Saturday, August 15 1981
MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory, Australia
My nose tingled. I sniffed. The air was pure incense, untainted and frozen by the night. Then I groaned, my bones in agony after a sleepless night tossing and turning on the hard river bed.
‘Time to have breakfast if you want to climb a mountain.’ Dad sounded too cheery for this unearthly hour.
I grunted and turned over. Mt Giles loomed like some prehistoric lump, grey and foreboding against dawn’s pale blue light. Why bother? Two parties had attempted to summit Giles in the past week and had failed. Who says we’d be any different? My muscles ached.
‘Come on, Lee-Anne!’ Dad shook me. ‘We want to succeed, don’t we? You’ve got to get up now if you want to get to the top.’
‘Oh, al-right!’ I rolled from my nest of flattened leaves, peeled off my bed-clothes, pulled on my jeans, tee shirt and windcheater, then stumbled over to the camp-fire.
The men, this day the winners in the race to rise, rubbed their hands by the flames. As I approached, my older cousin commenced combing his thick brown hair. My younger cousin picked up a billy and headed for the billabong. Dad pottered around the camp preparing breakfast, while my brother stood, chin on chest, eyes closed and every so often jerking awake with a snort.
By the time we’d finished our muesli (thankful we didn’t have to endure semolina again) lemony light from the sun had begun peeping over the massif.
Dad approached each one of us and grabbed our metal bowls as if he were a teacher collecting our test papers. ‘Okay, everybody, we better get a move on, we’ve got a big hike in front of us.’
‘Not me,’ our family friend said baring his teeth in a thinly veiled gloat.
‘Well, you can do the dishes.’ Dad dumped the plates by the washing bowl.
‘You can keep camp for us,’ older cousin said as he turned to follow Dad’s march into the bush towards the sulking black lump of Mt Giles.
‘Make sure you have a nice fire burning when we get back,’ younger cousin said.
‘I will,’ our friend said. ‘But first I’m gonna have me a nice relaxing time by the pool.’
I left the friend to his vegetative ventures and scampered after the men, racing over endless ridges and skating down dips endeavouring to keep up, but succumbing to the urge to photograph the spinifex clumps looking like golden wheat fields, and the changing hues of the mountain from grey, to purple to blue. Two and a half hours and scores of undulations, not to mention half a film spent later, I spied my brother’s head bobbing above a pile of rocks. I ran to him.
‘Hey!’ I panted as I caught up. ‘Don’t walk so fast!’
‘Not my fault you’re so slow.’
‘Please, don’t leave me behind. I can’t help it.’
‘Alright. But don’t go taking any more photos.’
I sighed, ‘Oh, al-right.’ Then shoved my camera into its case.
A kangaroo bounded through the golden grass. I whipped out my camera.
‘Typical!’ my brother said and stormed away from me.
I fumbled to put my camera into the case and then followed.
My brother disappeared around the foot of the mountain. I hurried to catch up. He bowled through the salt bush in the crease of the gully. I ran after him, the balls of my feet turning inwards in the ditch causing me to slip in a stagnant pitch of mud. As I pulled myself up, the sound of faint trickling played with the breeze. I stood still and listened. I heard tinkling, like wind chimes. As I moved higher up the narrow gorge, the tinkling turned to the clapping of water against rocks. I called to my brother. ‘Hey! I hear water!’
‘Yeah, I know,’ brother replied from above. ‘Just a puddle, really.’
I climbed to my brother’s position and stood over a cup-sized crack in the rock. Water danced and sparkled in the sunlight.
‘Well, it’s running,’ I said.
‘We could have a drink.’
‘Yeah, right! I can hardly fit my hand in.’
We trudged upwards, hoping to meet Dad, and cousins for morning tea. What I wouldn’t give for a long cold drink of water. My brother dreamed of a pool deep enough in which to bomb dive, well at least dip. We passed another puddle covered with scum.
‘I wouldn’t trust that,’ brother said.
‘Look!’ Dad’s voice echoed from behind a wall of rock. ‘A spring!’
