A picture tells a thousand stories, or so they say. For me on this journey, it was the lack of photographs in the second half of each day that truly told my story. Fatigue and pain played a big role in keeping my camera packed at times like these, but at the end of day two it was the sacredness of the space we were in that kept my finger off the button. The tourist in me dissolves into thin air whenever the soft hush of sacred space descends.
After packing up camp the next morning and reloading our packs, we had to climb a steep 5-7 meter incline. This was my first introduction to the complexities of balancing a pack on your back while you climb. After teetering on the edge of a backwards tumble more than once, I learned to climb on all fours, tipping the weight of my pack forwards.
At the top of the rise there was a flat area, and looking back the way we had come, we found a breath-taking view of the escarpment on the other side of the river. After drinking in this view, we stood together under a majestic tree in a picturesque area we nicknamed ‘the meeting place’, and consulted our map. After much discussion, we found our bearings and started following the contour of the mountain alongside the river’s edge, curving our way counter-clockwise up towards the escarpment. At times, steep gully walls pushed us into the river’s bed of rock. Water snaked and gurgled its way past us as we traversed flat expanses of gently sloping, smooth rock, occasionally climbing small 1-2 metre vertical rock-faces alongside mini-waterfalls.
The easy climbing soon ended. With the gully narrowing, all the smaller rivulets combined to create one deep channel, with sheer rock-face either side for the next four metres. We could swim, but that meant getting our packs wet and possibly being dragged down with the weight of them. After studying the rock face on our side of the gully for a while, we realised there were hand and foot holds we could use to inch our way across.
“Are you two up for this?”, asked Kate. “We’ll need to take our socks, shoes and trousers off and put them in our packs to keep them dry.”
“What do you think, Om?”, asked Alex. “I’m up for it if you are”. A little smile played around the corners of her mouth.
“It’s not like we’ve got much choice!”, I laughed. “Let’s do it!”. After a moment’s hesitation, I added “I’m just worried about getting my camera wet”
“I’ll take it across first and then come back for my pack”, offered Kate. So we wrapped the camera in a plastic bag, nestled it in Kate’s billy can (fondly referred to as ‘Billy’) and used Alex’s rope to tie Billy to Kate’s back.
Alex and I watched carefully as Kate traversed the rock face, taking note of various hand and foot holds as she went. She got wet up to her mid-drift but Billy thankfully stayed clear of the water and my camera was soon deposited safely on dry land. While Kate made her way back, I undressed and packed my trousers. Then I stuffed my socks into my shoes, tied the laces together and slung my shoes over the back of my pack, adjusting the straps so my pack sat higher on my back.
“I’ll go first”, I offered, making my way to the front of the line.
“You sure Om?”, said Alex. I nodded. I was nervous about slipping and what might happen if my pack filled with water, but I was excited too. It looked like fun!
Half in the water, half out, pressed hard up against the rock-face with a heavy weight on my back, I fell in love. How sweet the bliss of quiet concentration; the Zen of finding each foot and hand-hold; of muscles stretching and strengthening; and finally, the thrill of making my way to the other side. The other two followed and we gradually made our way over to the other side of the gorge, hopping from boulder to boulder, with water rushing beneath us. We didn’t bother re-dressing because we were wading across shallow areas and slipping around on slime-covered rocks. Then the gully opened out a bit wider and the sun found its way in again, heating up the rocks, which were now becoming jagged and sharp.
I stopped to put my shoes on and went into a small panic, because I couldn’t find one of my socks. I asked the girls to wait while I back-tracked in search of the sock but I had no luck and ruefully left it behind. I had other socks, but that wasn’t the point; the rule was ‘leave no trace’. It upset me to think my sock was tarnishing the raw, untouched beauty of the landscape.
Coming across a stunning rock pool with sparkling clear water, we decided to stop for lunch. Adding water to one of my dehydrated curries, I left it to soak while we stripped off for a swim. I slipped into the cold water with a gasp, delighting in the little fish, spiders and dragonflies all around us.
This was a rare moment of rest on this journey, and I soaked it up happily, drinking in the beauty of nature through the lens of my camera and enjoying the more relaxed conversation unfolding between the three of us. It was lovely getting to know these women a little better; their passions and quirks, their fears and strengths.
