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I Suck at Backpacking (Virginia AT Trip Report)
(I should mention that I was very careful about my travel. I bought gasoline outdoors, once, and sanitized my hands before and after. Clean, safe travel.)
Where: Sloppy lollipop with a stick popping out of the top on the AT in the middle of Virginia.
Conditions: Pretty hot. Intermittent rain, but a hell of a lot of it sometimes.
Lighterpack: (Good for a year, then no longer accurate possibly) https://www.lighterpack.com/hlql1a)
Preface: This was a standard weekend trip, with an unimpressive but annoying-to-calculate number of miles covered as a result of side trails and out and backs. Maybe 20 on the big day? I’d originally aimed at a 30 on day two, but it quickly became clear that I am utterly fat and in terrible shape. It also quickly became apparent that I am bad at backpacking. I don’t intend to stop, but my accumulated mishaps have most certainly coalesced into a clearly focused image of general incompetence. I totally fucking suck at this shit, and it’s time that I got real with myself about that. No one should listen to me about backpacking stuff, ever. I do not know what I am doing. Skip down toward the end of day two for the part that is the most personally humiliating to me. Gear notes are sprinkled throughout. Deal with it.
Day 1 (night): I started at a standard Blue Ridge Parkway parking area at about sunset. There were a few cars there, which is about what you'd expect once the day hikers had cleared. The hike angled uphill a bit, and I soon turned onto the Mau-Har Trail, which passes a shelter. More than anything, I was excited to get out on trail again -- the last few months have felt claustrophobic and unreal -- Zoom meetings instead of conversations, everything an abstraction on a screen, and so on. Anyway, nearing the shelter, I saw a headlamp as I approached. I dimmed my light down to a lumen (yay Nu25) -- still visible to whoever was in the shelter, of course, but not a blinding assault. He turned his all the way off. Okay.
As I walked past the shelter at a COVID-conscious distance, I said “Hey, good evening” in a friendly way. Dude didn’t say a damn thing. I kept walking. I’m sure that he just ate an edible and was worried that I was a ranger or something, but what a damn weirdo! FFS. I trucked along downhill a mile or so, until I figured that I was outside of probable murder range. I soon happened on a nice streamside campsite. Normally, I’d hike a bit longer, but rain threatened, and going to bed dry appealed.
I set up my hammock, threw some Skittles into a cup of rum (sadly pandemic-depleted liquor cabinet), and plopped down for the night. I’d been eager to test the hammock pad as a lightweight, versatile solution, and it did fine, despite being a little wack to deal with. The trick is holding it in place with your hands as you rotate into the hammock. My back definitely felt clammy in the morning, but it was worth it versus the incremental half pound of my UQ.
Intrusive gear note: https://imgur.com/gY4m0Kh From the pic, you can see where I set up my polycro rain skirt as doors. I was just playing around and they didn’t have a closure at the bottom but this arrangement seemed surprisingly non-fiddly and absolutely inspired me to sort something out more seriously along these lines. I think it’d be perfect with a proper skirt and an added snap in the right spot. The rain jacket might just need some mitten hooks and shock cord to do the same. Why not?
Day Two: In the morning, I hit the bricks at about seven after a generous application of Trail Toes. I’d been mildly hoping for a lovely sunrise, but it was gray and gloomy. No problem. I like that, too. Here’s a pic of a pitiful little flower, because the views sucked: https://imgur.com/oy0L1Ap
The Mau-Har trail is a pain in the ass, and I found myself taking a bunch of mincing steps to avoid falling on my face. At one point, I took a little skid and my Fizan C3 broke with a percussive PING when I planted it on rock. No big deal, and I found during the rest of the trip that hiking with a single pole is nice. I took things even more carefully, really watching my step given the slippery conditions and rocky trail. Then a dude literally ran past me. Okay.
I met up with a friend a few miles later and we continued up the Priest. Here’s a pic of me concealing my identity on the Tye River footbridge: https://imgur.com/s2fRume
On the way up the Priest, I realized how fat and out of shape I have become. I have the lung and heart capacity to truck uphill at a slow-but-steady pace, but the overall amount of work required to propel my corpulence toward the summit was absurd. I was sweating gallons, developing heat rash, feeling nauseated, refilling water bottles at frequent crossings, and just feeling like shit in general. It wasn’t even that hot, but I drank six liters of water that day. I need to fix my shit so that it doesn’t happen again. At one point, there was a crazy rainstorm, and at another, we managed to hit a view shelf at a glorious break in the weather. It was nice. https://imgur.com/ZC9GEkN
At the top, I abandoned all pretense of hiking on to the next parking area (which would have been nice for planning the next section). Instead, we touched base at the shelter turnoff and headed back north and downhill. We continued on and hiked past my friend’s car, taking the AT north and uphill toward Harper’s Creek and the Three Ridges area. I was badly gassed.
