Southwest Tasmania, a part of the world comprising total and complete diversity, from its breathtaking scenic beauty to its harsh, inhospitable terrain and dense, impenetrable bushland.
A part of the world with extremes of weather; from freezing temperatures and wind driven, lashing rains, to thirty degree Celsius heat, all within a few hours. Only experienced bushwalkers should ever attempt to traverse this wilderness as those with not a great deal of experience could easily find themselves in serious difficulties.
Liam O’Byrne had been planning such a trek for the last six months from his home in an eastern Melbourne suburb. Over that period, he had acquired maps, charts, weather variation details and other information he considered necessary to commence an eight-day hike through the wilderness, accompanied by his friend Malcolm Littler.
Liam was twenty-two, a tall, slim young man whose love of hiking had, in the past, taken him to some fairly forbidding places. He had acquired a good sound knowledge of the bush, both through his grandfather and having studied quite a few books on the subject.
Malcolm had been in on the planning from the start. He didn’t know as much about the bush as Liam, but enough to keep him out of difficulties. He was the same age as Liam but shorter in stature, with a more solid build. For the past six months, almost nightly, they’d been together in one or other of their homes making their plans; food, shelter, clothing, footwear, safety equipment, first aid supplies, compass, everything needed for such a trek and most importantly, what it would all weigh when packed into their lightweight back-packs.
They had thoroughly studied the route they would take as well, acquiring as much information as they needed from the tourist information centre. Their plans were almost complete. Nothing had been left out, and that included the timing of the hike. They had chosen January of the following year, as that month offered the most consistent and suitable weather. The only thing left now was the wait, and that, by now, was little more than a month.
“OK.” Liam’s hand slammed down as he closed the folder containing their detailed plans. “That’s about it, we’re almost there I guess.”
“Yeah, but what about…” Malcolm’s voice trailed into silence.
“What about what?” Liam asked.
“The folks,” Malcolm replied, “you know they still aren’t too keen on the idea.”
Liam knew. Both his and Malcolm’s folks had attempted to talk them out of it, considering it dangerous in such inhospitable country, but their pleas had fallen on deaf ears. This was a challenge for both the guys, far too great to be demolished by worried folks.
“I know,” Liam said, “but we’ve planned it to the last detail until I can almost see the track in front of us. We’ll be OK and deep down they know that.”
“Hey, don’t get me wrong Liam,” Malcolm reassured, “I’m as keen as you are. It’s just that the folks don’t really seem to be behind us, that’s all.”
Liam thought long and hard on that one. “They’ll come right,” he said, “they always do.”
That out of the way, the guys turned to last minute details, details of the flight to Hobart, picking up the distress beacon from Service Tasmania, details of the wilderness bus from Hobart to Strathgordon, where they’d stay at the Gordon Lodge for one night before making the journey to Scotts Peak Dam in the Southwest National Park.
The walking track travelled south from the Dam, branching into two tracks approximately seven kilometres distant. One branch headed east towards Franklin and terminated near the Tahune Forest Reserve in the Huon Valley, the other, the Old Port Davey track, headed southwest towards Bathurst Harbour. This was the track they would take, the track around the base of the Arthur Range as far as Mt. Rugby on Bathurst Harbour, a distance of approximately fifty-six kilometres each way.
Liam and Malcolm had known each other since grade two, and were the firmest of friends. They’d both attended the same primary school and high school, and both had completed year twelve four years previously.
Both had decided to leave further education until they had some experience with the world, both wanting to leave it at least two years before undergoing the rigours of further study. They were now into their second year of study, Liam at University studying civil engineering, and Malcolm at TAFE studying the intricacies of computers, something which would stand him in good stead should he wish to attend university to study complex programming.
They each had their girlfriends, both of whom had expressed an interest in accompanying them on their hike, but the guys had regretfully refused, mainly because neither of them considered it a safe, or perhaps even a proper place to have inexperienced persons. Malcolm’s girl, Cathy, had accepted the situation when it was explained but Liam’s girl, Sophie, had become a bit uppity.
“What do you mean I’m too inexperienced?” she had asked. “You’ve never told me I was too inexperienced before, even though I was before I met you.”
That hit a raw nerve, it stung and it was meant to; Sophie hadn’t been talking about hiking, but something completely different and much more personal. It had taken quite some considerable amount of explaining but eventually Sophie had come around to Liam’s way of thinking.
