"Australia 1999" story # 28


Border Ranges, New South Wales
May 22, 1999

We'd heard all the stories. Nearly all of us were dreading it. We were going to enter the rainforest. We were going to get soaked by the rain. We were probably going to slip and fall in the mud. But, worst of all almost beyond belief, we were going to get sucked on by slimy, creeping leeches.
     By the time the second half of my Outdoor Ed. class - which included my camping group, reunited, of Jeremy, Matt, Kristi, Sarah, and Tamara - was heading for its trip, we'd heard all about leeches-all-over-the-feet, leeches-behind-the-ears, and leeches-inside-the-underwear. We were scared.
     "We've got leeches, we never used to," sang Jess on the bus, shooting horror into all of us. Judging by his complaining, I think Jeremy was the most scared.
     We arrived at the entrance to the Border Ranges, a lush forest near Lismore. The sky was gray. The ground was a slate-colored mix of stone and mud. In between, all was green.
     We'd come prepared. I'd borrowed a yellow rain-coat. Two Pennsyls, Kate and Beth, wore camouflaged, matching army jackets. Jess looked cute in her clear pancho. George looked like the king he was with a tail to his blue coat. Meanwhile, Jeremy had pulled white, red-striped socks to his knees in an effort at leech defense.
     Our class's fearless leader, Tony, led a short walk to Protestor's Falls, a 120-foot drop. I was reminded of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" by the towering trees. The large waterfall fell into only a tiny, rock-enclosed pool. Heavy mist exploded from the tight meeting, drenching me when I ventured near.
     Walking back, Canadian Matt and I talked hitching. He was thinking of hitchhiking in Tasmania for winter and sleeping in churches. I said I might go to Sydney and the Whitsundays in said manner. It was a great way to go, we agreed, but we joked Matt might freeze to death in Tasmania. We envisioned the headline: "Stupid Canadian Found Dead in Snowbank on Side of the Road." Boy, what a great way to travel.
     At the park's entrance once more, we got ready to hike. George inserted a two-foot french bread horizontally onto his backpack, which resembled a sword in completing his royal outfit. I checked my paltry food supplies; due to the last camping trip, I'd abandoned hope of eating well. For three days, I carried a bag of Redbox cereal (Australia's best - a.k.a. "All For One") and a bag of nuts.
     "Fifty-five hours to go," I sighed, beginning a countdown to the Pizza Hut buffet that would certainly follow.
     Surprise, surprise ... my group began squabbling before we even headed off. I splashed puddle-water on Jeremy, who disowned me from the group.
     Over-hearer Beth came to my defense. "You should disown him and those horrible socks."
     "What? You don't like my socks?" Jeremy checked himself out in disbelief.
     Tony straightened us out. He sent our bickering group on its way, giving directions. "You can't miss the road," he said.
     "Can't miss the road?" I said to Matt. "Didn't he say that last time and our group missed it?"
     Kristi checked her feet for leeches and put salt in her socks.
     I scoffed at her feeble efforts. "I don't think you know what masterminds you're dealing with." Jeremy chuckled.
     We walked. We proceeded to miss the first turn, just as Tony had said we couldn't.
     "Do you think that's the road?" Kristi would say.
     "That's not the road!!! The grass is three feet tall there!" Matt would reply.
     Eventually, we got back on track. The road led past tall grass amidst an opening in the forest.
     With each step taken, we risked being accosted by ugly, dark leeches. They attached to our shoes, climbed our heels, and entered our socks. Every ten minutes, Matt cleared his feet as well as he could. Jeremy didn't mind the leeches as much as he'd thought he would. My theory was, "What you don't know, can't hurt you," and I ignored my feet. The leeches would have blood from us all, regardless, and, besides, they weren't really painful.
     Kristi, on the other hand, stopped every minute - sometimes every step - to do a thorough leech check. As our path became hilly and submerged in monstrous plants, the guys began distancing themselves from the girls. Matt, the speedster, was especially annoyed by the slowness. The rain which plunged every half-hour didn't help things.
     It was tough going. The forest was pretty, we all thought. I even liked the frequent showers. But, for me, the all-day walking was too much.
     We walked and walked, though the guys spent much of the time waiting. We walked until late day when we ran into a group that included the Finn, Jere.
     After a few moments of scratching our heads and figuring out which side of the map went up, the two groups realized we'd made a wrong turn some time ago.
     Frustrated, an Australian in Jere's group complained, "Am I the only one who listens to Tony?"
     Of course, none of us had listened to Tony.
     "So, what did he say, then?" said Jeremy.
     The Aussie stared dumb-founded. He couldn't answer. Score one for Jeremy.
     We backtracked, and Jere pointed out to me the poisonous red-bellied black snake his group had spotted. The black snake was curled up behind a flower-shaped fern. It was awesome, with its red underside. Jere taunted me for the "I'm gonna be the next Crocodile Hunter" boasting I'd done all semester. I considered touching the first Autralian snake I'd seen, but hospital treatment and anti-venom were a long ways away.
     Jere and I shared another laugh when we realized the two of us participated equally in our group discussions by making no decisions and just looking into space. Our goal was to remain as passive as possible.
     Our guardian angel, Tony, appeared to get us to the correct trail. We set up camp, peeled off our wet, blood-stained socks, and checked all body parts for leeches.
     Though we vehemently protested, the guys got stuck sharing a tent. Jeremy and I talked late about trips to tropical snorkelling spots and not missing home. Matt claimed to be staying up all night with us, but he kept disappearing from the conversation.
     Jeremy got agitated and shined his light right in sleep-eyed Matt's face. "I just want you to admit you're going to sleep, so we'll all know how pathetic you are!"
     Eventually, even Jeremy tired. As we tried to sleep, Jeremy kept complaining that Matt was hogging the tent, and I just kept huddling closer and closer to the wall. Finally, Jeremy turned on the flashlight. I was against the wall like a slug, Jeremy was practically on top of me, and Matt had two-thirds of the space.
     Matt pointed to a small puddle in the corner. "Look! What was I supposed to do? There's a whole RIVER in the tent!" the tyrant said.
     The Bush-Walking Nazi was back.