At times I had been confused by the sheer intensity of the pace, wondering if they were competing with one another. Then I remembered conversations earlier during the planning process. At that point there had been a fourth woman, Terri, who was going to join us, but she pulled out at the last minute. I remembered Kate asking “What do you want out of this journey Om? We need to plan a route that will honour all of our needs. Alex and I both want to push ourselves physically. We love walking and could happliy walk all day. Terri wants to go slowly.”
I considered her question for a moment before answering.
“I like walking too, but I want time to smell the flowers and commune with nature. I’m also looking forwards to great conversations and sister-girl bonding”
Kate and Alex had originally wanted to walk a longer trail across the top of the escarpment, but decided to make the route shorter in honour of Terri and I. I shudder to think how badly I might have slowed them down had they stuck with the original plan!
Kate and Alex had never hiked together before, but they both had past experience individually. They were both a little rusty from lack of practise though, because years of parenting young children had kept them busy at home. For me, hiking was a new experience. I had done plenty of camping and four-wheel driving, but this was the first time I had ever hiked with a full pack, or used a compass and a contour line map.
Whenever we stopped to consult the map, Kate and Alex would debate our position and how to proceed, while I listened quietly in the background. I didn’t want to complicate the matter by crowding a third head in over the map. From time to time I would add my perspective and cast my vote, but for the most part I cherished these moments because they gave me a rare chance to catch my breath and take photographs.
On our map, the river wound it’s way up the mountain in the shape of a ‘W’, with a tiny circle at the end of it. This circle marked our destination: a rock pool at the top of the escarpment where we planned to camp for the night. After lunch, we came to the first bend in the river, and Kate and I had a disagreement about how to proceed. Kate wanted to take advantage of the relatively open expanse of rock at this point in the gully to cross over to the other side.
“We might not get another chance to cross over. What if it narrows again and we can’t get across the river? Besides, we could just cut across country and climb over the rise, rather than following the river around the bend: a shortcut.”
I eyed the mountain on the other side of the river dubiously. It didn’t look friendly. The slope was steep and thick with vegetation, so I protested, arguing that this side of the river was easier to deal with. Alex listened quietly for a while, then somehow convinced Kate to stay on this side.
All was fine until we made our way around the second bend. Looking ahead, we could see the river getting deeper, with sheer rock face closing in on either side. Everyone agreed: we were going to have to climb up the slope of the mountain beside us on our left while it was still climbable, and leave the river behind. This made us uncomfortable. As long as we were travelling with the river, there was no risk of getting lost.
“Fill up all your water containers”, said Alex. “We don’t know how long it will be until we find water again.”
After we filled our containers, we started the climb, Kate in the lead as usual, with Alex not far behind and me trailing in the rear. It was hard going, climbing over boulders, pushing through thick shrubs and ducking under low-lying branches. Every time we ducked under a tree or pushed through branches, I would get showered in green ants. Green ants live in trees, using their home-made silk to glue leaves together to create nests. They seemed to have a strange fascination with the back of my left ear and I was forever reaching up to brush them out of my hair and prise them off my skin once they sunk their pincers in.
When I finally caught up with Alex she wrinkled up her nose. “What is that strange smell?”.
“Me!”, I told her with a groan. “I’m crawling with green ants. They spit an acid out from their bums and it smells.”
“Oh is that what they are!”, said Alex. “I’ve had the odd bite here and there.”
When we finally caught up with Kate at the top of the rise, she looked at us blankly when we asked her if she’d been bitten. The ants had been disturbed first by her and then by Alex following not far behind. By the time I lumbered my way through, they had been well and truly stirred into a fury!
We were now in a high, mountain-top gully, and much to my relief, the girls wanted to stop for a map conference. My shoulder was aching and I felt like I was over-heating. After having a long drink and picking the last of the ants off me, I took my digging stick and found a private toilet space. My period was coming through a little heavier today and during the climb I noticed the moon cup shifting inside me, the seal breaking suction. As I suspected, it had leaked a little. I changed my panty liner, used some of my drinking water to clean up and reinserted the cup at a different angle, hoping for the best.
The river ran unseen, far below, hidden by the crest of mountain just to our right. One of the girls wanted to stick close to this ridge, following the contour lines that rose up from the river’s edge, so that we wouldn’t lose sight of the river. The other wanted to cut across country over a relatively flat and open area, relying on the compass to guide us. After some extensive scouting, we decided on the latter option, because the terrain on the mountain’s edge above the river was almost impassable.
