by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 12


In tracksuit and trainers, Zeno nervously welcomed Jarek and the minibus with its cargo of ten sceptical fourteen year-olds, and led them with their holdalls to the covered eating area. Jarek, also in tracksuit and trainers, brought up the rear with Stephen.

'Welcome to the jungle, guys,' Jarek grinned. 'Most of you will have seen Zeno around the school; he's an excellent woodsman and will be helping me keep you busy for the next five days. What do you want to do first? Check out the rainforest and go for a swim, or look around the camp area?'

'Swim!' was the universal demand.

'Excellent. Take your bags to the recreation room and change into your togs and sandals—remember no baggies or shorts, and meet me on the verandah over there, outside the bunk rooms. We'll allocate rooms and beds later when you've decided who you want to share with.'

Zeno showed them the recreation room and the exit to the verandah, leaving them to change. In his own room he stripped to his pouch and sandals, slung a small backpack over his shoulders, then joined Stephen in his suit, and Jarek who had also stripped to his thong. When the boys were ready on the grass in front of the verandah the three adults wandered over, ignoring wide-eyed astonishment, audible giggles and a wolf whistle.

Stephen stood between his protégés, placed paternal hands on their shoulders and in a voice redolent of sincerity, respectability, sense, determination and authority, addressed the speechless students.

'I know you lads are going to have the time of your life with Jarek and Zeno, who are two of the finest men I know. They are reliable, expert woodsmen, strong and intelligent, caring and understanding. I have complete confidence in them and their abilities, otherwise I would never have given permission for this series of camps that you will remember with pleasure for the rest of your lives. They will treat you with respect, fairness and decency, and I expect you to treat them the same way. Well, you've exciting things to do, so I'll wish you all the best and head off back to school.' With a smile and a wave, the Principal disappeared.

While Stephen was speaking, Zeno rapidly scanned the ten boys. Two stood out. One, olive-skinned, clean-cut, confident and itching to cause trouble, the other quiet, lean and very dark, who looked as if he was pretending he wasn't there. Part Aborigine, perhaps. There were a couple of blonds, one slim, sharp and self confident, the other had obviously been lifting weights, probably to compensate for his shortness. A gangly kid with glasses was concealing insecurities behind a supercilious facade, and four obvious Christians were betrayed by their prim, pursed lips and disapproving manner. Holier than thou, as his father would say. Even their togs gave them away—loose so as not to cling and reveal their sex. One of them had an apron of flab, the others were pasty and pimpled. The remaining lad was slightly overweight and looked in need of fresh air and exercise. Zeno was glad Jarek was in charge.

Jarek knew and liked the boys in the structured school situation, where their intelligence made them a fun challenge to teach. But this was very different. Without the accepted hierarchy and externally imposed discipline it could easily degenerate into anarchy. He had to play it very, very cool. Appearing perfectly relaxed, his smile included them all.

'We're glad you're the first guys to test the course we've prepared,' Jarek said affably, 'because I know from having taught you for two years that you're smart enough and tough enough to have a go at everything and succeed. If you blokes can't handle something, then I won't try it on the next group. In case you were worried, this is not going to be the same as school; you're here to have fun so there's no schoolwork, no tests, no competitions, no winners and losers, and everyone who survives the week gets a certificate.'

Mutters of yeah, yeah, we'll believe that when we see it.

Zeno sighed. Jarek expected him to have some rapport with these kids because he was also a student, but they weren't the sort he'd ever had anything to do with. These guys had a reputation among the women teachers for being 'bad', 'difficult', 'too smart for their own good.' They were the ones teachers complained about and sent out of the room for their smart answers. There was no way he could be their mentor. Worse than that, except for the two tough guys and the Aborigine no one looked fit enough to complete the planned activities. It was going to be a total disaster!

