Terrain: An Exploration in Two Parts, by Rory Kennett-Lister

Rory Kennett-Lister is a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction and essays, as well as a creative in advertising. His work has been featured in SeizureThe Lifted BrowOverlandScum Magazine, the Australian Book Review and others. A selection of his writing can be found at rorykennettlister.com.

This non-fiction piece has been shortlisted in the Woollahra Library Digital Literature Award for 2017 alongside a whole bunch of other fine writing. Check out the full shortlist here: http://woollahra.nsw.gov.au/library/whats_on/digital_literary_award. This piece originally appeared in Issue Eleven of Tincture Journal.

Image By Peripitus: Xanthorrhoea semiplana or Yakka near the top of Anstey Hill Recreation Park, South Australia [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

“We need the tonic of the wilderness… We can never have enough of nature.”
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Part One

We rattle off the bitumen and onto the rutted dirt road, stones blasting against the underside of the car. It’s a mid-90s Citroën, effortlessly, incrementally disintegrating after years of subtle neglect, paint disappearing off the bonnet and roof, slowly offering itself to year after year of summer sun. And though the airy, French suspension is still a dream on covered roads, as we plough through potholes using the middle of the road to keep clear of the thicker gravel, it’s clear that the car is a long way from home.

In reality, my co-driver, Billy, and I are only one and a half hours outside Adelaide, near Rapid Bay, South Australia, on the western side of the Fleurieu Peninsula. We’re making our way to a plot of land—48 acres of untouched coastal bush—owned by a mutual friend, Björn, the idea being to help with the ongoing construction of his homemade shack with whomever else Björn has invited. Truthfully, Björn in no way needs our help; a transnational upbringing spanning the deserts of Africa to the ice of Northern Europe has left him a hands-on savant. But he’ll know how to put extra limbs to use and, to be honest, there’s something intoxicating about the idea of helping to construct this Crusoean outpost. When I was invited I agreed without hesitation.

Up to this point Billy has been charting our progress, the stuttering movement of a blue dot on an iPhone screen, giving directions as subtle forewarnings—“In about a k you’re going to need to turn right.”, “We’re going to be coming up on a T-junction.”—ensuring that I’m prepared for what each turn brings. But as we bounce along this final stretch, the directions become less certain, the car floating unpredictably over the vagaries of the road.

“Coming up on a right.” I can see the beginnings of the arc, but a patch of scrub obscures the rest. As I direct us around, keeping clear of the sharp elbows, a hill rises before us. Sealed it wouldn’t present much of a problem, but the wheels begin to stutter underneath us. Rectal tightening. I drop gears as we slow, trying to keep the revs up and the momentum forwards. If we had any illusions before, we can see clearly now: this is four-wheel drive territory. I seesaw the accelerator, feeling the tyres slip and grip, hopping from one hold to the next like stepping-stones across a rushing stream. We are delivered over the crest of the hill. Nervous laughter.

The track we’re travelling along is called ‘No where else Road’—a name so Hollywood in its portentousness that we joked about expecting to see a sign hanging limply, riddled with bullet holes; and somewhere in the distance a pock-faced man in overalls chewing on a stalk of wheat, rocking chair concealing a roughly sawn-off 12 gauge. But when we made the turn there was nothing marking the spot. Only cool, humourless Google Maps to assure us of our direction. It seemed like a missed opportunity.

Now, as we scan for the turnoff to Björn’s property—so recently plotted as to be missing from Google’s ever-growing grid—we’re searching for something else unsigned. On our right are rolling hills of the bucolic Australian grazing land, punctuated by wary kangaroos, paused mid-chew. But we’re looking to the left, where untamed bush scuttles outwards as far as we can see. Look for the two posts, reads Björn’s text message. Anything unbent and upstanding has us glancing at each other, eyebrows raised. When we realise that, yes, the ones we just passed are the ones we’re looking for, we make a seven-point turn, double back, and leave the road, heading in.

