I don’t know when things changed but by lunchtime we were all having a great time. Mum usually came around to Dad’s good mood. He’s infectious like that.
Dad had driven down to the closest town and bought fish and chips for lunch. There’s something about fish covered in greasy breadcrumbs which warms the soul and brightens your outlook. We made chip sandwiches and heaped on the tomato sauce. Compared to last night’s dinner it was a banquet.
Dad had also purchased a large snapper for that night. Things sure were looking up at the Pitt’s campsite.
Almost immediately Dad decided to test our resolve.
“Let’s go for a bush walk,” he said as he scrunched up the greasy paper and leftovers and tossed them in a bin.
“Let’s not,” said Mum. She’s the best sometimes.
“What about we hit a ball around?” Dad suggested, knowing my soft spot.
“What about we just sit around and relax?” suggested Mum.
“Okay, then,” said Dad, digging out the core of the problem and coming up with a solution that might finally make Mum forgive him for last night. “What about you sit around and relax and I’ll take the kids for a game of French cricket?”
Obviously it was a great idea because Mum even gave him a kiss as we headed off to the big grassy area near the ranger’s office.
We’d been playing for about an hour when the ranger came over and introduced himself. His name was Tom.
“I’ll be taking some kids out spotlighting tonight if you guys are interested,” he said to Meg and me.
“What’s spotlighting?” my sister asked him.
“We sneak around the forest with torches looking for wildlife.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?” asked Meg.
“No, I’ll be there,” said Ranger Tom. When my sister didn’t immediately look relieved, he added, “There’s nothing dangerous out there. It’s not like you’re in danger of being eaten. I mean, well, there are some pretty nasty snakes and spiders. But they won’t eat you. Not like those Bunyips.” He laughed like he’d just reached the punch line of a joke.
We didn’t laugh.
“What’s a Bunyip?” I asked.
“A mythical creature from Aboriginal folklore they reckon inhabits waterholes and rivers. It jumps out at people when they least expect it.”
“And you’re saying they don’t exist?” asked Meg. “You’re sure?”
“Well, no-one’s ever found one and lived to tell the tale,” said Ranger Tom. “Don’t worry about them. I’m just having fun with you. We’ll be looking for goannas and possums and harmless stuff like that.”
“And when we find them?” Meg asked.
I don’t think Ranger Tom had been asked this before. He looked a bit confused for a second. “Um…nothing. That’s it really. We find a critter in the trees with our torches, I tell you what it is, and then we go and look for another one.” He shot her his biggest smile yet. “Trust me, it’s a lot of fun.”
I suspected our definitions of the word ‘fun’ were very different.
Still, we agreed to meet him at the ranger’s office at 7.30 that night. It was a much better idea than sitting around with Mum and Dad looking at The Saucepan. It’s the only collection of stars Dad recognizes in the night sky and the only one he ever points out. Well, The Saucepan followed by a lame Orion’s Belt line someone must have misheard and laughed at sometime.
As the sun set over the horizon some hours later, lightning was filling the distant night sky a few mountains over. The storm was so far away that we weren’t even getting a low rumble of thunder, but it looked incredible. I was glad we weren’t over there – our campsite was dry, if nothing else.
We settled around our new, grassless site and helped Dad light the fire. Actually, it would be more accurate to say we helped Dad not light the fire.
Across from us, two backpackers from Switzerland or Austria or some country where everyone is organized and efficient had just returned from a walk. They’d unpacked their bush walking gear (water, first aid kit, toilet paper and probably a state of the art GPS device that they’d assembled from old watches) and were busily preparing their dinner over a flame the size of a match head.
Meanwhile, we were still trying to teach wood to burn.
The movies make it look simple – pile the wood together and strike a match. So far we’d gone through two day’s newspapers and had started ripping up the cereal boxes. In the end we threw in a whole box of firelighters and cooked with them. They added a nice fuely taste to the snapper.
By the time we had our fish cooked the backpackers had done their dishes and turned in for the night.
Tearing hungrily into my meal, I was amazed at Dad’s cooking skills. In one mouthful there was both burnt and nearly raw fish. It wasn’t enough to put me off eating it though. I was starving. And anyway, if the Japanese can eat uncooked fish then so can I.
“Look!” said Dad as we helped clean the dishes and tidy our campsite up. “You can just make out The Saucepan through that break in the clouds.” Then he paused. “Now where’s Orion’s Belt?”
“It’s the same stars,” said Meg and I dutifully and without any enthusiasm at all, and he rewarded us with a happy grin. For a grown man, his needs are simple.
Thankfully, we noticed a couple of kids walking past us with torches.
Throwing our backpacks on, Meg and I grabbed our torch, leaving Mum and Dad with the lantern, and followed.
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“Raising a family on little more than laughs”