This became very long. Sometimes, a musing requires more time. I hope you’ll enjoy walking with me through the outback.
Since my return from Oz, the memory images that rise most insistently are about the days at Ylarra. When I finally emptied my suitcase, the bottom was covered with a fine layer of red dust, and my black gloves and hiking boots are still covered with it. The red dust of the outback, so fine and powdery and soft. Astonishingly red, and I am a person used to red rocks and red landscapes and red earth. I obsessed about the why until I think I drove poor Jo crazy–was it powdered sandstone? What made it so fine? Until finally the cameldriver explained that it is so red because of oxidization. The red is rust.
It is important, when writing a blog like this, to be honest. The final day we were in Ylarra, I wanted out desperately, but I wasn’t sure why. The Outback freaked me out a little, that much is real, and there are good reasons for that. It also took my breath away.
But I think that last day what I wanted to escape was teh claustrophobic astmosphere of the Ayer’s Rock Resort. It’s an odd place, really, a whole little settlement that exists entirely to serve those who wish to visit Uluru. Three hotels of descending grades, including a campsite and youth hostel. Hideously expensive, as resorts are–even our very humble but servicable room was more than $200 AUD. Although it’s hard to escape the industry of tourism while touring, I do make a genuine effort to do so, and it was just impossible here. There is nothing there but the rocks (Katja is the other one, which I didn’t visit), the hotels, fleets of tour busses and an army of kids from around the world staffing the desks and bars and maid service.
There was excellent people watching available–Japanese boy rockers carefully coifed and costumed, weary backpackers from Europe and the US; families from everywhere, literally. The food was all right, and one could choose to barbeque emu or kangaroo or croc, but I was weary of so much meat and tried to have some vegetarian days there. But really–it was as gaudily touristy in its way as Times Square.
And yet… what comes back to me now is none of that. I remember walking the first night we arrived through the big field between our hotel and the little camp grocery. The air was quiet and still and cool as the sun started to get low, turning the sky that soft purple of evening. Beneath our feet was the powdery red sand and all those exotic things growing, so much more vegetation than I expected, and in ways, very like the landscapes I know in southern Colorado. Tough plants adapted to the arid lands–trees with all their networks below the earth, and tiny leaves on slender stalks. Low scrubby bushes and needlely grasses.
And yet, so very different, too. Strange leaves and strange patterns and harsh beauty. At sunset, the desert awakes, and you could feel those rustlings. A cluster of people topped the viewpoint, cameras in hand to try to catch the sunset, everyone longing for a more personal experience–and yet, there we all were, all of us come a very long way to stand there and have the honor of looking at the iconic Uluru.
I think, too, of the dawn ride on camels. The camels themselves lined up in the dark, the predawn air still very cold. The cameldriver herself, lean and tough and scrappy, with her cropped hair and good boots. The thrill of riding up so high above the desert and seeing it so clearly–and safely away from anything scary that might crawl or leap or slither across an unsuspecting foot. Again, I was enveloped by the deceptive quiet, the depth of time and history, the vastness spreading out all around.
That red earth. So much of it.
When we returned to the stables that morning, to eat beer bread and vegemite and drink strong tea, I asked the woman for her email address so I might interview her for something. She intrigued me. How do you come to be leading camels through the desert? How much do you love them? A lot.
That day was overcast and threatening rain all day, so when I arrived to walk around the base of Uluru, it was possible to leave the tourists behind within just a couple of kilometers, and so I had it to myself. Me and the rock and the desert and the signs warning tourists not to take photos. Which I respected, as I respected their strong desire that no one climb the rock. Ever. Though people still do.
A word on this: do not go to Uluru and climb it. I’m saying that very directly because I couldn’t tell, before I left, what was expected or allowed or even legal. I like climbing things, and it would have been a big delight for me to climb this very well-known rock and see the world from there. Before I left, I read that the climb was no longer open, so I put it out of my mind.
When I arrived, the tourist office had a sign that said, “The climb is open.” And I said, “wait a minute. You can climb up there?” She–being about 23–looked over my middle aged self and said, “well, you can, depending on your fitness.” So I thought it would be cool and sort of planned on it.
But it turned out that the original inhabitants, the local natives or aborigines, do NOT WANT YOU TO CLIMB THE ROCK. And as it is sacred to them and not to me, it’s a perfectly obvious thing to respect. Catholics wouldn’t want people to go scale Notre Dame just to say they did.
I walked around the base, which is abound six miles, and that is worth doing. A long, solitary, peaceful walk in beautiful country. Probably not enjoyable in high summer, but in late winter, with plenty of water, it was fantastic, one of the great walks I’ve done.
Not, I will add, particularly holy. Or rather, I suppose, no more than any other long and meditative walk. The rock is beautiful and ancient and you do want to stop and admire it, and the sky and the clouds going over (our cameldriver spoke of how incredible it was in the rain, so I prayed for rain–I was prepared for it). I did commune with my own spirituality. I had (another) good cry over Leo, because he came walking with me. I thought of the women who had their sacred rituals there and sometimes I made up stories about the formations–there were a lot that looked like screaming mouths, complete with teeth, a slightly disturbing that could get a little eerie after awhile. What were they screaming? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!
