Category Archives: Going home

The Artist’s Studio

The artist’s studio. A place to be creative.

A house plan these days will often include two or three bathrooms, a home movie theatre and a double garage, but very rarely does it consider the need for a special place for creativity.

I’ve been thinking about this since I visited Hans Heysen’s studio in Hahndorf in South Australia. Hans Heysen was an acclaimed artist, a German who settled in Australia. His stone-built studio is located high up on his sloping property, positioned perfectly to take in the view of the eucalypts and cedars in his garden. Clear daylight streams into the building through enormous windows that fill its south-facing wall.

Hans Heysen Studio

Hans Heysen Studio

The studio stands apart from the house where Heysen lived. Apart both by location and appearance. A national treasure, it is said to be the oldest artist’s studio in Australia.

So much love, time and money was spent on this building. The artist commissioned a local Hahndorf firm to build it, using raw materials from the area. He worked closely with a team of architects to perfect the design. The resulting studio is faintly reminiscent of an alpine lodge, but in sturdy local stone. It is a man’s building, solid and strong.

Inside, you can see it is more than Heysen’s workshop, more than somewhere to keep his tools of trade, his paints, charcoal sticks and brushes. The essence of the man is here. The house, it could have belonged to anyone.

Heysen loved nature. He loved painting the day to day agricultural activities in and around Hahndorf and was deeply inspired by the stark, majestic beauty of the nearby Flinders Ranges. He toured the area to find his subjects, deftly capturing light and shadows with his charcoals, drawing from life, outside in the open air.

Returning to his studio, he painted from the black and white preliminary drawings, reproducing by memory the fall of the light, the tints and hues of the natural world. His oil paintings document his time and his place, giving us a secret window into South Australian life in the early twentieth century.

Perhaps that is how creativity works. We live, we love, we travel. We see for ourselves the beauty and the dark horror of the world, then we return home to our special place, our studio, to interpret these experiences in our own unique way. In the process of creating something from our experiences and our emotions, we understand ourselves better and communicate more deeply with the people around us.

We can’t all build a self-standing studio, like Hans Heysen. We can’t all afford that luxury. But, a desk, a shed, a special corner of a room? That’s possible.

You might say you are not creative, not an artist. Think again. You might not use a paint brush, but your unique work may be produced with a welder, a camera, a garden trowel, a drum machine or a laptop computer. Creativity takes many forms.

How different would our world be if every house included a special place set aside solely for us to be creative? How different would our lives be if we valued art and creativity that much?

Build yourself a studio. Who knows where it might lead.

Reflections on a journey

This journey has given me a new perspective on Australia, the continent and the country.   I’m new here.   I will always be an outsider looking in.  But, am I so different from the majority of Australians?  12 years, 60 years, 230 years, how long before we truly belong?

We all huddle together on the coast, safe in our hustle and bustle, living our remote version of the European lifestyle.  Out there, not so many kilometres away, the ancient heart of Australia beats on.

Travelling through Europe, I’ve marvelled at the sights, sounds and tastes of different cultures.  I’ve stared in wonder at the remnants of great civilisations, Roman, Greek and Ancient Briton, and sought my origins in the stories of my Anglo-Celtic ancestors.  On the North American continent I’ve admired the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon, the Arizona desert and the Colorado mountains.  But never before have I been touched by the spirit of the land.

What was it about this journey and this continent that was different?  Was it me?  Am I at an age where I am more receptive to the unseen, intangible feeling of a place?  Or is this the natural response to travelling in a land that resonates with an unknown, mysterious past; a land where we do not truly know what layers of human history lie below the superficial patina laid down since our recent arrival?

Somehow, the red centre has a power that transcends human history.   The never-ending expanses of shining flat gibber plains, the strange otherworldly forms of the rusty red mesas and escarpments, the ochre sands and crystal clear water holes. They were here before us and they will continue to exist long after we have made our mark.  This may also be true of the continents of Europe and America, I have never felt it so keenly before.

