Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: ZIP
A short story
“Ahhh… s***! I’ve left my telephoto lens on that rock where we stopped… when I changed back to my standard lens. I’ll just zip back and get it… catch you up at Kia Ora hut at lunch.”
“Okay, the hut’s only a half hour ahead so that means you should be there in an hour or so. We’ll wait”.
“Uh, thanks, hope you will. See you soon. I’ll take my daypack and leave my big pack here on the track and pick it up on my way back”.
And with that Jenny opened her pack and retrieved a small day pack carrying her essential gear — waterproof clothing, a warm jumper, first aid kit, ground sheet, pocket knife, lighter, compass and map and a bag of scroggin, the bare essentials for coping with an overnight in the bush were someone to be injured or lost, better known as being ‘geographically disoriented’.
She positioned her large pack, loaded with food and equipment for their eight or nine day late-Autumn walk through the Cradle Mountain National Park, in a conspicuous position beside the track from where she would retrieve it after finding her lens and walking back.
The group, there were four in all, were three days in. The walk usually took no longer than five days, weather permitting, but that was if bushwalkers took the main trail through the park and didn’t spend too much time climbing the surrounding peaks or taking any of the side trails that could add a day or two or more to an itinerary. Were someone to map their journey it would appear as a zig zag line, thanks to the side trips they had made and planned to make, divergences from the main track to climb adjacent peaks and to walk through close, wet rainforest to find and photograph waterfalls.
They had been lucky with the weather this late in the season. No rain so far, no strong winds blasting in from the west, though now the sky had a light overcast which made them wonder if they should expected the rains and perhaps the snow this region was so well known for.
Their plan this day was to lunch at Kia Ora hut, an old base for fur trappers now decades gone, overnight at Windy Ridge hut a few hours walk south of Kai Ora, then in the morning take the rough side trail through the mossy glades of the moist, temperate rainforest to Pine Valley hut where they would stop for lunch. Then it would be the steep climb up onto the Du Cane Range to set up camp for a couple days in the Labyrinth, weather permitting, a small plateau of alpine lakes and scrub. That would give them access to the surrounding peaks and ridges.
Splat! Jenny silently cursed as she stepped into a bog on the muddy track and cold water flowed in over the top of her boot to chill her foot. A cold soggy foot would accompany her the rest of the day until they stopped at Windy Ridge hut and she, and the others, would be able to take off their wet socks and try to dry them overnight. That, Jenny knew, was usually unsuccessful. The track, when the four made that journey, was not the improved and maintained path through the wilderness it would become in later years.
Slight of build and with straight, shoulder-length dark brown hair worn with a fringe that saw a hairdresser maybe only annually, slim of build and not what anyone would call tall, Jenny had that confidence and internal strength that comes with years of travel in wild country. The skills of rough country travel she had first picked up, years ago it seemed to her, when she joined the Hobart Walking Club. There, what started as easy day walks soon developed to week or longer trackless traverses of the high country in the company of a very mixed bag of fellow walkers.
Her workmates — she worked in the city’s only bushwalking equipment shop at the time where she did a mix of sales, community education and administrative work — would joke with her that she would find some big, strong outdoors type and get married and have tough, outdoorsy kids and never set foot in the mountains again because family life would consume all her time. That never happened and she continued to live her partnerless life and thought little about it. Jenny was what some call ‘independent’. Now at the end of her twenties she would never admit to finding that the solitary life was sometimes a little lonely when she socialised with her friends, their partners and families. It was only at a dinner a couple weeks ago that long-time friend, Helen, a woman her age now with two young kids, had said to her, “Jenny, you’re still alone after all these years yet you are so available, unlike me. What are you doing? Becoming a professional spinster?”.
The track followed a downhill trend — since breaking camp that morning they had been climbing steadily towards Du Cane Gap — and after ten or so minutes, as Jenny estimated it, she saw the large rock ahead where she had left her lens.
“I hope it’s still there”, she thought, “…but that’s idiotic because there’s no one around to take it. It’s not the city out here so of course it’s still there”. She felt rather silly at entertaining this thought as she approached the rock.
