Bark peels like the skin of an onion on the gum trees in Flinders Ranges. Trunks are split dead center or on awkward diagonals; victims of lightning strikes. The Eucalyptus trees stretch up to the sky in strong warrior poses. Charging upward toward the sky as if a firm hand, twisted from the wrist, to cradle the heavens above likes a treasured orb. It’s just me and my music walking the trail, the lot of the group five minutes behind me. Tonight is one of two nights that the group will sleep in swags, thin mattresses in a sleeping bag like a tarp that zip around your body like an envelope. Swag camping cuts off the immediate outdoors from ones skin-save your head-yet leaves plenty of space for one to hear bird calls or the digging of kangaroos scrummaging for food. Laying under the stars I take in the newness of this experience; camping and trekking through what’s known as ‘the red center’, the outback from Adelaide up to Alice Springs.I find I’ve overcomplicated the setup of my swag as I try desperately to shimmy in before I succumb to the cold desert air. Having rolled it out upside down my first go I now can’t seem to get comfortable in its new, correct position. The tarp portion of the otherwise practical contraption lays flat and cold against my balled up body and despite my tightly tucked fetal position I cannot seem to get warm. I peek my head out of the “monster flap”, aptly named because using it suggests one is afraid of the “monsters” that inhabit the red sands at night, to glance at the stars. Pondering my emotional gridlock of late I breathed deeply trying to relax my mind and by default my body. A shooting star rockets past my line of sight and I gasp audibly at the timing of its presence. I roll to my right side and tuck in deeper shifting my clothes as I do and accidentally exposing my back to the brisk air. As I rumble around to adjust I become concerned that I’m making far too much noise, but am left with no choice if I want to stay warm.
Just when I’m convinced I’ll never fall asleep I slowly begin to nod. Halfway to glorious and much-needed sleep I’m distracted by the increasingly louder snores and sleep talking of my neighbors. The group is huddled within a small space for safety yet despite my exhaustion and earplugs the noise agitates my calming train of thought. I try to imagine it’s a kangaroo curled up close by, but it’s a stretch my tired mind won’t fully entertain. I toss again reaching for my earphones tucked safely inside my swag and begin the process of untangling them by touch in the darkness; a true test of my patience. Triumphant I insert the jack into the base of my phone, place both buds in either ear, then press play on my meditation playlist in hopes of silencing the purring in my immediate vicinity.
Wake up call is 05:30-the clock says 01:20-and I debated waiting for the tiniest sliver of sunrise or trying to utilize the four hours between now and the beginning of what is sure to be a long day to relieve my full bladder. I make a mental note to grab my winter gloves and an extra pair of pants to prepare for the repeat of this evenings follies, tomorrow night. Every passing minute feels like an hour as I count down to 06:00 when the tour guide, Rachael, will unlock the bus. I hold the thought of clambering inside and sitting on my fluffy seat cushion while defrosting myself in the stagnant, but warm air trapped inside. I refocus my breathing and try once again to nod off- to no avail.
The sound of zippers being unzipped ring through the crisp morning air accompanied by laughter at the ridiculous, whining sound of the hawks in the trees overhead. I lay still not to appear overzealous as the rest of the group sporadically emerges from their swags one at a time. My bladder throbs, but I wait at least another fifteen minutes before I materialize from my swag. The sky is new and an electric blue as I empty out my things then roll the swag and make my way to the toilet.
Inside the bus, I’m the running joke of the group bundled in my scarf, gloves and under my beach throw-being the only blanket-ish item I have with me besides my towel. I pay them no mind with my sleep mask securely over my bloodshot eyes I plug my earbuds into my phone. I’m asleep less than five minutes later. The bumpy roads startle me awake some two hours later. The terrain is unchanged, red, dusty and barren. I blink slowly, my eyelids heavy, quickly assume the same position and I’m out again. I wake next in an empty bus.
Wilsons Creek, an old coal mining town, boasts fifteen inhabiting families, a post office, school, general, and liquor store as part of the city center. I hop off the bus and b-line for the general store on the hunt for two things; a pair of sweatpants and a down blanket. Desperate to avoid another bone-chilling swag experience and despite knowing both items will likely be abandoned after this trip I spend minimal time debating with myself and quickly consent to spend the money. I grab the lone pair of sweats from the woman’s section of the store and I snatch a fluffy blanket from the baby section on the way to the register.
Driving out of Wilsons Creek the remains of abandoned mines appear. Hills of red dirt and rocks in piles as far as the eye can see have altered the terrain here. South Australia is the only state that doesn’t require disturbed land to be made whole again. All that’s left are gaping square cut outs in the land. Rock formations are Stoney silhouettes of larger piles of heavy rocks against the mountainous hills. Drifting in and out of sleep on the bumpy roadway I dread the impending swag camping experience before me when I’m woken by the thud of the side door of the bus being flung open.
To be continued…
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