First Person

A Personal Journey to the Red Centre

I am not sure why I decided to travel on the Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin. Recent reading had much to do with it. A book about the painter Rex Battarbee told how he had introduced Albert Namatjira to watercolour painting. I had not realised that as early as the 1930s Battarbee made frequent trips to the Centre to paint its landscape then returned to Adelaide and Melbourne to exhibit and sell his work. Paintings helped a great deal to introduce many Australians to the then remote Centre and to challenge the conventional idea of its supposed barrenness and instead to make them wonder at its rare and colourful beauty. This interest was quickened by wartime development and American aid.

For instance, 1948 marked an unusual collaboration between Australia and America, when a major scientific and cultural exploration of Arnhem Land and Groote Eylandt was undertaken, jointly sponsored by the National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institute and the Commonwealth Department of Information. The aim was to study Aboriginal art, archaeology, the zoology and ecology of the region, and health and nutrition. The young botanist of the venture was Raymond Specht, who is now an Emeritus Professor of the University of Queensland, and a nonagenarian who lives around the corner from me in St Lucia.

The subsequent publicity through documentaries, lecture tours and photographs (and development of photography generally) brought remote northern Australia closer, if not making it familiar. Early Australian film played its part too.

My interest in Albert Namatjira, the first Aborigine to become famous through art, goes back to one special night in the 1940s. I had returned to the country town of my childhood on a holiday with a group of new university friends. Invited into a house where I had never been before, I was immediately drawn to a framed print on the wall, a stunning landscape. At that time the usual decorations were conventional non-Australian prints or ceramic depictions of flights of ducks—belittled by Barry Humphries in his tales of Moonee Ponds. My first sighting of a Namatjira opened up a sense of the mystery and wonder of another world. Though this memory has necessarily dimmed, I can still remember the effect. And it sowed an idea which attracted associations from here and there, a web of impressions which urged me to visit the Red Centre.

After Namatjira’s fame had grown enormously, ironically his life and livelihood were drastically restricted: he was not allowed to buy a house in Alice Springs because he was Aboriginal; and he was jailed for providing alcohol to his fellows. Perhaps worst of all, in 1983, years after his death, the Northern Territory Public Trustee sold the copyright of his work for a token sum, his family thereby losing possession of it. It was only on September 24, 2017, when I was revising this essay, that the Australian announced on its front page that copyright had been restored to the family—not by legal authorities or by public protest from the art world which has profited so much from Aborigines, but through the intervention of the millionaire Dick Smith.

Another book which nudged me on to take my journey was Journey to Horseshoe Bend (recently republished by Giramondo with a valuable afterword by Philip Jones). It tells the story of the attempt to save the life of the fatally ill Carl Strehlow (1871–1922), head of the Hermannsburg Mission over twenty-eight years, including Namatjira’s early life there. Carl’s wife Frieda and his fourteen-year-old youngest son Theodor (“T.G.H.”) took him by horse-drawn wagon down the dry bed of the Finke River through desert country, in the hope that he could be transported from the rail head at Oodnadatta to Adelaide for medical treatment. The gruelling journey, narrated by the son some forty years later, ended with Carl’s death along the way at Horseshoe Bend, where he is buried.

Theodor grew up at Hermannsburg with Aborigines, speaking their languages. His five elder siblings had long before been sent back to Germany for schooling. He eventually became one of Australia’s first and most distinguished anthropologists, noted for his studies of the beliefs and customs of the Arrernte Aborigines.

Carl Strehlow himself was a great philologist of Arrernte languages. His studies had been published in Germany, seven volumes in all between 1907 and 1920, but never translated into English. He recorded the languages, myths and legends. His work, one of the best sources in its field at the time, influenced the work of his son, Theodor.

