It was with some consternation that Family received the news that I would be camping at Girraween National Park in the middle of winter, without a shower, and would have to carry my own pack and provisions up a hill. Though I had been a rambunctious little girl who explored creeks, slashed my way through thistles higher than my head and chased sheep on our property, I was now a woman obsessed with frocks, handbags and skin products. I hated dirt and couldn’t even kill a cockroach, though I had plenty of shoes with which to do so.
‘I like a challenge,’ I said to them all.
‘Maybe this is the new Jessica,’ they muttered.
I presented myself at J2 and P1’s apartment, and the latter drove us through the night to the national park. It was black and disorientating when we arrived and set up the tents with some thirteen other people. I couldn’t see their faces and, as having a conversation was impossible because I couldn’t lipread, I went to bed early.
There was a great deal of yelling.
‘Oh, that won’t wake Jess up,’ they told one another, ‘she can’t hear.’
Jess did hear. The yelling kept her awake. And then I was woken again by S groping above my head, his fingers following the seam of the tent fabric. He was trying to get out for a wee, and in his inebriation had the wrong end of the tent.
Despite the lack of sleep, I was relatively alert the next morning, or perhaps it was just my good manners coming to the fore in unfamiliar company. We scrambled up the granite pyramids. There were swathes of eucalypts below us, the monochromatic landscape blasted by yellow wattle. I had missed the wattle. Although in London it flowered in our neighbour’s garden, it was out of place among the dank Victorian terraces of Stepney.
M found a hole in a rock and disappeared into it. Everyone else followed, a la Picnic at Dripping Rock. Being claustrophobic, I edged around the outside. The boys climbed up another outcrop, the brilliant sunlight silhouetting them against the sky.
We went down again. At the bottom of the hill we had lunch. A kookaburra swooped and snatched J2’s baguette as he lifted it to his mouth. I offered more home-baked banana loaf to compensate.
Then we shouldered our packs and set up a huge effing great hill, stopping en route to look at Castle Rock.
‘Not another fucking hill,’ I complained to P1, who had done the route before. ‘How many more are there?’
‘Uhm,’ he equivocated, ‘I can’t really remember.’
How diplomatic, I thought to myself an hour-and-a-half later as I dragged myself up a near-vertical incline.
(Ahem. I exaggerate. But it felt vertical).
‘Jess!’ said S brightly, bouncing along beside me. ‘Have you heard about how the rock formation was made?’
‘Did I sign up for a geography lesson as well?’ I returned a little sourly, not a happy camper by this stage.
However, when I made it to the rockfall at Mt Norman, I was jubilant, not least because I had done something new. For while, academically, life is a breeze, with my bad balance and coordination I am never sure of my athletic capabilities. I was relieved to find they were good enough to get me up a hill.
We set up the tents beneath the slab of rock and I pulled on thermals, jumpers and tights and my red possum fur beanie and gloves from New Zealand. The boys got a roaring fire happening, then we messed around making dinner, and P1 produced a packet of marshmallows and became very popular indeed.
I slept unbelievably well. It wasn’t as cold as I’d expected and I peeled off layer after layer during the night. When I stuck my head out the tent the next morning I was positively cheery, which, as Family will testify, is almost unheard of.
‘Good morning,’ I said sunnily to P1.
‘Good morning,’ he replied, his face creased with sleep.
As I hadn’t been able to bring a hairdryer, nor found a sucker to carry one for me (as per Princess Vespa) with attendant generator, I hastily wrapped a silk scarf around my head and made myself presentable, then investigated breakfast.
We climbed further up Mt Norman and found an exercise book and some pens shoved into a tube under a rock. I scribbled something for posterity. We took photos. I admired the wattle. Then we picked up our packs and set off again. Going down again was almost as hard as going up, according to my knees. However, I gradually entered a state of pleasant dissociation due to lack of food (we skipped lunch), mild dehydration and exhaustion, and by the time we mounted the Sphinx and Turtle Rock I was not really present at all. So I was very glad to get to the bottom, and as soon as we bundled into P1’s car to go home I curled up and went to sleep.
At work the next day my calves and knees were aching, and I suffered the ignominy of having to wear flat shoes for once. A colleague was so amused she wanted to take a photo. At lunch, the girls asked how everyone’s weekend had gone, and my boss piped up, ‘Jessica can hardly walk.’
‘Oooh,’ they whistled, ‘did you have a dirty weekend?’
‘No,’ I protested. ‘I went camping. In a cave.’
‘So you did have a dirty weekend—’
‘Can this cave be booked?’
‘It was all perfectly respectable!’ I insisted, but all the same I began blushing violently and hid my face in my hair.
Who would have thought that camping could be so exciting?