1am. A tapping sound at my bedroom window woke me. Who the bloody hell was giggling I wondered as I slid open the window.
"Do you know what time it is?" I asked in a hushed but annoyed tone. "We have another exam paper in the morning!"
"Chill," Brett grinned--obviously stoned. "I just wanna hang out for a few minutes."
"Hey, I'm serious! Do you know what time it is?"
The silly grin vanished. "I'm sorry, okay? I'll jet. See you in the morning."
"Wait! That's not what I meant. What's up?"
"I got the shits with my mom's boyfriend and we argued. He pulled a length of hose so I split."
My sleepy brain was suddenly alerted. "He pulled a what? Did he use it?"
"Nope," my mate sniggered. "I was too damn fast for him. He has before though."
"Was that the reason for the blue marks across your back at the gym a while back?"
Brett ignored me and glanced at his watch. "It should be cool now. I'm gonna split home. Check you later."
"Okay, then," I complained, spitting the dummy, "don't tell me if you don't want to."
"It's not that I don't want to tell you. Hey, you talk about me having a short fuse. Anyway, I met up with Stuart tonight."
"Yeah, your blond surfer mate."
"He was stoned out of his bracket, man. Then he lit another joint and we shared it. Fuck, I never felt like this before! So I went home and the boyfriend saw me stoned. He tried to beat me."
"What for?" I asked sarcastically, annoyed by Brett's idiotic giggling. "You've beaten yourself already."
"Aww, c'mon, Kyle. Stuart told me you smoked it up with him before. So don't get heavy with me."
"Stuart's got a big mouth. Okay, so I tried it but I didn't like what it did to my brain. And you're acting like some stupid sheila."
"Cheers, Kyle. Go fuck your hand." And with that, he turned on his heels and vanished into the night.
Sleep denied me its refuge for hours as I tossed and turned, my mind buzzing with a thousand questions about what the hell had gotten into Brett. After waking late, I arrived at school just in time for the paper. Not surprisingly, I got the cold shoulder from my mate. And that's the way it remained for the rest of the week: a brief, half-hearted "g'day" in the morning and nothing after school. Brett's habit of walking me home ceased. Now he spent his afternoons with Stuart.
I wrote G about the situation but he was also at a loss to explain Brett's sudden and aloof detachment. You've done nothing wrong, Kyle. Don't be tempted to blame yourself. Give Brett space for a while, and time to sort out whatever it is that bothers him. Meanwhile, as difficult as it might be, continue to be yourself. You are responsible for your own behavior, not his.
Separation from Brett led to a bout of depression I desperately hid from my folks and Graham. The last thing I needed was an inquisition by people who basically did not understand my relationship with or my deep feelings for Brett. Hey, I battled to comprehend the situation myself. G talked about "hills and valleys"; that life's journey wasn't meant to be smooth; that we needed time to grasp and experience things from a variety of perspectives before being capable in hindsight of judging them with reasonable accuracy. Yeah, right. He was a fossil and I was 17. How long did I need to wait?
I met Stuart out surfing one afternoon. Had his friendship vanished too? Were he and Brett now mates to the exclusion of myself? "Say hi to Brett for me," I said, masking my misery and bewilderment.
The biology paper was one for which I studied extra hard. It kept me awake most of the night hitting the books. Next day, after the paper, I happened on Brett in the school grounds and made the effort to appear friendly and normal.
"How did the paper go with you?" he asked.
"Okay, I think. And you?"
"So, so. I was up all night studying. Can't wait for Monday and the final paper."
"So what are you doing tonight?"
"Not sure. Green Room maybe. You?"
"Not sure either. Guess I'll check with Melanie."
"She's going to Green Room; at least that's what Susan told me."
"I guess it's Green Room then. I'll check with my folks."
"Well, maybe I'll see you there," he said, and turned to walk away.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Shoot." His response was somewhat reluctant and cautious.
"What's going on? What's happening? I thought we were pretty good mates; even close."
"Guess I need a break for a while. Guess I never had a friendship like this before."
"What's with the grass?"
He shook his head and laughed. "Fuck, Kyle, sometimes you can be so naïve. You're probably the only dude in school who doesn't smoke grass. Anyway, I don't smoke a helluva lot, and Stuart's got contacts. I don't see it as such a big deal."
"I've smoked before," I admitted.
"I know. Stuart told me. That's why I didn't understand your high and mighty attitude the other night."
"It's not like that."
"So how is it?"
"You get out of control sometimes."
"From grass? Crap!"
"Grass and those cocktail drinks you call `shooters' make you crazy."
"And you can't handle that, right?"
"I'll handle whatever."
"Hey, who carries who home most of the time?"
"Okay, so next time leave me. I'll live."
"Jesus, Kyle, I think you're deliberately starting an argument here."
"I dunno," I commented facetiously, "I thought it was a pretty normal convo. So what do you and Stuart do all the time?"
"You really wanna know? We get fucking slaughtered together. And I think I know what your hassle is: you're jealous."
"Stuart's like your best mate and he's been hanging with me."