We reached Harper’s Creek and its abundant (and well populated) campsites right at the confluence of darkness and one of the more ridiculous downpours I have ever had the pleasure of enduring. I was instantly drenched but set up my hammock tarp on a slightly inclined area far from any obvious washes. This area soon became an obvious wash. The whole damn mountain was an obvious wash. Even the places that were obvious pools became obvious washes. It was raining A LOT. For reference, I left my pot out overnight, and it picked up an inch of water WITH THE TOP ON. There was also some thunder and lightning, but the area was reasonably protected, and I was too tired to worry. I took advantage of a brief weather respite to make and eat a big dinner, and I began plotting out the evening. My buddy retired to his tent. It would surely rain again, but I was willing to stay awake long enough to partially dry off if it meant a comfortable night’s sleep.
Soon, the rain started again in earnest and I retreated to my tarp. I set up my hammock low and kept my sleeping gear in my pack liner, dry and safe. My plan was to drape myself over the hammock for the next hour or so, with my shod feet sitting in the rapidly running water below. I would be warm enough, and the rest of me could dry. My hammock would be wetted by my clothes, but I’d break out the pad soon enough anyway. In this moment, I developed a dream: Legs that were damp at worst. Bare feet, tucked into a cozy footbox to dry and heal. A stomach full of hot macaroni and cheese. A softly swinging cradle of a shelter, protected against the crazed storm mere inches away. A stuffsack pillow containing spare socks and a fleece that might be removed to warm my torso as the temperatures dipped modestly through the night and the storm raged furiously. It was all for naught. As I rocked myself back and forth, I felt my butt graze against a rock, and with a thunderous RRRIIIIIP, I was sitting in the water. Here’s the campsite (not really): https://imgur.com/7gGfP0g
Well, fuck. It is impossible to overstate how completely and utterly defeated I felt in this moment. I awkwardly climbed to my feet and surveyed the damage. The hammock had sustained a complete horizontal tear right across the middle, stopped only by the edge stitching. There was no way I was “hanging” that night unless I took considerably more severe actions than those justified by the prospect of being cold and wet.
I cast my headlamp around, hoping that I’d see something that would grant me insight into the best course of action. The storm raged on. My ass was soaked. I realized the situation was hopeless but not particularly dire. It wasn’t going to get that cold, and if I had to spend the next 10 hours periodically doing squats in a lightning storm to keep warm, well, fuck that would suck, but there were many people nearby and no real danger. I considered moving to a site without water running through it and rocks underneath, but it seemed like a fool’s errand. There were sites without rocks, but none without water, and casting about in the downpour hardly seemed worth the effort. Best to stay put.
I stepped over to my pack and unfurled my enormous ¼” thick, 40x80 MLD hammock pad. I laid it within the remains of my hammock. The foot and head ends offered a bit of a lift off the ground, with the ass area sitting directly on the rocks below. It was strangely boatlike. Fitting. I took my shoes off, pulled my sleeping bag out of my bag (it was instantly sodden), and shoved my feet into the footbox. I grabbed my Ursack, tucked it beneath my head, and surrendered completely to the situation. Almost instantly, I realized that I didn’t give a fuck at all. I was wet and sleeping on a thin pad on rocks, with water rushing all around me, but I was also safe, and I was -- somehow -- exactly where I was supposed to be: wet, stupid, chilly, laying amidst the products of my errors. I was asleep quickly, and aside from a few shivery moments, it wasn’t a bad night.
Day Three: The next morning, the friend who’d accompanied me decided to head back to his car. Smart move. He had obligations that day, and he’d seen me struggling the day before. I had eight miles out, via the Three Ridges section of the AT. I liked the section, which had a few nice views and wasn’t wildly crowded, although I was feeling pretty badly beat up and worked over by the previous day and the rising temperatures. I drank a gallon of water. I walked through a lot overgrown trail (this is my local trail club’s turf, so this is on me in a sense). I saw a million bees. There was a turtle and a nice view: https://imgur.com/CBIJY0N and https://imgur.com/6h7ZYch
I got to my car, and it started. Hallelujah.
