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Edition 36

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Memoir

If you know Bourke you know Australia

'When the heavy sand is yielding backward from your blistered feet,
And across the distant timber you can see the flowing heat;
When your head is hot and aching, and the shadeless plain is wide,
And it's fifteen miles to water in the scrub the other side –
Don't give up, don't be down-hearted, to a man's strong heart be true!
Take the air in through your nostrils, set your lips and see it through...'

– Henry Lawson

I WAS in Bourke, New South Wales - the outback, that most powerful of Australian words – the edge of the world, where the unknown begins. I was having a break from writing Cold Light and I had my backpack and gear with me, intending to do a trek in that hard country, maybe to look at a geological oddity called Mount Gunderbooka, about sixty kilometres south-west of the dwindling township of Bourke. The mountain name carried within it the word 'book'.

Gunderbooka had only recently been opened to the public. Formerly it had been part of the Gunderbooka sheep and cattle station, established 1857, and closed in by some other great stations, but these had ceased to be economic and have been gazetted as national parks. No more would those private-boarding-school boys and girls from romantic sheep stations invite their city friends home in the holidays to ride horses, shear a sheep, catch yabbies in the dam, picnic on Gunderbooka. No more 'sturdy station children pulling the bush flowers on my grave' (if we have Lawson in we may as well have in Adam Lindsay Gordon).

Mount Gunderbooka is not huge – about five hundred metres at its highest, about the same as Gallipoli (we might as well have Gallipoli in the narrative too), and about thirty-five kilometres in circumference. From the sky the mountain looks like the horseshoe-shaped rim of a volcano crater but it isn't a volcano; it's an upthrust formation formed 385 million years ago, if that figure can mean much to the imagination. It was first recorded by European eyes in 1829 by Charles Sturt.

Bourke's long drought had broken that summer so I expected there would be surface water. The topographical map indicated myriad small streams running off the mountain and suggested springs on the mountain itself, and I learned that Aborigines and settlers found water there during droughts.

I have been off-trail trekking in the bush since I was a kid – backpack, tent, sleeping bag, carrying my food, compass and map, cooking on the campfire – and in recent years I usually go alone for a week or more. I sometimes say that I go trekking in the wilderness to have non-verbal time – no conversation, no writing, no reading, no media – a tertiary-educated person speaks about sixteen thousand words a day. By wilderness I mean wild country where it is very unlikely I will see anyone or any trace of civilisation and where there is a good chance no one has ever bothered to go before.

In the bar I have been heard to say that I go trekking to experience a raw interface with the natural world, with myself, with the universe. And at times in my life I've done it to escape from the maddening trivia of shared, intimate domesticity. I have also been known to quote Henry David Thoreau: 'I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately...' I don't rate Thoreau highly as a thinker but Thoreau always asks to be included. I take it he meant that in the wilderness you are very aware, you need to be alert, you need your wits about you. When trekking in the bush nothing is habitual, trivial, thoughtless, unconsidered, routine, or repetitious. Maybe he had more transcendental meanings at work. I doubt it.

I estimate that, all up, I've spent about three years of my life so far sleeping out under the stars without serious accident or getting lost ('I don't know where I am but I'm not lost,' as the old bushwalker Paddy Pallin would say). Over the years I've had minor injuries – I have fallen into a creek and cracked a rib or two, I have stubbed my toe seriously and have had to drug up and limp out – but together with minor burns, scratches, cuts, bites, that's about it.

My bush training came from scouting – four years – followed by two years in the army cadets, then army national service basic training and then part-time service in the reserve army – five years. My older brothers were canoeists and bushwalkers. They once tied me to a tree in our back garden and told me to figure my way out. I wasn't discovered missing until the family sat down to dinner. If it'd rained and the ropes had tightened I would probably have lost my feet and hands. I liked to think I was close to freeing myself when I was found. In recollection, I was forever trying to learn things like how to hide a razor blade in my mouth the way Houdini did – he could also undo knots with his toes. My brothers said they were training me to be a commando. It was called toughening up, especially for boys with a tendency to effeminacy, 'softness'. My mother was a Commissioner of Girl Guides and my father a Commissioner of Boy Scouts.

