Aboriginal art to many tourists in Australia means paintings on bare rock and the Rainbow Serpent creation myth rendered in rich colors with the dot technique. Aborigines and watercolors hardly seem to go together.
But Albert Namatjira, who ranks as one of the most significant Aboriginal artists, painted the outback in beautiful watercolors. The 50th anniversary of his death falls on Aug 8 this year - a good reason to visit his old haunts in the West MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs which is the heart of arid Central Australia, or the "Red Center".
Sundown was drawing nigh. The many small flies were bothersome, but it was fascinating to watch the colors of the landscape change every few minutes. The cliffs shone dark purple and the 1,380-m Mount Sonder could be seen beyond the deep green bush land and sand banked bed of the Finke River.
This is the view that Namatjira often had from one of the hills near Glen Helen Gorge. He immortalized the red cliffs of the MacDonnell Ranges and Australia's white-barked Ghost Gum trees many times.
Glen Helen lies some 130 km west of Alice Springs in West MacDonnell National Park. Formerly a cattle station, it is now the site of a homestead with the only lodgings for travelers in the "West Macs". The restaurant serves kangaroo meat on mashed potatoes, and reproductions of several Namatjira watercolors hang on the wall.
The Aboriginal painter's works quickly attracted admirers in Australia and sold well at exhibitions, hardly a matter of course in a society still marked at the time by racial barriers.
The road from Alice Springs to Glen Helen was named after him. Namatjira Drive runs across a broad, undulating plain with rust-red mountain chains on either side. Interesting day-tour destinations lie hidden there - for instance Simpsons Gap, situated just 18 km from Alice Springs.
There are good opportunities for short hikes both at Simpsons Gap and Ormiston Gorge, 115 km to the west. Three trails lead into or around the gorge. Between the gap and the gorge lies Standley Chasm, a crevice in the rock, between six and 10 meters wide, in which the sun reaches the bottom only briefly at midday.
Two other popular tourist destinations along Namatjira Drive are Ochre Pits and Ellery Creek Big Hole, one of the biggest water holes in the West MacDonnell Ranges. At the former, Aboriginal men used to scratch ochre out of the rock for use as a ceremonial body adornment. The greater the iron ore content in the ochre, a natural pigment, the darker and redder its color.
All these attractions are within easy reach of Alice Springs for a day tour. Nevertheless, the West MacDonnell Ranges get far fewer visitors than the iconic inselberg Ayers Rock, which is considerably farther away.
Meanwhile, the sun had set at Glen Helen Gorge. The Finke River lay peacefully in its bed, and it was difficult to imagine that it can be a torrent. Glen Helen Gorge acts as a bottleneck for the watercourse, which is about 700 km long. After a heavy rain, the area directly in front of the gorge is inundated.
A lot of rain fell in Australia during this past summer in the southern hemisphere, temporarily turning the Red Center green with vegetation that was almost lush. Grass stood high in the West MacDonnell Ranges, where barren red earth usually dominates. Experiencing this natural spectacle means putting up with the scorching heat and multitudinous flies of the outback summer, however.
Namatjira painted this landscape in all seasons. A tour of his old haunts is not complete without taking another day trip from Alice Springs - to Hermannsburg, population 350, where the artist was born on July 28, 1902. Hermannsburg was founded in June 1877 as a mission station for Aborigines by Lutheran missionaries from Germany who had settled in South Australia.
The mission church, now a museum, as well as other buildings from the missionary era have been preserved. The museum shows how Aborigines made fur caps and shoes from the hides and hair of kangaroos. There is also a gallery displaying Aboriginal watercolors, including works by Namatjira.
He died in 1959 and was buried in Alice Springs Memorial Cemetery, in the Araluen Cultural Precinct. Showcasing the art, culture and heritage of Central Australia, the precinct has an arts center that incorporates the Albert Namatjira Gallery.