CAREFULLY, very carefully and with a sideways shuffle she moved along the log. She only had to look either side to know the result of a misstep.
It was a group of perhaps 25 that had made their way down the steep path through the eucalypt forest to the waterhole that Saturday morning now long ago. We had left the vehicles in the rough carpark atop the escarpment after driving up to the Blue Mountains from Sydney. There, we hoisted packs onto backs and started the descent.
The descent. In humid landscapes, those shaped by the movement of water, all streams carve gullies and valleys, shallow and wide or steep and deep. Streams in the Blue Mountains are no different and the valleys they carve are of the steep and deep kind. That’s because the mountains are a sandstone plateau uplifted to its present altitude around 20 million years ago. After that event, the water running overland from rains and storms carved rills that became small creeks that became bigger creeks that converged to create the Coxs River. It was on one of the tributary creeks of that greater waterway where we pitched tents on the sandy shore late that morning.
Quite a mixed bag
We were a mixed bag, mostly young women and men in their late teens or early twenties with a few older in there too. One couple — a man of thick-set and burly appearance with thick, curly black hair and similarly-coloured trimmed beard, his partner more elegant of build with long brown hair and slim figure — had only recently returned from the ‘Hippy Trail’ that linked London with Afghanistan, India, Nepal and, for the few who were not quite road-weary enough yet, on to Indonesia and Australia.
‘Hippy’ might have been the name of the trail but this couple appeared too-together and focused to fit the common stereotype that the term conjured. Dressed in the style of the day in jeans and both wearing red-checked wool shirt reminiscent of those worn by lumberjacks, the couple gave the impression of capable, outdoorsy people, which they must have been, having just come off the Trail, a journey spanning months, sometimes years and what for many would be their greatest life adventure. If the well-to-do of the Nineteenth Century had their Grand Tour circuit of Europe, the Hippy Trail was the grand overlanding right of passage of the second half of the Twentieth Century, and along it had ventured this couple, all the way from cloudy London.
Setting out in life
For Mandy, her life adventure had barely began. She must have been the good part of a decade junior to this adventurous couple. Her life as a senior schoolgirl at Sydney’s Chatswood Girls High on the North Shore had only recently finished and now she lived that carefree life of a young woman in that in-between time which punctuated, in those times anyway, that period-of-still-growing-up between the end of school and the onset of adulthood.
Round faced with big eyes and long brown hair that was neither dark nor light but that had a kind of natural crenulation to it, of medium height and soft in tone of speech, Mandy was moderately outgoing in personality and good company to her friends. In only a short time, however, her life would take an unimagined turn that would lead her through a period of confusion and into life in a place far removed from the middle class North Shore that was her home while growing up. Sometimes, we are wrenched from the safe and familiar to be cast into the rough and new, and sometimes it all works out well in the end. Such was Mandy’s story.
Life was good at that age at that time. Society’s mean streak was still decades in the future and life was accompanied by a type of assurance and stability. Such was Mandy’s. She was living the respectable life of a young woman with her respectable, middle class parents in respectable, middle class Waverton on Sydney’s respectable and middle class Lower North Shore. How she became involved with such a band of irresolute quasi-bohemians as the group she made the journey down to the waterhole that afternoon remains a mystery.
But here she is, pitching a tent on the sand close to the shore of this wide waterhole that is to be overnight shelter to her and her male friend, her first male friend of the relationship type.
String of pools
Like beads on a necklace, waterholes dot the passage of streams in these sandstone mountains. They are the stocks of water that feed the flows between them, the stop-and-go motion that makes the rivers and, over immense time, carves deeper the valleys they flow through. And like so many other similar waterholes in these mountains, a tree had fallen into it years ago, its log now the smooth, shiny grey of dead timber. Spanning half way across the waterhole, the log has been stubborn enough not to have been washed away by the floods of the years. Now, it was firmly wedged in the bottom sand of the waterhole.
Some time that afternoon, Mandy decides that the waterhole warrants closer inspection.
Carefully, very carefully and with a sideways shuffle she moves along the log and out over the waterhole. She only has to look either side to know the result of a misstep. We notice her progress and daring from the shore and stop to watch. Would she or wouldn’t she? Fall, that is. She seems to be doing well and is now out in the middle of the waterhole. We realise she will soon come to the end of the log, where it disappears into the depths, and that she will have to turn around and make the return journey. It is unsaid that we think this could be interesting and that it holds a fixed number of possibilities, specifically two — balance and make it back or end with a spectacular splash.
She moves more deliberately now that the log is slanting to the surface of the waterhole. Her shuffle, already careful, slows and becomes even more careful. On she goes, this young woman of daring… shuffle… shuffle… further along the log… further out on the water… a stop to rebalance, arms out to either side… a few more shuffles and… the inevitable… Mandy starts tottering, moving her arms to regain balance… but the tottering worsens and… with a resounding splash… Mandy leaves the log.
From those watching from the shore there is a momentary silence before peals of laughter as, out in the middle of the waterhole, a wet, bedraggled Mandy surfaces, her long hair in dripping strands around her face. She looks at the amused mob on the shore as she sits there, then smiles in a guilty, embarrassed sort of way.
At least the waterhole was shallow.