Brian had it all organised. He’d done some thinking and he’d done some talking and he’d nutted out a plan. I could tell he was the organising type when earlier in the afternoon he’d wandered over to my campsite and formally invited me to his fireplace that evening.
‘I’ve got wood, plenty of it. Bring a drink, cook your food on the fire, whatever you like.’
I was measuring powdered milk and sugar into ziplock bags and he asked if I was preparing for a hike. I told him my plans of walking three days through the National Park from Parachilna to Wilpena, which would involve a complicated bit of manoeuvring – dropping my car at Wilpena and then trying to hitch a ride up to the start of the hike. He nodded, then walked off to continue his invitations.
It was a little roadside campsite in Flinders Ranges National Park, South Australia. I brought my folding chair and a beer over to the roaring fire where I met Brian’s wife Kerry and the couple from the caravan on the far side, Rob and Christine. Colin, my garrulous neighbour, came over with a bowl of something to eat and he slumped in his chair to slurp it down.
Around sixty and a bit overweight, Brian had good manners and was very sure of himself. Not only that, he was also sure of his wife.
‘Dinner ready yet?’ he asked her as he eyed me getting into my couscous and noting that Colin, the other single male, had also already eaten. Kerry got to it and served it up, and after demolishing his long awaited chicken and vegetables, Brian said ‘you can leave the dishes til morning, it’s getting late.’
‘Like hell’ she said, handing him her plate for him to wash.
Brian made a show of putting on the last piece of Tasmanian timber he’d been carting round the country for several months, then stood with his back to the fire, wine glass in hand.
‘Steve, the crazy bugger, is going walkabout tomorrow’ he announced, ‘and we’re going to help him. Kerry and I will take him to Parachilna, and Rob here will drop his car at Wilpena.’
I wasn’t sure if it was a look of surprise that crossed Rob’s face at this news. I didn’t get to find out because Colin interrupted with a story about how he had hiked fifty kilometres along a beach in Victoria last year. ‘And I’m sixty nine! Sixty nine eh...’ he faded off into a reverie.
So Rob was part of the plan, whether he liked it or not. I was so pleased with my little gang of grey nomads I could have hugged them all. Even when discussion turned to politics and they began abusing Bob Brown for stopping the progress in Tasmania, I looked fondly upon my little flock of red necked grey nomads chirping away in the night.
In the morning I sat in the back seat of the Nissan ute while Brian and Kerry took turns pointing out things to see.
‘Kangaroos on the hill there.’
‘Look at that rockslide.’
At Blinman we stopped and Kerry, who had been delegated the camera duties, wandered off to take the official record of the abandoned copper mining town. In supervisory role, Brian directed her not to miss the old red phone booth or the filled-in swimming pool.
The Parachilna road was closed so we had to take a thirty kilometre detour on corrugated gravel. Brian drove cautiously but once he hit some bumps at speed and sent us jolting around the cab.
‘Shit, Brian’ Kerry said.
‘ Hehe’ he chuckled, ‘I didn’t see it did I?’
‘Car’s gonna need another service now isn’t it?’ she muttered.
A little later he stopped the car and directed her to take a picture of the mountain range. She opened the door and a cloud of dust blew in.
‘Oh Brian’ she said.
‘What, I didn’t make the dust did I?’
‘No but it was your driving.’
We got to the trailhead and I heaved my pack out of the tray. They said goodbye as though I was walking to my doom, then drove off with a beep of the horn.
The shale clinked underfoot as I plodded along dry riverbeds, admiring the big old River Red Gums which were bright and vibrant despite the dry conditions. Their bark is white, not red, and they glowed in the warm sun. I tried to imagine how it would look here after rain, to have the creeks gushing with water. The health of the trees, the piles of detritus wedged up against their roots and the scarred erosion on the river bends were all evidence that the water surely comes.
Red-walled gorges rose around me and when the trail climbed to the ridge tops I had views of the ranges rolling away to the south and wedge tailed eagles circling above. I strolled through hillsides covered in native cypress pines.
On the afternoon of the second day the trail crossed a dirt road. A city four wheel drive was parked with four retirees sauntering around.
‘Hiking all that way on your own! You must like yourself.’
The first human being I’d seen in a day and a half and this is what he says to me. I walked on, into the trees and the hills and the wide open spaces.