Australia. My first solo long-haul trip for many years and an escape from a difficult time. I suppose I was looking for . . . direction, space, the chance to heal. I arrived in Sydney after flights from London and Singapore and was lucky to stay with friends who lived in Coogee, a popular coastal suburb. After a few days exploring Sydney with their insider guidance, I caught another flight – domestic this time – to Uluru and Australia’s ‘Red Centre’.
It was winter, and I’d been warned: daytime in the desert might be warm, but nights would be cold, so I’d bought and packed some thermals in preparation. In bright sun and flip-flopping across rust-coloured dust, I found the small group I was joining and was greeted by our friendly guide, Jen.
I sat down next to a young Italian, who had his own reasons for the journey – he was considering the priesthood. For the next few days we explored, covering miles and miles of iron-red land in a small bus, passing yellow road signs alerting us to kangaroo crossings. We saw the incredible muscular creatures too, as they bounded furiously alongside the bus and then disappeared into the landscape.
At Uluru we walked the circumference of the rock, learning about the sacred nature of the site, the significance of its beautiful markings and the offence caused when people try and climb the thing. None of us wanted to. Looking skyward at the roped ‘via ferrata’ that tourists use to haul themselves up its steep gradient, the very idea seemed not only culturally invasive but suicidal. I’d come to find peace and solace, not stare at the backside of the person in front of me praying they didn’t fall backwards and drag me to a dusty death with them.
At sunset we were back at Uluru, seeking the best spot to catch the changing colours of the rock as the sun’s rays brought it to life before leaving us to the desert darkness. Other travellers were there too, drawn by the energy and beauty of the place. Dotted along the road next to camper vans, some of them toasted the rock with sparkling wine for breakfast.
Kata Tjuta, also known as The Olgas, was also on our itinerary. Kata Tjuta means ‘many heads’ and its easy to see why when the magnificent multi-domed formation comes into view. Here we trekked the Walpa Gorge and learnt about Valley of the Winds, our guide Jen imploring us to drink water regularly, even though the temperature was warm, not hot. The winds, she explained, are so drying, you can become dehydrated without realising it.
We stopped on a plateau tufted and spiked with rare plants. I volunteered a small scratch on my arm to be dabbed with the juice of some wild aloe, to demonstrate the healing properties. By the next day the scratch had gone. I wondered how deep through my skin the healing powers could go. To my veins? To my heart?
We made it to King’s Canyon National Park and hiked there too. John Muir once described this place as rivalling Yosemite, with its deep valleys, its cathedrals of trees and stunning rock formations. At night the tired group gathered for food and drinks and split up to sleep in various guest houses. But the most memorable night was when we slept out under the southern sky.
We sat around a campfire pit and ate as the sun set. Jen showed us how to manage our sleeping rolls, or how to ‘waltz Matilda’ as the song goes. The fire turned to embers while colour drained from the sky and Jen taught us to identify the Southern Cross. She explained how to use the constellation as a navigation tool for finding South.
So far from light pollution, so far from . . . everything, we were treated to one of the most spectacular starlit nights I’ve ever seen. It’s a cliché but my life and problems fell into perspective. I began to feel I could find my way again. We settled down and Jen ran a rope on the earth around our camp to guard against snakes. Dingos too, she warned, could come scavenging in the night. Do not encourage them.
I tried to sleep but for the first time on my trip I felt cold and besides, I was too electrified by the giant sheet of stars above us. I must have dozed though, because in the early hours I woke to the sound of scuffles and sniffs. Turning quietly so as not to draw attention, I spotted a dingo about two metres from where I lay.
It circled the camp and returned. A skinny, pale-furred wild dog with huge ears, suddenly it looked up and we stared into each other’s eyes in the moonlight. I don’t know how long the moment lasted. It sounds over-the-top, but sometimes I wonder if a part of my soul is still there, on walkabout in the desert, my spirit animal trotting alongside me.
‘Hey,’ whispered a voice nearby.
It was the Italian priest.
‘Are you okay?’
‘I’m cold,’ I said.
He glanced at the dingo. Do animals obey priests? Do they know about religion? He made a small shoo-ing noise and the dingo scurried away.
‘You want to come here?’
Finally, curled next to a gentle stranger, I slept.
Despite Jen’s best efforts, I can’t have been drinking enough water, because at the airport café on the day I left, an unknown woman approached. She advised me to drink some H2O instead of the coffee I’d ordered.
‘I’m a doctor,’ she said. ‘I see it all the time. Never wait until you feel thirsty. It’s dangerous and getting a flight will make it worse. You’re already dehydrated. Your lips are peeling. Your eyes look glazed. Have you had any strange experiences, hallucinations?’
I thought back. The energy radiating from the earth. The disappearing wounds. The sensation of healing soaking through my skin. Holy communion with a dingo.
‘No. No hallucinations,’ I said. Not yet.’