Bukit Lawang, Northern Sumatra, Indonesia, 09 April, 2003
Cath was on her own at the edge of the forest. “You could’ve waited for me,” she muttered.
The village of Bukit Lawang lay behind her in sunshine. Village life went on: Indonesian women and their children washed in the river. Men rode motorbikes. Everything was normal, the way it should be.
The others had gone into the jungle as if it was a walk in the park, chatting and making jokes. She could just hear the Indonesian guide, Eddy, describe the rainforest in his imprecise English. She stood and looked up at the edge of the forest canopy. It was dark and complex.
No one had noticed she’d gone back to fetch her water. Dad would if he was here. Everyone was in the forest and she was left behind.
Now she was in Sumatra, she wasn’t so sure it was a good idea. She’d just wanted to get away. Get away from Bali and its happy clappy atmosphere. Get away from the crowds she’d hung out with who had started to disgust her. She hadn’t realised at first. It was only after punching the gangster and being told it was cool that she’d thought about it. She wasn’t a violent person. What had happened? Drugs. Eight weeks solid of getting fucked up. So she’d left Bali and its hedonism for the jungle. Somewhere she could get lost, away from the pretentious idiots trying to ‘find themselves’ by going on to south east Asia.
She had patches in her memory, days, even whole weeks that she couldn’t remember. The darkness terrified her. She wasn’t even sure how long she’d been out here. Was it eight weeks? Maybe it had only been a week. She hadn’t kepit a diary. Maybe she could check her plane tickets later and see what they said. What if she’d made an idiot of herself with someone?
Now on the edge of this dark forest, she found it over-whelming. The jungle stretched up the mountainside, towering over her. The trees at the edge quickly faded into a heart of darkness.
But despite her memory loss, she knew being here was surely better than being in Perth. Uni could wait. And her Mum, too. The worst thing was that Dad wouldn’t be happy with her. But maybe after the trek there’d be time. Later.
Cath swallowed and stepped into the gloom. It took her eyes a few seconds to adjust. Around her trees fought for space and light. Vines hung like waiting snakes. It was alien, confusing. Worn paths radiated from her and the sound of Westerners talking drifted from every side.
Which way now?
She chose a path at random. The voices seemed to come from all sides, but as she walked along this path they became quieter.
“For fuck’s sake. Which way do I go?”
She turned and walked back and scanned the confusion. Branches thrust across her path. A butterfly flapped. Where was everyone? She was five steps into the forest and she was already separated from the group.
“Hello?” She called and the sound was lost in the hot, humid air. Her throat tightened, and she gritted her teeth. She would not cry today, not again.
On a nearby path she saw a rain jacket she recognised from one of the trekkers. She looked along the path it lay on, back at the jacket and back along the path. Then she looked back towards where the village lay outside the trees. Maybe she could just go back? It wasn’t as if she was far in or committed. The daylight outside the forest was bright and hid everything in its glare. It was too intense to look at. She turned back to the gloom and walked to the rain jacket. In its collar was a name tag: Michelle Brunswick. Cath recognised the name from the fat, ginger girl on the trek who stayed at the same hostel. “I’ll just give it her back and leave,” she thought. “Can’t be bothered with this.”
She followed the path up a hill.
There was no talking now. Bird sounds decorated the air. Somewhere a distant animal call made the hairs on her neck rise. Just metres into the jungle and all signs of civilisation, of predictability, had gone.
Contours on the trees around her resembled faces. She looked at the floor so she couldn’t see them.
Why hadn’t anyone noticed she’d gone? She worried the jacket in her hand, crumpling it.
As she crested the hill the silence was cut by an American voice, “OH MY GOD! ORANG UTAN!”
There they were. The five backpackers were in a bowl of land, hands pointing up to the forest canopy. The tightness in her throat melted. Cath followed their pointing fingers upward and saw something blocking the light, but it was indistinct, fuzzy. She squinted from the small ridge, but the sky was silhouetting the shape.
Surely they couldn’t have found an orang utan already?
She continued walking along the path, unnoticed by the others. They were huddled around Eddy. As she drew closer she heard him telling a story about an orang utan that had attacked him. He turned his ankle out to show some scars.
That couldn’t be true, could it? Orang utans were peaceful. Cath watched National Geographic with her Dad. They were vegetarians, solitary animals.
“So no feed orang utan, OK? Get frustrated,” Eddy said, “expect same thing all time. Not used to change.”
Cath stood at the back of the group. Everyone’s attention was in the forest canopy. She could see it now, the orang utan. Its red hair and bulky body were lit from behind by sunlight so that there was a glow around its edge. It pulled some fruit to its mouth and ate slowly, looking down at the backpackers.
“Does he have a name?” asked one of the backpackers. She had a Welsh accent.
“He call Marlon,” said Eddy. “Come here when two years old. Was kept as pet in a cage in skyscraper.”
Cath shifted around the group so she could get a better view of Eddy’s face. The huddle the backpackers had formed was as impenetrable as the forest edge. She continued twisting the jacket in her hands, unconsciously, and walked back a few steps. Maybe it was better this way? Return the jacket, nip back to the hostel. She wasn’t exactly great company at the moment. Funny, it was only a few weeks ago that she was out in the bars of Perth and worrying about her Honours project, wondering what to do afterwards.
She smoothed folds and wrinkles from the rain jacket in her hands.
