Short Story 19

The Outback

There was a story that used to make its way around the town when I was a kid, about areas of Australia that the settlers had never touched. According to the tale, there was a creature that lived in the red-dirt country of the Australian outback. Of course I had always assumed it was a tactic from the adults to stop children from wandering out into the bushland and getting lost, but apparently there were a lot more truths to the story than I first imagined.

I grew up in a relatively small mining town, inland from Perth by about six hundred kilometres. I don’t even remember that much about it, my memories are like one of those strange montages you see in movies, you know, the select few images flashing by with some random song as the soundtrack. I knew the basics, like it definitely wasn’t city living, and the fact I couldn’t get out quick enough when I had the chance. But I never thought in a million years that I would volunteer to go back to the bush for a work teambuilding adventure.

I use the word adventure lightly, I mean granted we weren’t going back to where I grew up, which was arguably a step up from what was considered the true outback of Australia…but red dirt is red dirt. There is no way in hell you can get away from all that rusty brown dirt that seems to be magnetised to every piece of clothing you wear, the bugs that fly around you like it’s is a game, the wildlife that has the reputation of being some of the most dangerous insects and animals in the world, or the ungodly heat that harshly tried to sear your skin red with little remorse.

I would say that all of these factors intensify the deeper into the outback you go and the more you distance yourself from civilisation. The further away from the coastline you travelled, the more you were confronted by baron lands and animals that were accustomed to living in such harsh conditions.

Don’t get me wrong, there are so many good things about the outback too, and honestly it isn’t as dangerous as everyone always made out. I mean, the tourists were attracted to the various national parks, Uluru and the amazing structures that Mother Nature had created, but there were also hidden treasures tucked away that even the tourists could never see with their own eyes. I’m not really sure where I’m pulling all this information from, last time I checked, I didn’t have an honorary degree in outback Australia, but everything I was saying seemed relatively plausible.

It makes logical sense, thinking about it now, that there would inevitably be creatures out there that aren’t known to humans, kind of similar to how there are creatures at the bottom of the ocean that nobody quite has the capacity to understand because we physically can’t get that far below the surface to comprehend the magnificence of the unknown. The mystery of the ocean was something I had always been drawn towards; I remember going swimming every weekend for years…then again I might have be mistaken about swimming in the ocean, I couldn’t tell my fantasies apart with certainty anymore.

I don’t think any of us anticipated what was going to happen on our seemingly normal corporate retreat. Granted the flight had turbulence that made the plane drop rapidly and the oxygen masks fall down, then two of the three four-wheel-drives blew tires on the way to the camp, and to sum up the start of the trip, a guy from human resources broke one of his ankles while we were hiking to the place where we were starting our two week expedition into the wilderness.

It’s kind of crazy that so much was preventing us from continuing on our trip, but we kept going in spite of it. Everything went fairly smoothly after those initial hiccups, and it actually seemed like it would be a trip to remember. For instance, I thought I had seen some of the most incredible sights possible after doing a round-the-world trip a few years prior, but the Northern Territory offered alluring places that I couldn’t fathom. Day trips to breathtaking places like Kings Canyon, where I let time slip away and contemplated what I was doing in my life, while completely and utterly in awe of the feet of excellence that stood before my eyes, left me questioning whether I was looking at something physically in front of me, or whether it was a postcard or piece of art.

My mother always used to shake her finger in my face and tell me that you never see the beauty in your own backyard, and apparently she was absolutely right, but then again, she was seldom wrong. She seemed like some distant memory, that I couldn’t quite tell ever really existed.

Three days later my group was well and truly trekking through the Kakadu National Park. I remember noting that we really should have gone for the hotel option rather than the bush camp option, but at the same time it was a once in a lifetime experience. All I cared about was the waterfall, so I didn’t really mind the freezing nights and all the fear about snakes and poisonous spiders sneaking into my sleeping bag. Now that I think about it, I hadn’t seen any insects, reptiles or other animals, but I dismissed it, believing they had just migrated away or something.

We woke before sunrise on the fifth day, ready to set off for another hike that the tour guide had promised was the last few hours before we finally reached the waterfall. I felt I had been imagining the waterfall for so long, that my mind had been building it into something more than it can possibly live up to.

I had to admit I was getting used the fresh air, and the brisk walk so early in the morning was good to get my adrenalin running. We were walking in single file, on an inclined track that was barely defined, and required us to duck and climb over boulders and trees. It’s strange that I was enjoying myself so much because I really wasn’t a fan of the outdoors, but all that was driving me was the waterfall.

To keep ourselves occupied in a particularly dense area of flora, we were playing sevens where you yell every number chronologically except multiples of seven or numbers with the number seven in it, and in the place in those numbers, you yell the word pineapple. It was a simple game, but it was a game that you could get addicted to, trying to get to the highest number. The game made me realise that numbers were a kind of magic…I felt as though numbers were the most important thing in the world for some reason.

We were doing really well on what felt like our fiftieth try, when the person that was three from the back didn’t respond. There was a unison of moaning and yelling, but then the guy behind me said told us to shut up and turn around. They were gone, and it wasn’t like there was anywhere to go, they had just vanished. What the hell? Am I in the middle of an x-file? Wait, I remember watching the pilot episode but I can’t place when I watched it on a timeline, but it was not the time to think about something so random.

We stopped and tried calling their names, we even tried back tracking a few hundred metres, but there was no sign of them. The tour guide pulled out his outdoor mobile to try and contact emergency services, but the phone that he made clear would always work, wasn’t receiving a signal. How does the invincible phone not work? That’s just completely bizarre.

Something rushed by and flanked our right side, and after a very quick but very heated argument, we decided the keep heading to the waterfall as fast as we could, because at least we potentially had a vantage point and could figure out our next move while not having all angles open for attack.

There were only eight of us left when we started running, but by the time we reached the opening near the waterfall, we were down to five including myself and the tour guide. Two, three, one, three, five, seven, fifty, eleven, three, eight, three, five, one…why am I listing the numbers of things that have happened on the trip like the two tires blowing and the five remaining group members?

The beauty of the waterfall was slightly lost on me, as I tried to catch my breath; in fact it kind of looked too enchanting to be real. Everyone was pacing back and forth, I put my hands on my head, turned in frustration, and was about to start speaking as I turned to face my five comrades, but all I could see or hear was the sound of flowing water. This cannot be happening.

I had to think quickly and weigh up my options; I could run back the way I had come, I could run along the side of where the waterfall pooled and continue down towards the next campsite, or I could jump into the water, swim across and head off in that direction. I saw a shimmer in the corner of my eye and then without a second thought dropped my backpack and jumped off the cliff and let gravity take me into the oasis created by the waterfall.

When my body broke the water’s surface, and my head was completely submerged, I woke up lying on a metal table with two spiked electrodes piercing my temples. I gasped for air and sat up while pulling the electrodes out. I don’t think I had experienced pain quite like that, but I knew I had to get out as fast as I could, despite the fact my thoughts were all over the place. I wasn’t quite sure whether that was a dream or whether the Australian outback was a dream.

I managed to gain my bearings and stand on my feet before heading to the door, where a pin pad lock was waiting. It looked like it required more than four numbers in the code, and there was no way I would have been able to guess it before someone or something came into the room. I scanned the pristinely clean metal room, and saw no other way out or any way I could open the panel to pull some wires to wondrously open the door.

It was then that I remembered the random numbers I had started to recite earlier in my dream, and I typed the fourteen digit sequence into the keypad and smiled as the screen emitted the green light. I pulled the door open, and stood shocked as I looked out at a sea of red dirt that never ended.

By Naomi Eleanor

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