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?