I doze fitfully through the night – partially due to the cold, partially due to the discomfort of what to do with a broken wrist in a tent, partially to do with a wriggling canine hot water bottle, largely due to a good crop of rocks beneath the tent. Having finally achieved something close to sleep at 5am, I’m woken before 7 by the drone of a fixed-wing somewhere nearby. Adrenalin kicks in and I drag myself onto rocks outside the tent in the half-light of the morning. It’s a cloudless sky, the sun is not yet even illuminating their highest peaks to the west. The drone of prop-engines becomes weaker as I pinpoint the source as the Landsborough 1km south behind Mt Howitt. Presumably hunters being flown in for a weekend of hunting the beginning of the roar (as it turns out they’re about 2 weeks early). Three more planes follow in the next hour, all remaining out of sight in the Landsborough catchment. I consider dragging myself back up to the saddle where I would be in plain view of all this traffic. Yeah right.
The wet sleeping bag and clothes are spread out on rocks again to dry. Radio NZ has faded into static by 7am, and I’m on my own again. I watch as the sunshine works its way slowly down the face opposite: illuminating first the highest peaks, then creeping down the face. I play games, running sunlight–races: which rock will be illuminated first? I win as many as I lose. Funny that.
Though I feel no hunger, I know need to eat. A bowl of porridge for breakfast. I’ll cook some tea this evening. Meanwhile, I’m short of water – but it’s close to a frost in my hollow and a trip to the creek better wait until the warmth of the sun to reach me. I doze.
Almost 11am before the sun has swung far enough North to illuminate my face. I grab my billy (the water bottle lost in the fall), tear up a pair of clean boxers for dressing, and a polyprop top for bandages, and my tub of salt. And begin the short 20 foot crawl to the creek. Downhill proves harder than up on elbows and knees: not much braking potential. It takes several minutes to cover the twenty feet, and I’m shattered on arrival. A long rest before I begin.
The previous day’s dressings have been well and truly swallowed into the proto-scabbing on my thigh wounds. Even with prolonged soaking, it’s an agonizing process removing them. But finally it’s done, though most of the half-formed scabbing has come off too. There’s an unpleasant smell from the dressings, and I’m worried. But it doesn’t come close to the ‘fetid’ smell of gangrene you read about, and I guess it’s just what the new wet tissue covering the wound smell of. Guess I’ll have to wait and watch. A polyprop cloth dipped in the near freezing water cleans the wounds until the visible one shows nothing but exposed tissue, scabbing and muscle – gunk all gone. Wet the cloth and pour salt onto it: as much as I can dissolve, and then hold the result against the wound: anticipating agony. It’s not too bad: most of the wounds are too deep to have nerve endings exposed. Only the periphery has feeling and that’s covered in toughened scab tissue already. Dress the wounds with patches of boxer short, and attempt to bind with polyprop: an interesting exercise given that I can’t see what I’m doing behind my leg and arse, and have only one good hand to work with! Too tired to wash the bandages and bloody clothes, so leave them to soak under rocks downstream – a decision based on laziness that I’ll regret in time. Fill the billy, and crawl 5 minutes back to the tent. Knackered. Collapse. Sleep.
Later, lying awake in the over-hot sunshine of the mid-afternoon, thinking. Cleaning the wounds every day seems to be a bad idea – the process clearly removes a lot of the good scab tissue that is forming, and the process is so tiring on me that the rest of the day can be written off. I decide on a routine of every second day – hopefully this will provide a compromise between healing and cleanliness. If a billy of water can be made to last two days, this means I can get one day of complete rest every two – which has got to be good.
The dogs-leg in my wrist is cutting off circulation to my hand. I’m still not convinced it’s broken rather than dislocated, so start to play, pulling the joint apart and realigning the hand, wrist and arm. All is good until I move, and the bones drop back into their doglegged resting place with a ‘crack’. However, whilst the wrist was straight, circulation as restored and the tingling passed. I manage to straighten it again, and attempt to bind it in position with strapping tape. But not enough hands to hold the wrist in position, hold the roll of tape, and wrap the wrist. I waste half a roll of tape before achieving something approximating a straight wrist with circulation intact. It all helps pass the time.
