Get out the shovel and start diggin’
I wish I could re-live the night I spent at Palm Valley during my first trip to Australia. Of all the places I visited, that is the place I think of most. However Palm Valley is the one place I will likely never go again. I have already returned to most of the places I went to on my first trip and plan to visit them all again - but not Palm Valley.
I never planned to go to Palm Valley in the first place. I planned to go to Boggy Hole. Boggy Hole is a permanent billabong (water hole) on the Finke River. The water attracts many animals that I wanted to see including dingos and reptiles. I had read about the difficult “4x4 only” road to get to the remote billabong. It sounded like the perfect outback experience.
Both Boggy Hole and Palm Valley are campsites in Finke Gorge National Park in the Red Center of Australia. I had arrived in Alice Springs that morning and rented a Toyota RAV4 to explore the outback. After I loaded up with groceries I headed out to Tnorala (Gosse Bluff). The pavement soon ended and I was on a dirt road in the outback. The hills and mountains around were rather small with many flat areas in between. The soil and rocks were all red. It was similar to southern Utah without the spectacular mountains and rock formations but everything seemed new. The dessert oaks, spinifex and other plants were so foreign they made the landscape very unfamiliar. I didn’t have to get close up to tell they were different. I could see it from the car. The sky seemed new. Even the horizon was new though I couldn’t quite figure out how.
It took at least 3 to 4 hours to get to Tnorala. I had passed a few vehicles along the way but once I took the turnoff to Tnorala I was the only one out there. Tnorala is what is left of a crater where a comet impacted 142 million years ago. It is a sacred site to the Aboriginal people who also believed it was formed by an extraterrestrial impact. They believed a group of women were dancing across the Milky Way. One of the women put her baby in a wooden carrier which later fell off the dancing area and crashed into earth then transformed into the circular rock formation. Inside the crater there was only one short trail. Being a sacred area, hiking off the trail was prohibited. I didn’t stay there very long.
I don’t know if it was the slower speeds traveling on the dirt roads or my poor judgment of distance on the map but it seemed to take a very long time to get to Hermannsburg. Hermannsburg was just a dot on the map to help me get my bearings; a general store, a few trailers and most importantly a gas pump. Just down the road from Hermannsburg was the turnoff to Boggy Hole where I planned to camp for the night. I saw the sign identifying Ellery Creek. I knew the road to Boggy Hole was near. A mile or two past Ellery Creek I figured I had missed the track and turned back. I pulled off the road at Ellery Creek and checked my guidebook and maps. It turned out that the creek bed which is almost always dry, is the road. I put the RAV4 into four-wheel drive and started down the creek bed.
It was difficult to navigate the creek bed. It was rocky with many shrubs and trees growing all over. At first I could tell where other vehicles had traveled and I tried to follow the same route. In other places I didn’t have a clue where to go. I had to pick my own route. A time or two I had to back up and try a different path. In places the sand was very deep. I could feel the tires sink deep into the sand and was lucky the SUV kept moving forward. I knew if I came to a stop in the sand there would be no getting out. The sun was just about down and I was making very slow progress. I had traveled only a few km and it was still about 30 km to Boggy Hole. I figured I would probably get stuck in the sand in the light of day. At night I would have no chance of making it. I knew of another campsite in Finke Gorge National Park, Palm Valley. The guidebooks said the road to get there was much better. I decided to play it safe. I turned around and headed back to the main road. I had to drive back towards Hermannsburg to the turnoff to Palm Valley. At the beginning of the dirt road to Palm Valley a sign warned “Four-wheel drive only” but the road wasn’t bad. It was just about dark when I arrived. The campground was full of strange safari type vehicles and tents everywhere. I felt out of place in the little RAV4. The vehicles were like none I had ever seen. They were big 4x4s customized for the outback. Some even had large tents that popped up out of the roofs. The beds were on the top of the vehicle. They were all funky looking with supplies randomly attached all over. Many had what seemed like whole dead trees strapped on top or on the back for firewood. All were carrying large plastic containers for gas and water. Many large tents were set up all over the campground. I couldn’t find any level ground for my only camping gear, a sleeping bag and a short, thin Therm-a-Rest pad. I could only find one spot to park the RAV4. I decided I would sleep in the RAV4.
