By Tony DeLorger © 2011
In anticipation of another day of blistering temperatures, Joel took an extra canteen of water, hoping that would suffice until he reached the canyon floor and flowing water. The upper ridge was relatively flat but covered by loose rocks making the trek slower and more exacting. Turning an ankle out there was a death warrant and between the heat, limited water and snakes no-one would last long. Joel was an experienced hiker and had all the survival skills necessary for this little sojourn, but one thing no-one counts on is nature; it can turn at any moment for seemingly no reason.
After an hour and a half, Joel reached the edge of the upper flat. The escarpment below fell at a concave slope outwardly for a hundred metres or so and looked treacherous. The red dusty soil was littered with pieces of rock from pebble size to boulders a man’s length wide. Joel scoured the slope looking for a more hospitable track down, and saw none.
It was about ten and Joel took another swig from his canteen, sweat running freely down his unshaven face. That dust just dried up your mouth and sucked the moisture out of you. Back at base camp the rest of them were no doubt packing up for their trek down the winding old watercourse that would take them to the same destination. It was much easier bit a three-day hike all the same.
Joel loved a challenge and jumped at the chance to do it tough and have an extra day up his sleeve before rendezvous. Above, the lonely cry of an eagle echoed in the rocky vista. Joel looked up, envious of the freedom of flight and feeling so limited where he stood, in this wilderness of dry heat and dust.
But after securing his canteen and straightening his hat he edged his way over the rim and began a slow and precarious descent. Everything was loose under foot and he turned backwards, all fours against the escarpment wall, easing down a foot at a time. Earth and pebbles cascaded down below as he moved, their sound like clattering marbles.
Joel moved in a zigzag pattern gently moving downward trying to avoid loosing his footing. It was slow and arduous and the sun was getting hotter by the second, beating down on him with ferocity. He kept hydrating himself, desperately trying to replace what he was sweating out, but it felt like a lost cause.
It took three hours to arrive at the next flat and by then Joel rolled on the ground panting, the relentless sun having taken its toll. He lifted himself up on one elbow and searched the area looking for some shade, but there was nothing by dried out scrub. The flat was much narrower and would only take half an hour to cross and Joel hoped the next escarpment was a little easier. If it was he could get down to the plateau by maybe four; enough time to set up for the night and continue at first light.
He got up and stretched out, pouring some water on his face and trying to cool down a little. Joel then checked his pack and headed off. The flat was much the same, loose stones and dust, a few shrubs and dried grasses. How anything could live out there was beyond comprehension. That lone bird was still squawking above high up on an updraft, seemingly motionless, floating in a vast blue sky.
Joel was already on the second canteen when he began his next descent. The afternoon sun was just as strong and he felt its sting under his clothing. Chewing a chocolate bar helped with energy and with great determination Joel carefully slid down the slope, keeping his balance and all the time watching for the larger rocks.
About halfway down he stopped for water, leaning against a two-foot boulder, his feet dug in. After securing the canteen he rose to his feet and from behind the boulder he heard a disturbing sound. He froze in fear; that high pitch rattle like a piercing blade in his ears. He edged back, his eyes wide, not knowing what to do. The snake slithered out on to the red earth, its triangular head coiled back, its black eyes staring right through him. Joel moved his closest hand slowly backward and without warning the rattler launched itself at him. He fell back against the escarpment wall and the snake passed by him, its rattle almost touching his nose.
He lurched back the other way and his feet just went from under him. He tumbled at first, several times until his body became parallel with the ground rolling faster and faster toward the flat below. With legs and arms flailing trying desperately to stop his descent, he caught rocks and boulders, sticks and clumps of red earth, pulverising his helpless body, until at last he hit the fat with thud. Everything went black.
When Joel awoke, it was dark, the sky a blanket of brooding clouds with the occasional patch of clear sky and stars twinkling so unaffected. He rolled onto his back and every muscle in his body seared with pain. ‘Shit!’ he cried, having no idea about his condition. Whatever it was it hurt like hell. He looked down to his legs and noticed one was at a strange angle, the reality of it becoming clear. He was in bad shape.
Thankfully he was trained for these sorts of occurrences, and although he just wanted to collapse from exhaustion, the leg had to be secured. On the count of three he dragged his body backward and the leg straightened a little, the pain sending him almost unconscious. He wriggled his way out of the backpack and opened the front flap to find some rope. He took his pocket-knife from his belt and made several smaller lengths of rope. Next to him were a few sticks that he bound. Sitting up, he felt his right calf and found the break. It had not broken through the skin and appeared to be a clean. Gritting his teeth he pulled hard away at the ankle and felt the bone reposition itself. Joel quickly placed the sticks around the calf and tied the ropes around that to secure it. After that he fell back, unconscious.
It was about 3am when Joel was awoken by a crack of lightning. He jolted, forgetting his injuries, and sat bolt upright, sending his body in a spin of sharp stabbing pain. ‘Shit!’ he cried, rolling back. Another crack and the rain began- torrents of rain that took him by surprise. It was pouring down, creating rivulets down the escarpment above, trails of water building around him. It was pitch-black and he could see nothing, only the water rushing by. It seemed to be coming from everywhere, water streaming down the slope and onto the flat. The red dust suddenly turned to a shallow river of water and he in the middle of it.
Joel dragged himself backwards away from the mainstream of water and groaned with pain at each movement. The water flow sounded like a waterfall now, each rivulet joining others to create a torrent, carving its way through the desert. As he dragged himself further the sound became louder, but he still couldn’t see a damned thing.
He turned on his side, hoping to see what was in front of him by a random lightning strike. But it was too late. A large chunk of earth gave way behind him and a rush of water surrounded him, lifting him and dragging him off into the flow.
Joel cursed as he was tossed and turned in the flow, one joining another until this stream was like a river, a white river thrashing its way through the desert to join the flow at the base of the canyon. He felt like a cork, completely helpless and at the mercy of nature. His course was relatively straight and the speed of the flow kept him in the centre of it, hardly touching the sides.
After about ten minutes of racing with this white water, Joel felt his body become weightless as he fell from a ledge twenty feet into the river below. He hit hard and his leg felt like it had fallen off. Moments later he was gasping for breath and scrambling to get out onto the pebbled bank. With his last-ditch effort he clung to the rocky shoreline and fell unconscious.
‘Joel? Wake up! What the hell happened?’ asked Trevor, rolling him onto his back.
‘Hell, his leg’s broke,’ said one of the others.
Joel slowly opened his eyes, looked up and grinned. ‘Told ya it’d be fine.’