The cicadas were deafening as we made our way along the narrow track. Mosquitoes buzzed around our heads, accompanied by slapping and stamping sounds.
Sarah stopped and waited for us to catch up.
“Whose brilliant idea was this?” She wiped the sweat from her forehead and looked at it in disgust.
James turned Sarah around and undid her backpack, pulling out a large spray bottle of insect repellent. He doused Sarah’s arms and legs with it for the third time that day, provoking coughs and splutters from everyone as we ducked to escape the fumes.
Harry held his t-shirt over his nose. “Gee thanks mate, if any mosquitoes get into my lungs, they’ll definitely cark it along with me.”
James ignored him and gently pushed Sarah along the track. “Come on babe, we need to keep moving.”
I’m not sure what I feared more. Mosquito-borne viruses, or chemical poisoning.
As we passed the Kadjagooma Falls on the Warrie circuit, I felt myself relaxing. The warm, humid air and dappled sunlight overhead reminded me we were in rainforest heaven.
We were hiking on Kombumerri, Yugambeh land, and I could hear the Eastern Whipbirds and Brown Gerygones calling nearby. Bird calls and falling water are my favourite sounds. Hiking in the bush always made me feel alive, as though I were capable of anything. While working in human services, getting as far away as possible from demanding schedules and inadequate resources was always a priority on the weekend.
“How are you doing Mandy?” Harry asked me. I smiled as he turned to face me, collecting a spiderweb with the back of his head. He always had his head in the clouds, literally.
“You’ve got a little somethin’ on your head there Harry. And I’m good, it’s nice to be getting some fresh air. I’ve done this circuit once before, but I think it’s more fun with friends.”
Harry nodded and turned back the right way, just in time to avoid tripping over a rock. He brushed off the spiderweb, and there didn’t appear to be any arachnids on him. I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d packed a first aid kit, along with a snake bite kit, and an EPERB — a locator beacon, just in case.
We had to slow down or step off to the side a few times to let other hikers pass. It was always interesting to see who was out and about. I recognised a few phrases in Deutsche and admired the strong calves of the European hikers. They probably climb mountains for breakfast.
When later a large group approached us, we all stopped on the narrow track. After an awkward pause, the leader stepped forward and asked James a question in Japanese. James cleared his throat and replied hesitantly. He hadn’t spoken Japanese often since he and his parents moved to Australia 20 years ago. Whatever the guide said had James looking worried. He asked her a question in return and the conversation continued for a few minutes as the rest of us waited. A guy at the front of the group tried to strike up a conversation with Harry, but he pretended not to hear. I felt sorry for the young guy and gave him a smile. He returned the smile and looked away shyly.
The day was getting warmer, and I needed to pee. I could see Sarah was getting tired. She leaned on a tree as the tourist group finally moved on. “What did she say, James?” Sarah asked.
“She said there is a big storm headed this way. They have just turned back and are worried they won’t make it in time. Maybe we should head back to the car.” Sarah seemed relieved at James’ suggestion and squeezed his hand.
I looked up at the small patch of blue sky visible through the canopy. I wasn’t convinced. “There was nothing on the radar when we started out, plus we’re meant to be catching up with Dave at Meeting of the Waters.”
Our friend Dave had missed the car-pool, but he’d suggested meeting us roughly halfway around, where two creeks become one. Apparently it was quicker to get there from the other direction.
Harry started walking. “Come on, it won’t take long, we’re already most of the way there.” He said.
Harry drove us here and we couldn’t go anywhere without him. James and Sarah looked at each other. Sarah protectively placed a hand on her bump. I tried not to guess what they were thinking. 25 years old and 20 weeks pregnant, Sarah was very active and social, although not the biggest fan of the bush.
James shrugged. “Alright, let’s go and hope the rain doesn’t arrive before we do”.
“I’m just gonna hang back and duck into the bush, you keep going.” I tried to act nonchalant, like I toilet in the bush on a regular basis. Did I pack toilet paper? The other three walked off and I waited until they were around the corner before quickly pulling my pants down and squatting behind a tree.
Someone coughed behind me and I jumped up, nearly falling over in my rush to pull my pants up. I must have had my bum in full view of the track and a guy was walking past, pretending he hadn’t noticed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was there!” I blurted. I could feel my face going red.
