landscape, Tanami Desert

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:

dead tree, Lajamanu
dead tree, Lajamanu

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:

tree, pm
tree, pm

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.

One response to “landscape, Tanami Desert”

  1. […] I experimented  with making a few black and white landscapes around Hooker Creek as well as some coloured ones.  These were done largely in reaction to the hyped up, heavily saturated  colours of the tourist […]


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