I’m sure you have heard of five star hotels. They are the ones with all the amenities, world class service, spacious rooms, grand views… Five star hotels are nice, but have you ever tried a five billion star hotel? These may not have gourmet restaurants, Jacuzzi tubs, pillow menus, or concierges- many don’t even have plumbing! But they have something even better- five billion actual stars.
Our flight from Cairns to Alice Springs was nearly empty, and when we landed we figured out why- December in the Australian desert is pretty darn hot. We took a taxi to the Apollo rental center and collected our new home away from home, which was a 4WD pop up camper. After a quick stop for groceries, we set off into the desert. I will probably detail our desert driving in a separate post, but I will say now that it was some of the most beautiful and unique driving I have ever done! The desert was greener than I expected, and the sealed road that we spent most of our time on was as smooth as a super highway, even though we seemed to be the only vehicle for miles!
Eventually we turned off of the main road and prepared ourselves for our first 4WD experience… which was underwhelming, to say the least. The 22km dirt road that led from the main bitumen to Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve had recently been grated and as a result we probably could have gotten over it in my little Ford Focus. At any rate we arrived at our first camping spot to find ourselves alone. Totally and completely 100% alone. Considering that the last vehicle we saw was over an hour ago and the nearest anything (city, store, house, hospital, gas station…) was a good three hour drive away, this is definitely the most alone I have ever been in my life. I grew up in a town surrounded by neighbors, so close if we both reached out of our respective windows we might be able to shake hands. Even most of my camping experiences had involved neighbors on the other side of the trees, or a short drive to a ranger station or outpost. But here at Rainbow Valley, it was just me, my husband, and the rocks.
And what incredibly stunning rocks they were. We had arrived in the afternoon and had a lot of daylight left, so after setting up the canopy on the side of our camper we wandered the trails. They were dotted with sporadic signage giving information about the area’s rock formations, plants, and animals. Even in the blistering sun, we enjoyed learning about the reserve. When we returned to the camping area, we were pleased to see that another couple had arrived. They said they were “as local as you can get in the desert” and that they camp here often, noting we were smart to come in the summertime as the cooler weather draws mega crowds and beauty of the remoteness can get lost. Still though, I was comforted by the fact that someone else was just 50 yards away.
After chatting for a bit we retreated to our own campsite, which we had set up with an epic view of the rocks. We popped the stove and sink out of the side of our camper and got to work making dinner, watching darkness slowly fall over the area. In the meantime, one more camper arrived, with two young guys hopping out of it. They came over to borrow a match so they could light their grill. We ate our food and washed our dishes, and it continued to get darker. I thought I had seen darkness before, but I have never seen darkness like this! Not only are there no streetlights or house lights nearby, but there aren’t even any towns close enough to see light coming from.
And this is where five billion stars came into view. I have never seen so many stars in my life. There was a small blotch of blackness where some clouds had set up camp, and the void in that spot was startling. It felt like I was inside a black dome dotted with teeny tiny Christmas lights. From the back deck of my city house, you could see a few stars, but not many, because the city lights were so bright. The first time I visited my husband’s family in rural Pennsylvania, where the houses are miles apart and streetlights don’t exist, I could see many more stars- I saw the big bright ones I always saw, but it was as if someone took a handful of tiny diamonds and scattered them in between.
“There are stars between the stars,” I had said in awe. This time though, at Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, my husband spoke these words. Instead of brighter ones with small ones filling in the space, every single star was glowing with fervor. Photographing this is nearly impossible without special equipment, which we didn’t have. So we didn’t even try, just soaking in the magic of it all. We found a few constellations, the first one being Orion. His star studded belt was so easy to spot that it became a beacon for us, every single nighttime stop we made from then on he was waiting for us to find him.
With Orion watching over us, we made the bed in our camper and went to sleep. Though it had been unbearably hot and pitch dark when we first laid down, I was awoken just before 5am by two very pleasant things- a cool breeze and a gorgeous sunrise. Normally being awoken before 5am is the opposite of pleasant, but I truly didn’t mind on this day. I had to hop down off of our bed to retrieve the blanket we were sure we wouldn’t need and wrap myself up in it. Then I curled up on my side and peeked out the screened in flap of the camper to enjoy the view of darkness slowly giving way to light, as I dozed off for a little more time in dreamland.
Our one night at this five billion star hotel was a pretty new experience for us, but every single star was worth it.