We turned the corner to see Dad straddling a rock-hole no larger than a wash basin. Clear water bubbled and glistened beckoning us to drink. On ledges in the chasm our cousins sat wiping their mouths and looking refreshed. My brother and I knelt, scooped water into our hands and then spooned it into our mouths. The water tasted pure and sweet. Dad prostrate, lapped the liquid like a dog.
After topping up our canteens with this elixir, we commenced the ascent. A steep slope of loose gravel confronted us. Cliffs on either side served as barriers against escape. Filing up the treacherous path, rocks tumbled and crumbled under our boots. Dad inched with intermittent grunts, his way upwards in front of me. He yelled. I gasped. Dad skidded downwards. Rocks roared and gravel flew in a ball of dust around him. I cringed as stones bounded and showered over me. I flattened my body against the slope and froze. As the dust settled, I saw Dad clamber for a foothold and crawl to the ledge above me.
He gestured. ‘Come on, Lee-Anne!’
I forced my limbs to scuttle halfway up the incline.
A rock collapsed beneath my feet and hammered down the scree slope.
I froze. ‘Help! Help!’
My brother edged down towards me. He grunted with each step. Minutes dragged into eternity. My heart pounded like it was playing a hard game of squash. My brother squatted on a shelf of rock just above me. He grabbed my arm, and hauled me to the ledge.
I ventured to the top of the gully where my older cousin sat, and rested there taking several deep breaths, allowing my adrenalin levels subside to the pace of a cricket match. The scenery calmed me.
Below, the pound like a huge oval was bathed in pale yellow and mauve hues while the surrounding cliffs, jutted like stalls in shades of purple and pink. Mt. Sonder, its grandstand cliffs rose above the red gates of Ormiston Gorge. Far below was solid ground. I refrained from looking towards the pinnacle, fearing to tempt fate and the threat of more steep ascents, prickly scrub, rock slides and precipices falling on either side of narrow saddle backs.
Hope to reach the top began to fade. Our goal to summit was 12:30pm. No later. I checked my watch, and noted the time—11:30am. As we rested, each minute drained away with the heat, the challenge and our weariness. One hour to attain our goal. The ranger warned us not to return in darkness.
‘What’s the time?’ I asked.
Dad sucked on his lemon (a proven refreshment and guard against dehydration). ‘About a quarter to twelve,’ he said, then continued to sit and suck on his lemon as if in no hurry.
‘A quarter to twelve?’ I stood. ‘We’ll never get there. We can’t even see the trig.’
‘Well, um-er, we better get a move on.’ Dad rose and slung his pack over his shoulder. The lads grunted and shuffled up a worn kangaroo track. I took a last quick swig of water and bounded after them.
We stopped at a three pronged fork in the trail. Three mountain points stood before us. ‘Now which way shall we go?’ You’d think Dad would’ve worked the route out before we embarked on this project, using his compass and detailed maps. But apparently he hadn’t.
The three young men and I looked at each other. Older cousin raised an eyebrow. My brother scratched his chin. Younger cousin shook his head. I shrugged.
Dad hummed and hawed.
‘We could hike up and down the gully to see,’ my brother said.
Younger cousin said, ‘That would take too much time.’
‘What about the saddle?’ I asked.
The men looked at me, their eyes narrowed.
‘To which point?’ Dad spoke for them all. For the next few precious minutes, the men bantered about what option to take cutting me out of the decision making.
‘Ah, well, time’s running out. I guess we can’t expect to reach the top,’ Dad announced with the damning tone of resignation.
I stomped off towards the saddle.
‘Oy! Oy! What do you think you’re doing?’ Dad yelled.
I bolted on southwards and upwards to the spur. Even menacing prickle bushes didn’t stand a chance as I charged through them. Behind me I could hear the Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
Dad hacked his way in pursuit of me. ‘Come back! You can’t go off on your own!’
Scratched and sore from the fight with the bushes, I stopped. A tight-rope path lay ahead. Not even enough width for my feet on this razor back. I turned and watched the shrubs shake.
Dad emerged brushing seeds and thorns from his arms. He shaded his eyes as he looked up. ‘You’ve taken the correct action.’
