By Scott P and Cammie

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine: red desert sands stretching as far as the eye can see; thousand foot tall rock formations older than time itself; brilliant sunsets bathing the horizon in a fiery orange glow; and starry nights—magnificent clusters of constellations that remind you of the vastness of the universe and the endless possibilities that await. This was Walkabout 2017’s Outback adventure.

On the morning of November 29th, we celebrated Austin’s birthday in Alice Springs before our guide Joe picked us up in a rugged four-wheel drive that was to become our home on wheels for the next four days. The drive to our first campground was over four hundred kilometers of spectacular desert scenery, during which we stopped a few times to take pictures and enjoy the breathtaking views. Some of us rode camels at a remote Outback farm and fed Emus—a few lucky members of the group even got to pet kangaroos!

Our campsite—more of a small village than an actual campsite—exceeded our expectations by far. We slept in small two-person cabins and had access to toilets, running water, showers, and a fully-equipped kitchen. A short distance away was Uluru, an iconic and glorious sandstone structure that appeared to spawn from the ground and reach up to the sky.

We drove in our air-conditioned vehicle to Uluru—known to many as Ayers Rock—and spent the day walking around the base as our wonderful and knowledgeable guide Joe explained its cultural significance to the Aboriginal people. Joe told us several creation time stories that had been passed down orally over thousands of years and used to explain many of the natural phenomena that the Aboriginals saw around them. At a cultural museum, we learned even more about the history of the region—both in terms of geology and anthropology—and saw examples of Aboriginal artwork, both modern and ancient. A short film taught us about the decades-long struggle of the Pitjantjatjara people to reclaim their land, which they were able to do successfully in the 1970s and 1980s. Following a long and arduous legal process, the National Park is now run jointly by the native tribes of the area and the Australian Government in order to preserve its natural beauty and cultural importance.

After our visit to Uluru—a profound experience—we watched a beautiful sunset over a wide expanse of desert. Upon returning to our camp, Joe proved himself as a marvelous chef by preparing kangaroo chili—a delicious way to wrap up our first day of the journey. Unfortunately, it was a bit too cloudy for great stargazing, but the parts of the sky that were clear gave us a taste of the what the Outback stars had to offer in the future.

At five o’clock the next morning, Joe woke us up with a mellow music playlist and we filed drowsily into our vehicle. We drove a short distance away and watched the sun appear over the horizon, beginning its daylong journey across the wide blue sky. After breakfast and roughly one more hour of driving, we arrived at Kata Tjuta, another stunning rock formation with immense cultural and spiritual value. Under the hot Australian sun, we completed a seven-kilometer hike around Kata Tjuta, during which we marveled at the natural beauty and reflected deeply in an organized morning of silence.

Most of the afternoon was spent driving to our next campsite, which had accommodations similar to the first. We ate another amazing dinner and were planning on a group reflection, but mother nature had other ideas. Out of nowhere, a torrential downpour ripped through our camp, battering our tents with howling winds as brilliant lightning bolts cracked in the distance. It was a humbling display of the overwhelming power of the elements, and it postponed our activity for the time being.

The following morning consisted of another hike, this time around King’s Canyon. Joe taught us all about the geological history of the Canyon, which was fascinating to learn about as we looked around at the strata of rock that comprised it. The hike was around seven kilometers again, through a beautiful and serene landscape. Along the way, Joe also shared stories about the colonization of the Outback region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the displacement of Aboriginals from their land, culture, and way of life. Recently, strides have been made to improve the status of indigenous communities, but there remains a lot of work to be done to reverse decades of oppression and disenfranchisement.

After hiking through King’s Canyon, we drove several more hours to our final camp location, Glen Helen. Part of the group spent the afternoon swimming in the nearby gorge, where we found a rope swing to enjoy. Following dinner, we were given a spectacular night of stargazing—some among us saw shooting stars for the first time in their lives!

Our fourth day in the Outback was a day of relaxation, swimming, and exploring at several different watering holes. We swam across gorges, scaled rocky cliffs, and all the while admired the stunning scenic beauty of the heart of Australia. We spent the night—our final night of the journey—back at Glen Helen, where we enjoyed another clear sky to wonder at.

The final day was by far the most educational one. We drove to a remote Aboriginal settlement where we met Craig, an Aboriginal man who gave us a tour of his land and taught us all about how his people live. We learned about Aboriginal gender roles, marriage rules, hunting techniques, social structure, and how they live in harmony with nature so as to preserve its resources for future generations. All of us walked away from Craig’s with a greater understanding of—and deep appreciation for—Aboriginal culture.

That afternoon, we made our way back to Alice Springs and said goodbye to Joe, who was a phenomenal guide. His knowledge, kindness, and, of course, cooking skills made our journey that much better in so many ways. After a quiet night in Alice Springs, we departed the following morning for our final Australian destination, Sydney.

In Sydney, we spent one evening and one full day exploring the city and reflecting on the experiences of our semester. We had a group reflection on the lawn outside of the famous Sydney Opera House, where we shared our favorite memories of the past three months and what we learned about ourselves and the places we visited. Before we knew it, those that were going home were in a taxi heading to the airport, saying tearful goodbyes after becoming close to family in New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia.