Is it all over?

Monday 6 August the pit was opened 24 hours after it was set alight and it worked!

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This is my last creative observation for the camp and a most satisfactory way to leave Coward Springs. I leave soon after, but some of the artists stay for another day (the gale forecast for Backstairs Passage means that Tuesday is not the day to be ferrying home).

I head off to two places I visited about 12 years ago, when I was fortunate to participate in a regional tour to the Flinders Ranges. Back then the state government organised trips by regional people to other regions so they could learn from them about business, community and tourism possibilities. It was a very rewarding experience and many ideas have stayed with me.

The first place I revisited was Old Beltana, a State Heritage town. On the regional trip we’d met young people who had a vision of rebuilding the town, which was almost empty. Now the permanent population is 35, and about 20 houses are inhabited – some are new but most have been restored. It was fantastic to see.

The other was Blinman, a most picturesque town. I stayed at the North Blinman Hotel, an extremely hospitable establishment. And dinner, of meatloaf and mash, was just the ticket.

What a beautiful experience the camp has been. It might seem that all the artists on Kangaroo Island would know each other well but it’s a big island and we are widespread, and all with our own lives to be getting on with. How fortunate we are to have this time to spend getting to know one another and one another’s art practice. It’s a shame more artists couldn’t be squeezed in.

Prue and Greg were the perfect hosts at Coward Springs Campground – so generous, so accommodating, so helpful. It’s been inspiring to be around two people who have transformed a desert ruin into a campground with character, and everything you could want for a stay-over. Thank you so much for everything.

And for anyone heading out on the Oodnadatta Track, call in and stay a night or two. And enjoy.

Island to Outback is supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund through Country Arts SA



Moving day

Was it the inspiration of Lake Eyre? Or was it just that the first few days of ‘what am I doing?’ what can I do?’ ‘I’ve hardly got any time to get anything done’ came to an end? Whatever, today was moving day.

Action sprung up all around. Quentin arriving in the dark at Coward Springs mound springs to grab the first light; Dave and Ruth filming in the earliest rays; Ria, Prue and Nick painting that morning glow of the wetlands.

Ria and Prue at the wetlands

Two Brolgas came to visit as they do, and made a heron seem like a small bird.


Not everyone rose that early but they awoke ready to make art. Deb’s clay class attracted a crowd  – some who had not worked clay before; some who revived the pleasure; some who continued on as they were. First-timer Janine said that she enjoyed it immensely. Maggie shared the bench and painted.

Prue, Ria and Maggie at the potting bench

It was a busy day. I took four visits to brolga environs, begging them to come in closer (and envying Ria – they practically landed on top of her when they flew in). Sitting in on the clay moulding and watching imaginations run riot under Deb’s minimalist instruction. The conversation was instructive, illuminating even, though not necessarily about working clay.

Kenita and Janine work that clay

The museum housed in the Engine Driver’s Cabin has been beautifully restored and curated by Greg and Prue. That was the location of my interview for Dave and Ruth’s film, with Gethin controlling the sound.

Quick off to the spa before the crowds descend for Ria and Deb.

Janine’s heading to the glass garden to make today’s collection for her linear diary of the Coward Springs camp. More on that tomorrow.

I jump in with Quentin and Dale for a trip to nearby Wabma Kadarbu Mound Springs Conservation Park and the Bubbler mound spring within. But The Bubbler is  not cooperating – bubbles schmubbles. The sun is setting. Quentin is not getting the photos he wants. Then a juvenile Brown Falcon settles on a prominent branch and proceeds to pose no matter how close Quentin gets and which angle he approaches from. There’s always something to capture with the camera.

A quick visit to the placid Blanche Cup and then off for a long walk to a new mound that does not meet expectations let alone exceed them. And we head back towards the thin strip of orange sky above the horizon while we can still see where the car is.

It’s wine o’clock. Buffer up against the mosquitoes.

My god, Lake Eyre

Work? What work? Today was about taking in more beauty and wonder and marvels than my brain and heart and soul could possibly digest.