The group moved away. The American, a surfer by the look of it, picked up his small backpack, slung it over his shoulder and walked after Eddy. He talked loudly, asking questions about the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in the village. The others adjusted bags or re-tied jackets around their waists.
The girl that Cath recognised from her hostel, Michelle, put her hands to her waist, then looked at the ground at her feet, obviously confused.
“Here,” Cath held out the jacket.
Michelle looked around for the voice.
“Behind you,” Cath said. She took a step forward.
“I found it back there.”
“Oh, thanks so much.” Michelle took the jacket and tied it around her waist. “We’d better catch up.” She walked away. Cath watched Michelle for a few seconds, and noticed she was wearing a butterfly t-shirt which matched the clip on Cath’s head. Large sweat patches were already forming and obscuring the pattern.
Cath couldn’t see how this girl was going to survive the trek, carrying all that weight. Jungles were rugged and hot and tiring. “She’ll quit, for sure,” she thought.
Michelle walked away up the hill.
Now which way was out?
Michelle turned around. “You OK?” she called.
“Just, ah.” Too late, there was no escape. “Yeah. Coming.”
She followed Michelle and caught up with the group. Eddy was describing some of the plants around them while they followed the trail. He broke some and spices wafted the air. Earlier, in his enthusiasm, he’d marched from the hostel before anyone had introduced themselves. The others seemed to have filled in and got to know each other. Cath hung at the back, out of the conversations.
They moved on. Eddy’s red baseball cap and white vest-top bobbed under vines and through bushes and down slopes.
“It’s almost like we’re tracking him,” said a British guy, who looked like he was with the Welsh girl. They moved too fast along the narrow trail for Cath to move within the single file of trekkers who were making small talk, each with the person in front of them. She listened instead to the forest sounds, to the chirps and rills and sibilant buzzes which pulsed in the background like one of her Dad’s prog rock records.
The group spent the next two hours hiking through the forest. Eddy pointed out different animals: macaques; “punky monkeys”; giant insects hunkered under leaves, just starting their metamorphosis. They saw a male orang utan pursue a female without success. (For “bum-bum” as Eddy put it.) Cath stayed at the back of the group. She listened to Eddy and watched his eyes. The facts he came out with were the same as the ones in the documentaries she watched. Dad should be here. Mum hated creepy crawlies and wild animals. Dad was fascinated, like her.
The day warmed and the mercury tipped over thirty degrees celsius on its own hike to higher ground.
Michelle dropped back and walked next to Cath. “Thanks for picking up my jacket earlier.”
“You’re pretty quiet, hey?”
“I like your hair clip. I love butterflies.”
Cath touched her hair, “Yeah, it was a gift.”
“How come you’re in Sumatra?” Michelle asked.
“Just had to get away. You know.”
“Uh, yeah. I split up with my boyfriend,” Michelle looked at Cath, “Ran away. Wanted to prove something. Think I’ve proved I’m not as fit as I should be!” She laughed, a short bark which sounded like self-judgement and patted her stomach. “Boy issues for you, too?”
Cath shrugged and walked alongside her. “Not really. Who are the others? I kinda missed the introductions.”
“The loud one’s called Brett. American.”
“Yeah, they’re always loud, hey? Why is that?”
“Then there’s a British couple. She’s nice, called Vanessa. Haven’t talked to him. Think he’s called Steve. They bicker a bit, hey? Think they’re bored of each other.”
“And what about the big walking carpet?”
“The one with the beard?”
“Yeah, looks like a Wookie.”
“He’s called Dan, I think. Can’t quite get the pronunciation. I reckon he’s German or something.”
The gloom deepened as a cloud passed over the sun. The forest became still for a second, expectant. The cloud passed and the chirps and rills and hoots started again. Cath looked up. Dark shapes ran ahead of them through the branches and passed from their vision.
“What happened with your boyfriend?” Cath asked.
“He wanted to settle down. I wanted to go to Uni and study conservation.”
“South east Asia has like seventeen thousand different kinds of butterfly. Isn’t that amazing? I want to work with them.”
In front of them the others had stopped and sat down on fallen trees.
“Lunchtime!” announced Eddy. He pulled banana leaf packages from his pack, which contained nasi goreng. Cath took a seat near Michelle and ate in silence, staring at her food. While she ate Eddy took out a pineapple and chopped it into slices for them.
“Didn’t catch your name, sorry,” said Brett when he’d finished his food.
Cath looked up and saw him looking at her.
“Cath,” her voice sounded dead in her ears.
“You Kiwi, too?”
“Aussie. We’re easily confused, I know.”
“I know the difference,” said Steve. The others looked at him. “Both of you shag sheep, but only the Kiwi will tell you which one is better looking.” He smiled at his joke.
Cath looked at Michelle, who rolled her eyes.
“Don’t start on the sheep thing again, Steve,” said Vanessa.
“Sorry.” He turned to Cath, “The Welsh get a bit touchy about people fancying their sheep.” He smiled at her. Vanessa elbowed him in the ribs. Steve smirked into his pineapple.
Vanessa looked around and when no one spoke, said, “Me and Steve are on a round the world trip. We’ve just come from islands around Pulau Nias off the coast. Has anyone been?”
Blank looks and shaking heads meet her question. “Well, they are the most beautiful islands. Almost no one there and cheap as chips. You could stay a year and barely spend a hundred quid. Me and Steve said if we ever got married we’d go back on honeymoon.”
