FIELD OF DREAMS

The Secret Landscape Underground

The Opal Fields of Cumborah and Glengarry, West of Lightning Ridge, were the ideal location to sit quietly in a bush studio and draw for days on end. I was there for over a week. An extended stay due to illness, I was however, very settled, comfortable and welcome. In this unique time forgotten place, I wasn’t required to drive anywhere. I didn’t have to think about where I was going to camp for the night or the night after that or mull over which road I should take. I was living there, right in the midst of out back opal country.

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Undercover studio view from miner’s shack

The miners shack I stayed in, was a cosy home away from home with a shaded outdoor area I used for a studio, surrounded by the type of landscape I have always dreamed of capturing. It continues to allure me, as it continues to remain a treasured secret. I won’t divulge information as to who owns it, nor will I advertise the exact location or tell you how to get there. Selfish pleasure I know, but I feel no guilt in keeping this place a secret.

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Dust. There was a great deal of it, everywhere. White chalky dust and mountains of rubble surrounded this landscape, hung heavily in the atmosphere. Generations of digging, exploding, uncovering, dredging, more digging. This was a landscape disturbed. Everything about the opal fields was about unveiling buried treasure. The rough and dirty grunge on the surface. The tough facade being upheaved, creating endless tunnels underground to reach the gem that winks with sparkling promise at the end of a long, hard sweaty mining day.

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Sunset over Ned’s Puddling Dam, Glengarry Agitator Site.
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Detail: Dried mud and clay bed of puddling dam, Glengarry Agitator site.
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“Mt. White” as the locals call it. A mountain of rubble (mulloch) from years of digging. After rain, its not uncommon to find fossickers scavenging the dusty heap for “colour”.
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Opal mining landscape deep underground

There’s an unbridled wildness about this place and the people that occupy it. A wild rush to claim the prize at the centre of the earth. Something so precious, one sacrifices little luxuries and works tremendously hard for it. A process far more satisfying than the meagre gratification of daily life and work. The opal fields reek of freedom and the simplicity of toil for reward. Basic living. Hard slog. The joy of seeking to find what time, sandstone, water and silica have formed. The eternal search for internal beauty.

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Scraping massive underground clay walls, revealing a tiny slither of opal.

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It’s an addiction. A way of living outside of the life we must conform to in this topside world of laws, rules, timetables, chores, housework, woes, worries, politics, wars, death and taxes (I think that just about covers the worst of it).

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Mining equipment of yesteryear.
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Mining equipment in the modern age

The opal fields are the epitome of hunger. If the world was coming to an end, it would look and feel like this. A bit of makeshift function and order amidst a great deal of wildness and this continual search to satisfy an endless hunger. Everyman for himself. Suspicious and cautious acquaintances. Staking claims. Hidden secret riches, bought, sold and traded behind closed doors. Beat up old vehicles littered throughout ramshackle camps, cranked up and brought back to life like prehistoric animals; just long enough to get a job done then abandoned again.

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It’s a fantasy world, but also a real world. The way the world should be. I too lived out my own fantasy there. Drawing all day, everyday. Satisfying my insatiable hunger for inspiration.

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Inspired. Drawing into the night. (photo courtesy of a mystery miner).

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To be accepted into the opal mining fold, is a privilege few are granted, unless you happen to know someone who knows someone. I was one of the fortunate somebodies who knew somebody.
Shh… it’s a secret.

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The Art Of Mining Machines
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Landscape inspiration. Postcard drawing.
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The Art of Mining Machines

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Entrance into The Field Of Dreams.
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The Essence Of Nothing

Some travellers may tell you there’s “nothing” to see Outback. That it’s an endless, tiring, dead boring journey across some of the flattest country on the planet, with absolutely nothing to see forever and ever… and ever. As the Australian humourist L.W. Lower once wrote of “Them Thar Plains”:

Before us the road stretches… and by crikey doesn’t she stretch. When you give up for the day, you’ve always got a lot of road left over. We ask one of the peasantry, “What is there between here and Nevertire?” “There’s nothing to see, if that’s what you mean,” he replies. “And what is there on the last 50-mile stretch from Byrock to Bourke?” He spits slowly and methodically in the direction of Alfred, [the dog] and says, “Nothing”.

I had been advised to avoid this journey for exactly that reason. It was because of this, I was keen to see what “nothing” looked like.

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Sturt Highway

I set off across the Hay Plains in early Spring. Having never driven this road before, I didn’t realise that the flat endless road did in fact go on and on, without a change pretty much all the way to Broken Hill; where it continued, in all directions, like spiders legs reaching out of the town centre.

It excited me. This freedom. Discovering that nothingness didn’t exist. I could still see vegetation on either side of this endless road. Soil changing colour as far as the eye could see and beyond. This was not “nothing”, this was vastness. Open fields that give one a sense of flight. An acute sense of being, amidst this sublime, vast flatness.