Liam had met Sophie at a school social evening some six years previously and they had hit it off straight away. She admired his quiet and serious attitude, even though she found it somewhat annoying at times, and he admired her for her passion and knowledge of his favourite subject; complicated mathematics. It didn’t hurt that she was the most attractive girl Liam had seen, a thought that was to flourish as time passed. On reflection, they were complete opposites, Liam quiet, studious and serious most of the time, Sophie talkative and fun loving, so the question remained, what did Liam see in Sophie, apart from the obvious attractions? He saw her as a genuine friend, someone honest enough to give her opinion when things didn’t go as planned and someone very capable of standing up for what she believed in. This had been made very clear to him the day she put the school Principal in his place, having been falsely accused of something she hadn’t done.
Liam’s love of the bush stemmed from his grandfather, the old man having tended his country farm right up until the day of his death at seventy-nine. As a kid, Liam loved nothing better than trips to the farm, happy times spent with his grand parents, his grandfather taking him on jaunts through the bush at the back of the farm, teaching him bush skills, what to be wary of, the dangers and of course, bush tucker, the infinite bounty of the bush, even though some of it was not infinitely great tasting.
Through his visits, Liam grew to love the bush, grew to love the farm life, but knew he’d never be able to live there, for his father had far too important a job in the city. He remembered vividly his grandfather’s opinion of his father.
“Stupid bloody idiot of a boy,” he had said. “Stuck in that concrete jungle when he could be out here, breathing decent fresh air instead of that smoggy crap he does. That’s one thing he didn’t inherit from me Liam, a decent brain.”
Liam’s grandfather had never been one to mince his words but now he was gone. He had died two years previously, being found by his wife a few metres from the house, sprawled on his back. His doctor had been on at him for several years to start taking it easy but he had shrugged off the advice, still putting one hundred percent into every day. Finally, the doctor’s advice had proved correct, as the old man suffered a heart attack returning to the house for lunch. He’d been dead before he hit the ground.
Liam’s grandmother stayed at the farm although she sold off most of the assets. She’d had a fair idea of what to expect, even though it was a shock when it came. She’d noticed the tiredness creeping through the old man for some time, and even though he hadn’t told her of the doctor’s advice, she suspected all was not well. Finally the day she had been dreading dawned; she knew something wasn’t right, as the old man was never late for his lunch. Her search didn’t last long, for on opening the back door she’d seen him on the ground not moving and she’d known straight away.
Liam’s folks had tried to talk her into coming to live with them but the old lady was stubborn. She’d insisted on staying at the house they’d both lived in for the last fifty years, not wanting to move for fear of losing her memories of the old man. The assets were sold bringing in a tidy sum, an amount she could live on comfortably for the rest of her life, however long that might be. After all, she was only seventy-five.
Malcolm was different. A shorter, stocky youth, he had a sense of humour that would make the deepest pessimist split his sides laughing. His home life was anything but easy, for his father was a dour, critical, self-centred man, who often ignored him for days at a time. His mother was the one who kept the family together, the only one who could smooth the waters during his father’s moods. Malcolm was able to cover this anomaly within his family by his sense of humour, but it was clear to those close to him the situation was taking its toll on his patience.
His knowledge of the bush had come from both Liam and from books he’d read, and he liked nothing better than accompanying his best friend on his weekend hikes through the Victorian bushland, learning from him, finding out survival techniques, camping out under the incredible canopy of stars at night. He’d grown to love the bush almost as much as Liam did, but of course he was still wary of its hazards and dangers, having never got used to those long, usually black things that seemed to have a habit of slithering right in front of your path.
The first time this happened, Malcolm turned to jelly, much to Liam’s amusement. He stood frozen to the spot, not moving a muscle until the reptile had slithered into the bush on the opposite side of the track, and then turned angrily to Liam.
“So that’s funny is it? A stuffin’ great snake and all you can do is laugh.”
Liam tried to control his laughter. “Sorry Mal,” he almost choked, “but if you could have seen the expression on your face…”
“Bloody hell Liam, it’s not funny!”
Liam made a massive effort. “I haven’t explained something to you Mal, sorry. They’re far more frightened of you than you are of them. They’ll only go you if you tread on ‘em, try to annoy ‘em or hurt them in some way, any other time all they want is to get away from you.”
“OK,” Malcolm said, mollified, “but you could have told me.”
Liam choked back his last chuckle. “Sorry.”
After that, Malcolm hadn’t been so worried when he saw a snake. He knew he’d never get used to them, and he hated them with a passion, but he didn’t turn to jelly again. He was able to stand still and watch as it glided into the bush.