SO, THERE IN the motel room in Bourke, sipping a bourbon, watched by the ghosts of my Commissioner parents and the critical purview of my inner tough-as-old-boots brothers, I studied the map and did online research on temperatures, winds and rainfall. I have trekked with temperatures in the mid-thirties but when I do I usually stay out of the sun between 11 am and 4 pm. As I did my planning it seemed that a five-day trek to the mountain at the end of February was no more risky than any other trek I'd taken. It was not a trek of heroic scale. Almost a walk in the park. The take-off point was a place called Dry Tank, the poetry of its historical name now rather diminished by a new marked-out car park, water tank, washbasin, toilet, and the new brown-grouted National Park signage.

As an experienced trekker I have a checklist of seventy-eight items which has been refined over the years from my experience and my changing tastes. I try to trek in some comfort. My list includes bourbon and I also like to carry olives, paté, nuts, pickles, smoked oysters, anchovies and so on for the cocktail hour. I do a good campfire canapé. All my gear is state of the art. It includes an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) and an ultraviolet device to sterilise water. For a five-day trek I carry about eighteen kilograms (for reference, the check-in luggage limit on most airlines is in the low twenties).

Mount Gunderbooka is six kilometres south from Dry Tank. When trekking in rugged east coast bush I estimate I walk about a kilometre an hour off-trail – but here with light forest cover and flat, sandy terrain with little or no scrub I thought it would be a slow, 'deliberate' two-hour walk. Maybe a little longer. I soon found that some of the ground was gravel (a technical term for loose rocks larger than sand and up to about sixty millimetres – smaller than cobblestones. It can be hard to walk on but no great problem. In other places, especially New Zealand, scree is another problem, small round, loose stones on mountain slopes).

In Australia all trekking is water-directed – you always work towards water or, ideally, follow watercourses. When you pass by a marsh or a spring or soak you always mark it down in the log (I use 3x5 cards) in case you have an emergency – break a leg, say – and have to drag yourself back in great agony to the muddy water and soak it up with a Chux, squeeze it in a cup and drink it until the helicopter arrives with the martinis (Chux are non-toxic and degradable viscose rayon fibres – I could go on about the value of Chux cloth in the bush).

I set off from Dry Tank having left my trip plan with three designated friends. I began the day with a sortie to see if there was surface water in one of the closer creeks (slightly off the direct course to Gunderbooka, but on the way) – there wasn't, but that was no problem. I was carrying 2.5 litres of water. I spent my first night there.

NEXT DAY I headed directly to Gunderbooka, where I expected to find water, and if there wasn't I would have a look about for a while and then return directly to the car – two hours or so. All manageable. Home before dark.

I easily reached the base of Gunderbooka and found a waterhole about the size of a kitchen sink under a tree – probably a bloodwood – with some shade, not a lot. I should warn you that I'm not so good on botanical or bird naming in the bush, although I did get my tree badge in the scouts. I have a resistance to naming which is probably also philosophical, but there isn't space for that here: suffice to say that I go into the wilderness to be enveloped by it. It is a confrontation with Gothic nature and a surrendering to its prickly, existential embrace – I am not there to catalogue it – it is not a nature study lesson. I made camp at the waterhole. Looking around I found that the waterhole was one of a chain of ponds which were dotted up the mountain as indicated by the map – the others were about bathtub size. No problem with water. I don't do much bathing in the bush. Sometimes it's good to just get, well, dirty, and to have smells, not quite in the sense of down and dirty. Part of the raw interface.

I had a good campfire and a few bourbons.

