Bush KarmaPosted: November 11, 2013
Not long after I first took up hunting I ventured out on my own one weekend to a spot called Cannonball Flats. It was named for the round boulders that covered the river flats, rough to walk over but fast to warm up when the sun hit them. A perfect place to look for a deer in spring, when they might stay out on the clearings into daylight, feeding on the new grass. Only, it wasn’t spring. It was early winter and the flats had stayed frozen all day.
So I didn’t see anything and spent the short afternoon shivering in the shade of the valley until the weather broke and I retreated back to camp. The river rose quickly with the rain and it was a good two feet higher coming back than when I had crossed that morning.
It was dark and I was cold and soaked to the skin by the time I climbed the final rise to my desination. The hut squatted in a clearing on a terrace above the river, safe from the floods that periodically scoured the valley floor. It looked lonely in the deepening gloom and it seemed as though I would have the place to myself that cold July night.
The hut was built with timber from an ancient totara tree, whose stump formed a picnic table in the clearing next to the hut. The slabs had grown green with age, as the forest slowly reclaimed the structure. Inside, the lingering smell of woodsmoke greeted me. The floor was dirt and there was just enough room for four bunks, a table and a bench in front of the fire.
I soon had a blaze going and my wet clothes steaming on nails banged into the mantle. Outside in the blackness the weather packed in further and the wind whistled through holes in the corrugated iron chimney. Rain lashed at the tin roof and plopped in steaming splashes in the ashes. When I went to the porch for more wood I could hear boulders rolling down in the riverbed and and I was shivering before I was back inside.
I warmed myself by the fire, slung the billy and sat down to read by candlelight. Shadows danced with the yellow light up the walls. The light picked up the shine of the cross beams, worn smooth where the caress of countless hands had worn away the patina of smoke.
With my stove unused on the bench and head-torch left by the bunk, the hut’s atmosphere was uncomplicated by anachronistic pieces of modernity. It took a little longer to boil the billy and my eyes strained to make out Jack London’s words, but I liked it better. My billy needed a little more black.
After dinner I packed and smoked a pipe, a ritual I had picked up in imitation of the bushmen I read about. I was pleased again to have the hut to myself, so I could indulge my slightly ridiculous affectation in peace.
The fire was burning low and my sleeping bag was calling when I heard a pair of boots clomping onto the steps of the porch, followed by another set. The door opened and two dark figures loomed at the entrance. Then three smaller blurs tore into the hut in a storm of water and panting.
“Gedouduvityabloodymongrels,” something yelled as the dogs jumped onto my bunk, sniffed my pack and forced their muzzles into my crotch, all more or less at the same time. The dogs whined and panted and then hid under the bunk as a clump of wood sailed towards them from the door. The dripping figures stepped forward into the firelight, revealing two very bedraggled men.
“Christ I’ve bloody near got hypafermyah,” one of the men said, dumping his wet jacket on the floor and knocking the bucket of water I had carried up from the river with a loud “fark”.
“River’s up,” the other pronounced.
“You crossed the river?” I asked, incredulous, shifting out of their way. “What about the dogs?”
“They didn’t like it much. Jimmy shut the door.”
Jimmy did as instructed and his mate introduced himself as Nate. Nate was part-maori, stocky and compact. There was nothing superfluous about him, from his speech to his gear, which was was old but serviceable – a Swazi anorak, work boots, sheath knife on his belt. His air of competence contrasted sharply with Jimmy’s frenetic energy. In the time it had taken me to clear some bench space, he had distributed the contents of his pack evenly across the room. He was dressed in an odd assortment of castaways and his boots were held together with duct tape. He was lanky and moved in jerks, his head swiveling, bulging eyes roaming over a long crooked nose and permanently curled upper lip. It was only when his eyes locked with mine momentarily that I realised he was cross-eyed.
Nate stoked the fire and placed two cans of Watties Big Eats in the ashes to warm. Meanwhile Jimmy spotted my stove and turned it in his hands like it had fallen from a spacecraft.
“Far, check this out Nate,” Jimmy interrupted his own monologue about how much mud there had been on the track, “This thing’s mean as.”
Nate grunted from over his can of ravioli, but Jimmy had already lost interest, having become distracted by my map case.
“Man did you actually buy a special case for your map?! Far out, I don’t even buy the maps. Nah man, I just get my friend to print them off the computer. Here, check this out.”
Jimmy produced a soggy clump of paper from his pocket.
“See it’s better because you get the whole map on one page.”
It was true, Jimmy had printed the entire park map on a single A4 sheet.
“Yeah, that is pretty, ah, small,” I said, not wanting to get drawn into the relative merits of our navigational equipment.
I needn’t have worried, Jimmy was already thinking of something else as he left his disintegrating map on the bench to toss another log on the fire.
“Oh man, I need to take a shit! I don’t want to go out in the rain.”
Jimmy’s oilskin lay in a puddle by the door, where he’d dropped it.
“Probably should have hung that up to dry eh,” Nate said as Jimmy dissolved into guilty giggles.
“Told you man,” Nate grunted.
