I was tired and irritable, so I had little patience for what happened next. After a difficult hike, the narrow trail I was on dissolved into thick scrub. The path was no more.
Damn! To turn around and go back the way I came did not appeal to me. To do so would mean losing precious daylight as I covered old ground. Not to mention the punishing climb to the top of the ridge followed by a steep descent that awaited me if I returned.
This predicament was upon me because I chose to listen to a stranger. An hour ago, he told me this path was a short cut. I believed him because my weary body wanted it to be true.
Three Hours Earlier…
Three hours before I was in much better spirits. I stood on the edge of a rocky outcrop and gazed at a lonely stretch of road at the bottom of the gorge beneath me. The sun was directly overhead as I drank in the view and a sense of accomplishment washed over me.
I had walked for five straight hours, across ridges and down ravines, to get here. Now all I had to do was carefully climb down the steel peg ladder at my feet. Fifteen minutes later, I was eating my sandwich on the sandy bank of a creek beneath the concrete bridge which supported the lonely road now above me.
Insects hummed and the creek splashed over smooth stones as I finished my meal. The inventive graffiti previous travellers had applied to the concrete pylons of the bridge provided me with lunchtime entertainment.
After a drink of water from my steel bottle I left the creek and began the lengthy ascent that marked the beginning of my return journey home. I had taken over five hours to get here and it was already 1:30pm. If I wanted to avoid walking treacherous paths at dusk, it would be best to set a constant pace.
An hour and a half of persistent walking brought me to a fork in the trail. The path to my right was signposted: Track Closed. The path to my left was obviously my only option. I had walked it, albeit in the opposite direction, over three hours earlier on my way to the bottom of the gorge.
I was not looking forward to this stretch of my journey because it seemed arduous and inefficient. The path to my left would send me on a detour, far north of the valley where I ultimately needed to be, up a steep ridge, followed by a loop back south and a tricky descent to the valley on the other side.
The Lightly Equipped Stranger
Imagine my surprise when a stranger suddenly emerged from the track to my right. A thin man dressed in long pants and a long-sleeved rugby top with horizontal stripes like a native bee. He strolled past the Track Closed sign which marked the way he just came.
As he approached me, I noted he carried no pack or water bottle. We were a long way from anywhere – why was he travelling with nothing? Rather than ask him about this, I quizzed him about the path he just left.
“G’day, mate. I thought that track was closed?”
“Yeah, that’s what the sign at the other end said, but I decided to try it anyway. Where have you been?”
“I think I might go there next.”
His statement of intent startled me as he had no supplies. To the gorge and back again at this late hour would be a challenge. Rather than express my concern, I told him where I was going next.
“I need to get to the valley on the other side of the ridge above us but I’m not looking forward to the climb.”
“Why don’t you take the path I was just on? It’s a decent shortcut. You’ll skip the ridge entirely and it will take you into the valley.”
I uneasily eyed the Track Closed sign. For someone who likes a bit of adventure, I sure was being overly cautious. To hell with it, a sign should not stop me! What could go wrong?
“Okay, thanks. I’ll go that way. Will I have trouble following the path?”
“You should be fine. Remember, always keep the sound of the water on your right. When you get to the end, you’ll need to cross the stream.”
I thanked the stranger and walked past the sign onto the forbidden path.
The Broken Bridge of Doom
An hour later and I’m back at the beginning of my tale. The path has evaporated, and thick vegetation blocked my way. I wonder if the stranger I met was laughing to himself on the way to the gorge.
In weary annoyance, I squeezed between saplings and prickly bushes, while following the pleasant burbling sound of the stream to my right. As sticks and serrated native leaves flicked my bare legs, the foliage cleared to reveal an embankment with the stream a few meters below me.
The slippery leaf litter beneath my boots dislodged my footing, resulting in an unplanned slide down the embankment. I landed with a thud on the moss-covered boulders beside the stream.
To say the bridge that crossed the stream was not fit for purpose is an understatement.
Oh, for fuck’s sake. I was not amused by The Broken Bridge of Doom. I felt bone tired, and my feet ached terribly.
I morosely followed the stream until it narrowed to a point where I could rock hop across it. Once on the other side, I sat down and ate a piece of fruit from my backpack for ten minutes.
The Broken Bridge of Doom was an appropriate moniker, not due to its condition but because it marked the next stage of my journey, which was bloody hard. Despite exhaustion, I hiked for a further three hours, up steep, rocky terrain, and out the other side of the valley.
After a few lengthy walks, I think I finally understand the paradox of a long hike. Whenever I reach the midpoint of my trip, the energy I expend in the second half of the journey is three times as great as what I used in the first half.
The previous paragraph is a fancy way of saying I was completely stuffed when I stumbled through my front door at 7pm. I winced in pain as I peeled off my hiking boots and socks.
My pummelled feet were adorned with blisters on their toes and cracked skin on both heels. They had taken me 34 kilometers (21 miles) for almost 11 hours.
Good job, feet.