In his retelling of the journey with his dying father, drawing on memory and his anthropological expertise, Theodor combines varying perspectives: a narrative from memory of the progress of the journey; the history of station life he had learned about subsequently; and the mythic sites of the country they passed. The narration thus takes on multiple layers, with the painful present interlaced with the recent and ancient past. Theodor was no modernist; rather he was naturally combining perspectives available to him, at the same time voicing an underlying protest against the sufferings of his father. Journey to Horseshoe Bend is one of the most interesting experiments in travel writing about inland Australia that I have read.

Theodor’s great work is Songs of Central Australia (1971), a study of the ceremonial poetry of the Arrernte. As the Australian Dictionary of Biography notes, “it has helped to elevate Aboriginal verse as literature, and to establish the Dreaming and the Aboriginal world-view as key concepts in an emerging Australian cultural identity.”

Popular views of central Australia have varied between two poles: as the Red Centre, singularly, even startlingly attractive, and as the “dead heart” of an empty desert. In mid-twentieth-century poetry the latter was for long a dominant image. James McAuley speaks of “a futile heart within a fair periphery”, though elsewhere he evokes its mystery and its different faces in “Terra Australis”, where he invites readers to “Voyage within you on the fabled ocean”, the imagination. Famously A.D. Hope, after painting an ugly picture of Australia and its “five cities, like five teeming sores”, swerves around in his last lines to wonder if strange flowerings might spring from its deserts—“such scarlet and savage as no green hills dare”. In the title of his early, influential book aiming at a balanced view of Australia’s art and culture, Geoffrey Serle borrowed a phrase from Hope but omitted the pivoting conditional if, so as to make his title From Deserts the Prophets Come.

With such thoughts, some recent, others long-lodged and jostling in my mind with recent reading, I had decided, as an octogenarian, to travel on the Ghan with my daughter Sue. I belong to a generation which wanted to see Europe first, Asia second. Over the last fifty years there has been a tendency to put Australia first.

We set out from Brisbane on our journey in April 2016, flying to Adelaide and overnighting there. The train is a particularly long one, taking up several platforms, with two engines. A courteous young staffer showed us to our two-bed compartment, which unfortunately had day-seats with backs to the engine. To offset this annoyance, we decided to spend a lot of time in the dining car, where the food was excellent. This arrangement also provided an opportunity to meet other passengers from around Australia and from abroad, mainly France and Germany. As the train passed through the usual sprawling suburbs, I was excited, no doubt like many passengers, by the thought of being about to cross a continent—feeling the romance of the Ghan.

At Port Augusta the train was delayed for one and a half hours, during which time one of the two engines was replaced. When we got going again the intercom announced that the trouble had been “a blocked engine toilet”, a bizarre incident on an “international” train—and perhaps better left unremarked, especially since the intercom was mostly silent, noting only a few features, such as the crossing of the dry Finke River.

When enthusiasts say the Ghan journey has enabled them to “see” Australia, presumably to gain some special understanding of it, beyond marvelling at its vast distances, one may wonder what they mean. Much of the landscape seen from the train looked scrubby, flat and uninhabitable, a desert in the original sense. Here I think a real opportunity for Ghan travel was missed. I would have liked to hear an Aborigine selectively telling some of the myths about the country we passed through, as happened later at Katherine Gorge.

Some attention might have been given also to episodes of black and white history, of the opening up of the Centre: the building of the railway line (so memorably if inventively described in Capricornia), outstanding exploits of explorers and myths about them, such as Lasseter’s lost reef of gold, tales of the Afghan pioneers, and of outstanding white adventurers like Bill Harney. A recent television program I watched showed that the desert country is full of distinctive wildlife and natural features if one has the eyes to spot them. Many of the photographs used in brochures to publicise the Ghan are aerial ones showing it winding its long length through bare country, views unavailable from the train.