Vanessa beamed at Steve, who looked uncomfortable.
“I’m here for the surfing,” said Brett. “Up north in Banda Aceh there’s islands with amazing surf. I’m thinking of living there awhile”
“Steve,” Vanessa started to say, when a large ape dropped from a tree in the middle of the group and bared its sharp canine teeth at Michelle, who started backwards from her perch.
“Baboon!” called Eddy. “Don’t worry. No touching. It just want some fruit.” He threw a pineapple rind into a bush. The baboon strutted away, pure muscle wrapped in fur, and started picking clean the rind.
“Damn that was freaky.” Michelle gripped the tree trunk she sat on.
“They have big teeth,” said Steve, throwing his rind over.
“Sure do,” agreed Brett. “Who’d you reckon would win in a fight? Baboon or orang utan?”
“Baboon,” said Steve immediately. “Those teeth are nasty.”
Cath looked at them. Normally she’d have been first with an answer. Something funny, surreal, cheeky. But there was nothing there. Maybe it was tiredness from the trek, stealing her words, her bonhomie.
“OK, time to go, everyone ready?” Eddy picked up their litter, put it in a bag and hung it on a tree. “Other guides come on day trek, pick up later,” he said. Cath squinted at him. Was he littering and trying to get away with it? But there were no other bags around and the forest was clear of rubbish. Pretty much everywhere she’d been so far was cloaked in litter. She stiill felt too distant to say anything or ask a question.
Eddy clapped his hands. “This afternoon we get tired, yes?” He looked around, eyes gleaming.
“What do you mean?” asked Michelle cautiously. Cath looked sidelong at her.
“Morning easy. Small hills. Now we climb up to ridge, monkey-style!” He whooped, a deep hoo-hoo sound and within seconds the forest answered, calls echoing across the valley. “This way!” He flashed into the undergrowth, red into green.
They jogged to catch up with him. Michelle kept pace with Cath, “What did he mean? You don’t think it’s gonna get harder, do you?”
“Well, how hard? I mean, I’m not exactly as fit as you guys.”
“He said we had to climb.”
“Climb? Like mountain climbing? It can’t be.”
Cath just looked at her and shrugged. At least she’d finally had a conversation with someone and come out of her shell. Maybe the trek would be enjoyable after all.
The Wookie was called Daan, and was Dutch. Michelle talked to him as they slogged along the paths and up the switchbacks. Cath eavesdropped and kept close to Michelle. Daan had a pretty good eye for spotting wildlife. He’d already stopped Eddy twice to ask about a snake and what he thought was an owl.
He stopped on the track again and whispered, “Eddy, is it monkeys?” and pointed through a gap in the trees. Their leaves formed a natural stage curtain, through which the valley dropped away. Cath saw blue sky level with her eyes, across which white clouds floated like schooners or corvettes in some distant sea. A hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty metres away, small animals swung through the branches in the valley.
Eddy came back, “Gibbons.” He looked at the group, “Ape, not monkey.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Michelle. Her hair had started to frizz as the day’s humidity and her own sweat conspired against her. The large sweat patches on her t-shirt had joined together and blotted out the butterfly decoration. Cath checked herself. Her hairclip was still in place; good, she didn’t want to lose that. Sweat was smoothing her hair onto her forehead. Her back was slick under the backpack.
Daan leaned over, “Monkeys have a tail. Apes do not.” He waved a hand at his lower back.
“So, what are we then?” asked Vanessa.
“Easy,” said Brett, “girls are apes, boys are monkeys.” He winked at Cath.
“Shit,” she thought, “say something say something. That’s ripe for a gag.” But a fact popped out instead. “We’re one of the Great Apes,” Cath said. “Along with orang utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.”
It was the first thing significant thing she’d said to the group all day. Everyone looked at her. “What?” she said, “Me and Dad watch the National Geographic channel.” Her throat tightened around the sentence and she coughed it away. The National Geographic channel was still broadcasting somewhere, on some TV. There’d be plenty opportunity to watch it in future. Why wouldn’t there be?
The group watched the gibbons swing through the trees; animated curves, looping and flowing, connecting different points of the forest. In the sky hung a black spectre. Eddy pointed at it, “Eagle. Look for baby.” He curled his hands into talons and plucked an imaginary gibbon from its mother.
Eddy moved to a stand of trees and cut out bits of their bark. They tried cinnamon and a bitter bark which contained quinine.
“Gin and tonic,” said Steve.
“What?” said Brett.
“Quinine is the bitter taste in tonic water,” added Cath.
Eddy looked blank and adjusted his baseball cap.
“If you say so, dudes,” said Brett.
“You guys are pretty clever, hey?” said Michelle.
“I’d literally kill for a G’n’T right now,” responded Vanessa.
“Do people get malaria here?” asked Steve.
“Yes. Sometimes die,” said Eddy.
Brett walked away and saw a huge tree off the path. “Hey, Eddy, what’s going on with this tree?”
They followed Brett into the clearing around the tree. It stretched up seventy metres to burst through the forest canopy. Cath covered her eyes against the light trying to see its crown. Its trunk was supported by enormous buttresses which angled away from it in a large clearing, and the trunk’s circumference and length were twisted and gnarled with woody veins and arteries.
“Awh, it’s like Ferngully,” says Vanessa.
“Probably an Ewok village up there,” added Steve.
