I study the dirt pathway. Meandering up the mountain, the track spirals into nowhere. The tourist track for the hoards that come on the buses from Sydney. The old Aboriginal tracks are hidden away, known only to a few. Mount Akira looms out onto the horizon. Over six hundred metres tall. Beautiful, exotic and desolate, such is the uniqueness of this continent.
The rest of the group are assembled near the entrance. Backpackers all of us. English, German, Japanese…. The English are the most numerous. The English and the German backpackers don’t hang out much. Each keep to their own Sort of like at home. Except for Akio. He’s traveling with his Dad.
There’s something winning about Akio. His lack of guile. His directness. I’m glad I’ve got to know him. On a whim I had told him about the trip one night back at the hostel. When we were in the lounge watching the telly while everyone else was at the pub. ‘A bunch of us….Kendal, Ollie, Miyako…are going on a tour to the Blue Mountains’. ‘Ayers Rock?’ Akio said. ‘Er I think it’s a bit closer to the coast.’ His enthusiasm was hard to resist. He left for a while. Returning, he announced his Dad wanted to go on the Blue Mountains trip. ‘Great’ I said.
I’m wearing a singlet and shorts with strong leather boots. Dressed for the conditions, a floppy hat drawn in under my neck with elastic. I’ve pulled my socks up above the ankles to avoid the heat and dust. Sensible and studious, that’s what I’m aiming for. I’m glad to be there. It’s like a new found freedom. Finally away from the shallow-ness and consumerism of Sydney. Itching to go.
The girls are all congregating together. Kendal, Briar, Lizbeth, Famte and Akiko. Studying the guidebook, Kendal reads out loud ‘An easy walk of two and a half hours around the summit.’ The German guys, Franz and Jannick join us girls at the start of the track. Wearing their beige cutaway shirts and shorts. Franz with his long sleeve shirts rolled up the elbows, and heavy duty work boots. Men who spent most their time indoors but have escaped for the weekend. Brown limbs from tramping in the Australian sun.
Ollie and Ben join us. The Pommies… I cringed when I first met them. Southern accents. Crisp and precise. Just out of middle England, pretending to cut in in the Aussie bush. Bankers I decided. Blue and white checked shirts, LSE educated, because they didn’t want to go to Oxford and look posh.
Our group headed up the dirt track in bunches. I take my time, taking it all in. Dry as a bone, endless gum trees stretch out as far as the human eye. It’s late April. Treading a fine line between summer and autumn, the leaves are yet to turn. The gaps between the trees are enticing, welcoming almost. The hollowness give the bush land sense of space, it’s almost accommodating. Whispering trees. Quivering branches shimmering in the sun. Beauty and starkness. Like a mystery, drawing me in.
Around 1pm, I arrive at the summit, joining Kendal, Ollie, Ben and the German guys. Flopping down in the ground, I’m panting in the midday heat. Ollie hands me his towel. ‘Thanks’ I manage. ‘Tough going huh’ he says . ‘Honestly Paige, you have to stop puffing’ Kendal exclaims. ‘We can use you to light a campfire’ Ollie says. ‘She’s a hot-headed one’ Kendal remarks to the lads.
I lie back in the sun. It’s glorious, despite the searing heat. My shorts are stained with berries and mud. A tear is forming at the bottom on the hem. My blonde hair is falling down on my shoulders in long strands.
Ollie the home counties banker is studying Kendal’s slumbering form. Kendal is long and lean. Confident, completely at ease with Australia. The heat, the flies, she just shrugs it off. Kendal’s mum is Australian. Since she was kid, she’s spent every second winter in Perth and Brisbane. I can’t help feeling envious. Red-faced, sweating in the heat, I could never emulate Kenny’s coolness.
I survey my sunburnt arms and pasty legs. Typical Brit abroad. Even Ollie is acquiring a bit of a tan, his beer paunch has dissipated a bit. I’m pear shaped, fuller-figured as my mum would say. A size 14 to Kenny’s size 8. In Australia, I’m practically a hippopotamus. Pink singlet and white shorts, the fabric stretches out to cover my large bum and chunky thighs. When I look in the mirror, I see an English girl trying to cut it in the Australian bush.
