Apr 3, 2017

Walking Through Timeless Landscapes

As I hiked, an indigenous man asked me if I felt something in the landscape. It was a loaded question in that we were both aware his forebears would have walked through the valley for generations. As an interloper to the Northern Territory, mine had clearly not. Nevertheless, I knew enough of Luke to call him a friend and understood his curiosity was devoid of prejudice.

Our differing ethnicities was not our only point of difference relevant to the conversation. As a Christian, Luke holds a strong belief the landscape was created by a higher being. The elegant walls of Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park certainly rival any structures made by sentient beings and it is easy to see the magnificence of God’s creation in its red rock canyon.

Mpaara Hike at Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

My distinct lack of faith provided me with a different perspective. I could also see the magnificence of the landscape, but could not see the handprint of the many gods believed to exist. Instead, in my mind I could see the epic scale of erosion that had taken place over many thousands of years. The work of water and wind was evident throughout the National Park. As we walked the path, I was acutely aware of the tiny fragment of geological time I was spending in the gorge. The walls had stood thousands of years before me, and would continue to stand long after I am forgotten.

We were taking a group of indigenous students on a hike. Their excitement about going camping was palpable as they hurriedly investigated anything and everything they could find. One of the beauties of hiking is that it stills the mind. The regular cadence of steps smoothes the peaks and troughs of emotion and even teenagers find a level of calm and introspection. Conversations become slightly deeper and more thoughtful. Barriers and facades are deconstructed.

Hiking through Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

Two of the young men we drove from Alice Springs to Palm Valley had family that still lived in small communities near to Finke Gorge National Park. It was gratifying to watch them walking beside the oldest river in the world and see them as the latest in a very long line of family with a connection to this land. I hope they felt this too.

Rangers had spoken to us about the Red Cabbage Palms growing through the valley. A remnant of an earlier time, the nearest relatives to this species are over 850km away where rains fall more regularly than the arid Red Centre. I pointed this out to the fellas, but was met with a level of apathy anyone who is accustomed to teenage males will be familiar with. I, nevertheless, remained impressed by this stroke of natural fortune.

Overlooking the Finke River as it flows through Palm Valley

Our ambulatory efforts were rewarded when we reached the top of the escarpment overlooking the Finke River. The ranges on the opposite side were rich with the intrigue of caves, colour, flora, and the evidence of historic waterfalls. I tried my best to explain how the river flowed through underground aquifers and only peered above the surface occasionally on its long journey. Eyes glazed at my descriptions of the density of underground soils with the water taking the path of least resistance. My knowledge of hydrogeology is significantly limited, but I was still amazed at the ability of water to flow into this waterhole on display far below us.

I was perhaps more responsive when the educational experience flowed in the other direction. One of the guys pointed toward some dark clouds threatening beyond a ridge and said “kapi pulka” – big water in his native Luritja. Finke Gorge National Park straddles country shared by Luritja and Arrernte people. Other indigenous groups also hail from nearby. A discussion ensued about water – “kapi” for Luritja and Pitjantjatjara but “kwatye” for the Arrernte more common near Mparntwe/Alice Springs. Sources of “merne” (food) were pointed out, both floral and faunal.

We spoke about school, family, football, people, home, music. People told stories, asked questions. We compared native spinifex and invasive buffel grass. As the only non-indigenous person around, the metaphor was not lost on me. Some of the fellas walked faster, as though in a hurry to see if something better was up ahead. Others needed encouragement and goading as though right where they stood was good enough.

Standing atop the escarpment of Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

There are a few places I have been in the world where despite seeing countless pictures, I was still enthralled and amazed when I finally laid eyes on them. Uluru is definitely one. I have been three times in my lucky life and each time I have been enraptured. There is just something about being there.

I felt lucky again on that day in Finke Gorge National Park. Not many people from Burramine South get the chance to walk through Palm Valley. Fewer still get to share the experience with people who have a deep and historic connection to the land. It was a beautiful and poignant question from Luke. Did I feel something in the landscape as we hiked through it? Yes. It made my soul feel good and my spirit soar.

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