The land falls away from the road into a valley. As it does, sculptural vegetation begins to punctuate the swaying grass. The approach that has been cut into to the property is one of least resistance, descending in a meandering parallel path rolled flat by tyres. We weave between gums, wattles, and unidentified knots of wood and leaves, down towards a small clearing. Nestled in the low canopy of gums ahead is the gable roof of Björn’s fledgling shack, suspended by the narrow legs of a reconstituted carport. At least we’ve got the right spot.

Through the frame of the car windscreen we get a shaky look at other details, piecing together a camp site as the native grass brushes against the underside of the car. Someone has set up a tent in the shady, barren land under a weeping canopy. Despite these signs of life, the area seems absent of people. Moments later, the track ends, and we come to a stop. Björn’s four-wheel drive is nowhere to be seen.

There’s no mobile phone reception on the property, the last bars having disappeared as we descended from the road. We walk back up towards it. At the top, after a few anxious ring-outs, Billy manages to get a hold of our host.

Following his directions, we find Björn further along the road at the crest of a hill. With him are a couple of four-wheel drives, his Italian girlfriend Anna, a few of their friends, and a dog. The hill is a stark chiaroscuro: on one side—behind the group—is Björn’s property, a tangled skein of vegetation, and on the other, cleared, rolling hills and then the sea. The only interruptions to the undulating farmland are small clusters of native gums, their leaves silver in the sun, the shadows beneath, black lacunae.

“You came here in that?” Björn says, chuckling at the Citroën.

“No sweat,” I say. The cooling engine fizzes and pings, blue wheel arches smeared with pale dirt, like eye shadow.

Names are exchanged and forgotten. There are a few packets of water crackers and some rapidly melting cheeses spread out on a blanket. The dog snaps lazily at darting flies. We talk in pleasant platitudes—the craggy scenery of the drive, the beauty of the surroundings—no less true for their lack of insight. Everyone is snacking, bodies horizontal. With the early afternoon sun slowly liquefying the middle distance, languidness has overtaken most of the party. It would make sense to join them, but I can’t quite relax.

“When do we get to work?” I say.

Björn laughs warmly. “It’s a bit hot, we reckon. We’re all pretty keen to just go to the beach.” He’s being a good host, letting us off the hook. The shift in plans makes sense, but I’m disappointed. Though I can’t articulate any of this, we’d driven up here under an unspoken throb of machismo, the impression that we’d be put to use on arrival. I’m wearing Blundstones. I want to work. To pick up a hammer, a shovel, a saw, amongst the wilderness, and help create this outpost of quiet remove. From the moment this trip was suggested, this opportunity to work had fixed itself within me, some desire to make a mark within this patch of coastal bush. To play some part in this antidote to civilisation.

Sweat is coalescing on my lower back. “Maybe we could do something post-beach,” I suggest. Billy nods.

“Great,” Björn agrees.

§

The next few hours unspool in an elemental rush: the surge of wind through car windows; the blind white heat of sand; the bracing clench of the ocean.

We leave in a convoy, back along the rutted road, onto bitumen and towards Rapid Bay. Billy and I make the final steep descent to the cliff-rimmed beach by foot, Björn bringing his four-wheel drive down onto the beach, complete with litres of fresh water and a stacked, iced esky. More people arrive, taking up Björn’s standing open invite.

We lose hours and ourselves to the mindless stimuli of the beach. I climb to the top of an enormous sand dune with Billy, surveying the sea below with our feet dug into the sand, respite from the burn. Following the lead of a few of the kids, I corner crabs in rock pools, walking with bare feet over the rocks like a drunk in stilettos. The crabs wave their pincers and scuttle from my tentative grasp, disappearing into unseen crevices. Beers are cracked in the sliver of shade cast by the four-wheel drive. I feel salt drying in an invisible crust across my body. Shoulders redden.