We had planned a week’s stopover in Alice Springs, hiring a car and visiting spots in the Western MacDonnell Ranges. One excursion though, a day trip by four-wheel-drive bus, had to be booked ahead. This was a tour to the Hermannsburg Mission, where Albert Namatjira had grown up and spent much of his life; the tour then continued up the nearby dry bed of the Finke River to Palm Valley. The only original part of the mission remaining is the small stone church, and it was moving to think of those who had used it, including the Strehlows and Namatjira. Here within bare, white-plastered walls they would have sung with the choir. A compound of low, more modern wooden buildings surrounds the church, in view of the ranges.

The route to the Palms, not really a road or even a discernible track, varies between sandy stretches of the ancient river bed, and rocky parts bordered by boulders. There were no waterholes in this section. On each side tower the red rock walls of the ranges, trees occasionally finding footholds on layered ledges, extending right up to the top. The gorge is sparsely covered with clumps of bush, some branches still strung with flotsam from former floods, when the Finke became a raging torrent. As we bumped along, bouncing in our seats, we saw groups of wild ponies. We stopped for a sandwich lunch in the shadow of a giant red rock. The palms (red cabbage-tree), growing nowhere else, suddenly appear as a grove, which Namatjira painted.

Before we left Alice Springs we visited the Araluen Art Gallery to see its fine selection of Namatjiras. We were now able to appreciate better their delicate colours, except for the more elusive pinks which we had not often seen, since the colours of the country depend so much on the changing light.

On leaving the gallery we noticed a sign pointing to the Strehlow Research Centre, the repository of Theodor’s priceless collection of Aboriginal artefacts, including sacred objects, which he collected over a lifetime’s work as a Protector of Aborigines and as an anthropologist, both positions demanding extensive fieldwork. Shortly before Theodor’s death his ownership of this treasure trove had been disputed in a controversy involving Aborigines and others. The final result was that the collection was bought by the Northern Territory government and used to establish the research centre in 1975.

We found when we inquired in its foyer that the centre was closed to visitors but we were able to view a video of Theodor’s life. It ended with the looming court case over possession of the collection when he had died in the arms of Justice Michael Kirby, who had been appointed as one of the judges in the case.

As we were leaving the centre we met a curator, who turned out to be one of Theodor’s sons, John Strehlow. He invited us to visit part of the collection: we saw the sturdy leather saddle-bags which Theodor used to transport materials on his camel trips, and an array of family photographs, including some of Theodor’s mother Frieda, who had come out from Germany to marry Carl. After the Second World War John went to Germany to trace his uncles and aunts. They had all survived the war. In a cellar John found Frieda’s multi-volume diaries.

In Alice Springs, on the Todd River—usually dry, with its “Namatjira-like” slender ghost gums, which can seem like haunting spirits growing out of its bed and along its banks—we found the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens. It is the legacy of an extraordinary woman, Olive Pink (1898–1975), an early supporter of Aboriginal rights and friend of Namatjira. Influenced by Daisy Bates, she persisted in studying anthropology at Sydney University, at a period when women students were not encouraged. She made several trips to Alice Springs and travelled alone in difficult circumstances. Miss Pink founded this sixteen-hectare garden of native plants, still today devotedly tended, the present curator remembering “Miss Pink” supervising the work from her nearby campsite on the river bank. The native plants are all carefully labelled and show prodigal varieties of each species. Many visitors do not get far past the popular café but I found it fascinating to follow some of the winding paths of what is truly a wonderful creation. Here my daughter Sue tracked down the resident bower bird presiding over his bower, and we glimpsed a wallaby passing on the fringes.

After a week in Alice Springs we re-boarded the Ghan bound for Darwin. During a one-day stopover at Katherine, Sue took a short flight over Arnhem Land while I joined most of the other passengers on a boat trip down the Katherine River Gorge. Our Aboriginal guide outlined as we travelled the formation and nature of the gorge, its origins and place in Aboriginal history.

Eventually we reached Darwin and I at last glimpsed the Arafura Sea, which I remembered learning about in primary school as one of Australia’s northern boundaries.

Laurie Hergenhan is a professor emeritus of the University of Queensland.


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