Standing in the shade of the beech trees my sweaty T- shirt is a jelly fish squashed to my back. Goose bumps prickle my freckly arms causing me to shiver.
‘Stop for long enough things have a habit of catching up with you.’
We give the tidy grey hut with its’ freshly painted red trim a cursory inspection. Lorraine had suggested we swing by on the way out so she could assess the camping potential of the sheltered location. The mournful drone of cicada song surfs the crisp breeze tickling my cheeks and the back of my neck reminding that beneath the foundation of sunshine we’ve enjoyed till now it’s no longer summer. The light will soon wrinkle and sag, a foretaste of dusk’s inevitable arrival.
Back in the insipid light our strides grow smooth and relaxed rewarming our well worked muscles. Our experienced eyes select a path through the weaving channels of shallow water. Avoid the brown and grey rocks smeared with green and mud coloured slime. Dodge the scraggly, prickly Matagouri, random piles of drift wood and pockets of shingle marking the water’s wayward progress. We take direction from the stream mimicking the same sequence of transporting, processing, pushing aside debris.
Absorbed in lives leaping, criss-cross rhythm I almost miss the wiry shape clothed in navy and black. Another silent motionless shadow, background to the vibrant babble of frothy white liquid chugging by. Without altering my pace I glance at his frail form under the huge shell of faded red pack then ahead looking for the rest of his party.
Behind me I hear voices and turn to see Lorraine has stopped. I hesitate then continue to the opposite side of the stream. I study the GPS hung from a cord around the Tramper’s neck, a walking pole in his right hand.
‘Why is he heading upstream mid-afternoon at the end of a long weekend? What happened to his other pole?’
I turn to resume walking.
Lorraine’s bright fushia T-shirt bustles towards me, her kind brown headlamp eyes search for mine.
‘That guy has been in the valley all Easter, I think he’s exhausted. He was going the wrong way!’
I squint behind her. The old guy approaches, his left foot dragging on the ground. His pack lists to one side like a ship about to go down. When he gets close I set off again making a half-hearted attempt to dial back my pace.
For the last hour we’ve been crossing and re-crossing Sudden Valley Stream. The crossings once benign are now a complex puzzle. The hillsides lean inwards to compress increasing volumes of water into an ever smaller space. Starved of sunlight the rocks watery diet has left them bloated and slippery. Even the sulky damp air conveys a sense of trouble brewing. Every surface is wiped in grease.
We wait for the Tramper to scuffle through the current. His bad foot catches on a rock. As we watch he teeters then noiselessly crumples supine. Lorraine dashes into the water and grabs one of his arms. I join her hauling on his pack. He’s a dead weight between us, making no effort to participate in his rescue. Together, we wrestle him upright. His big canvas pack is even heavier now it has received a drenching, the walking pole nearly stabs me in the face, his body is limp. One on either side of him we drag him to safety. Water runs off him and his pack. His bare white thighs tremble. His blank eyes are barely distinguishable from the rest of his grey, unshaven face.
‘You need to take off your pack and sit down and rest.’
Lorraine speaks loudly. He doesn’t respond at first, stands expressionless, water spilling off his slumped shoulders. He starts to shiver slightly, his hands flicker. We help him undo his chest and waist straps to remove his pack.
‘He needs to put on warm clothes. Let’s go down stream a bit so he can get changed in private.’
Around the corner Lorraine’s eyes are big against her tanned, unlined face. She uses them to search inside me.
‘He came in a day or so earlier intending to stay at the hut and head further up-stream but the terrain was more difficult than he remembered and it took him longer than he expected. He was forced to camp out then decided he had better head back. He survived a couple of long days alone, slept rough and admitted he’d fallen over a few times.’
I nod. We head back.
‘What’s your name?’
He looks up at me.
‘I’m Sharron, this is Lorriane. It’s usually me that arses over in the streams. Lorraine’, I gesture towards her, ‘possesses the balance and agility of youth.’
‘Are you hungry Sam?’
The expression in his blue eyes reminds me of the look on my dad’s face when he reached into the bowels of the ancient bailer for the umpteenth time to have another try at extracting the piece of bailing twine jammed somewhere inside the ancient machinery.
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘We’re tired. Lorraine, is really tired and hungry so we are going to rest for a bit if that’s okay with you?’
Lorraine’s dark brown pony tail bobs up and down. ‘I’m hungry and tired.’
I remove my pack and dig out the mini-Easter eggs in the top pocket. I offer them to Lorraine. Lorraine, who has been telling me all weekend that she prefers not to eat chocolate in the hills accepts an egg.
I offer the bag to Sam, at first he refuses so I take one myself, peel off its’ tinfoil wrapper. The eggs I’m carrying are tiny un-wrapping them is a slow, fiddly business. I reoffer Sam the bag, this time he takes one. His fingers are cold and puffy so he has a bit of trouble peeling it. I peel another one and offer it to him. Sam smiles sheepishly and eats it.
