Drawn by a legend

Sunburnt country ... the view from Finke River.
Sunburnt country ... the view from Finke River. Photo: Janie Barrett

Fifty years after Albert Namatjira's death, Joanne Lane traces the source of the artist's inspiration.

Amid the red and purple hues of central Australia rise the MacDonnell Ranges, rolling and twisting across the country like the giant caterpillars from Aboriginal Dreaming. Dotted with gorges, chasms, waterholes and gnarled white ghost gums, this is the giant, vivid canvas for Albert Namatjira's famed watercolour paintings.

He was born in this territory, the Western Macs, and he loved to paint here, striding in on foot or by camel. His ability to render the subtle play of light and colour on geographical features brought the centre alive for many Australians.

I've come to the Western Macs to follow his trail and the Caterpillar Dreaming songlines, hoping to see the land as he might have.

Namatjira was introduced to watercolours at his home at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, 130 kilometres south-west of Alice Springs along Larapinta Drive, so it seems a good place to start my loop. Though a four-wheel-drive trip is nothing like Namatjira endured, there's still a lot of dust. So my first sight of remote Hermannsburg is probably not unlike how it appeared when it became a German mission for the Arrernte Aboriginal people in the 1880s.

Today, the whitewashed farmhouse buildings have been restored and travellers can enjoy scones and tea in the Kata-Anga Tea Rooms, once the old missionary house.

Namatjira was born here in 1902 and learnt carpentry, saddlery, leatherwork and blacksmithing. He was also considered a good shearer and stockman. It wasn't until he was 32 that he met watercolourists Rex Battarbee and John Gardner, who visited the mission with an exhibition of their paintings of the MacDonnell Ranges. Namatjira was fascinated and the mission superintendent, Friedrich Albrecht, gave him a box of watercolours and paper.

When Battarbee returned two years later, Namatjira offered to be his "camel boy", as they were called in those days, in return for painting lessons. He took Battarbee into the heart of Western Aranda tribal land. Battarbee was impressed by how quickly the young man understood the fundamentals of the medium and, by 1937, Namatjira had sold his first six paintings.

The museum and art gallery at Hermannsburg hold works by Namatjira, his family and local artists who still paint with watercolours and I'm keen to see Namatjira's depiction of places we'll soon visit.

The girls at the tearoom direct us to Namatjira's house outside town. At the end of a dusty track we find a two-bedroom cottage where the artist lived with his wife, Rubina, and some of their 10 children. It's a humble place but well maintained and you can imagine Namatjira working at his easel outside the door.

After his first exhibition in 1937, his success and reputation grew and his works were exhibited in Australian capital cities for the next 10 years. The sale of his work allowed him to buy the cottage.

After Hermannsburg, the road is unsealed along the Mereenie Loop that links parts of the West MacDonnells to Kings Canyon and Uluru. Instead of heading to Uluru, we head north to Gosse Bluff (4WD, 175 kilometres), known as Tnorala to Aboriginal people. We don't see the emus and wildlife of one of Namatjira's earliest pieces painted here and there's something eerie about its silence. Gosse Bluff is a five-kilometre-wide crater created when a comet crashed to earth millenniums ago. Aboriginal people consider this a sacred site.

From here we turn on to the sealed Namatjira Drive and bump along to Redbank Gorge (4WD, 157 kilometres from Alice via Namatjira Drive). It's less visited than other landmarks along this stretch but it's clear what drew Namatjira here. The red hues of the rock appear like ignited flames in his work; I'm unable to capture them as well on camera. As evening gathers, rock wallabies come to drink at the permanent waterhole and we camp under the stars.

Next morning we drive to Glen Helen Gorge (2WD, 139 kilometres) to see Namatjira's Organ Pipes. The gorge is famous for this rocky structure descending the cliff face. Not far from Glen Helen is my favourite view of Mount Sonder, the highest peak in the MacDonnell Ranges and the subject of one of Namatjira's signature paintings. The mountain is significant to the Arrernte, appearing like the profile of a pregnant woman lying on her back. It changes colour constantly, making it a perfect place for painting at any time.

