Dif­fer­ent folks rub along in the red cen­tre

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - HE­LEN McKEN­ZIE

As my old friend Jean­nie pulls up in a mas­sive 4WD at Alice Springs air­port, it strikes me that 15 years have passed since she traded the sand and surf of Syd­ney’s Bondi for a very dif­fer­ent (if still sandy) life in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory. The Jean­nie of to­day is a me­di­a­tor and a dealer of in­dige­nous art who, with part­ner Tom, has two funny dogs from the pound, a house burst­ing with art­work and a boun­ti­ful gar­den in Alice Springs.

We head out to Simp­sons Gap in the West MacDon­nell Ranges for an eye­ful of out­back colours — vivid or­anges and true blues. Simp­sons Gap per­fectly frames a large white gum, act­ing like na­ture’s prosce­nium arch. We make it to Glen He­len Homestead Lodge in time to watch the sun set on ar­guably the world’s old­est moun­tain range and to see an el­e­gant white wad­ing bird per­fect its flight path up and down The Finke, ar­guably the world’s old­est river. Next morn­ing, there is no ar­gu­ing that the full-cir­cle Or­mis­ton Pound walk at Or­mis­ton Gorge is three hours of joy for keen out­doorsy types.

On the rough, cor­ru­gated road to Kings Canyon, camels loom large be­side the track. What if we drive over one of the many crests and the camels are in the mid­dle of the road? Don’t think about it, I reckon. Pulling in to Kings Canyon, we park be­side a hot­ted-up ute. It be­longs to a Mel­bourne cou­ple, Joe and Ch­eryl, and Jean­nie rec­om­mends they don’t tackle the cor­ru­gated road with those slim-look­ing rac­ing tyres. Joe and Ch­eryl are on their way to Alice for the Red Cen­tre NATS fes­ti­val; they will en­ter their ute in the pa­rade.

We com­plete the 6km Kings Canyon Rim Walk the next morn­ing and then it’s back in the 4WD, stop­ping briefly at the Her­manns­burg com­mu­nity, birthplace of wa­ter­colourist Al­bert Na­matjira. We are keen to wash off the dust and “glam-up” for the open­ing of Desert Mob 2015 at the Araluen Cul­tural Precinct back in Alice. Twenty-nine art cen­tres from NT and re­mote re­gions of Western and South Aus­tralia are show­ing pieces in an event that’s colour­ful, ex­u­ber­ant and di­verse, in­clud­ing tra­di­tional dot paint­ings, wo­ven works com­pris­ing emu feath­ers and raf­fia, ce­ram­ics and cut­ting-edge con­tem­po­rary paint­ings.

But there is another, al­to­gether dif­fer­ent, tribe gath­er­ing in Alice. Jean­nie’s brother-in-law and two sons have ar­rived at her home, fresh from a 12-hour drive from South Aus­tralia in a left-hand-drive Ply­mouth VIP. The two-door car is all Goodfel­las and early Mad Men and ap­pears to be wait­ing for a driver in a sharp suit, thin tie and small hat. The young men are clearly mad about it.

At the din­ner ta­ble, the arty tribe gath­ers at one end and car lovers at the other. We are po­lite, but re­ally can­not un­der­stand each other’s ob­ses­sion. We talk art cen­tres, artists and amaz­ing new works we have seen. They talk car­bu­ret­tors, road trips and amaz­ing ve­hi­cles they have seen. The next day the ex­cite­ment goes up a gear for both camps. The men spend three hours pol­ish­ing and clean­ing the Ply­mouth; they even take the wheels off to make sure they do a thor­ough job. They register the car to en­ter, ap­ply the ap­pro­pri­ate stick­ers and join the pa­rade at 5pm. We arty types check out the Alice Springs gal­leries, have cof­fee with the man­ager of War­lukurlangu Artists at Yuen­dumu, col­lect a com­mis­sioned work and head back to Araluen for the sym­po­sium.

Day three hits fever pitch for both tribes. For the boys, it is burnout day, with wheel­ies and cir­cle work at the In­land Drag­way. It is Desert Mob Mar­ket Day at Araluen and the crowd is largely good-na­tured as keen col­lec­tors with sharp eyes ri­fle through piles of can­vases.

Jean­nie and I gig­gle about the ve­hi­cle-ob­sessed mob and their dif­fer­ent idea of a good time, but in the carpark we find Ch­eryl and Joe from Mel­bourne stuff­ing a rolledup can­vas un­der the tarp of their racy ute.

“How good is Alice Springs?” Joe grins.

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