[Extract from Trekking with the T-Team: Central Australian Safari 1981]
Swaddled in my comfortable cocoon, I listened to the wind howling. An angry torrent of wind struck the camp, kicking over billies and sending flames from my campfire darting across the sand. I yawned and pulled the groundsheet over my bedding. Looks like it’s going to rain. The wind moaned and picked up speed flicking my tarpaulin up and off me. Sparks splattered over the sheet causing smelly holes to appear. I shovelled a few pitiful heaps of sand over the reignited coals, then crawled back into my sleeping bag. I tugged the groundsheet over my head. The wind pulled it off. I stretched the sheet over my sleeping bag and tucked it under the blow-up mattress. The wind worked its gusty fingers under the stiff plastic and lifted it into the air. I caught the sheet and held it down. Cold blasts froze my fingers. Sleep eluded me. The wind flapped the end bits making my toes turn to ice.
‘Oh! I give up!’ I muttered and then hauled myself out of the sleeping bag, bundled up my bedding and parka, and blundered my way to the back of the Land Rover. I glanced at the men (my dad, brother, two cousins and a family friend) comatose in sleep and oblivious to the mini cyclone engulfing them. Our central campfire blazed, flames sweeping over the clearing. The smell of burnt plastic hit my nostrils. At my feet lay the corpse of a little blue bowl, my bowl. I washed my face in that basin every morning. Now what was I to do?
I knew this wind meant business, dangerous business. I rushed to Dad and told him the whole story—the wind, the sparks, the wild fire, and my little blue bowl.
‘What campfire?’ Dad mumbled. He smacked his lips, yawned and turned over.
‘But Dad! The fires have to go out!’ I shook my father. ‘We’ll burn to death.’
‘Oh, alright!’ Dad squirmed his way out of his layers of blankets and bedding. ‘I don’t know why you have to disturb me. I was just getting to sleep.’ He grumbled then picked up the shovel and tramped over to my fire. The coals had sprung to life and tongues of flame licked at my rumpled groundsheet.
Dad shovelled several heaps of dirt over my fire. I picked up a bucket and fought my way to the creek through a wall of wind. My bucket full of water, I marched back to camp. I tossed water on them and with the light of my torch watched the coals sizzle and steam. I put rocks in the bowls and buckets as insurance against being blown away in these gale-force conditions.
I returned to my sleeping quarters with half a bucket of water and found Dad disposing of the menacing flames of my fire. A few rebellious coals glowed with fresh gusts. So I chucked water on these reheated stubs, quenching any urge for the embers to flare up.
Dad stepped forward and made a grab for my bucket. ‘Hey! What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘All in the aid to save us from a bushfire,’ I replied.
On my trek back to the Rover, I checked the campfire. Coals glowed angry red, and blue-yellowy-green flames wobbled over the molten surface. I drowned the recalcitrant coals with water, killing any ability to resurrect with the wind once and for all, I hoped.
I carried the gas lantern with me and walking towards the Rover battled the surging torrents of wind. Dad called out, ‘Take care, Lee-Anne!’
‘Yes, Dad!’ I called back, my words getting sucked away in the hurricane.
I put the lantern on the tucker box while sorting stuff to place under the protective weight of rocks. A fresh gust of wind whipped and roared. It cut right through me. Crash! The lantern smashed to the ground, slivers of glass smattered all over the sand. Woops! There goes the light for tonight.
I tramped back to Dad’s bed. ‘Um, Dad, I have some bad news.’
Dad sounded muffled through layers of blanket and his ski mask. ‘What now?’
‘I broke the lantern.’
‘Oh! Lee-Anne!’ Dad groaned in that tone of voice that made me feel ashamed for being so stupid as to put the lantern on a tucker box in the middle of a wild storm.
On my way back to the Rover, book bag slung over my shoulder and everyday bag in hand, I saw the flames reignite and spread their hot fingers over the tinder-dry site. I attacked the offending piece of wood, this time with a rock. The flames splayed under and around the stone with a blast of wind. Down the creek I ran, and returned with a bucket of water. I drowned the smouldering lump in a deep puddle.
I dusted my hands of residual ash, and then returned to the Land Rover in which I set up my bed. Wind howled around the cabin, rocking the whole vehicle as I huddled in my layers of bedding. I could not sleep. I looked out the window. Dad’s light from his undying campfire flickered and sent violent flames and sparks flying over his tarpaulin. I leapt out of the Rover and raced over to save Dad. There he lay, wrapped in comfort in a wad of blankets, fast asleep and unharmed. I smothered the glowing coals with a few heaps of sand.
I set my face against the wind and battled my way back to the Rover. Once more I settled into my nest of sleeping bag, blankets and parka on the narrow bench seat. I shut my eyes and tried to block out the howling winds and the truck rocking from side to side.
Then that feeling began. I tried to ignore it. I have to pee. I crossed my legs and pretended it didn’t exist. I have to pee. The wind moaned. I’m not going out there, not in that weather. I’ve got to pee. I’ve done my dash; nature will just have to wait. This is urgent. I rocked with the Rover and tried to think of other things. I must pee, I’m busting! Once more I unwrapped myself out of mummification, forced open the Rover door against the wind and stumbled to the nearest bush down wind. I hoped I didn’t splatter my pants.
Relieved, I pushed my way back to the Rover. A faint alarm bell bleeped somewhere in the campsite. I stopped before getting into the Rover and watched as Dad jerked up and out of his sleeping bag. He staggered towards his friend’s quarters. ‘Wake up!’ he yelled, his words getting sucked up by the wind.
The pile of bedding remained lifeless and unresponsive.
‘Hoy!’ Dad shouted.
Dad knelt down, with his mouth inches from the hood of the sleeping bag, he shouted, ‘What’s the time?’
His friend stuck his head out the sleeping bag. ‘What?’
‘Oh, never mind,’ Dad snapped and then stomped off to bed.
Safe from the atomic explosions of wind and chill, my head burrowed deep within my sleeping bag, I prayed. I was reminded that though the world may lash us with rage and storms, God keeps his children safe. God has kept us safe.
Finally, I dozed into the welcome peace of sleep.
Psalm 27:5—For in the day of trouble he (the LORD) will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.
[Down here in Adelaide we’ve been battered by winter storms the last few weeks. This storm experience, an extract from my yet-to-be-published travel memoir, Tracking with the T-Team, occurred in the Musgrave Ranges almost 35 years ago to the day.]
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016
Photo from Slide: Calm Before the Storm (Musgrave Ranges) © C.D.Trudinger 1981