Despite becoming delusional, I was making steady progress up Cradle Cliff. Steve, of course, was thirty metres ahead. I stared daggers at his steadily receding back. Despite being far more athletic than me, he’d been keen on Dove Lake trail because he’d somehow gotten the impression that this was a holiday, not an intervention.
Another couple were scrambling over the rocks, making their way down. They were two fit young people in brand-name workout clothes and trainers – trainers, not even proper hiking boots. They jumped from rock to rock like they’d both been bitten by the same radioactive spider.
‘Hey, did you make it up?’ I called. ‘How far is it?’
The guy shrugged. ‘Maybe 30 minutes?’
I nodded, clinging to the edge of the rock face to let them pass.
I can handle 30 minutes.
Five minutes later, I asked another lanky guy the same question.
‘It’s probably an hour, I think.’ He consulted his watch. ‘Yeah, it’s been an hour since I left the top.’
By that time, the optimistic part of my brain had been in overdrive far too long. I gave into full-blown pessimistic fear like the embrace of an old friend: not only was the top at least an hour away, but I was also, right at that moment, actively developing skin cancer.
The rocks continued straight up. There was no longer any slope, just a cliff face of giant boulders. I’d come so far, and my brain was determined to reach the summit – Year of Success, symbolism, etc. My body, however, did not give a scrub’s tit about success. My body knew I shouldn’t be climbing a chaotic mess of appliance-sized rocks over a 500-metre drop. My body knew I had been out in the heat with limited water for many hours. It knew I often cut myself with dull kitchen knives and had more than once managed to trip and fall over while standing still.
Based on that preponderance of evidence, my body decided that if it couldn’t override my brain by broadcasting its increasing fear, it was going to shut this expedition down the only way it knew how: DEFCON 1 panic attack. My legs and arms trembled. I started hyperventilating. Anxiety threatened to choke me.
‘Steve,’ I called. ‘I don’t think – I don’t think I can do it.’
He turned to look down at me, hanging one-handed off a boulder with the grace of a shaved orangutan.
‘Are you sure?’
In response, I started to sob.
At that moment some of the hikers that we’d passed earlier caught up with us – a family of five, mom and dad and three boys.
The oldest boy might have been 12 and the youngest seven or eight. They were scampering up the rocks like monkeys on a jungle gym. Their parents called to them to wait without actually expecting them to do so. Both parents showed the level of exertion you’d expect from – well, from people on a great short walk. They didn’t look or smell like they’d just poured a bottle of last week’s sweat over themselves. They didn’t seem overly concerned that one of their kids might tumble from the cliff face to an abrupt death below. And what I particularly noted was neither of them was clinging to a rock ledge weeping because their whole year was over before it started.
Steve worked his way down to me. We waited while the parents ambled past us, chatting cheerily. Other hikers were coming down the rocks, and we could tell from their beatific faces that they’d made it to the summit, taken in the 360-degree view, and achieved a meaningful personal goal. More people were making their way up as well, including several other primary school kids who were clearly my physical superiors.
These were Australians – fearless, physically fit, blissfully unconcerned over their children’s daredevil antics. No matter where they were actually from, in that moment, on that mountain, they were Australian – and I, definitively, was not. I might fancy myself a bit of an outdoorsy type, I might genuinely enjoy a great short walk – but so help me, I was going to cling to the Canadian definition of ‘walk’, even if that made me an un-Australian wuss with piddling career prospects.
Sitting on the cliff ledge, I cried for a while.
Steve sat beside me, patting my hand. ‘It’s not a big deal,’ he said.
It was a big deal.
We headed back down. I accepted that I’d have a meandering, futile year just like every other year. Despite my passport, I’m not very Australian, and maybe I never will be. If I do get skin cancer from the vicious Aussie sun, I’m sure I’ll be among the over-anxious minority who don’t survive.
But in the meantime, I might be able to at least find a scrubtit.
This excerpt from my current manuscript-in-progress, How to Be Australian, was shortlisted for the Lane Cove Literary Awards and first published in the 2017 anthology.