Different folks rub along in the red centre
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.