“Anyone know what happen here?” asked Eddy.
He surveyed their blank faces.
Cath put up a hand, as if she was back in a lecture theatre, “It’s a strangler fig, right?”
“Get you, Captain Planet,” said Brett.
Eddy nodded, “Plant called Ficus, its seeds drop in bird shit up there, in branch. It grow and send roots down.” Eddy spread his fingers out and turned his hands downward, imitating the descending vines. “They twist round trunk and strangle tree. Three hundred years to grow, then die just like that.” He snapped his fingers.
Cath caught her breath. A pressure swelled in her chest. On the edge of panic, she walked away and blinked rapidly and took a deep breath.
Michelle asked, “What happens to the fig when the tree dies?”
“It grow its trunk around tree, all these vines join together and feed off tree underneath. Life carry on, just a bit different.”
Daan moved around the tree taking photographs.
“Totally sci-fi,” said Steve.
“You said it dude.” Brett passed his camera to Steve, “Take a picture of me up this big root.” He climbed the huge wooden buttress. Two metres up he clung to a hanging vine, pointed at Cath and said, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”
Cath gave a perfunctory smile and walked away to examine some plants.
Michelle frowned up at Brett and followed her. “Hey, you OK?”
“Yeah, just. Dunno. Came over a bit faint.” Cath picked at a leaf and tried to avoid eye contact.
“Probably the heat,” said Michelle, wafting her t-shirt, “I reckon I’m adjusting to it now.”
“Yeah. Maybe I just need some water.” Cath pulled out her water bottle and swallowed over a tight throat. She couldn’t get over the feeling that everything was happening in strange staccato scenes. It was Bali again, where her memory was in flashes of stilted conversations. She started to worry that her head wasn’t working properly. Maybe it was just the heat, like Michelle was saying.
“What do your folks think about you being here?” Michelle asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Mine think I’m running away.” A butterfly landed on Michelle’s shoulder. They looked at it. It slowly flapped its wings before taking off.
“Butterflies really like you, hey?” asked Cath.
Michelle nodded. “They know I’m here to save them, that’s why.”
Another butterfly lands by Michelle’s feet. “You’re a real lightning conductor,” said Cath.
“They’re so beautiful. Like the spirits of the dead.”
“I reckon my Mum’s freaking out about me being here.”
“Yeah, mine too. My ex wanted me to get a normal job, be a housewife.”
“Is that why you-”
“Now, move on,” says Eddy. “More uphill.”
“Come on,” said Michelle, “we can do it!”
Cath recognised something in Michelle: she challenged herself. She’d got this far despite her limitations and was throwing herself into the jungle. That’s how Dad had built his business, challenging himself, never giving up.
They continued walking uphill. Cath stayed with Michelle at the back and wished she hadn’t judged the girl on her appearance earlier. Cath wasn’t usually so insensitive or judgemental. Lately she’d been losing her temper a lot and she couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was a come down from the boozing and Es she’d taken back in Bali? That was probably it. After the stress of studying for Finals, to dive straight into a weeks-long binge probably hadn’t been a good idea. The jungle would sort her out. She’d already sweated out half her body weight. Her head was clearing a little, too. Being among these people was making her wake up a bit. She could hear them talking about intelligent things; the invasion of Iraq was a common subject. Brett mentioned a friend’s friend who’d died in the World Trade Centre attack. In Bali people had only talked about themselves and the next club they were trying.
She didn’t really remember much about Bali. Hangovers, E, whirling lights and cute boys was the sum of it. Perhaps it was for the best. She’d lost it a bit, there. She decided it was probably just the stress of her Uni finals. She’d get over it. And if she’d lost it for a while back there, then it was probably best to let it stay lost.
Surrounded by nature, she felt the toxic load in her body.
She chatted with Michelle about butterflies and learned more about the deforestation in Indonesia and how it threatened the tigers and rare animals.
The slope they followed vaulted up and over a network of exposed tree roots. It continued two metres above their heads on a steep switchback. The exposed roots looked like palsied fingers dug into the earth. They formed useful handholds and footrests. Eddy went up them easily, and when they tried they realised how fit he must be. No one spoke. Their chests rose and fell with the sustained effort of walking uphill in hot, humid conditions. At the top several of them broke out water bottles and drank deeply. Cath breathed through her nose and when she took out her water bottle, took only small sips, enough to wet her mouth and bring her throat reprieve from the thick saliva which coated it.
Daan stood with his hands on his hips. His faded black t-shirt was slick against his back. Small diamonds of sweat sparkled in his beard, looking in the olive sunlight like a beard tiara, dressed for a Sumatran Titania. “It’s a good workout, yes?” he said to Cath.
“Probably just what I needed.”
“Have you been to Thailand?” he asked.
Cath shook her head.
“Go, there are forests, not as dense as this. But it’s more developed, easier to travel around. And Cambodia and Laos are excellent. Calming, beautiful. And the food is much better than here.” Brett asked him a question and they wandered away in conversation.
Cath turned to Michelle, “This place is unreal.”
“Yeah, it’s like something out of a dream. Real life doesn’t exist in here, hey?”
They were surrounded by giant trees and plants and by giant ants busy on the forest floor. There were secretive animals and strange monkey calls. The air trembled with sleeping power. The smells were redolent of life and magic.
Michelle bent over and put her hands on her knees. “I’m fucked,” she gasped. “Can’t wait for dinner.”