How insignificant we seem in these wide open landscapes.   And yet, there is a sense of the sacred here, in the nature of the land and in our inescapable attachment to it.

The aboriginal peoples are another mystery, unknown to me as they are to most modern Australians.  I’m confused by the apparent contradictions. They have an innate feeling for the land, but leave the debris of modern life piled high near their communities.  I’m saddened by the history of our dealings with them.

I hope the knowledge of the people who have inhabited this land for tens of thousands of years will not be lost, that somehow we can find a way to come together to listen and learn.  But, I’m not naive enough to imagine this will be easy, or perhaps even possible.  The barriers seem too great.

I loved my journey into the red centre of Australia.   I loved the companionship of my fellow travellers.  I loved the new experiences.  

I have treasured memories – a campfire circle on a starlit desert night, a swim in cool clear water under pink and gold cliffs, a dingo in the desert, the crisp white expanse of salt lakes, the taste of fresh made damper and the magnificent splendour of Kata Tjuta and Uluru.

But greater than these, I’ve come away with an unexpected feeling, a respect and awe for this vast and ancient land.

Oodnadatta to Coober Pedy

It’s busy in the Pink Roadhouse. Two tourists search for the perfect Tshirt.  An indigenous mum and baby girl stand and wait.   We are getting our takeaway cups filled with coffee, it’s early and we are the first customers at the coffee machine.

Richard is keen to get on the road today. He’s looking forward to seeing the remains of the Old Ghan railway that runs beside the Oodnadatta track. You could call the track an open air museum, there is so much history here.

The Ghan railway has a mystique about it. It was a pioneer railway with a long and protracted history.  It was originally named the Afghan Express after the camel trains that served the inland routes in the nineteenth century.

The old route was discontinued in 1980 because it was frequently washed out by floods and the timber sleepers had to be replaced often because of termite damage. In its heyday it carried passengers and supplies from the ports of Adelaide to the outlying townships in the remote inland territory, all the way to Alice Springs.  If the train got into trouble, the passengers had to get out and help rebuild or clear the track.

It was a steam railway and needed water. It followed the same route taken by the Overland Telegraph Line, by the Afghan cameleers, by early explorers and before that by Aboriginal ochre traders. They all followed the water. The track follows a string of mound springs where water bubbles up to the surface from the depths of the Great Artesian Basin. Follow the water.  Not a bad adage for Australian life.

The flat, red gibber plains of this country are familiar to us now.  They run unimpeded to the far horizon, reflecting the light from the morning sun.  The old railway track follows the curves of the road and we are soon deep in industrial archaeology.   We stop for bridges, embankments and to wander through old ruined railway buildings.

Old Ghan Bridge

Old Ghan Bridge

Richard walks along the old line looking for treasure, like an exploring schoolboy.  He holds up an iron nail used to drive in the timber sleepers, “Look at this.”

Oodnadatta mud map

Oodnadatta mud map

The Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse publishes a hand-drawn track map, given out for free, and has set out homemade road signs pointing out the sights to see on the rail trail.   It is uniquely quirky.  This feels more and more like a treasure hunt.


Ghan Ruins

Ghan Ruins

The ruined buildings so isolated even in their day evoke a wistful sadness.  The age of steam, once at the leading edge of technology, is now a romantic memory.  How long will the bridges and buildings stand before they disappear into the featureless flat plains?

On the recommendation of the pink mud map, we take a 15 km detour off the main route, up a long winding sandy track.   Heading into the remote area off the already remote track feels like an adventure.  We are making for Peake Creek, settled around the telegraph line in the 1860s.   After a slow drive along the poorly maintained track, we are disappointed to see a lonely pile of bricks ahead of us with a sign next to it.


Peake Creek

Peake Creek

Fortunately, there is more.  This is the eating house, or what is left of it.  The settlement lies just around the corner.  The sound of squawking cockatoos swirling around an unexpected group of Palm trees tells we have arrived.  The settlement was built on a spring.   It’s an eerie, deserted place.   The telegraph station’s grandeur can still be seen in its ruined state.  The inhabitants even built a copper smelter, such was their optimism about the future of the settlement.   But it all came to nothing and eventually, when the telegraph ceased to be essential, the copper failed to be economic and the droughts came, the pioneers walked away.

