I Think we are Staying the Night, Mate.

There is no greater sinking feeling than realising you are completely lost. And it’s a pretty heavy sinking when you have broken your own rules and not told anyone where you actually are. Lesson #1. The reason this was skipped this time is because I was hunting on a farm, and I wasn’t actually supplied with an address, just a hand-drawn map of how to get there. I should have insisted on a road name at least.

Pitch black in a forest of gorse and scrub, we knew we had to go down and slightly left. I have a terrible sense of direction usually, so I trusted my companion to guide me. He had a far better knowledge of the area having worked on the property for four years. Following game trails through the impenetrable scrub and gorse, we just took the ones that lead downwards. Occasionally there was a glimpse of distant hills, and I was sure the one in front of us was where we should have been heading, but we were surrounded by them and I convinced myself otherwise. I knew that I had come up a ridge after crossing a boggy little creek, and I should have stuck to my guns on this. Instead I doubted myself and remember feeling a bit surprised at where I was being directed. I’m not blaming my companion though – in the past I have been surprised to have been directed in the complete opposite way to where I thought we should go – and they were right! This made it very easy to doubt myself. To complicate things, I had my rifle in one hand and a pack absolutely jammed full of meat, I estimate it weighed around 45kg. My mate was laden with meat too.  I also had the only head torch. I only recently started carrying two and this happened to be my emergency spare. Sometimes I slid on loose soil, and with nothing but gorse to pull myself up on it was very hard to regain footing. My quads felt like they would tear under the strain.

Keeping roughly left, we found the little creek. Nearby was a fence, and my companion said: “See! Here’s the fence you crossed!” I had no recollection of crossing a fence at that point, also not unusual for me with my terrible memory. We began to follow it upward thinking we would break out onto farm land. Looking back, I realise he thought we were following the one around the edge of the scrub block. It was hard going, with gorse in our way and big holes in the ground. I had to keep stopping to shine light back for my mate, as I was very scared he would roll an ankle. We walked for around 15 minutes, and I stopped and asked: “why are we going up?” I had a strong feeling that we needed to be going downhill to get to the stream I had crossed in the bottom of the valley. He looked around. I realised there was a hill to our right that shouldn’t have been there, and started to feel dread. It seemed to dawn on him at the same time too, and he looked around frantically, trying to get his bearings, and said “I don’t remember coming this far.” I suggested we take a minute to rest, put our heavy loads down and think for a while. My voice didn’t betray the fear inside of me. We were thirsty, and finished the last of our water. The problem was that in the dark we couldn’t see any of our landmarks, such as the pine forest.

I regretted not marking the position of the vehicle on the GPS. I knew there was a road fairly nearby beyond the ridge that it was parked behind. When I said the name of the road he said “oh no that’s in the wrong direction, up behind us!”  and that had me really confused. In fact, it was actually the right road and he had been following his nose to the farm the past four years, never having read the sign! The worst thing is that when he looked at the map on the GPS he misread the unpaved roads as being fences, and the elevation readings as distances, so I stopped showing him the screen in order to get some clear thoughts. I saw the stream marked on the map with a hill behind it, and the road beyond that. I was convinced that was where we needed to go but he was suggesting we continue uphill in the opposite direction to farmland. I still doubted myself. The plan was made to offload, mark the position of the meat on the GPS and try first downhill, then up. We could come back for the meat the next day but we didn’t want to end up exhausted and potentially injured.

Taking only my emergency supplies and puffer jacket from the pack, we re-crossed the fence and tried to follow the creek down. In the dark it was impossible to see very far ahead, and we slipped over constantly, hitting dead end after dead end. I was so sure that this was where we needed to go, but we just couldn’t get there. My companion lacked fitness. As an older smoker he struggled, and needed frequent stops. He was also rushing, not waiting for me to shine light back, and it made me nervous as he didn’t have a head torch. Abandoning the downhill attempt, we tried following the fence upward. I could see he was beginning to panic, and as the slope turned vertical he insisted on scrambling up it without a headtorch. Adding a broken ankle to the mix, or worse, would have been a disaster.

“I think we are staying the night, mate.”