The next few hours were hell. The pace became more intense because we were running out of day, and the girls crashed through the undergrowth like bulldozers. I was used to treading the earth softly and doing the least damage, but my tip-toe-through-the-tulips approach to bush-walking wasn’t doing me any favours when it came to keeping up.
Just when I was getting really scared we were lost, we found the river again. We couldn’t get down to it through, because the slope was too steep, so then I had a new fear: dying of thirst. It seemed ironic to me that we could see the water but we couldn’t reach it. I took a deep breath and kept going.
Now that we had found the river again, Kate gripped hold of it like a bull dog and refused to let go, making us hike on the slope rather than the flat ground higher up. There were times during this part of the walk that I didn’t like her very much, because the slope was steep and the undergrowth was thick. It was slow going and I found myself gazing longingly up at the relatively clear, flat land at the top of the mountain. It was so close!
Alex tried to reason with her a few times but it was a hour or more before she relented. By that stage I was exhausted. I was still being showered regularly with green ants, my feet were on fire, my left shoulder was screaming at me, and I couldn’t seem to cool down. To top it all off, I was rationing my water because I was scared I was going to run out.
I entered into a miserable, trancelike state; one foot after the other, letting the ants bite me because I didn’t have the energy to brush them away, and regularly dropping the pack off my left shoulder so it would stop screaming at me.
After a while, I realised that if I just ignored the pain, it would eventually go away, mostly because another pain somewhere else in my body was making more noise. Ignore that, and it too would eventually pass. The pain moved around my body, from one place to another. I got used to it after a while, amazed that I could just keep going in spite of it all.
I caught myself entertaining comic fantasies about two clients who secretly despised their psychotherapist, luring her deep into Kakadu so they could torture her and do away with her, pretending it was an accident. Laughing at myself I would then start feeling anxious about being a dead-weight who was slowing the girls down by not moving fast enough. I was feeling very sorry for myself, at times wishing I was home safely in bed. I felt completely out of my depth.
Finally, a happy shout from up ahead. Kate had found our waterhole!
Waves of relief washed over me: I wasn’t going to die of thirst and we weren’t lost.
We climbed down a rocky slope into a very picturesque gorge. The water fell down a series of rocky slopes back along the way we had come. In front of us, the top of the canyon ended in sheer rock face with a large pool of water at its base. Easing off my pack with a groan, I found a flat rock to sit on and took off my shoes. The soles of my feet were in a whole new world of pain and I was seriously worried about blisters. I lay back on the rock and closed my eyes, waiting for the pain to subside.
I could hear the girls moving around me, their voices indistinct, speaking softly. I wondered why they were whispering. When the pain was finally quiet enough for me to bear facing the world, I sat up slowly and looked around. The waterhole hugged the canyon walls, aside from an area to the left where a thick area of sand, moss and small gnarly trees grew. Alongside this, in the corner where the head of the canyon wall met the slope we had climbed down, was a small cave.
Alex and Kate were standing just outside of the cave, looking in to it. When they turned to face me I could see by the expression on their faces that something was wrong.
“We don’t think we can camp here Om”, said Alex, looking worried. “I think it’s a sacred space. That cave back there has paintings in it….”
Kate picked up where Alex had trailed off. “….we think we’re going to have to find another camping spot, and quickly, because it’s getting dark.”
Like hell we are, I thought to myself, shaking off my sleepiness and searching quickly for a way to salvage the situation and keep the blessed haven we had found.
“I’ve been in situations like this before”, I told them. “And I’m used to talking to spirits. Let’s see if I can negotiate on our behalf. I’m not going into that cave though. The last time I went into a cave like that was on Vanuatu and it wasn’t fun.”
“What happened?”, asked Alex.
“I was on a tour. Before we left, Spirit said to me, when you are near the rocks, don’t do what the others are doing. I just assumed they meant something like not jumping off rocks into shallow water, and promptly shrugged it off. Later that day, we were being led into a cave where the old people used to go to die, when I suddenly started feeling very strange. Everything was slowing down and I felt like I was walking through water. It’s almost like I could sense the end of the cave and it was sucking me into an energy tunnel. Remembering Spirit’s advice, I quickly turned around and walked out!”
“Okay”, said Alex. “You talk to them, we’ll wait.”