This post is about a way of being. In Islam one is born into, and is meant to return to, and maintain throughout life; the primordial state which is known in Arabic as “fitra”. When one is connected to Divine Truth, one is in a state of fitra. It is a natural state that allows you to attain a level of understanding, peace, and certainty to know what is essential and beneficial. Life is, at its core an unfolding series of choices and one needs certainty and connection to keep going in the right direction. It is an opposite state to restlessness, which is born out of fear that locks-out compassion, or greed that breeds overindulgence. One is filled with a sense of love and contentment in the presence of a Merciful God and His incredible creation. Why would one knowingly choose any other way to be?!
I realized on this beautiful adventure and exploration of Australia that I embarked upon with my niece, that this state is to be found in places we separately dubbed “extreme nature”! My niece is also called Hala, and so we titled this journey, ‘The Hala Squared Down Under Adventure’! We have so much fun traveling together, it really is a pleasure to experience these wonders with my niece as she has an open, intelligent and curious attitude with a kind and humorous outlook on life. She also has a light and undemanding presence that gives me the freedom to do my own thing. We strike a lovely balance between closeness and space.
Years and years ago I realized how remarkable nature is and how it provides a spiritual connection. Everyone of every faith or belief system understands the power of nature and its ability to connect you to the Divine. Also, my close friends who are agnostic or atheist would express how they find their spirituality there. Of the many gifts that Australia bestowed upon me, I will never forget the quicksilver pathways it gave me to connect me with my state of fitra.
The first instance was in Tasmania, where my dear beloved Australian friend took me on a long and beautiful car ride from Hobart to Launceston. I love you, Aisha! On the way, we slept at a lodge in the middle of nowhere on conserved forest land. We were greeted by a family of kangaroos the moment we got out of the car at our cabin. And, I couldn’t get the 4G connection to work on my mobile (yes, this is worth mentioning for a city girl like me, lol). All that we could see for miles, was an atmospheric view of forests and a glimpse of the ocean in the distance. I felt my fitra there and was so grateful. I made sure to take mental notes on the feelings and messages that I received so that I could find my way to it again in the future.
Then, to my delight, it happened again when my niece and I headed out for an overnight sleep adventure by the Great Barrier Reef. This time it was clearer to me what was happening, so I started to pay close attention. On the pontoon where we slept, we were surrounded by water in every direction, as far as our eyes could see. On one side, there were incredible views of the reef's various colors drawn across the surface and on the other side were pure reflections of clouds floating by against a deep blue sky.
Under the water, I was struck by the majesty of the reef and the synchronized movement of the fish. They were in their own state of fitra. What a special discovery the clams were for me with their vivid colors, especially against the bleached reef. Then there were the stars at night, visible from the smartly designed swag (an Australian term for an outdoor tent) where we slept on the upper deck of a specially designed pontoon. From the first time I snorkeled in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, the underworld of the sea had a profound effect on me. Beneath the waves, I looked around at the active, rich and powerful life that was so different from my own or anything above the water and “la ilaha illa Allah”, the witness of the presence of God, the One, the Creator surged powerfully from a deep and true place. I don’t usually feel; it was my fitra again.
The third instance of fitra, was when we traveled to the national Daintree Rainforest and drove our rented car onto a ferry that took us across the river and into the heart of the forest where our cabin lodge was. This time we had zero access to a phone connection for 36 hours. Well, you could pay 5 dollars for 100 MB of data, but even that didn’t work from everywhere and you definitely couldn't call anyone.
Speaking of extreme green, there were trees and plants of every height surrounding us. I understood how these plants, as one guide explained, fought their way to the top of the forest canopy for sunlight and oxygen. No open plains there, just the lushness of every shade of green, broken up with brown hints of stumps and branches, or the grey of the concrete. I had been waiting to experience the rainforest and it was as vivid and enchanting as I thought it would be.
We experienced the rainforest in as many ways as we could muster. We started with a cruise in the morning to bird watch and found the river to be so peaceful. Downstream we came across mangroves and my love for them was sealed. Apparently, 32 out of the 75 mangroves that exist in the world are found in the Daintree Rainforest. I found a profound lesson in the way that the mangrove ecosystems coexist. Did you know that mangroves act as nurseries for fish, providing security and sustenance? They settle, breed, become strong and then leave. What an inspiring synergy.
