Watching the last light in Normanton

On a road trip through the Gulf Savannah towns of North Queensland last year, I realised that light — or at times, the lack of it — deeply influences how I perceive the landscape around me.

A Rainbow Bee-eater bird at Normanton, Queensland
Rainbow Bee-eater at sunset, Normanton, Queensland. Trisha Fielding, 2021.

For the first four or five days of the trip, grey clouds muted the colours of the terrain. One place in particular — Copperfield Gorge, at Einasleigh — would have looked stunning had it not been for the heavy clouds that cast a dull light over the basalt walls of the gorge, making the water at the bottom look sinister, rather than refreshing. Sure, it was impressive in its scale, but it didn’t move me. By the time we reached Croydon, the clouds were long behind us and crisp blue skies reigned. I loved Croydon. It had a beautiful white light about it. A searing light. It’s the kind of light I have come to realise I really thrive on.

Another town in the Gulf of Carpentaria — Normanton, just over 150km north-east of Croydon — has it as well: this special kind of light. Situated on the Norman River (though it is many kilometres from the river’s mouth) Normanton sits on an ironstone ridge and is mostly surrounded by saltpans. The dirt is the colour of rust, and the sky is big and wide and cobalt blue. To the unobservant eye, it might seem just like any other dry, dusty outback town, but there are many before me who have experienced the beauty of the light in Normanton.

tree and landscape with blue sky and soft clouds
Normanton. Looking towards the Norman River. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

Australian artist Ray Crooke (1922-2015) spent time in Normanton in the 1960s, in company with his friend, Percy Trezise. Crooke went on to produce a series of paintings of Normanton, many of which depict somewhat abstract figures, often in foreground shadows, but all with Normanton’s bright background light as a recurring feature. The Football Match, 1966, and Sunrise, Albion Hotel, Normanton, 1962, are just two examples of his style.

A two-page opening from the exhibition publication North of Capricorn: the Art of Ray Crooke
An opening from the exhibition publication North of Capricorn: the Art of Ray Crooke.
See source list below for full citation.

Another painting, Last Light, Normanton, is perhaps my favourite of Crooke’s paintings, and is held by the James Cook University Art Collection. Last Light, Normanton was featured in James Cook University Library’s 50 Treasures Exhibition in 2020. Writing for the exhibition, curator and art historian Ross Searle wrote that it was the “ramshackle townscape” and its Indigenous people that inspired Crooke’s Normanton series.

The eerie white light of the approaching night and the dark shadows of the looming streetscape at dusk held particular fascination for him. Ray Crooke had a special affinity with the Indigenous people of remote northern Australia and when situated in his paintings, as they do in the foreground of Last Light, Normanton, they have a calm, almost classical gravity.

Ross Searle, 2020.

It’s clear to me that Crooke loved both the landscape and the people of this part of North Queensland, but I think it was Crooke’s ability to capture the light that so entrances me. Rosemary Dobson, in the 1971 book Focus on Ray Crooke, notes that light is the “all-important ingredient” in each of Crooke’s paintings. In Dobson’s book, Crooke himself said that although the element of light was the most difficult of all the elements for a painter to master, he considered that it was light that gave a painting its “ageless quality, mystery, and indefinable presence”. Of his Normanton series, Crooke later wrote:

I became fascinated by the shapes in the foreground, the silhouetted shapes that the country produced, and looking from the shadow into the light. Everyone who goes to Normanton loves it because of the light.

Ray Crooke, 1977.
A sunset in Normanton, Queensland
Sunset, Normanton, Queensland. Trisha Fielding, 2021.

We saw first-hand this “eerie white light” that’s referred to in an above quote, from the shadows that preceded darkness, when we were standing out the back of a caravan park in Normanton watching the sun set. I knew then, that we were seeing the last light in Normanton exactly as Crooke had seen it and captured it in his painting. Normanton was a place where I felt somehow suspended in endless time… entranced by the beauty of the day’s last light.

Watching the last light in Normanton, Queensland
Watching the last light in Normanton, Queensland. Trisha Fielding, 2021.

Sources and further reading:

  • Dobson, Rosemary, Focus on Ray Crooke, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland, 1971.
  • Gleeson, James, Ray Crooke: Australian Artist Editions, Collins, Sydney, 1972?
  • Searle, Ross, 50 Treasures: Celebrating 50 Years of James Cook University, James Cook University Library, Townsville, 2020.
  • Smith, Sue, North of Capricorn: the Art of Ray Crooke, Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville, 1997.

A day at Horseshoe Bay

One of my favourite places to go when we want to get out of town for the day, is Horseshoe Bay, on Magnetic Island. There are some great walking tracks here (some are easy, some are challenging); and there’s a “Butterfly Forest”, located next to the site of the old Horseshoe Bay School. It is a wetlands rehabilitation site, so if you go there after it’s recently rained, you can expect the track and other parts of the area to be pretty boggy, so wear appropriate footwear, and don’t forget your insect repellent!

paperbark trees
Butterfly Forest walk, Horseshoe Bay. Trisha Fielding 2022.

What butterflies you’ll see here does depend on what time of year you visit. On a recent trip, we saw a number of species here (and in the immediate vicinity) including Purple Crow [Euploea tulliolus], Blue Tiger [Tirumala hamata], Cruiser [Vindula arsinoe], Shining Oak-blue [Arhopala micale], Chequered Swallowtail [Papilio demoleus], and a Jezebel (possibly a Red-banded Jezebel) – [Delias mysis].

a close-up of a Blue Tiger butterfly with wings open
Blue Tiger, near Horseshoe Bay Lagoon. Trisha Fielding 2022.

The Horseshoe Bay Lagoon Conservation Park walk is another lovely walk – accessible off Horseshoe Bay Road, about 150-200 metres back from the beach. It’s an easy walk, on flat, sandy ground, with some really stunning trees – particularly the melaleucas and eucalypts. The track leads to a timber boardwalk across part of the lagoon itself, which allows you to fully appreciate this beautiful wetland landscape.

I wasn’t particularly on the lookout for birds on this walk, but we were lucky enough to spot a Pied Currawong, high up in a tree, about 20 metres away (thank goodness for zoom lenses!) and later, a Pheasant Coucal, hiding amongst an Acacia tree (Townsville Wattle).

Townsville Wattle tree
Acacia leptostachya (common name: Townsville Wattle), Horseshoe Bay.
Trisha Fielding 2022.

*Magnetic Island is just a 25-minute ferry ride from Townsville. You can catch a bus from the Nelly Bay ferry terminal over to Horseshoe Bay to explore these (and other) walks.

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