A Life’s Mission – From Ceduna To Nepal

Brian Richards, what an incredible man. One of the first Australian men to enter Nepal in 1959. One of the most interesting men that I have ever met. A pharmacist in his youth, who spent 15 years working for a Christian missionary in India, Nepal and Bangladesh whilst simultaneously raising his three children with his wife, Patricia, in the aforementioned countries. 

When I was introduced to Brian, he was delighted to make my acquaintance and all too delighted to tell me about his life’s work. 

“Make yourself comfy, we could be here all afternoon”

“Nepal only opened up in about 1954, and we (our missionary) were one of the first westerner groups to enter about five years after that. I was the first pharmacist in the Christian Mission Hospital in Kathmandu and the only pharmacist in the country.”

“I did my pharmacy training first and then I went to bible college for three years.”

“After my three years I was hoping to travel to India, as a pharmacist, but they said that the Mission Hospital had a perfectly good Indian pharmacist, which I was happy about anyway, but they didn’t need me anymore.”

“So, my first job after bible college, was actually out in Ceduna, working for the Bush Church Aid Society, who were an Anglican church mission from Sydney, and they had a Flying Medical Service.”

This Flying Medical Service that Brian mentions played an integral part of forming Australia’s famed Royal Flying Doctor’s that service the Australian outback. The Bush Church Aid Flying Medical service utilised six rural hospitals, including Murat Bay (Ceduna), two aerial ambulances, a radio base for an extensive outback network, a pharmacy (enter Brian), a dental clinic and a radio school for children in isolated rural areas. 

“It was hard to get people to work out there, however, The Murat Bay District Hospital was built out there (in Ceduna), and the nurses ran that, and I ran the pharmacy for about three years.”

His wife, Patricia, unbeknownst to Brian at the time was a nurse, who had finished her bible study and was setting off to relieve nurses for holidays across the West Eyre Peninsula, in towns like Tarcoola, Cook and Ceduna. 

The nurse and the pharmacist were united in Ceduna, fell in love and married in December of 1958. It was together, that they embarked on the life defining mission to India and Nepal in 1959. 

Travelling by a rusty post war troop carrier ship in the second to bottom deck, the young couple ventured from Australia to Singapore, from Singapore to Columbo (Sri Lanka), up to the formerly called Bombay (now Mumbai), to get off then continue the journey via train.

From Bombay to Delhi.

“That was a scary trip, we were so young and naïve, we were told ‘whatever you do, don’t open the door on your carriage’, the Indians travel on the roof and hang off of the sides of the train, and if they can put their hand in they will grab your bag or whatever belongings you have.”

“So, we shut and locked the door and didn’t open it for anyone, and I mean not anyone… so we missed our lunch and dinner service, we were starving!” 

Firstly, living on the eastern side of Nepal in India, the Nepali speaking town of Karlimpong, Brian and Patricia learnt the language and were allowed to travel into Nepal when performing medical work. During that year they conceived and gave birth to their first child, their daughter Heather, in 1960. 

I will hesitate in this story from divulging the extensive and complex history of the control and politics of Nepal, in which Brian is highly educated and knowledgeable. We spoke on this day for near three hours, in which he taught me geography, history, language and religion. Although I feel that his knowledge in this rich history is worthy of another story, I do not want to take the focus away from what I am here to tell, which is Brian’s life story.

However, to outline the significance of the presence of Brian, Patricia and the mission in Nepal, a small excerpt of history needs to be noted. 

In 1951, Nepal saw the end of Rana rule (The Rana Dynasty that ruled the kingdom of Nepal from 1846). The Rana Rule is considered one of the most extreme forms of authoritarianism.Once sovereignty of the Royal Crown was restored and the government is reformed by anti-Rana rebels, the ban of Christianity in Nepal was lifted, and foreign missionaries were permitted to enter, however, only to perform service work. But not permitted to practice conversion. 

So, after passing their Nepali language exam, and working in between India and Nepal, two months after the birth of their daughter. Brian and his family were permitted to enter Kathmandu, where they would spend the next four years full time working.

During the next four years amongst performing significant work, a lot of personal life milestones and events took place.

Brian’s wife gave birth to their second child, in 1962, in the hospital which they both lived, and she worked within. The hospital was a children’s and maternity precinct located in one of the Rana son’s palaces, Surendra Bhawan in Kathmandu. Brian practiced as a pharmacist in another palace Shanta Bhawan.