"Thirty-three hours!" I welcomed another Pizza Hut-less day.
     Early sun made the rainforest look nicer, but it soon poured harder than ever. Kristi wanted to go home, and Jeremy dropped not-so-subtle hints to Tony that he could let us go home early.
     Jere's group became lost once again (as incompetent as our class was, they might just have taken the same wrong route as the day before). Due to the inefficient rain gear, their sleeping bags and tents became soaked. They were miserable.
     Our group stopped for lunch: once again, those miserable Oats. I told Jeremy he was a hypocrite for eating the Oats he'd so chastised on our last trip. He had no defense; there could be none.
     Tony passed by and visited. Looking at me, he suddenly became very serious. He put a grubby thumb to my face.
     "Don't move," he said. "There's a leech in your eye."
     Kristi was repulsed. I grabbed the parasite and pulled its persistent sucker off my eyeball.
     Kristi said, "Don't you find that disgusting?"
     "That you're eating Oats? Yes, very."
     We continued our walk. The guys led. At one muddy hill, Jeremy knew a fall was likely, so we stopped to watch the girls. Sarah fell, and Jeremy and I struggled to hold in our laughter, letting out little snorts.
     We chuckled loudly a few times, and Jeremy said, "I wish it was Kristi."
     The track led down some very steep, muddy spots, and it got small at times. By mid-afternoon, we caught the other groups of our class.
     From what I then observed, Kai was the only person enjoying the trip. Man, he was a trooper - his hip strap and a shoulder strap were broken, and his large load was incredible.
     We proceeded together as a large group. Iowan Talya played a hillarious game where she kept pestering Jeremy with stupid-choice questions.
     "Hey, Jeremy, would you rather eat a piece of (poop) or (perform favors on another man)?"
     She asked Jess a similar question. Jess addressed it with the seriousness a president would address a war declaration. "Well, it depends how much poop you're talking about," she said, "because if it's just a little terd ..."
     It was definitely something to think about.
     "Hey, Jeremy," I said, "would you rather walk ten kilometers through the rainforest or ride a broken bike twenty kilometers with no pants?"
     Our big group got lost yet another time. Instructors Tony and Rob said the conditions were so bad, led by Jere's group's misery, that we could go home a day early.
     Though it meant we'd failed to camp sufficiently, everyone cheered.
     My Pizza Hut countdown became twenty-four hours shorter. "Three-and-a-half hours!" I poured myself a bowl of cereal as we resumed walking. Kai made fun of me for eating as I hiked.
     Kai and some of the others remarked that the trip wasn't as bad as everyone made it out to be.
     I even got an exciting surprise just as we were set to exit the forest. Near a fallen tree, Rob caught a carpet python. It was brown-and-green checkered. He let us hold it and have our pictures taken. My pose with the three-foot snake contained a big smile.
     The forest soon opened up into a carpark. When I noticed the damage the snake-like leeches had done, my smile faded. By ignoring their assault, I'd collected a sock full of blood, a shoe inhabited by overfed leeches, and a red-spotted eye. I was gross. My fellow ice creamatarian, Talya, had also been hit hard. Together, we'd proved the theory of leeches liking people with sweet diets.
     Speaking of diets, on the bus home, an Australian named Scott said he owned the Pizza Hut record. He'd once aten twenty-nine pieces of pizza, three plates of salad, four dessert plates, three plates of pasta, and two jugs of Pepsi. We were impressed.
     I commented that I once ate more than I could lift.
     Once the countdown to my first slice of pizza ended, I began the countdown to my 29th slice. I managed to get within thirteen slices, but stopped there, stuffed. 16 was my new record.
     Afterwards, we sat around, comparing leech horror stories. Contrary to what some of us may have originally expected, we survived. We'd suffered our losses, though, as the stories told proof.
     We'd all lost except for Kristi, that is. Amazingly, she hadn't lost blood to a single leech. Her recipe for success? Equal parts of fear, disgust, and screaming, with a little bit of salt.

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