It’s fun, sure, and on another day I could quite easily cast any plans aside. But I can’t shake the desire to make a dent on the land, and after a while I’m ready to leave. Empty beers are being placed upside down in the esky, draining what’s left into the melting ice. With each one, the possibility of work is drying up. Björn’s phone is vibrating intermittently—updates on arrival times, direction requests—a beacon for those making their way along the coast. He can’t leave the meeting point yet, but senses that we’re ready to.

“If you’re still keen to get stuck in, you’re more than welcome.”

§

On the dirt road for the third time I’m more confident, aware of where to place the wheels, when to press on the power, and where to take it slow. Billy looks out the window, navigational duties on pause. In the few moments I lose concentration, drifting from the smoother areas onto the hardened corrugations, the car convulses, shuddering from the tyres through to the steering column. Shocked back into my skull.

Back on the property, alone, we get our first opportunity to properly take it in. In the warm, late afternoon, the place is quiet, but not silent; it crackles like the end of a record side, spinning in its final groove. The strip closest to the edge of the road is sparsely vegetated. Further in, where the steep approach from the road begins to flatten out, the bush asserts itself. Gums, yakkas and wattles rise up in a seemingly impenetrable wall that recedes into the distance, up the rolling hill to the west, snaking downward towards the southern end of the property, disappearing into areas unseen. Up close I can see a number of narrow paths beaten into sandy soil. I make a mental note to ask Björn where they go.

We change out of bathers and into work clothes, then make our way the short distance to the shack. Strappy foliage bends and snaps back into place as we pass. The structure is still skeletal—uprights visible, interior partially exposed to the elements. But it has a roof and a floor, with each wall in varying stages of completion. Though it’s being erected under a self-imposed mandate to have as little impact on the land as possible—no electricity connection or running water, all rubbish to be disposed of off site, location chosen according to a natural parting of trees rather than an enforced clearing—there is one concession to ‘luxury’: plans for a large wooden deck spanning two sides, a spot from which to sit and be enveloped by the bush canopy. Which is where we come in. Starting the deck will require clearing a strip along one edge of the small shack.

We grab a couple of spades, a crowbar, and some shears and begin. In the thick shade, most of what’s to go are small shrubs and grasses, still niggling toeholds in the sandy soil. We make quick work of them. Then we clear away the detritus of the trees above us, dragging fallen branches out into the grassland to await use as firewood. In the mindless physical exertion I don’t feel the jabs and scratches of resistant twigs, my ankles and shins dotting with tiny pearls of blood. We scrape away leaf litter, leaving the dirt exposed.

After all this is done, we come to the final task; there is one large yakka that needs to go. It’s nearly two metres tall, its black, reptilian trunk only partly visible, obscured by the shock of long, fibrous leaves that burst from its centre, each one finished with a skin-piercing point. By now I’m sweating profusely and I’m hungry. I can smell earth, the soil that we’ve overturned, given flight in our frenzy, now caught in my nostrils. But there’s no question of giving up.

We begin to dig in a circle around the base of the trunk, but the long leaves stick under the spades, reducing each hopeful drive into the soil to a small puncture. We decide to cut the leaves with the shears, but rather than severing they fold within the metal jaws. After ten minutes we’re little closer to finishing the job and people are beginning to return from the beach.

In frustration I stab the spade at the area where the base of the leaves meet the trunk. A clump of leaves falls away. They are drier and more woody there. I feel as though I’ve unlocked the secret to the plant—its kryptonite. Possessed, I continue the stabbing, working my way around the trunk in a savage dance. With each downward plunge of the spade comes a loud rip, like pages being torn from a spiral-bound book. Th-chunk. Th-chunk. Th-chunk. Conversation around me disappears. In its place, the vicious, percussive assault of the spade and my own uninhibited grunting. Between my hands and the wooden handle, sweat. The soft flesh beneath my thumb knuckle is beginning to blister. I don’t stop. Not until I’ve worked my way around twice.

When I’ve finished, I stand back, arms shaky, breath quick. The leaves are laid out like a wreath around the bare black post.

