LOST ON LIEBIG
Dad, my brother Richard, and I packed our bags for the ultimate adventure to climb Mt. Liebig. We rose on that August morning in 1977 as the sun’s rays dusted the sky in pink. This mountain in the far western MacDonnell Ranges, at five thousand feet above sea level was one of the highest mountains in the Northern Territory. Mt. Ziel being the highest mountain in that state.
As we jumped into our red land rover, our companions, Des and his son, waved us off. ‘God be with you,’ Des said, ‘Jay and I will keep the camp safe for you. We’ll keep it safe from the bulls.’
Although the land we were in was owned by the Indigenous Luritja people, the country surrounding Mt. Liebig was cattle country and the local cattle owned the creek bed where we had camped.
As our rover trundled out of camp, Des yelled. ‘We’ll have roast kangaroo from our guides waiting for you when you get back.’
The rover bumped and ground its way over the spinifex and rocks towards the mountain, and I wondered how successful our Indigenous guides would be on their hunting venture. I was sure I’d be hungry and thirsty after a day of hiking up and down a mountain.
Little did we realise this venture would almost cost us our lives…and the lives of the two who stayed behind at camp…
Dad parked the rover at the foot of the mountain. ‘This will be our reference point,’ he said pointing to a rocky outcrop.
I took a photo of the mountain slopes bathed in deep orange reflecting the sunrise.
Dad hoisted the pack on his back and studied the peaks. ‘Now which one is the highest?’ He squinted. ‘I think it’s the one on the right, I’ll just check.’ He took out his binoculars and viewed the peaks with them adjusting the focus. ‘Hmm, I think I see the trig.’ He lowered the binoculars. ‘Oh, yeah, you can see it without them.’
‘Where? Where?’ I grabbed the binoculars, and before I even lifted them to my eyes, I spotted the thin line on top of one of the peaks. I pointed. ‘Yeah, there it is.’ I gave the binoculars to Richard to look through.
‘I can’t find them,’ Richard said.
‘Come on, we must get a wriggle on, or we’ll be hiking back in the dark,’ Dad said.
Dad’s dream to climb this mountain was to be fulfilled. Ever since he had lived and taught in Hermannsburg in the 1950’s, he had wanted to venture way out west, past Haasts Bluff, to conquer this mount.
We commenced scaling the prickly hills and scrambling down the valleys. We reached the gully leading to the peak in no time.
‘Hey, Dad, this is easy!’ I said. ‘We’ll be up and back to camp in no time.’
‘Oh, no!’ Dad moaned.
‘But, Dad, I thought you’d be pleased.’
Dad turned around and peered at the ridges we had traversed. ‘I’ve lost my quart can.’ He tottered down the slope, his gaze darting at every rock and tree. ‘I put it down to get something out of my back pack…now where did it go?’
Richard rolled his eyes and then raced up the gully like a rock wallaby. Nothing was going to stop him reaching the summit for morning tea.
I called out to Dad. ‘Let’s climb to the top. Maybe we’ll find the quart can on the way back.’
‘Very well, then,’ Dad said as he paced back to me.
While Dad mourned his loss, we continued to march up the steep gorge that we hoped would lead to the summit.
Halfway up, we rested under the shade of a ghost gum.
‘The other side of the slope is a two-thousand-foot drop,’ Dad remarked.
Richard and I contemplated this fact as we sucked slices of thirst-quenching lemon and gazed on the foothills sloping up to Mt. Liebig. These hills shaped like shark’s teeth, were a miniature replica of the mountain’s formation; slope on one side, and treacherous cliffs on the other. Lemons, though sour, actually tasted sweet.
Refreshed, we continued our plodding upwards. My shins ached from hiking up this steep incline. My ankles itched from spinifex needles lodged in them. And the growing number of boulders around which we had to manoeuvre, proved to be a challenge. But we pushed on.
We reached the top of the gorge.
Dad peered up at the eight-foot high rock wall. ‘Hmmm.’ He looked stumped.
‘Now what?’ I asked.
Each side of us was a wall of rock blocking our way. One side, lower than the others, led to the precipice Dad mentioned before.
After studying the walls, Richard grasped a few nooks, and then mounted the rocky barrier. He wriggled up a hollow cranny.
Dad and I waited.
The wind whistled through the gap.
‘I hope he’s alright,’ I said.
‘He’ll be fine,’ Dad said.
‘I hope he doesn’t fall off the cliff.’
‘No, he’ll be fine. Stop worrying.’
Richard poked his head through the hole in the wall above us. ‘I’ve found a way to the top.’
He then helped Dad and me up through the hole and led us through the labyrinth of a path between the boulders to the spinifex-covered mountaintop. A cairn of stones adorned with a rusty pole and barrel marked the summit.
‘Look at that,’ Dad said, ‘It’s only eleven thirty. Let’s stay here an hour, and enjoy the view. We can have an early lunch.’
So while enjoying our cheese and gherkin sandwiches, we sat on the cairn and feasted our eyes on the aerial view of the landscape below. The MacDonnell Ranges and Haasts Bluff far in the east were painted in hues of pink and mauve. And closer, to the north, Mt Palmer and her friends were clothed in shades of ochre. On the other side of the Liebig Range, the land stretched out in waves of red sandy desert.
Richard decided to explore the summit. I watched him like a hawk, especially when he approached the edge of the cliff.
‘Don’t get too close, it’s a long way down,’ I said tottering after him.
‘What do you think I’ll do? Jump?’ Richard replied, with his usual hint of sarcasm.
He disappeared behind a bush.
In a panic, I followed him, making sure I stayed a good distance from the cliff edge. ‘Richard? Are you alright?’ I peered down at the land below, the shrubs and trees seemed like dots. The sheer drop gave me the creeps. ‘Richard, are you still with us?’
