I have been working at the Hermannsburg Pottery in Ntaria, 130 km west of Alice Springs. The area was established as a Lutheran Mission and named Hermannsburg in 1877. The Hermannsburg Potters have been making ceramic vessels for over 20 years. Their particular style of coil pottery has elaborate figurative lids featuring scenes of local wildlife, landscapes, community activities and personal memories. Ntaria is the birthplace of Albert Namatjira and his style of watercolour painting has been adopted by the Hermannsburg Potters and translated through ceramic underglaze. Whilst I was assisting the Potters on a new collaborative project, I was also able to explore the surrounding central desert landscape.
One evening I went to Namatjira’s house, a few kilometers down the road from the Ntaria Township, situated on the bank of the dry Finke River or Larapinta in the local Arrernte language. Parking the car and gathering a blanket, I walked through piles of horseshit down the riverbank, disturbing a gathering of wild brumbies. At the sight of me they took off, except for one horse, a male. He was big, brilliantly alight in the metallic cast of the moon. It happened to be full that night. He stood midway across the parched floor of the river and looked at me protecting myself. Protecting his family, he released a great snort from his nostrils and stamped his foot into the sand. I didn’t know exactly what was the right move to take. Against the pull of my muscles I took a few steps forward and he turned away to his family on the far bank. I was relieved and watched them for a while standing near the trees.
I lay down on the sand and imagined the immensity of water that was once flowing over my body.
An hour or so later I opened my eyes, woken by a sound crescendoing towards me. In the bed of a thirsty river I momentarily mistook the sound for a rushing of water, though as it got louder it began to pulsate, heavy and deep like the slow heartbeat of something dying. The sound became more intense. Sand stuck to my face and hair. I was Velcro to the earth. I peeled my head to the dark sky, overcast with portentous clouds and as if let loose from their hanging baskets a huge bird, probably 3 meters across its wings, bore down over my body, not to the right or left but dead center. It was no more than a few feet above me. It might have been seeing if I was dead. The full moon was to the east and so brightened only one wing. I assumed it was a wedge-tail eagle by its great expanse. The encounter lasted less than ten seconds.
I heard the noise, looked up at its broad body and sat bolt upright as if it wrenched my heart out of my chest and disappeared with it into the serpentine Larapinta in the direction of Palm Valley.
This was the last time I stepped foot into the immense Finke, but by no means my only observation of it’s powerfully deep, ancient and overwhelming presence.
Yasmin Smith, Wedge Tailed, 2014.
19 kilometers down the river and a week beforehand, I am driving towards Palm Valley. This had to be done by 4WD. The wide sandy floors of the river from outside Namatjira’s house fed into a huge iron drenched gorge, the walls and floor of which undulated from the memory of past lappings. The Troopy, the colloquial name for a Toyota Landcruiser, bounced breathlessly slowly from rock to rock, each wheel hitting the ground at different times and at awkward angles. It was an alien machine in this landscape. My grip loosened on the steering wheel letting the flow of red sandstone direct me. The muscles in my legs vibrated over every bump. I was a passenger to the rivers path.
On arrival, at the point where no cars can go, I fill up my water bottle and walk to the beginning of the tourist trail. Its 40 degrees. I round the first bend. I am staring at Red Cabbage Palms and Cycads in Palm Valley in the Finke River Gorge.
In the middle of a desert land exists an oasis of sub-tropical nature. An island retreat, though water is scarcely seen, its invisible presence is of primary significance to the sustained life of the short, rock bound roots of the Red Cabbage Palm. Some of the Red Cabbage Palm or Livistona Mariae, as it is known by its botanical name, stand more than 20 meters tall, overshadowing all of the commonly arid flora such as gums and other low lying shrubs and grasses. The palm trees living here right now are aged between 100 and 300 years old. It was thought, until recently, that these trees were the continuing regeneration of palm trees, existing since the time of Gondwana. However, theories have evolved that extend to the possibility that these palms were carried as seeds by indigenous migration some 30 thousand years ago. Old by any account, they survive in this area because of unique hydrogeological conditions. Palm Valley and a large part of the Finke River sit above the Amadeus Basin. Fossil water is very slowly leached in and out of the sedimentary Hermannsburg Sandstone. Sucked up from shallow underground flow paths, or harvested by the stone when the rain does come, the red stone reserves water like a giant sponge. This place in the middle of our country is an island of sorts. Far away from the watery shore of our greater island, I am confronted with isolation and survival, with palm trees on a bed of sandstone. Hydrology, geology and dendrology play twister with each other and give existence to the rare observation of an island in time.