The loneliness bided its time. Like a dingo lying in its den through the daylight hours, waiting. As I watched the sky turn lemon and the sun rise behind misted plane tails at Brisbane Domestic Airport, as I flicked through the in-flight magazine and failed the Sudoku between Brisbane and Adelaide (and from Adelaide to Alice Springs), as I picked up Monster Truck and took Larapinta Drive towards my first overnight stop at Glen Helen, I was barely conscious of the loneliness lurking. Only after the Englishman at reception had shown me to the bunkhouse, congratulating me on having a four-bunk dormitory all to myself, and I’d located the ladies toilets and changed into togs and was picking my way down the dry part of the riverbed with pebbles tinkling and crunching under my sandals, did I become aware of a nagging wish that someone was with me.
I stepped gingerly into the soft red water, and the wish grew. Late sunlight falling on the east face of the gorge turned the rock to warm golden honeycomb; the west face in shadow was rich terracotta. Unsettled by the immense age of cliffs surging upwards, their feet puddled in the silken river, I snuggled into a boulder hollowed into a natural armchair, veloured in algae. The water, so richly red I expected it to taste of rust, was warmer than the air, and tasted more strongly of water than any river I’d ever submersed myself in. The air smelt so powerfully of the water it made me dizzy.
I sat, shoulders cloaked in river, watching a pair of wedge-tailed eagles circling through the blue window over the gorge. The loneliness bided its time. A slate-backed heron glared at the river’s edge, legs lost among the spiky shadows of reeds. When the heron skimmed off over water now the colour of manuka honey, I wrapped up in my microfibre towel and hastened through thickening chill to the comfort of a hot strong shower.
Despite or because of the stark and startling beauty all around me, by now the loneliness had me in its jaws. I felt its teeth as I stood by the barbecue plate, which the helpful Englishman had fired up after handing me the cook-your-own-barbecue pack: steak, onion, garden salad in a takeaway container, oil, salt, pepper and tongs. Cutlery and crockery available in the restaurant, drinks from the bar.
I slipped the phone from my pocket—I could call home on the pretext of checking everyone was all right. But I got the ‘SOS only’ message. My sister had suggested I hire a satellite phone for emergencies. This was one emergency I hadn’t envisioned.
Shivering in my fleece—the sky over the range was jacaranda blue now, and three stars of the Southern Cross were faintly visible—I blotted my eyes on a sleeve. I’d never felt so desolate, day one of an adventure, and this time I hadn’t even left my own continent. It must be menopause. The onions spat a cloud of steam, and I snuffed away more tears.
He was standing on the corner of the wooden platform that served as the outdoor dining area for the restaurant and beer garden for the bar. The only free table was the one near him, but he wasn’t using it, so I carried my meal over. The stars were now filling the sky above the range like—who has ever successfully described the Milky Way? White pepper strewn across a tablecloth? Pinpricks in heaven? A river of misty light? I chewed a bite of my astonishingly good steak, and ignored the loneliness by listening to the internal wrestling match between my vocabulary and the indescribable.
‘Does your soul good, doesn’t it?’
The man on the platform corner spoke with a soft Canadian accent. I swallowed my mouthful.
‘It does,’ I agreed, certain neither of us knew what we meant.
‘Where are you headed?’
There were only two answers to that question at Glen Helen Homestead Lodge. ‘Uluru.’
He nodded. ‘We’ve just come from there. We did Ayers Rock and the Olgas.’
It annoys me when people say they’ve ‘done’ a place, as if they’ve had casual sex with it.
I knew my irritation at this foreigner failing to give Uluru and Kata Tjuta their proper Aboriginal names was prissy and self-righteous. Because, when I was a kid, they were Ayers Rock and the Olgas to me too: I learnt the new-old names as an adult. Not that the bulgy Olgas ever caught my imagination. But Ayers Rock—that lumbering mammoth was an icon. Sitting at the very heart of the continent, itself looking like a big beefy heart, changing colour through the day and brooding under the moon. The earliest story I remember reading, on the sun-faded lino of my grandma’s verandah, was a floppy children’s book about the Reverend John Flynn founding the Flying Doctors. It had a blood-red cover with a line drawing of Ayers Rock rising from desert into sky. The back cover featured a sketch of Flynn’s distinctive grave memorial—ovoid boulder topping a squared-off pyramid. I’d seen the memorial already today, leaving Alice Springs. The day after tomorrow I’d be seeing the monolith.
