Late one afternoon whilst I was at Lajamanu I went on a brief phototrip with Helga Leunig to take photos of the Tanami Desert landscape. We travelled a short distance along the gravel road that provides access to the local cemetery and rubbish dump. This road north from Lajamanu, which connects Lajamanu to the Bunting Highway, Kalkarindji and Top Springs, and doesn’t feature on Google maps is the road that we would take to leave Lajamanu for Alice Springs via Top Springs.
Helga had briefly explored the area to the north of Lajamanu early in the day, and she was interested in returning to the rubbish dump to photograph a red car in the late afternoon light. We never got there. I suspected that we missed the turn off because we were rushing to catch the light. The Tanami landscape was very different to what I’d expected. I thought that it would be low and flat like the landscape of northern South Australia or featureless sand plains. I didn’t expect this bio-region to be as treed as it was:
Vegetation is predominantly spinifex hummock grassland with a tall-sparse shrub overstorey. Like most coastal Australians my imagination had constructed it as terrifyingly, inhospitable arid country–an undifferentiated, empty desert landscape with intense white light, termite mounds, and extreme temperatures. Unhomely. It was yet another version of the white settler’s “dead heart”–that long held popular conception of the Australian interior as a great and threatening unknown; one counterpoised to the mythical Inland Sea in the middle of Australia that was the preoccupation of the early white explorers, such as Charles Sturt, who took a whaleboat to the desert. I didn’t expect to see the clustered eucalypts.
The time in which you can take photos in the soft light in the late afternoon is very short. The so called magic hour is probably half and hour or so. Things have to fall into place quickly. The best time for me was just after the sun had dropped below the horizon, and before the light started to fade. Objects are not so sun drenched then, the light is gentle and the colours are more delicate:
The landscape is very different from the palette of the tourist brochures which are limited to ochre and cobalts.
The phototrip is a case of driving down along the corrugated gravel road until you see a suitable location, stopping the 4 wheel drive, jumping out, walking around and hoping for the best. With luck you may find something suitable to photograph. If not, you then quickly move on down the road, until something better turns up. It’s really pot luck. We stay close to the road because its our only reference point. Stepping away from the road means stepping into the strangeness of a world in which there are none of the contemporary reference points I take for granted.
I stand on the edge of the landscape without a glimpse of the culture of knowing this country, as a place where the Warlpiri live in and belong to. I know nothing of their stories about this country, their connections to it, the routes or pathways they travelled, the songlines of their ancestors, or the embodied knowledge of their homeland as they moved around their country. I had no maps of my own of this country and I was acutely aware that the landscape I was seeing at dusk was not mediated through Warlpiri eyes and culture.
The Tanami desert is is culturally coded and yet sensual and experiential.