A half moon was in the eastern sky as I walked up the steep road from camp. At the height of land, I left the road and pushed through high dry grass to the edge of the escarpment and scrambled up knobbled sandstone towers until I was higher than the tallest tree and could look out over the valley below. Mesa tops were stained red by the setting sun, kangaroos were thumping through the savannah after drowsing away the hottest part of the day, and the calls of night time hunting birds were replacing the warbling of the lorikeets. Tonight the moon would be bright enough to walk in the open without artificial light.
Smitt Rock, Nitmiluk, walk or paddle only
I was sweaty, grimy and dusty, ready for my night-time wash in the cool river water before escaping to the relative comfort of our little caravan. One of my climbing friends, still young enough to be dirt-bagging it around North America, working only when she needed cash for another climbing trip, once said "people don't realize how, if you are outdoors all the time, sometimes it is nice to just go inside." A concept I immediately understood as the mark of a real outdoors person. Not the kind of hang around a campfire with a cold beer in one hand, eating packaged food and sleeping on a mattress that is so large it must be inflated by running an infernal combustion engine, "outdoor person." Rather, an outdoor person whose life is marked by at least some privation and discomfit. Perhaps working hard on the land through heat, humidity, rain, wind, cold and snow; or wandering in the outdoors by choice, climbing, skiing, hiking, paddling, yet suffering the same extremes of temperature.
Paddling the Newry Islands
It is almost two years since Doug and I owned a home, or had a permanent address. Almost two years since we moved from Canada to Australia and began living a vagrants life in a caravan. Sometimes, I feel as if I am reinventing myself. I no longer climb mountains, but I paddle an ocean kayak from island to island across a tropical sea. I haven't skied for two seasons, but I have hiked through rainforests, across dry plateaus, along rugged coastlines. I still climb, although now almost exclusively on steep sandstone escarpments. I still live the life of an outdoor person, suffering privation and discomfit enough to enjoy the relative ease of our caravan after a week sleeping on the ground in our small tent carrying our gear on our backs or in our kayaks.
Occasionally, we will meet other Australians who ask, "what is the most wonderful place you have been?" and, I'll be dumbstruck. Was it walking the remote southern coastline from NSW to Victoria with southern storms pounding on the endless sand beaches wrapped up in jackets against a blustering wind? Possibly it was kayaking the rugged east coast of Hinchinbrook Island with the towering mountains wreathed in sea mist above and dolpins playing in the sheltered bays? Or island hopping through the Coral Sea to arrive at a sheltered aquamarine lagoon on Lizard Island in the far northeast as colourful corals slid under the kayak? Maybe it was ridge-walking past stunted snow gums on an interlocking web of ridge lines above the iconic Snowy River under the raucous laugh of the kookaburra? Was it an eternal series of sunsets over the western sky from an endless series of remote beach camps reached by sea kayak? Or perhaps the searing red gold of the sunset sky above towering Blue Gums in the pristine Grose Valley?
Big ocean, small paddler
In the end, I can't really say, but, it was somewhere reached by foot or paddle, far from the infernal combustion engine, where the night sky is so bright with stars that you have no need for artificial light. A place which requires some sweat, some muscle, some dirt, some grime, and a healthy feeling of fatigue to reach. A place where you lie down to sleep when it is dark, and rise with the dawn. A place which you leave with sadness and return to with joy, and which, long after you have left, remains deeply etched in your mind.