A gentle desert

There is an image of Central Australia as being dry, dusty and harsh. Waiting for the rain in Marree, I caught a completely different view of ‘the red centre’. When the skies opened in the outback, I found a gentleness that I didn’t expect. 

Turning up to Marree at the start of last week, my sense of adventure was jacked to the max. Arriving at the wonderful old pub – I could feel a raw energy that goes with an incredible journey reaching a crescendo. 

When the rains came, they told me I was ‘stuck’. Unless I wanted to retrace my steps back along the bitumen, travelling the Oodnadatta Track would require an extreme patience and a real slowing down. 

Marree was a good place to be. There I found other adventurers looking to pierce the centre of the continent – families travelling around Australia, cyclists traversing from the lowest (Lake Eyre) to the highest point of Australia (Mt Kosciuszko) and a handful of other lovely folk.

As the days rolled over, I started to meet the locals: black fellas who knew the country inside out, pest controllers, young pilots doing their hours, and folk descended from the Afghan cameleers who had seen the town thrive and then be engulfed by the desert as the old Ghan came and went.  All people with big hearts and in no rush. 

Sitting at the wonderful old bar, I heard stories that in a city would be compressed into one hour winding into a tale of at least three. Everyone was grateful for the company and wanted to stretch out their stories and evenings. It was a happy change in programming and a rewarding practice of patience. 

(Marree after the rain – October 2020)

—–

On Saturday, some of the road opened and my cycling friends left. I wasn’t ready to leave nor would I have been allowed to progress very far. Instead, I went up. Flying over the surrounding desert and Lake Eyre was an eye-opening experience. From above, I saw shapes and colours that had previously existed only in paintings: a piercing orange on the horizon with a more subdued chocolatey brown of the sand and dirt, shading most of the land below. 

Seeing Lake Eyre from the air for the first time was a thrill. The pink salt against the desert, sand and water created interchangeable metallic swirls, varying in hue and intensity. 

This was a thrilling canvass. 

(Lake Eyre from the sky – October 2020)

—–

Returning to earth, I was content to just take in the slowness. That weekend I would sit out the front of the pub and play my guitar into the openness of this resting but wild town. I felt I had stepped back in time. 

When I was told on the Sunday evening that the road had opened, I was in a completely different space to the one when I had arrived. After arriving in complete adventure mode, I just wanted to track along slowly. 

In hitting the Oodnadatta Track – going slowly turned out to be the only thing I could do. Every 10km or so, if felt like I had a slippery creek bed to navigate, a stream to cross, mud to slide along and pot holes to avoid. Neither my poor Corolla or I had any idea what we were getting into. We just did our best. 

After the first 100km of hair-raising driving – everything started to fold in on itself. In this part of the journey the terrain changes dramatically. I saw the landscapes transform from the Northern Flinders Ranges, to mauve dunes, and finally emerge as the sandy and salty plains of Lake Eyre. This swerve to the middle was a much slower and detailed transition than the view from above. 

(Negotiating the Oodnadatta Track in a Corolla, not advisable – October 2020)

—–

I’ve often wondered what is the ‘heart’ of Australia? Is it the ‘endless’ desert? Is it Uluru? Is it Alice Springs? At the start of the Oodnadatta Track, you will see that the answer lies in the Lake. This is the point of Australia where streams from NT, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales all empty. It is the meeting point of life that gushes particularly when there are cyclones and storms in the East. A call and response between coast and desert. 

Walking out to the Lake, I took a path that led me down a familiar beach, into a crumbling desert and then finally I started slipping. All I could do was take off my shoes and let the salty sand envelop me as I descended below sea level. With my feet under the ground, I could feel the warmth of the artesian basin that covers inland Australia. 

From soil to the inland sea, I felt the first drops of water that had grounded me. That combination of heat and moisture triggered every sense: peace, gratefulness and courage. 

There is so much life that lies in the ironically named ‘dead heart’. With my feet anchored in the water, looking at the reflection of wispy clouds and out to the salty lake back to the dunes deserts and its shrubs, I thought: ‘I’ve found a pulse’. 

After Lake Eyre my journey after was imbued with an acceptance of what nature would throw up. Whether it was barely making it over creeks, getting bogged in a sand bank to be rescued by Len and Deb (two lovely no-nonsense grey nomads), or drinking away with Nigel, Craig and Terry in Oodnadatta (three tough looking lads who were all as soft as mice), the only choice was to roll along with the journey and unexpected. 

I knew I would be challenged on the road and it’s true, every kilometre I was. I guessed I might be bogged but I wasn’t sure how I would be rescued. Most of all, what I really didn’t know was that I would find a sense of timelessness and gentleness in both people and land in an environment that scares off so many. 

This is a loveliness I want to treasure, and I’ll start by never letting anyone get away with answering ‘it’s just desert’ when asked what lies in the middle of Australia.

(The hear of Australia: Lake Eyre, October 2020)

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