‘May I sit with you?’ asked the stranger. ‘Back’s a bit stiff, standing. Not as young as I was.’
‘Of course.’ Being lonely, it turns out, is much like being drunk: I heard myself say, ‘I was feeling a little lonely, actually. Not much point straying into an Albert Namatjira painting when no-one’s strayed in with you.’
I waved at a ghost-gum on the other side of the river, white as a fork of lightning against the dark cliff, and he nodded. The light from the bar showed me a man in his seventies: white hair and whiskers, age-spotted hand holding his stubby lightly by the neck.
‘You’re single, obviously.’
‘No. Oh no,’ I said hastily. ‘I’m married, with two teenage kids. We’re coming up to our twentieth anniversary this year.’
‘But your husband doesn’t like travelling?’
‘He travels for work.’ I found myself, as usual, trying to frame a socially acceptable shorthand explanation, and instead getting mired in the messy too-personal longhand truth. ‘Travel isn’t an adventure for him. He gets caught up in the logistics and inconveniences. Plus he was raised in cities. Even if I dragged him out here, I couldn’t make him see it.’
I spoke to the Milky Way above the dark silence of the range. Nothing across the river had changed in the moments we’d been talking. It had, of course. Here the root-hair of a grass had thrust out into new territory; there a leaf had finally given up its hold on life and floated to the dust. Each of the stars had consumed a little more of its own mass. The star VFTS 102, in the Large Magellenic Cloud, had continued spinning at 1.6 million kilometres per hour—everything up there was whirling and hurtling, as it had for billions of years. But from where we sat in our ringside seats, Earth and sky appeared frozen. I could comprehend at this moment how Uluru could sit out there in the desert for 600 million years and seem not to change a jot.
‘Are you travelling with your wife?’ I asked, mindful of his ‘we’. His hesitation was almost too slight to notice, but I’d already heard my mistake: he might be gay. I should have said ‘partner’.
‘Yes,’ he surrendered, by which I gathered they were a couple but not married. ‘We’re both on our second. She’s like me—loves travelling, happy to up sticks and move across the world for a new job, or just on vacation.’
His first wife’s attitude to travel—resigned? resentful? resistant?—went unspoken and sank through the floorboards between us.
‘She’s in the campervan,’ he continued, ‘reading before bed. I said I’d come over and have a quiet beer.’
‘And watch the stars.’
He smiled. ‘Watching implies they’re going to do something.’
Before morning, Saturn and Mars would rise, Orion would set and the Southern Cross would turn over. But he was right—in the time it would take us to finish our respective steak and beer, we wouldn’t see those changes.
‘Gaze at the stars,’ I corrected myself, thinking as I said it that surely this was a romantic thing, something you did with your partner.
‘Watch for satellites,’ he added kindly.
‘And shooting stars. I want to see the Henbury Meteorite Craters this trip.’
He looked perturbed, as if he’d missed out on something. ‘We didn’t get there.’ Then he cheered up. ‘Have you got a four-wheel drive?’
I gestured towards Monster Truck, visible in the gloom of the car park. ‘That white LandCruiser. It’s a tank.’
He looked impressed. ‘Good for you,’ he said obscurely. ‘Well, you should go to Palm Valley. It’s amazing.’
I knew this rhythm. One traveller tells another, chance-met on the road, where to go, what not to miss: this is the ritual by which itineraries are formed for the present, and bucket-lists for the future.
We’d reached the ceremonial moment for exchanging names. His was Mark. Mark raised a finger. ‘When you’re walking in this country, remember to look behind. You can be walking along and every step opens another breathtaking view in front. But look back—there’s another whole vista, different colours in the sky. And when you’re driving, look in the rear-view mirror.’