Early next morning I put some essentials in my pockets – water, compass, first-aid kit – and so on and made a recce up the mountain – the gradients were gentle enough and I reached the top in about an hour (faster than the Anzacs). As I was climbing I thought I heard didgeridoo sounds coming out as I breathed – this could be a sign of good harmony with nature or it could be a sign of delirium. I didn't feel delirious but neither did I feel any great harmony.

On the summit I poked about for around for an hour – the flat plateau was rather treeless, some mulga – and looked out across the shimmering plains which stretched to the horizon. 'And across the distant timber you can see the flowing heat, and the shadeless plain is wide...' The day was warming up.

I felt a despairing empathy with those early settlers who'd made it all the way from moist, verdant Britain, spent months at sea on a tossing wooden ship, then weeks in bullock-drawn carts over barely made roads leading to dusty tracks, to this place of dry, hellish countryside of marginal agricultural value, eight hundred kilometres from Sydney. There is the fickle Darling River nearby, upon which they were probably depending. Then, deciding to settle here, cutting down the trees and building bark shacks trying to get their sheep and cattle to graze on the sparse grass. Why did they do it? From what demons were they fleeing? Crazy. We should now be evacuating what remains of these places, these hundred-year experiments with marginal country.

I then made my descent. The day was really warming up.

By about midday the sun was scorching. I hunkered down to avoid the heat and to read – too hot to do any more reconnaissance. I was reading Civilisation by Kenneth Clark while lying there inside the tent, in the sand and gravel of a dry watercourse. Although I carry a book I rarely read on a trek – I carry it in case I get pinned down in my tent by the weather. Here the heat had me pinned down.

As I write this essay I take down the Clark book and I open it again and I see that I would've read Clark's first sentence, 'I am standing on the Pont des Arts in Paris. On one side of the Seine is the harmonious façade of the Institute of France... Just visible upstream is the Cathedral of Notre Dame... And on the bridge...many pilgrims from America, from Henry James, downwards, have paused and breathed in the aroma of a long-established culture...' Here I was, in a gravel watercourse, breathing in the hot dust which was now affecting my throat – no aroma of a long-established culture. This is the raw interface I dashingly talk about in the bar. Nothing comfortable: nothing convenient.

As I read, I needed to be zipped up in the tent to keep off the swarms of flies and other primeval flying beasts that were hanging around. Perhaps the end of the drought had sent the insect world into frantic competitive activity – bite while the biting's good. I saw insects I had never seen before and have not seen since and for which I have no names. They had crawled out from cracks in the prehistoric bowels of the earth, perhaps something they did once in a millennium. Who knows? Every country has an infuriating anti-human insect that is rarely mentioned in tourist brochures – it seemed here at Mount Gunderbooka they had then all gathered, from every corner of the earth. While I was out of the tent having a piss, an ant – or maybe a spider, not sure what – bit my big toe (around the camp I wear sandals), a bite so powerful it numbed the toe for half an hour or so.

During the afternoon I moved my tent a few times, chasing the skimpy shade. It is a whiz-bang modular two-person tent with a netting roof which allows you to see the stars at night and which keeps the insects out. It has a second skin (the fly) which can be put on in wet weather or, in this case, to give a sort of minimal shade. Once up, it is easily moved around.

During the day some wild goats, about six, came down from the mountain to the upper waterholes. I thought, shit, they could easily drink the waterholes dry. I let them have a drink and then shooed them away. I filled all my water containers and kept an eye on them during the day, throwing a stone now and then when a goat dared to return.

In the heat of the afternoon, I saw vivid human shapes in the white limbs of the trees. It was probably brought on by the heat, or as with the didgeridoo noises it could be some sort of Aboriginal spirit show to keep me amused. I had no appetite, but in the afternoon I ate some stewed fruit and drank some black tea. I threw it up – a symptom of heat stress, but it didn't register with me as that.

It did not cool down much as the sun set. I moved back to my original campsite and its small waterhole. I opened my food bag in my pack to get the evening meal and found it was teeming with maggots. The sausages had gone off. I buried them. I took the remaining food and gear out and washed it and scrubbed out the pack.