Halfway around, the sun came out and I passed a pair of men who climbed up on the rock from the other side. Tsk, tsk. By then, I was fully into my walking meditation and my musings will stay private, though I will say the colors of red and sage and blue sky are powerfully nourishing. I understood this landscape, even if it is a half a world from my own. It nourished me.
Jo went to the other rocks that afternoon and evening. I chose to stay back and nap and rest, and so at dinner, I took my camera like all the others and went to the top of the bluff overlooking both Uluru and Katja, and waited for the dusk to fall. And again, there were a lot of us longing for our own private show, but we shared and respectfully didn’t speak much. The red earth grew redder. The clouds glowed. And the ancient, ancient rock was washed tenderly by winter sun, setting into dusk. And it was very fine. As I walked back on that soft, soft earth, I shot a dozen pictures of a single tree trunk, and felt drunk on the colors of the desert and that evening, I sat on the top bunk of my little room and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, about death and travel and writing and life.
As I sort through all this, I realize that the outback frightened me a little because it is so very, very vast and ancient and overwhelming on so many levels. I don’t know how to hold it all in my mind all at once, and I don’t know how to survive in that landscape. (Which might not matter to you, but the girl scout in the basement always needs that information to feel safe–if we got left out here overnight, what would we need to do?).
But I also see that it moved me. Powerfully. It also occurs to me that there is a lot more out there to explore, that it is a vast, vast place and I can visit some other entry point that is not The Times Square of The Outback. I don’t have to hold it all in my mind at once, and in fact, that’s the opposite of what one can ever do–with a landscape or a novel or a life.
Instead, I hold the dusk of a single evening in all of time, shining on a tree trunk, lighting the clouds. I hold a walk one afternoon around the perimeter of a rock that will outlast all of us. I hold the delight of a camel ride and the stillness of the desert filling me, touching me, giving me rest.
Have you visited a place that unsettled you?
10 thoughts on “Dusk at Ylarra”
The first time I visited Alice Springs, which is about 400k from Uluru, I went with a world weary view that everyone who talked of the inherent spiritual connection they had with the Centre were really, in the Australian vernacular, wankers. But when I got there, the vastness and the ancientness of the landscape pulled me right in. I was driving back from Glen Helen Gorge on my own and a blue cattle dog, which would have belonged to one of the Aboriginal town camps, ran out onto the road in front of me. I wasn’t in any danger of hitting it, but it seemed to look at me as if to say, “Who do you think you are girly?” It’s an amazing place. My friends in AS tell me that people have such a strong reaction to it because the indigenous people have such a strong and unbroken spiritual connection to the land. They still sing the land and the land is alive because of that.
I’ve never visited a place that scared me but I have visited places I expected to be spiritual but found to be too touristy. Most recently was Stonehenge. I wanted to be moved or feel the past around me but instead there was just the trampling of feet and the throng of people.
So I turned away from the ring of stones and looked instead to this little valley (very little) below and the sheep grazing on the green fields and found some of that peace I’d been searching for.
I was trying to think why I didn’t have a place that was overwhelming to me and I think it’s because I never venture out of my comfort zone.
Kathy, I hear you on not venturing out of comfort zones. I’m the original fraidy cat. Mind you, once, when in the Far North (in NZ) my husband and I happened across a lake, except it wasn’t any ordinary lake. It was completely dried up and the entire lake floor was punctuated with broken petrified tree stumps. We were the only people there and it was a fiercely hot day but I remember feeling distinctly chilled by the devastation and I couldn’t wait to get back to our car. I had the overwhelming feeling of being observed while we were there, too. Which made me very anxious to be away.
Hmm, just googled the lake, which is Lake Ohia, and this is the official spiel:
Lake Ohia has been drained earlier this century for gum-digging (Y-I’m picking they mean last century i.e. early 1900s.) On the former lakebed you can now see exposed remains of the fossilised kauri forest that was drowned about 30,000 years ago, before the lake was formed.
Water is present for approximately two months of the year. Classified as a gum-field wetland, this former lake now provides important habitat for rare ferns, mosses and orchids. The surrounding swamps and shrub land contain threatened fish and bird species.
That sounds so cool. I read a book about Australia one time that said that there were places that were dry for most of the year and then flooded the rest. So that it was either drown or die of thirst. I thought that was so fascinating that there would be a place where life would be almost impossible for most people.