Quick note on the gear failure: This was a Simply Light Designs hammock, and it should go without saying that the workmanship wasn’t to blame at all. I was taking the fabric, 1.3 MTN, pretty close to its limits, and it’s no big surprise that its being raked over a pointy rock with my fat ass in it was too much. Bonus hammock gore: https://imgur.com/4cLxNmu
(AA) Is it really safer...?
With that, Adam helped lessen some of my concerns about my first overnight hiking trip.
He had a good point as well, I mean, apart from the occasional snake bite or fall, nothing that bad ever happens in the Australian bush.
Despite the fact that, well, our bush can have some bite to it. There are snakes, leeches, ticks, spiders, dingoes and wild dogs. To name just a few. And Ivan Milat. Australia’s answer to Ted Bundy. But he died last year.
The snakes are what freaked me out the most. When Adam first floated the idea of an overnight hiking trip, I quickly took to Google to find out what we might come up against.
The death adder. Eighth deadliest in the world.
The tiger snake. Seventh deadliest in the world.
The brown snake. Fourth deadliest in the world.
The inland taipan. Third deadliest in the world.
All these could be found around the region we would be hiking in the south-east of Queensland, near Brisbane.
I also had a nagging concern about other people. While scouring Google about hiking mishaps, I came across several articles about the murders of hikers who were camping.
Sure, these grisly deaths had occurred in America, a long way from Australia, but they raised fresh doubts in my mind about Adam’s assurances of the bush being a safe haven.
In one instance, a couple on the Appalachian Trail in America were brutally murdered by a drifter who decided to wander onto the trail for unknown reasons. Unlike most hikers, the drifter, Paul Crews, was carrying a long-barreled .22-caliber revolver, a box of 50 bullets, and a double-edged knife nearly nine inches long.
When Crews stumbled across the couple at a remote shelter, something happened, and while the exact details are unknown, he committed an atrocious double-homicide before fleeing the scene.
The incident ‘prompted outdoorsmen and trail officials to rethink conventional wisdom long held dear: that safety lies in numbers, that the wilds offer an escape from senseless violence, and that when trouble does visit, it's always near some nexus with civilization--a road, a park, the fringe of a town.’
But I had to put all those concerns to one side. I couldn’t dampen Adam’s mood as we breezed out of the city mid-morning on a Saturday. With dubious tunes blasting out of the pathetic speakers of his dirty white Holden Astra, I could feel myself start to relax.
While I had spent the past weeks looking up everything that could harm me in the bush, Adam was busy plotting what he described as an “epic hike”.
I stayed away from the details and trusted Adam to put a good adventure together. I knew we were heading south-west, but the actual hike? I had no idea. And to be honest, I didn’t really care.
Hiking is something I don’t really understand. I like a majestic view as much as the next person, but I could never understand the point of walking without a purpose. Walking to the shops to get milk? That makes sense. Spending a whole day walking around to only end up where you began? A little strange if you ask me.
Adam and I caught up weekly to run together, often heading from the City along the Riverwalk to New Farm.
Running together one Wednesday night, as the Brisbane skyline gradually faded from view, we began to reminisce on our teenage years bashing our bodies to pieces playing Aussie Rules. We were both defenders and relished repelling attacks.
Adam gave up footy a few years before me and turned into a bit of a fitness freak.
As we neared the turnaround point of the run at New Farm Park, Adam floated the idea of doing a hike together sometime.
“Yeah okay,” I agreed. “Something short, like Mt Coot-tha?”
“How about a challenge instead? I’ve never done an overnight hike and I’m keen to try one,” Adam replied.
I knew he had been getting into hiking but the idea of spending two full days walking around in the bush seemed a bit of a daft way to spend a weekend.
I let the idea sit for a while as we slogged along the pavement near the river. Adam is smart. By using the word challenge in a sentence, he knew he was putting me in a pickle.
Since our footy days, we were always locked in a tussle trying to outdo each other. Even then, as we hid our deep breathing from each other, we were attempting to be a better runner than the other one.
After a bit more baiting by Adam, I eventually relented.
“Fine. But I’ve got no gear to spend a night out in the bu…”
“All good! I’ve got a spare tent and sleeping bag you can borrow. That’s all you need.” Adam said.
While I didn’t like the idea of using Adam’s spare sleeping bag, that was probably last washed or cleaned a long time ago, it was only going to be for one night.