I nibbled some Vita-Weat biscuits and drank water flavoured with orange vitamin C powder.

Then I was attacked by two wild bees. I slapped the bees off my face, knocking them to the ground, but they shook themselves off and came at my face again. This time I really knocked them down and crushed them with my sandal. They'd managed to bite me on the cheek and the ear. The bee stings had the wallop of a slap. I saw the nest a few metres up the tree. Perhaps they were its praetorian guard. As with the ant sting, the bee stings numbed my face, this time for about an hour. No other bees attacked. The wild bees were a first for me in all my bush experience. I could smoke them out of their nest and take their honey to make, what – mead? Honey on toast?

Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?

As night fell the mosquitoes came out and I had to get inside the tent to escape them – jungle-strength Rid didn't deter them. The sink-sized waterhole at my campsite was now empty but I checked that water remained in the higher waterholes – what the goats had left for me. I poured myself bourbon but did not feel like drinking – the air and ground were still very hot. In my log notes I recorded that I was somewhat breathless, maybe from boxing with the bees. I decided enough was enough. I would have an early night and get up while it was dark and cool and walk back to the car, two hours away.

So, early in the morning I rose while the stars were out – made some coffee, ate some stewed fruit, filled my water bottles with sterilised water (2.5 litres) – and broke camp.

AS IT WAS cool and I was only two hours from the car I decided to do a short recce around the base of Gunderbooka. After an hour of walking my curiosity was not altogether satisfied – there was a well-noted well on the map but I did not find it.

The sun was beginning to rise so I changed my direction to begin my move towards Dry Tank and the car.

Working by compass means that you lay out the map on the ground so that the lie of the map is the same as the lie of the land (called orienting the map) – that is, so that both the top of the map and compass are pointing north. (I won't go into magnetic north and true north and the fact that the north pole moves about – on walks such as these that is not of great matter.) You then put the compass on the map with the line of the compass case pointing to your destination and you read off the direction bearing from the compass, the bearing, which is now the direction of the compass arrow. You follow that bearing to your destination. That's your number.

To keep on the correct direction you take constant readings every five or ten minutes – holding the compass in front of you and following the arrow which is pointed to your number or, to be more disciplined, lining up the arrow with a landmark, which can be just a misshapen tree, for example, and then following landmarks that lie in the direction of your number, taking a reading every hundred metres or so.

Magnetic bearings can be likened to invisible velvet ropes lying across the landscape on to which you hold as your guide through the unknown. To be honest, the velvet rope image doesn't quite capture the intangibility of it or the variability of it (iron in the surrounding rock formation can interfere with the readings, for instance), but it is a rather weird part of the structure of the world. When it works (which is nearly all the time), and after days of making your way through the wilderness you arrive back at your car, it is exhilarating.

As I walked I found a fence and followed it even though it was a little off my bearing. It was a physical guide from the civilised world. I noted its bearing so that I could adjust my bearing back to the original reading which went more directly to the car. Following a physical route like this – say, a watercourse, a fence line (if it's show on a map) – is a double-safe method, additional to the compass, shown moving through unknown country. In this case it was an error.

The sun was up. Hotter than yesterday.

By 11 am the day was very hot. I swung away from the fence line and headed directly towards the car. I encountered other abandoned fences, mostly fallen. I came to the realisation that this land had over the past 154 years been fenced and re-fenced, some of it mapped and some not. Some of the land was given to soldiers returning from World War I as small allotments – a very cruel gift from a grateful nation. Over the years the unneeded fences from old boundaries fell over or the unneeded wires were cut. Too many fences. I realised that out here fences are useless as guides and I returned to relying on the compass alone and my original bearing. But I knew there in the sweating heat that I had drifted from that bearing – still, it was not too late to somehow return to it in a rough sort of way.