“It can’t be far to camp,” said Cath. “Want some chocolate?”
“Nah, should probably start being healthy now, hey?” Michelle patted the bulge over her shorts and shrugged.
“Yeah, Eddy,” called Brett, “how far to camp?”
Eddy turned his baseball cap backwards on his head, “Maybe two hours? Jungle time different. Could be one, could be three. Depend. Have to go up ridge first. Very steep. Then down other side.” He wandered away through some bushes and came straight back. “Maybe we go faster. Rain coming. You all got jackets?” He mimed putting on a jacket, “Put on now. Also put away camera. Wrap in plastic. Put in bag.”
“Steve, you should use your bag’s waterproof cover,” said Vanessa.
“How hard can it rain? We’re sheltered,” Steve tipped his head up to the tightly knitted canopy above.
Everyone got ready. Cath put away her camera in the middle of her bag and wrapped her rain jacket around it.
Eddy looked at her, “Not use rain jacket?”
Cath screwed up her nose and shook her head. It just hit her. She was in the middle of the fucking rainforest. And now she wanted to experience what “rain”forest really meant.
Eddy moved into the jungle.
The delicate sound of thunder followed at their heels.
Brett and Steve kept up with Eddy a few metres ahead. Cath watched how they moved over the terrain and tried to copy them.
Vanessa kept pace with Cath, chatting between gasps for breath about her and Steve’s trip through India and Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Cath wasn’t really listening, though she enjoyed Vanessa’s Welsh accent, which added to the surrealism of the forest. Something in her memory linked the Welsh accent with magical and forgotten things. She lapsed into a trance of walking, hypnotised by the rhythm, jungle sounds and Vanessa’s lilt. Both of them kept an eye on Michelle behind, who had waved them ahead.
Stretched over ten metres of trail, the group of seven snaked their way up steep switchbacks, ducked under and climbed over fallen trees and looping vines. Sometimes Eddy pulled chunks of rotten bark off fallen trees and showed them the insect life teeming within. They saw fungi which grew as coffee-coloured half plates, recycling the wood. Termites mulched it. Ants carried home bits of leaf. Like the strangler fig earlier, the forest carried on and made something new from death.
They moved on. Whenever they came across a descent or had to duck or climb a fallen tree, or climb a bank using nature’s ladders, Eddy bounded up and over or down and under and stopped and turned and said, “Hati hati, this bit slippy, watch here, hold vine, go slowly, no prize for quickest time!” and they all watched their step and through their mounting tiredness focussed on his words, a spell which when repeated acted as a protective charm. Cath trusted him. She had long since tuned herself into his voice. She’d noticed how he kept a sharp eye on each one of them, like a father watching his children. The light hearted banter which he’d kept up along most of the trek, telling tall tales of European women with whom he’d made bum-bum in the jungle, and of encounters with tigers and spiders and bears, served to hide his almost complete awareness of where everyone was at any given moment.
Michelle was struggling but still determined. Cath and Vanessa stayed with her and helped her up the more difficult parts.
The jungle’s ability to wow, its power to awe and inspire through the explosion and renewal of life, had diminished. It had become instead an obstacle, an assault course, something to be survived, even conquered; a goal to achieve.
At a stream bed Eddy pulled them together. “Tired?”
Everyone nodded. Sweat dripped into the stream. Some of them held their hands in the stream’s cool waters to reduce the swelling in their fingers.
“OK, we rest a few minutes.”
A soft patter began. Water smuggled itself through the leaf layers and doused them in a gentle, refreshing shower.
The rain jackets which everyone but Cath and Eddy had donned earlier, and which had hung loose to ventilate hot and sweaty bodies, were now zipped up. Cath wondered if they were all about to be put to the test: jackets as well as people.
“Rain!” shouted Eddy. “Got cameras safe?”
Everyone nodded, the barest of movements stolen from the inner greys of tiredness.
“OK, final climb here.”
“Thank God,” said Vanessa, “I’m about done.”
So,” said Eddy, lighting a clove cigarette, “you my Tiger Team, yes?”
They roused. Tigers! The raw spirit of the jungle was transformed by this magical incantation. Cath felt the jungle’s spirit flow through her veins.
“roar,” she said in her tiniest voice. Everyone laughed. Good.
“Next bit need lots of energy. Straight up, like cliff. Then down other side, to camp and tea and food. OK?” He clapped his hands. The sound was loud over the stream but deadened at its edges, lost to the steep earth banks around them, each leaf absorbing its own intimate breath of noise. “Go Tiger Team!”
“Awesome, the end is nigh!” laughed Brett.
“I’m fucked,” whispered Steve to Vanessa.
Cath held Michelle’s hand, “Last bit. Pretend you’re a butterfly, OK?”
“I wish. Can’t wait to sit down.”
“You and me both.”
Everyone put their heads down in preparation for the climb. Cath rubbed some life back into her arms and thighs. Eddy looked up through the gentle rain at the sky visible over the stream. Cath followed his gaze. The light grey clouds which refreshed them were growing darker, more ragged and drooping to the jungle floor.
Through the trees on the other side of the stream was a flat patch of ground. Above it towered a a vertical cliff face made of mud and stones and tree roots and hanging vines: a wall of condensed forest which loomed over them. Here and there the odd sapling grew out of it, curving out and up towards the distant light.
“All right,” drawled Brett, “that must be a hundred feet, easy.”