We turn off the Oodnadatta track at William Creek, a tiny town, apparently all owned by one man.   The pub sells everything.  Bush humour is alive and well. A parking meter has been installed outside the pub for tourists.

Woomera Truck

Woomera Truck

We do not have time this trip to follow the track all the way to Marree, so we head off across the Woomera Prohibited Area, the rocket testing range for the Australian army.   We only see one other vehicle along the track, an old truck that has seen better days.   Two hundred kilometres of the loneliest, most remote driving we have done.  No emus.  No dingos.  No camels.   Just two old bulls who stare at the ute and look prepared to send us on our way.

Woomera - a lonely track

Woomera – a lonely track

The opal mines of Coober Pedy are a welcome sight on the horizon, although they signal the end of our outback trip.  Tomorrow we head down South on the highway.

We have come to the end of our outback adventure and what a grand adventure it has been.

Outback roads

It is 11 degrees C when we leave Yulara.   We have a day of driving on outback roads ahead of us.

Turning off the highway after Curtins Creek on to Mulga Park Road, we stop to deflate the tyre pressure to cope with the sandy terrain.  Mulga Park Road is a wide roadway, scooped out of the red earth.  No frills.  The road lies well below the level of the land around us.   I see camel tracks padding along side the roadway and we keep our eyes peeled for unexpected pedestrians.

The combination of sand and gravel rattles our bones as we drive along.   We pass the mighty Mount Connor, a flat topped mesa monolith that we had mistaken for Uluru from a distance a few days before.  It is part of the same ancient family that created Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

This is the first time we have driven off the beaten track on our own and we are a little nervous.   I keep a watch on the rocky red cliffs that run alongside the road, on the lookout for camels or cattle.  Richard drives with one eye on the road and one on the tyre pressure indicators.

Camel crossing

Camel crossing

“Camel”, I shout.   A small buck camel stands by the side of the track, chewing.   He looks up and watches us as we drive slowly by. He’s not bothered in the slightest.   He’s the first wild camel we’ve seen on our outback trip, although we are told there are a million camels running wild in Central Australia.  He looks rather cute.

We see dust approaching and a Landcruiser passes, giving the outback salute.  Two fingers are lifted from the wheel and the head nodded slightly.

A few minutes later we disturb two emus feeding in the scrub.   This lonely road is busier than we imagined.

The Curtin Springs station homestead comes into view and we turn left on to the Old Gunbarrel Highway.   We have been reading the tales of Len Beadell, the man behind many outback tracks, including this one.  The road is named after the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party he formed to build it.   The name indicates their intention to build a dead straight road from East to West across Australia.  He admits it should perhaps have been called the Corkscrew Road, but the name stuck and was adopted by the mapping authorities.   With typical Aussie humour, he referred to all the roads he bashed through the bush as highways, and that stuck too.

Old Gunbarrel Highway

Old Gunbarrel Highway

We bounce along over the corrugations and weave to and fro across the highway to find the smoothest path.   The land looks fertile, grasses and Mulga trees are growing with vigour.  The palette is minty olive green on dark red ochre sands.   Some well fed cattle peer out from the scrub and kick their heels up as they scatter on our approach.

There’s a rapid movement, a flash of blonde fur, and we see a dingo on the side of the road.  We slow down to take a look.  The wild dog trots into the road and looks at the car.  He’s curious.   Then, turning his head back every now and then, he continues on his way.



We are enjoying the vibrant colours of the scenery and the varied animal life along the way.   The road stutters to a rugged, rocky end and we are once again turning on to the Stuart Highway.

The Tnorala Story



I’ve become fascinated with the story of Tnorala.

Tnorala is also known as Gosses Bluff.  I wrote about it in my blog post “West from Alice”.

