Thunder cracks again in the distance, closer this time. About five k’s by my count. The wind is picking up too. The afternoon is late, but not so late that the darkness slowly growing across the basin is the sun setting. Not that lucky. This storm is going to be a problem, dammit. I need to find a place to set up camp. And soon. But I need get out of this basin first.
The dried up river crunches under my hiking boots. The only sound throughout, it echoes across the landscape to strike the surrounding mountains before returning. The sound of complete emptiness. What little life would have existed in this depression left a few hours ago. Not stupid, they know what’s coming.
Today is day two of my lonely sabbatical. A quiet walk through the stunning landscape of outback Australia. My hike is taking me on a rough triangular loop from the campground I abandoned my car at, out for thirty kilometres yesterday, across for another twenty this morning before turning down and following this dried river traversing this basin for another ten kilometres today. Thirty kilometres a day is a good pace. It’s easier alone. But with my supplies starting to thin out, I’m glad the final leg will be an easy ten kilometres. Home tomorrow and back into the hell of real life.
The trees around are sparse, almost barren. Only the largest gums endure. The natural valley stripped, no doubt, by the torrential forces that will soon tear through this place in short time. Still, it’s a pleasant landscape. Nothing to focus on. Nothing to occupy the mind. Exactly what I needed. The perfect way to get away from everything. It’s only a pity there’s nothing to sustain life out here. I could quite easily abandon it all and live here forever.
There is a light tap on my shoulder. Barely noticed, until another touches my hair. Then another lands on the tip of my nose. The first spitting of rain. I pick up the pace.
The locals warned me off the hike. Particularly this leg of the journey, through this ancient river. It was too dangerous, they said. And I understood their point. Nobody should travel alone through a place as remote as here. But I’m not inexperienced. These boots have thousands of far more difficult kilometres on them than this gentle walk. Still, I understood the danger a flash flood through here could be. I knew I had to get out.
The rain picks up. I stop a moment to set down my pack and pull my poncho out from the top. The pause is a welcome break. The pack is good, the straps fit well around my waist to keep it off my shoulders, but it’s always nice to get it off and give my shoulders a chance to stretch out. A flash goes off somewhere behind me. I start counting. One thousand. Two thousand. And. The thunder crashes through the basin. Loud enough to be painful. The storm is moving quickly. I figure I still have one and a half hours before I make the other side. I need to reach the edge of the basin and hit high ground to set up for the night. Time to start pushing harder.
It takes a bit of creativity to get my pack back on and under my poncho. It bounces off my hips for the first few steps, while I adjust the straps and accommodate the added weight. How quickly the muscles forget.
It turns dark before I realise it. The eerie twilight of an afternoon storm. Still enough light to see well enough. My face and hands quickly go slick with water. Not that I mind hiking in the wet. It’s the pleasant warm rain of tropical Queensland. Not uncomfortable. As long as nothing else gets too wet, it’ll be fine.
An hour later and the rain is really pelting down. The lightning flashes are almost constant now. I can barely separate the thunder from the flash. The storm is almost here. By now, I’m almost jogging. Which is about as fast as I can move with this gear. It doesn’t help much; the ground is starting to go soft. My boots begin to sink in under my weight and stick to the mud that’s forming from the fine silt sand. The river’s walls grow rapidly as it starts cutting its way through the surrounding hills converging upon the edge of the basin and funnels me forward.
The walls rise rapidly into a gorge, the work of thousands and thousands of years the river has run through here. Its faces are rough and ragged, showing its youth in the worldly scheme of things. I know I still have thirty minutes to traverse the gorge, but the maps show beyond the gorge the landscape forms a natural rise that will serve me well as my campsite for the night.
And now I’m faced with a dangerous choice. Water is starting to flow across the bed as little rivulets. It won’t be long before it becomes a fully-fledged river. And then the floods come. Do I try to climb up the gorge walls and get myself to high ground as fast as possible; a difficult task even on a dry day, by the look of it. It’s too late to consider detouring to an easier climb, the river has driven me to this point. Any detour would take me longer than thirty minutes and I can tell I don’t have the time for that. Finally, I can commit myself to the gorge and risk being stuck inside if it flashes over.
I don’t think it’s smart to start climbing now. Here, more recent floods have cut the walls almost smooth to as high as I can reach as it funnels through the mountainside. I’m not going to struggle to be able to climb it safely with this pack. So I keep pushing on.
The storm is practically above me. The gorge provides a little bit of protection from the weather. A little. It still funnels the buffeting wind through me. I find myself dodging big pools of water. As best I can. I’m not always successful and I can feel the water start to soak into my boots. Something I really want to avoid. Wet boots will make for a terrible experience tomorrow.
I start crossing the aftermath of previous floods. Broken trees uprooted and massive branches picked up and deposited throughout the riverbed.
Then I hit a snag. A massive gum blocks the path forward, up rooted and wedged across the gorge with no way around. Its trunk is thick enough to come up over my shoulders and slick with rain. A gap underneath’s letting water flow through, but it’s far too small for me to climb under. Frustrating, I can’t be far from the end now. And the water is really flowing now. My heart’s pumping rapidly. This is quickly becoming a disastrous situation.
