The track is not much of one, rarely used and barely a metre wide through scrub that’s patchy anyway. Wooden markers every fifty metres with a small cartoon figure of a man leaning on a hiking stick assure me I’m still on some kind of path. Small plaques appear occasionally that mark where things used to be, but it’s been so long and so many people have been through here that not even ruins are left. The ground is covered in quarts, chunks of it in all shapes and sizes, some as big as my daughter.
It’s at the top of the first hill as the track curves around the dirt road that I spot a pile of four of the wooden walking man with hiking stick markers, deliberately vandalized and piled on top of one another. It has the desired effect– I’m immediately confused and disconcerted, despite feeling so very sure of myself just minutes ago. Does the track follow the road further, or is it one of two that curve back through the bush land? I choose the bush for the same reason the trendy couple at the campsite annoy me- I want to feel alone.
I reassure myself on the innate sense on direction I’m sure I still possess, the one that had me flying through scrubland as a child and never once losing my bearings, and I can hear the gurgling splash of the river to my left anyway. Road to my right, water to my left, keep it that way and I’ll be fine– I haven’t gone that far and I can always follow the river back to my car and what the hell is that?
It turns out to be mine shaft, further up from the one I video blogged in and it’s sealed off with a grate. I spend so long on my hands and knees, camera pressed against the slotted steel, that I lose my sense of time and place and when I stand up some kind of primal panic kicks in, adrenaline shooting from my cortex in a way I know all too well. Something in my brain that shrieks “Danger!Danger!!” all too often, even when there’s nothing to be afraid of at all.
Call this as ridiculous as you choose to, but when you spend most of your childhood wearing sandals and shorts and running unafraid through the dense bushland that bordered your backyard– or maybe even when you don’t– you develop a sense for a particular kind of threat… snakes. It’s very much a sinister sense of being watched, and it seems to be located– if senses are located anywhere– low at the back of your head, the base of your skull. Where eyes would sit, if you had two pairs to protect your vulnerable human self from predators.
I have a pathological fear of reptiles without legs… I fucking hate snakes. I’ll tell you about it one day.
Irrational or not, I can’t tell if this is a real threat my subconscious has somehow detected that I have missed, or just that damned PTSD. I’m not sure it matters. The path I was was following stops at the grated tunnel, but I venture slightly further to sit on warm rock ledge and admire the view, to allow my soul to stretch again.
I won’t bore you with the details of being unable to find the grated tunnel, and therefore the path, once I finished my solace with the sunshine. I think it’s suffice to say I am, deep in the part of me that’s nice to myself (where a five year old sleeps with arm around a doll and her fingertips in her mouth), quite proud of the way I bottled my panic.
Maybe I’ve just learnt the hard way. It doesn’t matter how lost you are, the one person who will save you is you.
I can still see the water and I know I’m not far from my car. I find the section of the mountainside that seems to have the lowest gradient, though it’s still craggy with uneven bush rock, and pick my way down, shifting my weight in my boots to accommodate the instability and securing my hands only on after I’ve checked that what I’m about to grip is stable.
I slip, of course, a thirty year old women trying to pretend she’s twelve again; and slide down the remainder of the hill on my bum, tearing my jeans and taking the skin off my hands.
As some bizarre reward for reaching the bottom of the slope, I find myself that small mine shaft, accessible to the public; and near the water I spot a native plant I’m sure I recognize from my informal text books and pick a bag full of it to take home. (It pays off– the horehound I harvest is boiled down with sugar and peppermint oil into a cough syrup that I’m yet to test– more on that and other Australian apothecary soon.)
I wander back along the creek side until I reach the camping ground where my car is parked. Trendy–couple–on–a–date have left. The guy with the shaggy beard and tiny car has his campfire blistering and his site set up, a billy suspended on sticks boiling water for what I presume will be his tea. The family is still milling around, doing what happy families do. One of the daughters, about nine years old with a big gap in her teeth and is swathed in layers of clothes, what appears to be her mum’s poncho over the top, is shivering violently. She grins at me with chattering teeth and I smile back and wink at her as I pass.
On the drive back up the valley I stop at what remains of Ophir cemetery. There isn’t much– a few headstones scattered in a small clearing. Like most cemeteries, this one lies on high ground, at the peak of a hill overlooking what would have been the town. The headstones that remain face East so the sun rises on them. I have no doubt that somewhere here are graves here who’s fe
et point West instead, those of paupers and unmarried mothers, children not baptized and mortal sinners such as suicides.
“What a sad little place” I find myself saying out loud, and I’m almost hesitant to leave, it seems so lonely for those buried here. You would this was a a burial place, I think, feel it was consecrated ground, even if you happened to stumble upon it, without no brown tourist signs and moldy information boards to guide you. It feels like silence and sadness and tears… it feels like hard lives and cold winters and the endless grief of a mother weeping for her children.
But leaving there, I leave that feeling there too, swirling it’s sadness across dry fields and through gum leaves dry and tinder. Driving home, I’m relaxed and contented and I have managed to grasp, for the time being at lest, that elusive feeling of ‘better‘. It’s a selfish pursuit, time to myself and time to explore, freedom to do as I like– how many mothers get that? It makes me feel irresponsible and reckless and somewhat ashamed. Bad parenting at it’s subtlest.
But if I didn’t do it, my head would explode. And the end is worth the means, well and truly- it works. I miss my kids. I’m not gritting my teeth at the sound of their voices, my diaphragm muscles are no longer clenched in a fist of screeching anxiety.
As I’ve said, over and over– if that’s what it takes, so be it.
I’m halfway through writing this post when my mum phones, to tell me why it was the the name of the town ‘Ophir’ had been skirting the edges of her mind since I mentioned it a few days ago, like a song stuck in her head.
If it feels as though I’ve been there before, maybe it’s because I have.
My ancestors on my grandmother’s side have always been bakers by trade, by brother included. I knew they came from somewhere in Western New South Wales– which is almos like saying they came from somewhere in Tasmania. It could mean just about anywhere.
And of all those anywhere’s it could have been, it turned out to be Ophir, working the Templer’s Mill in the mid 1850′s; paid in flour, sugar and yeast. A hundred and fifty years ago. And it seems, for all accounts and purposes, I drove straight past where it would have been.
It’s funny how life works, sometimes… the way karma appears to be laughing at me never ceases to leave me slightly unsettled.