I don’t know what it is with me. I can take a perfectly good experience and turn it into … something else.
It could be that I’m a little hard of hearing. Or that, as a writer friend once remarked to me with a biting sort of affection, ‘You live in your head.’ (Yes, a writer friend said this to me. Did she mean I live in my head even more than other writer people?)
Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that, at a management conference for work a few years ago, we did an exercise on styles of conflict management which involved physically moving to the quadrant in the room assigned to our preferred style, and I ended up in a corner all by myself, the only deep green with a touch of blue (red was a last resort). All the other managers, moving confidently and en masse to their corners, tended towards blue or red with touches of green.
Maybe I just mooch around on the sea bottom just a bit too much of the time.
* * *
Whatever the case, there I was two days ago, on my first hike in six years, in a group of about sixteen, half an hour or so in, when I began to hear mutterings up ahead that sounded like ‘human hovel’. And then I heard ‘monument’ tacked on there somewhere. What the hell?
I couldn’t help picturing what awaited us at the Monument to a Human Hovel: a ruin, enshrined, of a small, lean-to shack, dishes still undone after 154 years, yard an absolute disgrace, and an actual decrepit human draped over a dingy sofa on the front porch …
At last we arrive, taggle-wise, and gather around an obelisk made of rocks, with an almost illegible plaque stuck on the front. Highish. I can just make out, peering up at it from near the back of the group, the names ‘Hume’ and then ‘Hovell’. A-ha – the famous Australian explorer Hume after whom the Hume Highway was named. And Hovell, after whom … I will check that later, I think, trudging after the disappearing group.
Not long after, we stop for morning tea by some actual ruins. (The Cumberland ruins, if you’re actually looking at a map … but how can you be? I haven’t told you where we are yet. It’s coming.) I give the tumbling bluestone walls behind the fence a cursory glance, then find a spot on a low-hanging branch in the sun to eat my banana. As I turn to zip open my backpack, a rabbit dashes out from underneath the bushy end of the branch, skitters off across the grass.
About ten minutes later, as we begin on that part of the walk that stretches from morning tea to lunch, our leader points left towards the grass and says ‘Rabbit.’
Squinting across the yellowish, waving expanse but not spotting anything but grass and a tree, I say, ‘Might be my rabbit.’
‘I think a fox might have got it,’ she says.
* * *
What I hate about hiking:
- aching back from lugging water, thermos, morning tea, lunch, raincoat in case it rains even though it won’t this time, whistle, money, phone, map with pen in plastic sleeve just in case, all the clothes I’ve shed on the way, and that’s not even half the things I’m supposed to have in there according to the list (crap, I forgot to pack Band-Aids)
- peeing under/behind trees (how do other women do it? I’ve never dared ask)
- when there are no trees to pee under/behind
- not drinking enough because I don’t want to have to pee too often
- drinking anyway and having to pee and not being able to.
But if there’s one thing that absolutely gives me the screaming irrits, it’s the sound of someone’s hiking pole tick-tick-ticking on the trail right behind me. That, or getting a hiking pole in my eye.
* * *
At one point, a very experienced member of the group does a double take when she sees that I have unzipped the bottoms of my walking pants and am now walking in shorts.
‘I see you’ve gone legless,’ she says, amused about something. Huge, ancient hiking boots? Baggy shorts? Skinny legs?
‘At least no alcohol was involved,’ I shoot right back.
* * *
Speaking of being a bit deaf. Someone kindly speaks to me at one point, only he does it from behind me and from a reasonable height, so I really just get ‘Mrbbrrbng mbrrrss’. Somehow I detect from the sound quality it is actually directed at me. (Amazing how you can do that.)
I turn and ask him to repeat.
‘They’re living legends,’ he says, nodding across the fields at the racehorses in their enclosure. I know they are racehorses, because of the conversation in the car on the way to the meeting point. Within the parkland is a place, the place in Australia, where champion racehorses are brought to live out their retirement. Also, they look pretty racehorsey.
‘Mmm,’ I say, brimming with interesting information.
‘Living Legends’ is what he meant. With Capitals. Of course. Doriemus lives here somewhere. Saintly. Fields of Omagh … On the drive in, J. said that groups of school children are sometimes brought here so that they can draw them.
* * *
One thing I can’t fail to hear are the planes passing overhead on their way into, and out of, Tullamarine airport. It’s a little surreal, walking through bushland, troops of kangaroos visible and watching us through the trees, while jets heave in and out of view, quite close.
We all continue to go about our business – the hikers hiking, the kangaroos lounging and watching, the planeloads of people heading to wherever they’re heading. For a moment we’re all aware of each other except, perhaps, the people in the planes.