By this time the roasting heat has passed and the sun is dipping below Red Stag Saddle to the west. The evening chill comes quick to a body damp with sweat from the day’s heat. But the sleeping bag has dried under that same summer sun, and I crawl into its luxurious warmth to contemplate tea. Which is where the flaw in my logic is exposed. Given I only have one billy and no water bottle, and given that my enamel mug has been designated as a chamber pot – I’m a little short of cooking vessels. Puzzling for a while over this, I realize that cooking and trips to the creek for water must be synchronized: wait until there’s only enough water left to boil a billy full of rice, cook it up and then wash / refill the billy at the creek. Otherwise a second trip across the rock will be required, and the prospect of that mammoth journey twice in one day is beyond contemplation.
Radio NZ’s back, and I lie in the warmth of my tent with company again, feeling good. I’ve got though a day: done all I need to for survival. I have warmth, dry shelter. I can get water. I can clean and care for my wounds. Circulation is restored to my hand, though repeated repositioning of the bones has proved necessary, eve with the bandages in place. Food is plentiful. I just need to do the same thing six more times. Friday morning the chopper will fly into the valley, head for the hut, spot my camp here on the ledge 3km upstream. They’ll land on the grassy plateau 100m below me, bring in stretchers and carry me out.
I can do this. I’m going to get out of here.
Sunday 22nd March
5am and the forecast predicts more good weather: a high still sitting over the west coast on Wednesday. Come on boys: 2 more days is all I need. You can do it.
The day is hot and lazy. I forgo breakfast and doze through the morning. My mind is fuzzy, I know, drifting along in the morning warmth rather than living, recording, experiencing. I fear I’m likely to lose this experience in the mists of memory, likely to live though it but later recall nothing but the outline of a tale: an adventure that happened to another person in another place. A diary would be the solution, but the lack of paper has me stumped. Snoozing in the sun, the obvious occurs: I pull out a map, invert it: blank paper. A pen, and we’re ready to record the thoughts and emotions of being here. I start with Friday at the base of the bluff, and write:
‘Look frantically for EPIRB. Not there. What did you do with the beacon Pom? For that stupid mistake you will die here on this mountainside.’
My broken right wrist is in spasms, the pain unbearable, I stop. The sentence has taken several minutes to write. I look at illegible scrawls. Spider tracks on paper. Try to write with my left hand, but am unable to support my body with the right whilst I write. Give up, lesson learnt. Next time, break the other one, Pom.
I dig out my book, stolen from Fraser Hut, to be returned on the way back out. I read a little of it sheltering from Fraser in the rain, but have plenty left to go. It’s painful going: two-dimensional characters in a world where nothing happens other than what is required by the plot. A nail dropped on page 30 is bound to result in the intruder being traced by page 60. Nobody has friends beyond the protagonists, nobody goes out for dinner or hugs their child without something resulting from it.
The heat tires me, sweating in the tent atop my sleeping bag. Dehydration rapidly lowers the level of water in the billy. Throw in a cup of rice and a handful of dehydrated vegetables and set it to boil. Divide into three plastic pots for the next three meals and eat the remainder from the billy. Add salt: my body screams for salt. Lie there and savour one teaspoon at a time, the best meal I’ve ever had. Beat this, Jamie Oliver.
The price for such luxuries must be paid however, another trip to the creek for water follows. 10 minutes of crawling, resting, crawling. I set the billy inside the door, and collapse into sleep. Woken by pain, paws and water. The dog, back from some private adventure, is curled up on my broken legs. The billy is overturned. Water is everywhere. I repeat the agonizing trip and sleep through the remainder of the day, shattered.
