By Chris Tuffley
We’re traversing a hillside through thick Australian bush when Wendy in the lead looks at her watch and comes to a halt. “We’ve got to get down to the river now”, she says, turning to face us. “We’ve got to get off this slope before it gets dark.”
The four of us exchange glances. She’s right. We turn and begin plunging down the slope instead of making our slow way across it. It’s steep, and we grab hold of trees as we descend, at one point sitting down to slide through a narrow gap in the bush on our bums. We reach the river just on dusk, and are relieved to immediately find two clear flat areas right next to each other, each just large enough for one of our two tents. We pull the tents from our packs and begin setting them up, as darkness lowers the curtain on day three of what was to have been a three day trip. The truth we’ve each been silently carrying all day is finally shared: we’re not getting out today as planned.
It’s January 1995. The four of us have met while spending three months as summer research students at the Australian National University in Canberra: Wendy from New South Wales, in hydrology; Michaela from Tasmania, in chemistry; Dale from Western Australia, in physics; and me from New Zealand, in mathematics. We’ve taken advantage of the Australia Day holiday to come away to Kosciuszko National Park for a three day bushwalk, leaving Canberra on Friday evening in Wendy’s little white hatchback. The roads narrow as we get further from the city, until as midnight nears we’re winding our way up a steep deeply corrugated unsealed road. There’s a scraping sound from one of the wheels and we stop to investigate, the stars bright overhead and the ping of the cooling engine the only sound in the sudden stillness. A piece of gravel’s caught in the brakes. With some effort we wriggle it free and continue on.
The first two days go entirely to plan, with no hint of the trial ahead. Saturday we trade life stories as we sweat our way up the 1800m ascent of Hannels Spur, the bush to either side of the track unfamiliar to my New Zealand eyes. We spend the night camped beside the creek running through a high alpine valley, relaxing at the base of the huge boulder where we’ve pitched our tents. Dinner is cooked on Michaela’s Trangia stove: another new sight to me. Sunday we continue up the valley, then drop our packs to climb Mt Townsend, where I snap a picture of Michaela doing a handstand on the summit—a custom among her friends in Tasmania. Below the peak we lie down among the wildflowers to let their scent waft up our noses, then drop in to Lady Northcote Creek, our goal for the night a stone hut called the Opera House. The creek is a steep jumble of boulders, and by turns we boulder hop our way down it and push our way through the bush on either side. I revel in the sure grip of my boots on the rough rock, testing them on ever more steeply slanting slabs. Pushing through scrub, Wendy a few metres in front of us comes to a sudden halt. “Snake!” she calls, then “Snake!” again as she turns to come back to us. She stands frozen for several long moments, her eyes darting almost comically in a triangle from us, to the snake in front of her, to the snake behind her, and round again—then scampers hurriedly back to join us. That night it pours as we lie in our sleeping bags at the Opera House, lightning flashing and thunder crashing outside.
The unravelling begins early the next morning, but we don’t recognise it straightaway. There’s really nothing you can point at to say we did wrong—unless you count trying to follow a track that turns out to be far clearer on the map than it is on the ground. It’s little more than a narrow footpad sidling the hillside high above the creek, the bush crowding in closely from both sides. The overnight rain has stopped, but the bush is wet and we’re soon soaked despite our jackets. The track keeps disappearing altogether in the overgrowth, and each time we lose it we search above, below and behind us, and after a jubilant cry of “Here it is!” we form our single-file line on the track once more. But at last the inevitable happens, and we lose the track one final time: we look and look, but no triumphant cry rings out, and finally we abandon the search. We decide to continue sidling the slope, following the route of the track marked on the map. Perhaps we’ll be faster now, for not having to constantly search for the track?
We’re not. The bush is thick and the hillside rugged; for all its constant disappearances, the track was a guide to the easiest path. We take turns scouting ahead, trying to find the best way forward. On one of my turns I find myself bluffed; turning to call back “Not this way!” I find myself eye-to-eye with a snake coiled on some small rocks in the sun. I must have stepped right next to it just moments ago. We eye each other for what feels far too long; then it slithers away, and it’s my turn to scamper back to the others.
