About a year ago I was given an opportunity that I didn’t hesitate in accepting. I was asked if I wanted to travel to the centre of Australia with a group of women. We would camp there in the desert with some Aboriginal women, the original people of that land. Would I like to join? Yes. Absolutely. I accepted without knowing just what I was getting myself into and as the trip crawled closer and closer I began questioning if I was really up to the adventure. But I trusted in myself. I accepted this Invitation to Trust from my dear friend Katie and I hopped on a plane to the other side of the world flying into the unknown. This trip changed me. I came back a different person. And it’s taken me six months since my return to actually begin to write about my time there. It is all slowly starting to unravel now. There is much that I would like to share about this trip and there is much that I am not allowed to share. I cannot say where exactly we were there in the centre of Australia but I can say that it was in the APY Lands. I cannot say much about the people that I was there with. What I can share with you is my story and my experience with it all.
I grew up camping. When I was a kid, it seemed that nearly every summer weekend we were camping somewhere. We went through stages of tent trailers in various formats before settling on tents: one for the adults, one for the kids. We hiked and canoed and swam in cold lakes. We got dirty and used outhouses and barely showered. So I was familiar with being outdoors for long periods of time. However, I wasn’t that familiar with being without running water nor a toilet. Because in the middle of the desert, these things simply do not exist. For five days I would sleep in a swag, I was told. The thing was though, before this trip, this Canadian girl didn’t know what a swag was. Well I know was swag is, you know: that guy has swag! But A swag? No clue. And I felt that it was best to keep it that way until I was in the throws of it all with no turning back.
We flew to Uluru (well the airport is still officially called Ayers Rock) and we waited for the mob to pick us up. It felt like we waited for hours before we saw the bus and knew that it was them. The women greeted us, we spent some time loading everything into the bus and we were on our way. There had been heavy downpour a couple of days prior and parts of the road were flooded which made driving tough but we eased through it all, driving for hours into the sunset. We slept at a school on that first night to avoid setting up camp in the dark and when I awoke in the morning, I had no idea what I would see.
From there we drove out to where we would camp for the following four nights. Away from the community. Away from any form of civilization. All of us women staked out our spots for the stay. A few had brought tents. Others had swags and the majority of which were much more deluxe than the one that I had borrowed from the community (flying with such a thing from Canada was basically not doable). My swag was this: a small mattress enveloped in canvas. It had zippers on the sides and a flap at the top. I put a sleeping bag inside, used a sweater for a pillow and this is where I slept for my time there. The other swags were more like small tents. A single-sized version of a tent. Deluxe. The sky was threatening rain on one of the nights that we were there. We had a tarp set up to use during the day to protect us from the sun and on that night the Aboriginal women were calling at me “Kunga* Canada Girl!” They wanted me to move my swag under the tarp since they knew it was going to rain but I was already in and wasn’t prepared to move. And rain it did. At first it was fine. Just me, on the ground on a mattress curled in a small ball with a piece of canvas on top of me. It really wasn’t that bad and then the rain stopped and I opened my swag and fell asleep under the open sky. I remember waking up a couple of hours later being a bit confused about what I was feeling only to realise it was raining again. I zipped myself back in and in the end, all was good. I had survived sleeping in a swag in the rain in the desert of Australia. I could survive anything.
It’s hard to explain how we spent our time there. Katie had activities and plans for us but we left our days in the hands of the women, our guides, the people of that land. They taught us how to make bush medicine. The drove us to the sacred women’s land. They told us stories. They taught us how to paint, how to make beads from native nuts, how they make their artifacts. They taught us how to eat Roo tail. And although I have not consumed meat in over twenty years, I gave it a try because when opportunities come like this – real, genuine, authentic opportunities – you do not say no. Verdict: it wasn’t my favourite but I am happy that I gave it a go.