Our final destination on four wheels arrived in agonising fashion. It was a carpark near Mt Joyce and I was absolutely bursting to go to the toilet. Adam’s advice to drink a couple of litres of water in the morning, so we wouldn’t have to carry as much water on the hike, had me in agony.
He had refused to pull over on the couple of dirt verges we had passed recently, and so I now had to do a dash of shame from his car to the nearby toilet block. Lucky no one else was around to see.
Relief, sweet relief.
With that out of the way, we extended our arms into Adam’s boot and heaved our packs out.
Our packs were about the same size but mine was much lighter. Adam’s newfound love for hiking also extended to hiking gear, and his pack was weighed down with an assortment of tools and ‘things’ that seemed to have no purpose.
“So, Mt Joyce? Never heard of this place,” I said.
“Me neither until recently. It looks like a cool little mountain and has a campground at the base,” Adam said.
A campground. Not really what I was expecting. I thought we would be sleeping rough on some patch of dirt. The campground might even have hot showers.
We started hiking but I was still imagining what other creature comforts the campground might have. WiFi, a pool, maybe even a BBQ so we can cook up a feast.
The trail was easy enough to follow as it gently followed the banks of Wyaralong Dam, so I was comfortable enough in my other world.
When I start daydreaming a blank expression normally takes over my face.
Never have I gone from blank to alert as quickly as I did when Adam shouted “SNAKE!”.
Shit. Shit. SHIT. I was yanked back to earth and started dancing on the ground as if the floor was lava and slowly evaporating away.
My eyes started scanning the surroundings so fast Arnie in the Predator would have been proud.
But I couldn’t see anything. Adam, in a relaxed composure, was a few paces ahead of me and lifted his finger to point to a nearby bush.
I could hear the rustle of undergrowth before I saw the tail of something, possibly a snake, fade into the bush.
“You scared him off.”
“Isn’t that the point…?” I replied.
“He was just minding his own business. That gave you a big scare, yeah? I’ve never seen someone bolt into action as quickly as you did,” Adam said.
“I didn’t know where he was. Anyway, let’s keep going away from it before it comes back.”
That snake, likely a harmless carpet python, was the first one I’ve ever seen in the wild. I didn’t want to see one again so we quickly forged ahead.
My heart rate was now easily in the triple figures, a combination of our encounter with the snake and the weight of my backpack. I stopped daydreaming and instead started concentrating on the side of the trail and every rustle which could pose danger.
We must have walked a few kilometres by now and up ahead I could see a building of sorts. It looked out of place amongst the natural surroundings.
As we got closer I could also see a few picnic tables and one tent already set up.
“Is this where we are camping?” I asked Adam.
“Sure is! This is Mt Joyce Base Camp. Let’s get set up here, and then keep going to the summit of Mt Joyce. It will be about two hours return to the summit. We can leave all our gear down here so it will be much easier,” Adam said.
Ahuh. I thought we would be slogging it out for much longer with our packs on, so this was a nice surprise. And given the rather remote nature of the campground, we didn’t have to worry about anyone pinching our gear.
The campground didn’t meet my earlier fantasies but it was much better than the dirt patch I had expected. We were in an open, grassy clearing, near the old building.
There was space for about six tents. We set our two tents up on the edge of the clearing, far away from the other tent which appeared to be empty, although someone could just be sleeping inside.
Adam did most of the setting up, as I was a liability with the tent poles and nearly stabbed him with them on a few occasions. And I don’t say that lightly, the spare tent he had given me had poles with ends that had somehow rusted themselves into objects capable of causing injury.
When everything was set up, we were ready to head uphill to the summit. I left all my gear in the tent, save for my phone, which despite having no signal, was a necessity to prove that we were tough bushmen capable of climbing mountains.
We had a quick bite to eat and then before setting out, we checked out the building near our tents. It was built out of wood and was surely over half a century old. It looked like it didn’t want to be here anymore, having grown tired of its quiet surroundings.
“Abandoned school hall,” Adam said, reading my mind.
“You’re kidding, right? Why on earth would a school hall be out here in the first place? There are no roads or anything connecting it,” I said.
“Dunno. Probably someplace they sent the shit kids for punishment.” Adam said.
Great, I thought to myself. We were probably camping on the site of a pseudo-juvenile hall for deviant kids. The clearing was probably the site of an old graveyard for kids who couldn’t spell. If any place was going to be haunted this would be it.
