It may not be as famous as Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, but a small resort hidden in the East MacDonnell Ranges is just as deserving of the name and reputation.
On one side of me a hijab-clad dominatrix leads her partner around on a chain, while on the other a glittering gold pharaoh dances wildly. Techno is blaring from a set of speakers but I can barely see the DJ through the haze pouring from a smoke machine and the reflected glare of the desert sun.
This is not a mirage, it’s the Saturday pool party at Wide Open Space and I’ve never been so aware of the complete lack of sequins in my wardrobe. When the music ends a line of revellers snakes up the hill behind the pool, their costumes flashing in the sunlight like fireflies.
There are some incredible outfits but the pick of the bunch is undoubtedly a trio of fiery orange frill-necked lizards created by Sydney artistic collective Deep Sea Astronauts. They show none of the shyness of their reptilian counterparts, strutting around and sticking their blue tongues out as they flash their broad frills.
They are just one of the many unexpected delights of Wide Open Space, a festival that takes place at the Ross River Resort. Approximately 80 kilometres east of Alice Springs, the ‘resort’ is little more than a few buildings clustered on either side of a broad, sandy river bed but for a few days it hosts an ephemeral republic of dancers and dreamers dedicated to celebrating inclusivity.
Escarpments of bright red rock studded with dry grasses rise steeply around the site, and the sheltered gorge is a spectacular setting for a program of music, cabaret, panels and workshops that is best described as eclectic.
Apakatjah take their name from a pejorative Luritja word for a person of mixed race heritage and their lyrics talk about being caught between two cultures. But their message is one of acceptance, and this extends to the catchy music that blends reggae, rock and even heavy metal influences.
Other acts include Quebecois psych rock sleaze funk with caustic social commentary and a very modern girl group whose choreographed dance moves and chanted vocals underpin fun, danceable songs that tackle issues like privilege and gender inequality.
Between musical acts, a sound tech delivers a deadpan comedy set as free range children roam around. In the shaded workshop area, a seated group learns traditional basket weaving techniques while a flash mob of bright blue and green fish dances their way around the site in a school.
Panels discuss the state of the arts in the Northern Territory and the ongoing impact of The Intervention on Indigenous communities.
At several points during the festival, Arrente traditional owners lead ceremonies that help us connect to country but Wide Open Space also has plenty of traditions that are all its own. The most spectacular is the sunset ceremony on the final evening, which gives us a literal overview of the festival site from a hilltop vantage point.
The tiny cluster of stages, tents and campervans pales into insignificance with the view over the other side; a flood plain crowded with trees is a burst of life in this desert landscape and leads up to a long ridge of sawtooth peaks.
Closer at hand, hundreds of dusty and bedraggled festivalgoers are lit up by the setting sun in a symphony of colour. We crowd together to make room as more arrive and when someone reaches the summit with a bass drum held aloft, a band strike up a tune. Those of us who’ve attended choir rehearsal each morning start to sing the three part harmonies to Whitney Houston’s I Want To Dance With Somebody.
I have no idea who chose the song, but the setting and sense of community combine to make it a euphoric moment. As we finish, cheers and whistles ring out and high fives are exchanged. The costumes are a little worse for wear and the crowd weary but I am grinning incessantly, as are most of the people around me. A man who looks like a cross between Mad Max and Carmen Miranda turns to me.
“This has got to be the most beautiful festival in the country” he says, and it’s hard not to agree.
Wide Open Space, Alice Springs
Get information on tickets and upcoming dates, visit wideopenspace.net.au
Images via Ross McNaughtan