Nori Jemil, winner of the 2010 Travel Photo of the Year competition (Travel Icon category), talks about her trip to Australia's Northern Territory
The real voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes, as Proust once said. I remind myself of this as I head towards a continent I have visited more times than I can remember. I find myself on a journey of rediscovery, flying over the same terrain I first saw 15 years ago from the western coast of Perth to the red heart of Australia.
I watch the desert swirls and dusty hues of ochre earth beneath me and it struck me then as now how the land is reflected so perfectly in Aboriginal dreamtime paintings, as if thousands of years ago artists had a bird's eye view of the terracotta palette beneath their feet. As I continue to stare down, the cold glass against my temple, shifting between memory and the practical search for landmarks, Uluru and Kata Tjuta come into view; my first glimpse of those iconic monoliths I am soon to travel to. Things have changed since I last visited, and I certainly won't be climbing Ayers Rock now that visitors have been discouraged out of respect for the original owners of the land.
I surprise myself at the anticipation felt for what is to come when I view the golden late-afternoon sun warming the rocky escarpments of the MacDonnell Ranges as we drive into Alice Springs. It's an early start tomorrow when we head into the bush, but there's just time after meeting the group and our photographer guide, Grenville Turner, for a very Australian treat of grilled tiger prawns and crisp, chilled Aussie champagne.
The camera gear's all checked and ready to go. There are 11 of us and two guides in total, and mostly everyone is Australian; it feels like we're going to get an authentic Aussie Outback experience. I try to remember the words to Waltzing Matilda as I drift off to sleep, though knowing I have to be up in less than six hours makes me check the alarm intermittently throughout the night. Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong ...
The air outside of the hotel for our 6am pick-up reminds us that it's still winter here in Australia. Once we're all loaded in the darkness and on the road we see the first glimmers of sunrise as the sky changes into inky blues and oranges behind the silhouetted escarpment.
Our drive to Simpson's Gap, only ten minutes out of Alice, takes us through the smoky haze of bush fires that have been flaring for the past two days. Burning off is a natural part of life here in the Red Centre, with the land reinvigorated after the removal of dead foliage and grasses. It's also done sometimes to prevent any large, unexpected bush fires, but this time the slow burning is at nature's discretion.
It's our first opportunity to see what we're made of photographically, as Grenville ushers us off the bus for some rather beautiful, hazy, sunrise views. The stillness is occasionally interrupted by a passing car or enormous road train rattling by, a cyclone of dust in its wake. I realise we've been out here for some time by the level of cold in my ungloved hands, yet before we're able to reboard the bus, Josh our Wayoutback Safari driver/guide/chief-cook-and-bottlewasher notices a rather despondent looking flat tyre. He's not taking any chances and so he hotfoots it back to Alice for spares. Outback roads demand respect and preparation.
An hour later and we're ready to hit the trail again. There's excited chatter on the bus now that we're warm again and fully awake; the sun has reached its morning zenith and we peel off outer layers, enjoying the outside views from the comfort of the ray-filled bus and chomping on snacks.
Our first stop: the multi-hued Ochre Pits. We snap away at the textured rock walls of yellow, terracotta, mustard and taupe, a deep cerulean sky above us and the whole vista punctuated by silvery gum trees. It's an Australian dream landscape. Josh explains how the ochre powder is mixed by indigenous Australians for wall painting and sacred ceremonies.
We head to Glen Helen Gorge for lunch. It's going to be the first of a number of beautiful watering holes, or gorgeous gorges as one of our travel mates names them. Out of the side of the trailer we make various sandwiches and once we're all satisfied it's off to Ormiston Gorge, or Emu Birth Dreaming. Part of the famous Larapinta trekking trail, the beauty of the serene water surrounded by multi-coloured rugged quartzite walls again fills all of us with wonder (and our flash cards with pixels), especially when a rare black-footed rock wallaby hops into sight.
Our walk to the top affords views not only of the water and ghost gums below, but of three deadly king brown snakes. We give them a wide berth and they pass peacefully on their way. That's one expected wildlife encounter ticked off our list. The only sounds now are of the whistling kite birds that circle overhead.
Our first night under the stars begins with a campfire meal of sausages and rice in a corn and coconut sauce. We've all brought along beer and bottles of Australian red; and to think we thought we'd be roughing it!
The generator buzzes in the background, allowing us the privilege of recharging batteries for cameras and laptops alike, and I click away at the sky, taking slow shutter star and campfire-lit shots. Then it's onto the interesting part, or Swagology as Josh calls it, referring to the camp-bed rolls we're currently using as seats to eat around the fire.
Learning how to unroll and later stow our individual beds for the next five nights is going to be harder than he makes it look. They're surprisingly comfortable and warm once you're safely ensconced inside, though cocooned by warm blankets and a doona there's not much room for manoeuvre. We sleep in a circle formation mostly around the fire. I look up at the star-filled night, only my nose feeling the chill of the desert night. I feel extremely fortunate. This is the lucky country after all. Proust would be proud of my new eyes, though unsure whether it's the night air or the beauty of the scene that's making them glisten.
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