We poked our heads inside. It was as you expected from a building that hadn’t been cleaned or maintained in decades.
Graffiti donned the walls and scraps of junk sat untouched in the corners. There was a row of steel bunk bed frames along the back wall - ten beds in total. As expected, they were missing mattresses and the steel frames were coated in rust and paint chips.
The windows were blocked out with cardboard and there was only one door in and out. It was grim.
We investigated the hall for a couple of minutes, gingerly poking at objects with our feet. There was just the main room and nothing else of note inside. So with that, we ducked back outside and were relieved to be in the fresh air again.
It was hard to notice when we first entered the building, but now outside again, there was definitely a distinct smell of recent cooking inside the hall.
Adam also noticed the smell.
“Someone must have been cooking in there recently. Smelt kinda like a barbeque,” he said.
I murmured in agreement but didn’t add anything else. I was keen to get hiking again so we would return before sunset. I wanted to be secure in my tent as soon as it got dark, as the hall had given me an uneasy feeling.
The climb to the summit was harder than we thought. Adam thought it would take two hours return to reach the top, but after 90 minutes of hard walking, we were still some distance from the radio tower that signalled the summit.
I was enjoying the hike, despite the fact that it was looking increasingly likely that we would be returning to camp after nightfall.
It was a warm day and sweat started to drip to the ground. My calves, which are perennially tight, started to throb. But we were almost there.
After nearly two hours of hard, uphill hiking, we finally reached the summit. Adam tried to appear fresh as if the hike had been easy, but I could hear the strain in his voice as he pointed out the landmarks surrounding us.
“Mt Barney, that big one at the back there. Mt Maroon, that one just in front. And that one off to the side shaped like a wedding cake: that’s Mt Lindesay.” Adam said.
Looking out at these, much larger, mountains, I started to imagine a new life for myself.
A combination of the peak-bagging ability of Edmund Hillary, the literary genius of Jon Krakauer and the scene-capturing skills of Jimmy Chin. My 213 Instagram followers were going to love going on this awakening with me, so I started the dawn of a new beginning by snapped a couple of photos of the landscape.
I wish we could have stayed longer at the top soaking in the views, but with just 30 minutes left until sunset, we had to hustle to make it back down to camp before it got too dark.
Adam seemed pissed off, at someone or something. He was flying down the descent, almost breaking into a run at times. I made a few casual comments about the pace which he grunted at in reply.
“I’m sorry,” he finally blurted out.
“What? Sorry for what?” I said.
“This is my fault. We should have started earlier. We are going to be walking in the dark and neither of us has our headlamps.”
“It’s okay mate. Walking in the dark will be fun. And we have our phones to use as torches anyway. It’s all good.”
He didn’t reply but seemed a bit more relaxed after that brief conversation. I knew how much time he put into planning everything, and this weekend of hiking was no exception.
We were about halfway back to camp when the sun set. The sky started to gradually darken 15 minutes after that. My eyes worked hard to adjust as less and less light filtered through the trees. The trail we were following, which had once seemed like a highway, now required a hefty dose of concentration to follow.
With darkness now all but hugging us in the depths of the woods, our phone lights came on and, probably, saved us the embarrassment of spending a night lost in the bush. At times, we would lose the path and stumble awkwardly into tangles of bush or undergrowth, before adjusting our focus and finding the faint slither that would return us.
Adam was quiet and focused on the task of getting us back to camp. I didn’t want to say it, but I was having fun bashing around in the dark. It was just us two, out on an adventure of sorts.
When the gradient of the trail started to level off, I knew we were close to camp. Around every corner, I expected to see the ratty outsides of the old school hall. When it did loom out of the darkness, I was relieved. That was until I could see the clearing where the tents were.
Our tents were in the same position as before - five metres apart near the edge of the clearing. But the other tent, which had been set up on the other side of the clearing when we arrived, was now perched smack bang in the middle of our two homes from the night.
“That can’t be the same tent can it?” Adam asked.
“Hmm, I think so. We haven’t seen anyone else out here today, and it’s the same colour and design as the tent from before. It must be the same one.” I said.
“But why would they move it to in between our tents...that makes no sense,” Adam said.
“I don’t know. It’s creepy. Let’s go see if anyone is around.”
While we were hiking, there was always a bit of space between Adam and I. A metre or so.
But now we walked across the clearing our arms were brushing against each other as if preparing for some attack.