Stripped of its protective outer layer, we quickly remove the trunk. It is hollow inside, crumbling with each crack of the crowbar. In a few minutes it has disappeared, as if it were never there.

§

Those that are planning to stay for the night are busy setting up tents or swags while others throw the ball for the dog or sit and chat in the lengthening shadows. Björn appears with a couple of congratulatory beers, heaping unnecessary praise on our efforts. He winces momentarily at the spot where the yakka used to be. “Pity,” he says.

As we talk and drink, he points out a few of the landmarks. In the bush to the south of the shack he explains the paths: kangaroo trails. “You can follow them down there, down towards the creek. Absolutely beautiful walk.” It’s the first I’ve even heard of fresh water. “It’s pretty small,” he explains. “But it’s a swale catchment area. Quite unique. If you get the chance it’s worth having a look.” Can I go now? I look at the beer in my hand. Behind us is the hum of conversation punctuated by laughter and the occasional yell. Tomorrow.

Drinks continue to flow. Billy and I get the tent up without knocking our beers over. Someone notices that the sun is setting and we pile into the back of a couple of four-wheel drives, making our way back up towards the bald hills to watch the sea be set on fire as the sun dips below the horizon. It’s something so viscerally, primitively satisfying that the only way for me to express my appreciation is to gape, point and say, “Look at that.” Or maybe I’m just drunk.

Back at the darkened camp site we trade in our torches for the flicker of firelight. One-saucepan-pasta appears in my hand and I scarf it down, too late to attenuate the alcohol. Later, Billy breathing heavily in his sleeping bag, I lie staring at the inside of the tent. Around me the unseeable twists and turns of the unlit land. Above me, the hunchbacked canopy of a weeping gum, the thick layer of night, and the quiet stars, pierced into the black. I fall asleep in my nylon cocoon, hammered into the ground.

 

Part Two

I awake to dull dread. The uncertain mental groping of the hungover displaced. It’s hot in the tent. Stifling in my sleeping bag. Billy is still asleep, unmoving. The tent flap rips open to the morning air. I tumble out, grabbing my shorts and t-shirt from a sandy pile. My brain is ticking enough for me to shake out my boots before I put them on with yesterday’s socks. I find a half-empty bottle of water by the side of the tent, drain it, feeling the water wash away the detritus of a night spent snoring and open-mouthed.

Despite the heat in the tent, outside it’s overcast and cool, the early morning still casting off the night air. No one else is up and it’s quiet. Though I’d like to be asleep, silently working away at the rest of the toxins, I feel better already.

Remembering the work from yesterday, I walk back over to the shack to inspect the final product, placing my feet carefully to avoid the loud cracks of protest from breaking twigs. When I get to the front of the shack I stop. There are bodies lying on the weatherboard floor. Swags rise and fall with unconscious breath. I turn and pad back the way I came, not wanting to wake the sleepers.

I’m not sure what to do. My phone is flat so I’m uncertain what the time is, but it seems pretty early. I know I can’t go back to sleep. A few pieces of charcoal smoke feebly in the fire pit as I stand waiting to see whether anyone else will emerge. They don’t.

Then I remember the kangaroo trails. The one that leads to the creek is visible from where I stand, the sandy soil hammered flat, licking out from between two yakkas. I walk towards it.

The two bushes act as a gateway, the trail disappearing in a bend behind them. I look back towards the camp site, one last check to see whether anyone is up. It is silent, undisturbed by human movement. I turn and begin following the path.

As soon as I round the bend, I stop and stare, open-mouthed. There, on one side of the path is the largest yakka I have ever seen. It is in full bloom, a single, spear-like flower thrust into the air. Though it is at least three times my height, what really stops me is the bright flickering of colour that runs up and down its length. It’s like the rippling of wind over water, and for a moment I don’t know what I’m looking at: the entire length of the flower is covered in yellow butterflies. Their wings open and close one after the other sending waves spiralling up the pollen-encased stem. It’s magical. Untouchable by cynicism. I stand gazing unreflectively, watching the fluid dance. Eventually a pair of wings detach from the group, flutter madly down the trail and dissolve into the sky.