'To get the most out of the week,' Jarek was saying, 'I want you to accept that we're all equals. While we're here I'm no longer a teacher, just an older guy who knows a bit more than you about living rough in the forest, so if you feel like it you can call me Jarek instead of Sir. I don't know everything, of course; some of you are more informed than me about many things, but what I know will be useful and could prevent accidents. If I tell you to do something I'm not trying to be the bossy teacher who thinks he's superior, all I care about is your safety and that every one enjoys themselves' His grin was disarming. 'Any questions?'

'Why're you wearing that thing?' The obvious sneer in the voice shocked Zeno. He'd never dare speak to anyone like that, let alone a teacher. It was the tall good-looking kid; the self-appointed tough guy who looked around for applause and received a few titters.

Jarek roared with genuine laughter. 'Because, Melvin, if I didn't you'd race home to your parents next Friday and tell them I was running around naked. Then, because most people think nude is rude, they'd create a fuss, call the cops, and the rest of the program would be scrapped in case I was a child molester… and I'd be out of a job!'

'Aren't you embarrassed?' A terse reprimand from the obese Christian.

With a good-natured grin Jarek spread arms and legs, inviting inspection. All the muscles that make action flick heroes so popular were visible, but being considerably leaner he looked not only strong and lithe, but wholly alert and slightly dangerous. 'OK, Arthur, tell me what I've got to be embarrassed about.'

'You're just about fuckin naked!' Melvin jeered. 'And you've got a bare bum.'

'Have you seen the girls at the municipal pool, topless in bikini thongs? Do you object to them too?'

'They're females. It's different. They don't have their pubic hair hanging out like you two!'

'You've a head covered in hair, should that be covered too?'

The other students were looking embarrassed so Jarek included them with a smile and asked, 'Who can tell me why females should have the right to wear a thong, and males not?'

'We can see the shape of your goolies.' Melvin sneered, determined not to relinquish his position as top dog.

'Melvin, every male has a penis and two testicles, even you. They're all approximately the same and there's nothing exciting or dangerous about them. If you think you'll become a nervous wreck from seeing the shape of my goolies, as you call them, then don't look.'

Suppressed laughter and someone said, 'That's telling you, Melvin.'

'Shut the fuck up, shit head,' Melvin snapped.

Refusing to be drawn, Jarek said amicably, 'Let's make a deal, Melvin. I won't tell you what to wear, and you won't tell me.'

Melvin mumbled something that sounded vaguely obscene.

'Relax,' Jarek said solemnly. 'I'm grateful for your opinion, but I'll continue wearing whatever I feel comfortable in, while giving you the same right—apart from baggies for swimming; that's for safety reasons, not prejudice. I'm pleased you want to talk about this because I think it's important that we discuss it, but we don't want to spend time on it now, so bring it up this evening after supper so everyone can have their say. Deal?' He stepped forward and offered his hand. After a brief pause Melvin returned the grin and shook it, gratified to have his opinions seriously considered.

'Sure thing… Jarek,' he said, returning proudly to his place—the equal of any man.

Jarek asked them to choose a partner for the day. 'This isn't childish, it's a safety measure. If each partner keeps track of the other, then no one gets lost or runs into trouble without help. For that reason, no one is ever to leave the immediate surroundings of the cabin on their own.'

'Why? Surely it's not dangerous, Sir… I mean Jarek?'

'Apart from getting lost, Simon, which is easy in the bush, there are leeches, scorpions, taipans, death adders, eastern brown and red-bellied black snakes, all of which have lethal venom. There are bluffs to fall over and break your neck; there's a swampy area that'll suck you in, and a twisted ankle could end in disaster if you're on your own. I've seen large monitor lizards that could chew your hand off if you annoyed them, and when we cleaned out the bunk rooms Zeno had to drag a five metre python from the rafters and take him into the forest.' Jarek stepped out five metres and smiled darkly. 'It was as thick as my thigh, with long, very sharp teeth. If it wrapped itself round you and squeezed, you'd never get it off, your ribs would be crushed and you'd suffocate.'

'Carpet snakes don't attack, do they?'

