Crystals In The Desert: A Tour Diary in Outback Australia
Lola The Vamp tells a heartwarming tale from the Australian outback…
Betoota, Diamantina Shire, in the Channel Country of Central Western Queensland, Australia. Population 0. The last living resident passed away ten years ago. Sigmund (Simon) Remienko bought The Betoota Hotel in 1957 and closed it due to ill health in 1997, a handful of years before his death. No one lives out here now.
Betoota is, categorically, Australia’s smallest town, today boasting a racetrack, a cricket field and a dry weather airstrip. It is, truly, smack bang in Australia’s outback.
It’s where a handful of my favourite burlesque dancers and I are heading as the surprise entertainment for the annual Channel Country Ladies Day weekend. Sarina Del Fuego, Dolores Daiquiri and myself will bring two nights of entertainment, a workshop and our life modelling skills to assist body paint artist Tim Gratton at a weekend designed to bring the women of the area together to take time out, recharge and inspire. Little did we know how much it would affect us, too. To the best of our knowledge, this is the most remote burlesque show in the world. It’s historic; burlesque has certainly never been to this town.
October 17th: AM
It’s Burlesque Show: Activate as we meet at Brisbane Airport. I reunite with Dolores Daiquiri, who I first met over 12 years ago when she was the only other performer to come up on a Google search for ‘Australian Burlesque’ with her troupe HiBall Burlesque. Kerry X I’ve met briefly once before, at the Melbourne cabaret club Bohemia, and Sarina Del Fuego, our go-to gal who has put this cast together, well we shared a house in Edinburgh in 2005 for a month while we performed in one of the first revival shows to make it to the Fringe, Go Go Burlesco. We meet body paint artist Tim Gratton for the first time, under whose auspices we have all been brought together – Tim had suggested burlesque to the organisers and we are also to assist him in body painting and life modelling duties over the weekend. I get a glimpse of the official program of events. I’m delighted to see the keynote speaker is a well known media personality and sex therapist, Dr Rosie King. We congregate to the pick-up point and a mini-bus herds us all in, including Dr Rosie and a number of other artists, journalists and facilitators who are also heading to the Channel Country Ladies Day. We are headed for a charter flight, a tiny plane taking us 2.5 hours to Charleville for a fuel stop, then an hour further to the dry-weather airstrip at Betoota.
The charter flight is straight out of Central Casting: we have the Hot Pilot (known also as Nigel) and plates of luscious healthy snacks prepared. Dolores auditioned for the role of hostess by miming the pushing of a trolley and the safety demonstration. She got the part and is now custodian of the champagne. A bottle each of Moet and Verve Cliquet. They come in handy as we take off. I’m used to large commercial jets which give the illusion that you aren’t just a tiny bullet pelleting through the atmosphere, but the view from this aircraft makes us seem so tiny as the suburbs of Brisbane fade from our view. That we are also vulnerable to air turbulence does little to calm my increasing nerves. I find that gently touching the seat pocket in front of me is a very effective method of alleviating turbulence, and will surely protect me in the unlikely event of an emergency.
We touch down in Charleville; I’ve been in this area before for a similar event in 2010 to conduct workshops for the Queensland Rural and Regional Women’s Association and it’s nice to be back for a brief moment. I love the rusty dirt and can feel the dry heat rising as we head further into the red heart of Australia.
October 17th: PM
An hour later and my second small-plane takeoff is complete. I find it much easier the second time around. By the time we arrive in Betoota, well, this is almost normal! Many of the organisers of the weekend are present to greet us in their pink candy-striped shirts. Our luggage is unloaded and reloaded into utes and we are taken to our new digs. They are tents, fitting two showgirls each, with an elevated camping mattress. It’s hot, but not completely unbearable, and I’m a tropical girl so I’m enjoying the heat without the humidity I’m accustomed to.
We have some time to rest momentarily before preparing for our first performance of the weekend. It’s not until I wake up after the first night that I realise it’s my first time camping! I’ve studiously avoided it, even when performing at camping festivals such as the famous Woodford Folk Festival. It’s not so bad, it’s pokey, but the bed and the space is larger than the last time I stayed in New York!
Our change room is a tiny tent and the schedule is running late so the four of us are standing on a small carpet strip in the middle of the dusty tent. Tim is so excited he keeps bringing people over for a peek in the tent. It’s quite remarkable to see our transformation from charter-flight daywear to mystical creature of the glamour, particularly out here.
Our time comes and the emcee is about to intro us. “What is it called?” We never thought to create a show name.
“Betoota Burlesque,” replies Dolores, not missing a beat.
A couple of acts in and it’s clear that this is a hit. Someone pulls me aside, “Have you ever seen a roomful of happier women?” In burlesque, we see women often responding well to our shows, but I have to admit this is very special.
The event is filmed for a prominent television show on ABC TV called Landline, and photographed by that bible of antipodean femininity, The Australian Women’s Weekly. The stage is makeshift, small, the lighting simple, but the energy and joy I find in this performance is shocking in its power. I’m smiling and flirting with the audience; they are laughing out loud with joy, not judgment. Most of them understand instinctively that we are playful; we are, even in the most subtle of ways, sending up the idea of sexy even as we perform it. They are in on the joke, too. The scene has its unique outback charm – a corrugated iron shed, tables of women, and pink crepe-paper bows to decorate. You can’t see it at night, but the backdrop is of the pure desert.
