Stark contrast


I can’t believe that a week ago I was in Alice Springs; it seems like a dream. I’ve gone from this:


… to this:


And from this:


… to this:


It’s grand to be back!

I don’t like Aboriginal art


It’s a lament I’ve heard often over the years. In the popular imagination Aboriginal art, as a broad generic descriptor, is either Top End X-ray style or Centralian dot-dot stuff. Usually the inland work is imagined as circles with dots around them, executed in a palette of browns. Sadly, this pretty accurately describes a lot of the stuff being hawked on the lawns outside Flynn Church in Todd Mall, or sold in bulk by attractive-looking outlets such as this:


Peeps: it need not be so. I’ve just returned from the Araluen Arts Centre where I saw two exhibitions that had me mesmerised. The breadth of media and subject matter and pure quality was absolutely captivating. Sorry about the crummy iPhone photos, but have a scroll down.

Tiger Yaltangki, Desert Safari:


Louise Daniels, Alice Springs baseball grand final (acrylic on car bonnet!):


Matjangka Norris, Minyma Mamu Inma:


Colin Watson, Nyangatja Ngayulu. Ngayulu Colin-ny. This is me. I am Colin:

I am Colin

David Frank, Policeman Story:


Judy Long, Ngulu – Seed Story:


Vincent Namatjira, The Indulkana Tigers:


Billy Yunkurra Atkins, Animals at Kumpupirntily (Lake Disappointment):


Kaylene Whiskey, Closing Time at Mintabie:


Maybe you’re more of a 3D or sculpture kind of person.










What a wonderful, vibrant world! What’s not to like?


Friday foto


Freezer section, Eastside Shops.

Kangaroo tails: mmm!


Silk purses


I couldn’t make it to the launch of Trevor Dickinson’s Merewether tunnel mural, but I did see the NBN news clip. In it, Trevor said, “It’s really good to be able to alter an environment by doing a painting”.

merewether tunnel opening

I think his tunnel is one of the rare examples of public art actually doing that. This week I was reminded of how public art is so often dragooned in when poorly conceived developments go badly wrong.

In the winter of 1985 I was wending my way up the Queensland coast. I remember being struck by the appearance of every town: their main streets had been closed off, covered in red pavers and made into pedestrian malls. I imagine that there was some good theorising behind this, a reclaim the streets concept to get folk walking to high street retailers. As is so often the case, the reality failed to match the optimism of the architects’ drawings. Other forces were at work.

I made my way inland, to Alice Springs. Imagine my pleasure when I came across Todd Street, a bustling focus of the town. And imagine my horror when I turned off that very same Todd Street and into a side road to be confronted by … 64 pallets of red pavers.

The Alice is one of dozens of towns that has since partially reopened its mall to traffic, but by the time this happened the world had moved on. The northern end of Todd Mall is not unlike Newcastle West. So “something” had to be done. A bubbler and a seat referencing postwar Scandinavian furniture was an obvious start …


… followed by seats that perhaps reference the McDonnell Ranges …


… and some exotically decorated street lights …


It’s churlish to criticise the seats, the bubbler, the street light. Each of these pieces of functional public art was thoughtfully designed and well produced, unlike the environment in which it sat.

These nicely rusted shade structures, for example. They look great … but … but … what do they do? They’ve been plonked in a transit zone where no one (and I checked) even pauses, let alone stops, to idle beneath their cleverly angled wings. Perhaps this is because they, sadly, are themselves in complete shade for most of the day, dwarfed by the hideous shopping centre that they’re somehow supposed to be enhancing. It’s beyond mad.


Ah, but that shopping centre. Oh yes. It is truly one of the ugliest and most dysfunctional buildings I’ve ever been in, anywhere. Inside, it’s an easy-clean, tiled nightmare. Most shops are empty, the only life being around the cluster of chicken outlets that make up the “food court”. It’s like being in a gigantic men’s toilet that serves fried chicken.


What on earth to do? Why don’t people want to shop here? I know! Let’s get some local artists to paint a mural!