Taking this as a sign, I set off along the path. The sight has been somehow restorative, releasing the pressure of my brain against the insides of my skull. I feel light. This turn into the unknown has already been worth it, and I feel buoyed by the possibilities.

The trail itself is easy to follow and easy to walk. Though it is narrow, the width of two sprung kangaroo paws, it is definite, winding its way beneath large trees and passing between shrubs. The bodies that moved through here before me have broken away any obstacles and I walk freely, clothing and hair ungrasped by the claws of reaching vegetation.

As I move deeper into the bush I’m surprised by the way it changes with each turn. From afar this area rose up like a wall, impenetrable. But inside it unfolds itself. Rather than a uniform mass of vegetation, it is a series of distinct spaces: a cluster of low-lying shrubs baubled with small berries; an army of yakkas standing in formation; a patch of undulating grass; a tangle of new trees breaking for the sunlight; an area darkly shaded under tall gums.

As I lose myself to these mental notations, the trail gradually descends towards a stream, the one Björn mentioned. As it does the ground cover thins out, replaced by skinny, upright plants mimicking the gums above. I can see that the path disappears where a trickle of water passes through it, then reappears on the hill that rises up behind. I cross the stream with a step and walk up the other side. Here seems as good as anywhere to stop. A log has fallen parallel with the stream and I sit on it, looking out over the small indentation the creek has made in the land. It’s incredibly calm and quiet, I think. Though these are the kind of platitudes I would force up if someone I didn’t know were here with me, in my own head they ring with a kind of deep, poetic truth. So I bask in the calm and quiet.

Then I remember that I’ve been drinking all night and have been up for nearly an hour without going to toilet. So stand up where I am and start urinating down the hill. As the stream slaps loudly against the fallen leaves I wonder if I’m going to be able to hang on so I’m still going when my stream reaches the stream. Maybe I’ll be able to manufacture some deep natural connection through shallow running water. But by the time I stop I realise that with the sandy soil, the metres to travel and the strength of my micturition, I was predestined for failure.

Bladder emptied and land surveyed, it’s probably time to get going. Though I could keep walking up the hill, following the path, I’m not sure where it leads. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how long I’ve been walking for, minutes trampled under my meandering footfalls. It can’t be long—fifteen or twenty. I check my phone again, forgetting that it’s flat. People might be getting up, so I decide to retrace my steps.

I cross the creek again and pick up the path. The change of direction makes everything look new again. It’s like a lenticular print, two completely different images revealed by a change in angle, and I walk, fascinated again by the bush I’ve just travelled through. There are new details with each turn: some kind of moss-like substance arranged like lacework between branches; a scattering of flowers; small, almost spherical bushes arranged in self-determined rows; entire trees fallen, leaves still green; new, divergent kangaroo paths branching off into unexplored bush.

Gradually I settle into the calm, pseudo-trance of the perambulatory, my mind wandering its own path, replaying scenes from last night, planning for the week ahead, seesawing from past to future with the light-speed connections of uninhibited synapses, managing a subconscious notation of environment while disappearing into its own world of knowledge and conjecture, possibility and probability, moving past self-awareness into pure self—light bouncing joyously through the grey matter behind my ever-moving, unseeing eyes.

And then I stop.

The feeling is instant. I am no longer on the same path.

I turn and look back along the dribble of compacted dirt I’ve been walking along. It looks smaller now. Less definite. There’s nothing certain, no signpost that marks this place as singular—as nowhere else—but I know that this is different. When did I turn off? How long have I been walking in this direction? My toes bunch inside my shoes.

I walk back a hundred metres or so, looking for a fork in the path. I don’t find one. Maybe I was wrong; maybe this is not the wrong path. Maybe I just need to keep walking and I’ll see something I recognise. I walk back a little further. But each step works to unspool a line of anxiety. It begins to unravel, running and tangling through my body. I stop. This is wrong.