I had drunk one litre of water but had about one and a half litres left, and had begun to use water to wet my hat and a neck bandana which I had fashioned from a Chux cloth.

I was now conscious of the risk of hyperthermia – also called heatstroke – which is not simply dehydration but is a serious overheating of the body and its organs which can only be avoided by cooling as much of the body as you can, and not just by drinking water.

The heat was hitting down through the thin canopy of trees, perhaps cypress pine, and beating back up from the red clay sand. Radiant heat.

Weirdly, I remembered something from the 1910 British Active Service Pocket Book for Army Officers, which says something like: 'there is far less thirst when men march along with their mouths closed... This is one of the great objections to singing on a march.'

I was not singing.

I was shocked to realise that I had been walking nearly five hours – not good. I had been walking far too long. I should be at the car by now, even given the time taken by my earlier recce and the somewhat lazy deviation of following an old fence line.

I tried to recalculate the route. The heat was becoming agonising. I assumed, regardless of my compass work, that I had drifted off my bearing in a slightly dazed way. I had wandered. Very bad bushcraft.

I had an option. I could rest until the cool of the late afternoon – if it were, in fact, to cool down – I could set up something of a shade cover with my tent fly, very inadequate shade from overhead sun, and then resume walking when it was cool, but by that time I would certainly have used up all my water. What if I found that by nightfall I was truly lost and had to wait through a hot, torturing, waterless night and then seek help by triggering my EPIRB the next morning, maybe waiting ten, twelve hours for rescue (no point in calling for help in the night)? Not a good plan. Dangerous.

In outdoor emergencies there are Rules of Three (approximate rules, with room for variation). With hyperthermia and hypothermia, the situation becomes critical three hours after the onset of serious symptoms – such as my legs giving way and confusion; with continued exposure to extreme heat the kidneys, heart and so on begin to suffer damage and 'brains will fry', coma will set in (three hours also for some snake bites – if it is a serious bite the symptoms will begin to show). To sterilise water you should boil it for three minutes. The other Rules of Three are that it is a serious emergency if you have gone without water for three days, without food for three weeks. Without sex for three years.

As I began to stumble and felt like just sliding down where I was – giving up – a voice said, 'Australians don't quit,' very much like the voice in the Lawson poem. 'Take the air in through your nostrils, set your lips and see it through...'

AS I WRITE this I am embarrassed – I have absorbed this don't-quit attitude from my family, especially my brothers, and from the masculine country town culture of toughness in which I grew up, and all the leadership training I went through in scouting and the army. Why should I be embarrassed? 'Toughness', or toughing it out, is a functional mantra which can get you through daunting situations by driving the mind and body to extra effort. As in the army, so in bushcraft – there are drills that are learned. A drill is a set way of behaviour for a range of situations, for emergencies, so that you react quickly in an effective way without having to figure out too much or consult a field manual, so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel. But nor is a drill performed without some oversight by the mind.

And then there is masculinity. I have had a lifelong quarrel with the negative parts of my masculinity, maybe with all crude masculinity. My personality, as I discovered it, at a deep level, was strongly inclined to androgyny, to the femme side of androgyny. I no longer go trekking to perform the primitive 'ordeal rituals' of masculinity, to prove myself as a man. My personality is under the command of a more placid androgyny these days. (As a friend once said to me, masculinity is not the only strength – androgyny has its own strengths. This is too big a subject for this essay.)

So I did not just slide down into a slump. I pushed on, sometimes stumbling, and with increasing physical weakness. I came across yet another bloody fence line.

I tried to take a bearing on the fence line but I found that my mind had trouble deciding whether I was seeing it as east-west or north-south – this is such an elementary compass reading, and as I stood there looking at the fence and looking back at my compass I realised that I could no longer read the compass. I was drifting into confusion. Yet in the midst of this rising mist of confusion another part of my mind still registered this confusion and set off a blinking red light in my head. It was a very serious warning sign. As I analyse this from my notes written (with more and more illegibility) at the time I can see that there is a limited, firewalled part of the mind which continues to function in emergency mode – at least for a short time – while the rest of the body begins to close down, and which issues warnings and triggers the survival drills.

