I am enjoying an all too rare solo bushwalk. It’s a trail that’s becoming my favourite, not only for it’s natural beauty but also it’s convenience – a slice of heaven nestled in Sydney’s northern suburbs. During those moments where a plane’s not flying overhead or there are no echoes of an especially feisty picnic, I imagine that I’m all alone. Just me, the birds and unseen critters scurrying through the undergrowth. But, inevitably, I hear a plane or a picnic or pass other bushwalkers and the spell is broken. I reflect on my attraction towards solitariness and a memory drifts into focus. I am fifteen and working with my Dad in Canada’s vast North West Territories. Although we are there to dig and prod the earth in search of ancient artifacts, I am fascinated with the ruins of an old cabin, possibly less than a hundred years old. It is literally in the middle of nowhere – nothing but trees and water for miles and miles. We are there in summer and, apart from the never receding sunshine and mosquitoes the size of birds, it’s a stunning location. But in winter, when the sun has well and truly retired, the snow is piled high and the temperature’s never above minus twenty, it’d be one hell of a place to live. But, once upon a time, someone did. Probably a trapper. Just him and a magnificent but unyielding wilderness. I am envious. I imagine what it must be like to survive in such a place with no one but yourself to get you through. What happened to this recluse? Did he go mad in the end? Did he freeze? Starve? Who knows. The bits of broken plates and rusted pots don’t reveal much – even to my archeologist father (who’s not much interested in anything less than a thousand years old). And although I’ve always lived in cities, there still remains that urge to one day go bush and fend for myself. If anything, it’s growing stronger as the years slip away. But who knows if I’ll ever get the chance. In the meantime, going on solo bushwalks might be the only way to indulge my inner hermit.
I am tossing a Frisbee with my mate Jezza like we do most Saturdays. We are in a fairly enclosed area of Centennial Park. Although we aren’t in the main dog walking thorough-fair, dogs and their owners drift past. We suddenly notice four big black dogs having a bit of a romp. In fact, they’re having more than a romp – they look like they’re pretty keen on making more black dogs. We have a bit of a laugh at this, assuming they’re all part of the same pack. So it surprises us slightly when they eventually split off into two pairs. A little later, we see what we assume is one of the pairs coming back towards us. But it turns out to be a completely different pair. Ok – that’s a bit weird. We keep tossing and here comes another black dog, indistinguishable from the others except for having a different owner. “Looks like it’s Black Dog Day” I shout to the dog walker. “Yes, we’ve just past several.” It’s only when yet another pair of big black dogs gallop past that it starts to get freaky. “Bloody hell – that’s seven in a row now!” Finally, a German Shepherd and a brown Beagle break the spell. It’s a few weeks later and Jezza and I are tossing in an open area of Queen’s Park. This time I’ve brought Nitro the Two Toned Cavoodle, who’s having a great time. After a while, Jezza points off into the distance. I look and see a pack of about five little white dogs. I laugh. He then tells me to turn around. I do and see a tall white dog next to a short one. But Jezza’s not done, pointing in the other direction. There’s another pack of about six white dogs, one of which is a poodle whose white afro matches that of its old lady’s. I decide to do a quick head count and of about twenty dogs I can see, Nitro is one of about four that isn’t white. Very bizarre. But given it was Black Dog Day a few weeks earlier, I guess the universe decided to square the balance with a White Dog Day. No doubt Brown Dog Day is just around the corner.
There’s a scene in the film Jasper Jones where the thirteen – year old main character (who happens to be named Charlie) is punished by his mother, magnificently portrayed by Toni Collette. Because he had snuck out the night before, his disappearance causing a big fuss, she has him dig a huge hole and then fill it back in. Although I had read the book, something about actually seeing young Charlie toil in the blazing WA heat triggers a memory from when I lived in Perth. I was older than Charlie, probably about seventeen. I too had snuck out at night and would have managed to have snuck back in unnoticed except for one thing: I can’t vomit quietly. The entire household would have been aware that I was spewing my guts out in the wee hours, thanks to an overindulgence in substances prohibited to seventeen-year olds. But no one got up to scold me, so I crawled into bed thinking I had dodged a bullet. Not so. The next morning, the sun already well on its way towards a scorcher, my old man walks into my room. “Get up and get outside. Now!” Disorientated, nauseous and my head pounding, I stagger out into the blinding light. My dad gestures towards our unkempt garden. “You pull every weed in the backyard. Then you do to the side and then to the front. When you reckon you’re done, have another look. Because if I see a single weed anywhere at all, your ass is grass.” Unable to utter a word of protest, I get on my hands and knees and start weeding. The sun climbs higher and my spirits sink lower. My head feels like its full of a million monkeys, each armed with a tiny hammer. My hands blister within minutes and sting for hours. My back aches, begging to be horizontal and asleep. But I persist, my skin sizzling as the temperature soars. Finally, I finish. I stagger back in and collapse onto my bed, hoping my ass won’t end up as grass. But looking back, I now rank that hellish morning as the most effective punishment my Dad ever dished out. Productive too – unlike digging a hole just to fill it back in.