He stared at me a while, then hung his head in resignation. We were surrounded on both sides by what looked like impenetrable scrub that would have been exhausting to push through. We were tired, and thirsty. We couldn’t go up or down, and we couldn’t see any clear landmarks to be 100% sure of where we were. Dreams of a spa and a glass of wine slipped away as we took stock of the situation. It was a warm night. I had plenty of warm clothes,  an emergency blanket and a couple of muesli bars. We weren’t in any immediate danger. My flatmate would be worried when I didn’t show up, and had a fair idea of where I was, but there was no cell phone reception. Looking at pictures taken earlier in the day from our lookout we worked out where we were likely to be, but we were still stuck.

We settled on a dry dirt slope beneath a tree for what seemed to be the longest night in all eternity. He seemed to only have two layers of clothing, and I was worried that he was trying to be staunch. The foil blanket was actually pretty good, and make quite a difference despite making me feel like a rotisserie chicken and being very noisy. My ankles were very cold (wet) and I wrapped an item of clothing around them for comfort. By the wee hours of the morning I was wearing all of my spare clothes, and we spooned awkwardly under the foil blanket as the drizzly rain fell.

As soon as there was adequate daylight (5:15am) our location was confirmed and a nice grassy slope was visible just off to our left. We had been so close and if my primary headtorch had been working then perhaps we could have seen this and got out, although I had no regrets about the decision to stay put. After a bit of a slog through the valley and uphill, we felt incredibly relieved to see the vehicle!

Things I learned:

  • Stay calm. Rushing around aimlessly may feel useful but it wastes energy and risks injury. There is time. Take a rest.
  • Pay attention to distant landmarks in the daylight to have something to aim for to get a general sense of direction.
  • Following game trails is good if you need a clear path but they can lead you anywhere. It is very easy to go off the side of a ridge down a spur and feel like you are following the ridgeline.
  • You can get lost in farmland scrub. Get an address, tell someone exactly where you are heading, who you are with and when to raise the alarm.
  • Carry a PLB, even on farmland. If we had had to deal with an injury as well then we would have been in trouble
  • Always carry extra clothes and a foil blanket. They were at least a great comfort and possibly could have been a lifesaver. The spare down jacket that was compressed into a little package made a great pillow for half the night, and added a lot of warmth when the cold came up from the ground. I also had a thick soft shell jacket that was water resistant and windproof. The foil blanket was the star of the day, as it kept us from getting wet and conserved a lot of warmth. Always take one.
  • Take a spare headtorch. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just adequate. I was very relieved to have it after finding my primary had turned itself on during the day and eaten the batteries. My spare is a tiny LED on an adjustable headstrap. It is perfect to slip into an emergency kit and only cost me $20.
  • I wish I had marked the location of the vehicle on the GPS and taken a compass direction. It would have saved us going too far left and up the wrong gully.
  • My merino beanie and neoprene gloves made a big difference to my warmth, and the hood on my down jacket. You lose a lot of heat from your head so try to keep it covered. A little merino beanie takes up no room and will stay warm even when wet. I wished that I hadn’t left my balaclava in my pack with the meat, as it might have kept some of the mossies off my face and kept my nose warm.
  • Always take extra food. You can survive a long time without it but it lifts the spirits and lets you think a bit more clearly. I wish I had taken my tiny little cooker, an enamel mug and a small gas cylinder. A cup of tea or soup would have been very nice and taken very little effort had I been equipped.
  • Sleeping on the ground is hard, and cold. If you can put a bunch of fern leaves or something underneath you it will help stop the rising dampness from chilling you. We didn’t have the option as gorse probably wouldn’t have been a suitable material… but I longed for cushioning under the sides of my thighs, as the compressed muscles cramped violently.
  • Know the signs of hypothermia and if you are getting cold, get on top of it early. Don’t try to be staunch and say you are ok when you aren’t. Don’t discount the benefit of sharing body warmth. Even if snuggling together or platonic spooning is the most awkward thing ever, it is better than getting chilled and you never have to mention it again!
  • I want to say trust your gut, but that depends. I’ve been wrong a few times and it has shaken my confidence. Maybe I am more skilled now with added experience? Practice in controlled situations to get an idea of what your gut is telling you and use your judgement on that one!

All in all, it made for quite an adventure. No one was harmed and it was good to dust off the survival skills. More care is taken when I’m heading into the bush, but it was good to have a reminder that my routine should extend to all hunting.

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