“It’s a good thing that this is sponsored by The Royal Flying Doctors (a legendary Australian outback health service that allows remote people access to healthcare) because our husbands are going to need it when we get home!”
I walk back to my tent, a dome of stars glittering from horizon to horizon. I fall asleep listening to the final strains of the party and I feel happy.
October 18th: AM
Burlesque class and body painting. Dolores is told by one of the ladies that she’d been primed to get herself a tummy-tuck, but after our show, she won’t. We are so accustomed to alternative images of the female body in burlesque, we literally see difference every day. But if you live remotely, you only have mainstream media representations to compare yourself to. In fact, it’s highly likely that you are the only female presence at your station. The very fact of us sharing our bodies with these women is an act of solidarity. Bodies are beautiful; it just depends on what matrix you view them from. And perceptions of beauty can change during the space of a simple burlesque show.
As midday progresses into the afternoon, it feels like the heat rises and reaches a point. Under shade, we are fine, but the short walk to the tent or (very clean and new) bathroom facilities becomes something we all avoid. As the process continues, more women volunteer. Initially we were to be the body paintees, but there has been so much interest that Tim is painting the Channel Country volunteers instead, so my latent Visual Arts degree gets a workout and we assist in the painting. It must be said, it’s much more fun to be the painter than the paintee! Often they are here with friends, sisters, mothers-in-law. Removing their clothing and painting a new identity becomes part of the process of the weekend, even if it washes off in the next shower. It’s a space away from the everyday stresses of outback life. The women marvel at what their husbands will say when they see the photographs, and share their observations about their bodies. One lady is going to give the images to her husband for his birthday. Watching them rehearse their sexuality among each other is gently touching. It’s Betootaful.
October 18th: PM
Kerry X: “I was getting ready in the bathrooms and one of the ladies asked if I was making myself beautiful for tonight and all I could think was ‘betootaful’”
In that sentence, Kerry has created the catchphrase of the weekend. Initially, it describes the process of getting show-ready in the desert, but soon comes to mean the whole state of mind out here. Each speech, each workshop, each interaction, is designed to build these women, to offer camaraderie and support and kindness. That we are here too means we feel the overflow. You can have your tiaras, we’ll always have Betoota. Actually, we’ll have it all. It all works together out here.
Our second show is performed a little differently this time; it’s integrated with the dinner service, which always leads to a quieter show as people negotiate both eating with watching a show. Also, while last night we were performers and staff, tonight we are part of the tribe. Throughout the weekend, the lines between attendee, staff, performer, workshop facilitator, speaker all merge and we are a beautiful, genial, accepting group with different roles but all equal, and all accepted. We are complimented everywhere we go, and it creates a sense of community, of safety. Despite a hectic schedule, we relax, quite truly.
One woman tells me of her excitement that we have been able to perform here: “We get the real world come to us!” I tell her that they are the ones in the real world. They are living the harsh life that we are cushioned from in the city. It’s not uncommon for these women to embark on a nine hour trip for food and supplies. We call that a trip to the supermarket and it takes us less than an hour. She tells me of her greatest fear. A lot of the women muster cattle out here, and the sun beats down hard, dry and hot. It’s days and weeks away from home to get the cattle from one place to another. This woman hopes that should she fall from her horse, she isn’t so injured that she is trapped in the full brunt of the sun, on the sand and unable to move. The stakes are so high here. The conditions are harsh, yet there is so much kindness.
A one-woman cover band ensures the outback party continues and it’s getting quite loose out there with conga lines, limbo and women doing the splits to pick up tubes of chapstick. They really do know how to party.
Lying in my tent after the show has died down, I feel happy here.
October 19th: AM
The sun rises on our final morning in Betoota. I had thought that by this point I would be delighted at the prospect of returning home after camping for two nights but I’m surprised at how easily I’ve adapted. We are scheduled to model for some life drawing sessions this morning before flying out. Dr Rosie gives a final talk about sex and relationships, in her professional, frank and open manner that has set the tone for the weekend. A number of Outback entrepreneurs and artists finish the lunch with speeches, all telling tales of the combination of adversity and triumph that characterises life in the Channel Country. But it speaks to all of us, the ring-ins, the carnies, the entertainers and the artists.
October 19th: PM
Flying home is a little bittersweet. I’ve felt cocooned out in Betoota. At first we were concerned that we had no internet access while there (what? No Instagram??) We live lives of promotion and being seen to be doing something is half the prize of any plumb gig, but the rhythm of Outback life leaves little room for that, and we are replenished by the break.
I’m taking Sarina and Dolores home for a night after Dolores performs in Brisbane and it’s nice to have them for a little more time. I live outside of Brisbane myself, in rainforest acreage with creeks, donkeys, ponies, cockatoos and rosellas. When I’d tell the Channel Country women where I lived, I must admit that I felt a flush of pride that they recognised me as a country lady as well. Dolores takes a sound recording of the birds and rainforest sounds and I’m happy to be home. What a wonderful life.
ABC TV’s rural current affairs program also covered the event. You can see it here.