When I first smell the smoke, it registers only superficially.
Unlike the tight gild of the eucalyptus trunks or the mammalian noises of the kookaburras, which shock my perception with their newness, this smell is a familiar detail from hikes back home in Virginia.
It isn’t until I see the concern on a fellow backpacker’s face that I recall that this section of Tasmanian forest is under a strict open-flame ban. Whatever I am smelling is nature-made, and nearby.
In my tent, I finger through my guidebook for clues and for comfort. “If hot, dry, windy conditions are in the forecast, consider delaying your trip on the Overland Track due to increased threat of bush fire.” How had I missed that? I must have read the guidebook half a dozen times before leaving the U.S. In the event of a snake bite: lie down and immobilize the limb. In the event of hypothermia: change to dry clothes and drink warm water. But this seems the first I am reading about fires. I shift in my sleeping bag. Outside my tent, wind gusts approach 40mph. Before this night, the string of warm, clear days we’d been having seemed an uncommon fortune in a wilderness that sees over 70 inches of precipitation a year and where it regularly snows in the middle of summer. Now it appears our luck is fool’s gold.
I am not a natural adventurer. On the continuum of fight or flight, my nervous system seems hardwired toward the latter. Finding myself alone on a weeklong bushwalk through one of the most remote sections of Tasmania has been more an effort of calculated self-expansion than the sort of adrenaline-fueled sporting taken up by the Bear Gryllses of the world. I am here, as I have explained to a number of incredulous loved ones, on the faith that the best way to face down the unknown is with one boot-clad foot in front of the other. If you want to know how much you have to give, I reason, you must put yourself in a situation where your only option is to give more.
But that was before the smoke.
Now, huddled in my tent, I review our options. There is small river 500 meters south of camp, but according to Eva, a fellow walker who is from Slovakia but has lived in Australia for the past decade, the water there is too shallow. “Every year in Australia at least one person tries to save themselves from a fire by jumping into their swimming pool,” she tells me. “But the fire is too hot. It cooks them in the water.”
Even in the absence of strong wind, fires can spread fast and unpredictably in the Australian bush, where eucalyptus trees are plentiful. The oil produced by these trees, distilled commercially as antiseptic or deodorizing agents, is also flammable. It forms a volatile net around the crown of the trees through which firestorms accelerate. It is not unheard of for a patch of eucalypti to combust under the heat of an approaching fire before the flames even reach it.
There is a small hut at the campsite, but the ranger quarters are locked, and there is no radio or other means to communicate with anyone who might have knowledge of the situation. There is only one way in and one way out of the track, and we are smack in the middle of both – three days to civilization regardless of the direction we walk. Eva reasons that the park officials keep tabs on the number of people out here and know our approximate location. There is a helicopter pad near the hut, and if we were in danger they would send someone. But I am not so sure. On the wall, a poster offering, “What to do in the Event of Emergency” bends and yellows at the corners. The section on bush fires is delivered with a uniquely Aussie mix of sure-footedness and fatalism. I run my hand across the final line like a string of prayer beads: “As a last resort, run through the lowest part of the flames onto burnt ground.”
There are about fifteen of us camping at this site. We have been tracking each other all week, moving in our respective units during the day and then joining back up at night. Nearly everyone in the pack is Australian. Most are couples. I am the only one traveling solo. I am carrying a PLB so that in the event that injury or emergency immobilizes me, I’m able to send out a radio signal with my location. Until now, the device has seemed like an equalizer between me and the other walking teams. But as my fellow walkers retreat in pairs to their tents and bunks for the night, for the first time on the trip I wish for more than myself to lean on.
From the map, I gather that the night’s camp is in a relatively favorable position: it is the lowest point in the forest for many miles (fire travels faster uphill than down). Also, though mostly eucalyptus, it contains a healthy mix of wetter myrtle beeches. However, this is a double-edged sword: if the fire does reach camp, there will be nowhere safer to go. I think about the poster in the hut and wonder anxiously why it hadn’t been more specific about how low the flames must be to cross them safely. The saccharine scent of smoke filters into my tent as I listen to the wind pick up and change directions.
“There are two types of fear,” I had boasted to a friend before leaving for the trip. “Fear that is in your head, an illusion keeping you in the comfort of the known. And fear that tips your body off to the need to take action.” Now I squeamishly admit to myself that there is a third type of fear: the fear that comes from knowing there is no action to take. I have exhausted all the information in my book. The plan is simple, but not easy: sit tight and hope the wind is blowing in the right direction.
* * *
By morning, the wind has calmed but not died completely. The smell of fire is so faint at times that I wonder if it is only in my mind. As I walk, I count the meters between bodies of water and try to compare them to the size of backyard pools. Moving may be meaningless without a clear sense of where the fire is or which way it’s going, but I am comforted by the illusion of safety that progress provides.
When I arrive at camp that night, there is a ranger on duty in the area. As Eva had thought, they have been monitoring fire. We had never been in any real danger, the ranger tells us. Only an act of God would have sent the fire our way.
An act of God. My body releases bits of tension that I hadn’t known were still there. I know that an act of God is not so far-fetched; it is, after all, how the fire got started in the first place. Still, I can’t help relaxing in the reassurance of being near someone who has a line to the outside. Someone with real information. I am still alone, but a little less so.
Light falls over the Du Cane Range to the west, rendering the mountains in such plain silhouettes that they appear to be cut from paper. The nearest road is still two days off. My feet have carried me this far. It will be my feet that carry me the rest of the way. My feet, and the favor of the wind.
Elizabeth Ferris is a writer and editor living in Richmond, Virginia. She learned how to set up a tent at the age of 24, and since then has logged hundreds of miles on long-distance trails around the world.