Finke Desert Races

Travel: Finke Desert Races (Northern Territory)

Finke Desert Races

Today’s guest blogger is Susan Papazian, a travel, portrait and lifestyle photographer from Sydney, who I met when she was helping Carla Coulson at the Picture This Photography Workshop in Sydney. Susan and I had been chatting online in one of Carla’s private Facebook groups prior to the course and it was such a relief to see a “familiar” face at the course. We’ve stayed in touch and I regularly ask Susan questions about photography and she’s always open and amazingly helpful. I’m not sure that I would have made it through the course without Susan. She steadied my nerves and constantly answered my questions about which manual settings my camera should be on. Today she guest blogs about her recent travels in the Northern Territory- it’s a part of Australia that I have yet to visit. I hope you are inspired to explore a little more of Australia.


Finke Desert Races

The Northern Territory outback has always been on my bucket list of travel destinations. The lure of traveling abroad to capture different lands, people and cultures has strongly pulled me in that direction over the last few years. Somehow, traveling and photographing in my own back yard would often get pushed to the bottom of my priority list, but certainly not to the back of my mind.

I first experienced a taste of the Aussie outback in 2011. Three girls – my sister, my best friend and myself drove for a week in a beat up old car from Brisbane across the outback to Darwin in an event called the Shitbox Rally, to raise money for the Cancer Council. It was an unbelievable experience, taking me through towns such as Longreach and Catherine. Driving hundreds of kilometres a day through dusty roads, crossing rivers (yes in the car!) and camping under a millions stars each night was magical!

Ironically, my road to becoming a professional photographer started later that same year. I didn’t even have a point and shoot camera so I used my iPhone to snap a few shots here and there. I always regretted not having captured this stunning part of the world through the “eyes of a photographer” and promised myself I would return to the NT, with camera in hand!

Fast-track to 2015. When details of a travel photography workshop with Master photographer Daniel Linnet landed in my inbox – “On Assignment Desert Journey, Northern Territory”, I jumped at the opportunity. This was my chance to head back to the “heartbeat” of our country, the Aussie Outback.

The eight day adventure would start in the town of Alice Springs. The first night was spent in a hotel before the trip would take me to the bush, with no showers or man-made toilets. Surprisingly, I was very excited to be roughing it in the bush, with no internet connection, no checking phones messages or email and no jumping on Facebook. The whole idea of being isolated and “disconnected” from my world created a huge sense of freedom for me.

The next eight days was one of the most liberating experiences of my life!

The first assignment was photographing the Finke Desert races.


You don’t often hear of female photographers getting excited about photographing motorbikes, buggies and quads bikes, let alone in one of the most remote places on the planet. I had never heard of the remote indigenous community called Aputula (Finke), 159km south of Alice Springs, let alone the Finke Desert Races. But this off-road multi-terrain two-day race, run over the Queen’s Birthday long-weekend, between Alice springs and Apuluta,is known as one of the most gruelling and toughest events in the world.


Day one was the preliminary and qualifying events, just outside of Alice Springs. As I arrived trackside, the place was buzzing with spectators, young and old. The smell of petrol filled the dusty air and the sound of engines revving, at most times, would drown out any conversation.


Like any country I visit, it’s the people that draw me in first, well before the architecture and the landscape. As a photographer, the very first connection I feel and make is with the people. Day one at the races had a carnival feel. Spectators clambered on top of cars and scaffolds to get the best vantage point. Tinnies of beer were kept chilled in eskies and the free flowing cans and bottles consumed snuggly found their place in stubby holders. This was real country Australia and it was only to get better.


The second night of the trip took us to Ooraminna Homestead Station 32km south of Alice Springs. It is nestled between the MacDonnell Ranges and the Simpson Desert. Stepping into Ooramina is like stepping onto a film set. And that’s exactly what it was when a few years back a visiting film crew built a little town to film the movie The Drover’s Son.


On the land you will also find Ooraminna’s Police Station and Wooden Slab Hut, built of stone and timber slats, retaining a rustic feel that’s increasingly lost in the outback. The Homestead caters for tourists who can stay in the fully furnished cabins. But for me, a tent and a swag was where I would be sleeping.


The cracking sunsets and sunrises are spectacular. The stars light up the sky in their millions and the distant sounds of dingos and kangaroos wandering through the brush make the experience complete.


The next morning was day two of the Finke races. This is where the true excitement of getting close to the action would begin. A short drive from camp and I was at “trackside”. The winding dirt corrugated track snakes through the dusty red land, with spinifex, mulga and desert oak dotting the landscape on either side. Although the track was realigned and rebuilt in the early 1980’s, the race continues along the original course.


Standing a few feet away as the bikes and quads raced by, the clouds of dust spitting from under the tyres and filling the air was very dense. So how does one protect their camera from the dust? A plastic bag and some masking tape covering my lens and camera body ensured my gear would be protected. A bandana around my mouth and nose helped somewhat, but I could feel the red dirt creeping into my nose and ears and showering my hair. I loved it! The Finke races are tough, dirty and dusty and that’s really the only way it should be. It is after all an Aussie sporting event in the Outback. Having it any other way just wouldn’t be the Finke Desert races!

Susan in action: Image Stephen Allworth

Susan in action: Image Stephen All worth

The racing dust that had crept into my pores stayed there for the next four days of my outback journey.

From here, I travel to a bush camp “Angkerle Arrenge, the outstation of our guide Jungala’s family. Stepping onto this special land, I feel an inexplainable spiritual force sweep over me. Jungala, who is from the Arrente (pronounced Ah-runda) people, suggests I go into the bush and introduce myself to the spirits of the land. As I do, a gentle energy tugs at my being, and as I stand there with tears in my eyes, I genuinely feel a strong and lasting connection to the land.

The journey continues and the remaining days I spend taking in the incredible landscapes at Standley Chasm, Ellery Big Hole and Serpentine Gorge off the Larapinta Trail and meeting some incredible people along the way.

Stay tuned to hear my story and see my photographs on another blog post.

About Susan:

Susan Papazian is a travel, portrait and lifestyle photographer based in Sydney Australia. She takes amazing portraits, and if you live in Sydney, you should absolutely update that crappy LinkedIn photo and call her! (Katische cheekily inserted that line)

You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

Susan Papazian

Susan Papazian : Image courtesy Tony Strasser