Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Snapshot: Sunrise in the Outback

Sunrise at Uluru-Kata Tjuta Park, 15 June 2011
Sunrise has been vying for position as my favorite time of day since I was 17. On a spring trip to France in our junior year of high school, two friends and I decided that getting up to watch the sun rise over the Baie des Anges in Nice was the perfect way to celebrate our first full day in the country. Neglecting to consider how much further north than Southern California France is, we arrived on the beach shortly after 5am, nearly two hours before sunrise. We walked the length of the Promenade des Anglais and continued partway around the headland at the eastern end of the bay. I snapped pictures of every infinitesimal lightening of the eastern sky. Jet-lagged and sleepy-eyed, we yawned, more than once. In the end, it was worth every chilly moment. Not because the sunrise itself was a particularly spectacular one, but because it just felt like the perfect way to have started the day and our time in France.

In the nine and a half years since that April morning, I've watched sunrises from planes to various destinations, on my way to class during Washington, DC winters and while sitting on the steps of a stone library at Angkor Wat. I spent nearly three of those years seeing four or five sunrises a week as I put in the necessary miles to keep up my marathon training. Watching the sun sneak above the horizon as I paced along, puffing out fog into the frozen winter landscape or inhaling what felt like half a river from air weighted with summer humidity, came to be a comfortable part of my routine. I can't remember a day that's started with the sun that turned out to be a bad one.

With grad school keeping me up later and homework eating up a lot of the time I used to use for running, I've fallen out of the habit of watching the sunrise this year but didn't think much of it until my trip to the Northern Territory this June.

My tour left Alice Springs shortly after 6am on June 14th - which meant it was still dark, since June is winter here in Australia. It doesn't take long to leave the town of Alice Springs behind and move into empty Outback, which was where we were when the sun began to peek over the horizon. The ghostly shapes of scrub brush and the occasional desert oak became clearer and color seeped into the landscape by degrees. By the time we stopped at our first roadhouse of the day, my breath had caught in my throat a dozen times at the beauty of the Outback at dawn. The early morning air seemed gilded around the edges, rays of sunlight dancing over the red earth and teasing out depths of color that seemed impossible in the full light of day. I soaked in as much of the scenery as I could, feeling more peaceful than I had in weeks.

At Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park the next day, we watched the sun rise over both Uluru and the "many heads" of the Kata Tjuta. Sunset at Uluru the night before had been a great experience, but it was watching streams of light flow across the horizon, pouring color back into the landscape and glinting off the frost that had formed during the night that took my breath away. Watching the silhouettes of the Kata Tjuta lighten as the sun crept higher into the sky, I couldn't help but smile.

I had one more Outback sunrise that week, watching the early morning light break over the top of Kings Canyon as we made our way up the Rim Walk's "Heart Attack Hill," then chase the shadows from the trail. As the canyon walls absorbed the first of the sun's rays and reflected them back in rich shades of red and brown, I paused to catch my breath in the slowly warming air, drawing in the feeling that's what I love best about sunrise: the twin sensations of peace and possibility that accompany the start of each new day.

Color seeping back into the landscape as the sun creeps up to illuminate the "many heads" of the Kata Tjuta.