It was formed by the impact of a celestial body falling to earth some 145 million years ago.   It is thought to have been a comet.  The remains of the crater can still be seen rising from the flat plains to the west of Alice Springs.  Inside the crater, the climate and red sandy soil create a habitat for plants, animals and bird life that is completely different from the surrounding plains.

The story of Tnorala as told by the Western Arrernte people is remarkably similar to the scientific explanation.  They say that Tnorala was formed in creation time by the women of the Milky Way.  The star women were dancing through the sky and one accidentally knocked over the turna, or cradle, containing her baby.  The baby fell to earth with the turna tumbling after it.  The turna formed the crater like shape at Tnorala and the baby was never found.   The morning and evening star are the parents who appear every day to look for the baby.

Scientific evidence suggests that the impact of the comet or meteorite falling to earth would originally have created a crater 22 km wide.  This outer crater can now only be seen from space as it has all but eroded away.  The 5 km crater remaining is what is left of what is known as the central uplift site where the comet hit.  The impact would have huge, many times greater than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

Apparently this is not the only impact site in Australia that has a similar aboriginal dreaming story attached to it.

The Valley of the Winds

Kata Tjuta plays second fiddle to Uluru, her big brother.  He dominates the national park they share.   The Rock has become so well known overseas as an Aussie icon that it rivals the Sydney Opera House as “the” Australian tourist drawcard.  Few tourists have heard of Kata Tjuta, even under their former name, The Olgas.

But, they are really missing out.  Kata Tjuta is remarkable.

Today we are planning to take the Valley of the Winds walk into Kata Tjuta.   It is one of two walks that are still open to tourists.   Most of Kata Tjuta is closed now, except to the local aboriginal people who come here to carry out their traditional ceremonies.

From a distance, Kata Tjuta seems to bubble up out of the depths.   There are thirty six curvy domes in this cluster of rocks.  She shares her colours with Uluru, the same dark red rock, the same sultry burgundy shadows.

Path to Kata Tjuta

Path to Kata Tjuta

It is another cool, bright day.  We trudge up the sandy path from the car park to the start of the walk.   It is not busy, but there are a few walkers here.  Some Germans stride by dressed in full walking regalia, carrying walkers’ sticks.  A group of twenty somethings straggle past, chatting in French and Spanish.   A Scandinavian couple stroll along, she has one bare foot, one clad in a walking shoe.  It is not clear why.

We are lucky, the cool breeze seems to be keeping the flies away.  No need of the fly net today.

Valley of the Winds Walk

Valley of the Winds Walk

As we walk into Kata Tjuta, we are immediately in awe at the size, shape and texture of the red domes.  We pass into a channel between two towering walls of rock.   The sound of the wind grows louder but changes in nature.  I hear waves breaking on a beach.  It’s a calming, relaxing sound, like the womb noises modern mums play their babies as a lullaby.

Colours of Kata Tjuta

Colours of Kata Tjuta

Although it is 11 o’clock in the morning, the sun has not risen high enough in the sky to warm all of the rocks inside the channel.   As we walk the sun begins to scale the last rocky barrier and sets a dramatic contrast between the dark shadowy rock on our left and the glowing pink red slope, bathed in sunlight on our right.   We pick our way carefully between the two, yin and yang.

The path turns to the right and we are walking into a valley, lush and green around a dry creek bed.   Zebra finches flit through the trees around us.   Budgies wheel and turn, flying between us at head height to investigate who goes by.

Rock formations

Rock formations

The huge red rocks cradle us.   We are held in a Kata Tjuta embrace.   This is a magical place.  I feel the same nurturing power I felt at Tnorala, the site of the celestial impact.   I have heard some people suggest that sites that are still cared for by the ceremonies of their local people retain a power that was once felt across the land.  Perhaps there is some truth in that.

Kata Tjuta's song in stone

Kata Tjuta’s song in stone

Looking up as we walk along, we see curves, hollows, rounded caves and pools high up in the rock.   The varied shapes work as one to sing a harmony in stone.   A note called in one cave is echoed in a hollow below and forms a chord with a triplet of pools on the opposite wall.   The rock sings in the wind.

