My father drove my younger brother Barney and I to Aberfeldy, an old gold mining town in Victoria’s Gippsland ranges, 2.5 hours east Melbourne, back in 1980. Dad had a part share in an inactive mining lease up in the hills there, which, at the time that gold was discovered back in the 1860’s, had a population numbering in the 1,000’s, and was thick with of gritty prospectors, living in tents and lean-to’s, frequenting dozens of pubs, and pinning their hopes and dreams on the unearthing of precious metal trapped in quartz deep beneath their feet. High up in the hills, this area was now riddled with old abandoned mine shafts and tunnels, cut deep into rock, following seams in search of the mother lode, and finally left as dark, silent reminders of a bygone era. Whilst the tunnels had been long boarded up, many of the deep vertical shafts had been left unsealed, covered now by dense scrub and bracken. Fumbling around up there in the hills after dark on your own was not a such good idea.
I was under pressure to produce an oil painting that weekend, to complete my year 12 art folio. We were staying in an old mining hut, perched at the end of a long and winding gravel road. It was a warm November day (30 celcius, 90 degrees) and whilst my father and brother went for a long walk, I set up my easel and canvas on that road and went to work on my folio piece. It was so quiet there, I was completely alone. Except for the blowflies. These agitated airborne missiles had mutated to the size of small birds, and were totally ambivalent to insect repellant. In fact, repellant just made them angry. I sat there in the brilliant sunshine, in a T-shirt, shorts, and thongs (flip-flops), painting and swatting. Three brush strokes, one swat. Incoming assailants, outgoing mortar fire. My air defence campaign became intrinsically woven into my brush stroke technique. Get some paint on the brush, dab it on the canvas a few times, then slap my face and arms to ward off the incoming attacks. It was like a war dance.
Despite the annoying blowflies, I still managed to lose myself in the moment and drift away. Painting does that to you. I thought about what it must have been like back when gold was discovered in the area, and how the prospectors must have lived. I thought about the hut and how it had weathered the years, with its rusted roof and awkward timber structure. My mind meandered through dozens of other subjects that seemed important to a 17-year-old.
I woke up from my drift when the painting was finished, feeling completely refreshed, sun-burnt, with sore arms, and with a discovery.
I had completed two paintings instead of one. The second one was a self-portrait.
There was nearly as much paint on me as there was on the canvas. And with the earthy colors I was painting with, I was practically camouflaged. I looked like something out of Rambo. My face was spattered, my shirt and shorts streaked, and my bare arms were crisscrossed with streaks of color.
I felt a bit silly at the time, if the truth be known, with all that paint on me – but what I was about to do next would plumb new depths of personal stupidity.
It was now late afternoon and my father and brother Barney emerged from a trek up the steep hills that rose up next to the hut. Once they saw through my camouflage and realized that I wasn’t a tree, they told me about the abandoned but uncovered mine shafts up there in the hills. I decided that once I’d cleaned the paint off, I would take a walk up the steep hill through the dense scrub and check it out for myself.
Dressed for the beach, late afternoon, on my own, no provisions, totally isolated terrain, and wandering off aimlessly into the hills.
I initially followed a path up the hill that was so steep that it was hard to keep your footing without sliding backwards in the gravel and leaves. My brother Barney was chopping wood next to the hut, and the sound carried up the hill through the bracken and echoed through the trees. I decided to make it to the top of the hill, which was a good 30 minute climb. I didn’t see any abandoned mine tunnels or shafts along the way. At the top of the hill I found what appeared to be a fire track, a winding road that ran long the mountain ridge. I decided to walk along this road for a while, but I was conscious that I needed to re-enter the scrub at the same place that I came out of it. I could still hear Barney chopping wood way down below in the valley. The walk along the windy ridge road was very pleasant but probably took a bit longer than expected. It was very late in the afternoon now, and I figured that it was time to return to the hut. The heat had gone out of the day and there was now a breeze freshening in the air. Retracing my steps along the fire track, I followed the sound of chopping wood. Yes, Barney was still chopping. It was not uncommon for him to cut him to cut wood relentlessly for hours. He was a very fit and strong young human being. I kept following the sound until it was suddenly behind me. I turned around, took several steps backward, and looked up in horror. The sound I was following was not Barney chopping wood, it was a large piece of stringy bark, hanging off a gum tree branch, tapping against the tree’s trunk. This was not good. I had walked along the winding mountain ridge for a few hundred metres using a false guide, and I now no longer recognized my original point of exit from the scrub. There was no other human settlement on this mountain range, and with the road being so windy, I knew that if I commenced my descent at the wrong point, I could be heading back down on the wrong side of the mountain. I walked up and back along the track trying to make sure of my bearings. The light was starting to fade. I figured I had roughly 20 minutes before nightfall, and the descent may take 20-30 minutes given how steep and dense the forest was. That was, of course, if I was on the correct side of the mountain.
