For an hour or more I have forgotten my destination, lost in the fog of a pre-dawn departure, contenting myself with aerial routine – settling in, taking off, drinking unremarkable airline coffee and then reading. In time though, to no apparent call, I look up from my page and turn to look out the window. Immediately I am presented with an altered landscape. Beneath me lies a pale ochre expanse. It is mostly flat but not undifferentiated. In fact, deep grooves and rises feature across the surface, twisting, wending and doubling back. A ridge pushes its way through the earth and presides reptilian-like, archaic, knobbly like an ancient spine with no head nor tail to be found.
We are heading for the first time to Alice Springs, to the Northern Territory, to the heart of this country: a place as yet known to us only through myth and dreams. We are flying above the desert. Everything is new and unknown to me. Is that a lake to my west? My companion shrugs, also a novice. And that expanse, blueish, pale. Is it dried, desiccated? Sand, salt?
I look to the horizon, and through the clouds the hazy orange meets the blue and merges, opalescent. Creases in the earth appear like long, thick folds in a dress. Elements collide. We fly now for certain above a body of water. A river claws its way across the land, nubile, its tributaries like limbs outstretched from its winding body and angling for grip. Or, wait: is it a river of trees, a dry ravine, arid but full of growth?
The desert is no desert from above; it is full of treasure and mystery and later I will understand how naive it was to expect barrenness. This is semi-arid terrain sustaining much life. Ravines spill across the land beneath me like long, dark, wet hair splayed down a back; like a rope untwisted and separated into parts and lain down, dropping anchor. Why these water images for a dry land? I wonder. They come perfectly formed like snapshots, paintings, poems prepared and left in my path. These are stories communicated from the land.
Later, settling in with friends in Alice, I learn the lake I spotted is indeed a dry salt lake. A mirage that appears on the long, hot terrestrial traverse to Alice Springs. I picture the travellers who encounter it after driving for hours, who press hard on the car brakes, alight keenly and run for the water, hoping to relieve their overheated bodies, only to realise the error upon reaching its edge. Disappointment is a dryness in the throat, the rasping of parched lungs; the body remains pushed to its limit in the heat, veins swollen and visible beneath the skin.
My friends tell me one day they will be considered Alice locals when they witness the Todd River flowing for the third time. Driving to Uluru, up close to the red dust and cracked earth, we encounter tourists at a roadhouse sunbaking on a green patch of grass beneath sprinklers, amply cooled by the extensive subterranean Artesian water source. At home, in Melbourne, we have water restrictions; children grow up not knowing the pleasure of sprinklers and water fights.
The desert, I realise, is an enigma; elusive, contradictory, lawless, magical. In all my imaginings, I never dreamt of water.
Flying home, I look out the window again and watch the shadows of clouds across the pigmented earth. I try to spot the same ravines, the river with its tributaries, the salt lake, but the desert keeps its secrets this time. There is a perfect, defined line where blue meets orange and the horizon appears before us.