This being a sore point, I hurriedly asked another of the ritual questions. ‘Where are you going after this?’
‘Home. To Bondi.’
Mark, I learned, had lived in various places over the past 50-odd years, but he always came back to Australia, having fallen in love with Bondi as an 18-year-old merchant seaman. He described the five years he’d spent back in Edmonton, where the winters were 40 below and his younger son had looked like a starfish in his snow gear. The years in London, where his elder son had sported a series of puzzling hairstyles. And the six months Mark had spent alone on the road, travelling Japan as a sales rep, after the boys left home.
‘I’ve never lived anywhere but Queensland,’ I reflected. ‘Though I’ve travelled a fair bit.’
‘We stayed in a village at the foot of Machu Pichu,’ said Mark. ‘Went up by train. So many days it’s too misty to see anything, you have to be prepared to wait it out.’
‘Same with Franz Josef glacier,’ I nodded. ‘We had to wait for a sunny day to go up by helicopter.’
‘We hiked the Rocky Mountain trail,’ he said, ‘the boys and me. Nothing like sleeping out under the stars.’
‘I climbed Skellig Michael in Ireland,’ I countered. Then, slightly ashamed because those 600 vertiginous steps were an experience no-one his age should add to their bucket-list, I added, ‘My right knee hurt so much, coming back down, I remember thinking I must climb as many mountains as I possibly can. Before I’m a little old lady and all I can do is be driven to the summit in a bus, have a cup of tea and be driven back down again.’
His laugh startled a bird in the nearest tree: an indignant rustle of leaves. ‘I know what you mean. I hate growing old.’ He held out a finger in the dark. ‘When you’re young, you can cut yourself and it heals in two days. I did this two weeks ago and it’s still tender.’ He rubbed a thumb over the scar I couldn’t see, and sighed. ‘Your body loses elasticity, the ability to bounce back.’
‘Not just your body,’ I said, thinking of the loneliness. It had retreated for the moment but I sensed it prowling, just beyond the place where light from the bar seeped away in the tufty grass. ‘You become more vulnerable. You have less energy, and less courage.’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, cocking his head. ‘You’re pretty brave, taking a trip like this on your own.’
It was a mantra I’d heard often, and while it was hard not to feel gratified (a man at Brisbane Airport that morning had said, ‘You’re brilliant’, his face a curious mask of envy and fervour) I felt obliged to object. ‘You crossed the world on your own at 18,’ I reminded Mark. ‘If I were a man, no-one would think twice about me travelling alone. And it’s Australia!’ I spread my hands to embrace the silent cliffs, the river, the stars, the pub, the grassy stretch beyond the car park dotted with tents and lights and camping families. ‘What do they imagine is going to happen to me?’
‘Fair point,’ he conceded. Then, ‘Oh. Shooting star.’
I turned, but of course I’d missed it. The moment of grief—so close to seeing the diamond-bright blaze he’d seen, streaking across the heavens—mingled with a lingering dissatisfaction over my last utterance. Something had happened to me today: the loneliness. The 360-degree horizon had seeped into my soul—the vast sky, ancient rocks. The endlessness. The colours that kept firing the thought, that range looks like a painting, although of course the range had looked like that before painting existed, before people existed. Back when star stuff was still crashing around our solar system, things colliding with other things, Earth suffering the kind of impacts that had left the moon a mass of scars. Earth’s scars had softened with time, the formation of an atmosphere and the birth of life, while the moon’s were still stark and sharp for all to see. I thought of the little lines round my mouth that I’d noticed for the first time in the mirror this morning, in the harsh light of the airport loo: lines that presumably used to appear and disappear as my expression changed. Now they were ossifying.
A family came out of the restaurant, carrying their plates to the table beside ours: mum and dad, a girl about ten and a boy around eight. They were laughing—a dropped fork, the ten-second rule.
‘Your kids don’t want to travel with you?’ asked Mark.
