INTO THE UNKNOWN
Will Chaffey recounts his tale of being lost with his mate Geoff on a perilous expedition in the great northwest region of Western Australia
IWOKE up early to a grey sky. We’re walking out of here, I told myself. The worry of the night before was gone. I ripped a blank page from my journal and wrote: ‘‘ My name is Will Chaffey. Geoff Cunningham and I reached the King Cascade after six weeks’ walk from the Drysdale River station. We are now heading overland to the Mount Elizabeth homestead. From the King Cascade we will head south to a vehicle track marked on the map Hann. We will follow that track to the homestead. We are both well, but out of food. We estimate it will take us six days to reach the homestead. Please radio or call the homestead to make sure we have arrived. Thank you.’’
I dated the note and signed my name. I put it inside a plastic bag, tied it to a stick with a red bandanna, and wedged one end of the stick in the rocks above the high-tide mark.
Now we could walk to the Mount Elizabeth homestead. We shouldered our packs, put on our hats and headed up the valley of Cascade Creek.
‘‘ This is it. Outta here.’’ I gave one last look at the implacable Prince Regent River, again moving out to sea.
We walked up the valley of Cascade Creek in silence, pushing through tall grass and elephant ear wattle. Before, while walking, Geoff and I had looked up in the branches of eucalyptus for carpet pythons and beautiful parrots. Now our only concern was covering ground. Each thorny branch that held us back, each fallen tree I stepped over, was measured in dwindling calories.
We veered away from Cascade Creek and followed a smaller creek up the escarpment. To my relief we discovered it was the same passage we had followed into the valley. The sky was overcast and offered some respite from the sun.
In the creek I found an aquatic plant resembling red-leaf lettuce, which I ate. We dunked ourselves in the water to stay cool. At the top of the plateau, the yellowing grass, eucalyptus trees and fire-blackened cycads stretched as far as the eye could see.
Geoff and I looked at our compasses and the maps. We were walking into the unknown. This plain stretched at least a day’s walk before us, with no reference points and no heights from which to assess our position. We planned to walk towards a blue line marked on the map: Blyxa Creek. Would there be water? We filled our bottles and hydrated ourselves before pushing on.
The sound of my boots on the dry ground blended in a cadence with my thoughts. My eyes watched the compass needle in my hand and the ground before me in the blazing noon. Geoff’s boots stomped through the grass nearby. We had not spoken for several hours. His eyes, like mine, were watching the compass needle.
I saw a tree in the distance and noted how long it took before I was past it, and the tree receding. Even to stand still in this place filled me with loneliness.
‘‘ It’s bloody hot.’’ Geoff winced when the sun burned through the clouds at noon. We walked all day across the plain, painfully earthbound while collared lorikeets whistled through the scattered trees. That evening we came to the narrow creek running across the plain. Water.
I put down my pack, unrolled the sleeping mat and sat down. Blyxa Creek was narrow enough to jump over, flowing over the rocky soil. We looked at the maps. The stream could be one of two marked. There were small fish in it, impossible to catch.
We lay on our sleeping mats and had a cup of tea. We spoke very little, each lost in his own thoughts. The space around us was so wide, and so quiet. A strange feeling had replaced hunger in my stomach: fear.
That night I dreamed I had left something behind at the waterfall, something vital, which I would have to go back for, alone, in the dark. I set out while Geoff slept under the violet sky, making my way north across the grassy plain, scared because I knew there was danger at the coast, frightened of the things we confront alone.
I woke up on the plain with the stars of the Southern Cross falling softly through the smooth branches of a gum tree.
The red light of dawn brought the chorus of birds, the ‘‘ tooh-oo too-hoo’’ of a peaceful dove, the macabre whistle of the butcher bird.
The ‘‘ caaaw, caaaw, caaaaaaaw’’ of marauding black crows suddenly reminded me of where I found myself and in what circumstances. I looked over at my backpack and boots. It was all real.
Geoff stirred nearby. I put on my pants and shirt and soaked my body in the creek, hoping to keep cool for as long as possible. Today the sun would shine long and hot. No matter, I will walk this day to that horizon.
I ate a dozen small figs and washed them down with water from the creek, filling up my canteen. Muscle was now being consumed to run the engine of my body. I measured the remaining figs, wondering if they would last me a week. Not even.
Geoff and I shook our boots out for scorpions or spiders, and were on our feet and moving within minutes. We walked silently through the tall grass, over fallen trees and scattered rocks.
Who was the President of the US? What was the Dow Jones index? What was the consumer confidence rating? What was the prime rate? What year was it anno domini?
I could not have cared less. I just wanted to live another day. HOURS went by walking through the studded eucalypt plain. The sun flamed overhead. We had no vantage points to mark our progress, just silent trees and the thousands of tiny flowering pink and red clovers growing out of the sandy soils at our feet.
A row of boulders rose above the trees like a maze. Geoff and I looked at each other. The boulders were not on the map, though they were large enough to be. We put down our packs. I leaned against a tree. Now we stood in the middle of nowhere.
‘‘ It looks like we may have corrected a little too much to the northwest,’’ I said, looking at the map and the line of boulders rising 30m above the eucalypt plain. Any error in navigation wasted precious calories.
We walked alongside the range like sailors hugging a coastline until the sea of grassy savanna opened up for us once again. A kangaroo hopped up the rocks. How did the Aboriginal people do it? I wondered. This whole continent, like every other, was once a vast trackless wilderness, yet it was home to man. When the monsoon came and the thunderclouds rolled in like great ships, where was home? A rock ledge? An overhang? A shady spot by the billabong? And yet why should a house with a number be any different? There are no fixed points in the universe. It was all a comforting abstraction. Home was anywhere on planet Earth.
We pushed on across the plain, through thick stands of elephant ear wattle. The grass had begun to yellow. The wet season was ending and the dry would soon begin. The dry in Australia means fire. Many species of plants have adapted specifically to the cycle of fire. The banksias and hakeas shed seedpods only after intense heat. I just hoped we’d have enough water.
A weathered sandstone ridge appeared through the trees. We reached the edge of the ranges. I glanced at Geoff. There was nothing for it but to climb over.
Bone-tired and thirsty, I climbed up over the jumbled boulders, collecting black grapes as I went. A light rain pattered off the leaves. Geoff was somewhere behind me. I reached the top of the ridge. Below lay a broad grassy valley with ranges at the far side. Distant ranges grew paler and paler to the furthest reaches of the horizon. The afternoon turned suddenly dark. Geoff came up just as a steady downpour set in. This was grim. This was kilometres and kilometres and kilometres from nowhere.
It rained steadily for 20 minutes. I wished emphatically to fly, if only just straight up and then down so that I could know where we were in relation to the rooftops and drafting pens of the homestead.
I remembered (north Queensland farmer, Peter’s words: ‘‘ In the (Northern) Territory, when a person goes missing, searchers start in a circle around the car, moving outwards. They usually only get about 4km from the car before they find the bodies.’’ We weren’t anywhere near a road. No one would ever find me out here, I knew that.
But I knew where I was. I had never known so precisely where I was: hungry, tired, lost, here, standing on a ridge. This is an edited extract from Swimming withCrocodiles:AnAustralianAdventure by Will Chaffey (Picador, $32.95).
Another barrier to cross: Chaffey with backpack and rolls of maps, before the food ran out