Though my mouth is closed, the sound of my own voice reverberates within me. It exists at two different tones, one quicker and clipped, one slower and deeper. Abject terror and methodical calm, as if my mind is splitting, branching itself into two possibilities. I look down and see myself looking down at my shoes. It is a snapshot, brown, matte dirt against scuffed black leather. I feel like I am standing with one mirror behind me, one in front, watching myself watching myself watching myself. I will die and I will live. Everything lurches and then drops. I look up and around me. Nothing has changed, but it is all chaos.

I will remember this.

§

Later, from the comfort of an office chair, I will pull myself back here and I will feel the same bloom of anxiety, like blood dropped into water. At a remove I will take note of the way my knuckles throb, the shallowness of breath, the instant, empty nausea. I will discover that as adrenaline releases from the adrenal glands—capped over each kidney like storm clouds over hills—it floods through the body, binding to receptors that affect the body’s metabolism, increasing the level of glycolysis in the muscles, charging cells with energy and working the heart into a manic percussive pounding. I will read that the effects go far beyond the physical. That the release of this hormone can affect memory unification, ensuring that one’s recollection of events remains stronger, highlighted bright in the dark of the mind long after the adrenaline has ebbed from the body. Perhaps this is why, years later, these events will be unshakable. I will return to the same spot again and again in my mind, branching out from it into further research, unexplored mental terrain that fractures into parallels and coincidences as I try to encapsulate it, pin it down.

But as I stand here, head on a swivel, all I feel is the rising fear and the unmistakable flutter in my stomach. Butterflies. The yakka, covered with murmuring wings. Just moments ago I could distinguish between one area and another, surveying the land from the comfort of a certain path. But looking out now, the bush has become impenetrable, twisting its limbs, intertwining into a wall. Or is it my own mind falling victim to itself, horror creeping like steam in a bathroom, filling the space between my brain and my eyes?

In through the nose and out through the mouth. Calm, calm. Serenity now. A whirlwind of cliché cluttering each moment. I just need to think myself out of this. I will be fine. I know it. I can get myself out. The important thing is to not to get more lost. I need to mark this area. Maybe I could tie a ribbon around a tree. But I don’t have a fucking ribbon, you idiot. I want to scream at my internal monologue. But it’s OK. OK. It’s all good. I can do this.

I grab a fallen branch and try to dig it into the dirt, creating an upright that will act as my point of departure. I stab it into the earth, my whole body weight leaning, trying to get a purchase in the ground. But it’s too hard, and when I let go the branch falls.

Shit. Think quick. I begin to clear the area of leaves and twigs, creating a small vacuum, absent of vegetation. A lacuna to find my way back to.

Then I look up to plan my next move. Maybe I can bush-bash through a section and on the other side I might find the trail again. Or I’ll come across the camp. Or neighbours. Or a road. Or the creek. Or the man with a piece of wheat in his mouth, shotgun loaded. Or a snake, blood warmed in the blooming morning sun. I have not moved, the path like a cliff edge as I agonise over whether to jump. I don’t.

There is nothing to make my way towards. The view is simultaneously infinitely deep and completely flat. An optical illusion that envelops every angle of my vision. I close my eyes, hoping that when they open I will be able to see again. But as the streaky black of the inside of my eyelids lifts, the sunlight dazzles me and I blink, a momentary strobing. When I focus again there is nothing out there but a slightly less distinct tangle of vegetation, distance uncertain.

In time I will learn that what I am experiencing—a remove of perspective, an inability to find a point of clear reference—is not simply the product of blind, rushing panic. It is, in a sense, the very nature of this land. I will learn that Fred Williams, master of figurative Australian landscape painting, was able to so effectively encapsulate the feel of the bush in part by obscuring or removing the horizon in his works, replacing the collective hangover of the English artistic unconscious with what we actually see. Also that this revelation was not a stroke of artistic genius as much as an appropriation of the techniques used by Aboriginal artists, they who had not only learned how to paint the land, but how to live within it.

