Un­der a desert sky

Cre­ative camp­ing in the Finke Gorge Na­tional Park

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - BRIGID DE­LANEY

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

din­goes

howl­ing,’’

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

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