The rain was relentless. They walked in it all day, from the soft green fern glades dripping with leeches to the chilly wind of the button grass plain, to the small stand of gum trees where they huddled to eat their lunch. The trunks were shining wet, striped like humbugs in rich browns and dull silver. A creek had sprung up over the path. Tunnel-visioned under the hoods of their jackets, they peered out at the trembling leaves, the runnels and rills at their feet. A warm drink would have been nice, but the stove was right at the bottom of the dry inside of a pack, so instead they chewed on their muesli bars in damp silence. They were wary of stopping for too long.
Tomas and Lina, famous for their stoically good cheer, read the mood of the group and kept quiet, but Julie complained bitterly. She had been keeping up a steady mutter of discontent all day, mainly to her husband Craig. Australia was supposed to be hot. There was no Boots the Chemist. The walk was too far. She had sacrificed a whole two years’ worth of holidays for this trip and nobody appreciated or cared. Craig had pushed on, a pained look on his face, Julie’s words adding to the torrents. Now that the group had stopped, her complaints poured forth in a whining, continuous stream. Ingrid wished she had never invited the two of them. It was a duty invitation, made for a friend of her mother’s. She sat down on a wet rock, leaning her back against another. The cold of it seeped through her raincoat. Her legs stretched out in front of her in their soaked thermals. Paul came and sat beside her. They would be sharing a tent tonight. She had had to muster up a certain amount of courage to agree to this. The logic of a lighter pack was irrefutable but the intimacy of it challenged her. Even if he was a friend. Even if camping had different rules. Even if. Lina hoisted her pack onto her back again: ‘So, let’s go?’ They stirred themselves, legs stiffened even in that short time, and began the long ascent.
Several wet hours later, Tomas started to haul himself up the rock face ahead of her. It was a false peak; Ingrid knew that when they reached the top there would be another, taller peak behind, and after that a long, exposed walk across the saddle. She looked back and down. Julie and Craig had fallen behind in the distance, trudging as if already exhausted. Paul had stayed back to encourage them. She felt a tight knot of anxiety. Although the rain had lightened to a drizzle, the clouds were lower and darker than before, presaging nightfall. She looked from the sky to her watch and back to the sky. It was OK, she told herself, they still had two hours before sunset, and longer before complete dark. It was OK. She turned and started up again, wedging her boots stiffly into cracks as she dragged herself up the slippery rocks. When she reached the top, Tomas was waiting for her, pointing.
For a glorious moment, the clouds were swept away and the golden light of summer broke through, arranging the landscape before them into a paradise of green and grey, vistas opening to vistas, plains folding into hills, silver tarns shining all the way to the far blue horizon, and, through an opening in a mountain range, the distant glint of the sea. But he wasn’t pointing at that. Just off the path, at the top of a steep drop, was a pack.
In another spot, say at the beginning of a side trip, or another time, say at noon on a sunny day, who would even notice? But it was neither a side trip nor a sunny day. They stared at it for a moment then made their way over to investigate. It was pale blue with a pretty knotted tie on one of the zips. It was wet, but no wetter than theirs. Carefully, fearing the worst, they each lay down and peered over at the drop below, scanning for a human shape. Nothing. They called out. No sound came back to them but the breeze and then, worried, one of their own party. They sat there then, not sure what to do, except to wait for the others to catch up. The day grew older, the shadows longer, the knot in Ingrid’s stomach tighter. If someone was out there in this weather without a pack, injured, or lost, they may not survive the night. But then again, if they started looking (and where would they even start), they would never get to their own camp before dark. No room for a tent here amongst the scoparia and the scree. With a rush of wind, as if to weigh in on the argument, the rain returned. Finally, the six of them gathered and then set off again, leaving the pack behind them. For the rest of the walk, Ingrid fancied that she heard someone calling out for help, but every time it was a bird, or Paul whistling, or the squeak of branches rubbing in the wind.
The next day dawned sunny and clear. They lingered in the camp, rubbing their feet, drying out the tents. There was some talk of going back to search for the lost walker but somehow it didn’t happen. Each person, privately, made their own excuses. They brewed tea. Four of them took daypacks to climb another peak. Three of them swam in a tarn. Two, staying in the camp to relax, felt they needed to guard the gear. That night they avoided talking.
It was not until the following day, heading home in hot sunshine, that they acknowledged the pack again. Ingrid hoped that it would have gone but it was there exactly where they had left it. This time they spread out and looked as best they could for its owner, calling vigorously as if they had only just noticed, as if the walker had only just then stepped away. When, relieved, they found nothing, they decided to take a photograph and call it in to the police as soon as they were back within range. Ingrid fussed over her compass and Paul marked the precise location of the find solemnly on the map. The rest of the group bore witness as Lina opened the zips and looked for ID. There wasn’t any. Even Julie was quiet on the way home.
That afternoon, in an office in Launceston, a young woman called Chloe received a bollocking from her boss. At least, that was how she described it, later, to her friends. She was sitting behind the desk at reception when he came up and leaned on the counter, causing her to drop her phone guiltily into an in-tray.
‘Hey Chloe’ (he was so, like disrespectful),
‘Do you remember that walker that got helicoptered out a couple of weeks ago?’
Chloe kept her expression neutral. She was supposed to have done something about that.
‘I think so?’
‘What happened with her pack?’
Ah. There it was.
‘I’m not sure, Larry.’
‘I asked you to arrange for a ranger to go out and fetch it’
She hated talking to the rangers. They all looked the same and you could never get hold of one.
‘And I asked you to put the word out to bushwalkers via social media’
‘I did! It’s on Facebook.’
‘And our website, and the Tas Police page?’
‘I think so’
‘And the rangers?’
‘I’ll get onto them. They probably forgot.’
‘Do it now, please. If I have one more call from a traumatised bushwalker, I’ll send you out there to get it yourself.’
He wouldn’t, would he? She looked out of the window. It was pissing down. She picked up the phone.