May, 24 2010
Rudall River, Karlamilyi National Park
William L Fox

The guys pick me up after an hour of walking. By now scale of the landscape is becoming more apparent to me, the riverbed I'm heading toward not much closer than it was when I started. I'm happy to be picked up, as I'm tired of batting away at the flies. Ten minutes later we're at the Rudall River, which is completely dry, but soon we're at a pool upstream on a small branch of the main rivercourse. As we're here at the end of the rainy season, there's at least a little water hidden away in soaks. Dragonflies are zooming everywhere, frogs are hopping, and Tim says that perch swim in the water. Rudall National Park doesn't offer the same scenic intensity as Karijni, but the change here from the red sand dunes to shaded oasis is dramatic enough.

After a picnic lunch we drive north out of the park, the boundary of which abuts a uranium exploration area. At present, companies are only allowed to mine uranium in three places in Australia. When that ban is lifted--and I think it will be, given worldwide energy hunger and concerns about global warming--then Australia's deposits of uranium, the world's largest, will be ripped up and exported, joining the flow of iron and copper and coal and everything else to Asia.

At three pm and still just outside the park we pass a remarkable clay pan, maybe 250 metres across, its patterned ground like dark brown-red leather. A few strides out from its shoreline is a family string of camels that have been shot and lie rotting in the sun, each animal ten or twenty metres apart. The burnished and almost purple surface of the clay pan is enough reason to stop, but the string of dead camels is absolutely compelling. Once on the playa, we find the surface slightly resilient and very thin; scrape it away and underneath is a completely dry powder almost as fine as talcum. The camels don't look as if they were running, but fell where shot while walking. Tracks of dingoes are all about. They must have come out when surface was wet, as their paw prints are impressed in the dried mud.

In my mind the scene stages an obverse allusion to that famous 1861 watercolour by Ludwig Becker, Border of the Mud-desert near Desolation Camp. Becker was under commission with the Burke and Wills expedition to traverse the continent from south to north and back again. In his painting the camels approach the viewer from the horizon, their riders ghost figures distorted by mirage, while dingoes watch from the shore. Burke, Wills, and Becker all perished, but the painting made it back to Melbourne and eventually to the State Library of Victoria, where it is now one of the most important images in the 19th-century canon of Australian art. The expedition's fate dashed the hopes of many Australians, who had thought to settle the interior. To a large degree much of the population then turned its back on the interior, assuming that the deserts were worthless and uninhabitable by all but the most determined pastoralists and prospectors, an attitude also adopted by artists until painters such as Hans Heysen ventured forth again in the 1920s.

Our forays into the Pilbara are part of an ongoing and widespread movement to reclaim a place for art in the desert that Heysen and Albert Namatjura popularized in the mid-20th century, along with Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams, both of whom worked in the Pilbara. More recently, John Olson, John Wolseley, and Mandy Martin are among other notable western artists working the playas and fencelines of the deserts here, while most of the work of Aboriginal artists since the 1970s has arisen from the desert. Rosalind Haynes, in writing about Australian deserts in art, literature, and film, titled her book Seeking the Centre, deliberately collapsing distinctions among the deserts of the continent in order to show how artists have turned the arid lands into Australia's sublime landscape, which culminated in the popular imagination with the successful effort to market Uluru internationally as a scenic climax.

The vision before us is both the antithesis of the sublime, and yet part of it. The scene is ugly and beautiful, matter-of-fact and ironic; in this case, instead of the expeditioneers perishing, it's the camels that have died. The animals, imported to Australia precisely for the purpose to which Burke and Wills put them, and pictured by Becker as bearing salvation upon return to camp, now considered an irksome pest.

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