Up at 5:15am. No need for head torch – moon’s still bright. Dress – same clothes as yesterday, but I did allow myself fresh undies for each day, given that it’s a short-ish, 5 day trek. ‘Ablutions’ with trowel, toilet paper and matches to burn toilet paper once done, then sanitiser. Roll swag, pack duffel bag and ground sheet, carry them to the place where they’ll be packed on Ned, who carries my bag, and Eddie, who carries my swag, then off for breakfast by the campfire.
Muffled “morning Sal”’s from a few heads with beanies and head torches. Some sleepy. Some chipper. More join us at the fire as the minutes go by.
Make sure the guests have what they need for breakfast. Tea and coffee.
About 6:15am the flies start buzzing and sticking.
Untie the camels for their morning feed before the hot walk ahead.
Pack up camp kitchen, jerry cans of water and cooking billies, pots, cooking utensils and lunch boxes, and carry them to the camel who carries each. Each of the camels carries the same load every day, and it’s packed onto the saddle with care in the same way each time, making sure it’s balanced and comfortable for the animal.
Lead the camels into camp in their walking order for saddling and loading.
Load camels. Heavy work. Hard yakka. Someone’s GPS showed they’d walked 5km before they even left camp.
About 10am we start walking through the Simpson Desert – humans and camels accompanied by swarms of flies.
The day’s punctuated with water and food breaks, discoveries of indigenous artefacts (which are recorded and respectfully left exactly where they were found), studying of various animal tracks and rare species of plants encountered along the way. Also, the refitting of camel saddles which aren’t yet worn in or haven’t found their balance yet.
Your focus is on the camels – keeping them in line, making sure they take the route around shrubs and trees, making sure their loads are secure and comfortable, guiding them, calming them, getting to know them and helping them get to know you. I walked beside Amadeus, Ned and Billy most of the time, all of us learning each other’s ways and personalities or ‘camelalities’.
I sang a lullaby to Tambo one day. That seemed to calm him. You could sense that he was listening.
Most of the time you’re walking on soft sand. The camels’ feet look like spongy cushions on the mercurial surface, almost as if they were hovering above it. Humans look a lot clumsier.
The heat soars to a high of 42C, about 32C in the shade at lunch break. No one worries about the flies swarming the food at lunch. You can’t – you need to eat. That’s it. I figure the flies haven’t been on it long enough to cause problems and anyway, they’re ‘clean’ desert flies, aren’t they…?! I learned, after the first day of a dull headache, to take some electrolyte powder at lunch.
Some days we walk longer than others. Sometimes we stop early because not all humans are coping well with the heat. It’s a gentle rhythm, even though it can be intense at times, and can require vigilance and focus to keep both camels and humans safe.
The leader decides when to stop and where to set up camp, looking for spots with shade and plenty of feed for the camels.
Off-load camels and a few affectionate scratches. Some appreciate it, others not! They have a couple of hours feeding before they’re loosely tied up to nearby trees for the night. The camels’ night time area is chosen first, then the direction the guests camp in, and the crew and cameleers roll out their swags in the camel area.
Set up kitchen. Light fires – one for cooking and one to sit around. Someone makes tea and coffee – you put your cup in a line behind either the tea tin or the coffee tin and it’s filled, sitting there on the sand.
Some rest before dinner. Some keep working. Usually George is the fire keeper, even as the temperatures still hover in the 30’s. He’s a worker, and as caring and good-natured as they come. He’s the paramedic for our trek.
Flies disappear usually around 6:30pm. Where do they go?!
Serve guests then crew. The leader – Max or Andrew – always eats last. It reminds me of a lesson my father taught me on the farm. You always feed your animals before yourself. Not that we crew are dogs or horses, but it reminds me of this childhood lesson nonetheless! The gesture holds overtones of care, respect and gratitude.
Camels get first priority. We’re utterly reliant on these extraordinary animals out here. They don’t need to drink. They’re offered water at the end of each trek. Sometimes they don’t want it.
Some converse over dinner around the fire. Others stay silent. No expectations. No pressure. Sometimes ‘talks’ are offered by Max, Andrew or Charlie about the geology of the red expanse we’re in, or the flora and fauna, history, indigenous ways and wisdom, or maps and navigation. Max (or Andrew, when he’s leading) has a GPS but is never reliant on technology. You can’t afford to be, out here. He also has his maps and compass.
‘Wash’ dishes. Clean up.
Some fall, exhausted, into their swags. Others stay up in peace or in companionship, or seek the view from the nearby ridge. Superficial communication tends not to happen in these times. Firelight and moonlight. Camel rustlings. Stillness.
Someone tells me they write poetry. Another tells me of his painting. Another tells of the trauma one of his children experienced. The fire and night soothes vulnerabilities. Perhaps it heals a little, too.
It’s easy to become disorientated in the desert. Occasionally someone won’t be able to find their way back to their swag and will need help. One trek a woman was too embarrassed to ask for help finding her swag and slept, wrapped in camel blankets, by the fire…
I always take very careful note of where I’ve set up my swag.
There’s no need for torches.
Sleep, punctuated with comfortable periods of wakefulness. Not begrudging wakefulness. Sacred, grateful wakefulness. Peaceful wakefulness. And sometimes the night noises of camels. George and I were camped near the same camel one night and fell into fits of juvenile hysterical laughter when we witnessed the longest, loudest fart we’d ever heard. Ever. Seriously. Laughter across the night. George couldn’t stop. Catharsis?
I sleep with the mesh on my swag unzipped. Others zip it up for fear of scorpions. Max has been stung by these desert scorpions and said it’s not too bad – like a bee sting. He said it’s the centipedes you have to watch out for. Charlie said the scorpions won’t crawl up into your swag. Maartje had one just beside her swag one night though… I decide to take the risk. The breeze on my cheek.
Nights aren’t cold at this point in the season, late April/early May.
Up at 5:15am… Rhythms of nature, work, walking.
It’s back to basics.
Some of you will have read this thinking “No way! I’d hate that!”. Others of you will be thinking “What an experience! I’d love to do that.” Either way, consider this:
The freedom of an utterly natural environment.
Freedom from everyday demands – phones, emails, shopping, organizing.
Freedom from the myriad small decisions most of us make every day – what am I going to wear? What needs to get done first? How do I fit everything in? Can I afford this? What time do I have to get up? What activities to I have to coordinate for the kids?
Freedom from everyday responsibilities.
Freedom from the lights and noise of ‘civilisation’.
Freedom from walls and roofs.
Don’t get me wrong. This experience wasn’t all bliss and love. It was hard work, often uncomfortable, dirty, and it still involved negotiating interactions with other people. But it was a ‘simple’, if not ‘easy’ way of being. One young woman said it reminded her of what’s important to her in her life.
When you leave the desert you don’t leave your precious rediscovered stillness and simplicity there. It comes with you. It’s inside you – actually always was. You just need to remember.
What’s important in your life?
What can you simplify?
What noise can you let go of?
Where can you go to find the stillness within you again?
Get in touch if you need help.
Photos – Caitlin Weatherstone