by Janice Nigro
Liam was his first name. The trail guide. A strapping young New Zealander. Handsome, I thought to myself, still getting the sleep out of my eyes. In the next moment, he delivered the news in his New Zealand accent. The others in the group had canceled the guided day hike on the Routeburn, a Great Walk in New Zealand. It was my choice to go or to wait another day.
After traveling on my own for almost three weeks, I decided to make an effort to meet people. I booked a trip with a tour company to be with other humans for a day. The other humans canceled and now my choice was to spend the day alone with a stranger who was a man or find something else to do.
I looked at my watch and then him. “I want to go,” I said. “It’s too early now not to go. I got up for this. I’m going.”
“Yeah, I suppose since we’re up this early, we should go,” he replied.
If it had been later in the morning, when I was awake and my mind would race through all the ways a one-on-one with a stranger who was a man could go wrong in the wilderness, I would have said no. I was in New Zealand and a small town so I wasn’t worried about my safety. Being a shy girl and all, I thought the last thing I wanted on this day was to have to come up with half of the conversation with the stranger who was a man for the next several hours. I left a lot at home, but not my insecurities around men I was attracted to.
The swinging bridge near the beginning broke any barriers. I went first and behind me the stranger who was a man rattled my nerves by causing the bridge to move so I would stumble across it like a drunk. After that, with no one else around but the stranger who was a man, we just talked.
He introduced me to the walkabout, a rite of passage for youth in Australia and New Zealand adopted from the Aborigines. It was something else he jumped on to tease me about. My trip, just two months of travel, was hardly a walkabout. I was taking a break from a career trajectory I wasn’t sure I fit. Two months of travel without work was an eternity in my professional circle. Yet, it was nothing in this alternate hemisphere. Before I left the USA, I had a hard time imagining not sleeping in my own bed for two months. After just a few weeks, I embraced the change that came with each new day, which would be hard to reverse once I returned home. I think I’ve been on a walkabout ever since.
Love was a recurring theme of our conversations. We scrambled, he called it, over some rocky sections, while probing each other about the more vulnerable details of our lives. They started with a story about where the name came from for Israeli Creek, a name I pointed out, that didn’t match the others. An Israeli couple had gotten lost and trapped on a ledge over the creek. They were found when she signaled with her mirror from her compact to get the attention of some other hikers. Some part of this story is true.
Like most men who were some sort of guide (or god) of the outdoors, I surmised Liam was good at meeting women. The shaky swinging bridge trick was another clue. As the day went on, he told me it was an American girl who had taken the biggest piece of his heart, so far. She was a girl from a well-to-do family and he was just a trail guide from New Zealand. When it came time to make a commitment, the relationship fell apart.
He gave me tips on how to be a better tramper. “You need some poles. When you’re descending, bend your knees and stay close to the ground to prevent your feet from slipping out from under you.”
At the end of the day, I had that giddy feeling manufactured from the endorphin high after a hike, one of those perks of the cross between human physiology and being in the outdoors that makes you feel in love. Or at least lust. Liam offered up a piece of his Black Forest Cadbury chocolate bar (fruit and nuts in milk chocolate) and said, “We had some interesting chats up there today.”
An effective marketing technique, I thought, as he then launched into a sales pitch about a several day guided hike through the Routeburn linked to some other Great Walks in the area. I wouldn’t have had to do much other than walk with my toothbrush because the tour did the rest.
I said I would think about it, but really, I didn’t. I was determined not to postpone my flight to Australia where I would finally dive the Great Barrier Reef. When I met him by chance early one morning on the street a couple days later, I said, “No thank you.” When he told me I was making a mistake, I felt he was daring me to find a hiking trail of equal or greater beauty in Australia.
“You won’t find what New Zealand has in Australia,” he claimed.
I found it, the Thorsborne Trail on Hinchinbrook Island, a small island off the coast of Australia in Queensland. When I landed in Cairns, in between my dive trips out to the Great Barrier Reef, I arranged my trip for hiking the trail. I got my permit, and reserved ferry rides out and back, as well as the overnight stays at the beginning and end. And I had to get there by bus.
The island was not too far off the coast, but box jellyfish and crocodile infested waters separated it from the mainland. I took the ferry out to the trailhead at the north end of the island with five strangers, three of whom were traveling together. They knew how to camp. I showed up with a rented tent, the kind that looked as if I improvised with sheets and stuff in the backyard, and a pad to sleep on but no sleeping bag. I was in Queensland, in the middle of a tropical rainforest, soaking in a warm sea. My calculation for the three night-four day hike across the Thorsborne Trail at sea level was in that environment, all I needed were giant Cadbury chocolate bars and dehydrated meals.
