In early September 2018, I walked the Larapinta trail. The Larapinta is a bushwalk starting just out of Alice Springs and traverses the West Macdonnell ranges, ending 230km later at Mount Sonder.
I have enjoyed bushwalking for a while, but what drew me to this place was a question we were asked in church the year before: How do you see and experience God?
As a Christian, I am commanded to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. But how can I love God if I don’t really know God, and how can I know anyone if I don’t spend time in relationship with them?
For much of my life, I have had vague conceptions of God, and like most of us, they were viewed through a relatively narrow prism of my culture and experience. By removing myself from my usual life situation and spending time alone in an ancient place, I thought I could have time to reflect on these questions and others. Also, wandering in the desert to ‘draw close to God’ has been a time honoured Christian tradition.
I had given myself only 13 days to walk the trail, so made tracks the day after arriving in Alice Springs. My first morning out, I thought 8.00am was a good start time; as the days progressed, I realised the earlier the start the better. Those first few hours of cool temperatures and silence (and being fly free) were some of the best hours of the day.
One morning at sunrise, I walked through a valley surrounded by giant rock feature, eons of years old. The silence and solitude, the ancient harsh beauty around me and my simple task of walking, gave me a sense of the enormousness of place and time. Another day, I came close to a large perentie lizard lazily sunning itself, in no rush to move off the path.
The walk weaves its way over ridgelines, through rocky gullies, gorges, scrub and mountains. It stops by water features, so central to life in all cases, but particularly so in the desert. Jesus’ instruction to the woman at the well that he is the water of life, available to all, made a deeper impact on me on thirsty days. Many of these water places are teeming with bird life. It was great to see small birds around my camp in the mornings. They are also places of great cultural and spiritual significance to the local Arrernte people and I thank them for their graciousness in sharing the land with me.
Every night, I slept under the stars, looking up at the amazing night sky with the Milky Way starkly visible. One morning, I was reading and reflecting on a passage from Anthony De Mello’s Sadhana, A Way to God: Christian Exercises in Eastern Form. I was overwhelmed with a sense of compassion and the need to be accountable in my words to people – to be more affirming of others. Life is short and it’s best to bless others with the time we have.
Walking solo I felt open to sharing with strangers. I had some great ‘sacred moments’ talking with people. A retired bloke I met related a story when he was a tour guide in South Australia 50 years ago. A woman burnt herself in a natural hot spring on a tour; even 50 years later it still brought him to tears. I believe travelling opens us up to being honest and showing some vulnerability where connection can happen.
A long distance walk is also like life condensed. There is a start and an end, loneliness, doubt, physical hardship, fellowship and enormous joy.
On my last day, I woke up at 3.00am and walked up Mount Sonder in the dark. I did not feel any great sense of achievement. Fueled by Weet-bix and rice for two weeks, I was exhausted, but felt blessed to have experienced all that I had.
On reflecting on the original question of how I experience God, I believe God was in the land, the water springs, the animal life, the faces of people I met, in the conversations I had. God is truly with us, having formed creation and entered in to the human condition.
God is not ‘out there’ somewhere, God is here.