It was a large dolerite boulder, the same stone that made up the geology here, stone extruded hot from the earth millions of years ago. A dark brown rock home to a diverse population of fungi, moss and lichen that were splattered across its surface to mottle it a patchwork of greens, greys and orange that blended together like some strange, miniature ecosystem.
“Now, where did I leave it?, Jenny voiced aloud as if speaking to someone. “On the other side”, she remembered. Following the track around the rock, there it was, her lens, sitting just where she left it.
“Luckily it’s not raining. I might be saying goodbye to this lens if it was”, she thought as she reached out to pick it up. That was when she noticed it — movement — down in the open country below, perhaps two, maybe three kilometres distant.
It was indistinct at that distance. She though it was probably a wallaby out on the grassland as there was nothing larger around here. It would have to be something that size to be noticeable. But… she noticed something about it that immediately made her forget about it being a wallaby. It was blue. The colour was not what she had first noticed and at this distance it was more a suggestion of blue than something bright. What had caught her eye, though, was movement. Jenny knew from her search and rescue training that it was movement that was first noticed in the mountains, before silhouette and before colour. She stood and watched. It was a person, a single person, and they were moving across the buttongrass plain towards the start of the climbing track to Du Cane Gap. It was the same route they had taken that morning.
In those days few people walked the track at this time of year, a time known for unsettled weather, usually wet, and for early falls of snow. So the sight of someone, especially a lone person, aroused curiosity. Jenny watched for awhile. But… then… a sudden feeling of jitters, a tingling of the scalp and a feeling of coldness and goose bumps on her arms and legs came over her. She thought back to a couple days ago and made the connection. Placing the lens in her day pack, Jenny fastened it closed and swung it onto her back, turned and zipped off up the track at a pace far in excess of what she would normally take.
“Yes, there it is”, she thought as she saw her pack beside the track where she had left it. Hurriedly, she put her day pack into it and fastened the lid, donned the pack and made off to catch up with the others. A sense of unease was driving her on and she took care not to stumble on the tree roots crossing the track. A sprained ankle here would be a problem even though she knew that if she didn’t turn up at Kai Ora hut in a reasonable time her friends would come searching for her. Or, that lone walker she saw would find her.
She lost her sense of time and it surprised Jenny how soon it seemed that in the clearing in the rainforest ahead she saw the hut.
“Ahhh… hello lone woman walker”, John welcomed her. “I’ve got a pot of water ready for reheating just for you to enjoy a cup of strong black tea. You sure made good time… didn’t expect you for awhile yet”.
The others were sitting around the scarred wooden table, second cups of tea before them.
“Get your lens?”, asked Dave as he turned his face to Jenny and adopted an enquiring, raised-eyebrows look.
“Yep. Just where I left it. On the rock. But as I picked it up I noticed movement down below, some kilometres away maybe. A lone figure carrying a pack… wearing a blue jacket”.
This made the crew look up. “Blue jacket, lone figure?”, enquired Dave.
“Yep, blue jacket”, responded Jenny. Those sitting at the table looked at one another, then John poured hot water into a mug from which the label of a tea bag hung. Jenny reached out for it and sat down at the table.
The blue jacket had come into their lives a few days ago, and it was a puzzling presence that created a sense of both curiosity and unease.
That had started on their second day out when, early in the morning, Dave had risen just as dawn’s light was breaking the far horizon. He took his camera and tripod — he always carried a tripod, claiming it really was lightweight (a claim dusputed by the others) and really didn’t burden him and, no, he really wouldn’t ask anyone else to do him a favour and carry it for him for awhile. Dave quietly opened the door, walked a little distance from the hut and set up camera and tripod for a sunrise shot.
Dave, at the time in his thirties and an avid photographer who on every excursion into the wilderness toted a heavy, metal-body Canon TLR camera and a couple extra lenses in his pack, plus the tripod, worked at the Kodak shop in Hobart. Of only average height and with a thickish mat of black, curly hair, of strong but not muscular build and softly spoken, and a wearer of practical rather than stylish clothes, he enjoyed his growing reputation as a photographer of Tasmania’s wild places, feeling it was something he had accomplished in life. His feeling of inadequacy might not be visible even to his friends, but having gone straight from high school into working life, and not to university like many of his contemporaries, he had developed a low-self-esteem that lay below his friendly exterior like a dark shape barely visible below the waves.