The sun now felt as if it was beating me down.

And there was, in me, also a driving, self-punishing part of the mind that was also still active – which was perhaps a component of the confused mind. This self-punishing mind was a form of wackiness. It asked mockingly whether perhaps I was exaggerating the situation, was it really that bad? Was it really that hot? Muscle up. In accounts of explorers and others who've become lost or suffer hyperthermia or hypothermia there are descriptions of this urge to stagger on. Usually it also involves dumping gear, another error. Even trained soldiers have to be watched or they will begin to throw away their equipment. Trekking once in Canada in the Algonquin forest I came across a remarkable example of this. On the trail, I first came across some books in Japanese, and a few hundred metres further on I came across clothing, then further on a sleeping bag, then further on tinned food, and so on, and eventually the backpack itself. The trekker had just begun dumping gear; the stressed body was unable to bear the weight.

My mental command centre clearly registered that I could no longer decide which way to go and that I was staring at the compass without comprehension and said: stop. The punishing mind called it giving up. I struggled out of my pack and slid down under a tree with its meagre shade. I'm done. I wet the bandana. I poured water over my head. Although I know about hyperthermia – I have done my homework on this over the years, along with other first-aid training – I got out the first-aid book to check again if there was anything further I could do. My mind drifted in and out of lucidity. Obviously, I couldn't cool down my body by, say, plunging into water – actually, that would not be the right thing to do, according to accepted first-aid practice. If water is available the body should be cooled gradually before immersion by washing the body with cool water, sprinkling water on the body. There was no such water: there was nothing left for me to do except to trigger the EPIRB.

I tried to stand up without my pack and my legs gave way – enzymes were being released by my stressed body, weakening my muscles – you see this happening sometimes with marathon runners. My emergency mind was repeating a message with increasing urgency: I am in serious trouble.

I took out the beacon and crawled to some open ground and for the first time in my life triggered it – it needs open ground to send an unimpeded signal. The emergency mind was still functioning about things like this.

Even though I knew I was out of network coverage for my mobile phone, I tried calling 000 on my mobile – again, for the first time in my life. I knew that sometimes even if the phone indicates that there is no network coverage the networks are set up to try to relay 000 calls. I got through. I had trouble telling the emergency service much information because the link kept dropping out.

I crawled back to my pack and decided to add some salt to a mug of water. This was borderline rationality – my emergency mind was still operating enough to be aware that this too was a tricky manoeuvre – while loss of salt was part of my problem, too much salt creates other problems. In recent manuals, lightly salted or sugared drinks are recommended. I added what would be considered a safe amount to my mug of water but it wouldn't do me much good at this point.

Meanwhile, the beacon signal was beaming my location to a satellite and then bouncing it down to Canberra and the Emergency Rescue Agency, which then contacted the three people who have my trek plan – the agency in turn relayed this information to the nearest rescue authority, in this case the Broken Hill police.

I was now unable to walk, my legs were beginning to cramp, and the heat was insufferable. I carry a good medical kit but there is no drug which would have helped me deal with the heat.

MY LOG NOTES from this time show that my emergency brain was still running a constant scan of my physiology. I noted that I felt 'death impending' – I actually wrote these words down. It was a feeling similar to that felt during a vicious flu – it was as if the emergency mind was saying this is what happens next, beginning a preview. It didn't say prepare yourself to die – what is there to prepare? There were no further actions to prepare for survival or for death that I could take. I was stymied. In a philosophical sense I am not particularly worried about dying and after a certain age one's death doesn't matter all that much to others. But nor do I shrug it off with any of the folk sayings: 'when your time is up, your time is up', 'we all have to die sometime and there is nothing we can do about it', 'death doesn't have a calendar'. During most of my adult life – maybe in fact, from childhood – I have had an on-again-off-again relationship with life at the best of times and I sometimes idly fantasise that I would be happy to die out in the bush – say, from that snake bite – but, without question, my body was now telling me that I did not want to die this way; I did not want to die from the agony of the heat; this would not be a peaceful death. Coma would be the only relief. My overriding impulse was not to live but to relieve myself from the heat agony. I carry no way of committing suicide on my treks. Perhaps I should.