I wake with the feeling I’ve been dreading. Well, the second biggest dread anyhow: how the hell do I go for a crap when I can’t stand, can’t crouch, can’t even hold myself up on a broken wrist? Can’t exactly shit in a pot, can I? What’s needed is a convenient ledge to sit on, but what’s the chance of finding one of those?! Set off crawling, and am relieved to locate one 15m from my camp. Too close, I know, but needs must. Dig a scrape in the shingle, covering in sand afterwards. Last thing I want is to bring in the flies, there’s not been so much as a blowfly or sandfly in 3 days. Crawl back to the tent. Needn’t have worried. The dog returns soon after, looking pleased. I’m sure she’s licking her lips. You’re sleeping outside tonight, mutt.
It’s dressing day: the smell from the wound is notably stronger after each exertion, a clear liquid oozes each time I use the leg. Maybe some natural fluid escaping from within the rent muscle? I have a surprising amount of energy today: crawl to the creek before the sun has even warmed the rocks and change the dressing. Much easier this time: the dressing has not stuck to the wound. Soap, water, more salt. Satisfied that it’s clean and infection free: another old t-shirt for dressing. Wash the three days of clothing and dressings in the creek with soap and spread them to dry on rocks. I’m rapidly running out of things to tear up for dressings, only Huntech and Swazi left to tear up, and that would be a difficult choice to make!
I finish the book in the heat of the afternoon. The author clearly knows nothing about radio-waves: making fundamental mistakes in the ability of various frequencies to penetrate concrete. Simple mistakes of no relevance to the plot itself, I know. But they inspire disbelief and distrust. If that’s wrong, what else is? Let’s hope his knowledge of nuclear power, the main theme of the story, is more accurate. By sunset the power station has blown up, as it always was going to, the principal characters are all dead, as they had to be, and it’s time for bed.
There’s a frost on the ground in the morning, the dog limping stiff legged out from her tussock under the overhanging rock. But by ten the sun is on the face. Hot, hot, hot. The tent is an oven, and I’m soon clad in nothing but by huntech dri-max-lite top. Hope rescue doesn’t arrive just now: explain that one pom.
Contemplate cutting up a map to make a set of playing cards. But looking around the chaos of the inside of the tent I can find no surface big enough for a game of Solitaire. I start to re-read my book instead. Painful: it was awful the first time round and is even worse the second. Doze instead until radio NZ comes to my rescue at dusk. Company through the night when it’s most needed. Why is the pain worse at night, when I don’t even notice it in the day?
The 5am shipping forecast brings bad news. NW gales and heavy rain bringing reduced visibility to sea areas Grey and Milford from Thursday evening: clearing to showers late Saturday. Not the news I wanted, but at least I’m pre-warned.
Boil the billy for rice for breakfast. Braver this time: cook the rice and vegetables, and then fry up some salami and curry, adding the rice back in for a delicious curry fried rice. More salt: the ideal breakfast.
Except for the obvious. Down at the creek I refill the billy with drinking water: yellow, curry flavoured drinking water, at that. I try to hold the pan and scrub it with gravel using my broken wrist. No go. Might pass on the curry next time, eh?
It’s another dressing day, and agony again: the soft cotton T-shirt has grown nicely into the scabs on my thigh, and no amount of soaking will separate the two. Eventually succeed in removing both from the leg, and sit there panting from the exertion. The lesson is clear: silk boxers are an infinitely better would dressing than absorbent cotton T-shirts. More salt. Still clean: no sign of infection – probably ripped it off with the T-shirt anyhow! The usual smell persists, but that’s become part of me, part of the sleeping bag, part of the tent by now. However, a milestone has been reached: infection-free with only 2 days to go. Even if infection takes hold now, surely I can manage 2 days of fever, even delirium and survive? On top of which, I’ve just changed my dressings for the last time: the last of that particular agony. Next time they are changed will be by the paramedics or in hospital. A great thought.
