There is a careful art to adventuring. The tricky part of any adventurous experience is ensuring your level of planning detail is not so overbearing as to snuff out any chance for misadventure. Too much misadventure and you likely won’t live long enough to tell the story (see film “Into the Wild”, for example), too little and the stories you do live to tell will be so mind-numbingly timid and boring that your audience will be left feeling empty and sad (for you).
It’s a delicate thing to strike the balance between enjoying the cultivated safety of the moment and basking in the afterglow from barely surviving some unexpected horror. As with the CIA, my personal motto is – hope for the best / plan for the worst. That’s why my backpack is always so weighed down by all the navigational gadgetry and emergency-response paraphernalia needed to resolve a host of potential safety contingencies. Get bitten by a cranky tiger snake? Relax, no worries. Amputate a gangrenous limb? Messy, but doable. Need to light a fire in the rain in the dark but torch batteries have gone flat? Let me grab my waxed cardboard and solar-recharged spare batteries.
But the wilds are….well, they’re wild, so sometimes stuff gets around my nerdy planning. On such occasions I am left running on mere hominid instincts. And while that can be scary-as, it’s also exhilarating – the rush of adrenaline and the sphincter-contracting sense of careening down one of life’s unexpected black-run slopes with only your raw wits to guide you.
Most importantly though, there are unique conditions which unexpectedly emerge from the smoking ashes of our fallen plans and it is through the lens of these randomly altered circumstances that a story worth telling can take root. The following rather sweet little tale of misadventure is, I hope, just such a story.
A few months back my mate Tyler and I hefted a couple of mobile homes onto our backs and headed into the 110,000 hectares of the Guy Fawkes River wilderness. After a long and grueling steep descent into the gorge (note to self – trim toenails next time!) we met with a winding wild river whose temperature closely resembled that of the frozen blueberries in my freezer. Not only was it bloody cold, but the early spring rains had clearly had their way with it and every crossing was a touch-and-go affair. On one particularly memorable occasion I witnessed Tyler disappear entirely – dreadlocks and all – under the frigid waters. Evidently the large round boulders were deadly slippery. I chose the gravel crossings from then on.
Late in the day we decided to set up camp on a lovely shingle bank, overhung by River Oaks and conveniently close to the river. The oaks whispered in the breeze, their soft melancholic voices perhaps warning us of impending danger – but who knows – trees are notoriously unclear in their communication (unless they fall on you).
By the time we’d unpacked and set up all the incredible amounts of plush, high-tech crap we’d both carried in, it was charcoal-dark. Sometime, probably around 9pm, while taxiing for final approach to a much anticipated sleeping posture, I felt the first inklings of a subtle wrongness unfolding. At the time it just seemed like a weird chill breeze suddenly cropping up from up-river, so I put it out of mind.
We began to hear what sounded like brumbies wading slowly across the river. We both switched off our head torches and listened. The Guy Fawkes has thousands of wild horses living along its banks and I have often heard them crossing the river at night on previous hikes in the gorge, so this was not unusual in itself. Most people do not know this about me – not even Zoe I suspect – but I am highly fearful of cows. Up close I mean. In the paddock I couldn’t care less and on my plate in a lasagna I’m rather very casual about them. But up close they are enormous, reckless beasts with unstable brain waves. Brumbies at night are sort of like cows. I wasn’t palpitating with fear or anything but let’s just say I was listening very closely.
What was unusual and what gave me the first confirmation of a major something-not-right situation taking root, was when some ten minutes later the sound of brumbies fording the river was still going strong. In fact, the brumbies seemed to be getting bigger and more numerous by the minute now. Something about this struck me as hugely improbable. For one thing, the river upstream was deep and cranking along. It would be a stupid horse indeed that tried to cross there at night. For another, there was that weird chill breeze and where the hell did all these annoying crawling insects come from?? What the effing-heck was going on here?
I stood up and switched on my head torch. Sweet Jesus…what I saw in that brightly lit moment is a sight no camper set up on a river bank ever wants to see.