Malcolm had met Cathy five years previously during, of all things, a school excursion to a wool mill. Although they attended different schools, just by chance the two groups had booked the same time. Cathy had been immediately attracted when Malcolm asked the most outrageous question of the tour guide.
“How could that material have ever come from a sheepie?” he had asked. “It’s green and personally, I’ve never seen a green sheepie.” He had turned to the rest of the group, his expression dead pan. “Have any of you ever seen a green sheepie?”
“It’s dyed,” the hapless tour guide had attempted.
“I should think it has died,” Malcolm had said, “probably from sheer, unadulterated embarrassment. Poor little sheepie.”
Cathy had been standing next to Malcolm and had laughed heartily at his antics, drawing Malcolm’s attention. It had gone from there, Malcolm admiring her attractiveness, both of them sharing a fondness for Malcolm’s hobby, computers. It wasn’t just their shared interest however; Malcolm saw a lot more in Cathy than that. She was a person he could tell his doubts and fears to in complete confidentiality, a person totally understanding of his father’s attitude, a person upon whom he could lean when things became too much for him at home, something which unfortunately happened all too often.
was yearning for the planned hike. It was somewhere new, somewhere he’d never
really thought about going until Liam had broached the subject six months
before. At first Malcolm had baulked. There was no way anyone would get him into
a place like that! Through Liam’s coaxing he’d come around; he wished he
could take Cathy, but inexperienced as she was, he knew it was too dangerous.
The Christmas and New Year periods came and went. Liam was in high spirits as it was the only time of year he saw his grandmother these days; the only time of year she’d venture to the city for her annual ten days stay. The rest of the year she stayed at the old farmhouse, keeping herself busy with the seemingly endless string of things she found to do. She hadn’t sold everything; she still had her chickens, a few sheep and her pet pig, Grunt; animals she had wanted to keep in memory of her dear husband. She wasn’t idle, anything but, keeping herself occupied with the house and her few animals. If one thing could be said about grandmother, it was that she was tough, real tough.
Malcolm and his folks had been over for Christmas lunch, Malcolm spending time with Liam on their plans. It had been a happy day for all despite Malcolm’s father’s moodiness and the fact Liam’s father, Jack, had tried once again to intervene on their plans. He’d entered the dining room during the afternoon while they had their paperwork strewn across the table, hoping he’d be able to make them see what he thought was sense.
“Look guys, we’ve been through this before I know. I don’t want to spoil your fun, but we’re all worried about this plan of yours, and that includes your parents, Mal.”
Liam looked at him through narrowed eyes. “Dad, the plans are made, there’s nothing we haven’t covered down to the last detail. You’ve seen the plans, you know what’s on them and you know both of us are familiar with the bush. What’s the big problem?”
O’Byrne sighed deeply. “You know our thoughts Liam, it’s not the bush, it’s where that bush is located. Jeez boy, you’ll be walking somewhere probably no other man has walked, it’s virgin bush out there Liam, you know that.” He looked from Liam to Malcolm seeing the determined look on both their faces. “Oh well, I’ve tried I guess.”
Malcolm grinned suddenly. “So that’s it, you’re just worried about a couple of young guys and a virgin.” His eyes shifted to Liam. “Can you believe that Liam?” he asked in a low voice. “I do believe your old man’s becoming a perv.”
O’Byrne grinned, turned on his heel and walked out. “Like I said before, I tried,” he said over his shoulder.
The time was drawing closer. In only another week, they’d be at Tullamarine Airport awaiting their flight to Hobart. Their plans had been thoroughly gone over until they could both memorise each event down to the last detail. They’d even revised how to stack their backpacks until it was like second nature to them, a place for everything and everything in its place.
the big day dawned, warm and clear. Liam’s folks took him
to the airport, with Sophie along as well of course, and Malcolm went
with his, with Cathy accompanying him. They met in the terminal, both guys
bursting with enthusiasm. This was it, the big day they had been awaiting for
over six months.
All their gear was lightweight but their packs still looked mountainous, each weighing in at fifteen kilograms. They had decided, wisely, to buy their food once in Tasmania; camping food, light in weight but nutritious, enough to last the eight days, the list of requisites having already been made.
O’Byrne and Malcolm’s father, Iain Littler, stood together in the terminal awaiting the guys’ return from the luggage check-in. Neither of them, especially Littler, was happy about the hike but both knew there was nothing they could do about it. The guys were both twenty-two now, adults, and they had every right do what they liked, even though their parents were worried. O’Byrne knew that Liam had wanted to do this for a lot longer than six months; he’d wanted to do it for almost two years, almost since his grandfather had passed away. It was as if he considered it his tribute to the old man.
