As a radio host at our national broadcaster, I spend my days toggling between a windowless studio and an equally windowless office. When asked how I can stand it, I respond that when mining my inner emotional landscape to write personal radio monologues, the outside world is nothing more than a distraction. “Like Batman, mould and French kissing,” I say, “I thrive in darkness.”
But the truth is, the dark Canadian winter is starting to take its toll on me. Lately, I’ve been feeling my melancholia shoot from 19th-century Romantic poet levels to 17-year-old goth kid levels. Standing in the hallway of the CBC, watching night descend through the window as I finish the last sad bites of my lunchtime tofu wrap, I realize that only a fool would dismiss the importance of sunlight. The Impressionists couldn’t get enough of the stuff; nor could my grandparents, who each winter packed up their terry-cloth cabana wear and mah-jong tiles and headed to Miami.
I admit it: I want light – loads of it. I want to store it up like a camel. So after considering all the options, I head off to a place that can guarantee both.
Waiting at the Ayers Rock Airport, I bend down and scoop up a handful of sand. It’s red and fine like paprika. And at a little after 3 p.m., the land feels like it has the sun in a bear hug.
The biggest attraction at the Ayers Rock Resort is the rock itself, a monolithic sandstone formation that juts abruptly out of the desert flatness. Beholding the sheer oddness of its existence for the first time, I am reminded of the strange and beautiful planet we happen to inhabit.
As I will soon learn, in the morning the rock resembles a mound of chocolate mousse, and by midday it glows orange. Nearing sundown, it turns red and takes on the appearance of a benign reptile’s head, snout submerged just below the sand. It looks like it could pop out at any moment and accidentally swallow the whole town while yawning – and then feel pretty bad about it.
The Aboriginal people, for whom the rock is a spiritual gathering spot, would agree: The rock has a friendly feel to it. During my time here, it will be the ever-present giant in the background. Like a watchful eye. Like the sun itself.
A warm breeze blows, and my whole body feels like hands under a hand dryer. As the sun begins to set, I’m getting ready for a Tali Wiru dinner, meaning “beautiful dune” in Anangu. With time to kill, I set off to explore Kata Tjuta, a large group of rock formations, which is the area’s other geological calling card.
Later in the evening, a young boy will point out how, from a distance, Kata Tjuta looks like Homer Simpson lying on his back, and, amazingly, it’s true. Millions of years of erosion for that gag to work. Longest set-up to a punchline ever.
Dwayne makes the Marlboro Man look like Andy Dick. Wearing cowboy boots, leather bushman’s hat and jeans, he treats the group to a live performance of the didgeridoo. While listening to him play, I’m already imagining how I’ll roll this whole thing out at cocktail parties in years to come. “No,” I’ll say apropos of nothing, “you haven’t heard the didgeridoo until you’ve heard it in the Australian desert. No other way to enjoy it, really.”
Dwayne explains that to play with any real virtuosity requires at least 20 years of breathing practice. It also requires a special kind of confidence to play an instrument that’s a mile long. Mishandling this baby, unlike a ukulele or kazoo, could lead to a broken foot.
On another night, we’re served kangaroo canapés and crocodile pastries at sundown. The kangaroo looks and tastes rather like brisket, and the crocodile tastes like chicken. It feels like there’s a lesson there – some moral to a Hasidic tale about how the fiercest human enemy is often a chicken on the inside.
As we eat, our “star talker” trains a special beam of light into the sky to point out what’s up there. Absent, of course, is the North Star, reminding me of just how far I’ve come.
“If we imagine the history of the cosmos as one day,” our star talker says, “then man’s time here has been less than a second long.” Being outside in this vast landscape, staring up at the Australian sky, you can’t help but contemplate your own minuteness. (I contemplate mine while stuffing my face with crumble cake.) And it seems every time I turn away to ask the waiter for more wine, I miss a shooting star. If I were inclined toward such thinking, I’d suspect the universe was shooting them behind my back to spite me.
At dawn the next morning, I set out to see Kata Tjuta up close. As I approach, I realize that the mountain is actually composed of giant boulders, and each formation looks as distinct as a toe – no confusing the one who ate roast beef with the one who stayed home. Winding my way, I see that there is a secret life in the desert. I explore caves with drawings on the walls; some are over 34,000 years old, and some look like they could have been done quite recently. It’s not unlike imagining the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a few newer pieces of Italian graffiti art thrown in around the edges.
And there are kangaroos too, though, as of yet, I’ve not seen a single one. As we make our way, everyone in my group sees a kangaroo with her two joeys off in the distance. Everyone except me.
“Right over there,” they say, pointing. And because Australians are so nice, they really seem to care that I get to share in this moment. They continue trying to help me long past the point where a New Yorker would have told me to jump in the Hudson and even a Canadian would have apologized and walked away.
Eventually, the group makes its peace with my myopia and walks on; but a train engineer from Brisbane remains. In a last-ditch effort, he stands behind me and lines up my field of vision with his index finger. “Do you see it?” he asks. “Yes,” I lie. “Oh, wow.” And just like that, three more shooting stars hop out of my life.
In the back of the Uluru Camel Tours minibus, didgeridoo underlaid with beats plays as I ride to the camel farm. Our guides are Tohar, an Israeli third-generation cameleer, and Esther, who looks just like you’d want an outback guide to look: unpretentiously pretty with sun-bleached blond hair and caramel skin.
Several years ago, while working in a Tasmanian light tower, she found herself studying the cover of the book in her lap. On it, a woman, awash in sunlight, was riding a camel across the desert. Esther now spends many nights sleeping outside with them. “They make good travel companions,” she tells me.
I’m given one to ride named Khan – as in “the wrath of.” Once I’m seated and he rises up to walk, the movement stirs something primordial in my hips. It’s something I’ve not felt since first hearing “Hey Ya!” A camel’s motion is different from that of a horse or piggyback ride. I relax into it, and as the sun starts to rise, it occurs to me that I’ve stopped thinking about the weather. Our guide trots alongside us, taking pictures. “Oh, why won’t the paparazzi leave me alone?” I call out. “I just want to have a normal life.”
But the truth, of course, is that I want nothing of the kind. I arrived here looking for a sun fix but instead found boundless sky, where, down below it, rather than feeling dwarfed and inconsequential, I feel that everything is all the more precious. Unlike Esther, I can’t simply pack up and leave my old life behind. Tohar’s picture of me, T-shirt tucked under my baseball cap, like Lawrence of Arabia, with the rising sun behind me (and Khan beneath me) will be the screen saver in my dark office. And when I gaze upon it, it will fill me with enough light to help me through the long Canadian winter.
Originally published in enRoute magazine .
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