“Mom, there are these little worms on my leg. I keep brushing them off, but they keep coming back…,” said my eight-year-old son. His sister, six, tramped on ahead. Behind us, my husband was using two hiking sticks to keep himself upright on the slippery downhill.
“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about. Let me see. Let’s just brush that one off too.” The Dangerous Creatures book I’d bought when we first moved to Australia appeared before my eyes, a photograph of a hiking sock and a bloody ankle. Leeches!
It took great effort to control the heebie-jeebies that suddenly took hold of me, to quietly inspect the ankles, socks, and wrists of my family members and myself. For an outdoorsy person, I have an unnatural hatred of worms. And these leeches were like tiny inch-worms, working their way up our socks, onto any exposed skin they could find.
It all began with a Call for the Wild. From me. In a suburban playground. Life was going by, and I felt I was missing it. We’d gone nowhere since moving back to Melbourne, except to Ocean Grove and back. The reasons were complex (those of you who are parents of young children will understand), but the outcome was this trapped-in-a-box too small for me. I longed for nature, fresh air, woods. The forest was my cathedral, and without it, my soul was drying out. I wanted my life to be adventurous, full, exciting. So in that suburban playground, I drew a line in the sand, and declared that I was no longer going to live this small life. It was killing me.
My husband, ever patient, understood. Between us, we got the maps, the extra shoes, the snacks for the kids, the backpacks. I gathered compass, first aid kit, emergency blanket, waterproof phone and map case; gear from adventure racing I felt compelled to carry. A bit overkill you might think, but that’s how I am.
The first walk was meant to be easy. Ferntree Gulley in the Dandenongs. Trouble was the trails were under construction. So instead, we climbed the Thousand Steps. The kids didn’t climb them though. They danced up them, oblivious to slippery stone steps in drizzle. On the side of the trail, we saw our first wildish wallaby. I soaked up the gum trees, their height and breadth, their endlessness. I could breathe again. At the end we were all elated, triumphant.
The next weekend we searched out Sherbrooke Forest. A bird-feeding area at the trail head meant magic before we even began. Hundreds of birds, alighting on shoulders, flying in gigantic flocks. But when we set off, the map was hard to read, the distances not obvious. We chose the best route, loving the kookaburra boldly sitting next to the trail, the lyrebirds which crossed our path at speed. On the steep uphills my daughter hung onto my backpack to be towed. “Where’s the car? I want to go home,” she began to say at the 6 km mark, but we made it to the end at 7.1 km. I was proud of them; so proud.
Then we got bolder, Silvan Reservoir, where I was racing in a month’s time. I searched but couldn’t find a good contour map of the area, so we arrived with a map torn from the Melway. The trails were not maintained. The wind howled above, and on the ground was much evidence that trees did, indeed, fall here. We stepped over and around dozens of trees, until one too large forced us to turn around. We had taken a circular route, but suddenly, as time ticked on, the route in front of me didn’t match my map. I fought to breathe, aligned the map with the compass, shook the compass to try to make North point to where I wanted it to be, then despaired.
This was the wrong trail. No choice but to back-track, and the car park would be closed within the hour. Then a bug bit my daughter and fear turned to howls and tears and we tramped on, feeling bad parents and feeling scared we’d be stuck here. Just before we found our way out of the woods, my husband slipped on mud-slick grass, and went straight down. As he flailed, unable to get to his feet, and I ran back to help, our daughter howled even louder, scared by the sight of her dad down. When he got back up, he was mud-covered from ankle to hip, and we both laughed, a little. What relief when we found the car, to my daughter’s firm pronouncement, “I am never coming here again!”
So today – the day of the leeches – we chose an easier track, a 5 km loop by Olinda Falls. The track down to the falls was easy to follow, with upper and lower lookouts. The water thundered down the rocks, a perfect scene with few tourists and happy kids. It reminded me of exploring gorges at Cornell University when I was a freshman there, a lifetime ago. The sounds and the smells brought me right back, and for a second, I was at home. Then we found the trail we’d aimed for, Cascade Track, with no trouble, and began to descend. It was steep, muddy, slippery.
Bark from gum trees had landed in strips in the centre of the trail, and was incredibly slick when stepped on. I had on a thirty-pound backpack – emergency supplies, jackets, water, all the things a family needs – and nearly unbalanced a few times. My daughter slipped down on her bottom, surprise in her face, then picked herself back up. My son tramped happily along, speaking of Star Wars and weapons. My husband, less stable than the rest of us, found two perfect-sized walking sticks and kept his feet.
And all went well. Until the mention of the leeches. We were nearly at the end of the downhill trail, onto a road. Having run out of time, we decided against our planned circuit, and retreated back up the steep hill. Water poured down the hillside from the creek next to us, and views of open waterfall delighted me. We gazed upwards at impossibly tall trees, skirted deep holes in the trail. There was plenty of time, water and food.
We made it to the top without drama, and with promises of a chocolate shop and playground, got back to the car. I carefully stripped the family down, checking for hidden leeches, not using that word except in silent speech to my husband. The chocolate shop, twenty minutes later, felt like the best place in the world. Clean, dry, safe, warm.
As I washed our clothes and shoes later at home, I recalled the joy of the woods, but it was tempered by the great feeling of responsibility I felt for our young children. It is my job to keep them safe out there. In this, I have succeeded. But the cost is high. It is stressful and harder than the days I race by myself.
But I see in them my love for the wild; for the mud; for the green; for the trees; for nature. Outside, they become who they are meant to be; young, savage and able. They walk more strongly, complaining less about going out into the woods than during our first walk.
So I will keep practicing my map-reading and navigating, plan well. Take us on adventures and keep us safe. Because life is meant to be a grand adventure. Even if there are dangerous creatures out there.