As we were getting close to the tents, Adam startled me by yelling out, “hello, HELLO?! Is anyone there.”
No response. There was no sound or light coming from the other tent. It looked empty just as before.
“Let’s get our headlights out so we can look around,” I said.
We split, to go to our tents. I’m not sure why, but I was scared of unzipping my tent. I had an uneasy feeling about the whole situation and couldn’t help but think someone was going to jump out at me.
That’s crazy, I said to myself. Safer out here than in the city…
I tried to unzip my tent as quietly as possible, and then poked my head inside and illuminated the insides with my phone torch.
My backpack was gone. My sleeping mat and sleeping bag, which had been unfurled before we left, were gone. The inside of the tent was completely empty.
“What the fuck. Where the fuck is all my stuff.” Adam shouted. He was a few metres away but it sounded like he was right next to me.
I was speechless. I looked over at Adam’s tent, and from the faint light emitted from my phone, I could see the rage on his face.
He ran over to my tent and looked inside, as if he thought I had somehow pranked him by taking all of his stuff.
“Who the hell took all our stuff.” He said.
“Well, there’s only one other tent around here. Should we look insi….”
Before I could finish, Adam was already ripping at the opening of the other tent.
“Be careful. We don’t know if this person took our stuff or not.” I said.
Adam didn’t care. He wrenched the zip open and thrust his head inside.
“Ohhhhh, someone is definitely messing with us. Look at this shit.” Adam said.
Not wanting to look, but also desperate to see what was inside, I glimpsed over Adam’s shoulder into the tent.
Our backpacks weren’t inside. Nor were our sleeping bags or mats. Just two items were sitting on the floor of the tent: both of our headlamps.
Adam grabbed mine, passed it to me, then scooped up his. He shone his phone light around the perimeter of the tent, looking for clues about where the rest of our items could be. But nothing materialized. Just an empty tent.
I tried to click on my headlamp but nothing happened. Click. Click. I shook it a few times. Click. Click. Nothing. I shook it again and then noticed it wasn’t rattling like normal.
Fearing the worst, I opened up the compartment to where the 2AA batteries normally went. Nothing. Completely empty.
“Adam...are the batteries still in your headlamp,” I said.
Adam looked at me puzzled, then slowly flicked his compartment open. I didn’t even need to look, I could tell from his face that they were gone as well.
“Is this your idea of a joke?! You’ve set this up, haven’t you? Well, very funny. It’s a shit prank so just tell whichever mate you’ve got doing all this to stop.” I shouted at Adam.
To add more impact to my words, I also shoved him. Hard. He stumbled back a few metres but stayed on his feet.
“I promise you I’ve got nothing to do with this. No one is going to drive all the way out here and give up their whole weekend just to prank you. All my shit is missing as well.” He said.
“Did you tell anyone we were coming out here? Is someone trying to fuck around with both of us?” I said.
“No, not really. I mean, I told my housemates but they weren’t even really listening.”
“Well, fuck...what do we do now,” I said.
Adam’s response to that was to start pointing his phone torch around. The light could hardly reach more than five metres in front of him, and he appeared not to want to move his feet in any direction.
I knew there was nothing to gain from looking around the clearing. The only logical spot where our gear could be was in the old hall, which looked even more menacing now in the dark than it had before.
I didn’t want to bring up that idea though, I just wanted to retreat to the tent and pretend none of this had happened. Wait until dawn and hope for the best.
Adam’s fruitless searching though had brought him to the same, and only, realisation. His faint light beam now settled on the hall.
The hall was 15 metres away from our tents. We looked at each other, and without saying a word, started inching across the damp grass towards it.
Before we could reach the hall, Adam grabbed my shoulder and spun me around to face him.
“Go grab a rock or something!”
“What? Why?” I said.
“In case someone is inside. Better to be prepared. I’ll shine the light through the door once we open it, you have a rock just in case.”
A rock. Okay, whatever. I didn’t want to venture too far away in search of a lethal-looking rock, so I plucked the nearest hockey-ball sized rock out of the ground and returned to Adam.
We continued our approach to the hall. I put my phone in my pocket and let Adam be the gatekeeper of light.
Adam glanced disapprovingly at the rock I had selected. It was too small to do anything. Too small to hurt someone. Too big to skim across a pond. Useless but whatever.
The door to the hall was getting closer and into focus now. There was no handle or lock, but it stood still in the windless night. When we were a few metres away, Adam’s light flicked across the door.
