Badger Hill – Chapter 1
The Middle of Nowhere
Thirty Ks on the first day was a mistake. She was more out of shape than she had thought.
The last kilometre to the campsite became an exhausting uphill slog. Bone weary and trailing Jay by a hundred metres, Hannah put her right foot on a small rock instead of stepping around it. As she brought her weight on to the boot, it slipped.
Just a small jolt, but she felt her knee give way and inhaled – a short gasp of agony. That never-to-be-forgotten sensation of your knee trying to bend the wrong way.
‘It will probably be fine in the morning,’ said Jay, dubiously, after giving the kneecap a vigorous rub which may have done more harm than good.
‘Probably,’ agreed Hannah, with a slight sinking feeling. It felt like the old cartilage trouble flaring up again, after what – fifteen years? Damn those years of netball!
It was early spring and they had seen few people that day. Only a dog walker and a pair of cheery middle-aged male hikers, walking the trail in the opposite direction. They had confirmed that the path was in good order and there was plentiful firewood and water at the campgrounds.
The four-day hike was to take in some of the densest bush of the Otway Ranges, including two ‘hike in, hike out’ camps. This was the first of them. A grassy clearing on a ridge; an amenities block with a long-drop composting toilet; a water tank for washing – and maybe drinking if you were feeling lucky. That was it.
Badger Hill campground was light on home comforts, but beautifully situated.
The ground before them fell away steeply into a V-shaped valley, at the bottom of which ran a small creek, invisible from the campsite and only detectable by the incessant calling of frogs.
There were no badgers, of course. Homesick English settlers in the 19th century had named it, in reference to the wombats which flourished in the area.
The opposite slope was less steep: rough grazing, parcelled by wire fences, rising to a wooded crest. There was a ruined weatherboard shack on a wide, grassy ledge just below the tree line.
A brick chimney, its fireplace agape, indicated where the rest of the farmstead had once stood. A steel water tank on tall, rickety legs was massively overgrown with creepers. It loomed ominously over the frail structure of the dwelling. Overgrown apple trees and a thicket of brambles and roses sketched the outline of an abandoned garden.
Down to the right, a couple of kilometres distant across the vale, stood a modern barn; nearby its dilapidated predecessor rusted slowly into the grass. Hannah scanned the paddocks and buildings through her binoculars but could see no signs of human life.
The map indicated that the modern farmhouse was located on the other side of the ridge, about six kilometres distant as the crow flies, but more than 20 by circuitous tracks and forestry trails. Perhaps a walker, travelling light, could save some time by cutting through the farmer’s paddocks, as far as electric fences and barbed wire might allow.
In the opposite direction, to the west, the main road to Athena Bay was a mere three kilometres distant. It might as well have been three hundred: the intervening country was deeply riven, impassable bush. They were truly in the middle of nowhere.
‘Hopefully you’ll be good to go in the morning, Babe,’ said Jay, ‘But Plan B is, I walk to the farm and get a lift to Athena Bay to pick up the RAV4.’
‘Who’s going to fetch my poor little car from Henderson? I don’t think I’ll be able to drive with this knee.’
‘We’ll work that out later.’
Through a bothersome car relay, they had left their vehicles at the beginning and end of the planned route. In this remote area, public transport was non-existent and taxi services pricey and capricious.
The trees which dotted the opposite hillside were browsed as high as an enterprising cow could reach: clearly the paddocks were grazed regularly. At this time, though, there were no cattle to be seen and the grass was knee-high and lush.
Hannah sat on a log which some thoughtful Parks volunteer with a chainsaw and time on their hands had carved into a seat. Jay bustled with the tent and the campfire. He reluctantly allowed her to cook dinner, after she pointed out that boiling a kettle for instant noodles, and chopping a few supplementary veg, wasn’t going to require much legwork.
‘Just take it easy, though, Babe …’
She’d never had the heart to tell him that his pet name for her really got on her nerves.
The bright, warm day faded into an early dusk.
As the sun sank into the forest behind them, the wooded ridge opposite was illuminated by its last ruddy rays. A big mob of kangaroos left the trees, singly then in twos and threes, and came down to graze the lush grass of the valley bottom, clearing wire fences effortlessly with a bound.
Jay and Hannah sat and watched, shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh.
‘Do you think …?’ he murmured at length, caressing her ear with his lips.
‘No way, Buster.’
‘You couldn’t just …?’
Hannah was woken in the middle of the night by the irritable throbbing of her knee and the pressure of her bladder. She wormed her way laboriously from her sleeping bag and squeezed out of the low tent, while Jay muttered in his sleep and turned over.
Orion blazed from a cold, clear sky and the vale was full of mist, save only the tops of the tallest trees along the creek. From the woods to the right a barn owl hooted at regular intervals.
Hannah hobbled off to the long-drop, leaving the door of the wooden shack wide open as she took a seat. A loo with a view, indeed …
As she was picking her way gingerly back to the tent, the sudden loom of a vehicle’s headlights backlit the trees on the opposite ridge. Occasionally the full beam struck out between trunks. It traversed the ridge slowly and unsteadily from left to right then disappeared. A faint rumble floated across the vale.
Minutes later the side of the barn below was briefly illuminated, presumably by the same headlights. Hannah watched and listened but heard and saw nothing more. Shivering from the cold, she laboured her way back into her cosy sleeping bag, waking Jay in the process.
Just one sore knee made life surprisingly hard work. She felt helpless, so it was good to know they weren’t entirely cut off from humanity.
Next week on Badger Hill:
Chapter 2: Plan B
Jay sets out on the long walk to fetch help from the farmhouse. Hannah is left alone, waiting at the campground …