When we were kids, Dad would take us on holidays into the Snowy Mountains. I would read the road signs – the beautiful names like Wee Jasper, Crackenback, Adaminaby… and then we would be in the forest with the Snowy River on our left and we would slow down, on the look out for good camping spots. We could pick anywhere and mostly, we didn’t see another camper for the duration of our stay. We had a proper campfire and we had tyre inner tubes for river games. I don’t remember tents and we certainly didn’t have thermarests. I seem to remember rolled up straw mats. Dad would tell us stories about when he used to go camping or canoeing with his school friends and how he had even less creature comforts than us.
When I was in senior high school we went on a desert trip with two other families. In Mungo National Park, we felt like we were the only living souls. The sky was like a giant, deep blue colander, pin-pricked with bright holes and the horizon seemed to actually be the edge of the Earth. In daylight you could see a few stunted trees but, as night fell, it was just a vast flatness under the colander sky. Once I walked away from the campfire just to feel the emptiness. It was uplifting. I fell in love.
When P and I drove across the Nullabor in 2004, we were on a shoestring budget. We camped just off the highway in the tussocky grass. We used a tiny little propane burner to heat pre-prepared dinners and ate out of the same two green plastic bowls for every meal. We would lie on our thermarests, just our noses poking out of our sleeping bags, and watch the sky shift above us until the moon grew too bright or until we fell asleep. In the morning, the dew found every spiderweb and bedecked it in dawn glamour. One day, we found The Great Australian Bight and I marveled at the way the desert ran right up to the sea cliffs.
People say central Australia is a lot of nothing. To me, then, nothing has become everything. These days, that kind of nothing is much harder to find. It’s one of the fastest diminishing resources.
In 2002 when I went to Uluru with my brother, we were lucky enough to see that beautiful rock after a rain storm, arched by heavy purple sky and a vivid rainbow and fringed by a hundred waterfalls. The only things hanging onto the climbing ropes that day were left-over raindrops. But now I read that hundreds of tourists are flocking there to climb Uluru before the opportunity disappears, despite the wishes of the Indigenous People.
Last year, we drove 2500km north to Airlie Beach in Queensland for a family reunion. On the edge of the Warrumbungles we stopped to stretch our legs. The otherwise charming little stopping spot was strewn with toilet paper (there was no toilet provided). And further north, on a narrow road bordered on one side by scrappy, dry forest and on the other by huge paddocks dotted with prickly pears, we stopped because the kids begged a break. The roadside was absolutely awash with rubbish. I was appalled. I really didn’t expect it in such a remote area.
I see articles picturing trails of tourists, tied together like oxen, hauling themselves up the steep sides of Everest. It seems you just can’t get away from humans and our rubbish.
I miss the nothing. But I also feel lucky to have known it. I hope my kids get to feel that vast beauty somewhere, somehow.