On the way back to the city after the walk, we pass the aircraft viewing area, where there are quite a few people gathered, mostly standing beside their cars and looking up in the direction of the main flight paths. I’d never noticed them before, though I’ve flown in and out of the airport often enough.
They instantly remind me of the people who gather in the parking lot near Uluru to catch it in its best light, either at sunrise or sunset. They fill in the time sipping champagne.
* * *
We don’t see any Eastern Barred Bandicoots, though we pass through a number of gates in fences designed to protect their habitat. The fact that we don’t see them makes sense, because they’re nocturnal. Also, what kind of shy, furry, endangered animal worth its salt would be sitting around waiting for a herd of humans to pay it a visit?
We see some birds. But not many. Magpies. Crows (little ravens, actually). Sulphur-crested cockatoos. Rainbow lorikeets. Fairy wrens. Something I think is a hawk but might be a falcon or an eagle.
I read later there are a lot of bird species to be seen at the park, if you know what you’re doing. (Here’s a site with lots of photographs of birds from some people who knew what they were doing.)
People have stopped to look off to the side of the path where a small black-and-white bird with a coy dance is twitching from branch to branch. I hear someone say something about robins. I throw in my two cents as I trudge past, not thinking, because by that time the blisters and backache have well and truly kicked in (or so I tell myself comfortingly later), ‘That’s a willy wagtail, isn’t it?’
It comes out of my mouth sounding mildly scornful.
Let’s see now. What could be the quickest, most effective way to really get up the noses of a bunch of people I have only just met?
Later, when I find out more about the park (see above link to the Birding Lovers site), I discover there are five species of robin to be seen In the Woodlands Historic Park. In fact, the park is ‘famous’ for them.
* * *
We stop for lunch on Gellibrand Hill, which is flattish on top and planted with a radar tower. We gaze back at Melbourne, from whence we’ve fled only that morning.
Tops of hills are fairly traditional for hiking lunch stops. You can understand why. They’re the reward for going up hills. Not only is there the view, but there might not even be any more going-up of hills after lunch, even though you could actually probably manage it after lunch and a decent pee.
Though that can be a problem, on a hill, if there aren’t a lot of trees. And in this case, once the cleared, sloping group hit undergrowth and trees, there is a fence. All the way around.
Individuals can be seen skulking off in a southerly direction … Because we’re on a hill, they can actually be seen quite easily.
The trick is to determine, without staring, whether they are engaged in scoping out a decent, obviously private, stand of trees, or whether they are genuinely striking out on their own to check out the second set of actual ruins: the Dundonald ruins, which consist of a stone stable and a patch of ground with some wooden stakes in it, still vertical, where the homestead and gardens once were.
Obviously if it is the former situation, if they’re scoping, it is not kosher to be following them; whereas if it is the latter, it is OK, in fact it is quite pleasantly sociable, once you’ve finished your cheese and chutney sandwiches, to tag along for a bit of ruin-gawking.
I manage to kill two birds with one stone: I find my particular spot in the trees, speedily unkit (only partially, of course), dangle from a branch for a moment like a hapless chimpanzee, rekit, and manage to then tag along behind someone else (correctly identified as a view hunter) to see the ruins.
Thank my granny’s knickers, I am going to be able to make it through the afternoon.
Just as well, too, as our fearless leader announces that the afternoon walk will be a little longer than she’s anticipated.
* * *
Did we notice the carefully cultivated Aboriginal burial ground we passed, or that we might have passed, on the way back? J. asks us later, on the drive back to Melbourne. I did not.
The rest of the walk passes in an achy blur. Me unaware that the sunscreen I slathered on at about six in the morning is no longer doing its job.
* * *
Afternoon tea, when we finally reach the end of the walk and stagger back to the cars, then to the toilets and across to the picnic benches, is a feast. Every single person has brought enough to share with every other person; everyone except me has seemingly erred on the generous side in their interpretation of ‘Bring something small to share for afternoon tea.’ My pathetic block of luxury chocolate remains unopened and untouched, as homebaked muffins are passed around.
* * *
On the way home, I manage to clearly and unequivocally mix up the names of the driver and her friend of thirty years, the second passenger, both of whom have single-syllable names beginning with ‘J.’, which I had instantly and irreversibly managed to join together in my mind as ‘J. and J.’
* * *
On reflection, the question isn’t really ‘Why do I bother hiking?’ It is: Is there is anyone left in Sunday’s group who could bear to be on a walk with that new person, the self-absorbed twerp who never seems to properly listen to anyone else?
Once I crawl out from under this rock, I might sign up for the next one – under a pseudonym, though, I think.
Say … Em Barr-East? Or Kip N. Kwyett? Or perhaps, in hope, Betton X. Thyme.
© From the desk of a tiny person 2015