Birdsville AIM Hospital, now a museum. Photo: Birdsville or Bust
Before iPhones, the internet and 3G networks, the only way that Birdsville was connected to the outside world was via radio transmitter. Three times a day, for half an hour, the Australian Inland Mission nursing sisters, who were then in charge of the AIM Hospital, were responsible for tuning in to the radio to pass messages in and out of Birdsville. These were called the ‘Galah Sessions’.
Birdsville’s first pedal wireless was installed in 1929. Rev. John Flynn of the Australian Inland Mission and Alf Traeger, the inventor of the radio, were responsible for the installation of hundreds transmitters throughout the outback. Flynn saw the huge need for medical services in remote areas and envisioned a ‘mantle of safety’ covering the outback.
Operation of the first pedal radio in Australia. Photo: Antique Radio Classified
For people living on the surrounding stations, this was the only way to contact Birdsville for medical assistance, even in an emergency. Also, for the station wives, it was a welcome chat with other women as they caught up on news, shared recipes, transmitted telegrams and arranged ventures to town.
In the case of medical emergency, the nursing sisters had to use the radio transmitter to contact an RFDS base. If the closest available doctor was further away than the radio signal could reach, their messages had to be relayed by listeners in towns or stations along the way.
It wasn’t until 1976 that a satellite telephone line reached Birdsville. But, the Galah Sessions continued until all of the surrounding stations had installed telephones. However, these phones were only operational when the Post Office, where the operator worked from, was open. In the late 1980s, the phones were converted to the type that we now have.
Telstra connects Next G network. Photo: Telstra
Mobile reception was also incredibly late to reach Birdsville. Optus serviced the town during the 2008 Birdsville Races and installed a permanent tower in 2009, but without 3G service. Telstra followed, building a permanent tower in 2010 with Next G data reception.
The Galah Sessions no longer exist. But, they’re fondly remembered by Birdsville and station residents and remind us of the days when Birdsville was truly remote. Now, with mobile internet and text messaging, it’s easy to forget how far we are from any major city. The old Birdsville Hospital is now a museum with examples of the pedal radios that were used for the Galah Sessions.