Only a few hours previously I had watched a slowly meandering river of highly personable demeanour ambling by our camp. I saw before me now a scene of swift-flowing dirty water churning past us, carrying so much leafy debris it looked as if a Jim’s Gardening mulch truck had driven into the river somewhere upstream. The most sure-fire indicator of wrongness being afoot was that the water’s edge, previously 20 metres from our cozy little camp, was now about 5 metres away…no, actually make that 4….ah crap it was rising faster than a hot bath.
At that point, three thoughts went through my head simultaneously. 1. We are in the direct path of a flash flood; 2. that odd splashing sound upstream is not effing brumbies, it’s pressure waves breaking into churning rapids; and 3. the first thing I need to rescue from the rising flood waters is the coffee.
Ten minutes of manic kinetic energy later and we had unloaded the hitherto-immaculately -neat contents of our entire camp into a hideously wet pile up the bank on higher ground. A soft rain was falling as we looked back to the soft gravel flats below, still marked by the tell-tale impressions of the preparations for bed of two tired hikers, only moments ago. Already the flood waters were edging up across the campsite. I shuddered to imagine how it would have felt to awaken in the deep dark of night with the deathly cold river waters lapping at my face like a churlish dog. Even now, writing this story months later, I shudder in revulsion.
We eventually set up our second camp for the night on a high bank and after a few paranoid visits down through the malicious stinging nettle to check on the rising waters I finally fell into deep slumber. It was perhaps around 3am that I was abruptly awoken by what sounded like half the gorge sliding into the river. The sudden enormity and ominous crushing finality of the sound was awesome. But the spidery fingers of deep sleep reached up from their uncharted depths to drag me back to oblivion and if it had not been for Tyler’s prompting in the morning I might never have remembered the event.
It turned out the noise was not the result of a catastrophic landslide but rather came from an enormous old tree crashing to the ground barely 100 metres from our slumbering, squishy-bodied selves. Come to think of it, we did sort of forget in the rush of setting up camp No2 to look up for dead wood.
Our original plan had been to take 5 days to hike through the meandering gorge of the spectacular Guy Fawkes River, a one-way trip that would see us emerge some 70 kilometres north of where we’d started. By late afternoon on the second day however, with little recession of the enigmatic floodwaters it gradually dawned on us that our carefully laid plans were fast unraveling.
With each passing hour that we remained trapped by the river, the task of making up for lost distance over the remaining time became increasingly implausible, until finally by nightfall, a fateful moment arrived when we both accepted that our master plan had terminally flat-lined and could not be revived. The river crossings would remain insanely perilous for many days to come and the gorge either side of us was impossibly steep and peppered with high cliffs. We were going nowhere fast.
But where I had expected to feel a sense of forlorn defeat, I found instead that I was filled by an unexpected surge of relief. Here at last, I was freed from the relentless tyranny of needing to be in control of my life. Here at last, events beyond my control had intervened to overwhelm my own quixotic desire for dictatorship over my destiny and I could do sweet-effing-all about it.
As the days stacked up I found I became oblivious to any notion of time marked off by hours. Rather, we were guided by a new set of measures : the long arc of the sun across the gorge, a rumbling in our bellies (or in our bowels), the wandering shadows sneaking across camp or the penetrating whistle of quails seeking out wayward family towards evening. And everywhere the murmur of the river.
So it is then that misadventure sometimes brings unexpected gifts.
Regarding toilet-paper: A final word of advice for the Guy Fawkes wanderer.
I think it must have been at the end of breakfast on the first day that Tyler casually enquired as to the whereabouts of the toilet paper. We had previously agreed that I would bring this necessary item. However, even as his words travelled across the smoky campfire that morning a fleeting image appeared in my mind of the said-paper waiting on the lounge at home to be packed. That would have been shortly before I grabbed my coffee cup, hefted my pack and headed out the door. Bugger…
Quietly casting my eyes about across the river bank for my trusty alternative bog roll plant (ie. wild tobacco – see previous blog on bush toiletry tips) I spied a plant growing prolifically across the grassy banks which, upon closer inspection, held the unmistakable allure of bottom-loving softness and suitable ply strength. The plant in question was Lambs Ear (see image) and it will forever be regarded with deep affection by Tyler and myself.
Subsequent field testing of the moist leaves of Lambs Ear, high up on the newly minted “La Shittine Ridge” (see view from squat in following image) proved spectacularly successful, and no more was spoken on my lousy packing error.