I was supposed to be at Corinna by now; they were expecting me at the pub, but the journey had taken longer than I thought. I’d driven around the backblocks of western Tasmania, getting out of the car to take arty photos of the burnt bush. Fires had been through the region over the past few weeks, and there were still tendrils of smoke rising from the inaccessible areas. I managed to take some excellent photos: fire-buckled road signs, grass plants in blackened gullies already sprouting new sharp green spears. I’d landed a job at the Corinna pub – barmaid and waitress and general help – for the uni vacation, three months. It’d be great out here in the wild, that’s what I thought. A chance to get some fabulous photos. I was an environmental science major.
When you drive into the mining township of Savage River, there are dramatic views down into steep valleys on each side of the ridge. This is the edge of the Tarkine forest where the wildfires had blazed, unreachable, over the past couple of weeks. There are people, some of them perfectly sensible, who still believe the thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger, survives deep in the Tarkine. From the high ridge on one side of the road, I could see down to the mines where industrial-strength machinery cut into the mountainside to grab at the iron ore in the Savage River Valley. A clash of nature and machinery, leaving a surreal moonscape.
Since the turnoff I’d driven about twenty kilometres. I knew this because I’d been watching the odometer carefully, even obsessively, since I left Savage River. I hadn’t been entirely sure – I still wasn’t – that I’d taken the right turnoff. Also, I had a niggling worry about the question of gas. The gauge was low and now, belatedly, I remembered that the nearest gas station was in Waratah, about fifty kilometres back. Night was approaching with alarming speed. I was supposed to be at Corinna by now.
At the turnoff I’d checked the GPS, but it was no help. There was no signal in this area. I did have a map and, as far as I could figure out, this was the right road. There were no road signs to help. I made a best guess and turned the car onto the corrugated gravel as the sun began to set and darkness crept over the land like a slow ink stain.
I was keeping pretty upbeat about it all until the lights appeared on the hill, some kind of caravan with a tent annex and what must’ve been a couple of huge gaslight burners. I could see it from the car, blazing on the low hillside like a spaceship. Obviously, it’d landed from outer space; that was my first thought. My second thought was: crazy bushwhacked looney-toons, the kind of people who liked to camp on a lonely hillside, to live off-grid, to do their own thing in the wild, whatever that thing might be. Let me be clear – not nice people.
The caravan, or whatever it was, sat on a ridge one hundred metres back from the road. My little hire car passed cautiously, its headlights announcing its obvious presence to whoever was in the brightly lit caravan-spaceship. I looked at the odometer yet again, checked the fuel gauge yet again. There was no gas station ahead, only Corinna and the river. The end of the road. So I was watching the gauge, making calculations in my head, estimating how far what was left in the tank would take me. If I could just get to Corinna, I could figure out what to do about gas in the morning. After all, I’d be staying there for a while.
I was getting pretty tense. I could feel my heart rate rising and my fingers gripping the steering wheel too hard. I tried to relax them, shook my shoulders, rotated my neck a few times like we did in yoga class. My mind was frantically busy with calculations of mileages, how far I’d come, how far it was to Corinna, how much gas was in the tank. And plans, I made plans – what to do if the car broke down, if it ran out of gas. The best way to escape if those people on the hillside turned out to be the kind of weird and scary Frankensteins that filmmakers like to put in their Tasmanian Gothic films. Of course, I couldn’t stop my mind running on those old stories of the cannibal convicts lost in the bush, lost in wild areas just like this. I rotated my neck again.
The road was interminable. From the township, it had dipped into a gully, climbed up again. It wound through thick bush, then emerged into a clearer area of low scrub. That was where the caravan was parked. But I didn’t want to be in that clearer area, where whoever was on the hill could see me. The road wound down again, but then I didn’t want to be in the thick bush either, where I couldn’t see a thing beyond the headlights. Something dashed across the road in the beams, something fast with glowing orbs for eyes. Not a large animal, perhaps a possum, perhaps a wallaby, too fast for a wombat. Perhaps a thylacine.
You know how it is when you’re driving in a strange place, alone, in the dark, and you’re not entirely sure you’re on the right road – probably you’ve experienced this. Curious thing is how time elongates. You’re driving, let’s say, thirty kilometres, a distance that should take you – what? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? Perhaps a bit more, because the road is unfamiliar and it’s dark. But not so long, really. Yet time becomes longer, like an elastic band gently being stretched. It becomes longer and longer and longer, until it’s far longer than you ever expected. This kind of time is in your bones, not on the clock. It’s far more real.