Lying back in the tent, I’m still full of energy. How different to the first few days of crawling head-first into the shade after a trip to the creek, and sleeping several hours until the exhaustion passes. I’m musing on the irony: lying here I am uninjured. Nothing hurts, no part of my body tells me it is unwell or incapable. I can do anything I want. I could walk out, run if I wanted.
I’m thinking of the NW gales only 48 hours away, and eyeing up the large boulders on the flat expanse 100m below my eyrie. My much imagined rescue-chopper pad. A tent pitched in the lee of one of those boulders would be a far safer place to be than perched as I am on an exposed, NW facing, narrow ledge above a waterfall. It’s certainly too far to crawl, but my body knows, remembers: it can walk.
I grab the boulder outside the tent and haul myself to my feet. The ankle takes the weight against it’s now-missing right side. The round end of the shin bone attempts to exit through the skin: the bulging shape of the bone clearly visible through the purple bruised surface of the ankle. Agony. I sit down.
Try again: careful this time how I position my feet: the weight all to the left. Good: no pain, the ankle feels, functions, normally. Stand there feeling on top of the world. 10 seconds: increasing mist, static. Cling to my boulder. 20 seconds: mountains, valleys and tussock all fade to grey. Knees wobble. I sit down again, collapse undaintily onto my injured behind. Not yet, mate, not yet. You’ve been too long horizontal for that caper.
I am reminded of a trip to Tahiti. Taken in confidence: no phrase book, no dictionary. Fresh, clear memories of speaking French with ease: two years in Belgium, trips around Europe. Until, of course, I open my mouth at Faaa airport to find that no words are waiting there to come out. The memory of ability is hard to erase, even once that ability is long gone.
Before 7am, and the thud-thud of a chopper nearby. Quite close, over Red Stag pass. I get out the camera and let off flashes as fast as batteries allow. Unnoticed. The chopper continues over the ridge and drops from sight.
I’m rummaging through my pack, reorganizing things. Stowing items that must remain dry through the coming storm: clothes, food. The pack will have to come inside the cramped tent, I can’t afford for it to get wet or blow away. Inside I come across the charger for my camera with its two meters of cord. Bingo: an antenna. My long lonely days are over at last. 2 minutes and the cord’s stretched out down the rocks, the end twisted onto the stub of the radio’s aerial. Radio Australia is coming in loud and strong: the breakfast club hosted from Albert Park where practice and qualifying are underway for the Melbourne Grand Prix. The morning quiz question is ‘what energy source is predominant in Australian electricity generation’. I’m invited to text in my answer: coal.
I lie there devising a method of texting from the mountains. It should be easy: ICONet were going to offer it as part of their global satellite phone system. Some military satellite communication systems also offer the functionality. Surely we could develop a simple two-way pager to work off the Optus satellites. I recall from calculations carried out at NEC, one of the Australia + NZ beams should provide sufficient signal strength, or you could break the area down using multiple spot beams if you required more received power or less amplification at the handheld. A simple ALOHA protocol on the uplink: clashes handled through a system of acknowledgements and timeouts. No GSM-style timeslots required, which would be difficult to manage given variable delays due to large changes in distance across the coverage area. Easy. Wonder what it would cost to hire a beam.
If I had one of those, I could win that quiz: the prize a set of CD’s. Well, I wouldn’t be able to listen to then until I got home, but it would be nice to know they were there waiting for me.
The thought that I could also use such a system to call for rescue does, eventually, enter my head.