This is a double (even triple) whammy. Not only does the mall actually look worse, but the mural is diminished too. But to get the full effect of this atrocity one needs to stand back and … um … just kind of look around the pillar, the one that has the directions to the toilets on it. At least that way you can get both the fibreglass emu and the fibreglass roo and the … er … pioneer (?) seat in frame. (But don’t actually sit on the seat. Or pat the roo. Or look at the mural. We have tape and bollards to stop that kind of malarkey.)


Newcastle architectural watchdog Swamp Life has commented on the crimes of our town. I think that there’s the opportunity for a sub-branch of Swamp Life-style criticism: that for public art disasters executed in an attempt to redeem an architectural disgrace.

Over to you, Swamp Life!

Trees are lovely


They’re lovely everywhere, but Alice Springs trees are particularly lovely.

River red gums – gnarled and mottled.


They’re the old men of the riverbed.


They’ve seen it all come and go.


And white woods against a low-slung hill at sunset.



Attack of the 14-foot bird


If an Englishman’s home is his castle, an Australian’s home is his fortress.

As a new arrival in Alice Springs I was offered a tip on home security. Get a mongrel pup and pay some blackfella a carton of green cans to come round and give it a hiding. The pup will never forget the hiding and, for the rest of its days, will bark like a maniac at every blackfella that comes within a hundred yards of your fence.*

I was reminded of this when seeing the “snarl windows” on fences when walking into town.


For many years a large proportion of Alice Springs homes were built by Territory Housing and so complied with Darwin’s building regulations. This meant a three-foot high cyclone mesh fence, to which folk bolted a few posts and some iron sheets. But the bottom part was always left open, thereby allowing the dog a bloody good opportunity to go for your ankles and scare the bejaysus out of any passer-by.


Does this happen in all outback towns?

Thankfully, some sort of progress has been made. Maybe mongrel pups are getting harder to come by, or people aren’t prepared to pay the carton of green cans required for training purposes, but this piece of backyard sculpture certainly scared the hell out of this whitefella!




* A reader recently emailed me to ask, “Did you actually do that?!” I promise: I didn’t. And I avoided the generous giver of advice thereafter.



1986. In a secondhand bookshop in Guadalajara I pick up a copy of Bernal Diaz’s conquistador journal, The Conquest of New Spain. It’s a remarkable book, and it feels all the more remarkable to be reading it as I bus along dusty roads to towns that still wear the tiles and mosaics of colonial Spain on their public buildings. What puzzles me is the ease with which Cortes’s small band subjugate an empire; what unnerves me is the conquistadors’ utter self-belief in their mission.


2014. Pension day in Alice Springs. It’s hot, and the queue of people to get into the Riverside Bar of the Todd Tavern is pressed against the narrow strip of shade by the drive-thru. They’re twitching to be inside, the rhythmic thud of music and the laughter taunting them. Through paper-cut slits a security guard eyes the queue, controls the door. He’s past his prime, he’s grossly overweight, but the authority of his whiteness is enough to cow the crowd. For the first time in years I think of Bernal Diaz.

I go to a meeting. It’s boring and I don’t want to be there. I wonder why I bother to sit through it: I’m in my fifties and I should have the presence of mind and self-confidence to just get up and walk out, but I don’t.

An hour later I’m in a diesel ute and we rumble past the Riverside bar. The queue’s gone and red tape skirts the drive-thru; a lost thong and a bloody T-shirt are on the ground; the small, numbered cones that the police put next to items of evidence are scattered about. A cameraman from the local news service wrestles with a tripod.

Later, my dull commitments filled, I head back to the creek to see what happened earlier. I feel uneasy about this transparent act of voyeurism, but not uneasy enough to detour. When I get there the tape has gone, the thong and T-shirt have gone, the number cones have gone. The driveway has been hosed down and the dirt and cracker dust smells of wetness. Did it even happen?

The sun’s hot on my back but I feel utterly glum. The word “bleak” conjures up Dickens and Hogarth, the smog-filled slums of the East End. I can’t reconcile it to the eye-achingly blue sky of Wills Terrace on this pension day afternoon. And yet it’s the only word that fits.


Report: Centralian Advocate. Woman stabbed outside ‘animal bar’.

Foreign correspondent


I’m in Alice Springs, a town in the Northern Territory. I lived here for a few years a while ago and now I’m back here for work. Much has changed, much has remained the same.

