Although it was now dark, the slab of rock I was lying on was still warm from the heat of the day. Somehow, being between an Earth rock and the stars was comforting. I no longer felt afraid as I recognised the southern hemisphere constellations, but I was distinctly aware that I was lost: lost in several ways. Mostly here in semiarid North Queensland west of the coastal range.
It must have been between one and two in the morning by then, and the ghastly full moon rendered the landscape silvery bright. My thoughts drifted away in the rock cracking silence, but I knew I had to keep searching for my 4WD vehicle. Was it possible to do any more? After all, the gully, which was the limit of my jeep’s access, was just down that ridge somewhere in the dense scrub. Having dug it out of the sand-filled Rocky Tate river, I had left it at the gully edge and started walking to a line of low barren hills which I had to survey and take rock samples from. Being encumbered by a geopick, geiger counter, sample bags, range compass, camera and other items essential for exploration geology, I had set off to the hills without the most essential item – water! No matter, I reasoned halfway to the hills, it would only take a few hours to get there and back to my jeep where there was plenty of water. That proved to be correct: after sketching, sampling and photographing the lower strata of the hills, I set off on the reverse compass bearing to the vehicle. Not finding it at once, because it was white in the moonlight (I reasoned), I quartered the maze of gullies, finding plenty of my boot prints in the soft grey sand, but they led nowhere. By now disorientated and thirsty I further reasoned that my walking time must have been wrong, so I went back to the hills to check it. Uncomfortably, it was about right, allowing for the night and by now tired legs.
Being the mid-eighties, there was no radio contact in such a remote place. The only man who knew I was there had returned to Cairns after leaving me at the nearest cocky’s farmstead to the exploration area of Rocky Tate. Thus it would be a long time before anyone decided I was missing and started looking for me. What a fool I was for not taking the water. Water! The drylands surrounded me – only a few days ago we were by the Pacific among the boats setting out to the Barrier Reef. Blue waves washed into my mind. They washed me from my comforting rock, as the night was now cold.
Going back to where the jeep should be, I only found my footprints again around the gully. My only options were to wait until dawn and search again or try walking to the cocky’s place. As I was only wearing shorts and teeshirt the first option was unattractive because of the cold bush night; and what if I failed to find it by daylight? By then I could die by dehydration. Walking through the night would at least keep me warmer, but as I had no accurate map I might easily miss the farmstead. But the thought of water there decided me to try, as soon I would not be able to think rationally. So I set off east according to my trusty compass that I had almost ceased to trust. Hoisting my pack, I set off on a meandering course through the steep gullies and thorny bushes. Nocturnal animals rustled around on the sandy carpet of dry dead leaves. Here and there a tall eucalyptus framed the moon in its twisted canopy. Then it was silent and the moon followed me. Sometimes I looked behind me thinking I heard a vehicle, but of course it was nothing: nothing in every direction. My only hope now was to find the old mineral line that once ran north-southwest of the farmstead. The tracks had probably been taken up, but evidence of its existence might still be apparent. As the long night wore on dizziness forced me to stop many times, after which it became more difficult to push myself on.
Just as the first light of dawn began to pick out the jagged shape of the Channel Country, a narrow-gauge railway line emerged through the scrub nearby. During the six hour walk I realised there must be several old mineral lines around here. I knelt down to touch the rusty metal as if it might be a mirage – but it went straight south, so must be the one I was looking for, so I began pacing the sleepers as fast as possible. The morning sun quickly blazed away the cool of the night, and after initial elation I was very weary again. I adjusted my stride to the termite-rotten sleepers’ gap which helped me keep a rhythmic pace.
Driven on by thirst I ignored the track starting to deviate west into denser bush with numerous gum trees shaking their leaves in the familiar ghostly fashion. I hoped there might be a billabong around – a flock of parakeets was a good sign, but I doggedly kept to the original line. Now warmer, I began to wish I had stayed where the vehicle should be: it would have been obvious in the bright sunshine (unless it had been stolen by aboriginals). Soon, a junction in the track emerged, confusing me even more. As I stood alone with my compass trying to decide which way to go, I saw what appeared to be a pile of scrap metal associated with the abandoned line long ago. Through the tangled scrub it looked like some sort of big bucket on legs, the corrugated iron rusting away. When I lobbed a rock up over and into it, I heard the enticing splash of water! Hardly believing it, I managed to throw some cotton sampling bags on a string into it, and squeezed the water into my mouth. It tasted disgusting and delicious at once, but it was definitely the remains of the last cyclone to penetrate that far from the northwest coast. Wherever it was from, I sucked in as much as I dared, for who knows what lay in the tank? Feeling better, I started along that fork in the line, then noticed a movement in the bush nearby: it was an aboriginal woman watching me curiously, as well she might do.
After another hour’s walking I heard dogs barking and glimpsed a chimney above the scrub. I had made it! But suddenly it struck me that the problem had been all my fault, and I would look a fool trying to explain the lost jeep. Instead of instinctively rushing to the shacks, I ducked under cover to compose myself.
As the sun rose higher, engine noises began to shatter the silence of the bush. Nervously, I found the cocky with his grey head under the cover of a generator. He was not surprised to see me, asking me to hand him a spanner, so I attempted a nonchalant attitude, listening sympathetically to the old man swearing about the injectors, in between aiming kicks at the noisy dog. Silently I retreated to the galvo farmhouse surrounded by the relics of decades of scratching a living on the edge of habitation. The old lady gave me tea, although seeming not to recognise me from two days ago. Luckily, their one-eyed son burst in complaining loudly about something, but stopped, seeing me in bad shape. After hearing my problem, he offered to take me out on his trail motorbike to find the lost vehicle.
He went straight to it in a dusty hour, where it was standing on the edge of the sandy gully where I left it. Nobody had touched it or moved it. The cocky’s son laughed at me, a bloody pommie who thought he could just come here and wander about as if it were England. That’s how I felt as well, as he roared away. Looking around the jeep I could see my footprints in the sand, going back and forth, round and around. Had I actually got back there the first time? All my gear was untouched. I sat in the hot vehicle for a while, gazing at the hills of my last destination, clear in the midday sun. Suddenly, a gust of hot wind moved through the surrounding eucalyptus trees, the rattle of their hard leaves sounding like coarse laughter. The bush had the last word.
John Goldhawk is a graduate of King’s College, London, and has worked over many years as a hydro-geologist in Africa, Asia, Australia, South America and the United Kingdom. He lives in Devon, in the south of England.