The others were up by the time he returned, John having risen first and drawing condemnation from those still in their sleeping bags for clattering around making tea.
“Weird”, Dave said as he closed the door of the hut. “There’s a set of fresh footprints that’s covering those we made last night. Like someone passed by during the night or really early in the morning while it was still dark. I know they’re not ours because they’re made by something like those work boots that Tradewear sell, the type with a distinctive sole pattern that none of us wear. But I was up before first light and saw no one. They’re heading south. The footprints disappear where the track gets rocky”.
“Well, maybe there is someone else around”, said John. “I told you that on our first night out when we pitched tents on that side trip to that lake over to the north east.”
They had set up camp by the lake at the end of that day and had gone about their usual ritual of preparing a meal then sitting around talking before packing it in for the day. Wendy was sharing a tent with Jenny. Some time during the night she was woken by someone zipping open the door of the tent where the two guys were sleeping. She thought it was just one of them obeying a call of nature but when she heard them talking she unzipped her own sleeping bag and tent door and peered out. John was pointing his torch around the place as if looking or something. He did find something but it was only a wombat ambling along.
“I heard footsteps, I’m sure I heard footsteps he replied to Wendy when she asked what was going on. “Human footsteps”, he added. “Wombats don’t make footsteps that sound like a person”, he said as he flicked his light at the animal now retreating into the scrub.
Wendy had been skeptical. Being familiar with the bush and mountains she knew that animals sometimes made weird noises during the night, like the scream of the Tasmanian devil that freaked out bushwalkers from the mainland. She knew, too, that possums waking across a hut roof could sound like human footsteps.
She was a fearless sort of woman, Wendy, tough in a quiet sort of way, her curly blonde hair a cascade around a face so that it framed it and emphasized her long nose. Since her late childhood she had considered that nose an embarrassment despite people telling her that it gave her face a strong appearance that, with her slim, muscular build the product of years of mountain walking and kayaking, created an impression of resoluteness. Like Jenny and John, she was a member of the volunteer search and rescue unit, something her toughness and natural curiosity suited her to. Her toughness, though, was of the internal type that she exuded when conditions of weather or rain or distance to be covered were a challenge. She was one of those leader types though not the blustery, commanding variety, more the type that led by doing and encouragement.
Nothing seen in the darkness by the lake, they figured the sound had been an animal after all and had gone back into their tents. Next morning they headed back to the main track to follow it south.
“Yeah”, Wendy said as she looked up at the others around the table that morning in the hut. “That was when we first saw him — or her — the blue jacket I mean. Remember? Dave, you saw him first. You pointed him out… a distant figure on the buttongrass plain over to the east of the valley, a blue dot that stood out from the yellow of the button grass and that was quite some distance away. There’s no track out there. It wasn’t moving, just standing as if looking… at us”.
Curious, this figure, but nothing particularly unusual. Even this late in the season there would be people out in the mountains, though not many. They had encountered parties and lone walkers before but few out in this country at this time of year.
Thoughts of that lone figure wearing a blue jacket, a rain parka presumably, were forgotten as the group moved south, down into the sodden, muddy bog that was Frog Flats then up onto the plains and towards Old Pelion Hut where they overnighted. Next day they left their packs in thee hut took their daypacks to follow the uphill track to Pelion Gap and the Mt Ossa trail junction. They had set off early and by early afternoon, after something of a fast trek in thankfully fine weather, they had climbed the peak, rejoined the main trail at the Gap and returned to the old hut on the edge of Pelion Plains.
It was a couple hours after nightfall when Dave took camera and tripod and walked a couple hundred metres to set up to capture a night image of Mt Oakleigh, out across the plains. The waning moon was just a crescent in the night sky but Dave knew there was enough light for what he hoped would be a moody, intriguing photograph.
Wendy knew the value of a warming drink before sleep and had just finished boiling water to make a hot chocolate for everyone when Dave returned.