We had silent mornings until 8am. Everyone would wake and get their own breakfast and do their own thing. Moving around in the quiet. At first it was difficult. I, like many I know, sometimes find these moments awkward and therefore fill them with silly small talk. Learning to not do this, to accept the quiet was big for me and I found that in the midst of experiencing everything that was so new, this quiet was something that I craved. That I needed. I would wake before the sun, make some tea, grab my things and I would climb the rocks South East of our camp. There I would find a spot to sit in stillness. It felt like I would sit there forever. I would write, I would pull cards from my deck but mostly I would just sit and look at the landscape, watch the sunrise, listen to the bird nearby, hear the dingos calling in the distance. I would sit. Just sit. And I would soak it all in. It was unbelievable to sit there knowing the history of the place. Knowing that it was quite possible that where I was looking at that moment, that no one had ever stepped foot there. That that place may never have been photographed or documented before. That that place felt as though at that moment it was there just for me.
So what did it look like?
The Landscape. Red dirt. Everywhere you looked. My boots came back to Canada with a dusting of it. Soft grasses in pale shades of yellow. Not golden, more white. Soft until you get close and you realise there are tiny arrows on each branch. Perfect for attaching itself into your clothing so you can then carry it elsewhere to plant anew.
Wildlife. Calls of birds. Calls never heard before. Sounds that were so new to my ear. Sounds that remained a mystery to me as most of the time I could not find the source. Dingos. Howling in the evenings and in the mornings. Always at a distance. When we did excursions away from camp we would see roaming cows, horses and donkeys from the ranches of past days. We saw a herd of wild camels. Yes, wild camels in the desert of Australia. A herd of thirty or so who stopped and stared as we did the same to them. Warnings of scorpions and snakes which I tried to not think about as I shimmied into my swag each night.
That sky. The biggest sky you will ever see in your life. The most beautiful sunsets in that pure clear sky. A sky free of pollution without any competition from city lights. Stars. Stars out of a movies. They were unbelievable. Shooting stars were a constant. Every night I would lay there in my swag under that open sky and I would not want to fall asleep. I did not want to miss a moment of the beauty. I got lost up there, in the depths of those glowing lights. In the constellations that were flipped for my Northern hemisphere mind. That upside down moon.
The people. They will humble you. They will teach you about what really matters in this vast life. They will laugh at your worries. They will give you a simple look, a squeeze of the hand, a pat on your shoulder and you will feel something in their presence that you will carry with you for life. And when you return home, you will feel grateful for all that you have. For the ease of your life. For your community and for your family. For those who really matter.
The energy. It was magic there. The stillness. The quiet. The vastness. The sacredness. The beauty.
Everyone who was on that trip was there for a reason. We had all been through something in recent times. Fought battles, made life changes, sat a crossroads. Although we were together on this adventure, we were traveling more as individuals. We were all seeking something by being there. Being on this trip was the beginning of unraveling all of that. For planting seeds for our lives. For stepping into being the individuals that we are meant to be.
Some practical things:
• You cannot travel to the APY Lands unless you have a permit or have been invited by one of the communities there. The roads here are closed off to the public
• We were there in April. The days were warm and the evenings were chilly. Thermals for sleeping in are a great idea.
• Biodegradable baby wipes are a wonderful invention. They can and will be used to all purposes, especially when you are somewhere without running water. They’re great for washing hands, cleaning dishes and for the obvious, among other things.
• Fly nets. You will need one and you may end up wearing it from the moment you wake until the moment you sleep. The flies were plentiful. They looked like mini versions of your regular fly and they didn’t do much at all except hang around.
• Boots. I brought my boots that I wear here all winter that go above my ankle and I am so happy that I did. They protected me from the grasses mentioned above and were great for climbing rocks.
• Bring food with you. And I mean, fly with it there. There is an IGA in the resort by the airport but what they have on offer is limited. If you have favourite healthy snacks, bring them. But also bring things like chocolate or whatever makes you feel good when you are feeling particularly vulnerable.
• Headlamps are wonderful things.
• You will need to bring a shovel for digging that hole that you will use as a toilet. It’s not pretty. It takes a whole other set of skills but you will be a stronger person for having survived it.
• Katie has plans to run this retreat again in 2018. You can read more information about it here.
*Kunga is the word for woman in their language.