by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 15

National Park

'They woke to sounds of laughter from the bunk rooms; doors slamming and voices outside.

Zeno stretched out on top of the bed, rolled over and protested, 'Hell, what's the time? The sun's barely risen.'

'Come on handsome, get your fat arse outside and help me bathe and feed the hordes.'

'Morning men,' Jarek's deep voice made the ten self-consciously naked youths fooling around on the verandah jump and grin. Faces alert and ready for adventure, they were obviously relieved to see they hadn't made a sartorial mistake.

'Race you to the water!'

Leon surprised everyone by sprinting into the lead. He, Sasha and Melvin were already swinging from the rope and laughing at a joke when Arthur arrived with Zeno, who wanted to make sure the fat kid didn't feel left out.

The swim was refreshing and by the time they'd jogged back, made themselves breakfast from assorted fruit, cereal, bread, eggs and tea, they were dry. Melvin and Sasha came and sat beside Jarek, nudged each other, checked no one was looking then confided that they'd tried it that night but nothing happened. They kept thinking about their girlfriends. Having unburdened himself, Sasha joined a group at the other end of the table.

'So I'm not gay,' Melvin said with what sounded like a touch of regret.

'Be happy, you've far more choice now.'

'What do you mean?'

'Heterosexuals outnumber gays ten to one, so you've ten times as many partners to choose from.'

Melvin looked unconvinced. 'Sasha's a bit young for me. Perhaps I prefer older men. If it had been you, for example…'

'Away with you, wicked lad, trying to lead an innocent old man astray!'

They both laughed and Melvin joined the others, clearly proud of his bravado.

When the kitchen was locked away from marauders, each boy was given a small back pack containing a water bottle, a packet of biscuits, a map and compass, a pocket knife, a whistle and a compact first-aid kit containing a needle, small pair of scissors, tweezers, two bandages and half a dozen sticking plasters.

After telling the boys to get into different pairs from the day before, they spread their maps and Jarek explained the route. Across the river, follow a branching valley up to a ridge, follow that to a lookout point, down to another valley then along that to an escarpment, on top of which was perched the fire-watch tower. Behind that was the Ranger's house. Jarek explained that the ranger and his wife were friends and he sometimes stayed there and gave Mr. Forté a hand on weekends.

'As we'll be in the forest most of the time there's no danger of sunburn, so wear what you like, the only compulsory article being good strong sandals or trainers. However, I want you to put a pair of shorts in your pack to put on just before we get to the Ranger's place, not because Mr. Forté and his wife would be shocked, far from it, but because Mrs. Forté would certainly tell all her friends that she'd been visited by ten naked young men, and that would lead to scandals and the shut down of the camp.'

'But if you ask her not to?'

'You can't ask a woman not to gossip, that would be like asking her not to breathe.'

'My mother spreads rumours about everyone,' Joseph said sourly. 'Dad wishes they'd bring back the gossip's bridle.'

'My grandfather often sings a song that that goes like this,' Zeno laughed. 'Don't telephone, don't telegraph, just tell-a-woman and the news will get around.'

Everyone laughed.

'It's a good lesson to remember,' Jarek said seriously. 'You gain nothing by telling other people more than they need to know about yourself and your affairs, because too often that information will later be used against you in an argument—or worse. A sensible man learns to guard his secrets and share them only with someone he would trust with his life.'

'Do you mean his wife?'

'No. I mean a male friend. Men save people's lives, women expect to be saved.'

They pondered this for a few seconds while Jarek and Zeno conferred.

'Zeno agrees that you guys should guide us using map and compass, starting with Arthur and Anton. Guides will change every half hour. I'll be in front with them, and Zeno will bring up the rear. However, I suggest you don't trust the leader blindly. Check for yourselves that we're on the right course. Two more things. I'd like everyone to be silent while we're walking, and only whisper when we stop. If we make a noise then we'll see and hear nothing except the obvious, because every living thing will get out of our way and hide and you might as well be walking in town. The last thing is, don't walk over the same ground as anyone else because the forest is fragile and if twenty-four feet pound the same spot that will make a track that lasts for months, and our enemies, if we had any, would be able to follow us. Spread out across about twenty metres, walk softly, duck under spider webs, don't wander across ant hills or sit on termite mounds, lift your feet, don't stumble, and do as little damage as possible. A true woodsman keeps his eyes open, sees everything, misses nothing, and leaves no trace of his passing.'

As Jarek hoped, the restrictions placed on the adventurers only increased their excitement.

Silently they set off across the stream and into the depths of the National Park, fanning out, but keeping in sight of each other, carefully avoiding trampling and disturbing. Each youth feeling as if they were alone with the termites, bandicoots, echidnas, monitors and snakes. Tension was high and it was with silent sighs of relief they emerged from the trees after a fairly steep climb onto a sun-warmed flat rock with a view down the valley. Birds soared, butterflies fluttered on shrubs, skinks scuttled and they warmed their bums in silence. They were the only humans alive and the bonds between them and the other men strengthened.

Rainforest remnants in the valleys were more difficult to traverse than open sclerophyll, as well as cooler and slightly intimidating. Despite the lianes, bush lawyer, and occasional dense thickets they maintained their separate trajectories, determined not to be the one who transgressed the rules of good bushcraft. When they stopped at a small waterhole, Melvin noticed a slug-like thing about three centimetres long hanging off Sasha's buttock.

