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Song & experience in the Central Desert

It’s early evening in Alice Springs’ Todd Mall, and music and painting are converging. Desert Mob 2022 opened the night before, its exhibition of Aboriginal art from the Central Desert exploding off the walls at the Araluen Arts Centre.

Now it’s the annual 10-day music festival Desert Song’s turn, and previews of what’s to come from instrumentalists and choirs from around Australia and the world are setting the warm air into celebratory motion, delighting the large crowd.

Just across the other side of the mall, Papunya Tula’s gallery is celebrating, too. It’s 50 years since the famous Western Desert Art Movement began, and that crowd is spilling out into the mall. The two crowds mingle. Music and painting are converging.

The St Paul's African Choir at White Gums.
Camera IconThe St Paul’s African Choir at White Gums. Credit: Will Yeoman

The next day I head out to White Gums, just out of town on Bullen Road, for Desert Song’s open-air concert Desert Voices. And to interview the festival’s founder and director, Morris Stuart.

While I wait, the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir breaks into song as they farewell one of their teachers. Kangaroo tail cooks on a barbeque. Kids kick a footy around. Dogs chase each other through the chairs arranged in front of the stage. Members of the St Paul’s African Choir walk through the low grasses in their sky-blue robes. A flamenco guitarist warms up. Women sell CDs and paella. The West MacDonnell Range stands silent.

“I mainly use my voice to get other people to use their voices,” Morris says when we finally sit down (he’s a busy man).

Something the South American-born former Melbourne pastor has been doing all his life, in more recent times as conductor of the CAAWC, which some years ago he took to Germany to present to audiences there their own Lutheran hymns, but “in language”.

An example of Morris’ commitment to cross-cultural engagement with a political edge. It’s therefore no surprise, either, that the theme of this year’s Desert Song Festival is Our Climate Our Planet Our Future.

Morris Stuart conducting an impromptu performance of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women's Choir at White Gums.
Camera IconMorris Stuart conducting an impromptu performance of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir at White Gums. Credit: Will Yeoman

“But we’re here to bring people together,” Morris says. “To express themselves relative to their history and culture. It’s a celebration of our true humanity. The best we can be. It’s very satisfying. And equally terrifying.”

He says the festival is an invitation to the rest of Australia. “I say, ‘Come here, this is the essential Australian journey, being with these custodians who have lived here for 60,000 years. We can provide you with an opportunity to connect with them. And it will transform your life.”

I know what he means. A couple of days earlier, I’d walked from town up Todd River’s dry, sandy bed to the Olive Pink Botanic Garden. (Another musical connection: the Olive Pink Opera by Anne Boyd premieres next month.) It’s a magical place, unlike any other botanic garden I’ve visited: harsh and arid but also delicate and beautiful.

Sturt's Desert Rose, Olive Pink Botanic Garden.
Camera IconSturt’s Desert Rose, Olive Pink Botanic Garden. Credit: Will Yeoman

I read that “Miss Olive Muriel Pink, anthropologist, Aboriginal rights campaigner and artist, was responsible for the gazettal of the garden area in 1956” and that there are more than 500 Central Australian plant species to discover throughout the 16ha garden.

It’s only just spring but the witchetty bush and crimson turkey bush are in full flower, as is the rock fuchsia bush. Honeyeaters, the yellow-throated miner, western bowerbirds and grey-crowned babblers are everywhere. So music is here, too.

There are plenty of walks from which to choose, including the Wattle Walk, the Mallee and Senna Walk and the Olive Pink Walk. I opt for the Hill Walk — Arrernte Trail, which affords spectacular views of the town and ranges.

Spectacular doesn’t however do justice to Simpsons Gap (Rungutjirpa) and Standley Chasm (Angkerle Atwatye), the only two highlights (there are many others) along the 231km Larapinta Trail which I have time to visit.

Standley Chasm.
Camera IconStandley Chasm. Credit: Will Yeoman

Amazingly, as I approach this gap in the West MacDonnell Ranges, I do get to spot a black-footed rock wallaby among the rocks. I’m almost as excited as I am when I reach the waterhole flanked by awesome cliffs.

In such places freighted with the Arrernte’s dreamings, it’s easy to imagine yourself into a state of numinous receptivity. I try to resist, instead dipping my hand in the still, cold water and then drying it against the smooth rock face, all the while marvelling at the piercing blue of the sky like a tear in the Ranges.

Standley Chasm is actually a traditional women’s dreaming site, which fact is made plain to me by my guide, David McCormack: “There is knowledge that as men, we are not allowed access to.” Though of course we are allowed to visit, with permission.

As we walk along the uneven trail flanked by rocky cliffs and trees, David stops to point out various plants used for bush tucker and in bush medicine. I remember the colour, taste and texture of these when we sit down for a dot painting workshop, using brushes, sticks and bright acrylics to adorn a plain boomerang with local symbols.

Guide David searching for something sweet as he heads towards Standley Chasm.
Camera IconGuide David searching for something sweet as he heads towards Standley Chasm. Credit: Will Yeoman

I remember all this, too, as I walk through the town of Alice Springs. It’s a completely different world, and yet not. Cafe and restaurant fare replaces bush tucker. Street art replaces the reds, purples, blues and silvers of natural rock-faces.

And the galleries — Papunya Tula, of course, but also Mbantua Gallery and Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre — heritage buildings such as the old hospital and Hartley Street School, and Red Kangaroo Books bookstore, are rich in cultural minerals, ready for plunder.

I also make a point of visiting the Yeperenye Shopping Centre on Hartley Street, the human-made equivalent of a large cave, hoping to glean a different insight into daily life. Run my hands under tap water. Feel the wall’s painted plaster.

As the day draws to a close, I realise I need to return to my room at the very good Crowne Plaza Alice Springs Lasseters to get ready for Spinifex Gum in concert with the formidable Marilya Choir from Cairns (yes, it proves to be a powerful experience).

There’s just enough time left to head to the top of Anzac Hill to take in the full splendour of the town (yes, it is in its own way splendid) and its surrounding ranges.

Will Yeoman was a guest of Tourism NT. They have not seen or approved this story.

fact file

  • For Standley Chasm cultural tours and other activities, see standleychasm.com.au/cultural-tours
  • Olive Pink Botanic Garden and cafe is open seven days a week, 8am to 6pm. Entry $10 donation, includes a guide book.

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