Richard plays David to Goliath

Richard plays David to Goliath

We climb further into the centre of the red domes of Kata Tjuta.

We scramble up steep, slanting faces of rock and stand in a cavern that glows pink red then darkens to shadowy blue black.  Birds fly high above us and perch on ledges on the rock faces, singing their songs of freedom.

Through the shadows

Through the shadows

The path becomes steeper and more challenging.   The rock falls away beside us to another fertile meadow filling the rocky landscape with trees and grasses found only here in this unique ecosystem.

We climb higher and higher.   Knees begin to feel the strain as we lever ourselves up the rocky path.   We can’t see the top of this climb, but we can hear the voices of walkers ahead of us.   Finally, we reach the summit of this testing red rock track and look through a natural window on to an expanse of green, a heavenly valley.  We gaze out from the darkness of our perch to the sunlit valley below, like birds preparing to take flight.

Window on another world at Kata Tjuta

Window on another world at Kata Tjuta

Sitting still and reflecting on the view, we become cool after the exertion of the climb.   Time to move on.   We complete the walk, drinking in the unique sights and sounds of this place.

Eventually we find ourselves back on the path to the car park.   We pass walkers who are on their way in and smile a greeting.  They will understand when they return.



The Rock

Uluru has power.

When I first saw The Rock, I was mesmerised.    It’s such a familiar sight, from a million photos, postcards and paintings, but in the flesh it has power.

It is a deeper, darker red than the surrounding powdery pastel red desert sands.   The shadows that fall where the rock folds are dark, almost blue.   The Rock is much more complex, more textured than it appears in a two dimensional image.

Close up it is a huge impassive presence.   I listen, as if to hear its voice.  I imagine it booms silently in the deepest bass. It vibrates with the deep throaty grumble of a didgeridoo, just outside of our hearing range.

Uluru wave

Uluru wave

This monolith is full of curves and craters.   It is ribbed.  It is cloaked, draped with a soft red sandy velvet cloth.

Huge empty pools wait for rain to fall, to fill and spill in giant stepped waterfalls.   Water leaves its mark, dark stripes painting an image of a wet Uluru in dry times.



Uluru has caves, waves, an open mouth.  It is honeycomb.  Barbara Hepworth, the Cornish sculptress, comes into my mind.  I see some of her curved stone shapes here, but her wildest dreams could not have imagined sculpting these forms and shapes on one piece of rock.

Shapes of Uluru

Shapes of Uluru

It used to common for tourists to climb the rock.  We look up, but do not see any tiny figures on this massive structure. The authorities have moved further and further towards a no climb policy.  The fragile hand rail can be seen on the face of the rock, but the climb is closed.  It is closed when it rains, when it is hot, when there is more than a 5% chance of a thunderstorm.   Soon it will not be possible to climb at all.   The Rock is sacred to the local indigenous people.  It is right that we respect that.   There are plaques in memory of those who lost their lives attempting the climb.  It is better this way.

Watching Uluru at Sunset

Watching Uluru at Sunset

We sit on top of our roof top tent at the end of the day and watch the sunset play with the colours of The Rock.  It glows golden with the dying light, then darkens to a burgundy blue.

Uluru glows at sunset

Uluru glows at sunset

We raise a toast, “Uluru has power”, borrowing a line from a favourite John Williamson song.




Kings Canyon

Walking boots, sunglasses, water bottles? Yes. We are ready for the Kings Canyon rim walk. A stiff breeze keeps us cool as we make our way to the start.

I look up and point. “There’s someone climbing the canyon wall”.

“No. That’s the path”, says Richard.

Up to the rim

Up to the rim

Up we go. The track climbs almost vertically from ground level up to the rim. It’s steep, a five hundred step climb. Hearts pumping and slightly breathless, we get to the top.

What a view. We can see for miles and miles across the spinifex plains.