I give climbing over it a few shots, but the weight of my pack just drags me backwards. There’s no alternative now, I need to get over this tree. Thunder crashes again. Directly over me. My heart is thumping away rapidly. Adrenaline constricts my chest.
No choice for it. The pack has to go if I’m to get over. Not a good choice. Begrudgingly, I slip my pack off and push it above me, until I’m able to push it up and over to the other side of the trunk.
I hit the tree with a jump, digging my fingers in to the slick wood to give me some purchase. My shoulders strain painfully but hold. Skin tears from my legs as I scrap my knees against the trunk for lift. Somehow, through brute force, I reach the top, flat on my stomach and breathing heavily for the effort. I take a moment to catch my breath.
Shifting my weight to fall to the other side, my legs suddenly loose grip and I slide uncontrolled down the other side. It’s not a long way to fall, but my foot catches one of the straps of my pack on the other side. I suddenly find myself face first, sucking in water from a muddy stream of water. Then the pain hits. My ankle screams at me, twisted awkwardly as the strap wraps around it. Biting my lip, I untangle the pack from my leg and force myself to my feet. Gingerly, I test the ankle it. It doesn’t take much weight. I doubt it’s broken, but it’s surely going to swell up something terrible by tomorrow. But the rain is now starting to waterfall off the sides of the gorge and I’m running out of time. I have to get out of here. I don’t know how long I have left.
I swing the pack back onto my back, a struggle with only one leg taking the weight and start limping forward. The ankle isn’t cooperating. The boots help a little to stabilise it, but not enough. And now, the cool ankle deep water that otherwise soothes the fiery pain of the sprain is the last thing I want to feel right now. My heart is racing. I have to get out of this place. I’m beginning to think I may not. The rising water foreshadows the flood. It can’t be far off now. Whatever the pain, the ankle has to work now.
The water gets half way up to my calves when the noise starts. It starts as a low hissing noise over the fury of the storm and grows louder and louder. Now I’m really panicking. I’ve run out of time. I look around frantically, to see if I can climb out here. The rock face doesn’t look so bad here, there’s plenty of ledges and foot holds, and the whole face is much further off vertical than the entrance was. I could climb it. I know I can.
Then I see my escape. High to my left, I spot what appears to be a large cave, cut into the side of the gorge. While it’s not going to take me out of here, it’ll be more than enough to provide shelter from the weather and is high enough above the river bed that it should get me out of any flood. It’s exactly what I need right now.
I climb up the rocks, ignoring the pain in my ankle. Everything is slick with rain but I’ve climbed worse. The pack is annoying; its balance keeps tipping backwards, but I’m soon scrambling over the final ledge to collapse at the front of the cave.
Moments later, the floodwaters crash through the gorge belong me. More frightening still are the trees that the flood sends careening effortlessly through the gorge. To know that, moments ago, I was standing down there…
The cave is pitch black, but it’s more than enough. It’s dry, flat and most importantly, far above the rushing waters below.
I peel off my pack and start looking to assess the damage. With a pen torch held between my lips, I work at the laces of my boots. I’m worried about taking the boot off. The ankle will swell up and I’ll struggle to get it back into the boot tomorrow, but I need to get my feet dry and work on strapping the ankle quickly. And then see what I can do about getting the rest of me dry.
I set the boots together to the side and focus my torch on my ankle. I probe it tentatively with my fingers. It doesn’t feel so bad. No obvious bruising. Pulling out my tiny first kit and co-opting the lone compression bandage, I start to work strapping it up as I watch the water flow below me.
One more turn over the ankle, when there is a light tap on my shoulder. Barely noticed, quickly dismissed.
I hear something. I think. It’s hard to hear over the noise of the storm outside. A rustle deep in the cave. Perhaps some little creature I’ve disturbed. Hopefully not a poisonous snake. I hadn’t considered that. Not that I could see, it’s too pitch black.
The torch sweeps right to left. It’s all rock as far as the light can penetrate. It passes across to the middle of the cave and suddenly goes black. I press the button off and on again, before it clicks that the light was still working, it’s simply lost deep into the darkness. The depth of the cave is massive; it’s a long time before I find rock again on the left hand side. I swing the torch back to the darkness curious to see if I can get a better look.
Two glowing red eyes open in the stygian blackness and look back at me. For one brief final moment, I realise I’m not alone in the cave.
Locals find the car abandoned a few days later, after the hiker fails to check in. The few people the town can muster search the surrounding area, as far as a day’s walk can take them. No one searches as far as the gorge. The locals know better. It’s dangerous to walk through there.
Some months later, campers find an abandoned boot, but it’s so muddy and wrecked, it’s impossible to tell to whom it may once have belonged. Quickly dismissed they prepare to head out on a few days hike, a triangular loop that’s thirty kilometres out, twenty kilometres across then down through the basin to return home. A quiet walk through the stunning landscape of outback Australia. Nothing to focus on. Nothing to occupy the mind. The perfect way to get away from everything.
By Ben Wise