“Don’t worry about it, it happens to the best of us.” He turned and gave me a cheeky smile before continuing in the direction of my friends.
I swore under my breath and pulled my pants down again, peeing as quickly as I could before anyone else turned up. In my rush I’d forgotten to dig a hole. I buried the toilet paper as best I could and sanitised my hands. Then I walked briskly on until I caught up to Sarah who was now walking behind the guys.
“Did a guy just overtake you? I asked casually, hoping she wouldn’t guess what had happened. Sarah frowned and shook her head. That is odd. Maybe he took a shortcut?
We all walked for a while in silence, enjoying the steady pace in the rainforest.
By late morning my stomach was rumbling loudly. I was looking forward to the lunch my partner Sam had prepared for us earlier. We usually go hiking together but at the last minute, Sam had to take an emergency booking from a client. I checked my phone but there were no messages. She was probably caught up in work. Sam was an electrician and had a successful business in the eastern suburbs of Brisbane.
The day grew warmer and more oppressive. There was no blue sky left and we could hear distant rumbles of thunder. Sarah complained of a headache. I knew I would have one if I didn’t drink enough, so I drained one of my bottles of water, inhaling the last sip as I usually do, coughing as tears ran down my cheeks.
“Take it easy Mandy.” Harry slapped me on the back. I nodded and tried to compose myself.
As we approached Meeting of the Waters the sound of running water grew louder. Even Sarah quickened her pace with us, in anticipation of getting to the halfway mark and taking a break.
We’d been walking in semi-darkness for a while, so everyone blinked as the rainforest abruptly opened into a large clearing, the grey sunlight shining dully on abundant water stretching in three directions. It was an unusual sight, and we all paused to appreciate it.
I remembered we had a rendezvous and pushed my way through tall water plants to the nearest creek edge. There was no sign of Dave.
“Daaave? Yoohooo!” I yelled in a random direction, and heads swiveled towards me.
James shrugged. “He must still be on his way or have decided not to come. Has anyone got reception?” James pulled out his phone and waved it at the sky. “Nope, no bars.”
Harry dropped his bag to the ground and stretched.
“What on earth did Sam pack for lunch Mandy? It weighs a tonne”.
“All sorts of goodies. Are you still on your “glutard” diet?”
“Saturdays are my cheat day, so I’ll eat whatever is in here.”
“Good thing we’re hiking then, and not sharing a car right now.”
“Don’t speak too soon.”
I made a face and moved further way from Harry, finding a nice flat rock to sit on.
Sarah sank gratefully onto the log James pointed out to her and rubbed her back. “I’m starving babe. Can you hand me some food please?”
I rolled my eyes as James obligingly dug in his backpack and handed sandwiches and snacks to her, hovering around as though she were a delicate invalid. There was no way Sam would be serving me if she was here. She’d probably throw me in the creek if I suggested it. I smiled as I imagined Sam playfully trying to drench me.
Inhaling the humid, fresh air, I unpacked my lunch tin. It felt good to relax and Sam’s home-made BLT and trail mix hit the spot. We’d only been eating for a few minutes when large fat raindrops began to fall.
We all groaned and half-heartedly picked up our food and picnic paraphernalia. Quickly the rain became heavy and I stood under a tree, which unhelpfully dripped cold water down my neck. I could hear the wind roaring through the trees upstream.
We needed to find shelter fast.
“Over here!” Harry’s voice came from an overgrown embankment several metres away.
We ran towards him, ducking as lightning flashed overhead, followed by a deafening crack. My heart was beating wildly. I love storms, but I prefer to observe them from somewhere warm and dry. Maybe we should have turned back earlier.
We found Harry standing outside what looked like the entrance to a cave. It was dark, and the ground was uneven, but from what I could see, it was dry inside. A gust of wind nearly blew me off my feet. I moved forward and gestured to the others to follow me.
“Let’s get inside, hopefully there are no snakes in there!” The wind blew my voice away, but they must have heard me, as we collectively ducked to enter the cave. Inside, the roof was low, but it felt spacious. Something brushed my hair and I swatted it away. A tree root, I think. I hope.
Something crashed outside, and we all jumped.
As our eyes adjusted to the dim natural light, I noticed the outline of something bulky on the floor, further back in the cave. I pulled my phone out and shined the torchlight at it.
Sarah screamed and I dropped my phone in shock.
It was our friend Dave.