But first our guide, Reg Dodd of Arabunna Tours, showed us an ex-Dead Finish tree near the roadside, which some person(?) had recently taken a chainsaw to for firewood. There are almost none of the small trees, like Dead Finish and Mulga, left on these plains. Surely they would have been a scattered feature of the landscape not too long ago. And seashells in their millions, interspersed with the occasional fish vertebra where an ancient seashore was to become a borrow pit for road works until the local people stopped that atrocity.


On to Lake Eyre south. Not the lookout far from the shoreline but into an area known to Reg, and a lucky few, right next to the shore.


Down the short cliff across a mottled salty plane we walked. Then gingerly across plates cracked from the salty layer  – some brittle, some firm – to the thicker crust of white, white salt extending, it seemed, forever.


Travelling away, I could almost convince myself that the cracked plates were gentle waves and the salt behind was water rippling with a non-existent breeze.

How to top that off? How about some cooking mounds that would escape the western eye but were verified by ash underneath the gibber, and fossil bivalves and trees. Not quite but …


And the occasional flower (without my flora, a pelargonium and a chenopod)


Island to Outback is supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund through Country Arts SA



Brand new day at Coward Springs

Waking up in the desert is an altogether different experience from your own familiar bed at home. It’s cold, the birds are yelling it’s a brand new day, and no household chores are niggling at you to be done. Sounds like a template for inspiration and creativity.

This is my first morning at the Island to Outback, Kangaroo Island artists’ camp at Coward Springs. The others woke here two mornings ago when I was just setting out from Kangaroo Island.

But here we all are now: Artists Deb Sleeman, Janine Mackintosh, Kenita Williamson, Maggie Welz, Nicholas Burness Pike, Quentin Chester, Ria Byass, Prue Coulls; filmmakers Dave Foreman and Ruth de La Lande; sound whizz Gethin Creagh; writer Kathie Stove; and supporters Dale Arnott, Holger Welz and Greg Emmett.

Island to Outback is supported by the Australian Government’s Regional Arts Fund through Country Arts SA

Trains, buses and planes, part 1

The almost one-kilometre-long Ghan, travelling twice a week in each direction from Adelaide to Darwin, might incline you to think that train travel has returned to its rightful place as preferred mode of travel. It’s comforting to know that so many people want to take the train through the desert but in truth, the comfort element is a big part of the attraction.

I like to travel by rail as much as I can, and actually see the country I’m travelling though even if it’s flashing by. And I have the most appropriate back up of Don Watson’s The Bush, though not much gets read on the train during daylight.


Before darkness descends we cross Goyder’s Line and enter saltbush-bluebush-Western Myall country. Happy memories of Rangelands Ecology on Middleback Station in January.

Next thing I know is sunrise at Marla Siding. Everybody off the train for breakfast. So many people taking photos of sunrise as if it didn’t happen every day – perhaps not in the desert and unimpeded by anything except other people taking photos.


Now we are in mulga country, an occasional white-trunked gum, quite a few shrubs I can’t identify and, was that a Callitris?

Then we get to my favourite tree, the desert oak Allocasuarina decaisneana and I can revel in it for days through to Uluru.


We are well into the NT before I see the first lumps of the ubiquitous grass of the Australian centre, Triodia irritans. I remember driving over hundreds of miles of the stuff in the APY lands in 1979. It looks invitingly lemony soft with spiky vertical hair but it is (I know) impossibly ‘irritans’.

In places the country is so flogged there’s barely a green/grey leaf; in some areas the small size of the veg looks like it’s returning after being given a severe thrashing.

The land is almost never flat. Relief might be a rocky outcrop, a gentle rise of a sand dune, a distant hill. It is always changing. I sip my beer, look out the window. I am in heaven.


Reviving Pig Islet

Quentin Chester captures Pelican Lagoon

Pelican Lagoon is one of Kangaroo Island’s many treasures. It’s a Marine Park Sanctuary Zone that has its inlet from the ocean at American River.

On a windless sunny day, the mirror-like surface of the shallow lagoon, dotted with islets, is enough to make me gasp, even though I’ve seen it hundreds of times before.