A childish joke drifted into my consciousness: why can't you starve in the desert? Because of the sand which is there.

I still had about half a litre of water.

After an hour or so of semi-wakefulness I heard a police siren and the sound of vehicles, and adrenaline pulled me back to low alertness. I heard a car moving slowly along a road. It stopped. I realised I was, in fact, not far from the road.

I began blowing my emergency whistle – another of the seventy-eight items I carry, and another which I have never used in my life – as best I could: an example of drilled behaviour. I noticed there was foam around my mouth.

In fifteen minutes or so two young police officers – one male and one female, following the fence line, the one about which I had been confused – burst out of the trees and reached me. The female constable was leading, using her baton to break down the many spider webs which are found in this country. (I haven't mentioned the thousands of spider webs spun among the trees – no big deal.)

Then a National Park quad found its way in behind them and my gear and I were loaded on to it, and we found our way to the road, which was about fifty metres from where I collapsed. I had nearly made it back to my car. A new ambulance was waiting with the police and National Parks people who were there to join the search. In the ambulance the paramedics took my vital signs and tried to take my personal information – I was unable to remember my address. I had almost lost my voice.

Bourke Hospital is also new and I spent a week there in the acute care ward – what I call the acute embarrassment ward. I was embarrassed about having failed my trained bush self and having involved so many people in the rescue. I heard rebukes from my childhood – could I have tried harder, the fear of causing trouble, of being in trouble with authorities. Some sad, infantile court of behavioural judgement. I found I was tempted to exaggerate my condition to justify being rescued, to justify being cared for; however, as I listened to hospital staff chatter, I realised that for the emergency workers – the police, the ambulance, the National Parks people – this was an adrenaline rush, this was what they train for, and this was for them a great success. They had rescued a person and saved a life.

Lying in the hospital bed I saw red tartan wallpaper when I closed my eyes, I had slight delirium, and I was beset by imaginary swarms of flies. I slept deeply and long.

I learned that the temperature went to 38° on the Thursday when I was reading Civilisation and threw up. I was certainly already showing symptoms of hyperthermia. On the Friday, as I tried to walk out, the temperature went to 42.7° (according to a nurse, but certainly over 41). Sadly, I observe that as I write this I am still tempted to fudge the figures, push them up to excuse my collapse, to justify the calling of emergency services. On the Saturday when I was safely in hospital the temperature fell back to 24°. It had been a freak peak in the temperature.

I FLEW BACK to Sydney and found that I was not well and could not leave the house or tolerate the sun. I stayed with a friend for a month, for most of the time unwilling to go outside. Blood tests were done weekly and continued to show that no organ damage had occurred, but my GP diagnosed some post-traumatic stress.

It was suggested that I keep a diary of my daily condition, noting changes on a scale of one to ten (one being in bed, unable to move), noting improvement or otherwise in concentration – reading, television, degree of reluctance to go out in the sun, appetite, headaches, sleeping pattern, tolerance of company, mood. For a week or so I was able to eat only fruit, yogurt, rice, chicken, eggs.

The diary began to show that I was recovering and after a month my normal physical sense of myself returned and my life resumed.

Three months later, in winter, with my young artist friend Alli Woolf as my back-up, I went out again to Dry Tank and redid the trek with further exploration of Gunderbooka. The insects were not angry; the weather was benign. It went like a textbook exercise in Australian bush trekking.

I am not finished with Mount Gunderbooka and I intend to go there again.


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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