The mothers and girlfriends had made their way to the departure lounge and were sitting chatting together, none of them looking forward to the departure but like the men knowing nothing could be done by way of change at this late stage.
The guys returned from check-in almost as the flight was called. This was good, for now there’d be no last minute pleas for cancellation, no talk of their worries and fears. It was too late for that.
Sophie put her arms around Liam’s shoulders before giving him a worried but passionate kiss. “You take care of yourself Liam, I want to see you back here in ten days.” There were tears forming in her eyes and she had to turn away. “You just take care.”
Liam turned to his mother giving her a cuddle and a peck on the cheek. “You’re the only one who doesn’t look worried, Mum, thanks for that.”
“I may not look it Liam,” she said, “just make sure you look after both of you, I know how much you’re looking forward to this.”
Liam took his father’s offered hand, noticing without much difficulty the strained expression on his face. “Don’t worry Dad, we’ll be OK, you know that.”
The folks and girlfriends stood in a group as the guys passed through the ticket check, walking down through the concourse to the waiting aircraft. They were worried of course, even though each, bar Littler, had confidence in the guys’ capabilities at what they were undertaking. There were safeguards. Books had to be signed before they entered any track, times of entry to the track and estimated exit time, the book having to be signed again upon exit. These books were not checked often, necessitating notification of reliable persons as to the estimated time out so if there were any problems, the necessary authorities could be mobilised as soon as possible. There was also the distress beacon, the small electronic location device they were going to hire from Service Tasmania, virtually their lifeguard in case anything unforseen should happen. It was the safety net the small group had in mind, one they hoped wouldn’t have to be used.
The guys entered the aircraft and made their way to their allotted seats on the right side, Liam finding out he had a window seat and promising it to Malcolm on the return flight. The doors closed and the guys heard the thrum of the engines winding up before feeling the slight jerk as the tow tractor reversed the plane from its bay to the taxiway. Hostesses presented themselves in the aisles, explaining the safety aspects of the plane, exit points and how to fit the life jacket, the usual but necessary demonstration before any flight.
The engines wound up to half power, pushing the aircraft along the taxiway towards the main runway. Liam fished round in the seat pocket, finding the sheet on safety procedures and studying it; something he did automatically every time he boarded an aircraft. The plane had to wait several minutes before authorisation was given for it to proceed to the runway as there were several others lined up to land. The guys watched through the windows as, one after the other, three aircraft touched down. The final one was a Qantas Jumbo, smoke billowing from its stationary wheel clusters as they made contact with the ground after their almost eight hour flight from Singapore.
Authorisation having finally been given, their aircraft slowly made its way to the main runway, stopping again, awaiting final clearance. Finally they heard the engines wind up to full power before the Captain released the brakes. Liam looked across at Malcolm.
“Well, here we go.”
He certainly didn’t expect what confronted him. Malcolm’s eyes were shut tightly; his hands were gripping the arm rests, the knuckles white with the exertion, his body stiff against the backrest.
“Wha…?” Liam was flabbergasted. “Are you OK Mal?”
Perspiration was forming on Malcolm’s brow. “I’ll tell you in a sec,” he said between clenched teeth, “when we’re off the ground.”
Liam felt the gentle but firm push in the back as the aircraft accelerated forward to its appointed rendezvous with the sky. He watched Malcolm throughout the takeoff run, ready to call for assistance if necessary. The aircraft lifted its nose towards the sky, leaving terra firma as gracefully as a swan from a lake, heading for where it was designed, the clear, blue sky above. Only then did Malcolm open his eyes and relax his grip on the arm rests. Liam was still watching, still worried.
“Are you OK man?” Liam asked again.
Malcolm turned a distinctly white face towards Liam. “Shit I hate that.”
“What?” Liam was totally perplexed now.
“Takeoff, it frightens the hell out of me.” Malcolm explained.
Liam saw a hostess in the aisle, stopping as she arrived at their seats. She leaned over towards Malcolm.
“Better now?” she asked.
“Yes, thanks,” Malcolm replied, feeling about the size of Tom Thumb. “Silly reaction really.”
“Not at all,” she said soothingly, “I take it you two are over eighteen?”
“Yes, both of us.” Malcolm replied.
“Good, well here’s a little something for your nerves,” she said, passing a small plastic bottle of Johnny Walker Scotch to Malcolm, “and one for you for being a genuinely concerned friend.” She passed the other small bottle to Liam. “Would you like a mixer with that?”
