It is 4:49 am on Saturday, June 29th, 2019. I know this because I set my alarm for weird times, and usually way before I need to get up. I should be relaxed, I have slept well, and like usual, things are pretty much organised. The house is very still and my two housemates are sleeping deeply—like most sensible people on a wintery morning in Perth.
I stare at the three items that will be my life for the next ten days. There is a large backpack, it is the exact size to fit into overhead luggage on an international flight, it has small wheels on its base and a collapsible handle to drag it around. On its back, shoulder straps are hidden away in case the journey gets adventurous. Sitting next to the large backpack is a smaller one, it is designed to zip onto the front of the bigger one, allowing the carrier to only worry about one item. Next to that is a sleeping bag. I had just bought it on sale at Kathmandu; it was small and light. Inside my larger bag was stuff I’ve been told to pack: Two shirts; a couple of t-shirts; two towels—one for swimming and another for showering—and bathers; a blow-up pillow; a mosquito net—to go over my hat and face; toiletries; thermal underwear—yeh, it’s a thing; phone charger; and normal underwear and socks for ten days camping in the Australian Outback! What was I thinking?
For days leading up to this moment, everyone close to me had been joking that Mike is going ‘Glamping,’ a term basically describing what they imagined I would be doing—glamour camping. Always a little uncertain about exactly what was going to happen, I mostly nodded and smiled and said I was really looking forward to it. Occasionally I was asked what I’d be doing while away, which turned out to be an excellent question. Typically I would say things like, ‘well the unit is called Storytelling in Australia, so I guess we will be learning about storytelling—in Australia.’ People seemed to accept that as if I had actually just explained something. Sometimes I would say this and my mind would wander off to images of me in a loincloth, covered in red, white and mustard ochre; stamping my feet in the red dirt, arms raised to the sky and chanting an ancient Aboriginal mantra. Then I would snap back into reality and remember that we had run out of eggs or something and I would need to pop up to the supermarket. I was in a weird space.
I am due at the pickup spot at 6:45 for a 7 am start, which in my world means I have to be there by at least 6:30. The ride there is uneventful, not much traffic on the road at this time of day. It looks like I’m going to be 30 minutes early, which I am okay with. I say goodbye to the driver and arrange my three pieces of baggage to allow them all to balance on each other and wait for the day to unfold. One by one, my fellow travellers turn up, and we pile into the modified four-wheel-drive truck.
We are hardly half an hour into the journey, and half the bus is asleep. Within a few hours we are well on our way up the coast, stopping roughly every two hours for a stretch, snacks if we want them, and pee if we need one. I am very impressed with the skill of the driver and how well planned everything seems. I sense we are in safe hands.
Our first night is about 600k’s north of Perth and the perfect place to pitch a tent for the first time on the trip. The property is a farmstead, still partly working as a farm, and also a place where travellers can get cheap chalets, or to park a caravan; or as in our case, pitch a tent. It has showers and toilets; a kitchen/meals area; a large bowl-shaped fire pit; a river running behind our line of tents; and a pen that contains a camel, a donkey, and a horse, which anyone can go pat.
Sunset comes, drinks are drunk, chats are had—and by 7:30 pm I was ready for bed. I normally don’t like to sleep in many clothes—it makes me feel claustrophobic. On this occasion; however, I was about to go to sleep in a tent, beside a river in the middle of winter; on a farm in the country; and it didn’t occur to me that it would get really cold. I mean, I had this brand new sleeping bag that will keep me warm—right? That was the one and only night I didn’t go to bed in my thermal underwear, which I woke in— and somehow—I also woke up in my puffer jacket and two pairs of socks, sleep dressing perhaps?
The next day greets me with freshness and a gentle wind. It is still dark, but I am already pretty much dressed and badly needing some bladder relief. I am used to being first up, so after doing what I needed to do, I find myself in the food preparation area. It is still dark, but I can see—mostly due to my torch strapped to my head on top of my beanie. Unable to find any way of lighting the stove, I sit there just thinking about what to do.
I start to think about the project I am supposed to complete for this unit, damn! It’s worth forty percent of my overall mark and I haven’t even started it. Worse still, I haven’t even thought about what I am going to do. I am thinking of writing a series of prose poems, after all, I am travelling with a poet, who is doing a doctorate in poetry… surely that is a sign to think about poetry? I just want a fucken coffee.
‘Good morning.’ It’s Craig, the driver and tour organiser.
‘G’Day,’ I say, ‘I couldn’t light the stove. Otherwise, I would have put the kettle on.’
‘No worries,’ he says, ‘I will sort that out—do you like real coffee?’ I look at him and smile.
‘Yes, I do.’
We spent the next thirty minutes chatting about running a tour like this and the logistics involved. I love meeting entrepreneurs and people who are great at what they do. Craig is an expert at his trade and I feel like I am learning a lot in the ‘didn’t know I didn’t know’ category.
Over the next hour, people turn up in various states of awareness, everyone is moaning about the cold. When horses come up to the stream beside our camp, and start drinking and neighing, nobody notices the cool anymore. Before I know it, the camp is packed, breakfast is eaten, the dishes are done—and we are back on the bus.
