If you've ever harboured the suspicion that the best creative recharge happens off-grid, or felt, deep in your belly, the urge to howl at the moon, it's Anna Dakin you want on speed-dial. Whether leading fiery dawn hikes to the top of Kings Canyon - the 150m-deep chasm familiar to anyone who's seen Priscilla Queen of the Desert - or showing rookie urban escapees how to unroll their swag - a sleeping bag-like cocoon that, for guests on one of Dakin's expeditions, comes complete with pillow and duvet - her passion for Australia's rust-red Northern Territory puts even the biggest feather showgirl headdress in the shade. In a place so sparsely populated that the International Space Station is closer than the nearest hospital, where the swirl of the Milky Way seems close enough to touch, and the nighttime silence is broken only by the ripple of a white-faced heron landing in the creek, or snuffle of a passing… dingo? kangaroo?, Dakin's voice, as we call our goodnights across the sandy scrub, is infinitely reassuring: "Remember, animals don't like the taste of humans."
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The founder of The Artist Expedition Society, an organisation that encourages artists to take their creative practice into an outdoor environment, and its offshoot, Art Tours of Australia, as well as an award-winning Northern Territory tour guide, Dakin is based out of Alice Springs, though spends much of her time on the road, sharing her vast knowledge of the region's flora, fauna, geology and indigenous art and culture, and running painting by night workshops in startlingly remote locations. Riding shotgun in her trusty "Troopy", we ask her about the path she took to get here, and what to consider when planning a journey to Australia's rugged red heart.
Exploring Australia's Northern Territory with tour guide Anna Dakin
You grew up in the UK. What brought you to Alice Springs?
I was shipped over to Australia when I was 19 by my dad, who was sent here himself around the same age by my grandparents. On that trip, I came to Central Australia for just three days, to see Uluru. I got the cheapest backpacker ticket that I could to the rock and slept in a swag on the ground, which at the time, I thought was really scary. But what was incredible about that experience was looking up at the night sky - that endless ocean of stars. Two years later, I came back. I had never felt more at home anywhere. I was staying at a hostel and there were a few people talking about hiking the Larapinta Trail, a 230km-long route in the West MacDonnell Ranges. I'd camped out before - I grew up on a farm so I was used to being outdoors - but to go for a multi-day hike wasn't something I'd ever really considered. Eventually, I decided to go, with a too-small backpack stuffed to the brim with food and painting supplies. I spent 16 days hiking and painting and being outdoors. On my first trip, I'd fallen in love with the stars; on my second, I fell in love with the landscape and making art outdoors, and how grounding an experience that is.
Photo credit: Mat Willder
How did The Artist Expedition Society come about?
I did my master's degree [at London's Royal College of Art] in something called information experience design, and wanted to get people talking about their art outdoors. I was taking people out into remote environments in the UK - the Lake District, the South Downs, Northumberland - and running art workshops. From that, Art Tours of Australia was born. I knew that I wanted to run trips in the Northern Territory because I had a strong connection to the place that I couldn't really explain. As soon as I finished my master's, I packed up and moved to Alice Springs.
How did you prepare for guiding in the NT?
I worked for lots of different tour businesses to understand how to keep people safe. I had all of the fears that any British person travelling to Australia would have - about snakes and spiders, the remoteness, water, the hot sun, bushfires... How do you survive all of these different things that seem to be trying to kill you? I spent four-and-a-half years guiding for other companies, learning about the region, and Aboriginal culture in particular, which was a revelation to me.
The energy in the landscape is something that has almost been intentionally grown by cultural practices
Just how significant the living cultures of Central Australia are. While you can learn the scientific name of a plant, the story of the plant is what's interesting to share with people. There's an incredible bush food expert in Alice Springs, Rayleen Brown. I try to work with her as much as possible.
I've also been lucky enough to work on a project in a remote Aboriginal community, Ali Curung. The women, who were from lots of different Aboriginal nations, many with English as their third, fourth or even fifth language, would hop in my 4x4 and literally walk me through these remote environments. Every single plant had a food use, medicine use or ceremonial use. While it was very much a case of me being on someone else's land, learning about someone else's culture, it's something that I think you can touch enough as a non-indigenous person to become aware of just how real that culture and that relationship to land is.
The energy in the landscape is something that has almost been intentionally grown by cultural practices. I do think that guiding tours is a political job because you get to choose what you talk about on trips. There are some guides who would choose to not talk about Aboriginal culture. To me, that's a political decision.
