But I did go back, asked to return and do it all over again…..ten more times. And each time I drank in the country, in great gulps of experiences documented with drawings and notes. Every penny I could afford went into getting to another place and immersing myself into the land.
A first class train ride on the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth had the country presenting itself by way of a continual travel film passing by the window. While in the dining car seated at any table with room for a single foreign traveler, I was encouraged to ask as many questions as they could answer while my cabin was magically turned from sitting room to sleeping room. A toilet and sink ingeniously folded down from the wall and in the morning I would be awoken with a gentle knock, a hot cup of tea and a time to be seated for breakfast. And the day would start all over again. Three sisters bringing me flowers to sketch and telling me the names so they were properly documented. It was wonderful and ended far on the other side of the country….Perth with its Botanical Gardens and National Gallery, Freemantle with the remains of the discovered East India Ship, Batavia that I had coincidentally just finished reading about. There was always another generous volunteer driver to take me about and answer questions.
Flying to Katherine from Alice Springs for the first time with a stop for fuel in Tennant Creek was exciting. A bag of chips placed on our seat and a cooler full of sodas to help ourselves. The pilot told me if I didn’t like my chips I could toss them on someone else’s seat and take theirs if I wanted, no worries, he kept an assortment on board. My hosts there in Katherine fixed me up with a snack bag of Anzac cookies for my day trip the Northern Territory Craft Council was treating me to, a cruise on the Katherine River through the Gorge. The second and smaller bus going in to the river was driven by a woman who wanted to show us a camel behind a fence by the road. We were not allowed to get out of the bus and go near it because, with an accusing glance in my direction, she said an American woman told her she was on speaking terms with camels and could be trusted to go up to it and pet it. She was bitten immediately and from then on, no one was allowed off the bus at her “camel stop”.
The second time I came to Katherine it was by way of a very small plane with a pilot who informed me in Darwin that I was heading the wrong way on a weekend…..he said most people leave Katherine and come north to the city….not the other way round. He made sure someone was there to meet me before flying back. This time I was housed further out than I had ever been from a town. It was at the time when cane toads were first migrating into the Northern Territory and, so I was told by my Land Patrol host, were deliberately bred to be bigger. They hopped into my wall-less bedroom at dark and reached up the side of my mattress on the floor. I pulled all my belongings into the middle of the bed, took out my notebook and wrote without seeing my pad about how that felt, to be by myself in a dark room with cane toads, big cane toads who could only lope about and reach up with their clinging little toes. Another evening a massive yellowish green snake was matching my pace to the shower a few open rooms down. My hosts knew the snake, all eight feet of him and told me this was its path to the neighbor’s chicken house. I heard such good stories at their place and developed a taste for Vegemite for breakfast served on cold, dried, burnt toast. I thought it doesn’t get any better than this….. in the Outback near a river at the end of a dirt track full of signs warning of the danger of Crocs and no one but us anywhere in sight.
Almost every trip down under included a stay in Tasmania, my most favorite state. So much of it reminds me of home with the gentle hills of green and bluish mountains in the distance. And the basket makers are simply the most generous of time, knowledge and materials…..materials harvested just for the sole purpose of sharing and showing someone new how to use them. They have taken my classes, housed me, driven me to any place they think I would enjoy and introduced me to the magic of Mt. Wellington and the Salamanca Market. They have helped me collect soils for pigments, mended my clothes, shown me how to strip New Zealand flax to weave a basket, given me time to sketch in my journal and given me memorable lines like, “Just out here past the moon is where I will take you in the morning to catch your flight home.” Whenever I see the moon I remember that it will also show up just before you get to the airport in Hobart.
I never miss a chance to stand in front of a painting by Rover Thomas or a room full of Aboriginal bark paintings. All the State and National Galleries have them, hung on large walls in big rooms furnished with benches placed just so. To be able to see a Sydney Nolan retrospective and rooms full of the work by John Davis a personal favorite, printmaker Bea Maddock, are among the many extraordinary opportunities I have had to view Australia’s art. And who can resist the sad narrative paintings by McCubbin and Longstaff’s massive interpretation of the final days of Burke and Wills. It is the statue of those two that make Melbourne my favorite city in all of Australia. Sydney is the opening arms of that country, but Melbourne is the destination. Exceptional vineyards within a few hours’ drive, Federation Square, the bronze statue of Burke and Wills that I love to touch, the State Library, the War Memorial and Botanical Gardens and an endless free ride on the tram through a city filled with the best coffees and savory muffins. It really does not get better than that.