“What’s that in metres?” asked Michelle.
“About thirty,” said Vanessa.
“When I get home,” panted Michelle, “I am so joining a gym.”
“Take it slow,” said Daan quietly. “I will follow you. If you think you are going to fall or slip, tell me.”
Eddy climbed like a mountain goat, nimble, quick and sure footed.
They all watched him. Cath held her breath. Could she do that?
Brett rubbed his hands and when there was sufficient clearance, followed Eddy exactly.
Steve watched Brett and followed in turn. He slipped occasionally where Brett’s heavier foot smoothed the mud wall where rain had dampened it.
Vanessa followed Steve, but she couldn’t make some of the reaches or leg-ups of the boys and sought her own.
Steve looked back and pointed out foot holds from an angle Vanessa couldn’t see, but then lost track of Brett and made more mistakes. He slowed and gripped loose stones which pulled out as if they were going to open secret chambers in the ridge wall. One fell down and thudded into the floor near Cath, Michelle and Daan.
The rain became heavier. It formed streams of water where it collected on leaves and was funnelled by branches. It fell on the cliff and ran down. Everything was slick, slippy. Everyone’s hair was flattened to their heads, except for Michelle’s, which stuck out like ginger lightning.
Earth that had given Eddy and Brett good purchase was now soft. Stones became slimy and feet slipped easily. Cath started her climb. Vines were still easy to grip with their rough surface textures, though for how long was a cause of anxiety.
Cath’s t-shirt was wet in large patches and the sides of her trousers damp. She noticed a mustard-yellow trickle of water running down the cliff, and wondered if the mountains were sandstone, if they’d been lifted from the sea. The green gloom reminded her of seaweed forests. “Everything is green and submarine,” she thought, a line from one of her Dad’s favourite records. She placed a hand on a stone, gripped it, pulled herself up, quickly put a foot into the hollow created by a tree root. She paused, looked up, got rain in her eyes, blinked it away. Then she found her next hand hold, reached out, carried on up the cliff, repeated, felt water run down her knees.
Michelle followed her. Cath tried to move in an obvious way for Michelle so she could copy, testing some foot holds or hand holds for distance and solidity.
“Put your foot here,” she said to Michelle. Water waltzed into her face in tiny splashes.
They moved slowly up the cliff face. The trickles of water increased in number and volume. From further up, Cath could sense Eddy and Brett looking down, holding onto branches to steady themselves at the ridge line. Steve made the top with a pathetic whoop. Cath looked down and saw Daan at the bottom, concentrating on Michelle.
Above, Vanessa was a short distance from the top, where an outcrop meant the trekkers had to make a small vine swing to their right to a tree, which they could use to complete the climb. She stopped and built up the nerve to swing. Cath waited under her, gripping, holding on.
“Try not to catch your arm on the cliff,” called Steve. “It’ll slow you down.”
“OK. It’s a long way down,” said Vanessa.
“And if you put your foot on that stone halfway, make sure you skip off it really quickly. It’s pretty loose.”
“Ten, nine,” Vanessa started counting down her launch.
Below, Michelle moved slowly and was far enough behind for the pause not to affect her climb. A shaft of weak sunlight illuminated Michelle for a few seconds. She was drenched. Rain danced in a blue-grey mist as it bounced off her shoulders and refracted the dim light.
Rainwater dripped off Vanessa’s trousers and elbows onto Cath’s face, where it was lost in the torrent. Cath could feel the rain soaking through her socks and the beginnings of a squelch in her boots. She wondered how the others were faring in their rain jackets under this, their baptismal shower.
The gloom was lit by lightning with an old-fashioned camera flash-everywhere-glare. Raindrops held their breath. The sound of sheet metal ripping made them all jump as the valley air was split by thunder. Cath hunkered into the cliff. Below Michelle’s squeal turned into an expressive, “Shit!” Above, the boys whooped. Cath blinked water from her eyes. This was all getting too real again.
“Fuck fuck FUCK!” Vanessa launched herself, swung on the vine, stepped on the stone, which wobbled, continued her swing, reached the other side of the gap, put a foot on the exposed roots there, leaned back, pulled herself forward and managed, just, to keep her balance, hold the vine and grab the tree ahead of her. She gave a heavy sigh and steadied herself. “Come up,” she shouted to Cath over the hissing rain, “I’ll push the vine back. It’s bloody brilliant!”
Cath moved up. Vanessa pushed the vine back and completed her climb, making the top in sheets of rain. The air smelled of earth and metal. Cath waited for Michelle to catch up, and when she was in position below and could watch her, focused on the other side of the gap.
What on earth was she doing? At 9am she was all set to walk back to the village, unnoticed by anyone and feeling lost. Now she was almost thirty metres up a mud cliff in a tropical thunderstorm and swinging like Indiana Jones. She pushed off from the jutting roots, swung all the way across in one arc and reached the other side in a smooth swoop. Easy. Easy!
“Come up,” Cath told Michelle. “It really is a lot of fun.” She described the process.
“I don’t think I can?” said Michelle with a rising inflection in her voice, when she was at the launch position. She held the vine as if it might bite.
Cath completed her climb while below Daan talked Michelle through the process again.
“When you feel ready,” he said, “go quick. Don’t look down. Look at the tree where you will land. Hold the vine tight.”
Michelle looked down at the climb she’d completed. A small, “oh fuck,” escaped her mouth. Her upper arms shook. In her hands the loosely held vine trembled.
