AN organised man, my best mate is not. Loyal, kind, and the sort of caring bloke who will take your call at 3am if you are broke, or worse, broken – absolutely – but he was obviously buried under a pile of dirty laundry when the organised gene was handed out. And so I find myself, at the end of our weekend camping trip, straddling the side of a busy highway, semi-trailers brushing past me on one side, snakes in the grass on the other, thonged feet and desperate eyes searching frantically for the tyre to our campervan that has mysteriously flung off as we drove. How did this happen? My mate forgot to tighten the wheel nuts when he changed the spare.
We’ve known each other 30 years, my mate and me, so none of this should have come as a surprise, least of all to me. But each time it somehow does. The ante upped on what could possibly go wrong. Our trip out to Queensland’s pretty Girraween National Park starts late. We’re meant to leave at 6.30pm for the four-hour journey south-west but that is pushed back as my mate is getting his car serviced. The same uninsured car we discover he’s been driving without brakes. He can’t find the camp stove which is meant to be where all the other camping gear has been plonked. Under his house, home to piles of unwashed laundry and a plethora of treasures owned by a variety of people, both living and dead, who may or may not also be buried beneath the rubble.
We eventually hit the road and arrive at the National Park close to midnight. We’re meant to be meeting our mates in their Kombi as they know in which of the two campsites we’re booked. My mate hands me a cigarette lighter in the dark. “What’s this for?” I ask. “I forgot the torch,” he says, as I stare incredulously at the stick which is meant to illuminate the night to allow us to make camp. Just as we pitch the campervan for the night in the middle of the Aussie bush, the Kombi arrives, having come off second best to a kangaroo, with all of its right hand side panels dented. I climb into bed for a restless sleep about angry kangas, and a nagging fear an equally annoyed park ranger is going to shine his torch into our illegal impromptu campsite in the death of night.
Things are looking brighter the next morning and we decide to move to a proper campsite where we don’t have to wee in the bush in the dead of night in the middle of snake breeding season. My mate decides he’s not going to put the pop top down on the campervan, instead driving the short distance to our new site with protruding beds still made. Things are going well, until my mate turns a tight corner and the van crunches into the back of his expensive black jeep, denting not only two corners of the four-wheel-drive but putting the pop top out of alignment. All of a sudden, our cheap camping weekend is looking expensive.
But troopers that we are, we set up camp, drive into the nearest town to pick up eggs (my mate forgot the eggs), and the four of us regroup over a few beers on one of those all-Aussie bush hotel verandas. We spend the next day walking the tracks for which this particular park is known. It’s three hours of solid bushwalking and food for the soul among the blooming spring wild flowers. It’s my job that evening to cook dinner – Beef and Guinness stew in a camp oven – while the others take a second hike. I’ve never cooked in a camp oven before and I’m nervous. What if the hungry hikers return and I’ve burned the beef? There’s not exactly a pizza place out here in the bush.
It’s a stunning afternoon as I stoke the fire, sip on a beer, and the others set off on their walk. And then the weather changes, rapidly, dramatically. Angry thunder starts grumbling in the distance and I have just enough time to put my beer (first rule of camping: save the beer) under some shelter before the sky erupts. I jump around like a mad marsupial, simultaneously racing to zip up the campervan, close the Kombi, the car windows, save the fire wood from a soaking and most of all, salvaging dinner. The storm is raging all around me, my friends are somewhere in the blackening bush, but there’s no way the stew on which I’ve spent the past 3 hours is going to spoil. I stand in the cold, wet, dark, hair plastered to my face, stoking my fire and stirring my stew like a wild witch.
The storm blows over as quickly as it arrived and my friends are swept back into camp. The camp table is set for dinner, red wine is poured and my stew is sumptuous, all tender and smoky and made with a kind of frenzied love. We wake up the next day, our cars and bodies a bit bruised and battered, feet and faces dusty and ready to hit the road. It’s only when I’m standing on the side of the highway with my mate several hours later, looking for our missing tyre, that his words of earlier that weekend hit me: “This doesn’t happen sitting around at home, you know.” We never do find the tyre and instead, limp into the tiny town of Aratula on the original shredded spare, and abandon the van there, until we can return the next day with new tyres. We stop further down the road and crack open a warm beer from the back of the car and laugh outrageously. And that’s the crux of this story. In life, sometimes you come off second best to a proverbial roo or two, you get dinged and dusty, wet, hungry and tired. Things don’t go to plan. But, like a kangaroo, it’s how you bounce that matters most.