It didn’t long to set up camp. I just had to fill out the registration form and leave it along with a fee in the box by the entrance. I then grabbed my jacket and flashlight and set out on one of the trails to find a quiet spot to watch the moon rise. I knew the moon was a few days past full so it would not be too late rising. I walked to up a small hill a few hundred meters away from the campground. There I found a nice sitting rock so I sat down and looked up at the sky. I was in awe looking at the sky. Venous and Mars were out and the Southern Cross was very prominent but it was the stars that knocked me out. More stars than I could imagine. The Milky Way was so bright. The sky was so clean and there was no light pollution around. I later learned that the southern hemisphere looks into the center of our galaxy, while the northern hemisphere looks away from the center. There are many more stars down under. There were two bits of the Milky Way that were broken off from the rest and far removed from the main path. I found out later these bits are not part of the Milky Way but our two nearest neighbor galaxies. The Aborigines have a great emu in the sky that is formed from a dark spot (where there are no stars) in the Milky Way. Unlike constellations that I know of the great emu looks exactly like an emu. My neck hurt looking up for so long. It was already sore from snorkeling and diving but I didn’t want to stop looking up. I saw a few large slow moving meteorites cross the sky as I began to contemplate the universe.
I always ask “Why?” when I look into a sky full of stars. Why is there anything at all, matter, energy, space, time? And if these things didn’t exist what would there be? Would it be large or small? What would be on the other side? I have come to the conclusion that since my brain is finite it has limits and boundaries and since it does exist at least within some type of reality, I am not capable of imagining nothing at all nor can I picture infinite space and time. I tried to imagine what some of the other worlds out there must be like. What are their landscapes like? What types of life make their homes there? I realized I can’t even imagine all the life and landscapes that are on this planet let alone others. These are things I have thought about for as long as I can remember when looking at the stars. However this night a new question was on my mind.
A few months earlier I was at work with a few friends talking about our approaching mid-life crises. I mentioned the movie “City Slickers.” There is a line in the movie that went something like “Have you ever looked in the mirror and said this is the best I’ll ever look, this is the best I’ll ever feel and it’s not very good?” A few days later one of my friends brought the movie in for me to watch again. As I watched it something about the movie connected with me. Something made sense which hadn’t before. It was what the characters were doing. Going to a dude ranch to play “Cowboy” for a few weeks. I didn’t want to go to a dude ranch but I felt I needed to do something like that. I kept thinking about it until I realized what it was... Australia. I’d always wanted to go to the Australian outback. I needed an adventure and this was it. The main character in “City Slickers” returns from the dude ranch having found his “One thing that matters.” I wasn’t looking for what mattered. I was trying to figure out where it was that I was trying so hard to get to.
As I sat on my rock looking at the night sky I was trying to determine just where I was trying to get to in life. When would I be there? When could I quit trying? When could I rest? I felt there must be some point in life when I would have proved my worth. I would have done all I needed to do and I could stop worrying. I could stop struggling. I would “Be there.” I tried to define for myself what this point in life was. I knew it wasn’t a physical place and death was not what I had in mind. There must be a time and place where I won’t need to do anything else. I felt I was struggling to get somewhere in life but didn’t know where. Well, the stars were of no help with this question and the moon was late.
I had been on the rock for at least an hour and there was still no sign of the moon. Occasionally a dingo would howl. Then all of the children in the campground would howl in return much louder than the dingo. I also heard outbursts of laughter coming from the campground. It began to sound like a party. I decided to walk back and get a bite to eat and see what was going on. I didn’t make it back to the RAV4.
At the edge of the campground many people had gathered around a large fire. A ranger was giving a lecture about the area. He was talking about the floods this area sees as well as the fish and parasites of the area. He was just about finished when I got there. I stood at the back of the crowd of people that had packed in tight around the fire. After the ranger finished most of the crowd when back to their campsites. A few dozen people stayed by the fire. It was cold and like me, most of them did not have a campfire. I made my way as close to the fire as I could to warm up. The conversation soon turned to vehicles. There was talk of Combies, Falcons and a lot about Land Cruisers. The Land Cruisers they talked of didn’t look much like the Land Cruisers driven by my neighbors back home. One couple told of how they have been traveling for 6 years. Two years earlier they were in England and somehow intercepted a special Toyota that was headed for Africa. They drove it from England to India then shipped it to Southeast Asia. After traveling around there they shipped it to Australia and were still traveling. “Good on ya” repeated another lady who was delighted by their adventures.
The conversation eventually turned more toward tracks (as the roads and trails in the outback are called). They exchanged information and advice about tracks in the area. One lady talked about how nice it was when they came to a stretch of bitumen track (bitumen is what they call a paved road). For some reason out in middle of nowhere on the dirt tracks there would be short sections of bitumen usually less than 1 km long. I couldn’t figure out why they were there and neither could the other travelers. However this lady quite liked the smooth riding on the bitumen sections “It’s quiet enough to actually have a short conversation. Then before you know it you’re back on the dirt and you can’t even hear yourself think.”