Has it been challenging, operating as a woman-owned business in a traditionally male-dominated industry?
Historically, there was this kind of cowboy mentality - like, yeah, let's get into the remote outback, make fire, keep you alive - but nowadays it's actually much more gender-diverse. The mechanics and industries that intersect with tourism in Central Australia are much more respectful of women and non-binary people than you would imagine. While it's not perfect - I'll often get random applause after reversing a trailer, for example - it's now a much more feminist-friendly work environment.
Photo credit: Max Stussi
Tell us about your wheels...
I'm obsessed with my Troopy! I decided to buy a Toyota Land Cruiser troop carrier for our tours because they're some of the strongest off-roaders you can get and really safe to be in. They're not necessarily the most comfortable to sit in, but I think that when you see a vehicle like this, before you even climb in, you know that you're going on an adventure. I designed the trailer in collaboration with a company down in Adelaide, sending them pictures of all of the different models I'd used with different businesses, saying, "I really like this feature… I don't like that... How can we make it more ergonomic?" The layout is important: if you have to run around it 16 times to make a meal, you're gonna get really tired, really quickly.
What do you listen to on all those hundreds of kilometres of open road?
King Stingray is a favourite - an indigenous funky rock band from the Top End.
Any top kit tips?
Good hiking boots. I used to blame getting blisters on having weird-shaped feet, then I tried One Planet boots, which have a more spacious toe box. No more blisters. I'm a big fan. I love Patagonia jackets - they're super-lightweight, so great to wear when it's cool in the morning, then stash in your pack later, when the heat gets intense - and an Australian brand called SÜK Workwear, which makes clothes in a very inclusive sizing range that are practical, durable and designed to be comfortable for women's bodies. And I wouldn't go anywhere without a snakebite bandage. It's a very specific type of compression bandage and, in the unlikely event that you get bitten by a snake, you use it to prolong the time it takes for the venom to travel into your bloodstream.
How would you describe your art workshops?
Paint the Night by Moonlight is something that I developed to get people really being in their bodies and sensing the environment. Your vision is reduced right back to the very basics - the receptors in your eye can only pick out black and white. You're still able to see quite a lot, even though it's dark, and trying to translate that onto paper is a fun process, but also quite confronting.
People try to make paintings that look good, but at night, you don't have that control. Sometimes the images that we make are really, really beautiful but quite often they hold more in terms of the memory of the experience than as being something you'd want to show to other people. With your vision reduced, your sound perception becomes heightened. You might start noticing noises - the sound of leaves moving in the wind, distant animals… You might start to question what kinds of animals are making those noises. Sometimes, you might be fighting your own adrenaline, thinking, "oh my gosh, that sounds like a scary monster", then, over time, you relax back into the painting experience. And maybe it was just a small bird making an unusual chirping. It's a wonderful way to experience the environment.
What dreams have you yet to realise?
I developed The Artist Expedition Society to get people into remote locations - artists, designers, the creatives making the decisions about the way that our world looks - so that the way of thinking that people already have about their creative practice could just ever so slightly start to reflect environments that are not about our human culture. Human culture exists within these remote environments, but when you get into these places, it's very clear that we are just a part of a great big system - a huge environmental network.
When you have a creative practice that considers that, I think the work that you make can be very, very different. In the future, I'd like to run operations in other parts of the world. A bothy in Scotland… A chalet on the side of a mountain in the Alps… Also, over the last couple of years, I've been very slowly working on writing a book about the residual energy that exists in a place that you can tap into as a person.
The way of thinking that people already have about their creative practice can ever so slightly start to reflect environments that are not about our human culture
How important is it to you to follow an ethos of "leave only footprints"?
Very. It is essential to respect the autonomy of an environment and to try to not have a negative impact on the places that we go to.
In Australia, you can really see the impact of travel. Roads are often lined by this invasive grass called buffel grass. When we drive, we pick up seeds on our car tires and on the trailers, and those seeds are dispersed along the roads, and the grass will start to spread. It brings with it a whole lot of different environmental concerns that weren't here before. So for me, doing things like really cleaning my boots and my clothes, really cleaning down the vehicle after a trip and making sure that I'm not transporting the wrong seeds to the wrong place, for example, is an important practice. But every decision that I make has an environmental consideration embedded within it. We travel to see beautiful environments, and to destroy the environment by travelling to it… that just sounds like the saddest tragedy there could be.