My Very Own Walkabout in the Australian Outback
I hopped off at the Faulconbridge train station, about an hour outside of Sydney, to see the sun casting its early morning glow over the misty Blue Mountains. I was here to go on walkabout, an ancient quest of self-discovery and transformation. I don’t love traveling alone but I wrote the grant application anyways, thinking I would never get it. And then I did, so here I was bouncing around Australia to learn about indigenous storytelling.
Evan, my guide, didn’t look very Aboriginal to me. Where was the dark skin, the wild hair, the body paint? Instead, I was standing face-to-face with a tall, lanky guy in hiking shorts, a bright pink t-shirt, and a smile that pulled me into his orbit. I was nervous, but Evan and that big smile put me at ease, even if I was the only one who had signed up for the tour that day.
As we began down the path, Evan instructed me to walk lightly and to reach out and touch the plants, feeling their energy move through my body. Evan plucked a few leaves off a nearby eucalyptus tree, rolled them between his fingers, and stuck them up his nose. I followed his lead, took a deep breath, and instantly felt ridiculous. But Evan didn’t look ridiculous at all. He looked at home, even with his nostrils full of eucalyptus.
As we walked, my head wrestled with ideas from the “Dreaming”, the Aboriginal explanation for the world and its existence. Within the Dreaming are songlines that tell the story of a place and its origins. We followed one of these songlines to an ancient carving in a slab of rock, but before Evan could tell me the stories there, I had to chase away any bad energy. He began clicking two sticks together and told me to dance faster and faster. Cautiously, I began moving to the beat until I was dancing with wild abandon in the middle of the rainforest. I felt ridiculous again, and then I felt free, and with each beat the modern world of Sydney faded away.
In the middle of the forest, I slowly let go of the voice in my head and let my soul come out to play. As I tried to feel the Dreaming, I saw visions of my wilder self swinging on vines under the rainbow serpent’s watchful gaze. Evan painted my face in patterns of red ochre from a nearby pool, and then we scrambled up and down boulders and explored craggy caves. Throughout it all, Evan walked lightly, feeling the ground under his feet. He let the energy of the forest move through him and he encouraged me to do the same.
Evan plucked a few leaves off a nearby eucalyptus tree, rolled them between his fingers, and stuck them up his nose. I followed his lead, took a deep breath, and instantly felt ridiculous.
By the time we emerged from our walkabout, it was dark. Standing on the platform in the light of the approaching train, Evan thanked me and then asked if I like “The Voice”? My wise guide was a fan of reality TV and so was I. And just like that I was back in real time, and on my way back to my hostel in Sydney. Gazing out of the train window, my face still painted with streaks of red, I caught a glimpse of my reflection, and thought maybe I should have stopped to wash that off. But then again, Evan straddled the old world and the new, so maybe I could too.
The next day I was off to Adelaide to begin my adventure into the outback. I was happy to pick up my little rental Yaris and head out onto the open road for the next ten hours. The highway rolled along under expansive blue skies flanked by rolling terrain as far as I could see. Every now and then I’d pass another car or a small town, but for most of the drive, it was just me and the highway. The sunlight streamed in through the windows and I had to squint to spot the kangaroos before they jumped dangerously in front of my car. I’m pretty sure a solid collision with one of those kangaroos could take out my little Yaris, and I did not want to be spending my day dealing with car repairs and my guilt over flattening a kangaroo.
Seven hours into the trip, longer than any solo car trip I had ever taken, I saw my turn-off for Iga Warta. The road turned to dirt at that point and there was a giant sign indicating which roads were open and which were closed due to flooding. Luckily my path was open, so I gently nudged the Yaris onto the rocky dirt road and hoped for the best. As the kilometers sped by I started to think I must be getting close. The sun was starting to set and I was getting nervous that I still hadn’t found Iga Warta.
The road became slick all of a sudden. It was wet and muddy and the little Yaris that could was having a tough go of it. Crap, crap, crap. What was I thinking? After a few stressful minutes, I made it through the mud but still, no Iga Warta in sight. I started mentally making a plan B as the sun continued to descend in the sky. Could I sleep in the car if I had to? Could I make it to the next town?
Cautiously, I began moving to the beat until I was dancing with wild abandon in the middle of the rainforest. I felt ridiculous again, and then I felt free, and with each beat the modern world of Sydney faded away.
Just as I started to think I had made a giant mistake and was going to battle the elements of the outback overnight, I saw the sign welcoming me to Adanyamantha land. It was pitch black as I wound my way down the long driveway into Iga Warta. I was immediately ushered to a campfire by a man named Sharpie. Sharpie looked like a man who had done a lot of living. His skin was dark and tough like worn leather, and his smile took over his face. It was freezing outside and I was happy for the warmth and some reassurance I would not be sleeping in the car that night.
