Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Robert

My brother Robert and I were avid hikers when we were young. We often did short weekend hikes but would then do really long ones during our holidays. I’m talking fifty years ago when we were nineteen, twenty. Rob was a year older than me and was a police cadet. I worked in a bank. For both of us, getting away to the bush was what it was all about.

In 1966 we decided to hike from Denmark to Albany along the south coast of Western Australia. It was late autumn - the best time to be down there; cool, still days and fewer flies. Our plan was to walk along what is now called the Bibbulmun Track. It's a great route. You emerge out of thick bush to breathtaking vistas of rugged granite headlands running straight down into the huge swells of the Southern Ocean. In other sections you come across white sandy beaches that you can walk along for miles without seeing anyone.

Rob and I carried a two-man tent and made camp each night in any clearing that was neither under gum trees (“widow-makers”) nor where vehicles could harass us during the night.

By the third night we were well into a routine and it was all starting to feel natural and comfortable. We set up the tent in a swale behind some large coastal dunes. The sea was roaring about a hundred yards away and there was a stiff breeze, but tucked away in our little hollow we were fine.

We went about the usual tasks of setting up the tent, collecting firewood, getting a fire going and preparing some food. The last bit never took long – it usually consisted of opening a can and dumping the contents into the little aluminium frying pan we carried.

After eating, we played cards and talked. Rob told me he was thinking of quitting the police. He was in the second year of his cadetship and was struggling. He said it wasn’t really anything like what he had thought; that he’d formed a romantic idea of it as a boy but the reality was a bit of a rude shock. I asked him what he would do if he left. He didn’t know, but it got us thinking, and we talked a lot that night about the possibility of setting up a business running hiking tours for tourists. We got really fired up about it and mapped out a lot of the details. I reckon we just about had a complete business plan in our heads by the time I checked my watch and noticed it was nearly 1am. We turned in, excited and hopeful, and looking forward to the rest of the hike with a whole new perspective.

I woke the next morning around five. Rob was still out to it so I lay on my back for a while and went over the things we had discussed the night before. After about half an hour Rob still hadn’t stirred so I crawled out of the tent.

A beautiful, autumn morning was just starting to appear. The wind had dropped out during the night and the cool air was heavy with salt.

I headed off down a narrow track through some Peppermint trees to check out the beach. The sea was grey and calm, shining. Small waves were breaking well out and running gently in to shore in long white lines. I went for a walk up the deserted bay, sticking to the firm sand near the water’s edge, enjoying the combined smell of sea and coastal scrub that always seemed stronger in still, moist air. I thought some more about our business idea; getting to do this every day definitely sounded better than working in a bank.

I must have got well and truly lost in my thoughts because it was about an hour later when I walked back up the track to the campsite. I expected to see Rob up and about and, hopefully, heating up something to eat. But there was no movement. I thought he might be in the bush somewhere, collecting fire wood or having a leak. I checked inside the tent. He was still in there, unmoved it seemed from when I left.

“Come on sunshine – we’ve got some miles to cover today", I said.

No movement.

“Oi!” I said, tugging at his foot inside the sleeping bag.

It was at that moment that something very dark went through me. I think I knew right then that this was very bad.

I crawled into the tent and rolled Rob onto his back. His eyes were open but there was clearly no life. 

I rushed back out of the tent and paced around trying to calm myself. Part of me wanted to race off through the bush and find help but I had no idea how far away that would be and I wasn’t sure that it would do any good anyway. 

I didn’t want to, but I went back inside the tent and checked Rob’s neck for a pulse. Nothing. And the cold flesh clearly didn’t belong to a living person.

The next period is a bit of a blur. Looking back, I was obviously in deep shock, but I must have eventually pulled myself together sufficiently to realise that I had no option but go find help, because the next thing I remember, I'm tramping through the bush looking for the road. It must have been hours before I finally found it and flagged down someone - a country sales rep who drove me in to Albany police station.

                                                                     *

It was dark when I eventually arrived back at the camp site with the Albany police. As two of them brought Rob out of the tent, a third one shone his torch on him and I saw ants crawling over his staring eyes. That was a horrible sight and something I still see. 

It turned out Rob had had a massive brain bleed during the night. They said he wouldn’t have known anything about it and just didn't wake up. I grieved pretty bad for Rob; he was my brother and my best friend.

I was a lost soul for a while after that and drifted - until about eighteen months later I got called up for military service and was sent to Vietnam. During the worst moments of that bloody war I couldn’t help but think that maybe Rob was better off out of it.


I’m nearly 68 now. I still go to the south coast a bit. For all the change and turmoil that has happened in my life, that country still looks exactly the same as it did when Rob and I were there. And I’ll bet it even looked the same when it was just the black fellas wandering around there thousands of years before that. It helps me to go. The timelessness of it seems to put things back in perspective whenever I get a little crazy. It’s still a wonderful world despite our best efforts to stuff it up.


Author's notes:

OK, time to 'fess up: I got called away to something three quarters of the way through this one and came back and finished it a few hours later, so not strictly one sitting. Must plan time better to make sure I'm not interrupted….

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