The rust red golden hues of the canyon surround us as we walk further along the rim. Massive rocks with tessellated angular surfaces like crocodile scales, loom ahead. Hardy white cypress pine trees force their roots deep into crevices in the rock to find water to survive. Palm like cycads sprout from rocky corners. The rim has its own thriving ecosystem, including rock wallabies and euros. It is surprisingly green up here.

Richard in Kings Canyon

Richard in Kings Canyon

The path takes us through a narrow space between two huge rounded masses of rock. We catch glimpses of strange otherworldly shapes on the other side. When we step through we are transported into a forgotten village of beehive shaped stone dwellings. The flat rock at our feet could be a man made pavement from ancient times. I touch the rock, to reassure myself that this is real, not a dream. Where are the ancient people who lived here? I see why the local people tell tales of a dreamland race who live here in the rocks.

Red holly grevillea grows here in profusion. A beautiful plant, it has the delicate red flower of a grevillea and spiky, grey green leaves, shaped like holly.

I lean down to touch ripples in the rock at my feet. They are cold and hard. I am touching the frozen memory of wind rippling the dunes that formed this sandstone. I am travelling in time.

It is wild and windy. Cool bright weather like this is perfect for the walk. It is about six km walking on rocky surfaces with little shade. On a hotter day, the rock would reflect the heat of the sun and it could be unbearable.

Canyon view

Canyon view

We are totally immersed in the world of the canyon rim. Everywhere we look we see the intense rust red colours and strange, awe inspiring structures sculpted by the wind and rain. I’ve never been anywhere like this before.

The path takes us to the edge of the canyon and we walk down a black wooden walkway into the chasm. Below us we can see the creek. We look down on the tops of tall gum trees growing out of the lush green oasis created around the waterway. Birds are singing. They call this place the Garden of Eden.

Canyon wall

Canyon wall

Climbing again to the other side of the rim, we catch a view of the walls of the canyon. The craggy rock has split through to form a wall that is flat and smooth, as if a knife had cut it. The heart of the rock exposed is paler than its craggy skin suggests. The flat walls are amber and white, contrasting with the deep red gold around us.

Two small figures can be seen on a precarious rocky ledge opposite us. Some foolhardy tourists have diverted from the path and have clambered down on to the edge to get a better view of the walls of the canyon. I feel my stomach dip in vicarious vertigo. From our vantage point we can see that the rock breaks away beneath them and curves way back into the wall of the canyon. What madness.

We walk on, way back from the edge. The flat rock catches the rays of the sun and glows. The camera will not be able to capture the intensity of the colours around us.

Canyon walk

Canyon walk

We glimpse the view in gaps between the hard glinting surfaces of the towers of red gold rock. It is as if we are looking into the dreamland world again. We see a plateau apparently densely populated with stone villages from another time and place. The beehive shapes intrigue me.

The walk begins to descend and we catch sight of the car park far below us. Gradually we climb down from the rim leaving that strange, beautiful world behind us.

The red centre is a wonderland. Every day we are in awe of the land around us. Tomorrow we visit Uluru then Kata Tjuta. No doubt I’ll fall in love with them too. But it’s the landscape as a whole that inspires.

Travelling long distances, I see the beauty in the ever changing shape and colour of this country in its natural state. It’s a rare privilege. Most of the landscapes we see have been so manipulated to our needs that we have lost this. We’ve lost the horizon. We’ve lost our connection to the natural world.

I’m not suggesting that travelling in a car over long distances is the best way to get in touch with nature. Of course not. But the real attraction of the red centre for me has been the ability to see not just the tourist sights but the form of the land itself. Walk it, cycle it, drive it, fly it, it doesn’t matter. If you travel in this country you have an opportunity to see natural beauty without human intervention and on a grand scale.

West from Alice

We start the day with hot milky coffee from a tiny cafe in Alice Springs. Today we drive west.

Our route follows the West Macdonnell Ranges out of Alice along Namatjira Drive around the Mareenie Loop and finally to Kings Canyon. We are driving into the heart of Australia, the true red centre.