As of now, I can do neither. Later, I will ask whether my standing here, mind flailing like a lizard trapped in a tin, is some evidence of a failure to adapt? Am I still living with the expectations of a culture my ancestors left generations ago? Is this some kind of continental retribution for a deep-seeded ignorance of the land I call home?

These are questions—inanimate, unhelpful, stupid questions—for which I have no answer. Right now I just need to do something. I can feel despair beginning to infiltrate my flesh, already animated by electric anxiety. For the hundredth time I look along the path that crawls away from me in each direction, as if by tracking it as far as I can see I will be able to determine my destination. But the line just fades into the undergrowth, dissolving like hot asphalt in a heatwave. I wish I could see it from above, plot its unexpected turns within an overall schematic. To be up on the bald, cleared hills of yesterday, lying unaware of time’s steady march. But I have walked myself here and I must follow it at ground level. I lose it at the first turn.

In an instant I am gripped by a bodily yearning to be back in my car, tucked within pressed metal, hydraulic suspension clouding over the road, heading along the freeway, speed limits decreasing on the approach to the linear, undeviating roads of Adelaide. Colonel William Light, planner of my city, a visionary, all streets parallel and perpendicular, a celebration of right angles. To be there, embraced in the rigid mathematics of a completely surveyed homeland.

When I reflect back upon this pining for familiarity, I will learn that in another life, a parallel world cleaved from South Australia’s established history, rather than being adrift in a knot of unsettled wilderness, I could be standing in a city, a coastal metropolis. The area in which I am now lost—Rapid Bay—was the place where Colonel Light first set foot in South Australia. And before his discovery of the Adelaide plains, Light suggested this area as a potential site for South Australia’s capital.

Why did he keep looking? Did he experience the claustrophobic dread of this rolling unknown, surveyor’s tackle in hand, casting his eye for a point of reference, an anchor point amidst this sea of tangled foliage? His palms are sweaty, neck prickling. He shakes his head. He and his party thrash backwards towards the beach, to their rowboat, to the safety of the sea. They leave nothing behind expect the name of their ship, the Rapid, Williams Light’s initials in a cliff face, and the unassailable ownership of the state. They sail on up the coast, telescopes extended, casting inland for a more promising horizon. I am a product of this retreat. I am a child of Light; I see only in straight lines.

These inchoate thoughts will come, born of a need to rationalise and justify failure. But in this very moment I must succeed. I need to try something. And like that I am struck giddy with the full recognition of my idiocy; why don’t I just walk back the way I came? If I follow this path for long enough at the very least I will find the creek. From there I will be able to have a second go, focus on the path this time, make sure I take the correct one. It’s so simple that I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before. Moron. Imbecile. Fool. A small wheezing laugh. I allow myself the hint of a smile. It’s a quick morale booster, instantly tempered by coursing anxiety.

I walk with the expectation of familiarity, every step a triangulation of space. For a distance I feel confident, sure of my path. But the further I go, the less certain I become. How long before I reach the creek? Soon, surely. Shouldn’t the land be beginning its descent to the water? And where is the hill?

And then I stop. In front of me is a yakka. Amidst the threadlike shroud of the vegetation around me it stands upright, its charred trunk shadowed by the shock of long, pointed leaves that skirt around it. It doesn’t look human, but it feels humanoid, like it’s looking at me. And though it doesn’t move, if I were to turn my back, I know it would. The path forks around it in either direction. I have not seen this before.

Two years later, when I get around to talking to Björn about this experience, time adding links from the burden of shame, he will tell me of his true regret at having to remove the yakka to make room for his deck. As I remember the sound of the grassy leaves snapping under the stab of the spade, he will tell me that these prehistoric-looking plants take hundreds of years to reach maturity. Centuries of growth destroyed by a few grunts, a sweaty back and a celebratory high-five.

