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

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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

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