Australia’s desert is a desolate but beautiful place. The soil is baked red from years of sunburn. Plains stretch out endlessly towards the horizon. The trees stand bent and gnarled, testifying to the brutality of the desert. Grass grows in little tufts, and is hard and spiky, reflecting its constant battle against its environment. South of Tennant Creek, we drove past a bushfire devouring all the plantlife that had managed to defy the climate and grown. Even in August, the sun is oppressively hot, and the menacing buzz of flies is the only sound.
But at the same time, the beauty can be breathtaking. Sunrises and sunsets light up the far horizons, turning the endless blue sky into all shades of orange and purple. At night the sky is an ocean of stars – constellations burning brightly, beneath them layer after layer of stars glowing just visible, so old and so far away our mind could never comprehend it.
Similar are the glorious rock formations – the Devil’s Marbles, Uluru and Kata Tjuta – enormous structures so impossibly out of place it’s as if they were put there from out of space. Of course they weren’t, they in fact remind us how old and majestic our earth is, and how small and temporary we are by comparison.
The desert flowers look just as alien, their beautiful array of bright colours contrasted against the dull red and brown of the landscape. Nowhere else will you find flowers with colours so bright and shapes so amazing.
One of my travelling companions, 17 and on her first trip away from New Zealand, sits in the front watching while we talk or sleep in the back. Occasionally the van will screech to a halt in the middle of the highway so she can jump out and pluck flowers, which are then passed around the van to be smelled and admired before they are added to the bouquet sitting on the dashboard. It’s a beautiful reminder both that the journey is as much a part of any adventure as the destination, and of the beauty that exists in even the most inhospitable places.
So it is with our brutal desert we call humanity. The climate is harsh and not conducive to healthy growth or much beauty. In Central Australia this is apparent enough, from the poverty and social problems that linger around the aboriginal communities to the Pine Gap military base, where the US spies on the world like big brother.
But you don’t have to look too far wherever you are to recognise this desert. Another stock market crash gives us in the Western world an opportunity to experience the powerlessness that is an everyday reality for the billions of people who live in poverty around the planet. As violence and fear explode on the streets of the UK, another NATO plane drops another bomb on Libya or Afghanistan. In every quiet suburban street tears of loneliness and pain go unnoticed, like the emotional and sexual abuse we pretend isn’t rampant in our culture.
Meanwhile, we are bombarded with messages reminding us of our inferiority. We’re not good looking enough, we don’t own the right things, our life is insignificant. We are constantly pitted against one another in competition – climb the ladder of wealth and status, protect yourself and your assets from others the same way our nation protects itself from those boat people trying to unfairly claim a share of our wealth.
In the middle of this barren place though, beauty appears like little desert flowers, occasionally exploding like the desert sunset. A smile or a hug; kind words when you need them most; the friendliness of a stranger; looking into someone’s eyes and knowing that you are accepted and loved for exactly who you are. The relief of knowing you are not struggling alone.
It’s true that humanity is a brutal and barren environment, but it is here in this desert that we can create the beauty we long for.