Warm and intense, we experienced our rich immersion in nature while driving in a car, walking amidst the bush, sailing through water and zip-lining between the trees across the sky. At each level we learned about the diverse life forms that existed at that specific altitude. I would say we got up close and personal in every way one can, haha.
After experiencing Australia’s nature first hand, we went to the discovery center to learn more. Again, the Australians showed their penchant for designing beautiful and authentic ways to experience and understand their country. Just as Bill Bryson mentioned in his book “Sunburned Country”, that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, their museums and sanctuaries are excellent learning spaces. Walkways, connected by a tower took you through each level of the rainforest canopy. They even had a whole section dedicated to the enormous creatures of the Jurassic age, with life-size models of the animals. It was something to see the giant wombat, one of my preferred Australian animals. On the subject of animals, I decided my favorites were the echidna marsupial and the cockatoo bird.
The next adventure was zip lining like monkeys for two fulfilling hours in the forest. To fly over the creek and to stand on the highest platform, taking in the marvelous views from that perspective was something.
The last note of the day was a three hour night walk. Night time is when the creatures of the forest come out and wow, what a walk that was! I never thought that I would find myself feeling affectionate towards an insect, or would ever hear myself saying, "that frog is cute!"
Every step of that night time walk, deep inside the forest was sweetly magical. As we found our way by torchlight, the forest's secrets were unveiled. What an experience.
The last adventure to round out our nature journey was a tour led by an Aboriginal at the Mossman Center and Gorge. My niece and I were the only two guests, so it was like a private tour. All of the earlier groups had anywhere from 15 to 20 people, lol. The guide was an expert and the grandson of the most important medicine man in the rainforest's Yalanji people. I learned so much and enjoyed that tour immensely because I love learning about the age-old wisdom of living with nature and not trying to rule or destroy its rhythms.
We listened, deeply touched, as the guide explained the natural cycles of the forest. The seasons determine the plants and the plants determine the animals and with that the Aboriginal groups’ movement and food. The Aboriginals would rely on the plants and animals to signal changes in the weather and where they needed to move to. As coastal people, they would venture into the forest at the beginning of Spring to gather all that they required from their incredible supermarket, pharmacy and hardware store rolled into one. Once they had restocked their provisions, they would move further inland to settle for the winter. They respected nature, only hunting what was needed and not more. No species was endangered while they inhabited the area because they followed strict rules, like never cutting down a tree that was larger than a certain width. There was my fitra again, fully present and happy to be seeking the rhythms that maintained the balance and wellness of my own life and that around me.
The guide continued to share how the Aboriginals understood the land and lived in harmony with it, nourishing their bodies with ‘bush tucker food” and natural medicine. It was awe-inspiring to listen to him describe the many poisonous plants which filled the forest floor and how at least fifteen of them required an elaborate process to be safe for human consumption.
The Aboriginal man knew the plants and processes which ensured his survival, but the white man coming in to conquer did not. The new settlers didn’t even think to learn from the original and true custodians of that land, which is why so much death and harm has been done to the natural habitat since the colonies first arrived. I kept reading or hearing about species of plants or animals that were introduced to the detriment of the ecological balance.
I was so grateful for the timing of my visit to Australia, as the main narrative of the official institutions and museums was to return that rightful place to the Aboriginals. How affirming and healing that was for me to witness. Otherwise, it would have been quite painful to behold. I was drawn to the gentle, kind and Australian spirit for a reason. Their consciousness has definitely grown and evolved.
‘The Hala Squared Down Under Adventure’ in Australia’s points of extreme nature ended on a spectacular note in Uluru. Uluru was a stunning study of red rocks, green plants, and blue sky. I can not start to describe the incredibly peaceful effect that this kind of monotone beauty, stretching out for miles had on me. The geological explanation for the Uluru formation is the gradual lifting of 500 million years worth of compressed sediment to the surface by shifting tectonic plates. What we see above the ground is only a third of its full form. A fun little fact is that the gorgeous red color of the rocks and sand in Uluru is made of sandstone that contains high levels of minerals, and more specifically iron. The rusted iron is what gives it that striking red color. Subhana Allah! And, as if the wondrous nature of Uluru and its neighboring Kata Tjuta weren’t enough, they are also sacred religious sites for Aboriginals. How’s that for impactful?!