'Don't pull it off, Sasha,' Jarek ordered. 'It's a leech. As it's only half way through filling itself with your blood it's so firmly attached that if you pull it off you'll take a patch of skin with it, and the wound could get infected. You can either leave it to fill up, when it will drop off, or take out your scissors and get your partner to cut it just below the head.' They watched in horror as Simon snipped, blood gushed down Sasha's leg and the shrunken body sac stuck to the scissors. After a few seconds, the head let go and dropped off.

'Why didn't I feel it?' Sasha asked.

'It injects an anaesthetic and anticoagulant, that's why it'll bleed for a bit before clotting. Don't worry, you can afford the blood. Everyone, check your partners.'

Seven more leeches were found, mainly on the lower legs, cut in half by their partners using scissors.

'Pick the long bit up and try to tear it,' Jarek instructed.

Everyone tried pulling, twisting, ripping but failed to do any damage to the extraordinarily tough body. 'If you do pull a leech off,' Jarek told them, 'it's best to kill it unless you want it to latch onto you again on your return. They sit on grasses waiting for a warm-blooded creature to pass by. If I've no scissors I tear it off and put it on a hard stone then grind it to pieces with another one. I must say I admire you guys for not making a fuss. Most people go berserk the first time they find a leech on them.'

Despite the excitement they had kept their voices low, and as they set off again any desire to chatter was again replaced by awe and a sense of anticipation. Like thieves padding silently through someone's magnificent house, they stole glimpses of orchids, butterflies, sunbeams, a slithering snake, and golden spider webs as tough as cotton thread. Mostly it was easy walking as they mounted a ridge and then slithered down, grasping handholds of roots and grasses. Only the escarpment below the Ranger's house posed a problem.

Three metres of vertical rock seemed insurmountable until Leon removed his sandals, stowed them in his backpack, and with fingers and toes inserted in tiny crevices, clambered up the rock face and hauled himself over. Jarek followed by squeezing himself into a narrow cleft, then pressing hands and feet against the sides while hoisting himself little by little to the top. As this was beyond the abilities of the others Zeno found solid footing at the highest point at the base of the cliff, then allowed the others to climb on his shoulders from where they reached up to Jarek who was lying on his front, reaching down. He gripped each lad's hand and with no apparent effort hoisted them over the top.

'What about Zeno?' Simon whispered.

'We'll pick him up on the way back,' Jarek replied, as Zeno appeared over the top, having followed Jarek's path. They dusted each other down to remove sticks, leaves and other detritus, put on whatever clothes they'd brought, and three hours and ten minutes after leaving the cabin presented themselves at the Forté's door. It was eleven-thirty.

Mr. Forté was tall, obviously strong, barrel-shaped in dark green shorts and shirt, standing firm on powerful, shapeless, slightly bandy, hairy brown legs. He extended a giant paw that looked as if it could crush rocks, stretched thin lips into a somewhat crooked but kindly smile, and shook everyone's hand. His lean and harassed-looking wife appeared from the house carrying a tray containing two large jugs and a dozen plastic tumblers. She also smiled warmly, welcomed everyone and told them to help themselves to fruit juice.

Lunch would be at twelve-thirty so they had an hour to climb the tower, take in the view, and learn as much as they could about the reclusive life of a ranger.

The lookout tower had been built eighty years before. Although in excellent condition it was no longer used by human observers. They'd been replaced by electronic gadgetry that could 'see' smoke and use GPS and satellite technology to not only automatically inform the fire fighters, but also estimate the severity of the fire. It was a stable structure, however what seemed merely high from the ground quickly became stomach-churningly lofty the higher they climbed. Steps narrowed and became steeper. A narrow slatted walkway surrounded the more slender, topmost tower on which the electronic sensors were positioned, and that was where all except Jarek, Melvin, Arthur, Sasha and Leon decided they'd climbed high enough.

At the very top the light breeze had become a wind, causing the structure to sway slightly. But the giddying view was worth it and the five brave climbers descended on a high to the silent admiration and slight jealousy of the rest. Arthur was careful not to brag and his stocks rose accordingly.

After prolific thanks for their welcome, information, and especially the lunch of cold pork, chicken, and salad, followed by pavlova and peaches with lashings of whipped cream, the intrepid band of woodsmen set off to follow a slightly different and longer route back to the cabin. They arrived exhausted, hungry and thirsty, having finished their biscuits and water well before they fell into the swimming hole to relax and wash off the dust and leaves and sweat. Preparing their evening meal would have to wait.

Later, leaning against the walls of the Recreation Room they recalled their day's adventure. Already it seemed more like a dream than reality. Everyone agreed that maintaining silence and having to use the maps and compasses themselves had been highlights. All felt proud, but quietly so. They knew they'd acquitted themselves well and had no need to show off.

In a cupboard of the kitchen Zeno had discovered a pack of cards and a box of board games; chess, ludo, scrabble, snakes and ladders. So while he was studying and writing assignments in his room, everyone else laughed and argued and tossed dice and had more fun than expected playing the social games that, thanks to TV and solo computer games have all but disappeared.

Jarek telephoned Stephen as usual to report on the day's events, and was delighted to confirm that everything was going even better than they had hoped.

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