For entertainment I make a couple more attempts to stand. By the afternoon I have it mastered. No more dizziness or blacking out. I can stand, supported by my boulder for minutes at a time. Attempts to walk are, however, not so successful. Living on a slope, as I do, the broken ankle is unable to bear my weight as the other foot steps forward. Clearly I need additional support: a walking stick. Which is a laugh, here, 400m above the bushline, with nothing but rock and tussock around. A stocktake of my pack contents is likewise of no help. My ice-axe would have been perfect for the job, but that lies on the back seat of my van. The pole with which I intended to replace it before hitting the scree slopes would, likewise, have given me the mobility I require. But that pole lies uncut in the bush of the Landsborough. The promise to get one ‘later’ – I’m making too good progress to stop now: later, when I need a rest - pushed out until later became never. Regrets. Lessons for ‘next time’.
Another rice tea: plain this time, no curry. It’s important to cook today as I won’t be able to cook outside tomorrow in the storm. Everything must be ready by tonight: food, water, clothing stored and everything positioned to keep dry. Even the dog: she can come back in the tent – after 4 days on half rations I can’t expect her to shiver wet for two days in a tussock under and exposed rock shelf. I feed her the last four remaining dog biscuits. They better rescue us soon, Little Dog.
Tent poles. It’s after 8pm, so we’re back in the company of Radio NZ. The solution finally occurs to me: fiberglass tent poles. I have two, one long and one short. If I had bound them together, at least three segments thick, they would surely bear my weight. The original emergency walking pole. Too late now, in the half-light of the evening with a storm pending, to evacuate my camp for the protected terraces below. And anyway: tomorrow morning they’re coming to rescue me. Do I really believe that?
Dawn on Friday and I’m wide awake. It’s rescue day – and I need to be ready. But I can see nothing outside. The valley floor is obscured by cloud, though the rain has yet to start. The radio’s on early. Dennis is most likely to call SAR when he arrives at 7:00 am to find me still absent. Hopefully it will make the news, and I’ll have the reassurance of knowing they’re looking, even if the chance of them spotting me right now seems remote. Sod’s law: 7 days of sunshine and clear visibility, and now, the one time it really matters, I’m invisible to all here in my eyrie. The 500m between me and my documented intended course suddenly very significant.
The cloud rises past my camp to the peaks above and rain soon sets in. A gusting south-wester tugs at my tent, trying to dislodge retaining rocks and tent pegs: half sunk in loose shale and rock. The dog is curled up atop my pack, and doesn’t so much as stir: canine intelligence has a lot to be said for it. No point going out there boss.
The storm sets in and there’s clearly no chance of choppers coming in today. Rain lashes the tent, and though I’ve managed to keep the fly off the inner, drip-points emerge. The dog is carefully repositioned to keep everything else dry.
The familiar chuckle of my creek has changed. There’s a roar of water and I can barely hear Radio Australia with the speaker pressed against my ear. I brave a look: the 20cm wide creek is now white and 2m across. I calculate two horizontal meters and 50cm vertically between me and the flow. Various loud cracks and clunks have me again peering out of the tent door. The water is less then a meter from me now. Rocks are being swept down the creek by the force of the water: there goes my rope and possum trap, both left several meters from the water’s edge. Wonder if the EPIRB has joined them.
It’s too rough to contemplate moving the tent now – the overhanging bluff above me should divert the main force of the flow away from my tent, as it indeed seems to be doing. The danger is more from rising water level than the main force of the flow, and the debris it carries. The radio’s off now, there’s nothing to be heard but the boom of the water. I doze, eat, drink, doze. The dog remains immobile, catching drips on her back.
Clichéd, but it stops as quickly as it started. 10 minutes and the creek is back in its narrow rock channel. The sun briefly shines and everything is steaming. The sleeping bag is damp at the toes, as is the lowest layer of my clothing-pillow. But all in all we came through the storm as well as could be hoped for. I open the door, and keep a chopper-watch on the hut in the remaining hour of daylight. Nothing, but who’s to know what the weather’s doing back at their base. Tomorrow. They’ll be here tomorrow without fail.
Reposition the dog on the damp foot end of the sleeping back where she can do some good. No tea for you tonight little dog. She curls up and drops instantly back to sleep. All right for some.