Eventually someone asked the ranger about the track to Boggy Hole. “Is it really that bad?” The ranger explained that he didn’t think it was that bad but he does spend most of his time pulling out vehicles that have gotten bogged along this track. They all began exchanging stories about getting bogged or helping some other bloke that got bogged. The ranger was asked if he had ever been bogged. “No, never ‘round here mate.” He said he had been bogged in Queensland in that “Terrible black soil. Just 3 drops of rain is enough to get you bogged up there.” They all agreed that everyone gets bogged in Queensland. The ranger was standing with his arm around his son who must have been about 10 years old. One man kidded with the boy and asked him “Are you a ranger in training? Have you ever been bogged?” The ranger encouraged his son to tell us if he had been bogged or not. The boy seemed too shy to speak so his father helped him out. “He was once drivin’ with me dad when me dad got bogged. Me son told him to ‘Get out the shovel and start diggin’.’ So he must a’ bēēn bogged before.”
I had many questions I wanted to ask these travelers. How do they get time to travel like this? Do they have homes and jobs? Where are they going? I didn’t dare speak though. I didn’t want to change the conversations at all. I knew if I opened my mouth there would be questions about me. What d’ya think your doin’ out here with that tiny Toyota? What brings you half way around the world and back o’ beyond all alone mate? I just wanted to listen and hoped no one would notice me.
Eventually I noticed the eastern horizon beginning to light up. I stepped away from the fire, turned my flashlight on and headed back to my rock on the hill. As the moon crept closer to the horizon the trees silhouetted on the mountains began to glow. They looked like trees in the morning after a light snow. I watched as the moonlight lit up the surrounding mountains. The edge of the mountain’s shadow finally reached my sitting rock and the moon was up. The moon changed everything. It’s light spread across the sky washing out all but the brightest stars. It was now so light it seemed like day compared to the complete darkness that had covered Finke Gorge just minutes before. I could see details of trees and rocks on the mountains across the valley. It was late and cold when I walked back to camp.
Most of the campers had gone to sleep by then. I laid the back seat down in the RAV4, rolled out the pad and sleeping bag and went to sleep. I never warmed up and woke up often but I had no complaints. It was a great night. As the sun began to lighten the sky I could no longer sleep. I decided to get an early start to my next destination, Kings Canyon. I took a quick and very cold shower at the campground (there was no hot water). Then packed the car up and backed out of my campsite. As I passed the other vehicles I thought I should take some pictures of them. I didn’t. I figured I would take pictures of them at the other places I was going to visit.
As I drove to Kings Canyon I kept thinking about my question “Where is it that I am trying to get to?” I also thought about the conversations around the campfire. There was something very strange about the conversations. Here were all these travelers who had been on the road a long time. They just gathered together for a short time around a fire to stay warm. They talked about their vehicles. They talked about various tracks, smooth tracks, dirty rough tracks and down right difficult muddy tracks. They talked about getting bogged, others getting bogged, helping others who were bogged and sometimes digging themselves out. But none of them mentioned where they were going. No one asked anyone else where they were going. It was as if none of them had any destination at all. They were just traveling for the joy of traveling. I realized my good mates around the campfire had provided me with the answer to my question. There are no destinations in life only tracks with campsites along the way. The tracks are sometimes paved with bitumen, smooth easygoing. Most of the time the tracks are dusty, bumpy, dirt tracks that rattle your brains. Sometimes the tracks get too sandy or rocky, maybe the weather changes on you, or maybe the water crossing is too deep and you find yourself bogged. Many times a good mate will show up to pull you out. Other times you just have to “Get out the shovel and start diggin’.”
At Kings Canyon the track turned into a bitumen highway for the rest of my trip. Once I hit the bitumen the crazy outback vehicles disappeared. I didn’t see anything like them again. I had missed my chance to take pictures of them. I later realized that I hadn’t taken any pictures at Palm Valley at all. I am glad I didn’t. Photographs often become our memories of places we’ve been. Although I love photos, two dimensional, carefully cropped images never truly capture an experience. I have notes of my trip in a spiral notebook and I have what I can remember of Palm Valley in my head. That’s perfect. I would love to re-live that night at Palm Valley but I can’t. I can’t even go back there. I would be too disappointed. It could never again be as good as I remember it. I’m sure there would not be as many stars as I remember. The moon would not be as bright, the fire would not be as warm and the vehicles not as strange. The dingos may not even howl. I could not be treated to fireside stories as wonderful as those I remember. No, I will never go to Palm Valley again. Next time I’m takin’ the track to Boggy Hole…and I’ll pack a shovel.