Malcolm fumbled for his wallet. “Yes please, Just some water for me, how mu…?”
He was cut off in mid sentence. “On the house, our pleasure, I know it’s frightening sometimes. Water for you as well sir?” This was directed at Liam.
“Yes, thank you,” Liam replied.
The hostess disappeared into the galley, returning a few seconds later with two glasses and two bottles of soda water. She passed them to the guys. “There you are, enjoy.”
“Thanks, it’s appreciated.” Malcolm said.
The hostess smiled before making her way to the rear of the aircraft to assist her colleagues with the coffee, drinks and snacks.
“You had me worried for a sec there Mal,” Liam said, “I thought there was something horribly wrong with you. You should have said something.”
“Nah, it’s OK. It’s the same every time I get in one of these things,” Malcolm explained. “I don’t mind landing but I hate takeoff, even though I know it’s the safer of the two.” He opened the Scotch and poured half the contents in the glass. “This’ll put a better light on things though.”
Liam grinned. Normally he wouldn’t touch the stuff unless he was on a night out somewhere with Sophie and even then, only a limited amount. It was only… he looked at his watch, 11:10 am, they’d only been in the air ten minutes and here he was with a glass of Scotch and soda in his hand. Oh well, it was for Malcolm, he thought.
The flight took just over an hour, the aircraft ascending to its maximum of thirty five thousand feet before descending again towards Hobart. Liam watched the approach of the Tasmanian coastline, fascinated that he was able to see clearly almost as far as Cape Grim, the north western tip of the island, from where they crossed the coast between Devonport and Port Sorell. He felt a slight dropping sensation as the Captain throttled back the engines, the nose of the aircraft dropping slightly as it commenced its descent into Hobart. The countryside looked green enough around the coast, but it was only as they proceeded further south Liam could make out what agriculturists had been saying. The midlands area was dry, very dry, with hardly any green at all in the pasturelands. The only colour discernable was the dull grey/green foliage of the eucalypt covered hills and mountains. Liam and Malcolm watched the passing scenery below through the window.
“They were right,” Liam observed, “it is dry down there.”
The first bump of the flight shocked them out of their concentration. It wasn’t so much a bump as a sickening falling sensation followed by the aircraft banking left then right again as the auto pilot regained control.
“Argh!” Liam exclaimed, “I hate it when it does that.”
Before Malcolm could answer, the Captain’s voice was heard on the intercom.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. Please allow me to apologise for that corrugation, we have informed the council about it in the past but it appears nothing has been done by way of repair at this stage. That should be it now; the rest of your flight should be smooth. Thank-you.”
Laughter was heard throughout the cabin, the passengers appreciating the Captain’s sense of humour. It had been a constant source of wonder to Liam, since his first flight, firstly how aircraft stayed in the air and secondly how the flight crew were able to sound as calm and collected when something like that happened.
The rest of the flight was, as the Captain had said, smooth, the aircraft sweeping low over the Tasman Highway on its final approach to Llanherne. Liam watched Malcolm brace himself, but there was no repeat of the panic shown at takeoff. The wheels touched with hardly a jar, the engines roaring their defiance in reverse thrust, slowing the aircraft as though it was being held back by a giant, invisible hand.
Malcolm turned to Liam. “How the hell do they do that?”
“Put a plane weighing this much, travelling at gawd knows what speed, onto the runway without anyone feeling it?” Malcolm’s face reflected his awe.
Liam grinned. “Skill, I guess.”
The aircraft turned at the end of the runway, heading to the terminal. Finally the doors were opened, the steps placed against the fuselage and they were free to leave, finally at the place they had planned to be for six long months. The hostess who had shown them her kindness earlier was at the forward door bidding farewells to the passengers.
“That wasn’t so bad now, was it?” she said to Malcolm, smiling.
Malcolm grinned. “Thanks for your help, it was appreciated.”
“More than welcome,” she said, smiling also at Liam.” Might see you on the return flight.”
The hot January sun bore down on the guys as they departed the aircraft, twenty-eight degrees Celsius, an absolutely superb, sunny, cloudless day. They made their way to the luggage collection point, waiting as the cases, boxes and other articles were loaded onto the carousel. Having collected their backpacks, they made their way to the Airport Bus check-in point, awaiting the bus to Hobart. Their backpacks were put into the trailer and they made themselves comfortable on the bus. Liam turned to Malcolm.
“Well buddy, we’re here. Another three, maybe four hours and we’ll be at Strathgordon and then tomorrow… whew, I can hardly wait.”
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