I eventually had to make a decision. I settled on a point of re-entry that felt correct but really was only marginally better than a complete guess. The descent was steep and tough going, given the density of the bush vegetation. It was hard to keep my footing and I slipped a few times, falling backwards. After about 10 minutes I found myself on a small clearing with a shallow dug out pit with side walls about 3 feet high. Dusk was maturing to darkness. I was seriously worried by this point because I had not seen this clearing on my way up the hill. I noted that the wall of this pit would provide some degree of shelter should I need it. I decided to press on for another 5 minutes and then, if I was not confident I was heading in the right direction, I would retreat back to this clearing and stay put for the night, and then return back to the top of the hill to the ridge road in the morning and stay there until someone found me.
The final 5 minute descent did not bring any joy. I was now calling out, trying to get some validation that I was going the right way, but my calls went unanswered. The temperature was dropping at a rate commensurate with my self-confidence. With a cloudless sky, the temperature was likely to get as low as 2-3 Celsius (32-33 degrees overnight), and I was dressed for the beach. If I was to spend the night up in the hills, I would survive, but it wasn’t going to be a lot of fun, and it would be worse for my father and brother, left to wonder if I had fallen down a mine shaft.
I had no choice but to retreat back to the pit for shelter. It would offer at least limited protection from the wind. This was not looking good at all. I started the slow ascent back up the steep incline through the bracken to make it back to the clearing before total darkness finally fell. I kept calling out, in hope that someone would respond. There was no moon that night in the hills of Aberfeldy, and it was now cold, and getting colder. I prepared myself for a long and difficult night on my own.
Then I heard my father’s call.
It was very distant, and with it came an overwhelming sense of relief. I was on the correct side of the mountain. I called back and established a connection.
It took another 15 minutes to reunite. I saw a torchlight occasionally bouncing off the tops of tree trunks, but the scrub was so dense the light did not find its way through to me directly. We kept calling so dad could track me. It took a long time for him to navigate his way through the last 20 metres (60 feet) because the undergrowth was so thick, and because dad was physically exhausted. He had grabbed a torch taken off up that steep hill in a mad panic to find me, and, for him, it was the second climb for that day.
We took our time carefully making our way back down to the hut, using the torchlight to guide our footings and to find branches to hang onto.
Poor old Barney was very pleased to see us when we got back to the hut. We ate dinner in front of the best open fire I have even seen. I described to Dad and Barney the pit that I was going back toward, to shelter for the night. They knew about this clearing, because they had seen it during their climb that day. There was an unblocked vertical mine shaft at that site. I hadn’t spotted it as I went past on the way down, but in the near total darkness, on the way back, it may have found me.
I slept that night, fully clothed in a sleeping bag covered in blankets, and I was still cold, but I didn’t care. I have never been so grateful to be a little bit cold.
My painting of the old rusty roofed hut on the winding gravel road sits on a wall at my parent’s place, and whenever I visit them I look at that painting and return vividly to the events of that weekend. I remember the blowflies and waking up with paint all over myself, and I remember what it felt like to be briefly lost in the dark up in the hills of Aberfeldy. I remember how relieved I was to be warm with food, fire, and family, and that dad had exhausted himself, racing up that hill, to find me.