I would sleep under the stars.
I did, the first night.
My feet secure in a well-worn pair of hiking boots landed on a stretch of a white sand beach sandwiched in between a sea of blue and a jungle of greenery covering every other inch of the island. I had all I needed for the several day hike, a hat, sunscreen, some water to get started, and my pack filled with useless stuff including my rented tent. The sun was bright, and yet my optimism for a short camping trip to prove I could do it alone suppressed any sense of the temperature and the humidity in the tropics enveloping me.
Reaching the island on that first day was not enough for my fellow walkers. Not to be left behind lounging on the beach, I followed the others on the hike up Nina Peak at 312 meters high. We left our packs on the beach and sweat our way to the top. My clothes were soaked minutes into the ascent, but it was worth the 45 minutes of extreme discomfort to have a drone’s eye view of the crescent shaped beach bathing in the blue ocean, the incubator for the Great Barrier Reef.
Back at sea level, the beauty of nature shifted into the sky after the sun went down. The stars appeared to be close, so close I felt I could reach out and touch them, just as if I had been sitting in a planetarium viewing the fakes ones projected onto the ceiling. In the wilderness, the light from the stars met our eyes uninterrupted from their other galaxy position.
We were lying there on our backs in the sand, looking up to the sky, lamenting our deficiencies in knowledge of the stars, when two people appeared in the darkness, a young couple, a man and a woman hiking up from the south end of the island. A coincidence, or maybe it was the stars that brought him to us, for he was a university astronomy student who worked part time in a planetarium.
He stood before us on the beach, launching into his planetarium designed lecture, his laser pointer a torch (flashlight in American English). I remember almost none of the facts he presented except for one, that in such a complete absence of urban illumination, the beam of light from even my small torch appeared long enough to touch the stars that burned light years away from Earth.
Rock-hopping was the word used to describe the first section of the trail at sea level on day 2 in my Walking in Australia Lonely Planet guidebook. I transitioned from tramping in New Zealand to walking in Australia. Rock-hopping connotes a fairy-like movement from some kind of ballet. Carrying a pack, I didn’t find myself rock-hopping over the boulders strewn across the trail. I felt more like some animal attempting survival after having landed on the wrong planet, whose only means of communicating for the next 10 km of the trail, was the single four letter word beginning with “f”.
I managed to keep from slipping which meant my boots remained dry until we reached the next habitat, the mangrove, where I found myself up to my knees in the damp and the mud. I began to equate the sound of running water, usually a sign of drinking water, with getting my feet wet.
Within the cypress and fan palm tree habitat lurked ruthless vegetation such as “wait a whiles” or lawyer plants and some other kind of plant with thistles that hooked into my skin. The air was filled with six legged invertebrates, a majority of which seemed to thrive on mammalian flesh. All the while though, music serenaded us from the trees, although I rarely saw the birds attached to the song.
At the end of the trail that day was the small bay, Zoe Bay, with a tiny beach shaded by giant versions of tropical plants in small pots at home and littered with coconuts and palm tree detritus. A fresh water stream ran by the south end of it, and inland there was a lagoon and a small falls sourced from fresh water flowing down the highest peak on the island. Even the latrine at this trail site was picturesque, a one seat museum of the memorabilia of walkers past, nature’s small gifts rolling in from the sea.
I stored my food in the critter proof chest, including my chocolate, my one luxury item I couldn’t live on the trail without, and set up my tent. The ocean was off limits. Supposedly a local estuarine crocodile inhabited the area where the stream met the sea. So we spent the rest of the day cooling off in the lagoon and the water falls.
All was glorious on this trek where I felt time had stopped. Who needed it?
Before the sun rose on my third day out there, I was awakened by the water pelting my tent from above. My sleeping pad was fast becoming a shallow reef breaking barely above the water leaking into my tent from below. My beach towel during the day, blanket in the evening, soaked up so much water through the night I started to shiver even though the air was a comfortable 25°C. I lay there awake until there was some light.
The sudden torrential downpour sent water raging down the mountainside filling the stream beside our campsite in idyllic Zoe Bay just a few hours before to levels too dangerous to cross. Grant, an Aussie with outback experience, refused to allow anyone to cross the now swollen stream even though we had scheduled a southern exit point with the ferry. A slip into the swift water could either break your leg if caught between boulders underwater or send you off into the jaws of the local estuarine crocodile.
It continued to rain during the day and never really stopped. I spent my day trapped in my tent as if in one of those commercials for testing a poor performing mosquito repellent. The water was also rising in the mangroves on the other side of us. To retrace our steps back to the northern trailhead through the mangrove which included a perilous bit over that stretch of boulders in the rain would take two days. We stayed put.
