Saturday, May 14, 2011

Catching Fish In The Desert

Published Friday, June 15, 2007 on Arts Hub, news analysis and comment.

Jan Cornall admires an Alice Spring family's paintings at an informal art sale that took place over a dinner of barbequed kangaroo and billy soup. 
In 2006 with walking guide Raymond Hawkins I took a group of writers from the NSW Writers Centre, along the Larapinta Trail in the West MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs and wrote about it for Arts Hub ( ). Desert Writers has since become an annual event taking place at the end of June.

“Writing requires courage and effort. Each day is like going to catch fish in the desert.”

I am ashamed to say this was my first trip to the centre of this country we call our own. But I am happy to say to all those like me, “It’s never too late! If there is one thing you must do before you die, it’s go to the desert!”

To arrive in Alice Springs and walk across the sandy Todd River is significant enough. And to witness the red hills standing guard all around the town, tall against the blue, blue sky is also. But when you go in country and walk around – this is when the magic really begins.

The first few days we are doing it soft – taking day trips and coming back to the hotel in Alice at night. We have writing workshops in the morning at the hotel or in the evening after we get back. But our favourite place to write is on the track. Our guide Raymond, a former lighting and production manager from the Sydney Opera House, is a master at planning for us to arrive at the right time in the right place for optimum inspiration.

Like Fish Hole - a stunning water hole a good two hours’ stroll from Hamilton Downs, an old cattle station converted into a school camp. We walk in silence, a towering rainbow ridge of ochres and pale olive greens travelling alongside us. Coming across a classic Namijira ghost gum we want to bow down, kiss the ground and hug its smooth white skin. We become obsessed with textures of bark, rock and sand, bending down with our cameras and notebooks to capture every minute detail - the same textures are repeated all around us on a grander scale in the landscape we humbly travel through, as we begin to feel as insignificant as ants.

When we get to Fish Hole, along a dry riverbed leading into a narrow canyon, we still don’t wish to speak. We want to stay in this rock orange canyon forever and we spread ourselves about with our note pads and pens and watch the wind painting superb cubist compositions on the surface of the water hole, erasing them at a whim. We stay long enough for the shadows to mutter, “time to return”, and make our way back along the riverbed to our bus.

One evening Raymond organises for us to meet Betty Pierce’s family. Betty, an Eastern Arrernte woman in her 60s, has returned home to Alice after years of living and working for her people in coastal towns and cities, to help her immediate family set up a tourist business. We are some of their first customers.

We meet Betty on the side of the road at sunset. She jumps in and takes us to her country - a scrubby bit of land facing a low rounded rock formation.“This is snake rock,” she explains, telling us stories of the rock, and shows us a small cave where the old snakes normally live. As the sun disappears into the red earth we drive further on to another bit of scrub on the other side of the main road. A fire is blazing and we are asked to step through a smoking ceremony. “Now you are part of my family,” Betty says as we pass through the invisible gateway.

We are invited to sit by another fire where damper and billy soup is steaming as the desert night temperature plummets towards zero degrees. Betty’s daughter and her husband have laid out a feast of barbequed kangaroo, sausages, and salads. Betty is worried the other family members who are coming to show us their art might not turn up. But they do – a combi van full of big, tall, dark handsome women, kids and shy men. They sit with us around the fire and under Betty’s guidance tell us a little about their way of life.

The art show happens over a table with Rosemary and her sister selling their work – bright gaudy paintings of bush tucker – wild passionfruit, native tomatoes, and paddy melon. It’s not what we were expecting but we all want one to take home. When I ask Rosemary when she painted the one I like, she thinks for a while and says slowly, “Before the big rain, yeah before the big rain.”

One day we do an all day walk. Starting out at Serpentine Gorge we climb up onto a ridge and follow it along to Counts Point. On each side of us other ridges and mountain ranges layer back for as far as we can see. We come across sand ripples moulded into rock – evidence of an inland sea disrupted by the great upheavals of long ago. We are in awe of the greatness of this place, but never wordless. At each opportunity we sit and take it in, then start to write. Some of us write about the landforms, some about darkness within. One has a novel beginning to pour out of her; another is able to return to a memoir begun in another desert – the Sahara, sixteen years earlier. We collect images and impressions – smells, sights, sounds. Trees whisper as we pass, birds call out to us, wind dances across our skin and we feel like we could walk forever until tiredness reminds us we are mere mortals.

In the last days we head out to our writers’ camp. We walk the spectacular Ormiston Gorge, swim in the Finke River at Glen Helen and then head for camp. The sun is on its way down as we leave the bus and carry our bags a short way down a sandy track. As we round the bend a low didge sounds out across the valley. We descend into the dry riverbed as the didge player, Tommy Crow, tones our welcome. The fire is leaping, the sun dying. We pitch our clear view tents in the sand of the riverbed. Feels like home, so comfy, we never want to leave. The rounded peaks of Mt Sonder watch over us and that night we see stars, as we never have before.

We walk again from this location but mostly we hang around camp, workshopping and drawing our stories in the sand. Plenty of time for campfire musing, songs and deadly jokes. Our walking guide Raymond has a wicked sense of humour. No cows are sacred. Nothing escapes his pointed wit. Walk, write and laugh and laugh.

After two days we are sad to leave the warmth of our river bed camp and the sense that the earth was looking after us.  The earth as mother is an old cliche, but out here she is stripped bare. Having weathered every extreme element, every calamity and still she is there for us, supporting us, guiding us and inspiring our writing.  Not harsh and dry as I expected but a place of softness, pastel hues and exquisite tones and changing moods.

There’s so much more to this trip than walking, writing and laughing. You can come alive here, like a desert flower blooming after years of no rain in this air so clear and blue. It’s like travelling to a part of yourself that you had forgotten, like finding tenderness in a heart so old and ancient you can’t believe it belongs to you.

 Desert writers heads out each year in June. Now we spend only the first and last nights in Alice  Springs, the rest in supported camps in the West MacDonnell Ranges with Indigenous guides and meeting with Traditional Landowners. Starting at the Beanie Festival and finishing at Hermannsburg Community. Medium fitness required.     click on creative/lifestyle

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