The desert


“The desert is the ultimate place of illusion. A space of silence, mystery and solitude;

It is both a setting and a vehicle for dreams and myths, a place where the horizon seems to evaporate and all visual landmarks are absent”

Raymond Depardon. “The Desert”

In its direct face one is forced to clarify one’s situation, one’s survival, one’s purpose, one’s existence. Yet the desert itself knows no such contraction, no such retreat. It has no lack of certainty. There is no centre, no edge, no boundary, only continuity….

Like a veiled woman, its essence is revealed to those who wait, who stay awhile, who enter its daunting harshness, to make a camp, perchance to catch a dream, perhaps to glimpse beyond the duality of awake and asleep, night and day,  the dream and the real.

And what of the desert dwellers, earth’s oldest  living culture no less, who have always lived and dreamed and died out here, who have no OTHER place, family, culture, nation, tradition, discourse or world to hasten back to when this adventure is over?

How must their dreaming be?

One arrives in Central Australia young and fresh and early in one’s nascent career in remote aboriginal health. As the years pass, from crusty old hands one hears, repeats and ultimately embodies an oft repeated whitefella axiom, that whosoever remains out in the communities longer than the perfunctory few months or years, can only but belong to one of three groups:  the Mercenaries

the Missionaries

or the Misfits!

Mea culpa! I plead guilty to colonising all three. There will be no righteous argument about my motivation. However, I  did choose to divide my psyche into quarters, so as to allow a small space for a fourth element – the Mystic, to grow.  For the desert has always nourished the mystics- Moses, Jesus,  Mohammed, Gautama - all sought refuge and solace in this space. Why is this so?

In my own humble and confused way,  I also retreated to the desert in 1992, when I arrived at Utopia, in Central Australia, 350km northeast of Alice Springs, to take up the noble position of  “bush GP” with Urapuntja Health Service. I had first met the Health  Council, a group of Alyaware  elders who came into Alice Springs on a very cold winters day for the interview. I dressed up for that occasion. They asked me several incisive questions. They allowed space for me to speak. Such a huge space that I struggled to fill it up! Clearly they were reading my nature as I banged on with my life story. I remember they asked  about the eight “lost” years I had devoted to study in India. A few months later I got the call. I did not hesitate. I packed up and drove from Melbourne and they became my bosses and I became their doctor for the next 19 years.

Utopia map

I believe one becomes connected to the spirit within this ancient continent via its first people. As in any spiritual tradition, not to mention mundane arts like medicine or plumbing or driving a car, connection to knowledge requires initiation from those further along the path who are kind enough to take you in and show you the ropes. I had the great fortune to be “grown up” by some wonderful Alyaware men, several now deceased, who presented as my patients but from whom  I received far more than I gave. The nankari (bush doctor) known as “old left hand”  was one such.  He referred to his shamanic work as “cleaning ‘em up”. He always played the jester, which I grew to recognise as a ruse for siddhis and healing powers resembling those I had previously encountered in yogis in India.

Others were guiding elders whom I trusted and who kindly led me past my own cultural fog and arrogance, that I might see and hear and feel the stories of their lives and culture in their own terms.

I wish to record an “initiatory dream” which I dreamed soon after beginning work with the Dream Matrix facilitated by Alastair Bain and Peter Hetrelezis at the Centre for Socio-Analysis in Melbourne. My participation in that matrix was enabled through a weekly teleconference from Utopia via a speaker phone placed within the group sitting in Alastair’s lounge room in Melbourne. My ongoing connection with the matrix has been profoundly supportive and rewarding for my work and my personal understanding for some years now.

In the dream I am travelling by 4WD vehicle in unknown country, high up and rocky and green. There were no trees. The road was unmade and rough. I was travelling with two aboriginal friends, one  was Norman, a Warramungu man from Tennant Creek,  who in “real life” was the clinic handyman at the time of my dream. We came to a side track leading up to a higher look-out area where some trucks and Toyotas were parked. Quite a few people were there, walking on towards the “view” or coming back to their vehicles in small groups, some elderly and family groups, just talking quietly as they negotiated the track. I found myself  gazing out over a vast watery vista, like an inland sea. There was great complexity and intricacy within the view, both in the landmass and within the water. One could only gaze and marvel and then perhaps focus on some particular detail.

After a time Norman came beside me and looking over my shoulder he pointed down towards the water saying: “You see that doc?” Following his pointing finger the dimension and depth of what I was seeing somehow transformed so that I was now discerning patterns within the sea which had previously been invisible to me. This seeing became  natural and normal, clearly evident, once it had been pointed out to me. This was my dream.

There is a name for the knowledge held by the land, sung in the corroborees and passed on in the initiations of the aboriginal people since the beginning. It is called, “Atyerre” in Alyaware and Arrernte language .It is Law. I have no knowledge of that, for it is sacred knowledge to which I have no entitlement. However, there is a presence, a force, a view, a vision,  an energy of awakening which lives in the desert and its people.  There are many names, stories, songs and sacred sites – the Rainbow Serpent. Nothing more can be said or written. It is too much already. 

When the dream matrix suggested we develop our work together by having a “conference” at one of our workplaces, the group was keen to come to so exotic a place as Utopia in NT. Accordingly, I approached Lenny Jones Ngwarai, the traditional owner for the area around the clinic and his home at Arawarra (Soapy Bore). Lenny is a clan leader for whom I have great respect and affection. When I mentioned a group of white people from down south who asked permission to camp on his country and “dream”, he  quizzically asked: ” What dreaming?”

I attempted to describe our work within the dream matrix. He smiled and suggested that we could make our camp in the dry river bed of the Sandover River, quite close to his outstation. He also offered that he would “look after” us in that place. Feeling elated by Lenny’s response, it only remained for David to finalise our brochure, Peter to fly into Alice Springs beforehand to do the heavy lifting re bush toilets, showers, tents, bus transport and so many other tasks, and we had ourselves a uniquely Australian setting for the first Heart of Dreaming Conference.


I wish to acknowledge Kumantjay Jones’ role in what unfolded for us all at Soapy Bore. I know that it was his generous acceptance and sponsorship of our work that connected us to his country and led to many of the positive experiences that unfolded for us  as recorded in this book.

I also wish to acknowledge the courage and commitment of my fellow dreamers in venturing to Utopia from all over Australia and elsewhere, for the conference.

Aboriginal friends tell me that the Spirit of Australia welcomes all people who come to this land with  good heart. But we must respect the first people, the traditional owners, because they are the gatekeepers of this land. Lacking this respect we remain always usurpers. Without this deep “heart” connection how can we hope to live and dream and die happily here? Although we or our forebears have stepped onto Australia, we  yet remain a ship of fools, adrift without wisdom or direction. How can it be any other way? Such arrogance even God cannot forgive.



“The desert”; Foundation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris. Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Alyaware (al-yah-WARR-ah). Language and tribal name of the people whose traditional country extends from Utopia Homelands northeast to Lake Nash, in Queensland.

Arrernte (a-rant-a). Language and tribe of Alice Springs area in Central Australia.

Atyerre: (at–YURR-a): tribal Law; the Dreaming