Twenty-eight years

Not your usual pine forest encounter

It was dark, cold and lonesome but I was in my happy place protecting newly planted pine trees. Right now, they were just 20 centimetres tall but if I did my job right, they’d be a forest in future, a forest to be proud of.

Midnight and I was wide awake. Insomnia is not an issue when pest control is your passion and spotlighting is an effective means of targeting nocturnal quarry.

It was cold, my hands and cheeks were encrusted with frost, my fingers slow and weak. I’d been spotlighting for a couple of hours already and had a pile of possums spread-eagled fore and aft on the quad bike. I’d sniped them with the Brno .22 rifle, careful not to damage the valuable pelts.

Thanks to the weight of 20odd big possum carcasses, the steering was difficult as I rounded a super-tight hairpin bend in the 4×4 track and I almost missed the glimpse of eye-shine below. Almost.

The chilled slow fingers of one hand snatched at the brake lever, while equally slow fingers pivoted the spotlight with the other hand. It only took one sweep of the light to set my heart racing.

There was a deer down there. A big one.

Technically the .22 was too lightweight for the job at hand but there was no hesitation, no doubt. I trusted the Brno, the scope and the ammo. One wellplaced head shot, one quick clean kill. Only then did the adrenaline surge overwhelm me. Shakes on!

It was when I walked down to the deer, I realised the enormity of what I’d done. It was a big stag. It was a really big stag and I was a woman alone, on a steep hill, in the dark and wearing white fisherman’s gumboots.

I prepped the stag – small torch clenched between my teeth, hands still shaking, breath steaming in the cold and ‘woohoo’ and ‘yeeha’ bouncing around in my head—then I tried to reverse into it and lift its weight upon my shoulders. Yeah, nah, impossible.

With a blunt knife I gnawed and sawed and eventually converted one whole into two halves. Front half and back half. Then, once again, I slithered around on the frozen ground, I heaved, panted, staggered and swore and I stood up with half a stag. Then I fell with half a stag.

I stood up again. I even walked a few steps but the smooth-soled gumboots slid on the icy grass. Down I went again. Face first this time and pinned under the dead weight.

Plan B then. Take the bike off-road, trickle carefully down the steep spur in low gear, turn around even more carefully and then heave the halves aboard and tie them down with a bandage from the first aid kit and a length of spotlight cord. Easy.

I feared the descent but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

It was difficult to get the stag onto my bike and secured, despite it being in two pieces. The struggle was an endurance epic, which left me weak with exhaustion and entirely spent.

Then up I puttered, low and slow. Trembling arms holding on for dear life as the gradient got steeper.

Then onto my feet, my upper body thrown forward over the handlebars for the last and steepest section. Fear and desperation as the bike’s front wheels started lifting, my brain on autopilot as the load shifted along with the centre of gravity.

I lost control and both my four-wheeler and I went base over apex, crashing onto our backs and literally seeing stars. Then, as I somehow escaped unscathed, I watched in horror as the bike and its load started to somersault backwards down the hill.

In the light of my torch, I watched as the bike bounced faster and higher. It disappeared and then there was a distant crash. Uh-oh.

In brilliant starlight I began the long and lonely walk back to my distant ute and trailer. There I sat, shocked and shivering, waiting for the first faint glimmer of daylight on the eastern horizon. When it finally came, I drove back to that super-tight hairpin bend and found my buckled bike wedged against a lone cabbage tree. I could not shift it.

I went for help. I knew no one local here, was shy and disheveled but help came.

The bike, so wrecked and yet, once we’d righted it and levered the handlebars out, it started. I was incredulous. I crept it uphill, slowly it limped and wobbled back to the trailer and there it crawled aboard a bent and broken thing.

The helper, a large and good-natured bloke, helped retrieve possum carcasses, bike parts and the stag halves too. Then, when all and sundry were loaded, he sent me homewards telling me in no uncertain terms I was lucky to be alive.

He was right, of course. I had pushed my luck and my bike too far. Still, we had both come out alive and I was extremely grateful.

That incident happened in 1994. The forest and I have both grown up and out since then. This week it begins its harvest phase. After spending countless hours, in a multitude of differing pursuits within its boundaries, I love the place like a dear and familiar friend. I feel both grief and loss as it surrenders to the loggers. It is not mine but as I predicted 28 years ago, I am proud of it.

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