It’s the middle of the night and it’s eerily quiet. It takes me a few seconds to realize that I’m awake because I have to empty my bladder and that it’s quiet because I’m in the middle of the desolate Outback of Australia! Our guide told us yesterday that we’re in an area so sparsely populated that there are only seven cattle stations (ranches) in the 300 square miles we traversed all day. Stopping for firewood, we saw evidence of Aboriginal people living out here, but none were around. We also saw evidence of kangaroos, camels and horses but it was too hot for any of them to show themselves. This morning, we saw dingo footprints across our camp, but no one woke up to them. I consider all of this as I decide if my bathroom issues are pressing enough to brave the quiet campsite outside my tent. Reluctantly, I slip out of my sleeping bag and carefully lay it back so that it will retain my body heat for when I return. I shuffle and fumble across the dusty plywood floor until my foot bumps my shoes. I slip them on and don’t bother with the laces, other than to tuck them inside so they don’t collect even more of the fine red dust that is determined to return with me to my hometown.
When I unzip the canvas tent, I realize two things: the quiet and the dark were relative to my tent. The snores of my fellow campers guide me as I make my way towards the banked fire; these are the adventurous ones who opted to sleep outside of their tents on “swag” canvas beds set on the ground. They tell me they are more comfortable than they look. I tiptoe around the anonymous shapes and step onto the path to the toilets. I pause for a moment, unsure of the way because everything looks different at night, then catch sight of the cairns – piles of stones set along the edges of the path. Even without the light from the moon I’m able to see these tiny landmarks. That’s because of the stars, I think to myself as I look up. I get lost in the sight of the Milky Way for a few moments. It feels so much closer to me here, like I could climb a mountain and touch it. Away from the lights of the city or even the light from the fire, the sky shines brightly here.
I’m disoriented a moment before I realize why. I’ve grown up looking up into the night sky and seeing the Big and Little Dipper constellations. Until this moment, I had no idea how much I relied on them to orient me. Throughout this trip I’ve noticed how different the land “down under” is compared to my home.
I started marking the differences when we were on a boat near the Great Barrier Reef, although those differences were more internal than a different night sky. I rose early for a sunrise snorkel, ignored my fear of the open ocean and stepped off the boat. I was instantly distracted from my fears by how much the reef teems with life when it “changes shifts,” as the crew called the swap from sea life that prefers the dark to the ones who prefer the light. I almost gave myself whiplash looking at all the colorful schools of fish, sharks, clams the size of a washer machine and so many other beautiful living creatures that I’m unable to name! When I climbed the steps back on board and the crew member asked me how it was, I answered her honestly: “Life changing.” I was too interested in what I was seeing to get caught up in my anxiety about all that open water - a first for me. Later in the trip as I was cuddling a koala, hand feeding a kangaroo, holding wild birds on my arms, hands and head and riding a camel, I experienced that same fear-diminishing awe.
Back in the Outback, I'm grateful that I'm alone. I feel the same reverence walking this land as I do when I step across the threshold of a church and I feel more comfortable worshipping alone. Besides, I'm not sure my words can capture the full impact these inspiring experiences have had on me in recent months, so I’m also grateful that I don’t have to express myself to anyone else as I look up and feel like I’m on another planet, alone among the stars.
I find myself thinking of space travel on the way back from the toilet and as I settle back into my sleeping bag. I live near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where NASA is building one part of the Orion spacecraft in preparation for sending humans to the Moon and Mars. I think about stepping off the boat into the open ocean and of walking into the dark, desolate Outback alone (was that rustling a dingo?) and I ponder what it takes to overcome fear. What will it take for the people who challenge themselves to travel space?
Curiosity. I’m sure it has something to do with curiosity. Let’s all stay curious!
Want to follow my route with your own Australian experience? Check out the details about my Yoga Retreat in Australia.