Finally, we reached a beach crossing and confirmed with the map that indeed, this would be the last leg of the day before we made it to camp. It really didn’t look far, and yet we should have known better. Novice map-readers though we were, we still had an idea of the scale and the time it had taken to make it that far. Walking on sand is no picnic at the best of times, let alone when carrying what is effectively a small person on your back. My leg had, as yet, coped well that day with my adhoc strapping solution, however the sand was not so easily thwarted. Piercing blows of pain shot through the muscle with each step, and as we rounded bend after bend of beachfront, I once again considered sitting down and letting the wildlife lay waste to my broken body.
Bec negotiated each corner well ahead of me with ease and I caught occasional glimpses of a boot or a backpack as she flitted along over sand and rock and pool. The terrain became alien and strange. Sand turned to large, bizarre rock slices. Pools of water and dark, sinister looking seaweed clotted between the coils of this peculiar stone. Carefully and slowly I picked my way over each mound, mindful of the sharp edges and unpleasant injuries that lay in wait, should I slip. Finally, I skirted the last corner of the Martian landscape and could see the familiar yellow blaze of a trail sign. There were two of them. One a few hundred yards beyond the other. I caught up to Bec and asked her which blaze we should follow. The second one, she assured me, was our campsite and saviour. We trudged through the last few hundred meters and up yet another steep set of stairs back into the bushland. Eventually we came across a sign “Camping by permit only” and a boot-washing station. We must be close. Huzzah.
We weren’t. Following little more than a goat-track, we walked on and on and on. There were no more signs. No campsite. I was beginning, again, to lose hope. I was beginning, again, to get a little melodramatic in my inner monologue. I rounded the bend and found Bec sitting atop a rock, map in hand.
“You’re not going to like this….”
There was a long pause while I said nothing.
“We have to go back to that first sign. We’ve missed the campsite.”
I didn’t utter a word. At least not audibly. I simply sighed, turned around and began to head back down the maddening little goat-track I’d just followed for god knows how long. Bec shot ahead, as usual, no doubt hoping to get back to the actual campsite and then come bearing news of my imminent arrival, lest I lose my mind out there at any moment.
For the first time on that trip, I began to cry. Not consciously or with intent, tears began to stream down my dirt-crusted cheeks. I silently sobbed the pathetic sob of someone who, with their whole heart, wants to lie down and die. If it weren’t for the giant ants exploring the path, I may have done just that. Crying still, I resigned myself to my fate and tried to simply leave my body and watch it from above in existential despair. Putting one foot agonisingly in front of the other, I continued. Back down the little track. Back down onto the beach. Back across the seaweed and sand. Back to that first signpost that we’d foolishly ignored and walked straight past.
As I approached the top of yet another set of stairs from the beach, I could make out a clearing and the unmistakable outline of a camp shelter. There were a number of people gathered under the roof in the late afternoon warmth, enjoying a cup of tea or a snack. As I shuffled through the clearing, looking for Bec, I felt their eyes upon me. I felt broken and ashamed and utterly exhausted. It felt as though each of them had been briefed on our near-miss of the campsite, on my overwhelming lack of fitness and preparedness for this hike, on my absolute and total weakness of character. I barely made eye contact with any of them as I passed, although I registered that Suzanne and Graham, as well as the four men we’d met earlier that day were among them. How completely embarrassed and unworthy I felt amongst this group of accomplished and capable hikers.
I found Bec setting up in one of the sites. She knew better than to approach me with cheery chit-chat, nor to ask me how I was feeling. She simply let me lay down my pack and, in silence, begin to set up my tent. Once I was done, I finally sat down to remove my shoes. This was left until last on purpose, as once those shoes came off, they were not going back on again. My feet immediately began to throb. I could see that they were swollen to well beyond their normal size. I was not surprised. I barely registered the aching. Looking over to Bec, I felt as though each of us had been having a silent argument with the other. Me with her, for having assured me we should take the second blaze, and for being wrong and causing me further despair. Her with me, for being so useless and helpless and bereft of enjoyment for this trip. I offered a white flag of peace and surrender with a shrug and a sideways grin, so as to suggest that I knew how useless and hopeless I was. It said ‘Hey. What a fucker of a day. Thank fuck we are both here. Let us never speak about today’s events again.’
“Cup of tea?” I said, aloud this time.
“Yes please!” She smiled.