‘What?’ I scratched my eye-brows. Dad’s big words confused my exhausted mind.
Wheezing, Dad caught up to me. ‘See?’
He pointed at the nearest mound. ‘See, the trig?’
I squinted towards where the hill met the cobalt blue of the sky. At the highest point a thin wire shimmered in the heat. ‘Oh, yeah!’
While Dad and I gulped down some water, the guys galloped past us.
‘Watch your step on the spur!’ Dad warned.
We picked our way along the razor back ridge. I held my breath and resisted the urge to look down past the tight-rope path where I placed each step. Holding my arms out straight either side, I teetered and tottered to the end of my ordeal. When I reached the slope at the other end, an incline with generous girth and no cliff in sight, I collapsed to my knees, then bent over and kissed the sand stone.
However, my rejoicing was short-lived and I rose to my sore feet to push on. After plodding up and down more ridges, rockier slopes, and more frequent rests to nurse my aching calves, our allotted time to reach the summit by 12:30pm lapsed.
We gathered around Dad.
‘What’s the verdict?’ I asked. A breeze cooled the back of my neck.
Flies gathered on my older cousin’s back. My brother slapped between his shoulder blades and clapped the flattened insects from his palms. ‘Twenty.’ He flicked the last of the sticky flies from his palm.
‘Well,’ Dad took a deep breath, ‘we’ve come this far, we might as well go all the way.’
‘We have a full moon, that’ll help,’ my younger cousin said.
His brother waved a pesky fly from his face. ‘Okay!’
‘Let’s go!’ my brother said and then he slapped his hands together and killed that fly too.
‘Alright!’ I said.
Determined to reach the peak, we plunged forward, despite being famished, wrung of perspiration, weary and late. We were so close. Every so often, the trig teased us by appearing as we reached a high point, and then vanishing as we dipped into a valley. The three lads raced each other.
I climbed over a wall of rock and saw the trig wobbling above the slope in the oily heat. I scrambled upwards. A saddle stretched and rose before me. Damn! Another false top! I struggled over the saddle to face yet another false top. After staggering over the fifth false top, I saw the trig and blinked. Was it real? Or was it a mirage? I limped up the jagged path, pain shooting down my calf muscles with each step. The trig disappeared behind an outcrop of rocks. We’ll never get there!
I skirted the rocks and saw the trig bold, rusty, and high fifty meters away. Under the shade of an orange sheet that fluttered like a flag in the wind, the lads lounged by the stone cairn, packs off their backs, stirring Salvital into their cups of water and then sipping with delight the reward of their labour. The time was one o’clock.
Ten minutes later, Dad dragged himself over the last ridge and walked like a cripple to the summit. There, he sat on a rock and rubbed his knee.
‘O-o-oh!’ He inspected the damage, red and swollen. ‘I tripped and fell on my knee. I hope I can get down alright.’
‘You better,’ older cousin said. ‘You can’t exactly camp up here.’
‘You’ll have to get down,’ my brother said.
‘Yeah,’ I said gazing at the view entranced by the once ancient ocean bed surrounded by islands of mountain ranges that snaked like the backbone of a prehistoric creature into the haze on the horizon.
‘Hey, look at these!’ my older cousin excavated some calling cards from a tin can wedged in the monument to the summit. Our predecessors had conquered the mountain one year earlier to the day. The scribe wrote: “The climb was well worth the effort”. They described ascending to the peak by the southern ridge starting from Giles Spring. This tip gave us the idea to descend by the south ridge and traverse west through the pound to the camp.
We celebrated with lunch of scroggin and copious amounts of Milo and strawberry-flavoured Quick mixed with powdered milk and water. We took photos of the stunning scenery and each other as evidence of our triumph over adversity. Then all too soon, we struggled down the south ridge.
I was not impressed with this course. About a quarter of the way down, I slipped and sat on Spinifex. Ouch!
I grizzled. ‘What a stupid way this is…Whose idea was it? …My bottom hurts…I hate this path.’ My brother walked ahead and unresponsive. Halfway down and my whining continued. ‘I have to watch the rocks…Stupid rocks…Why do they have to slip under me? … Why couldn’t have we gone the other way?’
