Excerpt from 'Spring, Chapter 5'
Turning, I walk back into my shelter and calmly begin to fill a small pack – water bottle, rolled blanket, sandals, fire-kit, bandage, an apple, nuts and a sweet potato. Winking at the Wild Woman, I duck under my doorway, pad down my shelter trail, past the empty Gunyah and out of camp. If my pack is light, my plans are even lighter. All I know is I’m walking. Wandering. Perhaps overnight, perhaps longer. I don’t know, and I don’t want to. Right now, I just want to feel my feet moving across the earth, before the doubts and the plans can catch me, before I try to pin them down with meaning. I’m a little nervous, a little excited, but keep my thoughts firmly on the step of one foot in front of the other, in the appreciation of waking birdsong and the open horizon ahead.
Snake Creek has been flushed clean by spring rains, the water jostling around my shins as I cross. Out on the heath track, my feet veer south-west. I hesitate slightly but continue. The faint tyre tracks peter out at the broken fence, as I knew they would. From here on in there are no tracks, just kilometres of seemingly identical ridges, sandstone clefts and rainforest gullies of the wilderness reserve. I rarely venture here, the land of lost borders on my adventure map. Looking back in the direction I came from, I snap a twig from a shrub as I step into the unfamiliar, as much a farewell as an announcement of my presence on new country. The rising sun is a steady friend as I walk, notwithstanding the vagaries of weaving between grasstrees and granite boulders, ducking under tea-tree thickets and vines.
I take off my pack and stretch. Pardalotes contact-call in the forest canopy. Clouds throw moving shadows across the granite. The winter coats of blackbutt are strewn messily over the rocks, as if shed in a moment of passion. It’s more beautiful than I remember, quieter and older. The Block seems a universe away. A single raven launches itself across the valley, its cawing slow and mournful. The rustle of leaves above invites rather than interrupts the stillness. I realise I’m holding my breath. If I was wearing a watch, I’d check that the second hand was still ticking. I can imagine time losing its way up here, slipping between cracks in the rocks, in the spaces between birdsong, minutes turning into days and years into minutes. What’s six years to this mountain, or 60,000 years, for that matter? Barely more than a rippling and crumbling of stone. In some ways it feels like yesterday that I was up here; in others, it feels much longer than the six months, the image I have of myself then as someone years younger. I had just finished my shelter and was itching to be alone. And here I am, solo, just as I wanted. Maybe just as the land wanted too.
Excerpt from 'Autumn, Chapter 7'
“Watch your footing, it’s slippery,” JJ yells at us over the roar of the river, straddling two mossy boulders with his bare feet. With JJ’s long blond hair shaved close on one side, his brown pecs flexed against his half-buttoned safari shirt and a leather pouch his only luggage, I don’t think our survival guide realises he is the more likely cause of slippage than rocks.
“You doin’ okay?” Shaun bounds up beside me, all smiles. So much for his knives-only rule – his head-to-toe Gore-Tex is a wearable tent. He did relax the rules somewhat, in the end, letting us each bring a raincoat and water bottle. But no nuts.
I give him a thumbs up. He leaps behind me to check on Chloe and Dan. Ahead, Ryan is backdropped by a distant waterfall spilling from a high rocky mountain. He walks apart from Nikki. I wonder whether they’ve had another falling-out.
Despite his warning, JJ practically runs over the rocks, and I concentrate hard to keep up. I shiver a little despite my woollen jumper and beanie. Camping in May without a sleeping bag, or even a tea bag, is a first. I certainly wouldn’t do it by myself, and even with the group I’m nervous, especially considering the heavy clouds gluing together at the end of the valley we’re heading towards.
JJ circles one finger in the air, signalling for us to group up.
“Smoko,” he yells, reaching into his pocket and offering around a handful of bright red berries. Nikki does the same, having already identified the edible fruit of walking-stick palm.
“Everyone doin’ alright?” he shouts.
“Whoa!” Dan yells, teetering on a slippery rock. He grabs Chloe, who slips and falls forward onto her hands with a yelp.
“Anyone bring a fire-kit?” JJ says, looking west to where thunder is growling.
“Not allowed,” Shaun grins.
JJ looks slightly bemused, although there is a clipped edge to his “Onwards.”
At a fork in the river, we fill our water bottles then follow JJ uphill until we reach a huge sandstone cave – just as the rain starts.
“Not bad, huh?” JJ says, extending his arms like a proud host.
The cave floor has room enough for a tribe ten times our size, the overhang an arched window, framing a view of thick bangalow palm forest. I look around at the walls, almost expecting to see painted handprints.
“It’s amazing,” I say, seriously impressed.
JJ nods, buttoning up his shirt and pulling on a brimless brown felt hat. “Okay, folks, treasure hunt time,” he says, counting on his fingers: “tinder, bedding, food, firewood and …”
“Firestick,” Shaun finishes.
“We’ve got an hour before dark; let’s get a move on,” JJ says.
I’m glad I brought a raincoat as I step out into the steady drizzle. I can’t imagine where to look for a stalk in the rainforest, let alone a dry one. I mentally prepare myself for a cold and hungry night. Seeing the boys heading downhill with machetes, Nikki and I stay up high.
“Hey, look!” Nik says, pointing to a log teeming with small white termites. Licking her thumb, she presses it down on the pack and pops it in her mouth.
“Really?” I ask. Nikki nods encouragingly. I chew quickly, mouth open and nose screwed up. To my surprise, the ants turn into a rather pleasant peppery paste in my mouth. It reminds me that I haven’t eaten since our early breakfast. Gosh, I’d love a cuppa.
The rain is running in small waterfalls down the outer rock walls and the back of my neck as we pick our way back, arms loaded with firewood and pockets of tinder ferreted out from rock crevices.
That night our dinner is termites and banglalow palm hearts, which taste like bok choy, roasted on the coals. They’re by far the most satisfying bush-food carbohydrates I have tried, but still are more about boosting morale than filling the hungry hole. We crash out on the bed Chloe made from layers of dried bangalow fronds, spooning tighter in the night as clouds of misty rain float in.
“What would life be like whittled down to the barest of essentials? If I was answerable only to earth, fire, water and air? If my responsibility to the forest was not as saviour or spokesperson, but merely to belong to it? One more creature resting under its broad wing?”
- Claire Dunn, My Year Without Matches