Sleeping in Swags at Uluru

Sure, the Rock itself was impressive. It was, after all, what we travelled all this way for, crammed in a dusty minibus which had somehow avoided a major breakdown on its week-long journey into the heart of the Australian Outback. All that way for a rock! But it was a magnificent rock, a hulking mass of orange and brown which glowed outrageously under the setting sun. Still, when I recount that trip I rarely think of Uluru itself. Instead, I remember our night-times sleeping out in the elements, face open to the stars, tussled up in those sleeping-bags-cum-groundsheets that ranchers call a swag.

The outback is not a friendly place for unseasoned campers. Tiny glow-in-the-dark scorpions scuttle underfoot. Poisonous spiders sit stealthily in huge webs strung between trees. And dingoes still prowl around the camp peripheries, howling at the moon. At least we were far enough inland to escape some of Australia’s nastier natives – further up the desert a sleeping man had been dragged from his tent and wrestled half to death by a marauding croc.

Still, to sleep outdoors -not even suspended off the dusty ground- seemed like madness. What was a nice urban Pommie girl like me doing all the way out in the middle of nowhere, so many miles from home?

I was watching the stars. How can I describe those Outback night skies to you? With no light pollution, the sky illuminates as it did for our ancestors, an innumerable, uncountable multitude which stretches beyond sight and imagination. How can I tell you how it felt to be lying there in the heart of the earth with nothing and no one, bar a few snoring campers and those eternal stars? It was dazzling.

Nights are cool even in the Outback, so we built a campfire to frighten away the chill, and lounged around it in woolly hats, telling tall tales and roasting pink marshmallows until our face and hands were sticky.

The chatter died down with the fire, and among the glowing embers and snuffled snoring, the modern world of cars and smartphones and rush seemed almost impossible. This land was so different, so inhospitable, so wild. And so sad – for this land had seen great suffering.

Uluru is aboriginal country, and in this place where nature reigns supreme it is still possible to see the marks of the Dreamtime – a landscape smashed and shaped by spirit guardians in the form of carpet-snake kunyia and sand-lizard linga. The ground is rich in aboriginal history, stories, and blood. The white men who came here once claimed that these people were no more human than the kurkara trees that grow around the base of Uluru.

In this magical place, in their magical place, their presence is inescapable. You sense their footprints in the dust, see their spirits in the curl of fire smoke, hear their anguished cries in the distance…

Or was that just a dingo?

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