What...this can’t be real can it?!
Stuck to the door were the 4 AA batteries from our headlamps. They were no longer useful though, horribly deformed and chipped as if someone had bashed them with a rock. A much larger rock than the one I was carrying.
We both couldn’t believe it. Either someone we knew was carrying out an extremely elaborate prank on us, or we were dealing with a freak.
“I don’t want to go inside,” I whispered to Adam. “Let’s call the cops and find somewhere safe until it’s daylight. It’s not safe here.”
“No, I want my stuff back. Someone is just playing a trick on us. We will have to walk back towards the car anyway to get phone reception.” Adam said.
Forget any dreams or words I had shared previously. I wasn’t going to be the next Edmund Hillary. I never want to go hiking again, let alone pitch a tent in the middle of the stupid bush.
Safer out here than the city...bullshit. I wanted my city comforts and security back. Right now.
Without consulting me, Adam pushed the door open with the tips of his fingers.
I entered into a stance resembling a baseball pitcher, my rock poised to create damage to whoever, or whatever, was inside.
The faint glow from the moon didn’t reach into the hall, so it was darker inside than out. A matter not helped by the pitiful light Adam’s phone was putting out.
He swept the light across the hall. Nothing.
We stepped inside and scoped out the dark corners of the hall. Nothing.
Nothing jumped out of the dark at us. Nothing in the hall looked different from how it had been earlier.
Once we were satisfied that we had looked over every area of the hall, we circled back to the middle. I dropped my rock and kicked it away to a corner of the hall.
“So someone has just taken our stuff and ran. They must have thought it was funny to tape the batteries to the door and scare us.” Adam said.
“But what about the other tent?” I said.
“Hmm, no idea. Probably just another hiker who is still out there. Maybe they got their stuff stolen as well and have gone back to the carpark.”
He sounded more relaxed now. Content even. I was anything but. There were no other cars in the carpark when we had arrived this morning. So it didn’t make sense that there was another tent in the clearing.
I was about to reply to Adam when I saw out of the corner of my eye the door to the hall opened. It made no noise, just swung open.
A man of average height and build stepped through, making sure the door closed after him. He was holding both of our backpacks.
“Hey, mates. I’ve got all your gear. I didn’t know where you were, or if you were coming back, so I collected it to keep it safe.”
He dropped our two backpacks on the ground.
Adam and I were shocked.
“It’s all good, mates. I’m a hiker myself. That’s my tent out there. I’m just here for the weekend. What are your boys’ names?”
Still shocked we didn’t respond.
“Come on, mates. If we are going to be spending the night together, you oughta be polite.”
His voice had started to deepen and an aggressive edge could be detected. Our bags were on the ground, but he still had his own backpack on.
“Why would you touch our stuff.”
Adam punctuated the silence.
“I told ya, to keep it safe. It had got dark and you weren’t here, so I wanted to make sure no one else touched it.”
“So you took the batteries out of our headlamps and destroyed them?” Adam said.
“If you’re not going to thank me for looking after your stuff, then you can fuck off. I’m going to sleep in here tonight, so grab your shit and get out.” He said.
With that, he dropped his backpack to the ground and pulled out a tattered sleeping bag. He laid it down next to our bags and started fiddling with it.
He looked homeless which made sense. The hall was a perfect spot for a drifter to set up in. But he had a tough homeless edge to him.
“Let’s get our stuff and get out of here. Quickly. Back to the car.” Adam whispered to me.
I was still in a state of disbelief at this man and his behaviour, but my legs followed Adam’s as he made to cross the hall.
Adam was a few steps ahead of me, and when he reached his backpack he stretched out a hand for it, with his eyes still fixed firmly on the stranger.
I didn’t know what to expect. I still had an inkling that we were in trouble, but the stranger appeared not to care about us anymore. He wasn’t looking at us anymore, just arranging his sleeping bag.
Just as Adam’s hand made contact with the strap of his backpack, the stranger sprung into action.
His hands, buried in his sleeping bag, whipped out a small camping shovel. He lashed at Adam with it wildly, hitting him flat on the front of the face. The shovel was small but it was still metal and emitted a resounding ding when it collided with Adam. His nose copped most of the hit and splayed to the side.
“FUCK YOU for coming here. This is my home.” The stranger shouted.
Adam dropped to the ground without making a noise. Completely out.