'No, all snakes usually only attack if disturbed, but their camouflage is so good it's easy to step on them if they're sunbathing. Hands up those who intend to go off on their own.'

No hands were raised.

'Excellent. The last rule is that you may wear, do and say whatever you like, as long as you hurt no one physically or mentally, and don't damage any property.

'What do you mean, hurting someone mentally?' The questioner was the gangly kid wearing glasses, an obvious target for bullies.

'Good question, Anton. I mean things like calling someone unpleasant names, making anyone feel stupid, incompetent, or inadequate. Daring someone to do what they don't want to, being a spoilsport. It's everyone's duty to tell me or Zeno immediately anything like that occurs. If you don't, then you are guilty of condoning the offence. Offenders will be given one chance. If they reoffend then Mr. Noble will come and take them back to school immediately. The unity and strength of our small band of men is paramount.'

'When you say we can do whatever we like, what d'you mean?'

'Exactly that. If in doubt, ask. I promise that Zeno and I will take every one of your concerns and questions as seriously as our own.'

'Why do we have to wear sandals?'

'There's nothing worse than splinters if you're hiking.'

'You've got bare feet.'

'Mine are hardened by weeks of walking barefoot in rainforests like this.'

'Before we set off,' Zeno said into the sudden silence, 'I want you to look at the shadow cast by this stick.' He pushed a narrow stick into the soil.

The boys gathered around and watched as Zeno lay another thin stick along the shadow line, then another from the stick towards the door of the bunk room. He stood back and asked if anyone could guess the angle between the two lines.

'Easy,' the short, well-muscled lad said with a pompous smile. 'It's about twelve degrees.'

'How do you know, Sasha?'

Sasha placed another stick to make a right angle. 'That's ninety degrees.' He bisected the angle, muttered, 'forty-five', bisected it again, 'twenty-two,' bisected it again and announced, just over eleven degrees.'

'Brilliant,' Zeno grinned. 'Go to the top of the class.'

'And jump off,' someone laughed.

'Remember that angle,' Zeno said, 'we'll use it later. OK, let's top ourselves up with fresh rain water.' He filled twelve tumblers with water from a large urn. 'Pump yourselves full so you don't feel thirsty later. Dehydration's a serious concern in this hot dry weather.'

When all were satisfied he led the way around the building to the composting toilet outside the washroom.

'Inside this important little room is a porcelain squat toilet, common in southern Europe and all countries where public hygiene is considered important. There are places for your feet; you squat and do your business, making sure it goes in the hole, not around it, then drop a handful of sawdust from that box, on top of your offering. Then wash your sphincter and the porcelain with the spray nozzle,' he pointed to it, 'then come out here and wash your hands. Because too much liquid prevents waste from composting correctly, if you only want to urinate, piss outside, but not on the grass or anywhere where other people are going to walk or sit. It's best to stand at the edge of the forest, or go a little way in. All right, in pairs, go up and look, I don't want any mistakes.'

In pairs they mounted the five steps to inspect.

'It's just a hole in the floor!' was the general comment, clearly not impressed.

'Exactly, better than sitting on a seat someone else has piddled on.'

'Everyone laughed and agreed and followed the two adults to the edge of the forest.

'Follow the brown bums,' someone giggled.

'Shhh, they're watching with their nether eyes,' Simon whispered loud enough for all to hear.

Everyone laughed good-naturedly and when they saw Jarek and Zeno unhook their strings and direct streams of clear liquid into the bushes, they joined them, amazed and delighted to be treated so sensibly.

Bladders emptied, a line of youths headed by Zeno warily entered the forest.

'Where're we going?'

'We'll find the creek, explore that, then follow it to the swimming hole.'

In the shade the temperature dropped several degrees and Jarek noted with satisfaction that everyone suddenly seemed more alert.

