Words || Nikita Jones
First of all, let me just pause here and wait for the chorus of ‘I told you so’ to stop.
Second of all, for readers who don’t know me personally I have to stress just how ill-suited to this challenge I was. I’m a perpetually unfit, chronic extrovert with a passion for indoor plumbing and a skin-care routine which some have labelled ‘obsessive.’ And yet, for this month’s challenge I decided to embark on a bushwalking track rated ‘hard’, and spend the night alone at a campsite in the middle of Heathcote National Park. Hang on, I’ll wait for the second round of ‘I told you so’s.
It’s a two-hour train ride from MQ to Heathcote station and so I had plenty of time to back out. I felt somewhat like a fraud carrying a camping backpack that was almost larger than me through outer-Sydney suburbia. Heathcote seems like a really nice area, there were kids playing soccer in the street like it was the goddamn nineties. One of them gave me a look as I walked past them. It was the kind of look they zoom in on at the beginning of a slasher movie, like this kid knew I was going to die. But it was only midday, the sun was shining, and I hadn’t yet tasted death, so I went down the road with a naive spring in my step.
I had a printed set of instructions from wildwalks.com that told me I’d reach the campsite in about three hours. This was the first lie. The second was that there’d be a burned-out car shell marking where I needed to turn off the bush track in order to descend safely from a cliff face. After some mild abseiling that definitely was not in the print-out, I sent my last snapchat for the day, updated my editor-in-chief, deputy-editor, and my mother, and officially re-began my journey.
The first four k’s simply consisted of following a rather wide maintenance trail over a cute little creek and up some mild hills. This lulled me into a false sense of security because the next four k’s were actual hell on earth. I cannot begin to explain the full extent of the undiluted horror that was my afternoon, but I’ll do my best.
The nice, safe, jogger-laden maintenance trail with its handy-dandy phone service turned rapidly into an out of range, narrow, overgrown bush track before I even had time to catch my breath. Suddenly the instructions became less than unclear – they were obviously outdated and downright useless. Countless times I screamed ‘what the fuck’ at unmarked (and undocumented) forks in the track. Three times I retraced my steps only to find myself back on the same path. My pack was digging bruises into my hips and shoulders and the bag of food I carried had torn apart so I cradled it in my arms. I spent almost three hours not so much walking as stumbling through the thick bush – not unlike what you see in those I Shouldn’t Be Alive re-enactments. There I was, shuffling head first into cobwebs and spiky branches, a constant stream of tears running down my face and a crazed, faraway look in my eyes. My spirit had well and truly been broken.
The last 30 to 40 minutes of my journey also featured hysterical incoherent babbling and something I like to call ‘scream-breathing’, which is a mixture of hyperventilated wheezing and cries of despair. In hindsight, I most likely scared off whatever serial killer was waiting in the bushes to murder me.
After a considerable amount of time, I arrived at a campsite (not the correct one), dumped my pack and checked my phone – zero bars, emergency calls only. The physical exhaustion was immediately replaced by a lurching feeling in my stomach, like my spirit had just come back to life and demanded that I not die here. While setting up the tent I noted the sound of distant thunder and the lightning scorch marks on the trees that surrounded the camping ground. This did not bode well. I pushed in the last tent peg as sprinkling rain became steady rain and dove into the tent just as the steady rain became pouring rain. And so there I sat, cross-legged in a very hastily assembled tent, all alone in the wrong campsite in the middle of Heathcote National Park. I cowered there, watching the lightning through the walls and feeling the rain flood the ground beneath the tent floor. It was at this moment that I started to scream. I did so continuously, out of vain hope that somebody might hear me and also because it helped to keep the vomit down. I screamed for almost an hour before I pressed the panic button. For the first time in my life I called 000.
“Nikita? Nikita, you have to listen to me okay, you have to answer my questions. Where are you?”
“I don’t know.” I really don’t know. I know where I’m supposed to be and I know I’m not there.
“Are you alone?”
“Yes.” Very. Completely.
“Do you have water?”
I look over at the 1.5 litre water bottle I’d been cradling in my arms for the past three hours. “Yes.”
“Do you have shelter?”
I look up at the roof of the tent, at the little water droplets forming on the inside layer. I feel the tent floor which by now is reminding me of the waterbed that mum and dad used to have in their bedroom. “Sort of.”
The 000 lady starts breaking up. She tells me to stop moving so the connection can clear up. I haven’t moved in over an hour. I hear “…emergency services…” and then I hear nothing. The call disconnects.
Apparently, there were over two hundred calls to SES that night. If I’d have known their number one of those calls would have been mine. But the rain had slowed significantly once my call to 000 had disconnected and I rolled out my sleeping bag, shoved a sandwich into my mouth and tried to sleep. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be saved, I wasn’t sure if the rain would stop the next morning, I wasn’t sure if I knew the way out of the bush even if it did. It took a while to get my eyes to stay shut.
I woke before sunrise on day two. Leaving my pack behind, I took a quick walk through the bush in search of the actual campground I was meant to be staying in. It was less than ten minutes away. I spent all of fifteen seconds admiring the natural beauty of the Kingfisher Pool, with the sun just starting to peek through the bush, birds singing in the trees, and the gentle rushing and gurgling of a waterfall in the distance. “Fuck that,” I said, and trudged back to my tent.
It had been a rough night. I estimated that I’d had around three hours’ sleep. Every muscle protested every step, but the path out of the campsite towards Waterfall Station took less than an hour. I spent most of that time making phone calls, assuring people I was alive. I also got a follow up call from the police, who were on their way to come rescue me in the morning.They took my full name, date of birth, and address. Apparently, there is now a full report on my “National Park Experience” sitting somewhere in the files of Sutherland Police Station, which is just great. That was embarrassing.
Listen, I know that the Australian bush is home to some of the world’s most unrivalled natural beauty. I get that gumtrees are the pinnacle of rustic aesthetic and there’s definitely a spiritual element in the way that nature interacts with itself. But oh my fucking god the Princes Highway is a thing of exquisite beauty. The first car I saw as I emerged from the bush was infinitely more stunning than any waterfall I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
So, contrary to predictions of many, I survived this challenge. Barely. I think I might have been okay if there had been at least one other person on this journey with me. I am most definitely not a solitary creature. Of course, I was expecting the eeriness that creeps up on a person alone in the dark, but there is absolutely no way I could have predicted or can even explain the effect that this lonely walk through the bush had on me.
Here is a poem that I wrote on the train home – because my mind had been turned to mush and then rapidly solidified again. Under no other circumstances do I write poetry.
Other people and their shitty taste in sunglasses and cologne
And their Beats by Dre and their Apple iPhones
I motherfucking love them.
I love cars and billboards and disembodied voices telling you to stand behind yellow lines.
Duplexes and triplexes and apartment complexes.
Backed up three-lane traffic and McDonald’s ads
I’m motherfucking lovin’ it