This was my first visit to Kalka, my first visit to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands for that matter. The vast expanse of country stretches out before you, and for someone who grew up on the East coast of Australia, remote has never felt quite so, well— remote.
We were tracking our way across the Northern Territory for several days before heading into South Australia, as I wanted to show my intrepid travel buddy Brett who had not been to central Australia before the mighty Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The best way to experience the Territory is to camp and unless you are sticking to the highway, to get off road with a 4WD. We were there in November so made do with a couple of flimsy tents from the car hire place, which is all you need to keep the bugs away. Winter is a different story, as with most arid climates, the temperature plummets overnight.
We stocked ourselves up in Alice Springs with food, ice and petrol and headed South West towards Yulara, making it in time to watch the sun set over Uluru before setting up camp. To anyone camping in the Territory, my sage advice is to lock all your food in the car or bring someone as skilled at chasing away packs of wild dogs as Brett. Despite the howling and the apparent commotion (so I am told), I slept like a baby.
On day two we walked through Walpa Gorge at the Olgas and ambled our way on the Luritja Road to Kings Canyon. The terrain changes quite rapidly as you move through the country. The red earth, rich in iron ore makes way to what I would best describe as Savannah. The most common tree you see is the Desert Oak (Allocasuarina decaisneana) and known by the local Anangu people as Kurkara. The trees change markedly in size— they stay relatively small until their roots hit the underground water table, when their branches shoot out and their pine like leaves multiply. We missed many of the wildflowers that abound the desert in September and October but there were still some in their last flush. Xanthorrhoea (grass trees) dot the plains and you will see dingos roaming and enormous Wedge Tail Eagles feasting on road kill.
We were aiming for Yuendumu to visit the art centre Warlukurlangu, and were told to take the Mereenie Loop road. It was a big drive, great way to see the country but rough on tires. We blew one and needed to do some bush mechanics to put a spare on, as our jack wasn’t big enough. The NT roads are littered with tires, hubcaps and abandoned cars- most of which get burnt out after being stripped for tyres and usable parts. We made it to Glen Helen, which is at the base on the Larapinta Trail, and the highlight of our stay was a visit to Orminston Gorge. Red cliffs converge and at their base is a very cold waterhole. On the day we visited it would have been 35 degrees and the water felt about 12. It certainly cools you down! Rock wallabies are common to the area and birds stop to drink from its depths.
Our stint from Glen Helen to Yuendumu took us through the Aboriginal Community of Papunya, where the beginnings of the Papunya Tula art movement can be traced. It began in 1971 when a group of men were encouraged to paint a school wall by teacher Geoffrey Bardon. The Papunya Tula art movement brought with it acclaimed artists such as Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Freddy West Tjakamarra, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri among others. In exile from their communities, these early painters from Papunya used art to keep their culture alive and in doing so, brought into being the last great art movement of the 20th century.
Papunya was originally established as the administrative hub for the Pintupi and Luritja people where they sunk a bore and provided some basic housing. The population of this small settlement reached 1000, and was plagued with health and social problems that continue today though the population has dwindled to 300. Many people, especially the Pintupi residents moved back to their homelands in the West along with many of the artists of Papunya Tula. Papunya Tula also relocated to be closer to the artists- many of whom are share holders of the artist owned and operated company. Papunya Tjupi Aboriginal Arts emerged in its place in 2007 and we were sorry to see it closed on our way through. The road we were traveling on hits Papunya, and you have to navigate its back streets in order to find it again. A signpost and a dirt road pointed us back towards Yuendumu.
On arriving in Yuendumu we were pretty shocked to find out that the Tanami highway had been completed about 18 months before we arrived, and despite it’s Wikipedia entry and the advice from the car hire company— the dirt road section is a graded 10 minute section to get you to Yuendumu. About 3 hours of new tar will take you straight to Alice Springs. Not quite as fun as the rally car driving through the bush we enjoyed for two days!
