Towards the end of 2014, my wife Penny and I decided to spend a few years working our way around remote areas of Australia. My background is in retail sales and management and Penny’s is in teaching, as well as having great computer skills and a wonderful touch with food. So, we decided that the path for us was managing remote area community stores and roadhouses.
After a tip from a friend, we applied to the Mai Wiru Regional Stores Aboriginal Corporation and were accepted for training as joint managers. In January 2015, our outback retail adventure began in a place called Ernabella (now known as Pukatja), a small remote community in South Australia on the border with the Northern Territory.
This store, like most others, is owned by the local aboriginal community, but is managed by Mai Wiru. Stores are the hub of any remote community being a cross between a supermarket, a convenience store and a gathering point.
It was small, but had a large section for takeaway. The standard grocery lines suited the diets of the community, with fresh produce, meat and dairy in dedicated sections. Our supplies were delivered by a weekly truck. The shop was showing its age with old shelving and a mixed flooring of tiles and bare concrete. The store also carried a small range of general merchandise included clothing, car accessories, white goods and furniture. All staff was brought in with only one or two local workers. We only stayed here for six weeks due to a mix up with our roles and soon headed off to Warburton on the Great Central Road in Western Australia.
The store in Warburton was the largest on the Ngaanyatjarra lands and was run by the Shire of Ngaanyatjarraku, encompassing 12 communities in all. The store carried a range of dry goods, dairy, frozen foods and fruit and vegetables and was re-supplied fortnightly by a truck traveling from Perth, 1,500km away. The Shire had its own warehouse in Perth where all goods were stored for pickup. The grocery lines were very basic and large quantities of a number of popular products were carried to cover the two weeks between deliveries.
It was the first time we saw pallets of kangaroo tails, which were a delicacy for the local community. The store even had a separate clothing section of generous size. Only non-indigenous workers were employed due to the lack of interest from the community members to work in the store. We had a total of eight workers in all, including the store manager. Our accommodation here was a two bedroom half duplex that was fully furnished. The patio area was caged in with large padlocks. We would have to cope with our roof being rocked on many occasions by people trying to break in, which they thankfully never succeeded in doing.
When a truck did arrive, all dry goods were dated for stock rotation. The shop hours were Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.00pm and on Saturday and Wednesday we closed at midday. Working at Warburton gave us a sense of what isolation is really like, being located in the middle of the Great Central Road. We all take for granted being able to go to any shop, hardware store or movie theatre. But living in the middle of the desert, you have to forgo these luxuries. We did explore a few places like Surveyor Generals Corner, where WA, SA and NT borders met and also spent a night at Mackenzie Gorge, on the Connie Sue Highway.
A tip: never camp in the middle of winter in the desert. It’s great sitting around a fire but once you walk two feet away from it the cold hits you. Sleeping in a camper trailer with every stitch of clothing on to keep warm and then having to get up in the middle of the night for a toilet call is not nice. I think I cried standing outside in the cold that night.
Staff was always on alert due to the amount of attempted theft happening in the store. A large number of security cameras were set up inside and outside the store. The community was mostly all indigenous apart from the staff required for the school, clinic, local store and other Government services. We learnt a lot here about indigenous culture from a number of the elders.
To break up the monotony of the store routine I would play jokes on some of the ladies. One day I decided to tell a lady we had second hand toilet paper going for 50 cents. She was interested in buying some so I went out to the warehouse and then came back and said we have sold out but we should have some more the next day. Well the next day she came back and asked me about the toilet paper. I told her it sells really quick and smiled at her. She then worked out I was only joking and we both had a good laugh.
We found the way to survive in remote areas, is to go for short drives, watch movies, build gardens, read books and so on. Social interaction helps a lot and having other workers over for dinner occasionally helped to stave off the loneliness.
After 11 months in the desert we headed to Mt Barnett Roadhouse in WA for a short stint as store workers before obtaining a job in Peppimenarti NT as store managers. This was the best community we had worked in. We arrived at the end of June 2016 and, after a week of training by the General Manager of Regional Merchandise Solutions who had the contract to manage the store; we were left on our own. Being our first store as real managers, we were as excited as we were nervous.
The store was only 12 months old when we arrived. It was built to cope with storing goods for up to five months due to being isolated in the wet season. Apart from the good sized warehouse, we had another large one at the rear of the shop as well as two 20 foot shipping containers for wet season frozen goods. The community was small, with around 150 people, who were very friendly. They were well educated, with parents sending their kids away to boarding schools interstate. We settled into a routine, ordering stock and unloading the weekly truck that would come from Darwin. We had three other local staff members who were good at their job even though they would always turn up late for work. The community respected their store and we never had any break-ins while we were there.