“Got your shot?”, she asked as he came into the hut.
“Yeah… hope so, anyway”, Dave responded “… made a few photos so hoping one at least will turn out okay. Shooting on Ektachrome… slide film, you know. For a second I thought I saw a light out on the plains but it was probably light reflecting off wet vegetation.”
“Could have been a party coming up from the Arm River trailhead though they would have set out late in the day to still be walking at night”, said Wendy. “We’ll see, anyway, because they would be making for either this or the new hut”.
“Do we do Mt Pelion in the morning?”, asked John.
“Sure, why not”, Wendy responded. “Still plenty of time in the day. How about we leave our stuff here and do it as a day trip?”.
“Nah”, said Jenny. “We’ve made good time and we’ve still got plenty of food but let’s use our time in reserve up in the Labyrinth rather than here around Pelion”.
The others agreed. So on to Windy Rodge hut it would be.
The peak is just that — a steep-sided bump rising from the range and just a scramble to climb. From atop the peak the land to north and south is revealed, weather permitting, which it was that day. It is a good place to sit in the sun, weather permitting, and loaf away a little time.
Peak ascended and a little time spent atop eating a lunch of scroggin and crispbread biscuits spread with peanut butter or vegemite, they descended towards Pelion Gap then turned southwards.
John was getting a little uneasy with the footprints, the blue-clad figure and now last night’s sighting of a light, maybe, way out on the plains although Dave had already discounted that as mere reflection.
It was later, following the muddy track through the forest that Jenny discovered that she had left her lens on the rock some distance back when they had stopped for a rest break after making the short side trip to see a large waterfall. The others had moved on to Kia Ora hut, up on Du Cane gap, while she walked back for the lens and noticed that lone figure crossing the plain below.
After Jenny joined them on retrieving her lens, after a leisurely lunch at Du Cane hut and after a downward-trending walk out of the Gap and into the eucalypt forest, they reached Windy Ridge Hut. This was a newish hut, built less than ten years before to replace an earlier hut that had burned down. Yet its timbers were already showing the greying that came from wet, cold and snowy winters, the warmth of the summer sun and an environment that was moist most of the time.
It was afternoon now and they still had time to zip across country to Pine Valley hut following the rough track through the rainforest. This they discussed on reaching Windy Ridge hut. They would arrive at Pine Valley on nightfall, Dave said, saying that maybe it was better that they stayed at Windy Ridge rather than slogging through the forest in the dimming light of late afternoon. There was no disagreement, everyone silently welcoming the prospect of a few hours relaxing, a good meal and chitchat as night set in.
As at every hut on this walk, they had Windy Ridge to themselves. Sleeping bags were pulled out of stuff sacks and spread on bunks so as to loft up and dry off any residual moisture. Billies were set out for preparing an evening meal later, food bags beside them. Wet socks were exchanged for dry and hung on a line near the fireplace. Wendy and Jenny took a couple billies and went out to get water for cooking and cleaning up. John accompanied Dave down the track a little way to where Dave knew a break in the trees gave a fine view, weather permitting, over the falling country towards the northern end of Lake St Clair. Here, he set up tripod and camera and waited for the coming of the golden hour, the brief time following sundown and before the onset of nightfall when the sun, low in the sky, paints cloud and mountain in the warm pastels of sunset.
Cooking was a communal affair in which Dave usually performed a support role of stirring the billy, his claim of culinary ineptitude a truth known to the others. That was fine with them and over many of the bushwalks the four had made together it was Wendy who had become the acknowledged chef when it came to backcountry cooking.
The women had got a small fire going in the fireplace and had almost finished preparing the meal by the time John and Dave returned. They had a couple choofers — small, lightweight bushwalkers’ stoves powered by white spirit known locally as Shellite — choofing away below a couple billies as the guys walked in.