Our next stop along Namatjira Drive is Ormiston Gorge (2WD, 135 kilometres), where Namatjira immortalised the area's gnarled ghost gums. We walk along the top of the gorge, marvelling at how the famous trees cling defiantly to rocky ledges. Our final stop for the day is Standley Chasm (2WD, 50 kilometres), where golden light pours down the sheer walls at midday.

There are many other sites worth visiting along Namatjira Drive, including the Ochre Pits (2WD, 110 kilometres), where Aborigines sourced red and yellow ochres to use in ceremonies, and Simpsons Gap (2WD, 20 kilometres), where rock wallabies frequent the waterhole. All these places are signposted along Namatjira Drive or you can pick up maps from tourist or national parks offices in Alice Springs.

To discover other places where Namatjira painted, you can visit the Albert Namatjira Gallery at the Araluen Cultural Precinct, Alice Springs, which also has works by the "Hermannsburg School" and Namatjira's teacher, Battarbee.

After two days following the painter around the Western Macs, I'm beginning to see a canvas of work at every curve of the road and in every tree and rock. Namatjira's depiction of this country has become the way I see it, too, and it's not without sadness that we return to Alice Springs, leaving behind what a park ranger describes as "God's own country".

Namatjira's talent didn't make his life easy. In the late 1940s, two of his children died and another was blinded in one eye. Forgeries bearing his name began to appear and his applications for a grazing lease and to build a house in Alice Springs were rejected. But he continued painting with other Aranda artists and exhibiting his works.

In 1954 he met the Queen and in 1957 he and his wife became the first Aborigines to be granted Australian citizenship. But he also spent more time in hospital and his failing health affected the quality of his work.

In October 1958 he was imprisoned for supplying liquor to an Aboriginal man, indirectly leading to the death of the man's wife. At the time, Aborigines were prohibited from consuming alcohol. Namatjira was released after two months but sunk into depression and lost interest in painting. He had a heart attack and later died in Alice Springs Hospital from heart disease complicated by pneumonia on August 8, 1959.

Fifty years after his death, Namatjira's life and work continue to influence many Australians. It's still his vision of the centre that is the way most coast dwellers and foreigners view the outback.

The afternoon I leave Alice, I wander into the cemetery at the Araluen Cultural Precinct. Namatjira's grave is easy to pick, with its large terracotta mural depicting the famous ghost gums of central Australia, made by his granddaughter, Elaine.

Beyond the cemetery, the sun is setting on the Western Macs in a fiery blaze of red and orange. It seems the perfect resting place for Namatjira and a place of beauty to farewell the man who has shown me the real MacDonnell Ranges.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas flies to Alice Springs non-stop from Melbourne for $267 and $263 from Sydney. Tiger Airways flies non-stop to Alice from Melbourne only, for $98. (Fares are one way, including tax.)

Many people visit the MacDonnell Ranges as part of an extended driving holiday. You can rent a four-wheel-drive in Alice and take the sealed Larapinta Drive out of town. At the junction after Standley Chasm (50 kilometres), you can take the northern loop along the sealed Namatjira Drive or continue to Hermannsburg (130 kilometres) on the sealed Larapinta section. The Mereenie Loop linking the far end of Namatjira Drive to Kings Canyon is unsealed. All sights are signposted. A 4WD is recommended on the Mereenie Loop and the tracks leading to Tnorala and Redbank Gorge. Free route maps are available in Alice Springs or from nt.gov.au. Rangers conduct walks and activities in the West MacDonnell National Park from May through to October.

Staying there

There are many accommodation options in Alice Springs, from resorts to caravan parks. See centralaustraliantourism.com. On my route, basic camping ($3.30 a person) is available at Standley Chasm, Hermannsburg, Palm Valley, Redbank Gorge and Ormiston Gorge. About an hour's drive from Alice is the Glen Helen Resort (glenhelen.com.au) at the western end of the West MacDonnell Ranges, with camping and rooms. From April to November rooms are $160 a night.

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