Charles DeGaulle airport at age 20. Not the first time I had traveled by myself and not the first time I was abroad, but it was the first time I had to do both at the same time. It had been 8 years since I had visited Europe, everyone and everything seemed so foreign after having been away so long. I didn’t speak a lick of French and yes, I’m afraid that not everyone I asked for help was exactly kind 😉
I had to dash to another terminal to catch my connecting flight to Madrid and onto the adventure of my Junior Year abroad. I was (and am) a slightly smothered only child and my parents weren’t a 100% confident I could do this. Dealing with this huge monstrosity of an airport on no sleep and sheer nerves was the only time I really doubted I could do it either.
I made it. I plopped myself into a cab in Madrid by siesta time and promptly started chatting in Spanish, feeling worldly and comfortable all the sudden. When I got to the hotel I slept for 12 hours and woke up at approximately 2 a.m., wired and ready for the next step, but I never felt that nervous again for the whole year.
This may seem a strange place to point at, but I feel unsettled in the ocean. Most recently, my husband and I were snorkeling in the Caribbean and came upon some manta rays and enormous sea turtles. While part of me hungered to see these things, another part screamed to get out. I think I might suggest the same reasons you did, Barbara. The sea is “so very, very vast and ancient and overwhelming on so many levels. I don’t know how to hold it all in my mind all at once, and I don’t know how to survive in that landscape.”
Ancient things can be nerve trying, maybe because they put us in our (inconsequential, in the grand scheme of things) place.
Wonderful post, as always, Barbara.
Wonderful responses! Deb, I would like to return to Alice Springs and explore from there. Others have said it is a very powerful spot (and cool town).
Kathy, ooh, good one. Hard to not want to visit Stonehenge, just as it’s hard to resist the desire to see Uluru.
Yvonne, it sounds very atmospheric. And can’t kauri trees survive all that time and depth and waterlogging? The wood, I mean, not the tree.
Jill, you poor dear! I bet the trauma of the airport contributed to your sense of worldliness in Madrid. (Madrid! On my list.)
Therese, the ocean is a very vast place, too. I don’t know if I could scuba dive, though CR is hot to go to the Great Barrier Reef after my rhapsodizing.
Barbara the stumps were all petrified wood (somewhat different to my brand of petrified 🙂 ) And yes, I believe that kauri trees are nature’s survivors and those that do survive are giants, however, they didn’t withstand the tidal wave that is theorised to have taken down thousands of kauri trees in the Far North tens of thousands of years ago. The tidal wave is believed to have been caused by a meteorite hitting either Australia or the Tasman Sea and the resulting shockwave of water created extremely fertile digging grounds for kauri gum in the 1800s. Based on that, I’d hazard a guess that the trees in Lake Ohia were similarly snapped off at the base, leaving those eerie stumps to haunt people like me 🙂
Therese! You’ve just described exactly why I don’t scuba dive anymore. I had a total freak out at 50-60 feet in perfect visibility in the Bay of Islands (again in the north of NZ.) It was just so huge and I suddenly didn’t feel like I belonged there anymore so, to my husband’s horror, I ripped my reg out my mouth and did a free ascent to the surface and I couldn’t get back on the boat fast enough. Have never dived since.
Oh, I see I am not alone in being scared in the deep Caribbean waters! I am fine in the brown coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the blue waters of the California coast, and Hawaiian waters. And I was fine on Grand Cayman where I could walk out into the turquoise waters. BUT, the immediate drop off from land to ocean floor on Cayman Brac freaked me out! I snorkeled there and what really got to me was seeing these monstrous pipes lying on the ocean floor going from land out to as far as the eye could see, and that was REALLY far since the water was crystal clear. They must have been sewage pipes. They were probably three feet in diameter. You’re right, it must have something to do with the vastness of the ocean and feeling like we are just part of the food chain in that environment. I saw lots of beautiful fish, nothing scary, yet it felt creepy to me.
I should mention that swimming underwater in the
deep end of a swimming pool also creeps me out because of the plumbing noises you hear. Doesn’t bother me where my feet touch the ground. And that is exactly what was going through my head in the Brac waters, even though there were no plumbing noises.
Cayman Brac has so few residents, about 2000 people,(we rented a litle house there right on the beach) and we saw only a handful of people unless we went to the grocery store. Being thousands of miles from home and on a tiny island with almost no people I had never felt so alone and lonely. I usually enjoy and even crave solitude at home and I didn’t expect to feel that way. The other thing that surprised me was that I was scared to walk on the beach by myself at night. I would tell myself, ‘there is no one lurking in the trees ready to attack you and nothing is going to rise up out of the ocean and ‘get you’, but I still wasn’t comfortable.
To me, there is also a theme of death on the island. The Brac is a place for people who like to entertain themselves…a fabulous place to dive, but not much to do on land. Lots of private family cemeteries (and public ones) and caves where people hide out during hurricanes, even today. The biggest thing that ever happened there was the Hurricane of ’32 (category 5)when most of the population was wiped out and it is still talked about today.
Interesting how city folks freak out in the wilds.
Do you think it’s just city folks, Denise? It makes sense to be wary of environments we don’t understand.
Yvonne, that must be the tidal wave that killed the dinosaurs. Cool.