My brother turned, looked at me, and then said, ‘Would you rather we went the other way and fall off a cliff?’
He accelerated his tramping. ‘Well, then, shut up, or I leave you behind.’
I increased my speed and loped after him. ‘No, don’t do that.’
‘That’s right, hurry! The others are already way in front.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I promise I won’t grizzle and I’ll try and keep up.’
‘Too late for that now,’ my brother mumbled and then moved off. ‘Probably be walking in the dark.’
With jerking steps yet conscious of the crumbly sandstone that could trip me up at any moment, I tried to keep up with him. Way below at the foot of the mountain, my cousins and Dad appeared like little specs bobbing in and out of the golden grass, getting smaller and smaller and lost in the glare of the afternoon sun.
‘I can’t believe it took us that long to hike down the mountain,’ I said as we reached the mountain’s base. I checked my brother’s watch. The hands read 4.30pm. ‘Took us longer to walk down than climb up.’
‘I told you so,’ brother said and shook his head. ‘And now we have to go all the way round.’
We stumped over the ancient seabed; an eternity of spinifex-topped ridges and eroded dips. Our progress was as fast as treading water while the sun sped towards the horizon. Night crept in and the moon hovered over a pale orange Mt. Giles. Twilight offered relief from the glare and penetrating heat. But in the dim light, we blundered over rocks.
‘Do you know where we are going?’ asked my dear brother.
‘Yeah, we turn left when we get to the creek.’ I guessed. A dim line of trees shimmered in the moonlight; the vision of the creek teased our longing for camp and rest.
My brother veered to the right. ‘No, we don’t, we go right.’
‘No, we go left.’
‘No, we don’t. I’m sure I’m right. I’m always right,’ my brother said as he stormed ahead, cutting across the ridge and entering the creek at the bend. I gave up arguing and followed.
We tramped through thick soft sand. Like sands through the hour glass so the minutes sifted away and our campsite continued to elude us. Sand filled my boots. I sat on the root of a river gum, pulled off my boots and poured out the sand.
My brother stood over me. ‘Hurry up! We’ll never get there.’
‘Sure we haven’t gone the wrong way?’ I pulled on my boots. My feet ached.
‘No, I don’t think so.’
We waded through more creek beds that seemed to have more sand than the Sahara. Time drifted onwards, like it would go one forever. The moon tracked its way over the sky, shining just above the trees.
‘How long have we been trekking in the creek?’ I asked.
‘About half an hour.’
‘Is that all?’ Seemed like hours as far as I was concerned. ‘I say we turn around if we don’t come across the campsite in another half an hour.’
The sand hardened. We hacked our way through the narrow creek. Native ducks quacked and fluttered off.
My brother stood still and looked around. ‘I don’t remember this part.’
‘I told you so! Pity it took you an hour to realize I was right.’
We staggered into camp at 8:30pm. I plonked down by the fire designed and constructed by our “helpful” family friend. He prided himself on the safety aspects of this fire he’d encircled with river stones. ‘Can’t have a bushfire,’ he said.
I pulled off my boots. Then gathering the ingredients for a well-deserved cup of Milo, I tottered around the campsite, the sand between my liberated toes, and ouch! Something very hot seared my heel. I dug in the sand and pulled out a fragment of river stone.
‘Oh, er, watch the hot rocks,’ our friend said.
‘Thanks a lot, I could’ve done with a bit more warning.’ I poured cold water over my blistered heel, and then hobbled over to my boots near the fire. Ouch! I screamed, a blood-curdling scream. Another one of those hot rock creations attacked the ball of my other foot.
In the conversation over our damper dinner, Dad advised, ‘I don’t think putting river stones around a camp fire is a good idea.’
I crawled into bed after tea. What bliss, except for the throbbing of blistered feet, and aching muscles from the hard yakka fourteen hours of hiking.
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016
Photo: The Challenge—Mt Giles through Ormiston Gorge © C.D. Trudinger 1981