No holds barred: The loneliness of the desert

How anything could be so utterly empty is simply astonishing. How modern technology can make it accessible is perhaps even more so.

ULURU IS LIT by the setting sun in the Northern Territory in central Australia (photo credit: PHIL NOBLE/REUTERS)
ULURU IS LIT by the setting sun in the Northern Territory in central Australia
(photo credit: PHIL NOBLE/REUTERS)
Australia is a big part of my life, having married an Aussie and having spent the formative years of 19-21 in Sydney as a rabbinical student. I return often to visit family and to do lectures and media on books. I’m was there for Israel’s Independence Day, and headlined the Melbourne/Caulfield Jewish community’s Israel celebration.
But in-between I did something which has by now become a tradition: I went out to the Australian desert, or what here they call the outback.
Writers have pointed out that all three great world religions started in the desert: Moses and the Israelites in Sinai, Jesus being tested in the desert, and Muhammad in what is modern Saudi Arabia. There is a purity to the desert that lends itself to spiritual reflection and soul-searching.
The Australian outback is unique in the fact that it is so utterly isolated. There is almost no place like it. It is desolate as you can imagine. It’s like the whole middle of the country, the Red Center, is nearly empty. It takes threeand- a-half hours of flying over empty desert from Sydney just to reach the one main attraction, Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock, the world-famous landmark which crops up out of the desert in middle of nowhere.
Scientists try to explain the rock. I have read their explanations.
But whatever physical processes the Almighty chose to form the structure, for me it’s another example of the limitless beauty of God’s creation.
The feeling of isolation in the outback is immense. Yes, there are some other tourists scattered around, and yes there are some charming resorts. But you feel the loneliness all around you. Even when I’m accompanied by family members I still feel it.
I’ve often asked myself why I enjoy that. I hate being alone. I hate going places alone. For me not only does loneliness suck but I’ve even written long treatises on the three levels of loneliness and how they can be remedied.
And still I subject myself, nearly every time I come here, to the searing isolation of the outback. On this desert outing I had my 10-year-old son Dovid Chaim with me. It felt like we were the only people on earth.
Maybe people just need the purifying process of isolation.
It helps you recalibrate, think, rejuvenate. The desert is life without bells and whistles, existence without human accoutrement. I could have gone to some Australian beach town rather than face the rigors and hikes of the outback.
But that would never compare.
I love all kinds of desert. From the American West, which is truly spectacular, to the Judean hills around Jerusalem, arguably the most romantic of all deserts. The Negev desert in Israel, driving from the Dead Sea to Eilat, is breathtaking.
But for sheer isolation there is nothing to compare with Australia. On the flight from Sydney to Uluru you see nearly nothing but empty expanse until you hit the rock.
This place is truly empty.
It feels old, ancient, unchanging, eternal. It looks like the surface of Mars. And the stargazing out here in middle of nowhere – my son’s favorite – is some of the best in the world. You can easily see Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
I was surprised that I could make it to the top of Uluru, something my wife and I had attempted in the January summer heat a few years ago. I have never felt such scorching heat in my life. But now it’s winter in Australia and the 48-degree heat has come down to a much more manageable 29 or so. Still, the climb was strenuous.
Uluru is sacred to the Aboriginal peoples and many therefore don’t climb it. The Aboriginal peoples of Australia are the most interesting part of the outback. A truly ancient nation, they regale you with oral histories that go back hundreds of generations. They are consistently warm, helpful, fascinating.
At Uluru I stayed at the Sails Resort and was joined by my brother-in-law Yossi Friedman and his wife, Chana Raizel.
Yossi is the rabbi of Maroubra Synagogue where I was to speak that weekend and is widely acknowledged to be Sydney’s electrifying young rabbinical presence, reinvigorating the community. Perhaps even more important, he is an Australian Air Force chaplain with the rank of major and does incredible work serving the needs of Australia’s armed forces. I’m very proud of him.
Having Yossi and Chana Raizel at Uluru softened the sense of isolation, and Yossi climbed the rock with me.
But the best part of all was spending three days with my son Dovid Chaim, who is endlessly curious about all things and fell in love with the desert. We drove five hours from Alice Springs, the town at the very center of Australia, to Uluru and he looked out the window the entire time in search of dingoes, a unique Australian wild dog, and kangaroos. He found a few of the former, none of the latter, but ended up mesmerized by the desert landscape.
I wrote this column on a plane; looking outside for the past hour I’ve seen nothing but red sand. Not a town. Not a city. Not a soul.
How anything could be so utterly empty is simply astonishing.
How modern technology can make it accessible is perhaps even more so. Most incredible of all is the endless majesty of God’s beautiful world and how nature connects us with Him.
The author, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including his just-published The Israel Warrior: Fighting Back for the Jewish State from Campus to Street Corner. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.