“It all started out of a desire, or a personal yearning to ride around Australia on my bike,” recalls midwife Marg Phelan. “I’m an absolutely passionate bike rider, I’ve always loved it, and I’ve always had this idea that it would be wonderful just to set off – just me and the bike and some panniers.”
As if the idea of travelling around Australia aged sixty-something on a bicycle named Cecil wasn’t ambitious enough, what started as a personal enthusiasm quickly evolved into a much more far-reaching project.
“I started planning the trip in 2008. Being a midwife, when I told my colleagues about my idea they said, ‘Why don’t you cycle for women’s right to choose how they give birth?’.” So that’s how the idea of ‘Go Girl Australia’ came about.”
A not-for-profit venture that promotes continuity of care from a known midwife, normal birth and breastfeeding to women, the Go Girl Australia project kicked off in Darwin in April 2010, with Marg following an anti-clockwise route around the country. After an extended break in 2011 for family reasons, the intrepid cyclist is set to reach Buderim on the Sunshine Coast by the end of April, before completing the last leg of her voyage along the top of Australia.
Cycling 100 to 130 kilometres a day, accompanied by ‘Muriel’ the support van, Marg says aches and pains are few and far between - “I’m pretty fit” - and that the journey, despite its sometimes gruelling nature, has been deeply satisfying.
“I just love cycling. It’s great to be on the road, watching the changes in the scenery and landscape.”
More meaningful still have been her meetings with a wide range of communities along the way, in which she has shared her passion for midwifery and the rights of women.
“We believe women are entitled to make informed choices about how they give birth, and that far too many women are not well informed about their options in pregnancy and childbirth.”
“I’ve met all kinds of people and talked to them; it’s been really rewarding.”
“I’ve spoken to school children about midwifery. So many young women don’t know what to do when they give birth. It’s good to talk to them when they’re young. I also spoke to midwifery students at Southern Cross University in Tweed Heads, and it was great to see how excited they were about their chosen field.”
A key achievement has been Marg’s fundraising for the Rodanthe Lipsett Trust. Run under the auspices of The Australian College of Midwives, the trust is a scholarship fund to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women study to become midwives.
“It’s a great initiative that supports these women in education and then allows them to go back on country to care for other women in their own communities, which has been shown to dramatically improve the health of those women.”
As well as connecting with the public and fundraising, Marg says her trip has a broader political agenda to promote midwifery as a profession, particularly in light of the current thorny issue: self-employed midwives' loss of professional indemnity insurance cover for home births.
“I’m not sure what impact my journey has had on that particular issue, but I’m sure it’s helped. Achieving better rights for midwives and therefore also for women is going to be a long and difficult battle and it’s certainly not over.”
If the literal distances Marg has covered are daunting, it seems the metaphorical distances to achieve her campaign’s broader objectives are also formidable, but at least the trouble free
nature of the voyage seems to bode well.
“I haven’t had a single flat tyre. I did invest in some pretty good ones that, I was told, could stand up to pretty much anything. I changed them after 11,000 kilometres but they were still in fairly good nick. I’m pretty sure the new ones will see me through.”
Her abiding enthusiasm for her vocation, summed up by a statement on the Go Girl Australia website (gogirlaustralia.net.au), clearly also keeps her going.
"It is the mothers and babies who are the most important people - the basis of our whole society ... To be able to support women through pregnancy, labour and birth, ensuring they feel safe and are among people they trust, is a huge privilege."