He hadn’t, at least not since they had arrived, so I assumed that this wasn’t the first time. Leaving his jacket Jimmy rushed out into the night clad in his holey thermals. Nate scraped the last of the sauce from his can, sat his can by the fire and took out a pouch of tobacco to roll himself a smoke. Eventually Jimmy returned, giggling even louder than before, carrying an armload of wood from the porch. He ate his meal noisily, pausing only once to announce: “Fark that’s good.” He finished and seeing Nate’s can, set his neatly by it on the hearth, turning them to align the labels outwards. Then he threw another log on the fire. It was getting hot. He rolled himself a smoke and there was a brief moment of quiet as we all stared into the fire.
“See man,” Jimmy began, “I believe in bush karma. What you give to the bush, the bush will give back to you.”
It seemed his cigarette had him in a contemplative mood. He fixed me with one of his eyes, while the other roamed across the mantlepiece behind me. I thought he was waiting for me to reply and mumbled a vague agreement but he interrupted me.
“Man have you got some weed to smoke?”
His tangent confused me, until I realised his left eye had spotted my pipe, sitting ostentatiously on the mantle like a theatre prop.
“Ah no, ah, man,” I began, attempting to match his vernacular, “actually it’s for tobacco.”
“Me and Nate like smoking weed when we’re hunting, it makes you sharp as. But we smoked all ours on the way in.”
I noted to myself that at least they didn’t have firearms and subconsciously looked towards the door, where my own rifle was propped up. Like a homing missile though, Jimmy’s wandering eye picked up the trajectory of my gaze and honed in on its target.
“Far that’s a mean sniper gun eh?” Jimmy said moving in to get a better look.
“Leave it alone Jimmy,” Nate grunted, belching into the fug of tobacco smoke that was gradually descending from the ceiling.
“Yeah all right Nate, I was just having a look.” Jimmy sounded aggrieved. “Bet you shoot heaps of animals with that thing eh?”
“Ah, yeah, I shoot a few,” I replied, sticking strictly to the truth. At that point in time I had shot precisely two animals, one of them being the overgrown pet pig that the farmer who had sold me the rifle had insisted I “test it out on”. He’d wanted to get rid of the pig, and assumed that as a young hunter I would be eager to “blood the rifle”. Anyway, that’s a different story.
“Man Nate, I reckon we’d get heaps more pigs if we had guns eh?”
If Nate agreed with Jimmy’s hypothesis he didn’t show it.
“Heaps more I reckon. Deer too probably. So Hugh, what do you do for a job?” Jimmy segued abruptly, having briefly run out of conversation fodder.
“I’m a, ah, writer. You know.”
“Eh? Like you, write stuff. For a job?”
“Yeah. Well sort of.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Well anything really. Whatever people will pay me for, you know?”
“You reckon you’d write about us?”
The question took me by surprise.
“Um, well, I hadn’t thought about it, but ah, I guess so.”
“I never met a writer before eh. Just know guys like Nate; farmers. I reckon that’d be mean to be in a book, eh Nate?”
If the size of the cloud of smoke that suddenly enveloped his head was anything to judge by, Nate reckoned so too.
“What do you do Jimmy?”
“I catch eels.”
A quintessential good keen man, Jimmy also trapped possums, laboured on farms, and when he could borrow a gun (he didn’t have a license), poached sambar deer. He would take me too, if I was interested. It was much easier spotlighting them from a truck than spending all day walking round in the bush he assured me. After my experience that day the idea wasn’t without attraction and Jimmy wrote his name and phone number on my map for me.
Jimmy 44ls, it read.
“Jimmy eels,” he said. “So you remember it’s me.”
The smoke was making me light-headed but Jimmy and Nate showed no signs of turning in. I made my excuses and rolled over to face the wall while Jimmy stoked the fire with the last of the wood. The hearth overflowed with burning logs and I was hot in my sleeping bag. Nate rolled another smoke while Jimmy played a Black Eyed Peas song on his cell phone. When Nate finished his cigarette he rolled another and when the song ended Jimmy played it again from the beginning. It was a long night.
Around 4am the noise started again as Jimmy and Nate crashed about the hut packing their bags in the fading light of a single halogen torch. Finally it died completely and they sat in the dark, pinpointed by the red glowing dots of their cigarettes, waiting for dawn. They had a long wait. Neither had a watch and Jimmy’s phone had died after playing “Boom Boom Pow” for the umpteenth time. Jimmy stood and peered out the window to inspect the sky.
“It was lighter five minutes ago,” he said. “But then it got dark again.”
I must have slept again because when I next awoke it was light and they were gone. I was in no hurry to get up and lay in my sleeping bag luxuriating in its warmth and the quiet of the cool hut.
They had left the door unlatched though and it creaked in an imperceptible breeze. The smell of wet dogs and cigarette butts hung in the air. Eventually I got up to make a cup of tea but realised there was no water in left the bucket and they had burned all the wood. I scowled at the fireplace as I kicked my wet boots on. Two empty cans and a pile of wrappers stared back at me.
I stepped outside into the dripping morning to get water. As I came around the corner of the hut, the cause of Jimmy’s giggling the night before confronted me. In my path lay a large turd. Coiled proudly, it was inescapably human in origin.
I had plenty of time to consider things as I dragged in a load of wood and shovelled out the ashes from the fireplace. Sweeping the floor and wiping down the table I mulled it over some more. On the long walk out I was still thinking about it. Even looking back on now it I’m unsure. Was Jimmy full of shit? Or was I just accumulating Bush Karma?