine. That blood undermined my argument. I had been also trying to say I was lucid. My inability to recognise I was bleeding didn’t help this argument either.

Two fire trucks arrived on the scene and I was starting to get upset. I was shivering violently. I badly wanted to be in the ambulance with a blanket and some pain relief. I had created a minor traffic jam as the population of the vicinity swelled. One of the policemen began directing traffic. Mrs Bugler arrived shortly after I was loaded into the ambulance. We had a quick discussion with those around me. The blood pooling on the sheets of the stretcher was not reassuring to Mrs Bugler.

By the time we left the scene it was well after 7am. The police went to our house with my bike and other belongings. The fire engines had realised they weren’t much use and headed back to the station. Mrs Bugler set off for the hospital. The ambulance staff struggled to get an IV into my violently shaking limbs. They had also cut away some lycra and subsequently struggled to slow the flow of blood. Evidently lycra has excellent properties for slowing bleeding. Eventually we got on our way with me bleeding and in pain. I can only imagine how Rod must have felt as I was carted away with my entourage of emergency services. The ride back on the highway must have been a touch lonely and frightening.

Tegaderm holding my leg together and blood in


From the very first moment, I didn’t grasp the danger I was in. I was the only one. When I got to Alice Springs Hospital Emergency, I was only worried about getting more blankets so I could warm up. For 3 hours a single nurse put pressure on my wound to stem the flow. Each time she took her hand away, there was someone who would say something such as “oh no, it’s still going”. A variety of doctors – residents, registrars, consultants, surgeons, orthopaedic, emergency – asked me questions I felt were irrelevant. It was gradually made clear that the pain in my hip could likely be distracting from something much more sinister. Internal abdominal bleeding, a head injury or a spinal injury were very real possibilities.

I had been in hospital for around 4 hours before I felt something approximating comfortable. My limbs had gradually thawed thanks to heated blankets and the copious amounts of morphine turned the pain to a dull stiffness. The emergency consultant had given me an ultrasound to ascertain if I had internal bleeding. She also gave me an examination to discover the possibility of a spinal injury. Both gave her confidence. Nevertheless, successive general and orthopaedic surgeons requested x-rays. I was wheeled out of the resuscitation area of emergency by a clerk who called himself the “Cheeky Kiwi”.

An photocopy of my x-ray with gauze in situ

My x-rays delivered a classic scenario of good and bad news. First the bad. The truck had smashed the top corner of my femur, a part called the greater trochanter. This had likely torn a number of muscle attachments off too. The fragments of my femur were floating throughout my general hip area and there was concern some of these fragments may have been gravel from the road. The open wound and shattered bone made concerns for infection with long-term consequences very real. And the good? Despite some initial concerns about a hairline fracture of my pelvis, I was given the all-clear for other injuries. No fractured skull. No spinal injury. A lucky Bugler.

Upon my return to ED, I was admitted under General Surgery but my surgery was to be done by the orthopaedic team. I was booked in for exploratory surgery that afternoon. This was to clean out the wound and to discover the extent of the damage.

A drawing of the anchors re-attaching my gluteals

The six days I spent in hospital following my initial surgery tend to blur together. A combination of drugs no doubt contributed to this. The effects of the surgery also made me feel much worse than the initial accident. A few key moments stand out.

Mini-Bugler fell sick adding to the extraordinary stress on a pregnant Mrs Bugler and each time they visited I felt a flood of emotions, love and guilt primary among them. I was greatly relieved that Mum and Dad decided to drop everything and fly up.

I was scheduled in for further surgery two days following the accident. My surgical team explained that this was to repair the damage to my greater trochanter, and to re-affix and repair my gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. The day of fasting waiting for the surgery was extraordinary. I kept getting bumped to later and later in the day. By 9pm my patience was wearing thin and I was hungry. After I was wheeled into the surgical suite, I spoke to my surgeon and questioned his ability to perform the surgery expertly at the end of a 15 hour day. Apparently his team was chuckling as they overheard the exchange in an adjoining room.

An exchange with a surgical nurse was particularly memorable. She recalled me from my surgery two days prior. She said something along the lines of “I remember you, I could fit my fist through the hole in your bum” and proceeded to motion with her clenched fist. I asked how the damage to my femur was done. She explained using her fist that the blunt edge of the truck had punched through my sufficiently hefty bum cheek and slammed into my femur, shattering the corner of it. This rather vivid image made it quite clear that I was in a bit more trouble than I had initially thought.

Centralian Advocate understating my injuries

My surgery went as planned and over the next few days we discussed my health with a myriad of doctors and nurses. I was grateful to have a doctor as a wife to help interpret what was being discussed. Not for the first time I felt concerned for the many other patients without the resources available to me. A discussion of my blood was particularly enlightening. My initial blood test indicated a haemoglobin of 144g/L and an haematocrit of 0.43, both comfortably in the reference range despite an hour of bleeding. During my second surgery, these had dropped below 50g/L and 0.20 respectively, about a third. I was given two blood transfusions of packed red blood cells which restored my blood to 103g/L and 0.31 – still significantly below the reference range.

By this point, I absolutely understood that I was not in good shape and that the rehabilitation was going to take a long while.