The brave band walked in a pre-planned, gently curving trajectory that not only made the stream seem much further away than it was, but was also disorienting. The going was easy as the canopy prevented heavy undergrowth on the leaf-littered forest floor. Large spider webs, bandicoot holes, possum droppings, the vast root system of a curtain fig... everything of interest was noted and observed and the boys were encouraged to draw attention to anything they thought seemed interesting. Under a tall tree Jarek pointed to some discolouration around a hole about ten metres above the ground.

'What do you reckon that indicates?'

'Snakes?' 'Fairies?' 'Borer?'

'Native bees. Who wants to climb up and taste the honey, if there is any? We won't take more than a taste, they work hard for it and we're neither starving nor robbers.'

They looked at the stream of tiny black bees flying in and out and shook their heads.

'They don't sting. Come on, I'm going, who's game?' He stared at Melvin who rose to the challenge.

'Take off your sandals; bare feet are best for climbing because you can grip with your toes.'

In silence, the others watched as Jarek seemed to flit from branch to branch followed by a more careful Melvin. Arriving at the level of the bees the youth looked down and suddenly froze.

'Jarek! I don't dare move!' he whispered.

'Well don't let those pikers down there know. Come on, play the hero. They can't see me hanging onto your togs. Look down, grin and wave as if you're having a great time.'

Melvyn leaned back into Jarek, gave a quick look down and waved. 'I think I'm going to be sick.'

'Better warn them to close their mouths then.'

'Not funny.'

'Melvyn, I know you're only pretending to be frightened so you won't have to put your hand in the beehive. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone. But if you fall and break your neck it would spoil things for the rest of us, so while I turn to face the trunk, hold onto my waist and watch what I'm doing.'

'I'm not scared.'

'Good, but you've still got to hang on to me.' Jarek turned and reached into the hole. Melvin clutched at his waist but his hands slipped on the sweat and he grabbed onto the only dry, firm thing, and hung onto that.

Withdrawing a finger dripping with honey, Jarek licked it then shouted down, 'Delicious.' Twisting his head he looked over his shoulder. 'Melvin,' he said calmly, 'if you stop squeezing my balls I'll give you a taste.'

Melvin winked and let go.

With a flourish at their audience, Jarek shoved his finger into Melvin's mouth, nearly overbalancing him. Everyone laughed. Melvin sucked and grinned mischievously.

'You've overcome your fears then?'

'I was nervous, up here alone with a naked man.'

'Cheeky bastard, I've a good mind to throw you down.'

'You'll have to catch me first,' Melvin laughed, scrambling down as agilely as a monkey, then assuring everyone it was easy, the honey was delicious, and he'd like to go up again.

Jarek shook his head in admiration. He'd known the lad for two years; known he was an accomplished liar and con artist, but still he'd been fooled. I hope it was only fun and not a set-up he muttered to himself.

About half an hour later they stopped in the middle of a small clearing created by a fallen forest giant. Sunlight lent a cheerful note and they checked for witchetty grubs, finding instead millions of ants, several giant centipedes, two termite mounds, hundreds of russet butterflies clustered around a damp spot in the soil, a strange flat black spider, and a scorpion.

'I thought scorpions were larger?'

'They are in some countries, Sasha, the Australian ones are not that impressive to look at, but the poisoned needle on the tip of the tail still packs a punch.'

A terrified shout from one of the fat boys. 'Sir! I've been stung by a scorpion!'

'Did you see it?'

'No. I was just kneeling here and… it's incredibly painful!'

Everyone withdrew to a safe distance while Zeno and Jarek checked his knee, then the ground.

'You kneeled on an ant nest.' Jarek called the others and showed them a swarming horde of average sized, dark-blue vaguely metallic looking ants. 'These are a variety of so-called bull ants, they bite, not sting, and inject an acid that hurts but isn't lethal.'

'It's killing me! Feels as if my knee's broken.'

'Yes I know, it's bloody awful. I've had more than my share of bites, but it only lasts about half an hour. So take it as a warning everyone to check carefully before kneeling or sitting.'

Suddenly the forest wasn't such a great place to be, and when the whine and crack of a whip bird disturbed the silence, everyone jumped.