Brian tells me an unfortunate story of contracting Hepatitis, admittedly a common consequence of living and working in such countries.

“I think I actually contracted it from the hippies, of course drugs were available, legal and easy to get in Kathmandu. The hippies would come to the bazaar for drugs and lived around there, they were up to all sorts of things. Then they would come to the hospital to get treated, and I think that’s how I got it.”

“They were coming to the bazaar for morphine or whatever was available. There would be signs in the bazaar, translated to some American English to read something like ‘real good drugs can be gotten’ and ‘get hashish here’.” 

There was an upside to Brian falling ill however, he was granted the special privilege of flying home instead of jumping aboard that second to bottom rusted deck of an ex-military ship. Flying from Kathmandu to Calcutta (now Kolkata), on an old Dakota DC3 Royal Nepal Airliner. The three- or four-hour trip showcasing incredible views, right along the length of the country, passing Mt. Everest (which is truly called Sagarmatha by the Nepali or Chomolungma in Tibet). 

“The Dakota’s have only had a 10,000ft ceiling, so they’d have to fly through the valleys of the mountains which was exhilarating.”

“So, from Calcutta, I flew on the British Overseas Airways Corporation, which flew me into Singapore and believe it or not, Qantas had just started running the flight from Perth to Singapore, so I took a Qantas flight home.”

At this point in time Brian was travelling with his first-born daughter Heather, his youngest son Steven, who was just under two years old and his pregnant wife (soon to give birth to the third child, Paul in 1966).

“Our son (Steven) hadn’t even started to crawl or walk yet; he had been looked after by a Nepali lady who helped us around home. She used to carry him around everywhere.”

“We were so embarrassed, nearly two years old and he couldn’t even walk, but believe it or not, in the Perth airport waiting for our flight, he pulled himself up and started to walk, just.”

The mission requirements for Brian and his family were to return to Australia after 5 years, to then travel our nation, reporting on the missions work to gain donations and support for further participation in India and Nepal.

“In my job you don’t get any salary, you just get the gifts that people give, to keep you going.”

Heather and Steven, children numbers one and two began school in the second trip back to Kathmandu, after a British Primary School opened in Kathmandu. 

Prior to this Heather had been participating in Correspondence School in Adelaide, all the way from Nepal via radio school. 

Taking a breath at this point, Brian feels the need to apologise to me about “rambling on” and when I reassure him that I am listening, interested AND keeping up he is stunned.

“Oh, you’re bad for me you are, I could just keep waffling on, I am going to be exhausted after this…”

But onwards we plundered, I think I may have been more enthralled than he expected. 

We picked back up conversation talking about how Brian’s wife was a Methodist, he was a Christian and somehow it came to be that they met through the Anglican church. The demand for workers in the Anglican Bush Church Aid society was far too large to place concern on denominations. 

This brings us back to Ceduna, a little more detail of what those early years were like for Brian. 

“I didn’t even know where Ceduna was, I had to look it up.”

“We didn’t have (own) motorcars then or anything, I just had no idea.”

“Back then I had to take a ship Port Lincoln and then a train, which came right down on to the wharf.”

“The train takes a long time to get from Port Lincoln to Thevenard (the closest station for Ceduna), you didn’t get in until about nine o’clock at night and it was dark.”

“They (people from the mission) don’t leave to come pick you up until they hear the train blow the whistle.”

“Now I was expecting the train to take me all the way to the end of the line to the township of Ceduna, so when the train pulls up between Thevenard and Ceduna and they tell me I’ve now arrived, I’m looking around in the dark to no streetlights, just a little half tin shed as the station.”

“I didn’t have a clue what was going on, no one came to meet me for fifteen minutes, I just remember thinking, where am I and what have I done!”

“It was a beautiful place though, however very primitive, no roads, only dirt.”

“I was an umpire for the Ceduna football league, they had four teams, two aboriginal teams and two ordinary teams.”

There were other mission hospitals on the peninsula at the time, but not many with pharmacists. Brian would take trips to different towns and dispense medicine for them.

“We thought nothing of travelling 150 miles and spending a day dispensing medicine for them.” 

“Were a long way from Kathmandu now, I’ve gone backwards here!”

So, we move back in to talking about Nepal with Brian educating me on correct names and pronunciation of Nepali and Indian words and places. By this time, I have given up on writing notes and Brian is now using my notebook to write words in Nepali for me!

