Under a desert sky
Creative camping in the Finke Gorge National Park
BEFORE setting out from Alice Springs, the prospect of going camping in the outback with a group of artists seems daunting. Would they display temperaments generously described as eccentric? Would they wear berets? Flounce? Drink absinthe? And would they laugh at my genuinely naive art?
Around the campfire on the first night, we introduce ourselves. I am vigilant for any signs of artistic hauteur or attitude, but find none.
Billie from Sydney paints abstract art, Isobel from Queensland uses mainly oil paints; both are retired. Frances is keen to get back to painting after a three-year break and the two others in our group agree that art is a long-held passion, but life gets in the way. The week is a chance for many of us to reconnect with it. Isobel, an energetic 83, puts it this way: ‘‘You can have a creative life or a boring life. I choose a creative life.’’
When she was a young mother in northern Melbourne, she painted in bush backblocks with artist friends. There is the spirit of those early bush endeavours at Larapinta Creative Camps: being outside and drawing, painting, taking pictures and, in my case, writing, and then gathering around a campfire for an evening meal.
The camps, run by artist Deb Clarke and her partner, Charlie Carter, provide an opportunity for artists of all levels and mediums to venture into some of central Australia’s most inaccessible and wild places, take inspiration from the landscape and spend the week together, making art.
With a trailer full of art supplies, we leave Alice Springs and travel about 150km southwest to the Finke Gorge National Park. The last 20km is ostensibly along a road but is more like a washed-out riverbed. The scenery appears to swell around us. There are huge lumps of rock, molten red under clarifying midday light, green scrub, twisted ghost gums and a sky that is impossible to take in with one glance.
It is Albert Namatjira country and it feels like we are driving right into one of his paintings.
Weset up that week in a private camping spot in the national park, surrounded by red rock that seems to encase us, with a nearby river shaded by ghost gums and palm trees. There are two flush toilets and we drive to a nearby camping ground for showers, although there are several chilly waterholes nearby that provide a more picturesque place to wash.
Our guides, Territorians Deb and Charlie, provide all the equipment, including tents and very comfortable swags.
My experience of camping is limited but on that first night I have the romantic notion that it would be a fine thing to have nothing but my swag between me and the night sky.
But during the first delicious meal of chicken tagine around the fire, a lean yellow dog comes very close and eyeballs us.
‘‘Dingo!’’ we all yelp. I anxiously revise my sleeping arrangements. I stay in the tent, plastic between me and it, but sleep fitfully. Are those bright yellow glints the eyes of a dingo or stars? Then, to my horror, I see the shadows of mice sliding down the walls of the tent like abseiling paratroopers.
At dawn each day Charlie chants lines from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in a wonderful booming voice honed after a dozen years taking groups on the Larapinta Trail and we gather for breakfast, including brewed coffee, sharing our stories of the night before.
‘‘I heard I announce.
‘ ‘ Some mice ran swag,’’ says Frances.
One of the artist’s wash bags is missing. Has she left it in Sydney? We later find it farther up the hill; the dingo has dumped it in the long grass.
With no electricity (although there is some solar power), most of us go bed about 8pm. The nights are long and consist of many acts: the hours when the wind shakes the tent, the progress of the moon (it is so bright that one artist sleeps with her sunglasses on), the howl of the dingoes, the light rain and the constancy of the mice plague.
After breakfast, it’s down to work. We usually map out a rough
across my itinerary the night before, but nothing is compulsory. Those who want to stay at the camp and work on their art can do so, while there are excursions to the magical Palm Valley, guided nature walks with arid-plant expert Charlie, swims, and art masterclasses with Deb on a medium that might be new or unfamiliar, such as working with inks and oils.
Encouraged by Deb, I paint an extravagantly coloured depiction of our camp to use as the cover of a concertina book for paintings and sketches.
In my painting the rocks are rendered in large, bold, purple strokes. Isobel calls them the purple people, while anyone who spent their childhood at McDonald’s could not fail to see them as the luridly coloured character of Grimace.
But when it comes time to cut it up and use squares of it as the concertina cover, I cannot do it — I have quite fallen in love with my creation.
The artists take their books down to sketch Palm Valley and the water and rocks at Cycad Gorge. Frances declares Palm Valley the closest thing to heaven on earth, but my heart belongs to The Amphitheatre nearby.
The epic red rock formation looks more Aztec than Australian. I am lucky enough to see three sunsets while perched on a high rock, and understand the need to paint and draw, to capture something of the natural beauty, the earthly heaven around us.
The creative side of the camp is inseparable from this beauty. The artists come back with dried sticks or sand that are then incorporated in paintings, while others drift off to a particularly fetching riverbed with their easels; even depictions of mice find their way into the work. It’s different for me as I am writing and therefore spend a lot of time avoiding that glorious and golden winter light, as it creates a glare on my laptop screen.
Yet I have the most productive week of my writing life — and I have done a painting.
It helps that I don’t have to cook and there are few distractions. Away from technology I find an intense focus that is usually missing. I sit and write among the women painting, doing work that never really feels like work.
On the last day of camp we have a pop-up gallery for our creations. It is remarkable how differently each person has interpreted the landscape. I read from a section of my writing and proudly pose for photos with my painting.
The others note my mouse phobia diminishing. ‘ ‘ You no longer scream as much,’’ one says. I marvel at these women, some generations older, who are so cool and capable. Where are the histrionics? The fragile artistic temperament? It dawns on me that I am the neurotic in the group, the high-maintenance person always scowling at her screen, working in a nasty patch of shade, afraid of mice, and absurdly injuring myself on the second last night by falling from the world’s smallest log and spraining my ankle.
Isobel acts as a human crutch that I sort lean on to hobble around; Charlie straps my ankle; Deb swaddles me in a blanket; I am given wine.
I could get used to this: not just the attention but the big sky, dramatic nights, excellent food, the work we are creating and, yes, even the mice. Brigid Delaney travelled with assistance from Larapinta Creative Camps.
The camps offer artists of all levels an opportunity to spend a week making art in remote central Australia