“Just remember,” the old man said. “If you’re bitten by something, please tell me.”
A few of us glanced at each other; smirks plastered across our faces.
“We had a girl here once” the man continued. “She was on the toilet when bitten by a snake. She was too embarrassed to reveal she had been bitten on the bottom. Because of this, it was too late when she finally alerted us. She died.”
The smirks had stopped.
I stared into my drink bottle and reflected on the girl whose casual trip to the toilet had been her last. Elvis had died after being on the toilet too. His Graceland mansion was a far cry from the damp tent I was sharing with a sweaty kid named Bradley.
The longer I analyzed the contents of my bottle, the more a yellowish tinge to the water bothered me. I tried to forget a classmate named Todd had been caught urinating in the stream responsible for our drinking water.
“It’s just the brackish water,” I reassured myself.
I had a restless night. The volume of Bradley’s snoring was in vigorous competition with animal sounds emitting from surrounding forest. The frenzied screams of Tasmanian Devils had me on edge. The close proximity of a mystery cow and its mooing was equally unsettling.
These sounds were broken as scattered vomiting filled the crisp morning air. Shit, I hope it’s not the water.
The old man was holding the culprit by the scruff of the neck. The disheveled goon bag looked as rough as those who consumed it the night before.
“Who does this belong to?” he asked, surveying the group and paying close attention to those looking green around the gills.
I was innocent in matters relating to the wine. After all, I was preoccupied with mystery cows, ferocious marsupials and a sweating snorer.
“Right. That’s it. We’re heading out earlier than planned.”
By heading out earlier than planned, I assumed he meant hiking up the huge mountain without breakfast.
I stealthily shoved some dried cereal into my mouth (that Mum had kindly packed me) and washed it down with the ‘brackish’ water.
‘Trespassers Welcome’ read the gate; indicating we were now on the property of Australian Greens senator Bob Brown.
The old man, who could easily have been Santa when not hiking mountains, was now bounding up the rough trail with suspicious enthusiasm. It seemed he had transformed into a mountain goat; such was the energetic way he traversed the various rocks and rugged terrain.
The more seasoned hikers in the group managed to keep up with him, while the rest of us (which included myself) began falling behind. My lagging at the back wasn’t due to a hangover like the others, but the simple fact I was out of my element. I had never properly gone bushwalking before—never mind climbed a mountain. This particular mountain happened to be described as one of ‘Australia’s hardest day walks.’ It was part of Tasmania’s Great Western Tiers and towered 1,340 meters into the air. It also featured a relentless gradient, with all advice suggesting it be only undertaken by those classified as highly experienced bushwalkers. But of course, I didn’t know any of this as I started the ascent.
I gingerly placed one foot in front of the other while navigating a flimsy bridge that crossed a creek. I contemplated whether this particular creek had been urinated in too—before my fear of falling in took over. I can’t swim.
The summit of Dry’s Bluff momentarily emerged from thick mist. It was an overwhelming sight. Everything appeared vertical. An impending sense of doom began niggling away at me. I was grateful when the mist returned and eliminated the challenge from sight.
The thick bushland was awash with various bird calls, most of which I didn’t recognize. Blackwood and silver wattle trees dominated the surrounding landscape. Large, moss-covered boulders and different types of ferns increased in frequency as we trekked our way up.
The stragglers were being escorted up the mountain by a seasoned bushwalker known as Mr Griggs.
“All of this is considered a World Heritage Area,” he explained, while we took a short brackish-water drink break. He gestured to the abundance of ferns in our vicinity. “This forest is home to Tasmania’s rarest fern,” he continued. “Asplenium hookerianum.”
“Sounds like a Harry Potter spell,” I muttered.
The higher we climbed, the more we became engulfed in thick mountain mist. Now in the middle of a temperate rainforest, everything was damp.
The gaze of Mr Griggs had diverted from rare ferns to me.
“Right here is the type of clothing best suited to this terrain” he said, tapping me on the shoulder and gesturing to my jumper. Mum had gifted me the slightly oversized rust-colored item prior to camp. I was the only one wearing polar fleece. The material was somehow ensuring the misty rain and dampness remained on the surface of my jumper, and not soaking through, the latter which was happening to others.