Thunder stalked the valley in growls and rumbles.
Cath, on the ridge, scrambled to her feet. She’d made it. The rain felt stronger up here; it drummed her head. She called back, “Look at me, Michelle.”
Michelle didn’t look up, but she did at least stop looking down.
“See that trunk there?” Cath pointed at the goal, the safe place they’d all landed in turn. “Over to your right, sticking out?”
“Look at that-”
“-and grab it when you swing over.”
“In your own time,” shouted Daan over more thunder.
“yeah,” another small sound from Michelle, almost lost to the thunder and rain.
On the ridge, Cath looked around and saw everyone’s rain jackets were wetted to their bodies. They’d wandered away to where the rain was gentler due to the heavier canopy, and talked among themselves. Eddy looked over. Cath put up a thumb: everything’s OK. She ran her fingers through her wet hair, adjusted her hair clip. After weeks of being out of control, she’d finally achieved something, finally got control back from her precipitous climb. She could bring Michelle with her.
“OK, here goes,” said Michelle.
Michelle gave a half-hearted leap and managed only to fall to the vine’s natural hanging position. She stepped heavily onto the mid-way stone, which gave way under her foot and tumbled down the cliff, making clonking noises as it hit wooden roots. Daan ducked away from it. Michelle’s body tensed as she tried to increase her grip on the vine. Her feet flapped. She made small, flat retches of sound and hung pathetically in the air, at neither extreme safe position.
“Shit!” said Cath. She dropped to the ground and reached down, trying to grab hold of Michelle’s jacket.
Michelle mewled, whimpers bullied to quietness by the pounding rain and rumbling thunder. Her legs flailed, cycling the air.
Further down, Daan tried to find a way up to support Michelle, but the rain ran down the cliff, making earth fall out wherever he put his feet. He wedged his feet into tree roots and looked for handholds further up.
“Eddy!” Cath turned her head round, one cheek pushed into the boggy mud.
Eddy looked round from the group. All she saw in the wet darkness was his white vest top move like a startled deer. Then he was next to her, on his knees. Indonesian words tumbled from his mouth over the cliff.
Cath grabbed hold of the vine and tried to pull it up, but lying down didn’t give her the right leverage. Now Eddy was trying to grab hold of Michelle’s jacket.
Cath stood and planted her feet in the mud. She leaned out and grabbed the vine hanging in front of her, but when she pulled it her feet slipped through the mud towards the cliff edge. A sod of earth broke away under her feet and fell, bouncing off Michelle’s shoulder, leaving a dark stain. Michelle screamed and slipped on the vine. “Shit!” shouted Cath. She turned around, “Help us!”
The others peered through the rain and started when she shouted at them. She turned back to the cliff where Eddy was lying on his front, covered in slick mud, still trying to grab hold of Michelle.
Beneath, Daan had climbed up far enough for his head to be under Michelle’s feet. He looked around for sturdy saplings to hold onto. “Michelle, put your feet down on my head,” he shouted.
“I can’t see,” cried Michelle.
The other backpackers stood around Cath, who was still holding the vine. “Do something!” shouted Cath. She looked into their faces. Their eyes were wide and they flit around like butterflies, never settling anywhere very long.
“Here,” Brett put his hand onto the vine, “I’ll take it.”
Cath let go. Her upper arms were sore. She wasn’t sure what help it was holding the vine, anyway.
Eddy turned his head, mirroring her own movement moments earlier. “Go to tree, climb down, try to pull over,” he grunted. Muddy water bounced into his mouth as the rain exploded onto the ground.
Cath grabbed Steve’s arms, “Steady me.” She looked into his eyes and his body jerked into motion. She went to the tree she’d so recently climbed up in relief, and tentatively put a foot down into a nook. Steve held her right hand in both of his. Behind, Vanessa held onto him.
Her foot slipped on the wet wood. Around Cath the rain striated the air. Loamy aromas filled her nostrils like sponge. She looked at Michelle. Miserable threads of ginger hair decorated her forehead. There were smooth sweeps in the cliff face where her feet were trying to run up it. Underneath, Daan was still trying to steady himself with one hand while he reached up with the other to Michelle’s feet.
“Michelle, put your feet down on Daan’s head,” called Cath. Michelle just shook her head, lost in her panic.
Eddy’s fingers brushed Michelle’s jacket. He let out a frustrated grunt.
Cath pushed her feet into the gnarled tree roots. She looked up at Steve who nodded at her. Turning back, she slowly leaned forward and reached out her left hand towards Michelle. She looked up quickly at Eddy and Brett. Eddy locked eyes with her, gave a quick nod and jumped to his feet. His white t-shirt had turned brown and green, covered in mud and mosses. He leaned into Brett and whispered in his ear. They both leaned out and grabbed the vine and started to pull it towards Cath.
Daan swung a hand above his head and found an ankle. He gripped it. Michelle screamed and tried to pull away.
“Put your foot on his head!” shouted Cath. Somewhere above her Vanessa shouted the same thing.
Daan continued to grip her foot and pulled it to his head. Michelle’s face changed. Her legs stopped cycling. She dared a look down.
Above, Eddy and Brett were trying to push the hanging vine. “Michelle!” shouted Brett over the rain, “push off with your foot and grab hold of Cath!”
“I’ll fall!” she shouted.