Of course it was bound to happen. I was bound to run out of gas. The car was bound to splutter to a stop on the dark road, not far from the brilliantly lit camp I passed on the hillside. Yes, it coasted to a halt. After several sad attempts to get going again, I switched off the engine and sat in the dark car on the darkened road in the dark bush and tried to get my pulse to slow down. Concentrate, I said to myself. I went back to my calculations. I figured I was closer to Corinna than I was to Savage River, which meant if I were to walk – walk! in this darkness! – I would have maybe ten kilometres to go. My skin felt clammy, and when I opened the door of the car the air shivered over my neck like cold silk. The temperature had dropped with the sun. It wasn’t so late, but night had definitely fallen, as if a dark curtain had covered a bright stage.
I opened the boot to pull out my rucksack. I didn’t have a proper torch, but I could use the light on my otherwise useless phone. There were still places like this, still places in the isolated bush where the signals of the 21st century didn’t penetrate. That was the attraction for some people. The weak beam flickered over my stuff in the boot. My books were in an open box and the covers fluttered and stirred. As I pulled out my rucksack, there was a sudden whoosh and the books flapped up out of the box, out of the boot of the car, and flew off into the bush. In the night, I could just make out a few of them perched on nearby branches, then they flew away amongst the dark eucalypts. I must’ve stood there for five minutes with my mouth open. There was nothing to be done. I slammed the boot shut and locked the car. I’d have to walk to Corinna, with nothing but this crummy phone torch. And I’d better save the battery too if I could.
Then I heard a crunch on the gravel behind me. Someone called, “Hey!” I switched off the phone torch so I wasn’t a sitting duck, but he already knew I was there.
“Hey! Yer need some help?”
“Er, yeah. Ran out of gas. Just need to get to Corinna.”
“Thought yer might be in trouble. Saw yer drive past, then heard the engine stop.”
“You from the camp back there?”
“Yers. Think we can help yer out. Prob’ly got a bit of fuel in a jerry can. C’mon back with me and we’ll see what we got.”
The bloke was well over six foot and built like a mountain. He wore a hunter’s vest, a plaid shirt and a bushy beard. He sounded reasonable.
“Maybe I’ll wait by the car?”
“Nah! C’mon back and we can have a beer.”
I had a momentary vision of what it would be like to refuse him, to insist on tramping off down the road in the dark, the piss-weak beam from my phone the only thing between me and the night and him and his mates behind me. In the laurel bushes beside the road, I heard my books rustling and flapping, trying to fly farther away.
I walked beside him as we went back around the bend in the road and climbed across the tussocky hillside to the bright spaceship. There were four other blokes sitting around in the light on folding camp chairs, drinking Cascade lager from cans. They pulled out another chair and I sat with them because it felt stupid to just stand there. One bloke took a beer from a big Esky full of ice, snapped back the ring-pull and handed me the can. It had a thylacine on the front. I asked about the fuel, but they said I should relax, drink me beer, what’s the rush?
Inside the bright globe of light made by their lamps, everything was hyper-vivid. The white bright light washed the contours from everything. I could see the weave in the plastic folding chairs, and the red stripes painted along the side of the caravan, and the grubby dust in the canvas of the tent annex they’d strung up. I noticed the streaks of fat on the portable barbeque, the smell of burnt sausages, and prickly-looking stubble on their unshaven cheeks. I thought of my job in Corinna, and the friendly woman I’d spoken to on the phone, and how they’d be expecting me at the pub. Maybe they’d come looking for me if I didn’t turn up? But why wouldn’t I turn up? These blokes were going to give me some fuel after we finished another beer. I thought about my books flying off into the bush with pages flapping like cockatoo wings. I thought about spaceships that could land in remote places and you’d never know they’d landed except that sometimes people disappear, and no trace is found. I thought about the thylacine and how it probably was still living out in the bush somewhere.
“D’you reckon the tiger is out there somewhere?” I asked these blokes. I waved my hand into the darkness outside the light circle, but you couldn’t see a thing.
“Maybe! Here, Eric, turn out the lights for a minute. The lady wants ta look for tigers.”
And out went the lights. We all peered into the night. I felt the dark like a cloak around my shoulders, and a hundred years ago was yesterday. The moon had risen. All I could see were my books flapping through the trees at the edge of the clearing.