Friends of Dudley Peninsula Parks and Eco-Action have a joint project to rid Pig Islet of African boxthorn and replant with the species that would have been there before westerners arrived (as far as we know, it’s not absolutely clear). If this smallest of the islets is revived, we’ll move on to some of the others. Yes, it’s a long term plan.

One of the Friends, Andy Collis, came up with this project and has soldiered on despite some misinformed opposition. We Friends are very happy to help him and the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources has given us permission to do the work.



Boxthorns are nasty brutes but they can be managed: cut the stems as close to the ground as possible, dab the cut straight away with strong glyphosate and they’ll give up the ghost. Sounds simple but getting through the thorns to the stems is the tricky bit. And we all have the scratches to prove it.

On one of the four working bees so far we had a chain saw to help, and that was a morale boost. We’ve had 21 people helping in one or more working bees, and also helping Andy with extra trips for camera trapping and watering.

Getting to the islets is also a challenge. Each time a little flotilla of kayaks and canoes sets out and makes it across the water in radically different times (some of us need to get a sense of direction).

                                 Wwoofer Merel Nyhuis got the short end of the jobs stick.

This week, on the last of the working bees for 2017, we planted the shrubs, grasses and groundcovers Veronica grew up at the Natural Resources Kangaroo Island Plant Nursery (an island gem). The Friends groups has other projects to get on with for the rest of the year. Then we’ll be paddling back next year.

All photos by Quentin Chester.


Robert Hannaford retrospective

Robert Hannaford watches me as I walk down the stairs towards his retrospective at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

The artist is in larger-than-life video – at first I think it’s a photograph, he is so still. He is remarkably unselfconscious in meeting my gaze. But Hannaford, South Australia’s pre-eminent living painter and three-times people’s choice winner of the Archibald Prize, has had a lifetime of painting himself to get over himself.

How do we come to get a picture of ourselves?

Hannaford’s way is to draw himself. Many paintings in the retrospective are himself, revealed.

He seems to think he’s a bit of all right. He’s a posturing country boy full of bravado and irresistible charms but he’s also vulnerable, all too human.

These are no selfies – not the ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘with whom’ spawned by the smartphone camera. They are the ‘who’.

The retrospective is of his figurative art only (when will we see the landscapes and still lifes?) – paintings, drawings, sketches and (not enough) sculptures. The banners at the front of the gallery, the video greeting and the publicity stills would lead us to belive that the entire exhibition is self-portrait gone mad.

But it is far more than Hannaford by Hannaford. Most of the paintings are of others: his wives, his children, his grandchildren, his father one hour after death, the famous, and an old man in a shabby coat with dog.

“I never set out to be a portrait painter. I just want to understand what’s around me through form and light.” (Robert Hannaford quote on the gallery wall)

The sketchbook drawings reveal that intent: hands, legs, arms, mouths, hands clasped in different arrangements, feet, whole bodies, facial expressions. Who would have thought that pencil could be such a versatile instrument: sharp, blurry; hard, soft; feathered, precise.

Early sketches take, and deserve, as much prominence as later paintings. At age 18 he had mastered the sophistication of a limited palette: he uses charcoal with white chalk highlights to arresting effect.

And, on a central plinth, a bronze sculpture of ‘Jack’ bowling with the vitality and movement of the real boy.

Painter Scott Hartshorne, who has had the “athletic experience” of drawing with Hannaford, admires Hannaford’s obsession with actualising what is in front of him. “I realised this when I saw [in a previous exhibition] a sketch of a transistor radio by a teenage Hannaford,” Hartshorne said.

“I drew a lot at that age but would never have drawn anything so mundane. I doodled and imagined.

“Hannaford drew to draw and practise drawing. From a very early age he observed and drew the everyday with an objective eye.”

Hartshorne said that Hannaford knows how to draw a likeness, how to map a face.

“He is rigorous about making the first marks – mapping where the hairline is, where the eyes are, where the opening of the mouth is. Lesser artists like me spend time on ‘getting’ the interesting bits of the hair, the eye, the mouth themselves.”

Videos in the exhibition show how Hannaford places the easel next to his subject and goes back to his exact marked point, looks at the face and painting side-by-side, then runs back to the easel to make the next mark.

No wonder his 71-year-old body remains taut and lithe, still good enough to paint.