“It’s a phonetic language, which is wonderful, once you have learnt the written word, you can pronounce every word even if you don’t know what it means – very different to the English language.”

Brian speaks many languages, ranging from English, Latin, French, Nepali and he even learnt Newari in order to give out medicine.

“There was one whole group of Japu’s, who were women, low caste farmers (living in Kathmandu valleys), that didn’t understand Nepali.”

“I had to learn basic instructions like morning, afternoon and night, take one tablet.”

“In Newari there is two different ways of counting too, just to make it even more fascinating.”

A very hard challenge for Brian was realising all of his pharmacy experience was useless in Nepal. This was a place with no running water and barely any electricity. 

“There’s no sanitation, no water. We managed to get some form of drop toilets and some basic hygiene over the years, but a lot of the meds were useless.”

“They (the sick) would come to us full of worms, you would give them a dose of medicine outside the pharmacy window and then they would go home and just get infected again.”

The well-known Dr. Bethel had a vision for running health education clinics. 

“My wife was involved in a lot of that, she would go out with Dr. Bethel sometimes teaching the people about washing hands and things like that, boiling water to use for sanitation.”

“It makes you realise how fortunate we are, we take it for granted that if we want clean water all we have to do is turn on a tap.”

As we reflect on some of these stories Brian rummages through his draws to see if he has any photos or information that he can show me, he finds his monthly newsletters from the UMN (United Mission to Nepal) which he gracefully allows me to take with me. 

Before parting ways, Brian tells me one more story that comes to mind, and this is one of mateship and Aussie spirit. 

At one point in Brian’s career he was required to fly over to Bangladesh (from Nepal) to help the American Public Aid. This occurred after the Partition of India. American aid was building a hospital and during this time Bryan met a group of Aussies.

Now if this isn’t one of the most Australian things…these guys happened to be from Adelaide, from the Repat! 

They were there to help with prosthetic limbs, design, application and education. 

The Australian government were paying these guys to stay there for six weeks or so and they were accommodated in what you would call a first-class hotel. 

A stark contrast to the accommodation Brian was in and had been used to.

The heat in Bangladesh was sweltering, and every night these Aussie blokes would invite Brian over, so that he could swim and cool off in their pool – a luxurious and welcome relief.

I look forward to Brian locating the photos of these guys and himself, at the pool and another photo he says standing in front of a huge line up of prosthetic limbs. 

“You’ve learnt a lot of things that nobody knows about, except you and me.”

There are some things that I have kept out of this story that Brian directly asked me to exclude, and some things I have kept out that I think I would like to hold private. Having these chats with residents isn’t always about finding a good story to write, sometimes it’s just about being a good friend.

And a good friend, Brian is. 

Travel Envy

Sitting down to chat with avid traveller, 90-year-old Margaret Smith, I was exposed to far more travel envy than I had bargained for. 

From travelling to Asian countries like China, Vietnam and Japan, to hot European summers gallivanting around Paris and cooling off in countries like England, Ireland and exploring the deep lochs and highlands of Scotland.  

After setting aside my jealousy, I was taken away by story, to some of Margaret’s travel highlights. 

“Travelling is very exhilarating.” 

But of course, to begin travelling, especially when we are in our twenties, we all have to take part in some form of daily grind, to afford the luxury of international travel.

“I had to take time off work when I went travelling, of course, I worked at the time.

I don’t suppose I could have travelled if I hadn’t worked”

“My husband worked for one of the executive trustee companies and I did a lot of casual work, and then I ended up in quantity surveying.”

For those who don’t know, a quantity surveyor is a professional in the construction industry with expert knowledge on costs and contracts of large-scale construction – not a bad gig for saving travel money!

“There are only about four quantity surveyors in Adelaide at the time, so I got a lot of work. It was such an interesting job, I really liked it, we worked on a lot of the big buildings in Adelaide. And then I went and got myself pregnant!

The sharp humorous look flashes across Margaret’s eyes and she begins to say through laughter:

“No, I didn’t get myself pregnant, my husband did that! And I was forty, I thought: Oh God!”

Margaret tells the story of how motherhood in her forties came to be, setting the tone with me that the funny bone in her is well exercised.

“I had four children at the time, but Andrew was the baby, he was the mistake at the end” 

She tells me with a wicked laugh but a glimmer of fondness in her eye. 

“I remember going to the doctor because I felt ill, and I said I’m really not feeling at all well.”

“He looked at me and he said ‘I think you’re pregnant’.”

