Appears in Catalyst 3.72
My breath fills the cold morning air each time I exhale. It’s just ticked past seven and as I finish loading the last of the gear into the boot of my Corolla hatchback, it dawns on me that everybody else is tucked in the warmth of their Sunday beds and clinging to the sleep I feel so deprived of. “Is that everything?” says Dan as he scratches the coarse stubble growing down his neck. I nod, close the boot, and before long we’re streaming down the freeway in search of the gruesomely named Mount Cannibal located one hour south-east of Melbourne near Bunyip State Park.
“There’s more cars than I was expecting,” I say as we reach the car park at the end of a flaxen dirt track.
“Hopefully the cannibal’s full, then,” says Dan. We then start up the incline, the scratch of small stones becoming slightly louder with each step we venture farther up the mountain, our conversation becoming softer as our breathing deepens.
“Morning, boys,” says an elderly woman as she powers down past us, pushing off two long walking sticks clutched tightly in her hands each time she surges forward.
“Morning,” we puff back before continuing upwards, wiping the sweat from our brows fogging up our sunglasses. Suddenly the track stops and, without realising it, we arrive at the summit: an almost promontory of large, granite boulders that hang over the edge of the forested precipice. We climb over the rounded grey mounds and stand atop the 230 metre elevation and absorb the bucolic panorama, sucking in lungfuls of fresh air and gazing silently at the green hills that curve slightly off into the meridian.
“It’s okay, I guess,” says Dan with a chuckle. I shove him slightly at the shoulder and his body jolts as he looks over the edge at the valley floor tumbling away below us. “You’re a prick, you know that?” I laugh and we continue along the looping circuit until, barely forty minutes since arriving, we find ourselves again in the car park.
The hour is yet to tick past noon, so we get back in the car and drive towards Nash Creek: an idyllic gully deep inside the State Park. Having navigated innumerable potholes that slap the side of my car with layers of runny mud, we arrive at our destination thirty minutes later, and moments later our site’s set up.
“What now?” asks Dan.
“I suppose we could go for a walk.” And after refilling our water bottles and packing a few muesli bars and bananas into our bags that’s exactly what we do.
Caroming through thickets of scrub tangling the land in green, we soon arrive at a bistred path that slices erratically through the forest: a sprawling maze of scarred land carved roughly at the surface that reveals a bed of hardened clay tinctured a burnt vermilion at the ragged edge where it dissolves into long blades of dried grass with a dire thirst. We follow the path for over an hour until we reach a bifurcation in the road and decide to venture left along the thinning path; ourselves weaving upon a gradual incline until the width of our four feet are barely contained within the dirt track we traipse along.
Suddenly the temperature plunges and Dan and I are ensconced in the shadow of trees. The sun starts to dip and the path slops underneath our feet with runny clay due to the overflow of a nearby creek. The track then falls twenty metres from a crumbled escarpment to a blackened pond below. We climb down and inspect the stagnant water.
“The water’s actually clean, the only reason it’s so black is because of all the leeches,” jokes Dan, and we both laugh. Then I jump. The slither of a red-bellied black snake disappears into the long grass and leaves behind the rustle of its body along dried scrub. “What’s up?” says Dan.
“I just saw a black snake. Right over there,” I say pointing at the grass at the edge of the trail a metre away.
“Black snake? Nah, that’s queen leech.”
We continue on for another hour, more steadily now as our eyes remain fixed rigidly on the path before us as we explore an area on our map labelled ‘Black Snake Range.’ The name lives up to its reputation, for we come across myriad hatched snake eggs while a persistent venomous hiss follows us in the distance with each step we meander deeper into the forest. But as the hour creeps steadily past four, and with the hour and a half of light we have left, we decide it’s probably best to return towards camp whilst a vestige of the sun’s warmth remains. And as we return to the blackened pond, we walk single file behind one another in a manner that allows each of us distance from the long grass where queen leech hides—though neither of us admits this.
Shortly after 5.30 we stumble into the camp site. Eight other sites already have their fires roaring, small orbs of flames that border the camping area which fill the air with pleasant plumes of smoke that make us feel cold when we realise we’re without. I begin searching around our campsite for logs and fallen branches when it becomes painfully obvious that the irregular influx of people over the long weekend has stripped the surrounding area of any bulk wood. So with the high beams of the Corolla burning brightly, and with night descending, we drive along the main road in the dark and stop every fifty metres or so to pile peelings of bark, rotted logs, and withered twigs for kindling resting amongst the forest floor into the boot and drive back to camp—the sting of a bull ant’s bite making itself more obvious as I clutch the steering wheel.
Before long our fire has caught and we pour lentils, canned tomatoes, chickpeas, not enough spices, and chillies into a nine-quart cast iron dutch oven filled with water and allow the contents to boil over. The searing heat of roasting coals pops underneath every few seconds as flames score the pot. And though the Dahl severely lacks flavour, because of our exhaustion, and because of the austerity taken in cooking it, the meal sates our hunger better than anything we’ve eaten before and fills a void inside our stomachs that has been rumbling for hours.
Dan and I sit and talk for a few hours about nothing in particular, taking the piss out of each other until our words become few and far between, and as I nestle into my chair in the dark surrounding the camp fire, the pads of my fingertips ruddy from stoking the burning coals, I look around at the other campers, many of which are quite similar to our own, and wonder why I don’t venture into the wilderness of my home state more often. I suppose I too had been sucked into the implicit myth that within our state lie very few places of attraction. And just as the black ink dripping from the sky descends upon our campsite, the remnants of our fire flickering into death, just before I climb into my sleeping bag I think to myself that perhaps our state has a few hidden gems for the rest of us to discover if we’re willing to search hard enough.
The next morning I awake face frozen to my backpack (having forgotten a pillow) and huddle underneath my sleeping bag in search of more sleep. But the sun rises quickly and within half an hour Dan and I have packed up our tents, cleaned the site, and found ourselves wandering along the Weatherhead Range Circuit: a four hour walk that takes us deep into the hearty woodland of silvertop and messmate trees where we pass men and women atop horses cantering along the winding trails.
Then it’s over.
Before long I’m driving back towards home wishing I wasn’t. But then I remind myself that Bunyip State Park and many of Victoria’s other sanctuaries are only a stone’s throw away whenever I need to clear the clutter inside my head. Something I’m already counting down the days to doing again.
And as I arrive back home and begin unpacking all of my gear, I wonder why it is that I so enjoy the calm of the outdoors.
I suppose I find refuge in the escape.