The stranger turned to me and raised the shovel to make a second strike. He was quick but I was able to back away, and the blow missed me.
He pushed forward and swung again. This time I had to raise my forearm to block the blow which was tracking towards my head. The edge of the shovel dug into my skin and dinged off bone.
Using my free arm, I was able to shove the stranger back. Pain reverberated up my arm and shot to my brain.
I had a decision to make. Dash for the door and try to escape into the woods. Or try and fight this madman.
My brain went instantly into coward mode. I scurried towards the door, past Adam’s prone body. The stranger was a few steps behind me but I was able to blast through the door before he could catch up.
I set myself in the direction of the bush past our tents, hoping I could lose him in there. That was the extent of my plan. I was halfway between the hall and our tents when the shovel crunched into my upper back.
Not wanting to let me escape, the stranger had flung himself for one last attack. In the process, he lost his grip on the shovel and it fell softly to the ground.
Despite being badly winded, I knew this was my chance. I turned around just as the stranger launched his hands and nails at my face. He dug his nails into my cheeks and started clawing at my face.
It felt like an animal attack, not something a human was capable of doing. I lowered my head and grabbed the front of his jacket. I was taller and heavier than him. I was also possessed now, wanting to see this fucker dead.
On my previous search for a rock, I knew there were a couple of decent ones around my tent. If I could push him on top of a tent, possibly get him tangled up, then I would have time to bash his head in.
I had a solid hold on him and flung him away from me. All my anger went into the push and he went flying in the direction of my tent.
He stumbled and then, once his feet hit the edge of the tent, fell back in a magnificent arc on top of my tent. There was a snapping sound as he fell to the ground. At first, I thought it was his arm or leg. But then I noticed the tent pole poking out near his stomach. Adam’s decade-old tent had come to the rescue, and one of the ancient aluminium poles had snapped and wedged itself through his lower back.
It all happened so quickly. He howled in rage and tried to lift his body off the pole, but I was there in an instant, rock in hand to hammer away at his face. I landed a dozen blows on his forehead before I dropped the rock and put my knee, and all my body weight, onto his neck.
He was barely conscious at this stage, and after a minute without breath, I was sure he wasn’t coming back.
I stepped away from his body and looked at what had just happened. Blood was pooling on my tent. Adrenaline was raging like crazy through my body and my arm was stinging.
The stranger looked almost peaceful now, even with the top of his head completely decimated. Our fight had lasted just longer than a minute, but it seemed like only a few seconds had gone by.
The bush surrounding our clearing was completely quiet as if nothing had changed in the last few minutes. I was at a loss at what to do next.
Adam! Shit. I rushed back into the hall to see my friend.
He was still lying on the ground, but his eyes were half-open. Blood, which had mainly erupted from his nose, had flooded onto the ground around him. I shook his shoulder and his eyes widened slightly.
“What happened? Where is he?” Adam said.
“He’s gone...I had to kill him. He was trying to kill both of us. He is outside on top of my tent.” I said.
Adam struggled up into a sitting position, and then with my help, made it to his feet. I grabbed a spare shirt out of my bag to clear away the dried blood around his face. I also got him four panadol to help with the pain. He said his head felt okay but I wasn’t so sure.
I wrapped a pair of underwear around the cut on my arm to stem the bleeding. We were both banged up but we knew we had to get out of here and call the police.
We left our backpacks in the hall and went back outside to the clearing.
I half expected the stranger to have magically disappeared, but he was still there. Adam looked at him from a distance, his face not registering any emotions.
He turned and started off in the direction of the car. I followed after one last look over the clearing.
The journey back took an hour and I had to lead Adam along as he kept feeling dizzy and wanting to rest. I wasn’t scared of the bush anymore. Snakes, spiders, whatever. They couldn’t compare to what we had just faced.
I got back into phone reception near the car and immediately called the cops.
They arrived just as I got back to the carpark.
They believed our story and took us to the station while another patrol went to scope out the campsite and retrieve the body. Adam had a checkup in hospital but was cleared of any major damage, save for an adjustment of his nose.
A week later we heard from the cops again. Turns out the weekend prior to our visit, the same guy had hassled a group of six guys who had camped overnight. But with the weight of numbers against him, he had taken a more mellow approach compared to when we had met him.
Who he was or what drove him to take up residence in a remote camping spot, we will never know. But I do know that I’ll never go camping in the bush again.
Anyone or anything could be out there, which makes it a much more dangerous place than the city.