After a day trapped in a malfunctioning tent, I moved my equipment to the picnic table so I could sleep above the water. I spent the next night in my refashioned tent on stilts, and we missed our agreed upon take out time on the fourth day. In between entertaining status trips to the stream, getting bitten by carnivorous sand flies in our tents, and adding to the sea shell collection in the latrine, a boat sailed into Zoe Bay. A couple of guys who didn’t know much about sailing stranded their boat overnight because they didn’t factor in low tide. But they were able to radio the ranger station that several walkers were where they might have guessed and no one was injured.
On the fourth night of the trip, Grant shared his tent with me. The rules of society we were all accustomed to began to disappear. I convinced myself my underwear looked enough like a bikini that I didn’t have to wear more than that because there’s nothing more uncomfortable than too many wet clothes. Yeah, the rules in the wilderness had changed when I saw the backside of a German hiker riddled with red insect bites as he changed outside his tent.
Our day consisted of coconut gathering, and opening and eating. Walking up to the creek to check at least twice a day whether we could cross, walking around the beach and back, and collecting shells, and collecting more shells.
Before the sailboat left the next day, on the fifth day, when the tide was in, the ranger station radioed that a barge would show up for us in a couple of hours.
We broke open the critter-proof chest containing our trekking treasures, the cheese, crackers, peanut butter and vegemite, to celebrate under my tent that was now a tarp until the rain would stop or the boat would arrive. The tide was in and the men in the boat sailed out of our bay, leaving us with a box of white wine. One minute I was drinking wine out of a coconut in my underwear and the next minute a helicopter, we thought was just circling, landed on the beach. A military guy, looking like Ralph Fiennes in aviator glasses, jumped out and started giving orders to pack up.
My five companions and I were the first to fly out since we had been there the longest, a whole day longer than expected, but a couple more than the rest of the hikers who started to pile up at the site. In the first flight, not all of us could take our packs as space was limited due to the emergency medical equipment. I took my toiletries, but forgot my camera, and jumped on the helicopter.
I had never been in a helicopter, and I have an image embedded in my brain, without the aid of my camera, of the view over the coral reefs immersed in the swimming pool color blue sea. I also remember getting lectured by a local policeman about the costs of the flight once on land.
I didn’t rebut this authority’s position even considering the impulsive decision of the rangers to rescue us with the helicopter. I just said thank you.
But the dramatic reaction of the ranger department cost me some extra days in the small town of Cardwell at the Kookaburra Holiday Park. My pack was supposed to arrive the next day. Being the weekend and all, that plan got delayed until the following Monday which meant I couldn’t leave until Tuesday. The conversation with the ranger delivering this message to me could have gone in the wrong direction quickly had I not checked my rising anger, realizing I wasn’t in my own country and in a small town within that country. I couldn’t screw with the few people who controlled the course of my immediate future.
If I could call it an “aha” moment, I would. My perspective on travel changed 180 degrees that day.
I felt humble.
When my pack arrived, there was a note in it left by another hiker who somehow skipped the helicopter ride. He had arrived at Zoe Bay after the movie star rangers had airlifted us. He looked through my pack and discovered that I was as he was, from California. He had written the note on a ripped piece of a red, white and blue paper bag, and placed it within a small plastic bag to prevent it from getting wet.
I camped overnight in Zoe Bay and saw your pack lying on the ground. I saw your ID card and noticed that your phone # is from the Bay Area. I’m from Cupertino so I just thought that was quite a coincidence. Email me sometime if you want.
Sincerely, Craig Harrison
I did email Craig Harrison, but I never met him in real life. Craig had the audacity to write that he crossed the stream without difficulty and completed the trail, a feat I never fulfilled.
I left the Kookaburra Holiday Park in the middle of the night, under the brightest of the stars I had just learned about, to catch a bus to Gladstone. The only reason to go to Gladstone was to ride a hydrofoil churning up your insides out to Heron Island, an island that grew up from a position in the reef breaking the surface of the sea over millennia.
Liam found love with a New Zealander he crossed paths with who was living and working in America. He even became an American citizen. I still have Craig’s letter in the plastic bag safe between the pages of an old travel journal. But I haven’t done much camping since.
©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com
Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.
I agree with your comment saying you’ve been on a walkabout ever since. You have! I think this is my favorite story of yours that I have read.
Glad you enjoyed the story Jill! I didn’t think about the walkabout idea until I started to write about that day in New Zealand. Funny how life works out. That was quite a while ago…