THE DAY TO HIKE UP MT. LEIBIG
Thursday, August 27, 1981
[Extract from Trekking With the T-Team: Central Australian Safari 1981]
By the time we left camp to climb Mt. Liebig, the sun peeped over the horizon, and the nose-shaped hill leading up the mountain glowed in crimson.
Dad looked at his watch and said, ‘The time is 7:05 am.’ I imagined him continuing with “Captain’s Log, Star Date the 27th of August 1981…” But Dad’s focus switched to negotiating the lumps and bumps of the make-shift road ahead.
We parked near the foot of the range and then hiked through the second gully from the north-eastern edge of mountainous waves jutting up from the plain. We trekked up and down four ridges until we arrived at the base of the gully nearest Mt. Liebig. The lads bounded up the gully while I lagged behind with Dad.
My father seemed to be dragging his feet. He looked left and right, and every so often screwed up his nose.
‘You won’t find it,’ I said.
Dad kicked a spinifex clump. ‘No harm in trying.’
‘You lost the quart can last time we climbed four years ago, way before the gully leading to the summit. Besides, we went a different way.’
‘Oh, I thought it was around about here… You never know.’
Dad scanned the prickle bushes, loose rocks and red sand for his beloved quart can. How Dad survived the intervening years between 1977 and now, without his quart can, I’ll never know.
‘I remember that ghost gum,’ Dad said and pointed at the gum as if its pure white bark set against the blend of purples in the cliffs shadows held special powers to cause Dad’s quart can to materialise.
We rested under the ghost gum, eating apples, sucking lemons to find strength to continue, but we failed to locate Dad’s trusty old quart can. Dad gazed over the valley of silver slopes of grass, his mouth downturned, and his glasses fogged over. He missed that quart can. He stood and patted his pockets. ‘Ah, well! We better keep on going.’
One by one we hauled our packs on our backs, and loaded up as pack animals, we picked our route over rocks, loose stones and sharp spinifex spears. My brother wore home-made vinyl shin guards. Much had changed since we last hiked up here in 1977; boulders had fallen down, the spinifex grew in more abundance, and effigies of burnt trees dotted the terrain. Single-file we mounted the steep ascent until we reached the pair of five-metre-high walls at the top of the gully.
Dad shaded his eyes and squinted up the barrier of rocks to the west. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. Some of the ledges on the cliff had crumbled.
My brother sprinted up through a gap in the boulders. We waited for his return and signal to proceed.
The wind whistled through the alley of cliffs. I looked through the crevice between the rocks. No sign of My brother.
‘I hope he’s alright,’ I said.
More minutes passed. We sat poised to move at any moment as if sitting on spinifex, yet we remained calm, mesmerized by the emptiness of the landscape, and the silence.
I looked through the gap again and asked, ‘What’s taking him so long?’ Then I slumped onto a large stone. Visions of my brother falling off the cliff plagued my imagination.
‘I’ll go up and have a look,’ DR (our guide) said, and then he disappeared through the hole.
More minutes ticked by. I glanced at the hole that had swallowed up DR. ‘What’s happened?’
‘Just be patient.’ Dad seemed content to sit staring at the scenery. ‘They’ll come back.’
But they didn’t. Instead, the hole drew in C1 (older cousin), followed soon after by C2 (younger cousin). I peered into the tunnel of no return.
Dad hovered at my back. ‘Don’t go up there.’
‘Why not?’ I replied. ‘Everyone else has.’
‘Let me see,’ Dad said as he nudged me away. He crawled further in the hole, and traced the granite wall inside with his fingers.
‘Don’t you leave me behind.’ I saw Dad place his foot in a crag and lever his way up to a ledge. ‘You tell someone to come back and help me, you hear.’
Dad called back. ‘Don’t you move.’
Easy for him to say. ‘Yeah, okay, but don’t forget about me.’
All alone, I fidgeted. How long were they going to be? Where have they all gone? I edged towards the height of the gully and looked over. A loose stone skittered down the cliff. I retreated to the safety of the gully and waited. I bit my nails. Had they all fallen to their deaths? Do I join them? I stuck my head through the gap, then my shoulders, and finally my whole body. I placed my hand on the granite. How did they get up here? My height-challenged frame failed to reach the footholds and niches necessary to climb this rock wall. How did they do it? I stood on tip-toes, trying to reach a notch. Just too high. Just my luck, I’ve been left here all alone.
My brother’s head poked over the ledge.
‘There you are!’ I said.
He grinned. ‘Where did you think I was?’
DR appeared beside him.
‘I don’t know. Splattered on the rocks at the foot of the mountain.’ I reached for my brother. ‘Where have you been? Where are the others?’
‘At the top,’ Brother said.
‘But what about me?’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll help you.’ My brother scrambled down. ‘Now climb on my shoulders and DR will pull you up. Then you’ll be right. This is the hardest part.’
I did as I was told. I steadied myself on my brother’s shoulders and from there DR grabbed my wrist and pulled me to the next level. Then I negotiated the rock-pile obstacle course on my own and made it to the summit of Mt Liebig a second time. My arrival recorded at 9:28am.
C1 perched himself on a flat stone, and wrote his diary. My brother fiddled with his spinifex shin guards and muttered, ‘Fat lot of use they were.’ He picked at cunning spikes that had slipped past the guard. C2 munched on an apple. Dad peeled an orange and with hearty slurps sucked its juices. DR wandered around the summit, gazing at the land below, and then examining the cairn of stones.
‘We are on the right peak, aren’t we?’ Dad wiped the orange drips from his beard. He pointed at the other peak. ‘There’s a cairn of stones over there.’
‘Hmmm.’ DR stroked his beard. ‘I think so. That one’s used for surveying.’ He picked up a rock and then as if by magic, extracted a rusty old can from the cavity. Without saying a word, he pulled out a roll of paper. He unfurled the paper and his eyes darted from right to left over the page.
C1 paused in his journaling to ask the question. ‘Well, what does it say, DR?’
‘Some people by the name of MacQueen and Smith of Alice Springs climbed Mt. Liebig on the 27th of August 1977.’
‘You’re kidding!’ Dad lifted the yellowed paper from DR. ‘We climbed Mt Liebig in 1977, but a couple of weeks before.’
‘Maybe they picked up your quart can,’ I said.
Dad frowned. ‘I don’t think so.’ He looked at his watch. ‘And what’s the date today?’
My brother shrugged.
C2 scratched his forehead. ‘I don’t know.’
C1 hunched over his diary.
Dad stepped over to C1. ‘What’s the date?’
C1 ran his finger along the top of the page. ‘The 27th of August 1981.’
Dad counted on his fingers and then said, ‘Well, fancy that! Exactly four years to the day.’
‘Must be the date to climb Mount Liebig,’ C1 said and returned to scribing in his journal.
We remained at the summit at least an hour, engraving our names with the amazing date onto a stone, and celebrating our Liebig conquest with fruitcake for morning tea.
[Note from the author: We ascended to the summit, not two weeks before that Dad had calculated, but one day before Mr. MacQueen and Smith summited. We climbed Mt Liebig on August 26 1977. Read our adventures in the series Travelling with the T-Team: Central Australia 1977, particularly our previous venture climbing Mt. Liebig, “We almost Perished”.]
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2017
Painting (watercolour): Mt. Liebig—The Challenge © Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2017
Photos: Sucking Lemons © C.D. Trudinger 1981
See my growing gallery on Gallery247…and the paintings planned to be exhibited with Marion Art Group in the Flagstaff Rotary Art Show, April 22 to 29 2017.