The shops hours were 9.00am to 5.00pm Monday to Friday, Sat 9.00am to 12.00pm while Thursday nights we would open until 8.00pm selling hot dinners that would vary each week. It was a real change from the desert, with rivers and creeks nearby to go Barra fishing. We were only there for three months before a special ceremony for young kids bought close to another 700 people into the community and camping next door to the store. We did get more workers in, back packers to cope with the influx of visitors. The ceremony went on for seven weeks and it was a real privilege to witness it. Once the ceremony was over, the park area next to the store was pretty messy but within a day the community got together and the place was left spotless.
The time had come to order our wet season stock through numerous suppliers and then implement the delivery times so that goods could be unloaded efficiently. Frozen goods as well as Coke and other dry goods were one week; then the following week more dry goods. Being friendly with everyone in the community it wasn’t hard to get some of the local guys to assist in unloading the truck for the day. We also had to build up our fuel levels as the store ran the local fuel outlet. We would increase our monthly fuel deliveries from August each year to make sure we had sufficient fuel coming into the wet season.
Our first wet season was an eye opener, massive storms, flooded creeks and the road into the community blocked. We settled into being isolated for the next four to five months. It was the third biggest wet on record for the Darwin area. Each week we charted a small plane to fly in fresh fruit and veg, dairy products and some meat. We had to be careful as the plane could only carry 600kg, so knowing what each product weighed was important. Each Thursday the plane would deliver the goods depending on the weather.
As the wet season continued, a baby fresh water crocodile ended up in the small local pool and was bought into the store for show and tell. Even though we were isolated we did not feel it, like we had in the desert. We had a good sized three bedroom house and would entertain most weekends with the other non local workers. We did not need a large fence with barbed wire around the house, which made living in the community more relaxing. Naturally, fishing took my mind off many things.
The store was the local hub of the community normally. But in the wet season everyone gathered there due to boredom. We started looking at our range of goods and had permission to always try different lines to give the community more choice. We had the freedom to run the store and carry new lines, create great meals from the takeaway as long as we always stayed within our spending budget, which we did, and always advising the store directors of whatever we were doing. We even bought in pallets of plants, which the local ladies loved, and they would always come into the store and request certain varieties for the next order. We rarely heard from our bosses.
Our second year rolled around and we could have an afternoon off each week due to the store running so smoothly. Naturally, I would spend that time fishing. The locals would always want to take us to places so they could show us some of the unique scenery in the area, like waterfalls, fishing on the floodplain and visiting outstations. I did develop a reputation for getting bogged every now and again… and again.
On a few occasions I would meet up with a few locals who were fishing and be asked to sit down and share a freshly cooked-on-the-coals barramundi with them. By now we knew everyone in the community by name and I would always play jokes on the ladies when they came into the shop. They enjoyed it. They would call me “old man” or “store manager”.
The community also had a small licensed club that opened four nights a week for a few hours. On occasions we would finish work at the store and assist behind the counter serving beers. Many a laugh was had at the end of the night when they were all drunk and coming up to us saying, “We love you”.
Our second wet season was not too bad and it only took us six days to do our wet season orders compared to four weeks the previous year. We had a great rapport with all of our suppliers and would always do deals that would benefit the community. All our suppliers would donate to a Christmas raffle, which we ran each year. Penny took the initiative and contacted a Government body to see if they could assist in flying our wet season goods in at a reduced price. The Remote Air Service Subsidy Scheme (RASS), subsidised flights for remote and isolated areas. Even though it was mostly used for mail, we were the first store to actually have food delivered on a regular basis over a wet season. This saved the community store more than $30,000.
Staff turnover was always an issue and in the two years we were at Peppimenarti we went through 35 staff for various reasons. They left the community, were only staying in the community for a few months or worked for a week and never came back. Our local cook stayed with us for the two years and, with a bit of guidance from Penny, his confidence grew in time and his meals were very popular.
Our time had come to move on as we did not want to outstay our welcome. Plus we were taking three months off to travel the Kimberley. So in April 2018, we said our goodbyes to everyone. Peppimenarti NT is a community that will always be special to us and we thoroughly enjoyed our time here.
To be continued…
This is the first in two-part series written by travelling remote store manager, Mark McGirr.