Yuendumu is a town about 300kms North West of Alice Springs and home to Warlukurlangu Artists. It is one of the largest communities in the Northern Territory and home to mainly Warlpiri and Anmatyerr Aboriginal people. Warlukurlangu Artists is a powerhouse of production and activity and I would hazard a guess that they produce more canvases than any other art centre. Artists from both the Yuendumu and Nyirripi communities paint here, producing artwork that is know for its bright colour and vitality. You cannot talk about Yuendumu without talking about the dogs. Gloria Morales is the assistant manager and began a program to care for the sick and stray dogs in the community and has been rescuing, de-sexing and rehoming dogs since she moved to the central desert. You can support her efforts by donating here. The centre is teeming with volunteers, dogs and artists and after a busy day, we were on our way again with a lovely Melbourne lass who travelled with us down the smoothest tarred road imaginable. She was stranded after her friend’s car broke down on the way from Alice and we held out hope that it was still in one piece. Tires gone and smashed windows, but otherwise OK— though no doubt only a day away from a match.
By reading this you may have noticed the round about route we took. Due to our time constraints and trying to make sure our visits coincided with art centres, we tallied countless more kilometres than we might have done had we managed a more direct route. Our final destination was the APY lands and again, we inadvertently took the long way. From Alice, we decided that we would make for Kalka by travelling along the Great Central Road, far easier we decided than taking the Stuart highway and cutting in via Ernabella. We were on the border of WA, NT and SA, each state in a different time zone. After something like 9 hours of driving, we decided we needed to make for the Warakurna roadhouse in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands in WA for Petrol and a sleep and due to another case of bad timing missed the opening hours of Warakurna Artists who’s gallery is at the roadhouse. They are producing some exceptional works and are drawing international acclaim for their contemporary and unique canvases.
By first light we were off again and found the peaceful Kalka Community nestled beneath the Tomkinson Ranges and our destination Niniku Arts. The day we visited was one of sorry business with most of the artists attending a funeral at Amata. The communities within the APY Lands are connected by kin, language and friendship and funerals are an all too regular meeting place.
The art centre is in a locked enclosure, with the original building having undergone numerous transformations over the years. An old mobile health unit silver bullet bus has found new life out the back, and artists can often be seen painting in the winter sun on the deck in front. We felt very welcomed by manager Liane and studio assistant Anna, and you can tell on entering that it is a nurturing art centre for the artists and the broader community. Pipalyatjara (or ‘Pip’ as it is known) is just down the road and Ninuku Arts represents artists from both communities. The artists that were painting that day included Monica Puntjina Watson who was finishing a magical work with her signature swirls in yellow, purple and pink on a white background. In her 80’s she is one of the most committed painters at Ninuku and brings her tjukurpa (dreaming) stories to life in a way that is completely her own.
The canvases that Liane showed us were exceptional. Among the rolls were Jimmy Donegan’s, Samuel Millers and Sandy Brumby’s. The calibre of work is phenomenal and we are thrilled and honoured to be working with Ninuku to translate some of these onto scarves. I must admit that on seeing Nyanu Watson’s Tjulpis was one of those pinch yourself moments, as it was one of her early works that first inspired me to start One of Twelve.
Fast forward to our departure, we took some very simple direction from Liane. Whether it was left, left, right or right, left, left or another combination we never quite figured out. We told ourselves it doesn’t matter, we have Google Maps and a half a tank of petrol, which in a Hilux 4WD is about double a normal car and figured we could top up at Ernabella. We didn’t want to stop in Amata without a permit when there was a sorry camp on but knew Ernabella was not far. We went right. We didn’t pass another car for 3 hours and realised about an hour in we had taken the wrong road. We kept going, Google assuring us we would hit the highway eventually. Our tank was on empty and Brett started telling me about a movie he had seen where these two people run out of petrol in the desert, they decide to split up and the one who stayed with the car is murdered. I tell him I’ll walk for petrol and we realise it is probably a 6 hour trek to the nearest cattle station. The panic set in when you realise the distances, the fact that you can’t get any phone reception and how quick things would deteriorate without food and water. We had BBQ shapes and water and Brett had a hunch that if we didn’t stop we might just make it to the highway. We made it, and not only that; we made it to the Kulgera Roadhouse and actually drove up to a diesel bowser. We celebrated with a cold beer even though it was 11am and we laughed in the manic way only two people who an hour ago thought they would be standard for days and are now drinking beers can.