Sitting between Ollie and Ben, Kenny is in her element. Ben makes way for me in the group. All English politeness. He doesn’t say much. ‘How’s the ditch digging going Ben?’ Ollie remarks. No reply. ‘Flex for us’ Kenny adds. Still no reply. It turns out Ben has chucked in his office job to work as a labourer. I have to admit it suits him. Kenny has a point. Trying not to stare but…he has muscles in places where English men….well don’t. ‘Put your tongue back in Paige’ Kenny says, not missing a thing. ‘How do like this Paige’ Ollie remarks, pulling up his shirt to reveal…well…copious amounts of pasty English skin. ‘Impressive love’ I say. ‘People might think you’re trying to signal a rescue helicopter’ Ben says. ‘Good one’ says Kenny. I say nothing, embarrassed.
Ollie and Ben are keen to head back. There’s a rugby game on this afternoon. We are still waiting on the German girls. Miyako, Akio and his Dad are sitting with Franz and Jannick. Briar finally made it after a mid-trek wardrobe malfunction. ‘Do you think we should wait for them?’ Ollie remarks. ‘Get with the play girls’ Kenny remarks. Deciding it for everyone.
Ben hauled his rucksack over his back. Working part time as a labourer had wrought changes in him. Wrinkles were forming the corner of his eyes. His pallor had long since disappeared. Long brown limbs were visible underneath his rolled up shirt. Strong muscular arms, the sinews apparent as his bulk exposed every tendon. Evidence of time spent hauling bricks, digging up roads, and dragging pylons. Satisfying work. Australia was changing him, physically and mentally.
He was walking behind Paige, holding back to let you her go first. She was struggling with the conditions. The view was a good one. Feeling a bit ashamed he lagged behind further so he could talk to Akio and Matsuko. Matsuko seemed to think he was the tour guide. ‘Sydney…crocodiles’ he exclaimed, pointing at this travel guide. He was keen on crocs. Something to do with Steve Urwin. Ben did the best he could. ‘No crocs in Sydney…You need to go up to Darwin in the Northern Territory’. ‘Crocodile World’ Matsuko continued. ‘Never heard of it’ he lied. ‘Nothing but alluminum huts and flies up north’ he added trying to evade the topic. Theme parks weren’t his thing. He liked Akio and his Dad but he wished Ollie was here. Even Kendal could have bullshitted her way out of it.
Back at the homestead, the beers were flowing. They’d created a makeshift pub in the converted farmhouse. TV blaring. Australia versus Ireland. ‘Ireland, Ireland, where ya standin tall’ Ollie slurred. ‘The game hasn’t started yet love’ Kenny yelled out, plastered. The girls were huddled together around the hummus platter, vodka shots in hand.
Akio, Matsuko and Miyako had made a brief appearance before escaping to their rooms. He didn’t blame them. Ollie was currently trying to balance a beer on his head while doing a tour of the lounge. For the benefit of the girls. He was shirtless which had sent Miyako scuttling. The German group hadn’t shown up yet. Boozing it up at the campsite he supposed. Maybe they heard the rugby and scarpered.
At around 6.30pm Jannick came in to spread the news. One of the girls was missing. Famte. No one has seen her for four hours. She just disappeared. ‘Shit’ said Ollie. ‘Creepy’ said Kendal. ‘I saw her on the track’ Briar claimed. ‘About 10.30am. She was crying’ she continued. Franz and Lizbeth had gone off the speak to the police. ‘He’s a bit weird don’t you think?’ Kendal remarked after Jannick left. ‘Like no emotion at all’. ‘He’s German’, Ollie said.
I remembered Famte. She was the pretty one with the light brown wavy hair. Ollie had tried to hit on her once in the hostel bar. Standing by herself while he latched on to her. He had heard they shagged. Which wasn’t surprising. Ollie had shagged half the girls in the hostel, Kendal included. Pretty sure not Paige…yet. Oh, and Miyako of course.