The ranges stand tall above us, red and rugged. Their scale is immense. Once again I am in awe of this landscape. The red centre is everything I imagined and so much more. On our left the Macdonnells extend far into the distance, their pointed peaks like the serrated edge of a giant saw. To the right the country rolls in a softer female form. Gentle green-grey curves hide the rock underneath, as if a blanket has been thrown over the bony peaks to protect them from the winds.

The sun climbs in the sky, it’s a cool, bright day west of Alice.

The road has been paved and marked with clear white lines to ease the way for day trippers. It’s a comfortable, but unexciting drive. We see a sign for Standley Chasm and turn in to take a look. I’m in two minds about this place. The natural beauty of the chasm is visible, but it has been tainted by handrails, walking paths and a poorly positioned waste bin. A phrase comes to me, “taming the wild”. The chasm is just too close to Alice.

We drive further west. The Macdonnells stay with us, constant companions guiding us on our way. I’m intrigued by a sign for Ellery Creek Big Hole. It’s not a romantic name, but it’s time for a cuppa so we park and take a look. We stroll down the walking path admiring the wildflowers and the red black cubist shapes in the rock faces ahead of us. Then we stop, stand and stare. The “big hole” is the waterhole of your dreams.

The craggy red sandstone walls are reflected perfectly on the surface of the deep dark water. The water is cold, too cold for a swim. A fish jumps, sending ripples across the width of the pool. A ghost gum stands to one side, white limbs leaning like a hesitant swimmer over the water. The water continues through a small passage in the rock and on into the distance. A canoe, and some more time, and we could explore. Perfect.

On our way again, it suddenly feels strange to be travelling alone, without the convoy. We miss the banter on the radio. We miss sharing the beauty of the waterhole with our travelling companions.

Fewer and fewer cars pass by. We begin to distance ourselves from Alice. We are once more in the outback.

The ranges running alongside us become a living aboriginal painting, grey green dots of spinifex against a yellow and red ochre background. The lines formed by the terraced structure of the rock create a wave effect, undulating through the ranges.

We take a detour to look at the ochre pits, where the local people have mined ochre for thousands of years. Imagine the white cliffs of Dover striped in gold, green, white, red and yellow. The walls of the pits are vivid with these earthy colours, red and yellow with iron oxide, white with lime. The colours lie in waves and stripes showing how the seabed that once lay here has been twisted and turned by forces from below.

It’s way past time for lunch and although we need to keep moving to get to Kings Canyon before sunset, we decide to stop at the next rest area.   It is a lookout.  We climb to the top of a steep incline that levels out to give a panoramic view around us.   The plains below are green and grey with spinifex and white cypress pine. That’s when we see Tnorala for the first time – a circle of red rock, like the crater at the top of a volcano.  I find out later that Tnorala is the imprint of a celestial body that fell to earth millions of years ago.  Wow.

We drive down to take a closer look.  A sandy road takes us inside the circle of rock, sheltered from the wind. This is a special place.  Beautiful, yes.  But it is more than beauty that holds us spellbound.  There is a spirit here that is soft and gentle.  This a sacred place, and not just because the local people, the Arrernte, say so.   I can’t explain it, but I will remember this place in my dreams.

And then it’s fun time, we turn on to the 4WD section of the road, the Mareenie Loop. Hang on to your hats! The sand and gravel road that winds its way towards Kings Canyon is not for standard road cars or the faint hearted. It is slippery. The car slides around the wide road.  The driver needs to focus to keep us on track. I look at him. He’s loving it.

I shout “Dip!” as the road drops away suddenly. Just as well we upgraded the shock absorbers. Tight turns, sharp left, then sharp right, arrive with no warning.

The sun is low in the sky and long shadows fall across the landscape. It is stunningly beautiful, but Richard can’t risk taking his attention off the road.  The car drifts in the bends from one side of the road to the other before gripping the road again to drive into the next bend.   Can this be fun? I look at Richard’s smile. It says it all.

We are both tired when we arrive at Kings Canyon Resort.  It’s been another unforgettable day.