Richard emerged from the other side of the bush. ‘Can’t you leave me to do my business in peace, Lee-Anne?’
‘Hoy!’ Dad called.
We looked to see Dad waving at us.
‘Get back from the edge!’ Dad said. ‘We better get going. See if we can make it back to camp by two.’
We picked our way through the maze of boulders and climbed down into the gully. Richard, eager to reach the rover first, raced ahead. Dad stuck with me, offering his help as I negotiated my way down the gully.
We heard a blood-curdling scream.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘Richard, I hope he’s alright.’
We scrambled down the last of the gully and ran along the ridge in the direction of Richard’s cries.
Richard rose above the mounds of spinifex rubbing his behind.
‘Are you okay?’ I fought my way through the prickly barbs to my brother.
‘I’m fine, except I fell, bottom first in the spinifex.’
‘Oh, so it’s just a false alarm then, we thought you were really hurt,’ I said. His scream was worse than the prickly bushes’ sting.
‘Well, I’m going to avoid any more painful encounters,’ he said and with that he stomped away from me and within minutes, drifted out of view.
We also diverged. Dad was confident that all gullies lead to the big one at the base of the slope. ‘Ah, well! We will meet Richard in the gully below,’ he assured me.
But contrary to Dad’s prediction, we did not meet Richard. I could not help thinking, this was not the first time as far as Richard was concerned. We’d already lost him in the sand dunes near Uluru. Almost.
Dad continued to search for his quart can. But that little friend Dad had cherished since the fifties, eluded him also.
We weaved our way down the main gully for about an hour. A huge spider in a web spanning the width of the gully confronted us. The spider, the size of a small bird, appeared uninviting, so we backtracked and decided to hike up and down the ridges.
For several hours, we struggled over ridges. Up and down, we tramped, yet seemed to make little progress; the rise and dips went on forever. The sun sank low, and so did our water supplies.
The heat drained me. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. But we had to ration water.
Dad slumped on a slab of rock at the bottom of a gully. ‘Drink?’
I took the canteen from him and filled my cup. Then I spooned in some Salvital. I chugged down the water as it fizzed. So refreshing!
‘Oh, Lee-Anne!’ Dad quibbled. ‘You didn’t leave much for me!’ He poured the last drops of water from his canteen into his mouth and gazed in despair at the lengthening shadows of the mountain.
‘Oh, but Dad! It’s not fair! We will never get out of this place! We are lost forever.’ I had visions of future hikers coming upon our dried up old bones thirty years later. ‘What are we going to do?’
‘Well, um, perhaps we better pray God will help us.’ Dad bowed his head and clasped his hands. ‘Dear Lord, please help us find our way back to the truck. And forgive me for growling at Lee-Anne.’
‘Forgive me too. Help us not to run out of food and water, too.’
‘Bit late for that,’ Dad muttered. ‘Ah, well.’
We had barely finished praying, when an idea struck me. ‘Why don’t we climb up a ridge and walk along it. Surely if we go high enough, we’ll see the landmark and the land rover.’
‘Oh, I don’t know. We need to conserve our energy.’
‘Just one ridge won’t harm us.’
Dad sighed. ‘Okay, it’s worth a try.’
I raced up the hill and strode along the ridge. I climbed higher and higher. I glanced towards the east expecting, hoping, willing the rover to appear. But with each stride, each hopeful gaze, nothing. I resolved to climb further up the slope before turning back.
After a few more steps, still nothing. With the heaviness of defeat, I turned to climb down. Then I saw it. The land rover sat at the base of the mountain, glistening in the last rays of the setting sun.
‘There it is!’ I jumped up and down over-reacting with excitement.
‘Praise the Lord!’ Dad’s shout echoed in the valley.
With renewed energy, we attacked the last mounds that lay between the vehicle and us.
‘Richard will probably be sitting there waiting for us wondering what has happened,’ Dad said puffing as we strode up to the land rover. ‘Can’t wait to have a few gallons of water.’
We rambled over to the rover. Dad circled the vehicle and returned to me shaking his head. ‘He’s not here.’
I wandered around the clearing searching for Richard. I looked behind bushes and under some neighbouring bean trees. My brother was nowhere in sight.
But worse still, when Dad tried to fill his cup, only a few drops of water trickled from the land rover’s water tank.
Dad stared at the ground and tapped his pockets. ‘This is not good. This is not good,’ he said.
The sun had set and a cold chill cut through me. He’s lost. My brother is lost in this wilderness. ‘What if he’s had an accident?’
‘We need to pray,’ Dad said.
Dad prayed, ‘Father, bring Richard home and provide us with water too.’
We waited watching the colours on the mountain fade and our hopes fade with them.
‘I guess we better get going,’ Dad said. He opened the door of the land rover.
Richard staggered around a nearby outcrop of rocks.
We ran to greet him.
‘Richard, you’re okay,’ Dad said hugging him.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘I took the long way and trekked around the base of the mountain. I thought it wouldn’t take that long, but it just went on and on.’
As we walked to the land rover, Dad studied the vehicle. ‘You know, it’s on a slope, if I get it to level ground, we might have enough water.’
Dad drove the rover to where the ground flattened out. Water never tasted so sweet.
As we rolled up to the campsite, we noticed that Des was holding a gun, and his son was perched up a bean tree. ‘While you were gone,’ was his greeting, ‘we had a few wild bulls visit us—and by the way, our guides are still away hunting.’
‘I guess that means no roo for dinner,’ I said.
That night we ate damper for dinner. After nine hours of hiking and almost being lost without food or water, even simple damper and jam was like a banquet to us.
(c) Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016
Painting acrylic on canvas: Descent from Liebig (c) Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2014