'At least there are no snakes,' someone said in relief.

'There are probably dozens in the area, but with the pounding of all our feet on the ground they keep well out of our way, only being interested in attacking things small and tasty enough to fit down their throats. They aren't like humans, killing for fun.'

'You sound as if you don't like humans much, Jarek,' Simon said with a frown.

'Some are fine, others aren't. I just wish people would understand that all the animals and plants we've seen today, and the thousands we haven't seen, have as much right to live and breed as humans. Unfortunately, very few people believe that. They say they do, but if it's a question of giving up something to protect other living things then suddenly they're not so keen.'

'Giving up what?'

'Like the question about whether Zeno and I should be allowed to wear these thongs, it's a good topic for debate in the evening so I hope you'll bring it up then. Meanwhile, Zeno has a question for you.'

'Who reckons they'd be able to find their way back to the cabin?

Every hand was raised.

'OK, which direction is it?'

At least ten different directions were indicated.

'Well, as we can't race off in more than one direction at once, it seems we're lost. What do we need to work out what direction to go?'

'A compass?'

'How would that help?'

'We'd know where north is.'

'Yes, and then? How will that help us to find the cabin?'


'Remember just before we set off we measured the angle between the sun's shadow and the direction of the cabin? Well, that will give us a rough guide. Someone get three sticks.'

A stick was laid along the direction of the shadow, and another at an angle of about twelve degrees.

'Any comments?'

'The Earth has turned since then,' Sasha said authoritatively.

'Brilliant. How long do you reckon we've been walking?'

After a discussion they agreed about an hour, so Zeno drew a circle around the vertical stick, marked it off into twelve equal segments. Each line marks an hour, now which way would the shadow move?'

After an argument it was agreed counter clockwise because they were in the southern hemisphere, so it was easy to mark where the shadow would have been when they set out, and place a stick at twelve degrees to that.

'It's very inaccurate and you'd probably end up going round in circles, but if you could manage to walk in a straight line, then heading in that direction would take you in the general direction of the cabin and the road, which is at least better than heading off into the national park never to be seen again.'

'That's impossible, Zeno,' someone said petulantly. 'You're pointing in the exact direction we're heading. We've been walking away from the cabin for ages, not towards it!'

'Who agrees with Henry?'

Everybody did.

'Then that shows how easy it is to get lost. What should you have if you're going bush walking without a guide?'

A good map and compass that they knew how to use, was the easily arrived at consensus.

'As we haven't got a map, what do you reckon's the best way to the creek? We can't be far away now.'

Again ten different directions were suggested.

'What senses have we used so far?' Jarek asked.


'And feeling! That ant bite still hurts!'

'Any others we could use?'


'Some animals can smell water, but I've never managed.'


'Better be quiet then. Find a tree to lean against, check you're not going to interrupt an ant column or rest your butt against a wasp, then close your eyes so you aren't distracted by what you see, and open your senses to sounds and smells—in case one of you can smell water.'

They laughed good naturedly then stood or leaned in silence and closed their eyes. It was a bit like the lights going down at the cinema or the theatre, but instead of a curtain rising or lights coming on, sounds they'd not noticed began to intrude on their consciousness. Leaves disturbed by a breeze in the canopy. Faint chirruping of distant cicadas. A slightly louder screeching of tree frogs. The flute-like call of a butcherbird and the mate's responding warble. Rustling among the litter as skinks, imagining the invaders had departed, scurried around in search of insects. A distant whip bird crack. Then...

'I can hear water!'


'Over there.'

'What's it sound like?'

'A tap trickling.'

Stillness again and then the others also heard it and ran the twenty metres to the edge of the creek where the bed narrowed and rocks caused turbulence.

'Can we drink the water?'

'Yes, but don't piss in it!'

'Can we go in?'

'Of course, but keep to the sandy bottom; standing on rocks can be lethal if they're slippery. It's too shallow for swimming, but you never know what you might find under stones.'