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As with all the other roads I had taken, the Sturt Highway presented an ever changing topography. Varying species of plants and grasses colonised large areas of the plains, punctuated by weeds and native flowers. The colours transforming the landscape and language of this endless flatness as I drove on at speed, was like a slow dance of colour, shape and form. A painting appearing in slow motion as I drove through it. Subtle, yet complex. The motion and speed of my driving, was like unfolding a kinetic Rothko painting. I was driving this living endless painting.

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For an artist, there can be no greater feeling of rapture and freedom than this.

Inspired. On an endless straight road with no traffic before or behind me, I slowed right down safely to a crawl frequently; capturing some of my best drive-by-shootings.

Capturing the essence of nothing.

Hay Plains, NSW
Hay Plains, NSW

Setting Off Into Outback Desert Country

The last leg of my landscape painting road trip was the most exciting part of the journey.

Long endless road through Kinchega NP

I’ve never been to outback NSW.  The promise of that red burnt, scorched earthen landscape has enticed me as a painter for many years.  So I decided to take myself right out there and immerse in it.  Breathe it in.  Surround myself with what it means to be truly alone and “outback” in desert country.

Desert crossing Mutawintji NP

I set out of Gunning fully armed with a suitcase I called my pharmacy.  In it I packed antibiotics, creams, lotions, potions, pills, ointments, antiseptics, probiotics, vitamin supplements, medications, band-aids; pretty much everything I had in our medicine cabinet including extras.  I was armed against every conceivable insect bite, bacteria and virus.  I wasn’t going outback getting as sick as I did on the first round of my trip.

Road to Glengarry Opal Fields, Lightning Ridge

Since beginning my road trip, I had also learned to travel much lighter and smarter.  One large dry esky acted as my “pantry”. It was packed with tinned salmon, candles, herbs, oil, spices, coffee, tea, soy milk. The Pantry and the Pharmacy, stayed in the car.  I only dipped into them when I needed anything and made sure I replaced items along the way.  I would never run out of anything!

Drawing in the opal fields

Another small cold soft esky that was light and I could carry on my shoulder, was for daily use in and out of cabins. Fresh veg, fruit, milk, butter.  A towel, pillow, blanket and linen also stayed in the car for those cabins that charge extra for linen, and in the unfortunate event I may have to spend a night in the car. I also streamlined my art materials.

I began the first part of my journey with my station wagon full of canvas, easels, oil paints, brushes, solvents, drawing pads, pastels… It was basically everything from my studio packed into boxes and shoved into the back of my car.  I didn’t get a chance to use any of it whilst on the road, the only things I used, were pastels, sketch book and postcards.  My portable studio did however get a lovely trip around the country.  So I managed to pack those few essential items into a lovely old leather satchel I bought in Greece many years ago.  Now I could go anywhere and draw anytime. 

Drawing in The Sand, Perry Sandhills, Wentworth

My fantasy of painting whilst on the road, was just that. If I had a place I could have stayed for more than a couple of nights at a time before packing up and driving for miles to the next location, I would have had a chance to settle down and get some serious painting done. This was after all, a road trip. I was “on the road” constantly moving, taking drive-by-shots of the landscape from my car between destinations. These have served me well as sketches for paintings I can produce back in the studio. I loved getting back to my digs after a long dusty drive.  Going through all the “drive-by’s” and being thrilled by the wonderful images captured by chance and motion.  These images are the epitome of the journey.

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A soft overnight bag housed basic clothing and toiletries. A small backpack for bush walking.  iPad mini for connecting to the world and Facebook updates. iPhone for camera and navigation. Cables.  Device chargers. First aid kit for car.  First aid kit permanently in backpack. Tissues and toilet paper in car and luggage.  Lots of water bottles and one large 15L water container (this came in very handy at Menidee Lakes where water was undrinkable within the cabin). The back seat of the car served as my Winter wardrobe, coats, scarves, jumpers, jackets and beanies in case of cold snaps. Hiking shoes, comfy driving shoes and hiking sandals.

Sturt Highway into Broken Hill

Whist driving long distances, I grazed on carrots, celery and apple for alertness and sustained energy. Keeping my eyesight good for spotting wildlife roadkill and road signs. I was still suffering from four badly infected tick bites when I left.  A five and a half hour drive was my limit.  Fatigue set in quickly, so I would break up my driving time with two 2 and a half hour stints. When you’re on your own, you really have to respect your limitations.

Thus fully and concisely packed, I set off on my quest to discover the outback.

Crossing the Hay Plains, Spring

Leaving Gunning I headed toward Gundagai with my first stopover in Hay.  Crossing the Hay Plains was remarkable. All of that endless nothingness, all around forever! The long straight stretch of the Sturt Highway, so long, I could see a shimmering mirage at the end, which was never really the end, there was no end and no beginning.  A feeling of immense freedom overcame me on this road.  A road from nowhere to nowhere surrounded by flatness.  With every mile, my journey gradually became an endless freedom from everything familiar; a journey into nowhereville and a freedom from every “thing”.

Hay Plains, Sturt Highway