Katherine Gorge, Land of the Cicada

We listen to our ranger guide. He tells us Katherine Gorge is Nitmiluk, Land of the Cicada.

I like the name. I can hear the cicadas chirping in it.

The park has thirteen gorges. We only have a few hours to spare so we decide to see two of them on a tourist boat trip.

Dying trees surround the jetty where we board our boat. They bend and sag, weighed down by fruit bats, or flying foxes. Thousands of the bats cling upside down to the branches, wrapping themselves tightly in their wings, like miniature vampires in their black capes.



A tourist wearing bright red lipstick, wrists laden with bracelets, shakes her head in disgust when the indigenous guide tells us they will leave only when they have broken down all the branches of the trees where they are roosting. “What pests!”

“No, no”, calls back our ranger guide. “It’s good for the trees. The bats prune them and fertilise them with their dung. They grow back to be much more healthy. When the bats have done their work here, they will move on and do some gardening for us further upstream. That’s how the system works. Everything has its place”.

The boat glides through the clear water between the towering amber red rock faces of the gorge. We shield our faces from the intense heat of the sun. The water sparkles and shimmers ahead of us. In the Wet, the water is 7-8 metres higher than it is today. The guide points out the marks on the sandstone rocks above us.

White, black and red ochre stains streak down the rocky walls, as if a giant artist has daubed paint brushes up and down in a frenzy of earthy colour. The rocks glow as we glide past, then darken as they fall into shadow behind us. Hardy trees sink their roots deep into crevices in the sandstone to find moisture and nutrients. Somehow they succeed and make their precarious homes on the rocky ledges above us. Twisted and knarled, they survive and provide shelter in the gorge for bird and insect life.

Freshwater crocodile

Freshwater crocodile

A crocodile lies snoozing on a small sandy beach to our left, her silvery scaled skin reflecting the sun’s rays. “Don’t worry, she’s a freshie, a freshwater crocodile. She won’t do you any harm. She might put a few holes in your arm if she’s rattled, but they only eat what they can swallow whole. You are quite safe”. I glance at the toddler sitting sleeping in his mother’s arms in front of me. Sleep safely little one.

Saltwater crocodiles on the other hand are extremely dangerous. “Salties” enter the gorge in the Wet, when water is flowing into the park from the estuaries where they normally live. Some of these prehistoric predators are left here when it stops raining and the water goes back down, closing off their exits. This is not great for tourism. The park rangers put out traps and relocate any they catch before the park is opened to tourists.

“We always feel a bit nervous when we send the first canoeists out there”, the ranger guide jokes. We all stare at the trap he is pointing towards and hope he really is joking.

We have to transfer to another boat half way through the trip, because the water is too low in the dry season to pass through to the next gorge. Our walk along the side of the gorge to reach the second boat passes an example of Jawoyn rock painting that is around 8000 years old. There are paintings dated 25,000 years old in other places in the park, we are told. They are some of the oldest artefacts in the world.

I find these periods of time almost impossible to imagine. The first fleet came to Australia in 1788, not much more than 200 years ago. We are so new to this land compared with our guide’s people. Our history here is recent even by our own Western standards. I sit and ponder this as we glide further into the gorge.

There are many paintings in the park that are kept secret as they mark sacred places. The painting we pass by is different. Rock art was also used to communicate information to travellers. It told them the type of food available and any fresh water nearby. We are reading signposts and tourist information maps from another culture.

In the second gorge the guide slips the boat into a small cave to one side. “Listen”. A high pitched squeaking sound reveals the presence of a population of tiny horseshoe bats. They snuffle around as we approach, keen to be left in peace to continue their siesta. They are the modest, shy cousins of the fruit bats we left back at the jetty.

Canoeists in yellow life jackets paddle by. Children shout and splash as they dive laughing into the water from a rocky ledge. Two men are fishing. The park is well used.

As the boat turns back towards the jetty, I look up in wonder at the beauty around me. It really is magnificent, how lucky we are that the Jawoyn have chosen to share it with us.