“You’ll be right,” called Cath. “I’m almost at you now.” Steve’s fingers were burning Cath’s wrist and pulling her arm muscles so they felt like they were going to snap.
“On three!” called Brett.
Cath looked up. With his head, Brett mimed pushing the vine, and motioned with his eyes to Cath. She gave a sharp nod.
“On three,” he called again, “push off with your foot and jump to Cath. OK?”
“One. Two. Three!”
Michelle pushed her foot down.
Daan let out an “Oof!”
Eddy and Brett pushed the hanging vine with all their strength.
Michelle jumped forwards.
Cath leaned out.
Cath’s fingers slid over Michelle’s jacket, her arm. She scrabbled on the material, leaned further. Her fingers went over the front of the jacket. The vine was about to rebound and go back. Cath found the zip and curled her fingers around the top of the jacket and grabbed hold of it around the collar. Michelle’s body started to lean back. Cath yanked the jacket.
Michelle’s feet cycled again and found the tree roots and Cath’s legs. She hooked a foot each around them. Cath leaned out, right arm up in the air held by Steve, feet planted between roots, her fingers curled into Michelle’s jacket, acting as the counter-balance. And Michelle held the vine, her upper body pulled forward, a leg wrapped around Cath’s. She looked into Cath’s eyes and Cath saw there the beginning of relief.
“Grab my arm,” said Cath. The zip teeth were cutting into her fingers. She didn’t dare look; there would be blood.
Michelle looked at the vine, at her hands, obviously trying to decide which one had the least grip. She flung her right hand from the vine to Cath’s arm and gripped it.
“Oh God, I think I’m gonna be pulled apart,” moaned Cath.
“Vanessa,” said Steve, “can you help Michelle?”
“Oh! Yes! Sure!”
Thunder cracked open a wound in the air and shook more water from the leaves above.
Vanessa hunkered on the cliff edge and reached out a hand.
“I’ve got you,” said Cath and looked in Michelle’s eyes. Rain streamed down her face but it didn’t hide the tears in her eyes.
A huge smacking sound sent a ringing through Cath’s ears. The air fluoresced blue and white.
A muffled thud turned into the vine thrashing in the air and hitting the cliff edge like an injured snake. Cath looked at it stupidly. Eddy and Brett were nowhere to be seen. Somewhere someone was shouting.
In slow motion Cath looked from the vine, which was no longer attached to the tree branches above, and looked back at Michelle. Comprehension smoothed the muscles in her face. Michelle’s eyes widened and panic flashed through them.
No longer held by the broken vine, Michelle started to lean back, her weight unsupported.
Cath leaned forward.
Steve shouted, “No!” and pulled her right arm. One of her feet slipped out of the roots and kicked back up in the air, pushing her further forward.
Michelle’s mouth was an O. She tried to grab the vine again with her right arm, taking it off Cath’s left. The loose vine tumbled down the cliff. Michelle grabbed after it.
Cath yanked Michelle’s jacket towards her. It ripped and pulled out of her hand.
Michelle hung in the air for an impossible moment and then fell. Her booted foot scraped against Cath’s leg. The heel caught on the tree root and flipped Michelle’s head down. She fell and hit Daan whose right arm was torn from the sapling it clutched, and as she went past him he tried to grab her. He swung out and almost lost his own grip.
Michelle was lost to the mist and black rain and angry thunder, none of which was loud enough to mask the scream and then the heavy thud and sickeningly sharp splintering sound as she hit the bottom.
The rain eased off, to something like a damp impression of mosquitoes.
Part of Cath noticed the pain in her arms and leg, but it wasn’t important. It was too far away to worry about.
They were in the stream bed at the bottom of the cliff. Michelle was unconscious. A jagged bone end stuck out of her shin. Vanessa covered it with her rain jacket so that no one had to look. Moments ago Michelle’s right arm was at a horrible angle. When Eddy pulled it out and re-aligned the break, Michelle vomited and passed out. Eddy did the same to her leg. Cath puked into a bush when she heard the sound. Everyone looked pale.
Steve and Brett brought sticks. First aid kits were broken open. Vanessa helped Eddy apply the makeshift splints.
Daan put a hand to Cath’s shoulder, “You’re shaking. Here, have some biscuits.”
She looked at him.
“It is for shock. The sugar helps.”
She took them from him and ate one. “I should’ve kept hold of her.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“It is. I lost my grip. I should’ve known. I should’ve had a better grip on things.”
She shook her head.
“Eat,” Daan rubbed her upper arm.
She swallowed and put another biscuit to her mouth.
Steve and Brett were coming back with longer sticks, small sapling trunks. They bound them and started to make a stretcher.
“It’s my fault. I’m so sorry.” Cath stared at Michelle’s prostrate form.
No one spoke to her except Daan, who said, “It was an accident. A lightning strike.”
“I wish I could go back and stop it.”
Cath sat on a nearby tree trunk and stared into nothing. Around her the others completed the stretcher and put Michelle on it. Eddy described a short cut out of the jungle. They were only one hour from the village if they followed the stream.
“It’s my fault. All my fault,” Cath repeated.
The men lifted the stretcher and started the trek back to Bukit Lawang.
Vanessa followed them. She stopped a few metres away and looked back, “Cath. Come on, it’s time to go.”
Cath rose and looked down the stream, along the valley which glistened with rain. “It’s my fault,” she said under her breath.
“I should have been there.”