I sensed Mr Griggs was developing a type of respect for me. I wasn’t used to teachers liking me. Perhaps he was perceptive of the fact I was confronting fear and anxieties around every corner? I was certainly different to the other students who hiked mountains for fun with their rich parents during holidays. Perhaps he just had a thing for polar fleece? Either way, it was good knowing he had my back.
The towering eucalypts that accompanied each step were as imposing as the jagged rock fortress above us. Occasionally there would be a break in the mist. When this coincided with an opening in the tall green canopy, we would pause to soak up the sights.
“That nest is home to peregrine falcons,” Mr Griggs explained.
“Is that one up there?” I asked, pointing to a large bird circling in the sky.
“No. That looks like one of our endangered Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagles.”
We had reached a point on the mountain where things transformed into a high rock wall. Serious rock climbing would be required now. We were assembled in single file, curious at how we would survive the next leg of our journey. My knees were already wobbly.
A group of boulders and precarious ledges stood before us. It resembled a chimney, and would require a particular method of climbing to overcome. We had no harnesses, helmets, or fixed ropes. We probably should have. One wrong move and we would plummet hundreds of meters off the face of the mountain. I couldn’t help thinking the wedge-tailed eagle was circling for this very possible scenario.
I used to have recurring dreams as a child that featured me slipping closer and closer to the edge of a cliff. I would always wake up in a cold sweat with heart racing. It took forever to settle again. It was that scenario which I now had to confront in reality.
With Mr Griggs positioned precariously in part of the rock crevice, we maneuvered ourselves one-by-one up the wall. Our bodies twisted unnaturally as hands gripped any stable rock surface we could find. It didn’t pay to look down but it was impossible to ignore the sheer drop in our peripheral vision. My heart pounded as I cautiously placed myself in various positions and scampered up the cliff. I didn’t fully rise to my feet until I was among the shrubbery that lined one side of the otherwise rough path.
An accompanying teacher was excited we had achieved one of the hardest sections of the hike. As we paused to compose ourselves, he decided a group picture was in order. A carpet of loose rocks and boulders covered the ground beside the track. It was these loose rocks which Mr Tuck mindlessly walked backwards over as he positioned the camera before his face.
He stumbled and lost balance. This caused rocks to spring from position and fly over the cliff to the jagged floor below. At the last second, he managed to regain his footing. The color drained from his face as it dawned how close he’d come to falling into the abyss.
Some people had started vomiting again. It wasn’t every day we witnessed someone almost plummet to their death.
We shook ourselves off and pushed for the summit. The daunting Jurassic dolerite columns became less imposing as we found ourselves walking among them.
Once at the top, we were promised spectacular views overlooking the Meander Valley and surrounding areas. It had been these incredible views which served as large part of my motivation up this mountain.
The temperature dropped considerably as we trekked across the plateau. The mood seemed decidedly more relaxed. The old man even appeared somewhat jubilant. It was a relief not to be ascending vertical obstacles for the first time in hours.
“So where are these views?” I asked Mr Griggs.
“This is it,” he replied. “Appears to be quite a lot of cloud cover today.”
Fucking cloud cover? I thought.
I walked to an area usually responsible for the awe-inspiring views that spanned the valleys.
My vision was instead filled with a vast whiteness. Though I could see my hand before my face, I struggled to see much beyond it. It was like we had all tumbled off the face of the planet and were now wandering around in some kind of purgatory.
The near-death experiences, the anxiety-inducing drops, the fatigue—all for nothing.
Or was it?
My climb of Dry’s Bluff had unintentionally taught me something valuable.
Sometimes in life we set out to achieve certain goals and dreams. We pour blood, sweat and tears into pursuing them. We dedicate ourselves to surmounting various challenges along the way. When we finally reach that summit, it can occasionally prove rather underwhelming. Our big goal or dream doesn’t quite turn out how we wanted. Our hopes and expectations are dramatically dashed.
It’s during these moments we learn to value the journey rather than the destination. We can take comfort knowing we rose to the occasion and overcame the obstacles before us. From these experiences, we may even draw inspiration from ourselves.
We also learn the ability to reassess our goals. Just because the view from one summit turned out shit, doesn’t mean the next one will. We can always walk back down that mountain and look for the next one.
There’s always a possibility the next summit will provide that spectacular view.