The sense that we’re not making enough progress to get out today begins to bite and gnaw: a dull sense of dread that things are going ever so slowly but horribly wrong. Studying the map we’re buoyed to see we’ve reached a major sidestream, and are making better progress than we’d thought; but we soon realise the creek we’d been at was far too small to be the one on the map, and we’re still well short of it. Compounding our troubles, I slip while crossing a wet mossy rock and slide on all fours. When I get back up there’s an ugly ragged gash in my left shin, the size of a twenty cent piece. Michaela gets out her first aid kit and cleans and dresses it; the betadine she uses yet another new sight to me. To my relief, after the initial stab of pain the injury doesn’t hurt except when I knock it against sticks in passing. We plod on, our spirits sinking ever lower, blindly holding to our plan of following the route of the track—until Wendy’s urgent declaration jolts us onto another path, down the hill to the river.
The tents pitched, we pool our food and study the map. It’ll be meagre rations, but we have enough for a simple dinner tonight and breakfast and lunch tomorrow—and somehow, unaccountably, almost an entire king-size bar of chocolate. Lady Northcote Creek has finished its steep tumble and is flatter here; if we continue down the creek we’ll reach the Geehi River, and then if we simply climb the hillside opposite, we’ll come to a picnic area and carpark at the top. We’ll still be twelve kilometres from the car, parked at Geehi Flats—but it’ll be twelve kilometres by road, and we won’t all have to walk it. Plans laid and stomachs rumbling only slightly we crawl into the tents and try to sleep.
The night passes slowly. Dale’s cold in her damp sleeping bag, and I get out an emergency blanket and try to share my warmth with her. We rise at first light, eager to get going. We reach the Geehi River quickly and easily; it sparkles in the still-low sun, a beautiful sight. Lessons for next time: when we lost the track yesterday we should have just dropped down to the creek and followed it out. We cross the river and begin climbing the slope opposite. Just 300 vertical metres of bush separate us from safety now.
Dale’s struggling, and we stop frequently to let her rest. At each stop we give her a square of chocolate to lift her spirits, the rest of us taking none for ourselves. It seems to help; she smiles weakly, and continues on. There’s nothing else for it. Step by step, stop by stop, we inch higher, the sky growing closer—until abruptly, cries of joy ringing out, we cross a low railing and are in the open clearing of the carpark. We’re found at last!
We lunch at a picnic table, discussing the next step and deciding that despite my wounded leg, Wendy and I are the strongest walkers and should be the ones to get the car. There’s enough chocolate left for six squares each; we break the bar in half, then Wendy and I stride off, taking half the chocolate with us and leaving the other half with Dale and Michaela.
As Wendy and I walk we talk, the conversation wide-ranging: our upbringings and families, past adventures, hopes and plans for the future. There are long pauses, but they’re thoughtful rather than awkward: it’s the deeply satisfying conversation of a human connection being made. We stop for a rest, and after a brief hesitation break the chocolate in half and eat our six squares all at once. In that moment it’s the most extravagant thing either of us has ever done.
We reach the car. It used to belong to Wendy’s grandmother in Queensland, and Wendy’s worried that it’s become fickle away from the northern sunshine and won’t start. Perhaps recognising today is not the day for playing up it catches first time, and in short order we’re driving back the way we’ve come towards Dale and Michaela. We aren’t quite back to the carpark when we come across them, walking down the road towards us to pass the time. They haven’t touched their share of the chocolate yet, and can’t believe that we’ve finished ours—much less all at once.
Late that night in the emergency room in Canberra, the doctor raps the white at the bottom of my wound with the butt of his scalpel. “That’s your shin bone right there.” He’s uncertain whether he should stitch it up or leave it open, concerned it may have become infected over the day and a half I’ve been walking on it: stitches would just trap the infection inside. He decides I seem sensible enough to come back if that happens, and goes ahead.
He was right to have worried: two days later it’s red, swollen and painful. The stitches are taken back out, and I’m put on crutches and antibiotics for my last two weeks in Australia. The wound eventually heals to a smooth scar, which by a stretch of the imagination I decide is the shape of Tasmania. And so it remains, travelling with me as a lifelong reminder of my first trip to Australia; the first and so far only time I’ve been overdue; and the day six squares of chocolate made me the richest man in the world.
All photos credit: Chris Tuffley and Michaela Wegman