It was quite something to take a walk around the base of the Uluru formations with a half-white Australian, half-Aboriginal guide. He had an intelligent, warm and gracious manner with an open spirit and handsomeness that only children of mixed cultures can have. He understood the culture and history of the place so well and had a deep and mature love for his Aboriginal origins and way of life. It was quite touching to hear his own story and the teachings of his people. Within the Aboriginal culture, there is a pointed emphasis on rites of passage and the way that different age groups contribute to the group’s overall wellbeing and raising of healthy, capable children. Elders are venerated as teachers and held in a high regard. This repeated emphasis brought home to me again and again as an educator, how I would like to play a role in bringing generations together in contexts that encourage mutual support and learning.
Our lucky streak continued with our guide on the last morning's tour. When we arrived and realized that the guide wasn't Aboriginal, we contemplated switching to another tour that did have an Aboriginal guide, even though we would not be able to get a refund at that late stage. However, I decided to trust that God had Guided me to this choice for a reason and that, as the tour was already paid for, we should go ahead with it as planned. In addition, if we had switched, we would have ended up missing the opportunity to see the second site, Kata Tjuta altogether.
Well, our guide turned out to be a wonderful, cheerful white Aussie who loved being a guide and the Aboriginal culture. His passion was so deep that a respected elder of one of the Aboriginal groups of the area had connected with him and had been teaching him personally for 2 and half years! I had a long conversation with him at one point in the tour that we both thoroughly enjoyed because we got the chance to compare notes on beliefs, rituals, spiritual teachers, elders and so much more. What a lovely Divine gift that encounter was! In addition, it turned out that the Kata Tjuta site that we would have missed was more important than Uluru for Aboriginals of that area. They believe that the beginning of creation happened there at “many heads”, as it’s known in English. Imagine missing that part of the story.
The two days that we were there, we saw a series of glorious sunrises and sunsets, not to be missed, much as we moaned and groaned to roll out of bed at 4:15 am! But again, isn’t this fitra being called into presence?! As our beloved prophet peace and blessings be upon him had said, “many blessings have been placed on my people in their rising early”. It was well worth it, with the photos to prove it 😉
We went on to spend a week driving through some of the ‘must-see’ sites on the north island of New Zealand. It was indescribably green, which made the hours on end that we drove to make our crazy itinerary happen easier and so enjoyable, lol.
The scenery was filled with various bodies of water, giving us views of beaches, waterfalls, springs, and rivers. Contrasting with the glistening shades of blue were tall willowy California Oaks (that flourish much faster than in their native California soil), open fields peppered with farms, and the happiest, healthiest cows and sheep you can ever see.
During our New Zealand part of the trip, there were two very special experiences that took us to points of extreme nature. The first one was riding on tubes inside caves to see glow worms. The drifting, wading, and jumping backward through the water, watching the rock formations gather close then grow wide and going through different shades of light from none to some was one of the most incredible immersions into nature that I have ever had. I didn’t want it to end and still miss it.
The second one was flying in a helicopter over fields and fields of green, then over the ocean to a volcanic island. We could see a range of formations and colors, as well as trails of steam coming out of certain parts of it as it brewed. That can only be classified as another point of extreme nature where the majesty and beauty of the Creator and His creation manifests so vividly.
It was clear to me by the end of this amazing 40-day trip that an enduring experience is not only about the kind of nature you encounter but also about the way you encounter it.
In our religion, the number 40 is a special one. At 40 years of age the tools of intellect are said to be complete, so prophets were given their calling then, one of them Mohammad, peace and blessings be upon them all.
Also, it is said that if you want to bring a change into effect, you must practice it mindfully for 40 days and then it will become a habit and a way of being. I had an intention and a prayer for this trip and for every trip that I am blessed to experience, that it will change me, make me a better person and deepen and beautify my faith. I can not wait to harvest my plenty once the craze of the holidays are over and I have time to hear the tellings of my heart. I am already so grateful for what I can count off of the top of my head.
Hala for her contribution of images to this article and for helping choose from the 9000 photos I took! I love you too!