“OH NO, c’mon, I don’t think I’m pregnant, I can’t be.”

“but anyway, I was…and I was forty.”

By this point in Margaret’s life she had already accomplished many countries, but a good job, a newborn baby and getting older wasn’t going to slow her down. 

“When my youngest didn’t come travelling with us, my parents would look after him, they were all too happy to, they made a great fuss of him as it was anyway.”

In whimsical spurts Margaret flashes back to sporadic memories of her favourite places.

Amongst conversation and with no regard for my line of questioning, I got to take down anecdotes like this:

“Japan was so prim and proper, and I didn’t enjoy it as much…China, I liked China, it was chaotic.”

And so that’s how the re-tell of this story goes. 

By far, Europe is Margaret’s favourite topic of conversation.

“My husband travelled with me a lot, that was a great time then, when he was still alive.”

“We used to get a train pass in Europe, and you could just go anywhere.”

Trying to narrow down some travel recommendations, I asked, what was your favourite place to go by train?

“Paris.”

“Oh yes, Paris is just magic!”


“One of those greatly magical things that happened to me, as I’m walking along the street in Paris and some Englishman comes up to me and asked me for directions… he thought I was Parisian.” 

Margaret has such a wicked look in her eye and a cheeky cackle, I’m sure some people can relate, we’ve all had a moment like that. 

For me it was riding the subway in New York and an American woman from Pennsylvania asked me which train to ride to get downtown, I considered answering her for a split second as if I was a New Yorker, but luckily for that woman I laughed and told her I had no idea. 

“My daughter and I had taken French classes at one point so we could speak to the locals, but we were so daft, we weren’t very good.”

“I love the French language, it’s a musical language”

“Of course, I travelled to many other beautiful places on Europe, Italy was very fascinating, Italians were just so way over the top, but I just adored Paris.” 

“I did all the monuments and places of interest, but I just loved the underground.”

Which begs me to ask:

“You must have been quite brave to travel on the underground by yourself and not speak the language?”

“Well my husband was alive then, so he was with me”

“So did your husband speak some French then?” I ask.

“Oh no no, he couldn’t even speak English half the time!”

And right on cue that wicked laugh erupts from Margaret again. 

“We got on alright though, we never took a tour or had a guide, we just did it by ourselves, by train, and that’s the best way to do it.”

“The trains in Europe are wonderful, they’re very efficient and very comfortable, you’ll have meals, and everything catered to you on there.”

I feel it’s important to mention at this point that Margaret never travelled on anything below first class, no matter if it was plane or train.

“I always saved up for first class… I’m a first-class traveller.”

“I am a great train traveller, I love trains, I’ve been right around Australia by train”

“You meet people, who are interested in the same sorts of things as you, you can have meals catered, and sleep aboard… its very comfortable.”

“I mean there’s nothing quite like waking up and looking out your window to a railway station!” 

With a nose snort and cackle, I think Margaret was exercising that funny bone again. 

Trying to stay on track figuratively and literally, we circle back to the earlier mentioned, over the top but fascinating, Italy.

“Rome really is a wonderful city; the Vatican is beautiful. It is busy and lively and very historic.”

“I like Italy generally, it’s very attractive. When my husband and I visited, I was so thankful that we hadn’t tied ourselves up in a guided tour, where you didn’t have to be adventurous for yourself. We just did it together”

“And of course, when we first went to Europe, Europe was divided.”

“Eastern Europe was communists, communists had control of eastern Europe, and I remember someone saying to me: “don’t smile when you go over the border!”

And through that cracking laugh Margaret adds: 

“Don’t look too pleased about anything”

Margaret experienced many places of political turmoil, Manila in the Philippines and even Russia. There are no limits to this lady’s curiosity and adventure. 

Some of the cooler political and meteorological climates visited were fondly remembered too.

“Scotland just blew me away; I just haven’t been to a place that beautiful.”

“You think England is a beautiful place…until you get to Scotland, but I wouldn’t tell that to any Englishmen.”

“The Scottish people are so nice too, if you can understand what they are saying.”

As I proceed to tell Margaret that my family is Scottish and I go into the trials and tribulations of understanding various family members, Margaret remembers and proceeds to interrupt me with her epiphany.

“Did I tell you I flew on the Concord?”

“What was that like?” I ask.

“Well, you got on it, and then, you were there.”

“The whole time I was thinking I’m on the Concord, I really can’t believe it!”