The retrospective at the Art Gallery of South Australia, North Terrace Adelaide, continues until 9 October 2016.

Picture this

At Dudley Writers’ Group monthly meetings we have a topic to prompt an outpouring of creativity. In late 2014 one topic was ‘Picture this’. This was my effort. It was first published in the Christmas 2014 edition of The Islander.

I go into Woolworths in Rundle Mall to buy a small can of tuna (pole and line of course – though I’m ashamed to have succumbed to the proximity and easy access of the behemoth).

I go to the checkout where a young man, who could have been, but for the saving grace of genetics, my grandson, cheerily asked:

‘So, have you got plans for the weekend or are you just relaxing?’

Picture my 64-year old face: gobsmacked.

Once I’d paid and got my change and receipt, his next set of imaginative and original words were no surprise: ‘Have a nice day.’

Picture my mood as I left the premises. No amount of convenience will get me back in there.

What words can describe the idiocy, the rudeness, the inanity, the blind gall. Who is allowing – worse, telling – these kids to intrude into customers lives?

I picture a world where service is competent and friendly – not trying to ‘be your friend’. I want to get my purchase or service without hassle and get out the door.

But the picture is this: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever else encourage everyone to tell everybody else everything. And encourage everyone to expect to be told everything.

Mostly drivel of course. And mostly none of anyone else’s business.

But worst of all they spawn an even greater interest in cats, which are fed on far too much of the world’s tuna.



Walk to Cape Borda

A highlight of a Kangaroo Island visit by the more adventurous traveller is the hike down the Ravine to Casoars to its western outlet.

Heading to the mouth of the ravine

But the Kangaroo Island Walking Club is not content to finish too soon. This A-grade walk had us climbing up the ravine’s steep sides to continue for another 5 hours north along the coast to Cape Borda lighthouse.

View from the top of the climb


Walking was difficult over the loose and pock-marked limestone but boy was it worth it for the views


and the many tiny flowers on the windswept heath.

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The first (welcome) sight of the lighthouse appeared beyond remaining signs of the fires of 2007 and abundant regrowth


and soon we were there.

Kangaroo Island Art Feast

This Labour Day long weekend is time for island artists to put themselves ‘out there’ in exhibitions and demonstrations for Kangaroo Island Art Feast. And for us islanders, we have even more excuses for getting out and exploring our gorgeous home. It’s no hardship to cover the hundreds of kilometres at this time of year when the wildflowers are at their peak.

Flinders Chase National Park wildflowers
Flinders Chase National Park wildflowers

Each year, my friend Rosie and I drive the loop of the island to see as many Art Feast venues as we can.

First stop was Cliffords Honey Farm and not just for the honey ice cream. Each year Sharon Clifford puts together a small but delightful exhibition of prints, paintings, photographs (by artists including herself, Ros Stoldt and Nikki Redman), and Wendy Leonhardt’s beautiful houses for birds and bees. We then called into Jenny Clapson’s studio for a demonstration of solar etched printmaking.

Jenny Clapson prepares a plate for solar etching to paper
Jenny Clapson prepares a plate for solar etching to paper

Then it was on to Raptor Domain for lunch near the Commun-owl tree and Bea Chuan’s glasswork demonstration. At Hanson Bay Sanctuary, Pam White’s baskets and garden installations graced the natural habitat outside.

Pam White adds to the baskets displayed at Hanson Bay Sanctuary for Art Feast
Pam White adds to the baskets displayed at Hanson Bay Sanctuary for Art Feast

On the north coast, after the drive along West End Highway (here’s another wildflower pic from Flinders Chase National Park)


we visited Caroline Taylor and Audrey Harnett at Western River Homestead. A show by these two very talented and stylish artists is always an Art Feast highlight.

Audrey Harnett with some of Caroline Taylor's hand-coloured photos of an ornithology trip to Kangaroo Island in 1905
Audrey Harnett with some of Caroline Taylor’s hand-coloured photos of an ornithology trip to Kangaroo Island in 1905

The day was completed with the lanterns taking charge as the sunlight faded at Emu Bay and we mingled and sampled the KIS cocktails and locally made canapés.