The next few days are one magnificent stop after another, full of spectacular vistas, interesting history, mini-adventures, increasingly open and charming company. We do a hike with a bloke named Capes, a local Aboriginal guide, who spent time on the World Heritage Committee and fulfils other various roles connecting people with the land. I learn a lot from Capes, he even gives me my own Aboriginal name, “Bintharri,” which is a beautiful little shrub that grows on the Birrida, in Shark Bay.
Next, we are about to head into Karijini, and I still haven’t found my creative project idea. I am not panicking yet, but I am normally very organised and clear about what I am going to do next. I keep thinking I have a subject—and then it fades. I had even been swimming with real sharks by this stage—and still, I haven’t landed on what I should write about. Still, I am taking copious notes about everything, maybe something will arise from my journal?
Before I know it, we are off the grid and camping and in Karijini National Park, located about 7 hours East North East above the tropic of Capricorn, in the middle of the desert. That night we all got away from our camp to look at the night sky. Our guide teaches us about the Southern Cross and its relationship to the Aboriginal celestial beings, which reside in the black spaces between the stars—and not outlined by the stars—as had always been my own perspective.
I want to sleep that night with the tent open, on my back, so I can see the stars as I drift off. There is mosquito netting sealing the tent, so I am not worried about getting bit, although somehow, that is a part of the deal, I seem to have a new itch every day. It is warmer this far North, but still I wear my thermals. My consciousness begins to fade, I feel like I am close to manifesting my project from my incredible experiences. I am looking for something that I just cannot see, yet I know it is there. Like I never saw the giant emu, its head nestled within the Southern Cross—until I did.
Hearing it for the first time, I somehow knew it was there all along; only muffled and in the background. It turns out I only needed to be completely exhausted and sitting at the base of a twenty-five million-year-old rock formation; at the bottom of a waterfall; in an ancient gorge to hear it.
It is the first time since the beginning of the trip that we are consciously heading to a remote spot—specifically to write. Initially, I write about what I see, which is pretty spectacular: Giant rust coloured rocks; shrubs, trees, and grasses of various shades of green; crystal clear waters and a bubbling waterfall.
Sometimes, when I am travelling, particularly if I am going somewhere adventurous, I drift off into fantasy moments and picture my dramatic death—not in a disturbing way—but more of a spectacle, more like a Walter Mitty moment. Like the time I slipped on a slimy rock and smashed my head open as I bounced off either side of the Gorge; or the time I drifted into the bait ball and got eaten by a giant shark. “He died doing what he loved,” they would say. But somehow, I am always secure, I have safe voices around me, guiding me and helping me. It is mostly the voice of our host Craig, but occasionally it seems as though it is coming from somewhere else.
After noting down everything I can see, I start noticing other qualities in my surroundings; like the trees stretching in the wind and leaves floating by lazily. I observe thin green life resting under the clear water on the jutting slab beneath me—and then I hear it. A voice, not human but somewhat urgent.
‘Step here,’ it says, ‘and then here, and then there.’ It is talking to me as I stare at one flat stone to another. ‘The dark brown is wet, and the light brown is dry.’ Its tone is impatient, like I should already know this stuff by now, but also gentle—like a grandparent.
Interestingly, I can’t not hear this voice now, maybe it was always there—only muffled and incoherent. Like earlier that day when we had to stop to fix something on the truck; and I was looking around and not paying enough attention. Suddenly there was a bush wrapped around my ankle, scratching it and drawing blood. ‘Pay attention,’ it screamed. Yes, I remember.
For the next fifteen or so minutes, I feel like I am in deep conversation with the land. As if I am getting a first-hand account of how to be in this ancient place, how to pay attention to everything–how to care for my safety and also the safety of the environment. Waves of emotion overwhelm me. I cry openly. I write copious notes and decide that this is going to be my creative project. Initially, I think I will just write a series of poems—but this turns out to be harder than it sounds. So I wrote one poem and told the story of how it came to be.
I am back at home now, and a day has passed. I woke this morning in my big comfortable bed. My two packs are as I left them, full of the past eleven days of my life. The house is empty and quiet, everyone has left for the day. There is red dust on my shoes, should I clean them? Maybe later.
I have a new perspective on everything; a new appreciation for this amazing country I live in; and the incredible people who care for and about it. I am at peace and ready to write my piece: The voice of Kalamina Gorge
The voice of Kalamina Gorge
Step here and hear
Then you can step there
A scratch on my ankle
Scraped on a bush
Pay attention human
Stop being so reckless
That rock is good
Dry and flat
The red is my dust
Dark wet light dry
Choose your steps carefully
Listen to the wind
And to the water
Feel the sun
Enjoy its warmth
Feel this rock
Come take a seat
Beneath the water
Thin green life rests
Fist thick red-brown rock
Wide long and strong
Stepping up and out
Shrubs trees and grass
Find a home and settle in
Falling water smoothes the rocks
And rests at its base
Beige and green
Grass sprouts skywards
Drooping into the water
Leaves float by
Lazily soaking up the view
Trees stretch in the breeze
The young glow
The old proudly show their scars
This place is ancient
It doesn’t fear me
It knows it should
You have let me in
We are connected