Into the Outback
Alice Springs, or the Alice as locals call it, is a mere three hours from Sydney but it feels a world away – starting with the heat. Compared to Sydney, where I’ve been living for the past month, Australia’s Outback offers the kind of unrelenting, nowhere near an ocean heat that makes folks lose their minds.
For a born and bred upstate NY girl like me, stepping out of the airport and into the roasting sun makes me feel like I’m almost on fire. I’m combustible here in the outback. I could go up in flames at any moment.
The sun comes with its own set of fears – scorching my pale skin each second I’m exposed to it – but it’s nighttime in the outback I’m really dreading.
After touring the iconic Ayers Rock, aka Uluru, our small tour group alights upon the designated campsite. We’re spending the night out in the open, no protection from all the wild things I imagine inhabit this landscape. I’ve been in Australia long enough to have a healthy appreciation for snakes and spiders of all kind, not to mention the new species I’ve only learned about since arriving: cassowaries (large, flightless birds with massive claws) and dingoes (free-roaming dogs that most certainly want to steer clear of), to name just two. Even cute and cuddly seeming koalas and kangaroos have lost their luster during my time here, now that I know how much damage the former does to its female partner during mating and the latter does to any animal or person who crosses him. My only consolation is that the country’s many dreaded water creatures – box jellyfish, crocodiles, and great white sharks – can’t reach me here out in the middle of the desert.
Still, thoughts of all these creatures are swimming in my head as I unroll my sleeping bag. I subtly but vigorously shake mine free of any creepy crawlers who might be lurking inside. We’re handed swags, waterproof shells made of canvas, an outer layer to keep us warm. Now that the sun has disappeared, the heat has too. I shiver as I climb into my makeshift bed. Is that something brushing against my foot? Did a hair just blow across my forehead or is it a scorpion? For several long minutes, I obsess over my surroundings. Until I notice the sky. I’ve been so busy fretting until now that I haven’t noticed the brilliant sky spread out above me. It is the vastest, starriest one I’ve ever seen, totally un-obscured by clouds or trees or lights or pollution.
That sky sweeps the fear right out of me. It absorbs me into my surroundings, makes me forget that I’m afraid of creatures I cannot see. Now, instead of wishing for sleep, of wishing for the night to be over so that I don’t have to think about spider bites, I want to stay awake all night. But it’s like a drug, that sky, and at some point I fall into a deep sleep. When our tour guide wakes me up at 5 a.m., no deadly creatures have harmed me. I’m ready for the next day’s adventure – and the next night’s, too.
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