‘Do you think you can go on now?’
Lorraine glances at Sam.
‘How about you, Sam?’
‘Yes, I will follow you strong ladies.’
I forge ahead scouting the easiest route then doubling back to check on Sam and Lorraine’s progress. Now Sam has put on warm clothes he is easy to spot. His kit is circa 1980s, a thick maroon fleece that matches his gaiters and his maroon, navy and yellow striped long johns. His black woolly hat sits low on his forehead, either it has stretched or his head has shrunk. Every time I double back I wait a bit longer for the other two, who are walking in silence.
‘We’ll let Lorraine go first she likes route finding, I’m not very good at it.’
I ask Sam what he does, he’s a retired engineer, his kids are grown up, his wife used to tramp but isn’t so keen on it anymore. He wouldn’t normally tramp by himself but he couldn’t find anyone to join him this time and the weather looked too good to miss a trip. This particular valley is one of his favourite places.
I reel off places we’ve visited and climbs we’ve done, Sam has visited many of the same places. His blue eyes shine and his chest expands as he recalls his trips, marvels at ours.
‘Lorraine has climbed Mt Cook.’
‘I’m honoured to know two such adventure-loving ladies!’
When conversation trails off I tell Lorraine that I need a rest. Lorraine replies that she does too. In this manner the remainder of my Easter eggs are consumed. Lorraine offers around her scroggin and during one rest break Sam gets some food out of the top of his pack with my help. Sam’s limp is getting worse. He winces every time his left foot drags along the stream bed which is often. His balance is shot.
‘Damn foot it won’t work. You ladies must be getting cold and impatient to get home?’
‘The pace is about right, no hurry. Better to get out in one piece than rush and go for another swim.’
I point to the bush clinging to the side of the gorge.
‘Sam, I can see why you love this place!’
Lorraine, whose pink top is now hidden under a black fleece, locates the spot where we need to head up away from the stream. I had expected an easy, flat walk out to the carpark, the route’s intricacy is a surprise. The track is narrow and overgrown, it’s surface uneven but less slippery than the stream bed. Sam and I move like a slow motion film with accompanying dialogue. I learn he has a satellite phone in his pack.
‘Do you want a break Sam?’
Sam shakes his head. We admire the view. At our high point our bush accompaniment gives up. Without vegetation the hillside has eroded down to crumbling rock. There are a series of steep, exposed switchbacks carved into the scree slope, the first scree I’ve ever seen with moss on it. Lorraine points out the Barrier Falls below us. I realise they are the reason we’ve been forced up.
“Lorraine wants a photo of the falls!’
In the faint light we can barely make out the falls but Lorraine smiles and nods vigorously. Sam and Lorraine arrange themselves so the falls are behind them. I get out my camera, taking my time over multiple photos. Later when I look at my snaps taken in that dying light I realise Sam knows how to play a part. His grizzled face is smiling at the camera an image of cheerful confidence whereas Lorraine looks slightly worried.
Photo shoot over we tackle the descent in stages. Sam has to concentrate closely to keep his balance. This moment could not be more different to the carefree scree slide Lorraine and I enjoyed earlier in the day. On the ridgeline beyond Pyramid Peak, clothed in bright sunshine under an expansive blue sky, looking down to the valley floor I’d hesitated watching as Lorraine glided down with speed and grace. It looked possible, fun even but I knew Lorraine as a surefooted, confident scrambler who can dress up the most difficult terrain to resemble easy travel.
Letting out a deep breath I tentatively took a step down, weighted my foot, then took another committing step discovering to my relief the stones were fine enough to move with my trainers without burrowing inside them and coarse enough not to slip out from under toppling me onto the crunchy surface. I waved my arms, grinned and increased my speed riding the scree, embracing the euphoria associated with hitting that elusive balance between chaos and control that draws us towards adventure.
Back in the stream, the first stars slide into focus, the moon is on the rise as Sam’s remaining energy blurs and fades. The terrain is simple here, the valley open, intent on handing Sudden Stream into the Hawdon’s waiting embrace. For the home stretch we’ll need head torches. Sam’s batteries have expired. I hand him my light. Ahead of us Lorraine’s bright orb bobs confidently in the thickening twilight. Sam’s walking pole, never especially useful is redundant here.
‘Lean on my arm Sam.’
I stagger then brace myself to absorb his full weight having failed to appreciate the strength of his trust. We inch forward step by step, a single entity. Tiredness is starting to overtake adrenalin, the familiar feeling of determination mixed with hope that I’ve experienced when nearing the end of many a long trip visits. The moon’s translucent disc bounces over the horizon lighting our way as together we look to the future.