Short story by Iris Carden
Grade six school camp was an adventure, something I’ll never forget.
I was the fat, slow kid. I had no friends, just didn’t belong. I’d been bullied for my entire five and a half years in that school and had absolutely no friends.
Grade sixes and sevens from our school and another were all packed on a bus and sent west from Rockhampton. After a day of driving we were at Carnarvon Gorge National Park. The bus got bogged at the entrance to the park, so we had to carry all the gear in.
On that first day we set up camp. After that, what we would do all day every day was bushwalking. Those were the days when kids didn’t carry water bottles when bushwalking, just drank straight from the creek, and the creek water was cool and sweet, something I still remember forty-five years later.
The first day of bushwalking we saw some Aboriginal cave paintings. Our teacher explained they were done by spitting a mouthful of ochre over the artists’ hands. We were told we’d see much better paintings the next day. I was looking forward to it.
There was a system to keep us safe while we were walking. One of the grade sevens had a walkie talkie at the front of the line, walking beside the headmaster, and another had a walkie talkie at the back of the line, so if anything happened to anyone the alert could be raised.
On the second day of bushwalking, we had three stops to visit, the last one being the supposedly very impressive cave painting. I don’t know. I never saw it. Through adulthood, I’ve often thought I’d like to go back and finally get to see it, but now that illness and disability have taken over, I know that won’t happen.
We walked and walked. Because I was the fat, slow kid, I was well behind the pack before we got to the first stop. From memory, I think it was a waterfall, one that had to be approached from between two walls of rock, and the only way in was to wade through knee-deep water. I got my shoes soaked, so then afterwards I was walking in wet shoes, getting more and more severe blisters by the minute. That, of course, made me even slower. By the second stop it was just me and the kid with the walkie talkie at the end of the line.
As we turned towards that third place we were meant to see, the kid with the walkie talkie said, “You’ll be OK on your own.” He ran off to catch up to the others.
I didn’t have a watch, so I don’t know how many hours I spent alone walking through the bush, just following the path. I remember stopping a moment to have a closer look at a huge goanna that was half-way up a tree. I remember waiting for a snake to cross the path, and wondering how I would get help if it bit me.
I didn’t find the cave art. I’d taken the wrong path for that. But I followed the most travelled path I could find, and whenever there was a sign, took the option that led back to the campsite.
Once or twice, I was sure I was completely lost.
I thought of that advice that if you’re lost in the bush you stay where you are so people can find you, but I decided it was unlikely anyone would bother to find me if I didn’t make it back. So I just kept going, one foot in front of the other, trusting that somehow I would end up somewhere, as opposed to the nowhere I was.
I walked back into camp minutes before the others arrived, so no-one would ever believe me that I had not seen that big cave painting, or that I had been left on my own.
Even my own parents, when I told them, were not at all concerned I’d been left alone in the bush for hours, which only confirmed my belief that no-one would have come looking if I hadn’t made it back to camp.
Have I mentioned that while I do love the bush, I utterly, absolutely, vehemently hate camping? And that horrible school, I hate that too.