Practising stillness in the desert

Recently I took a few weeks off to to walk the Larapinta trail in the Australian desert. Larapinta is a 230km hike sprawling across the West McDonnell ranges near Alice Springs.

Hiking in remote nature, taking in the desert scenery, cooking dehydrated meals on a little gas burner and sleeping in a tent under the stars… No phone reception, TV, books, entertainment, hot showers. Maybe it’s my introverted, nature-loving Scandinavian heritage, but these kind of holidays are my dream come true!

We had a perfect plan.

The trail divided into 14 sections, two weeks of walking, food boxes delivered to us every three days by a trek support company, our gear reduced to a minimum weight (about 10kgs) and shoes perfectly worn in. What could go wrong??

This is a story of one of the Best Trips I’ve ever done, mostly because things didn’t go to plan!

 

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

We started out our hike on a high. The rugged beauty of Australian desert took me by surprise, but so did the rocky, uneven terrain! The trail climbs up and down the magnificent mountain ranges, through waterholes and gorges, spinifex covered plains, sandy and pebbly riverbanks, stunted but shaded and cool Eucalypt bushlands. And there is so much sky in the desert! Cloudless and blue during day, lilac at dawn, and splattered in bright stars at night.

However, despite of training, our legs weren’t used to the sharp, scrambly rocks that covered every inch of the trail. The unevenness and roughness of the terrain kept our eyes glues to our feet and gave our knees and ankles a fair workout.

With my 20/20 hindsight I can see that we pushed ourselves too hard at the start, eager to hit our daily km targets and forgetting the most important reason why we were doing this walk: to enjoy ourselves!

And soon enough we both had an excruciatingly sore knee (ITB syndrome) and every step up or down was agony. We tried pushing on for one more day (unwilling to let that perfect schedule lapse!) until we could not walk any longer.

FORCED TO REST

But what happened next was the start of a different kind of holiday.

We rested. (Because we had to!) We perched ourselves on the sandy banks of Ormiston gorge. We soaked our legs in the icy waterhole. We tended to our sore knees. We admired the carvings and rusty colours of the rockfaces. We birdwatched. Heck, we even we even insect-watched, if that’s a thing!

But mostly we just sat in nature. All we could do for two whole days, was to be.

And… we relaxed! For the first time in a long time it felt like the stress and busyness we had been carrying for so long was finally starting to drain out of our systems.

The strict schedule had to be scrapped as we were now well and truly unable to catch up. When we eventually resumed walking, it felt like such a privilege to be traipsing through these ancient landscapes, walking with Nature rather than ‘against the elements’!

The desert nature had right from the start felt friendly, familiar and supportive to me (as opposed to being described as ‘harsh’, ‘barren’ or ‘hostile’). But after our pause the gratitude, connection and the loving support I felt from the Earth beneath me was so incredibly strong I may have cried little silent tears into the upturned collar of my shirt…

 

SILVER LININGS ALL AROUND

Our sore knees had given us a beautiful gift of time.

We were now taking more breaks, looking after our bodies better and being more aware of the present moment. We were really taking in the ever-changing scenery and noticing the smaller details around us. We were loving the actual journey (pardon the cliché) rather than wondering if we were “there yet”.

It was impossible to plan ahead as my partner’s knee kept flaring up without much warning, so we had to let go of expectation and take every day as it came. Walking when we could, resting when we needed to. And being equally grateful for both.

After our we finished our Larapinta trek, our trip continued with rental wheels to Uluru, Kata-Tjuta (the Olgas) and Kings Canyon, all which amazed us in their majestic, powerful presence. But the urgency, busyness and strict scheduling was gone. Camping under the stars continued, so did our enjoyment of the desert life.

 

PRACTICE MAKES BETTER

The challenge of course is to being the same sense of ease into the everyday life after holidays are over. After experiencing the silence and peace of the desert, I am consciously trying to create more gaps in my day.

Moments where I am not checking my phone or thinking of the next thing to do. Moments where I pause to look at the clouds, or breathe deep into my belly.

I am not saying I’m great at it, but Larapinta certainly inspired me to keep up the practice.

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