I wish I could translate this wicked laugh that keeps erupting from Margaret, just so you could share in the absolute belly laugh that it gives me at the end of each of her jokes. 

So of course, this leads us to talk about her time(s) in America. Margaret visited the US many times, four states at a time.

“You know, I figured, I’m not going to do one of these trips that just takes you right across the USA, this is a country I want to see properly, so I did four states at a time.”

However, we only touched on one of her visits to America, before again circling back to Margaret’s love affair with Paris. 

From the bright lights and stars of Hollywood in LA, to Vegas which Margaret didn’t like so much.

“I’m not a gambler, I didn’t like Las Vegas much, and I had to try to keep my husband away.”

Then onwards to Arizona to marvel at the Grand Canyon.

“We walked through a part of the Grand Canyon; it’s mind boggling isn’t it?” 

“America is a fascinating place, but I loved the South, New Orleans would have to be my favourite.” 

“Of course, Europe is my favourite though, because of the vast differences in language and culture, it is just magic.”

So, Margaret finished our chat, in time for her lunch, with some advice for us “young ones.”

“I didn’t start travelling until my late twenties, you have a lot of time ahead of you to travel, and you should.”

“Do as much as you can and see as much as you can, because travel just broadens your horizons.”

If there was to a be a bucket list based off of Margaret’s recommendations it would be this:

  1. Paris (duh!) but don’t do it on a tour, be adventurous for yourself and get to see it as if you were Parisian.
  2. Scotland – the most beautiful place Margaret has ever seen.
  3. Italy, same as Paris – don’t experience it through a tour. The Italians have a wicked sense of humour (which must be why Margaret got on so well there) and there is always someone that can speak some English to help you out. 
  4. London – but not just London, try get to the midlands of England, its beautiful.
  5. And of course, do it all by train!!!

So, here’s me:

So here’s me: With a short-lived background in nursing and the world of health care it’s no wonder that I find my writing inspiration from behind the closed but not locked doors of aged care. Write what you know, right? You are probably thinking 

“what does she mean short-lived background in nursing?”

…like why was it short lived and why on god’s green earth is she now writing a blog!? Well, let me clarify, in 2015 I was searching for a purpose and my wise and knowing late grandmothers undervalued words kept reiterating in my head

 “you’d make a great nurse one day.”

And that sentence combined with a passionate desire to do something purposeful and rewarding, drove me to study Enrolled Nursing. Within twenty-four months I had completed four placements (internships for you American yanks) in the health care industry and two of which were performed in the wonderful world of residential aged care. 

I came out the other-side of those twenty-four months with a diploma, the doom and gloom fear all students experience in the face of finding a job and somehow the unwavering feeling that I was not meant to be doing this, like I was a fraud.

I had spent the duration of my diploma feeling like I was swimming out of my depth, like I just couldn’t get it. But there was one thing I did get. People. And they got me. Some of my greatest experiences were the relationships I was privileged to make with residents. There was no way I could be a nurse, my time management was shocking!

“Elise, dear, would you like to share some Tim Tams and listen to my rock music?” 
Um, you betcha Jo!

And so my itch for my life purpose and fulfilment had not been scratched, and some part of me knew that I needed to pursue my interest in writing…
In fact, a resident I spent time with gave me more inspiration than she knows, her name was Joan.

Joan sat with me on her bed and shared a bottle of “bubbly water” which we pretended was the good stuff (champagne!) and told me her life story hours after my shift had finished. I told her:

“Joan you could write a book about your life, it is just so fascinating”

and although she hadn’t thought it to be anything other than just her childhood memories, she boastfully told her son upon his visit, 

“this is Elise, she is going to write my memoirs”.

So here I am, enrolled in a Bachelor of Journalism and Professional Writing, in a course which calls for me to write a blog. Great! Fantastic! I’m excited!
On our very first day we sit in a class room of 25 or so and painfully go around the class to announce our ideas for our blog. On our very first day.

Some poor peers are coming up with duck eggs, using the broadest terms like “football” or “lifestyle” and then here I go with this outlandish, completely unplanned, spur of the moment idea that I would like to write a blog about the stories of our older generations. My tutor loves it. She has plans for it. I am now locked in and beginning my journey of volunteering my abundance of time (Sike! I am a full time student and part time employee) in the wonderful world of residential aged care, where I hope the incredible people will open their hearts and share their lives with me.

Because I love to hear it, they deserve to tell it and we are all privileged to learn and share in these lives well lived.