Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

West Macs Conversations

Written 21 September

I’m currently traveling alone. My car has carried me to the West MacDonnell Ranges outside of Alice Springs, a national park containing no more than a hundred people at any given point, spread out over about eight different sites, each containing various walks and further dilutors of crowds. And though I am out here alone, I am not. In my three days here I have had three good conversations that have helped me to stay connected.

The first was a retiree living out of a caravan parked at the campsite in Ormiston Gorge. This isn’t a particularly strange phenomenon out here. People hit retirement, buy a caravan, and head out to cross the vast distances for a few years. This happens enough that there is money in publishing a book that lists, by state, every campsite, caravan park, parking area, and rest stop in the country, specifically noting which ones are free. The grey travelers are doing it in great numbers, and they generally tend to be friendly. This one was no exception.

He invited me over after I finished dinner to sit and have a yarn. We talked of my travels – a frequent topic of conversation – and of his. Sister back home in a city, friends spread across the country, a partner nowhere to be found (and I didn’t have the desire to ask if there ever was one), and a pension budget to spread over the rest of his life. Free camping buys you a day. Driving costs money. When he starts to exceed his daily budget, he parks and relaxes for a few days. After all, what is the big rush? As long as he makes it about 2000km in the next three months, he will be where he needs to be. No cigarettes due to health reasons, and no alcohol due to the temptation to smoke helps stretch the budget. All in all, a nice man with a pretty relaxed outlook.

The second was Carrie, the head ranger at Ormiston Gorge. She collected my fees before my morning hike through the Pound (a circle of mountains around a flat area that looks like it could have been a meteor impact even though it isn’t). And once back in the kiosk, I picked her brain with increasingly uncommon questions about the park, hikes, and vistas. Having been a ranger here for over three years, she knew all the distances between locations and which ones had camping. She knew what the guidebook version of each stop was. But as an avid hiker and lover of nature herself, she knew all about each one, the hikes, the sights, and the times of year to see them. My question of, “With one day to see the park, what should I go do?” got a response that went on for twenty minutes and for each stop included the transition phrase, “The highlight there being…” which usually preceded an explanation of the wildflowers that bloom, or the wildlife that can be found, or the plants that exist there but nowhere else in the world, or the variety of landscape that can be seen along the trail.

As she went on she told me about hikes that aren’t labeled on the maps for unknown reasons and overlooks that give commanding views down the valley. And as my questions turned to viewpoints for night photography that would give me expansive views and ideally ample space to run around in front of the camera, her responses increased in their level of over-the-top awesome. She started with the car-park scenic overlooks. Moving beyond that was a five hour hike that would require me to camp on top of a mountain at night. From there it was a long hike out of her location to a bluff near the next car park, such that I could camp at the bluff overnight, walk to the next park in the morning, and hitch a ride back. These answers were surprising me for someone more than twice my age. Though her body has seen the years, her spirit was younger and more adventurous than most people my age. Yet even with all that, it was the last suggestion that really floored me.

The range here lies along the Larapintja Trail, an 18 day hike of epic proportions that goes over desert mountains and requires you to be more fit and hardcore than I am (or than I think I am). If I were to take my car up an unlabeled road I could park it near the trail. If I could find the trail, from that junction it would only be a short few hours of hiking up a section of trail that is poorly labeled to get to a magnificent bluff overlooking the length of the range. From up here the pictures would be phenomenal, and in the morning I could plod on to the next campsite and hitch a ride or just hoof it back to the car. A ranger located at another park nearby had offered to show Carrie the way at some point, and she could call over to see if she wanted to take me now in her stead.

It was an absolutely over the top suggestion. I don’t think she was fully thinking it through as she suggested it given the number of things that would have to line up, not to mention the uncertainty of the various connections that would have to happen. And it was a reckless plan, one that I would have to be a bit crazy to try all in the name of a good shot. And it was one that were I not in a rush to get back to Alice Springs, if I had a few days, and if the other ranger was free, I would take on in a second. These are the kind of foolish plans that make the best stories. After all, of all the hikes I’ve done in my life, the one that usually springs to mind first is the one in the Grand Canyon, not because it was the most beautiful, but because it was the one on which I nearly needed an emergency helicopter evacuation.

The third conversation was the most unexpected. As I caught up to a family on our way back to the car park from a hike, they made some polite quip. I responded in kind, although a bit awkwardly. The mother asked me where I was from, and so began a rapid-fire question/response conversation that lasted the next fifteen minutes. She got the full rundown of my trip, my jobs, my car, my experience with other countries, and a few stories from along the way. I got her hometown description, her family story, he travel plans, and commentary on driving and foreign visitors. It was the type of conversation where there is no dull moment, not necessarily because the conversation imperceptibly flows from one topic to the next with fluid transition but because the next question only requires the slightest break for a breath to get asked. When things move this fast you end up not thinking about the responses. Since most of them are questions I’ve been asked before, I don’t need to think about them too hard. But it is the ones that catch me off guard that provide new insights. My brain is on cruise control at 140km/hr. When it sees an obstacle it didn’t expect, it just goes with it and I get to see what my subconscious mind thinks on a matter. These conversations are great in the short term. An hour of this and my brain would be fried. It is the conversational equivalent of overclocking. The second the cooling tanks are used up my brain will melt.

At the cars, we parted ways. Her to rejoin her family. Not just the three she was immediately with, but the 26 she was spending the month traveling with. And me to my mobile mini-home to make a sandwich, put on music, set my devices to charge, and to head on to camp. She and I might run into each other again at Bathurst. And if not, there will be hundreds more conversations with lovely people along the way.

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This entry was posted on October 14, 2012 by in Australia, Northern Territory (Darwin).

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