Franz, Jannick, Ben and other men arrive back after midnight. There’s no sign of Famte. It’s a warm night for April. She’s bunkered down for the night says one of the men, the host. Trying to reassure us a I think. Tomorrow at 6am he tells a forlorn looking Franz and Jannick. They go silently back to their room. Ben flops down on the chair and reaches for a beer. We wait for him to speak…and wait. ‘Uh Ben, earth to’ ‘Kenny says. ‘No sign of her’ he says eventually. His face set in an expression that says…don’t bug me. Ollie and Kendal exchange glances as if to say ‘Like what the…?’
Briar is in full form. ‘Two girls disappeared here in 1997. They never found their bodies. The woman at reception told me’.
‘You mean that guy that murdered all those backpackers?’ Kenny says.
That was in Bendigo, near Melbourne’ I add.
‘Belanglo, New South Wales’ Ben says.
‘Ivan Millet killed a lot of girls who were on their gap year’ Ollie says. ‘Lovely guy, a few personal issues’ he adds.
‘Pyscho’ Kendal adds.
‘They didn’t find these two women, that’s what the receptionist said’ Briar continues.
‘I wondered what happened to them?’ I remark.
Raped probably said Briar.
‘Drugs’ said Kendal.
‘Could be anywhere’ Ollie remarked. Bet he drove them to the coast and dumped their bodies in the sea’.
‘That’s what I’d do’ Ben says.
‘Like what?????’ the group says.
‘Ben killed a bunch of people back in London. We’re not supposed to tell you’ Ollie remarked
‘Good to know’ Kendal remarked.
‘Can anyone vouch for Ben’s whereabouts between 2.30pm and 4.30pm this afternoon?’ Ollie asks.
‘Just Akio and his Dad’ I reply. ‘But then it went very quiet…..’
‘Has anyone heard Akio and his Dad lately?’ Ollie continues.
‘I saw Ben coming out of their room….’ Kenny adds.
Ben ignores us.
We head to bed around 2pm. The three of us girls in the dorm. Briar and Kenny share the bunks, I’m the corner on a camp bed.
At 3.30pm I’m wakened by female screaming. Briar’s screams. She’s having hysterics, white-faced, ranting like a madwoman. ‘I saw something she says. At the window.’ ‘Like what’ says Kenny. ‘It was just there’. ‘W H A T D I D Y O U S E E? Kenny is pissed off now. ‘Something moving’ she says. ‘Like a person?’ I ask. ‘Just something’ Briar says. ‘Like what the fuck’ Kenny snarls. She’s livid now. ‘Can you describe it’ I say. ‘It was just weird’. ‘What was?’ I add. I just felt weird, like there was weird feeling’ Briar says. ‘For fuck’s sake, Briar you didn’t actually see anything did you? Kenny says. She turns over in her scream, swearing under her breath.
Ollie comes in, bleary eyed. Briar has got his attention. He’s in her bed now. They’re talking, whispering under the covers, then it’s like rustling and giggling and well you know the drill. Thankfully it’s all over pretty quickly. ‘Did the earth move Bri’ Kenny yells out. ‘Heheeeee’ Bri replies. At least she’s calmed down a bit.
Briar goes back to sleep. I can hear Ollie snoring. I lay awake for a bit. This is a really old house. Built in the 1850’s. Some guy and his wife. It took two days to get into Sydney by coach. They had to get water from the creek. They had like servants that they brought over from England. I’m a bit of a history buff. I like to know stuff. I notice Kenny’s light is still on. I hear the occasional expletive. Eventually, I go back to sleep.
I wake again in the morning. Ollie, Kenny and Briar are talking. He’s standing up by the door. He’s even wearing a shirt. ‘Ben’s gone’ he says. The guy that runs this place, Franz, Jannick, Ben, Akio, Matsuko and the other men from the homestead had gone out at sunrise. Ollie’s holding the fort it seems. At least he keeps Bri amused. He’s back in Bri’s bed now. And well…I’m going to get up now. Kenny remains in bed, unperturbed while Ollie does his thing. She is keeping up a running commentary while I make my escape….
