To an outsider we would have looked like any normal family going on a weekend hike, but each of us, mum, dad, sister Kit and I, knew it was not. We had no choice but to pack up and head west. Away from our once shimmering, pulsating city now gasping for breath with only the stench of fear and rotten garbage its only reminder of modern civilization.
We headed out with a sense of excited relief and quiet despair, dad trying to keep the mood light and mum’s brown eyes smiling behind her mask covered in silent tears. We had all worn masks outside for months. Most had. But still most had died. Or left like us. Disappeared without a trace.
Dad drove our old Toyota Hilux till it ran out of petrol just on the other side of the mountain range. Then we had to walk carrying our gear through the steep descent into the valley of thick bushland. Dad was on a mission to the get there by nightfall to set up camp. ‘Keep walking. We will be safe there’ he kept saying. I limped along; pain shooting from throbbing blisters on my heels. Kit was crying and dad picked her up and carried both her and the heaviest backpack with our water supply. Mum stumbled, and I grabbed her hand. It felt warm and comforting. We continued for what seemed hours, Kit on Dad’s back and mum and I behind.
‘This is it!’ Dad smiled. ‘Let’s set up camp here.’
It was nothing like our home, but the small grassed clearing with the freshwater creek nearby and dense tall gumtrees all around that night was heaven. Mum soon had the fire burning with the smell of garlic and dried vegetables wafting through the place. We feasted and told funny stories, we laughed and we shed a few quiet tears in the dark. Life almost felt good and normal again; as if we were just on another camping trip.
But it wasn’t. We left the city, but the city came with us. It stalked us through the bushes, and safety was only a momentary illusion. We knew as soon as we lost Kit. We knew it was with us. We stopped hugging and sharing utensils. But we stayed together. Like robots without souls, we walked the bush further and further inland. But it stayed with us. One by one, first mum, then dad, then…..for the first time in my 17 years I was all alone. Totally and utterly alone. Not alone in a house, not alone in my room. No, I was totally alone in the outback. God only knows where. I didn’t. I sat for hours in the thick bush surrounded by an abundance of wildlife that had no idea what was happening in the world, in my world. I yelled into the empty vastness and finally cried myself to sleep.
That was 75 days ago. I have kept tally of the days in my notebook just to keep my mind sane. Somehow knowing what day it is makes me feel normal. I have a routine now. Every day I walk till the sun is highest in the sky, then I find a camp site and spend the rest of the day catching and preparing my dinner. My slingshot it great for getting little birds, a perfect size meal. Sometimes I go for days with just water and berries. I have gone for 75 days without human contact. Not sure which hunger is the worst. The rumbles of my stomach can be quietened by a descent feast, but the rumbles of my soul are always there. The longing for human touch, for a connection, the need to ease the anxiety, the fear of being alone, is always there beneath the surface of toughness.
Today my routine changed. It was cold, and I kept walking to stay warm. The breeze cut right through my worn jacket and dirty jeans in spite of the extra layers of shirts underneath. I was still searching for a protected campsite or a small cabin, if lucky, when the sun was starting to set. I felt a sense of panic as I heard my dad’s voice in my head ‘Always set up camp and a fire before dark.’
That’s when I smelt the smoke and saw the glow from a distant fire. Another hiker. Another human being. My heart raced. From fear and from excitement and the thought of maybe a warm meal. Could I risk it? I circled closer. In the dark, I could make out only one person. A slight build. I felt braver. I could win a fight if I had to. I was only metres away from the camp fire, and could feel the inviting glow on my body melting away any last bit of resistance. I stumbled, the person turned and pointed a gun at me.
‘Don’t come closer or I shoot you,’ the voice yelled.
Big blue eyes looked into mine, full of fear. A girl my age, her face dirty and streaked from days in the bush.
‘You look worse than me’ I tried to joke and smiled.
Her look softened and her gun lowered just for a moment.
‘You don’t need that’ I pointed to the gun. ‘Im not going to hurt you.’
‘How do I know you’re not sick like everyone else?’ her voice trembled.
‘Im not. I have been by myself for over 75 days. No contact with anyone else since my whole family passed. Im clean.’
She looked into my eyes, the frown on her forehead disappeared, and in that moment we both felt it. That overwhelming need to hold someone.
“Can I hug you?’ I asked, taking a step towards her.
She put down the gun and slowly moved into my outstretched arms, and for a long time all I heard was the beat of our hearts and the quiet sighs escaping from us both. We instantly knew from that day on we would begin our new normal. Together.