Projects Coordinator at Desert Feet, Damien Thornber.
Projects Coordinator at Desert Feet, Damien Thornber.

Educational, musical opportunities for regional communities

Providing opportunity, in any form, to those living in some of the most remote sites in the world - is a colossal challenge by anyone's standards.

Thankfully though, West Australian based mobile arts project, Desert Feet, is equal to the challenge. 

The service travels to some of the most remote crevices of the Australian outback in an effort to create and foster educational and musical opportunities for remote Aboriginal communities.

Participants are taught basic sight reading, song writing and music theory. Existing musicians are given support and tuition to develop and polish their presentation, and Desert Feet even help with professional sound recording and mixing. 

Projects Coordinator at Desert Feet, Damien Thornber, says the unique format of the workshops has seen their model flourish over the past six years.

"We see it as in ideal way to create positive cultural awareness for non-Indigenous Australians, and also as a potential revenue stream for the artists themselves.

"Acknowledgement is the best form of reconciliation," Damien said.

Desert Feet's latest and greatest tour consisted of a gruelling month-long 8,000 kilometer stint across the vast deserts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

As the saying goes, it's certainly no country for old men, and simply reaching these destinations is a genuine feat in itself.

"We routinely travel right across the Great Sandy Desert, the Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts, where there is barely a scratch of bitumen for 1,000 kilometres in any direction. In fact, you won't hit the sealed road again until you get to Halls Creek or Alice Springs once you head East of Newman.

For six long years, Damien delivered the much loved workshops from the back of a 22-year-old Japanese 4x4 truck that simply wasn't getting the job done.

"Almost nothing can stand up against the endless corrugations and that red dust. It's the ultimate killer of machinery, and especially electrical equipment. I spent a lot of time welding bits back on, wiring stuff up and being a bit of a bush mechanic," he said.

"If a vehicle breaks down out there, it rarely comes home, so you either limp it out of the desert, or it becomes part of the landscape."

The tyranny of time, coupled with the sheer brutality of the Aussie scrub, meant the old truck was spending more and more time in the shop and less time on the track. Something had to give.

Thanks to a timely grant from Lottery West, it finally did.

And with the help of Brent Howard at Major Motors in Perth, the Desert Feet crew got a hold of a super tough Isuzu FTS 800 Crew 4x4.

"We chose the FTS 800 over the equivalent in Hino because of one reason - service," Brett said. 

"Brent at Major Motors Isuzu was the only person in three years that was able to deliver exactly what we wanted, he just said, 'yep, we can do this, let's make it happen.'"

Strategically engineered to endure the harshest elements, the FTS 800, kitted-out with fully floating axles and double acting shock absorbers, was perfect for the bone jarring goat tracks that pass for roads in remote WA and the NT.

The air suspension ISRI driver's seat with lumbar support and weight adjustment has also been a game changer for Brent and the crew, who've likened it to driving on a cloud.

"After 5 years in a 1992 Hino, it's like being on a cloud. It floats over the gravel roads, handles bumps and sand extremely well, and the visibility is second to none," he said.

Powered by a SiTEC Series III 235 engine, producing a solid 176 kW @ 2,400 RPM, the FTS 800 4x4 has proven itself to be more than capable of dealing with whatever terrain is thrown at it.

Desert Feet were chuffed with the added comfort of the Allison 6 speed automatic transmission too, which made the more demanding stretches between communities a hell-of-a-lot more tolerable for Damien and the crew.

"Mechanically it's been perfect. It's early days at the moment and we have only done 30,000km, so you'll need to ask me that again in a year or two. The extreme rough conditions mean we have had to make some ongoing modifications, but you have to understand, it is serious four-wheel driving most of the time for us," Damien said.

Not only was the Isuzu required to perform out on the bush tracks, but for Desert Feet it had to double (or triple, if you like) as a performance stage, as well as a fully appointed, self-sustaining recording studio.

Desert Feet worked closely with celebrated audio technician George Nikoloudis of Group Technologies for several months, nutting-out a concept for the recording studio and stage to be assembled on the chassis of the FTS 800.

With the help of an Isuzu powered 8-KVA genset on board, the studio/stage set-up was completed using an adapted shipping container to house the equipment - before it expands to form a fully functional performance stage.

"The idea is that we can capture the songs and music of our artists on-location, on their own land and in their own environment. It means access to technologies and high quality musical equipment that some of these areas have never seen."

The versatility of the FTS 800, along with Isuzu's range of all wheel and 4x4 models, is evident across the variety of vocations in which they've been applied, but it's safe to say that Desert Feet's mobile studio, come 'stage', is undoubtedly a most welcome first.

For the Desert Feet crew though, the simplicity of introducing opportunity - in the form of music - to those who'd otherwise miss out is their job's greatest reward. And having the right vehicle to deliver this makes it all the more enjoyable.

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