‘They have,’ I said, remembering how passionate I used to be about the need to take them places, make the world their oyster.
So they’d grow up feeling they could go anywhere they wanted—not as I had, in a country town, only half-believing England was a real place and not a fairyland populated by Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and the Famous Five. ‘But our last few trips they haven’t seemed interested in anything except whether the next hotel, restaurant or airport will have free wi-fi. If I’d brought them in the car today, they’d barely have looked up from their iPads.’
He was thinking of his own camping, fishing, mountain-climbing boys as he gave me a smugly sympathetic smile. My girl would be doing her homework now, I thought; my boy had an evening shift at the café. ‘He’s just left school, and she’s about to,’ I said. ‘Soon home will be somewhere else, for them.’ It would be just my husband and me.
‘Do you wonder, did I do it right?’
The last 20 years? No, I don’t usually wonder that. But today, with the endless sky and the loneliness so savage … What was I doing alone on the verandah of Glen Helen Outback Lodge, watching the stars with a stranger?
The young girl at the next table sent her cutlery clattering, pointing out a light passing high overhead. ‘Just a plane, sweetheart,’ said her mother. Too late for the glint of sun on satellite.
‘They’ll find their way,’ Mark assured me. ‘My older one has a son of his own now.’ He shook his head and smiled at a thought to which I, peeking into his life on my temporary tourist visa, was denied admittance.
‘I had an accident,’ I said. ‘Today, in Alice Springs. I’d barely had the car 20 minutes.’
He clucked his tongue. ‘You were still getting used to it?’
‘It’s too big. I was backing out of a spot, craning to see that the front corner cleared the car beside me, and I backed into a car in the row behind. I’d only stopped for a map.’
The shock, the annoyance with myself, lingered like rotten egg on the back of the tongue. ‘The owner was just arriving back. I barely touched his car, but he couldn’t have called me more names if I’d done it on purpose.’
This, of course, was the kind of thing they thought might happen, those who admired my ‘bravery’. Mistakes. Damage. Burdens. Unpleasant interactions with strangers in strange places. All of which, presumably, would be ameliorated by a companion, preferably male.
‘Would you like me to take a look?’
And although there was nothing he could do about it, we trooped across the gravel to Monster Truck and surveyed the rear bumper by the light of my mobile. Half a dozen faint rubbery marks and a smear of green. A depression in the corner panel, too gentle to break the paint, as if someone had pressed it with the heel of their hand.
‘I feel like, if I stare at it long enough, the panel will spring out again and be good as new,’ I admitted. ‘But metal bodies don’t heal themselves.’
‘That’s nothing,’ he said, running his hand over the dent. ‘Couple of hundred max. And you’ve got excess insurance …’
‘I know,’ I said. It wasn’t the money. It was the kids and their iPads, the fact that they hadn’t expressed any interest in my trip to the centre of the continent, hadn’t even asked me for souvenirs. It was knowing my life partner wouldn’t have swum in the gorge, wouldn’t even have walked down to look at it: he’d have sat in the pub and read the paper, complaining on my return about the prices and the sticky black flies.
Did I do it right? I saw Mark glance towards the campground, and felt the loneliness waiting to pad out of the dark beyond poor injured Monster Truck to escort me back to the bunkhouse.
‘She’ll be wondering where I am,’ said Mark. ‘All the best on your travels.’
‘You too. Thanks.’ The ritual must conclude like this, with blessings and expressions of gratitude, even if it’s obscure what you’re thanking your fellow traveller for.
As I turned towards bed, something made me look over my shoulder at the range, one last time. And I caught it—an elongated drop of silver falling straight down, across the kite-face of the Southern Cross, so bright it left a bright scar across the darkness several seconds after burning out. Too late to call to Mark. This was my shooting star, my reward for looking back.
I remembered then that last night, having as usual done everything else before starting to pack, I’d gone to bed exhausted, far too late for someone who had to be up at four to catch a plane. And my husband, who would be awake for hours yet, lay beside me on the bed and held my hand until I fell asleep.