The town is framed by the McDonnell Ranges (I think I’m obliged by the Northern Territory Government to add the adjective “magnificent” before their every mention) but the real heart of the place is the Todd River. As the town has developed to the east, north, west and south the river is more than ever the environmental hub that provides the Alice with its focus.


Newcastle’s waterways are generally either tidal or only ever flowing at capacity after rain. The Todd, unlike Newcastle’s waterways, is a peopled environment. Don’t be fooled by the snake-like coolings of tyre tracks; they are not made by the vehicles of people who live here, but by the police and the night patrols. As Mr Hockey recently pointed out, if you’re likely to be living in a creek bed then you’re unlikely to be worrying about increases in fuel excise.

The Todd is, for the most part, entirely dry with a bed of gritty, dusty sand. But there’s more to this difference between the two types of river than just “wet versus dry” / “concrete versus sand”. At some point in Newcastle’s recent past we stopped peopling our waterways.

Here, each river red gum stands like a small island of activity. People scatter during the daytime but return at night to the small, scuffed fireplaces (or, in this case, makeshift camp oven from a half wheel hub).


I’ve written before about people who, in our lifetime, remember swimming in the Styx and lazing on its grassed, sandy banks. The endless channelling and straightening, the concreting and fencing, the erection of “Danger!” and “Keep Out!” signs has resulted in a disconnection between the people and the water.

Here, life goes on.

Friday foto


Your correspondent has temporarily taken off to the Red Centre.

Alice Springs is built on the floodout plains of the Todd River, just where the water backs up as it hits the gap in the Macdonnell Ranges. An absolutely bonkers place to put a town, but back in the day they didn’t seem to worry too much about that kind of thing. (Maitland, anyone?)

It’s a bit dry around the traps at the moment. When rain does come it can come in ferocious downpours that thunder off the rocky hills that surround the town. I came across this on the outskirts of East Side; perhaps its an ironic postmodern installation, “Visiting Chair in Erosion Studies”.



Different creeks


… different issues. Or maybe, the same issues in differently coloured wrapping paper.

A friend from Alice Springs days keeps me up to date with the news from Centralia. A popular quiz night question is “Name the river that runs through Wilcannia / Dubbo / Kempsey” etc.; it’s one that often trips people, but a good proportion of Australians know that it’s the Todd that runs through the middle of Alice Springs.

The Todd River still has its natural, sandy bed and its 500-year-old gum trees, thanks mainly to the foresight of Mounted Constable WG South who, a century ago, saved them from being axed by the newly arrived colonists looking for building materials and firewood. South wrote to the Minister for the Northern Territory “The trees are a great ornament to the place and it would be a great pity to destroy them”. The trees are still under immense pressure, these days from a suite of threats including sand mining, firewood collection and root impaction by vehicles, but South’s foresight has ensured that these beautiful old giants still guard the waterway.

However, the Todd River is, for many people, a place of short-term residence. As the major service town for the Red Centre, Alice attracts people from miles and miles around, people who often don’t have a bed or a room for the night. Among this group is some of the most committed and prodigious drinkers in the world. A recent collection by a small group of people found, in a 200 metre stretch of the river, the following small mountain of casks and bottles.

Check out the website of the People’s Alcohol Action Coalition to find out more.

Meanwhile, over in Los Angeles, USA, there have been concerted efforts over the last few years to rehabilitate the Los Angeles River (view a whole stack of articles via Planetizen here). One major advance was to have the entire 51-mile river recognsied as a navigable waterway by kayakers who made it from top to bottom; there’s a five-minute video on the Los Angeles Times website of the tours that now operate there. (If you have time to noodle around on Tinterweb then check out the blog of the LA Creek Freak people and LA Stormwater.)

The Planetizen site also links to articles on the Los Angeles City Council’s recent approval of an update to the Los Angeles River Implementation Overlay to encourage good quality river-centric development and to begin removing some of the concrete that covers the river and its banks.

It’s all food for thought, some of it heartening and some of it less so. But it is a reminder that waterways are living places that people the world over are attracted to, love and want to care for.

Just like Styx Creek. I mean, how nice is this?