Freezing my city-girl ass off in the middle of Australia’s sunburned outback was definitely not what I envisioned when I bought my flight tickets from metropolitan Sydney to remote Alice Springs. As an international university student from Singapore, a camping trip to the red, baked centre of sprawling nowhere sounded like a fun thing to do. But when you were on the younger end of twenty-something-years-old, adventure anything was exciting, even if unwise.
A more sensible person would’ve done their research and realised that nights in a desert with temperatures just below freezing, zipped up in a swag – a roll-up canvas bedding suspiciously similar to a body bag – would make you feel like you were in a doomed war against pelting, icy winds. Even under layers of thermal, wool, and goose-feathers, with dollar-store hot packs stuffed in my pockets,
the cold still managed to needle its way into my skin, hook itself around my nerve endings, tangle the bundles of neural tails together and pull them taut.
Thank goodness I had half a brain to book myself into a four-day-three-night, organised group tour with an experienced guide instead of rumbling solo-yolo into the unknown. Surely, I’d have gotten myself stabbed, pronged, stung, bitten or chomped on by then with how unprepared I was for the outback. I was, after all, a city-slicker in the wilderness of a country that featured in every listicle of ‘world’s most lethal animals’ with an encyclopaedia of deadly species. Think translucent box jellyfish, fanged funnel web spiders, paralysing blue-ringed octopus and the planet’s most poisonous snakes. We haven’t even talked about the aggressive crocodiles and the predatory great white sharks. I wonder what the universe was smoking when it sanctioned the venomous evolution of Australian wildlife.
Thankfully, day one was surprisingly uneventful. The only thing noteworthy was that I dragged a three-hour trek into a five-hour hobble, slowing down my tour group of twelve for most of the day. I stopped every so often to ooh and ah at the dramatic ochre domes of Kata Tjuta, snapping my camera away at the dizzying slide of sandstone slopes, and the rugged plateaus of rocky creeks dotted with green in shades of seaweed, pickle and palm. The photo breaks I instigated were partly due to the unworldly views, but mostly because I needed a moment for my bursting, under-
conditioned lungs. By the time we returned to our camping ground and the night ushered itself in, my legs were in mutiny and I was ready for bed.
Unfortunately, one downside of organised group tours, besides slowpokes like me, was that they seemed to attract a certain breed of sociable people. At about 11PM, while the once roaring campfire was slowly ebbing into useless cinders that provided no protection against the cold or lost dingoes, B, a twenty-year-old backpacker and fellow tour-goer, set up his sleeping ground next to mine, and thought it would be a good time to chat poetry.
‘The stars, diamonds, bellissimo,’ B said, his burly, Italian accent pressing itself into the heavy stress patterns of his words.
Undoubtedly, the sky was breath-taking. While the tour group had huddled together, scarfing down our dinner of camel sausages, kangaroo steak, baked beans and mash, I had thought to myself that someone must have removed the veil on outer space and drilled through precious stones into every inch of the night, sprinkling fistfuls of glittery fairy dust for extra pizazz. But right then, when I desperately wanted to sleep so that I could escape the biting cold and forget my sore limbs, the scene morphed into a galaxial food poisoning where the Milky Way seemed to have puked its guts out and speckled the sky with starry vomitus.
‘Yeah, beautiful,’ I muttered, turning my back to B, in our tent-free, open-air campground. I must have fallen asleep soon after because the next memory I had was waking up to the glow of stolen gold, leaking unabashedly from the sun, seeping into the purple-tinged darkness in a blend of nectarine and pearly amber. There was a stillness in the cool air despite the ruffling sounds of people awakening around me and the dull clatter of the tour guide setting up for breakfast. A subtle, metallic smell of parched, rusty earth lingered, mingling with the burnt notes of last night’s campfire and the slight sulphur of boiled eggs. As I watched the rim of a fiery, opal sun grow and embrace the dawn, the weariness in my body from the day before evaporated. Even the nippy draft seemed friendlier, caressing my cheeks instead of whipping away.
At the start of the trip, our tour guide had told us that the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, the descendants of the land, believed that geology and nature held sacred stories about life. In their culture, the knowledge of the world should be learned in person and only if you are the intended
recipient. The stories are steeped in traditions. Some are shared only with men, others exclusively with women. There are also legends set in chapters. Like a bloom in spring, the epic blossoms slowly, each petaled tale peeled back and revealed in layers as the person grows and matures. The next chapter will only be told when the learner is primed and ready for enlightenment, never when they’re still stuck in the previous chapter.
‘You see sunrise? Amazing,’ B greeted me from my left as soon as he realised I was awake. I looked around. The blushing sky met barren land. Red. No, not just red, but films of crimson, maroon, ruby, garnet, and blood. Precious, bleeding red.
‘Beautiful,’ I inhaled, mesmerised.
Day one was done. Day two was unfurling. At that moment, I was in a chapter between chapters, ripe for the rest of the story to unravel.