Children gathered in Katherine this week from right across the outback to learn how to swim.
It is an annual pilgrimage for students for the Katherine School of the Air.
Often surrounded by only croc-infested rivers with a small water tank the only safe pool of any sort, the students and their parents travel thousands of kilometres to gather at Katherine’s pool.
Incoming school captain Shae Ford is among many who have travelled a long way to join in the annual pre-Christmas Swimming Carnival.
The added bonus is the week-long carnival is one of only a few chances during the year she sees her school mates face to face.
And for the 14-year-old who lives on a remote cattle station called Fossil Downs, located near Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, the carnival is the only time of year she gets to test out her strokes and compete with young people other than her sisters.
“We have a tank at the top of our hill and a river filled with freshies, so I do get the odd chance to swim during the year,” Ms Ford said.
“But it is hard because the tank is only seven metres long, you do a tumble turn and you are already on the other side.
“I make an effort to practice and compete against my younger sisters because this week is something we all look forward to, so we can show off our skills,” she said.
The large family property is an island surrounded by rivers during the wet season, and there is no getting in or out.
While this is a quieter time of year where the family might not see outsiders for months, the rise in water brings a welcome opportunity for swimming practice.
“In the wet season we are completely blocked off, dad is a chopper pilot so he flies our food in, we also have a vegetable garden for when we get a bit stuck.
“We always get a bit more swimming practice in when the river is up.
“And when we get workers in March we have to swim kayaks across the river because the load might be too heavy. That kind of practice definitely helps when we come to the carnival,” Ms Ford said.
Katherine School of the Air principal, Sharni Wilson, said the swimming carnival is the most exciting time of year for the distance education students.
“The week brings our community together and reinforces a sense of belonging,” she said.
“We have two teams – the Cyclones and the Bushfires – and a healthy amount of competition.”
The Bushfires is the team to beat, having taken out the title three years in the running.
This year, 85 students out of 170 journeyed to Katherine for the week-long carnival which involves swimming lessons, a concert and a Christmas dinner.
“Some of these kids might have a backyard water hole, but in terms of swimming lessons it is year to year,” Ms Wilson said.
“We have one young fellow from a remote community who has not swum at all since the last carnival. He has no pool, only natural water and it is filled with crocs,” she said.
For many of the families, one week away from home and work is a big commitment.
Some families don’t make it to Katherine due to road closures, while others watch the weather closely and are ready to leave at any minute.
But the high energy seen from the students as they prepare for the Christmas concert and test out new skills in the pool is worth it for most of the families, Ms Wilson said.
“It is a big effort for us to get here each year,” Ms Ford said.
“Dad has to stay back on the station and mum always has heaps of admin work to get done when we get home.
“It is a long way to get to Katherine and an expensive week out.”
“But as a remote student you sacrifice seeing friends on a regular basis, although we catch up on Skype.
“The swimming carnival is such a good chance to come and see friends and mingle, because you really don’t get that chance living on a station,” she said.
The annual get together provides an opportunity for some of the older students to complete their Bronze Medallion.
Students who have left Katherine School of the Air regularly participate in the annual swimming carnival to help out and also update their Bronze Medallion.
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