Björn will go on, explaining that the yakka is not just a piece of vegetation, that for Aboriginal people, it was a point of connection with the land. The sticky resin was used as an adhesive, helping to bind spears and plug holes. The flowering spike plunged into water and through the flesh of darting fish. The nectar from the flower coaxed out by soaking, used to flavour water.

I cannot stand here any longer, so I take the path on the left, the silent, unmoving plant brushing against me as I rush ahead. Will I really come to believe that as I thrash blindly on, behind me the yakka has uprooted itself and turns in my direction? Is the bush truly mobilising itself into even more unrecognisable contortions? What am I really saying?

I scurry on, at war with the chaotic monologue that grinds against itself inside my head, a tangle of thoughts that tell me to stop and keep going.

Björn’s words will stay with me. His knowledge of the yakka’s importance will reflect my own blind spot. Shame at my ignorance, at my failure to even properly consider the original custodians of the land, will push me to research further, to place this area in which I am lost within something beyond my own tiring, stunted self-reflection. I will learn that the land around Rapid Bay is an important site for Kaurna dreaming. That it is the place at which Tjilbruke, the Kaurna people’s creation ancestor, carried his murdered nephew, taking him south to allow his spirit to rest. As he did, Tjilbruke wept, his tears forming the freshwater springs that mark the coast along the Fleurieu Peninsula. Instinctively, I will remember the way I pissed at the creek, thrust forward like a child still learning how to use the urinal. Was this desecration of a sacred place? Was I destined—cursed—to get lost from the moment I unzipped and aimed at the burbling water? Am I really so self-involved as to actually believe that?

Seamlessly, the vegetation around the path opens up into a clearing. I stop and look around, the full weight of hopelessness settling upon me. My mind is splitting under the hammer of anxiety. I’m a fool. A piece of shit. A phoney. An idiot. Standing here, a needle ripped from a compass and flicked into the unknown. Without water. Sun protection. Any means of navigation. I will not find my own way out of this. I feel defeated. Later I will ask, By whom? By what? For what reason?

No sooner than I have had this thought, I will trace back through what I’ve written, following the path, attempting to find where it connects to a conclusion. I will look back over the disparate elements that I have stumbled into, the chaotic branches that grab, hold and snap. I will see contradictions writ large, thoughts smashing into one another in an unthinking frenzy, no less true for their inability to coexist. A manifestation of some Australian horror, or a magnifying glass over pre-existing self-loathing? Fear of the other or fear of the self? Dead ends and unexplored depths. I will look back on myself as I stand, padding in mindless circles, and remember the blank, emotionless bush. Linearity missing in an attempt to understand.

As I come to the end I will ask myself whether, once again, I am lost. Have I blundered onward, unlearning, looking for a horizon, a point at which it all comes together? Perhaps a vantage point is beyond me; maybe epiphany must be left obscured, unidentifiable from within the hold of the bush. Or maybe this is it. All I will be able to do is write and hope to be heard.

§

But before any of this can happen, I must find a way back. I stop. I am done. I look at the ground and then out again at the swarm of vegetation around me, my teeth grinding against each other and know that now there is only one way for me to be found. There will be no last-minute heroics, no genius survival instincts, no makeshift compass put together from the insides of my phone. I will not ascertain the direction from the position of the sun.

In the moments that I know I am barrelling towards, I will squeeze my fingers into knuckle-whitening fists and squeal at myself to keep-it-fucking-together while in the next breath, my chest tightening, I will feel the air rush into my lungs, rasping against my drying throat. For a moment I will pause, the irises of my eyes untouched by eyelids. Then the air will push upwards, slicing past the membranous tissue of my larynx as my vocal cords vibrate into an uncontrolled bellow. My voice will rise up through foliage, carrying through the air on the wings of the unseen. I will hear voices reply in the distance. They will be close, getting closer. Shame and hope will course through me. And I will be found.

 

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