The meal was a simple one, a one-pot meal, a standby of mountain walkers — pasta and dried carrot and peas, rehydrated, with cheddar melted on it and sprinkled liberally with pepper. It was filling and more or less nutritious, was eaten without talk and silently welcomed be all after a day on the track. The water in the second billy had boiled and John had tossed a handful of tea leaves into it. He let it boil for a few seconds, turned off the choofer, let it stand a couple minutes then poured the strong black brew into the waiting mugs. Someone produced a small bag of powdered milk so white tea drinkers would not be deprived and to reduce the harsh strength of the brew.
Talk was of the day, of the pleasure of being atop Pelion East once again and of how the trail had deteriorated and eroded over the summer thanks to increasing numbers of walkers doing the Overland Track. Dave asked Jenny if that was her new choofer over there on the table.
“Yes. It’s a Svea 123, a small brass thing. We’ve started selling them in the shop so I bought one to replace that old heavy Optimus I’ve been carrying. Fits neatly into my billy for packing and is a lot lighter. This is the first I’ve used it and I’m impressed”.
Some time after night fell Wendy and Dave sat outside for awhile, returning when the chill of the night was setting in. When they returned John produced a small flask of whisky and poured equal shares into everyone’s mugs.
It was one of those easygoing evenings that friends have in mountain huts, evenings they had all experienced before, evenings that stayed in memory. John asked Jenny about working in the bushwalking shop and about what new bushwalking equipment she had seen at the recent industry show on the mainland.
“Well, internal frame packs are here to stay”, she said, ” …and sleeping bags are getting lighter thanks to new, thinner downproof nylon cloths. There’s a new waterproof material for wet weather parkas”, she said, ” …that should become available by early Spring when the first import should arrive. And a new synthetic insulating fabric for jackets and sleeping bags that remains warm like wool even when it’s wet, but is lighter.”
As avid travellers in the mountains they were interested in the new designs and materials then starting to be used in the manufacture of bushwalking equipment, especially if they offered weight savings. Like most mountain walkers they had whittled down the equipment they carried in their packs to the bare minimum, Dave’s tripod excepted though he would dispute that, however anything that would reduce the weight and bulk of the three heaviest items in the bushwalkers’ pack — tent, sleeping bag and the pack itself — and any similar savings in the warm and the waterproof clothing they packed were to be welcomed.
On to Dave the conversation moved. Yes, he will have photos in the walking club’s annual slide show, he said. Probably those he took on the three day late summer trek into the South Coast Range. That’s a seldom-visited region, he said, so there should be interest in the photos.
Around the table the conversation went until it came to the figure on the plain.
“Strange the blue figure hasn’t turned up at any of the huts we have overnighted at”, said John. “Must be camping out in the bush..”
“Maybe he’s one of those enigmas, those mysteries, we hear about from time to time”, said Wendy, taking another warming sip of her whisky.
She was referring to stories that were something like bushwalkers’ myths… not quite legends but something like that. They were told on cold nights as people huddled around campfires seeking to absorb whatever warmth the usually moist firewood offered, or around the fireplaces of mountain huts.
“Yeah”, ventured Dave. “There was that — when was it? More than five years ago, anyway. That pack fully loaded with enough food and equipment for days in the bush that was found at the top of Pelion Gap. The search teams scoured the area but found no one. They thought someone had left it and gone off to climb Pelion, like we did and like many others do, and had run into some kind of trouble, an accident perhaps, and couldn’t get back. But they found nothing. And that was after days of intensive searching. There was nothing in the pack, fairly new bushwalking equipment, that could identify the person who owned it. It was just there beside the track, alone, anonymous as the person who left it there, anonymous as they still are.”
“I think I’ve told a couple of you before about that search on the Central Plateau, north east of Lake St Clair it was, out beyond the Traveller Range that I was on a couple years ago”, said Jenny.
“We were tracking a teenager who had set off by himself for a day walk and didn’t come back. We found his parka hanging from a branch but no sign of him. Alan Piscoe, Andy Brown, Joan Hegarty and I were on a search team together and we had a couple ground sheets and food and a stove and sleeping bags with us so we could overnight and go further out onto the plateau if we needed to, if the boy wasn’t found before that.
“We headed over to where we thought he might have gone, a lake where there’s a hut in the pencil pine forest. After doing a reconnaissance search along the trail that leads to the lake, and that took most of the day, we decided to overnight on the edge of a patch of snow gum forest, pitched the ground sheets as tarps in case it rained, cooked and at some food and talked then settled in for the night.