Around the fire, I also met Bluey, who was an older Australian man who had stumbled upon Iga Warta ten years prior and never left. He kept us entertained with his stories while Sharpie made me some tea and a plate of beans. When they showed me to my little bunkhouse, I was exhausted and again, freezing. The bunkhouse was a little wooden cabin with two bunk beds and a clunky space heater in the corner. I had on socks, thermals, pjs, and my winter hat in my sleeping bag under a blanket, and it still took what felt like hours to get warm enough to fall asleep.
Before I settled in for bed, I looked up and saw more stars than I have ever seen in my entire life. Bluey said the night sky in the outback looks like someone covered it with a piece of velvet and left it shining with diamonds. I was spellbound by my adventure and my luck.
Some things I noted about the community I had landed in. First, it was all men. As a solo female traveler, this gave me pause, but I was in it now. Second, there was a bit of confusion about my purpose there. In the morning, one of the brothers took me aside and started talking to me about the month I would spend with them and the kinds of work I would be doing. I only had two days to spend in Iga Warta, so somehow we had gotten our wires crossed. No worries though. They were not very motivated to get the full dog and pony show in gear for just little old me, so I would not get to participate in any of their organized tours about Aboriginal life. But I would still get a little slice of daily life here.
Over breakfast, Sharpie told me a bit about his childhood in the nearby community of Neppabunna. When he was growing up there were missionaries in his town who would bring groceries to sell to the local people. On several occasions, Sharpie’s mother went to buy groceries and was told she could not purchase food until she stopped speaking her “heathen” language with her children and instead taught them English. So, Sharpie and his family lived by the old ways and hunted and gathered their food. This would only have been in the 1960s.
The night sky in the outback looks like someone covered it with a piece of velvet and left it shining with diamonds.
I was shocked by this story and quickly realized that I was going to get a very different kind of tour than I had anticipated. This was the kind of tour that doesn’t need to be organized or planned in advance because I was getting to pull back the curtain and peek at daily life for people living a very different existence to my own.
The next afternoon, Sharpie and his brothers announced that we would be going into town. The nearest town was about an hour away, and this was a monthly trip to get supplies. We piled into an old jeep and bounced our way back down the same dirt path I had traveled to find them. The town was set up for miners who were working on the nearby mountain. When the mining dried up, so would the town. Most of our time in town was spent at a local bar, with the brothers doing their best to empty the bar of its stock and me trying to drag out a single beer and not look too conspicuous. Both were failing endeavors.
As the sun began to descend over the hills, Sharpie mumbled something about me being the designated driver to get us all home. I was nervous about navigating the automatic transmission on the old jeep, so I opted for putting my faith in the drunk brothers instead. We careened down the bumpy road, getting jostled this way and that while one of the brothers smoked in the jeep and I prayed I would make it home in one piece. At this point, I was feeling angry at these men for robbing me of my tour and making me tag along for their bar crawl, but I didn’t see a way out of my current situation so I took a deep breath and held on tight.
In the morning, I packed up my things, a little dazed, and thanked Sharpie and his brothers for an experience I will never forget. They gave big hugs and made me promise to return one day. Then they told me I should take a different route back, so I could see more of the terrain. I don’t know why I should trust their judgment after yesterday’s fiasco, but for some reason I did and I turned right out of Iga Warta instead of left, to the path that I knew would take me to the highway.
I was back on the unpaved road and eagerly anticipating pavement. My little Yaris was a trooper and it was handling dirt, rocks, and dry creek beds like a champ. I was singing to myself and marveling at the landscape, wondering when I would reconnect with the highway. As the hours started to tick by, my mood started to sour and the panic to set in. I did not see a single person or car in four hours. Occasionally, I would come to a juncture where the road would split in different directions. There I would find a sign with arrows pointing every which way, right out of a cartoon, all with names that meant nothing to me. I didn’t have a map, a cell phone, any water or food, or any extra gas. No one knew I was out here and I had no idea how to find my way back to civilization.
At this point, I was feeling angry at these men for robbing me of my tour and making me tag along for their bar crawl, but I didn’t see a way out of my current situation so I took a deep breath and held on tight.
At each crossing, I would take a deep breath and just pick one. The sun was blazing in the open sky and I started wondering if this was the end. Is this the way I was going to go out? Stranded in the middle of the outback on a largely failed trip to learn about indigenous storytelling that had come from a hastily prepared grant funded by the local high school where I taught high school English? Hold it together, just keep driving, I told myself. And then I saw it, the gleaming strip of black tar that signaled the rest of my life. Hallelujah! I was back on the highway and never had been happier to be bored for hours of endless road ahead of me.
When I pulled into the rental car agency long after dark, there was brush stuck in the grill of the little Yaris. I hoped that no one would notice what I had put that car through, handed the keys over, and snuck out of there.
I finished my trip and was very happy to be getting on a plane back home. I had set out on this trip to learn about indigenous storytelling, but in the end, I got a once in a lifetime glimpse into both the modern day realities for indigenous communities and myself. It feels like something I’m supposed to like doing, traveling by myself, but it’s not for me. Maybe, in some small way, this was my modern-day walkabout. I walked straight into solo travel, something that was scary to me, and I came out standing on the other side.