In the kitchen, the host wife sits down beside me. ‘The poor girl, she’s be freezing’ she says. Silently I agree. ‘The other girl, she cried herself to sleep I hear.’ Slightly ashamed, I realise I haven’t thought much about Lizbeth at all. Just assumed Franz and Jannick would take care of her. And Miyako too. They’re German so I just assumed they’d stick together. It’s like we’re back in England and such….Embarrassing to think of.
‘How did you girls sleep?’ she says. Obviously keen to talk. ‘Alright, Bri woke up claiming to have seen a ghost’ I add. To make conversation. I don’t mention Ollie. ‘Really’ she says her voice brightening. ‘Yeah, we calmed her down’ I say. ‘There’s always been rumours about this house’ she continues. I try not to take the bait. Studying my toast. Until eventually I say ‘So what kind of rumours’. The wife of the man who built the property had an affair with someone in the town. Then she killed herself’. Drowned herself in the stream around the back of the mountain. Some of the girls say that her spirit visits them’ the woman states. ‘She likes to visit the single women. Not the men’ she adds. ‘Right’ I say.
Ollie, Bri and Kenny make their way into the kitchen. I decide not to mention the ghost sightings. The woman looks at Ollie, kind of judgementally. As if to say ‘Why aren’t you out searching?’. She obviously doesn’t know Ollie very well. How he’s needed here for er moral support. Ollie, completely oblivious, is discussing his performance. ‘3 out of 10’ Kenny says. ‘A masterful performance. Wouldn’t you say Bri?’ ‘The absolute, most amazing two minutes of her life Bri?’ Kenny adds. ‘It was five minutes. I timed myself’ Ollie adds. The woman scuttles, clearly disturbed. I continue eating my toast.
We mooch around the house. Miyako joins us. Thankfully Ollie has stopped boasting about his bedroom skills. Lizbeth is sleeping she tells us. They’re bringing in a doctor this morning. Miyako is keen to join the search. ‘We can search at the bottom’ she says. ‘They would have checked already. If she made it through the night, they’ll find her this morning’ Kenny says. Miyako looks distraught. Silently I agree with Kenny. There is nothing we can do. ‘Why don’t we go for a walk?’ I say. ‘Okay’ says Miyako. ‘Not me. I’m staying here’ says Kenny. Ollie has his hand down Bri’s top. Obviously not a contender.
‘They haven’t rung Famte’s parents’ Miyako says as we head off. ‘They don’t want to worry them yet’ I reply. ‘They could bring in a helicopter’ she says. ‘I guess’ I respond. Miyako’s concern for Lizbeth unsettles me. Changing the subject I say ‘Where are you going after this?’. She looks surprised but goes along with me. ‘Up to Bryon Bay, then the Great Barrier Reef. Alice Springs’. The standard backpacker route I think. A trek through the desert. 12 days. Camping in the Northern Territory. Volunteering for the Red Cross. She’s going on her own. Completely not bothered. A tiny woman going on camping with a whole bunch of strangers in the middle of nowhere. Something about her is so calm. I wonder if she is judging me. Does she think I am fat Brit who couldn’t hack it in the outback? Miyako continues. I realise I don’t know any of this stuff. Briefly I wonder if I should volunteer for something. In Sydney. Handing out pamphlets? It might look good on my CV.
Arriving at the start of the trek, I look up at the mountain. It’s a beautiful sunny day. Hot even. Miyako wants to walk around the back of the track. In a burst of inspiration I say. ‘Let’s go and look at the stream’. It’s over on the right side of the bush-track. Miyako looks nonplussed but goes along with me. There are sign posts everywhere. It’s a three hour trek. Okay maybe not. I see a red wool scarf underneath the leaves a couple of metres off the track. Ducking under the branches, I make my way, the leaves crackling under my feet. Retrieving it, I return to the track. Turning over the scarf, I see the label. Accessorise . ‘It was cold last week’ Miyako says. ‘Someone must have left it’. ‘Accessorise is a UK brand’ I say. ‘H&M’ Miyako asks? ‘Yeah’ I say.