“Then, sometime in the early morning I was awaken by the sound of a zip. It was Alan unzipping his sleeping bag. He got up and I watched him as he stood staring off into the distance. I thought he was simply having a toilet break but I noticed that he was looking at something. I got up and went over to him and he said to me “Look, out there on the horizon, ten o’ clock from where we are here. Do you see it?”.
“I looked and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw it too. It was this glow coming from behind some low hills. It was some kilometres from our camp. It wasn’t a fire as there was no flickering and it was too white. It wasn’t a campfire or the lights of a town — there’s no town out there. It wasn’t someone with a really bright spotlight as it was stationary and those kinds of lights shift as people move. It was just this glow. And then, after maybe ten minutes, it steadily faded away. I’ve seen plenty of campfires, bushfires, distant huts with lights in them at night, people spotlighting. This was none of those. We told the others in the morning and we headed that way and we found the lost teenager there more or less where we had seen the light. And, no, he hadn’t caused it”.
Draining his cup of the last of its meagre fill of whisky, John spoke. “I don’t know if this is true, but I was told by someone reliable that in the late sixties, or maybe it was around 1970, a young guy disappeared somewhere along the track we have been following. He came into the national park but never came out. The story I was told claimed he was escaping compulsory military service and the best way to do that was simply to disappear, to be assumed to have disappeared due to misadventure.
“There was a search for him of course but he was never found. I wonder if he is still living under an assumed identity somewhere?”.
“Some of the older member of the walking club have strange tales too”, said Jenny. “They seldom talk about them and most go back to when they were younger and ventured deep into the wilderness when there were few people doing that. I remember Jack taking about being up on the Eastern Arthur Range and looking south and seeing a bright light rising from the ground in the distance”.
“Swamp gas”, said John. “Methane. It’s given off by swamps”.
“Anyway”, continued Jenny, “he didn’t say what he thought it was, he just said that he had seen it.”
Draining his cup of the last dregs of whisky, Dave brought the conversation back to the present. “What about this character we’ve seen on this trip?”, he asked. “Footprints, sightings”.
It was then that Wendy looked up. She glanced at the others seated around the table then said, “It’s like… it’s almost as if… we’re being followed, like we’re being tracked. We see this person with a blue parka but he never comes closer, never makes contact, he never turns up to share a hut for the night”.
“He could be camping, avoiding the huts. We’ve done that though that was summer when the huts were in heavy use. Remember? We followed the track but we would diverge from it as we appoached our destination for the day and set up tents some distance away.
“And after we arrived here at the hut this afternoon I took a good look around to see if there were any signs of anyone having stayed here or camped in the tent sites outside”, said John. “The fireplace was cold, no warmth in the coals or the stones like there would be if someone had used it the previous day. No fresh rubbish laying around. No footprints in the dirt leading to the door nor any around the tent sites. No sign of any of the campfires having been used. It seems the hut and the campsites haven’t been used for some time, probably weeks, given the wet weather that swept through this region earlier in the month. I think we’re the first here for some time”.
“I’m not going to sleep tonight”, said Jenny, “ …all this talk of being tracked… but come to think of it it’s like that isn’t it? Like… there are signs of someone out there and they appear every couple days. But why are they doing this? What are they after? And who is it?”.
“Tomorrow we cut across to Pine Valley then up to The Labyrinth”, said Dave, changing the subject. “I noticed that there’s signs of a cold front coming in… high cirrus… but we should get a day if not two up there then we walk out along the lake track”.
And that is just what they did, just as the rain started and turned to sleet as if to herald the coming of a snowy winter as they followed the track along the western shore of Lake St Clair .
Hobart. Ten years later.
Pierre’s restaurant was an established presence in town. Dim and with its dark, polished wood tables the place had something of a formal, old-world ambiance that was conducive to long dinners and quiet talk. It was here they used to meet to plan their journeys into the mountains and along the coasts. The restaurant was still there though it would’t be for long as retirement would soon beckon the proprietor.
