wilderness (i)


kangaroo at sunrise, just outside Alice

[apologies if you saw this up here briefly last week and then wondered where it went – the post i put up to explain why got lost somewhere. A version of this article was published in last Sunday’s Age, so I took it down until then]
I was in the middle of Australia last week. A friend and I road-tripped from Adelaide up to Alice Springs, which is a 1600 km trip straight up the middle of the country. It’s one of the quintessential Australian experiences – the dirt gets redder and redder with every kilometre, until it’s almost blood red by the time you get to the centre. For the last 1300 km, there are only towns or roadhouses every 250 km or so. On the second day, we couldn’t get breakfast in Coober Pedy, where we’d stayed overnight. Nothing was open, not even the service station food counter. We drove the 150 km to the next roadhouse where the only coffee we could get involved a teaspoon of Caterers Blend in a polystyrene cup [make your own at the urn, hand over your $2.50 for the privilege].

It’s tempting to think that we were in the middle of nowhere, but more truthfully we were on the edge of nowhere. It’s the vast space to the left and right of the road that is the nowhere: thousands of kilometres of wilderness with barely a tree or a bush or even a track. Australian folklore is full of stories of people who took a turn from the road without knowing what they were doing and have never been found. It is only by miracle that sometimes someone is.

My friend was going home. With every signpost that indicated we were getting closer to Alice Springs, her smile would broaden. We took ‘welcome home’ photos at the Northern Territory border. She couldn’t wait to feel the soil beneath her feet again, the burning heat of the centre’s sun. This was her place, these were her people. This was her life.

I, on the other hand, felt an unexpected sense of alienation. It is remarkable country, made even more beautiful by its ancient story, but I don’t find my own within it. Its beauty for me is in its otherness, not its resonance.

Somewhere after the border, though, I had an almost irrepressible urge to turn left; to leave the road and take a faint track into the immense emptiness that lay on the side of it. The urge was so strong that had I been on my own, I don’t doubt I would have done it.

If that sounds romantic and cliched, it was actually anything but. I knew that if I took the turn I’d not come back. If I turned left I’d lose myself in this wilderness, and, more frighteningly, I would want to stay lost. There’s no happy ending to this kind of lost, though. I had no sense that I would find myself to be one with this place and, as the cliche goes, know myself for the first time. This would be lost-ness of the most terrible kind, where you no longer know the edge of your skin, where you are subsumed by your surroundings. You no longer know who you are. You become nothing to the world’s everything.

I knew without any doubt that if I turned down the track into the wilderness – if I made this my lent – when the 40 days were over, I would not know to return. My survival would not be of my own making, and it most definitely would not be assured.

We throw around poetry of wilderness and deserts at Lent with the blithe carelessness that comes from not knowing how desperate and desolate these places are. We speak of having faith in terms of believing that God will provide the food or water or shelter from the heat. I’m not sure I know anymore what faith really is, but I know it’s much, much more vast than that, and even more important. It’s something to do with lost-ness, survival, and holding on to the edge of my own skin. I’m not sure the wilderness is my place to find it. But I’d really like to know where is.


  1. Greg Crowe

    I resonate with the experience of that Journey ………. both journeys!!!!! The scary thing about the wilderness is the potential to get lost in it and that it might overwhelm and cunsume our very being. Perhaps even more scary is that if or when we return from it you are different and the things that used to make sense dont make sense anymore. I am not sure if I have been in the wilderness, but I sometimes think if I have, I feel more isolated surrounded by people back here in civilisation than I did when I have been in the desert. Maybe God provides the wilderness and the food, water and shelter bit is up to us? But the beauty and brilliance of the depth of that red – I could look at that dirt for hours. What do you think the roo is thinking??? Greg

  2. Cheryl

    you said exactly what i was thinking, greg. nice.

    i think the roo and i were both a little startled to see each other there. it was sunrise on a gorgeous, hot day…

  3. Welcome back Cheryl. One of my jobs (in a long line of obscure work) has been to drive a large truck from one side of the country to the other. On what was to be the longest trip so far, Brisbane to Perth (on my own) I go to the end of one day & noted in my diary that the only words I had uttered out loud that day were “coffee, white, two sugars thanks”.
    I love those long trips; I love the gradual process of withdrawing, calming & becoming still. It reminds me of what must have been the attraction for Jesus often recorded in the Bible where it says “he withdrew to a lonely place to pray”. I love the gradual change of the outback. (e.g. just when you think you are in a barren place, you come across the Nullarbor). I agree with your call in the last paragraph. You only have to have your vehicle break down once to realise that this wilderness, whilst poetic, is not poetry. It’s real & it has teeth, & it is unforgiving of romantic poets.

  4. Last July I went to the NT and spent some time with a mate who spends so much time in the bush, he’s decided to see his house and move there full time! Seeing it through his eyes (and with his guidance!) was a real priviledge.

    Krishnamurti once said: “When one loses the deep intimate relationship with nature then temples, mosques and churches become important”.

    While showing me some sacred sites, my NT mate had little fear of the environment he was so finely tuned into and made faith seem so straightforward and easy to hardly be necessary. It makes me wonder if we need our faith to counteract our urban-born fears.

    Great to have your inspirational writing back Cheryl.

  5. In the early 80’s, my wife & I were privileged to be asked to stay at a mission station in W.A. & conduct a music program with the kids in residence. This was essentially a boarding school that the local indigenous kids attended during the school terms, & then went home on the holidays. At the end of our time there (which was also the end of the school year) I was fortunate to be told there was a spare seat on the bus which would take the kids to their various homes around Geraldton & beyond. This process took around 15 hours. What I saw on the trip will stay with me forever. These children whilst at the mission station were happy enough. The station had all the mod cons, comfortable, clean & well looked after. As we progressed from one house to the next what I saw was an overwhelming joy for the kids as they arrived to their homes. Particularly the last one. This was a cattle station somewhere out towards Meekatharra; the young boy whose home this was was visibly excited as we grew nearer; I had anglicized visions of a cattle station homestead on the horizon. When we arrived the first thing I saw was the beef carcass strung up on th tree to drain; the second thing was the tin shed which the young boy excitedly took me by the hand to show me “his home”. The third thing was the welcome we received from the parents. This was this boy’s home, & whilst the mission was comfortable & loving, this was his kith & kin; For a 1980’s white boy who, prior to this trip, had only ever had convoluted stereotypes of Aborigines, this was a life changing set of images.

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