The boys explored the stream bed, unearthing the usual collection of may and caddis fly larvae, a couple of dragonflies, some bivalves and a few small shrimps.

'What're those holes at the water line?'

'Yabbies, probably,' Jarek told them. 'If you want to see one, dig it out.'

'Do they bite?'

'They're probably only about ten centimetres long, but their pincers are fairly powerful. Go on, dig one out and see if I'm right.'

'No way. You do it.'

'Surely you're not scared?'

They were.

'Wimps.' With a friendly laugh to show he didn't mean it, Jarek knelt over the hole and scraped away at the soft clay. Within a few minutes his head was pressed against the ground, his arm deep in the hole, and the eleven observers behind him had an unobstructed view of firm, slightly hairy buttocks, the back of a well-filled white cotton pouch, and a thin string crossing the neat, dark-brown entry to his own hole. To Zeno's astonishment, apart from a couple of nudges and shared grins, no one seemed perturbed at the sight, being more interested in what Jarek was doing.

'Got it,' he exclaimed, kneeling back and holding aloft a bluish yabby about twelve centimetres long, it's impressive pincer clinging firmly to his forefinger.

'Does it hurt?'

'Not much.' He pulled the yabby off and a drop of blood appeared. Then holding it by the back, offered the wildly waving legs to the boys. Only Melvin dared accept it, holding it carefully so they could all inspect and admire.

'Can you eat them?'

'Of course. Drop them in boiling water and they throw off their legs, turn red and cook in minutes. Delicious.'

'That's cruel.'

'Yes, but probably not much worse than being slowly swallowed by a snake, or chewed up bit by bit by an echidna.'

'Will we eat it?'

'What do you reckon, guys? Eat it or put it back?'

'Put it back!'

'Which way to the swimming hole do you reckon?' Zeno asked when the yabby had crawled gratefully back into hiding.

Half pointed upstream, half down.

'Some confusion there. How about the cabin? We've not come far from where we worked out the direction, who can remember which way it is, and for the big prize, how far do you reckon we are from it?'

Responses ranged from two to five kilometres, and no two directions were alike.

'Sorry, guys. No prizes today. The cabin is slightly less than a hundred metres from here, and it's over there,' Zeno laughed, pointing behind them.

Shocked disbelief. 'Not possible!' 'We've been walking for well over an hour!' You're having us on!' 'Prove it!'

Zeno took off his backpack and extracted an ordinance survey map and compass. Everyone gathered round and he pointed out the cabin, the entrance drive, the track leading to the main road, the creek that wound around the boundary with the National Park, and the swimming hole.

'We entered the forest here,' he explained tracing a line on the map with his finger, 'and wandered in a great circle to here. This is where Melvin climbed the tree for honey and here's where we worked out the direction of the cabin. You all said it was impossible because it should be behind us, but we were just about spot on because by then, as you can see, we were walking towards it. Then we heard the water and you all made a dash for it not realising what direction you were going. It's that easy to get lost.'

'You fooled us!'

'Yes. Did anyone guess we weren't travelling in a straight line?'

Ten heads shook their astonishment.

'We did it to demonstrate how tricky it is to keep to a straight line in a forest. How dangerous it is to just wander in for a stroll. When you're out of sight of where you entered you're already lost unless you've cut gashes in trees or marked your trail in some way. Why isn't that a good thing to do?'

'Damages the tree?' 'Too slow?' Suggestions dried up.

It was a quiet, young-looking kid with light brown hair who understood. 'Because the next person who comes along might mistake your cuts and marks for his and get lost.'

'Excellent, Robert. So what's the solution?'

A chorus of, 'Never go bush walking without a map and compass.'

'You're fast learners and have earned a swim, Which way?'

They checked the map, agreed it was downstream, and after injunctions to go carefully, keep their partner in view and not enter the water until Jarek and Zeno arrived, they set off bubbling with excitement. Two minutes later shouts of delight echoed through the trees.

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