In those ten years John had moved to the mainland in pursuit of a job in the computer industry. On leaving he had told the others that the industry seemed to have a promising future and he wanted to be part of it. Wendy had moved to the mainland too, only to return a few year ago to settle in Launceston with a partner she had met in Sydney. Now, the two were three. Jenny had continued working in the bushwalking store until it closed thanks to the owner’s financial mismanagement. Now, she managed one of the new bushwalking stores that had opened as the activity went through a surge of popularity. After a couple failed partnerships she was again unattached or, as her friend had long ago described it, she was available again.
And Dave? Well, Kodak had eventually closed its Hobart operation. After that he had spent a period in unemployment — work was scarce in Tasmania and people tended to hold on to what jobs they had. During that break from working life he had followed his passion that combined bushwalking with photography. Now, he worked with the museum and art gallery as a curator, hired on the basis of his knowledge of the history of photography and his reputation as a leading exponent of wilderness photography.
The four had kept in touch over the years and now there was much catching up to do, much reminiscing about their shared adventures now a decade gone.
Eventually, the talk got around to their late-Autumn trek through the Cradle Mountain National Park because it was one of the last bushwalks they did together, John leaving for the mainland the following year. They talked about what a great trip it had been and how superb The Labyrinth was and how they had walked out along the lake shore in the cold and sleet, their feet wet and cold thanks to the tracks becoming waterways in wet weather.
“That’s the last time I was in The Labyrinth”, said John. “I didn’t get a chance to return before I moved to the mainland”.
“So good you could get back down here for this get-together”, said Jenny as she looked over at him and topped up the glasses from the bottle of fruity red wine. “We occasionally see each other but never for the last ten years or so have we all got together in the one place. Got to do it more often. I sort of miss you guys”.
“Hey, on that trip I remember you leaving your lens behind somewhere and zipping back to find it”, said Wendy. “I think we went on to a hut and waited for you”.
“Yeah, that’s right”, said Dave.
“Uhhh… that walk”, Jenny said as she put the nearly empty bottle down on the table and looked up. “You remember we kept seeing that person? We thought we were being followed? He was wearing a blue rain parka”.
“Oh, yeah”, said John. “Didn’t see any more of him after we left the main track and headed across to The Labyrinth, did we?”.
Jenny looked at the faces around the table just as she had done that long-ago evening in Windy Ridge hut.
“Remember… we talked about strange tales we had heard about people in the mountains?”.
They were all looking at Jenny now, intrigued about where she was going with this conversation.
“Remember someone mentioning how a guy dodging conscription for military service had faked his disappearance in the mountains?”.
Wendy looked upwards as if recollecting something buried deep in memory. “Yeah, now I do”.
“Well,” continued Jenny, maybe five or so years after we went our own ways there was a search and rescue callout for a couple missing mainlanders in the Pelion area. They were alright, just snowed in so they spent a few relaxing but cold days in New Pelion Hut. But that triggered the memory of our being there all those years before and of the stories we told in Windy Ridge hut including that of that guy’s faked disappearance.
“So when I got back to Hobart I went to the library and went back over their microfysh film files of the Hobart Mercury. I didn’t know the year this guy was supposed to have disappeared so after a couple hours of trolling through the files I called it quits for the day, planning to return after work the next day. Well, it was a full week before I returned and in that time I thought to ask Peter Dalesford, who had been in search and rescue around that time. He remembered the incident, he had been on the search and he was pretty sure of the year.
“I thought that would make my search easier and it did. I finally found the news report in the Mercury. And as I read it something grabbed my attention though it’s probably mere coincidence.
“That guy who disappeared was last seen by hikers who shared Old Waterfall Valley hut with him. They said he was dressed in green trousers like those gardeners wear and to be carrying a green canvas pack.
“But as I read on there was something else towards the end of the news story. They said a light rain was falling the morning after they had shared the hut, heavy enough for them to put on their rain parkas before setting out.
“The man who had shared the hut with them the previous night was getting ready to set out too. He walked outside and as the two set off down the track they looked back to see him putting on his parka.
“And his parka… it was blue”.