"Well, you're my best mate too and you're hanging with him. So there you go; my two best mates hanging together. Totally fucking cool. So what's there to be jealous of?" The hairs on the back of my neck bristled.
"Why do our convos get totally out of hand whenever there's a problem, huh?"
"'Cause everybody talks and nobody listens. Anyway, you're right. Let's quit this convo while we're ahead. I gotta jet."
"Will I see you tonight?"
"I'll check (with my folks)."
I was some yards away when Brett yelled: "Hey, Kyle, if you can make it, call me."
My dad exploded with fury at the idea that I could even consider clubbing and getting slaughtered with only one more paper to write. "I don't want you spending the entire weekend nursing a hangover."
"Well, is it okay if I go to Brett's for a visit?"
"You're not going anywhere, boyo. Not after the way you just spoke to me."
He was right. My short fuse landed me in trouble again. Melanie called to check the situation. "Sorry, babe, I'm grounded for the whole weekend." She said she would go to Green Room anyway, and that I could sneak out after my folks went to bed. "Yeah, right, and be grounded for the rest of my life?"
The last thing I expected Sunday morning was a knock at the front door. Brett? My eyes popped like champagne corks and a broad smile instantly claimed my face. The impulse to hug him long and hard was a fraction short of overwhelming but I maintained my cool in order to avoid his possible disapproval. He was carrying his text books and asked if we could study in my room together. The science paper was due the following day.
For several hours it was down to the serious business of study. Nothing personal entered into the conversation. When the time came to leave, he stood at the front door and searched my hazel eyes for a moment. "Hey, Kyle, it's no big deal between Stuart and me. Okay? I just want you to know that."
"Yeah, I know. I just can't help it. Rick's leaving for Canada tore me to pieces. I guess the thought of losing another friend scares me shitless."
"Hey, you underestimate yourself, man. I'm not going anywhere. You can be a total pain in the ass but you're the only pain in the ass I got."
End of exams meant welcome relief from stress as well as the extra bonus of free time. A few guys at school organized a hike up Wollumbin. They invited Brett along, but it was left to me to seek permission from the Bundjalung elders. My dad knew them well and always sought permission to climb Wollumbin out of respect for their law and culture.
Mount Warning remains significant to Aboriginal people, providing a traditional mythology dating from the Dreamtime. The Aboriginal name for Mount Warning (named by Captain James Cook in 1770 to warn other sailors of the shallow shoals) is Wollumbin, meaning `fighting chief of the mountains'. The Bundjalung people believe that lightning and thunder observed on the mountain were actually warring warriors and that landslides were wounds suffered in battle. The site retains enormous spiritual and cultural significance to the Bundjalung Nation. Under Bundjalung law, only specifically chosen people are permitted to climb the mountain.
Private transport is the only way to reach Breakfast Creek parking area at the entrance to the reserve. With all of us on board my dad's VW Kombi, we took the hour-long drive via Murwillumbah then west along Tweed Valley Way, a picturesque road twisting and winding its scenic route through rich farm country that alternates with magnificent rainforest. We arrived at 7am in bright sunshine. "See you later this afternoon," my dad said before driving home. "And good luck!"
Some of the guys were new to climbing Wollumbin. "You gotta be joking," Graham complained at the base of the first 100 steps; a combination of timber planks and hewn rock. "It's way too steep!"
"People do it all the time, mate, even little wussy guys like you. It's only 3,280 feet so no worries, bro."
We carried only water, sandwiches and fruit on the 5-hour round trip. After climbing the first 100 stairs, some of the guys threatened mutiny. "Beat the stairs and you'll beat the mountain," I said cheerfully despite my own pain. "What have I got here? A bunch of bloody sheilas?"
A further few hundred steps on, we sweated profusely; thumping hearts and expanding lungs worked overtime. The stairs seemed endless. Even the fitter guys complained of aching feet and leg muscles of jelly. Finally, we reached the 1000th step, the equivalent of climbing a 30-storey building. That was just the beginning. A lot more climbing lay ahead for our rubbery legs.
Several rest periods later, after using chains embedded in the steep rockface to haul ourselves up the final ascent, we stood triumphant (albeit totally buggered) at the summit, a leveled and fenced area with benches and tables, shrouded in gray cloud. Occasionally, the sun broke through long enough to reward us with spectacular 360 degree views: north to Queensland and the distant Glass House Mountains as well as a clear view of the Gold Coast high-rise skyline. To the east the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean. The Cape Byron lighthouse resembled a blip on the headland, while nearby Julian Rocks jutted out of the sea like the carcass of a shipwreck. To the south, villages, dams, rivers, mountains, and the unbroken coastline separated the fertile volcanic land from the adjacent sea. To the west mountain peaks and green valleys reached all the way to the distant Great Dividing Range. Below us lay the luxuriant tropical green of Nightcap National Park, our hike destination for another time.
I explained to the guys that Wollumbin, a volcano that ceased to erupt 20 million years ago, rose to a height of over 2 kilometers, twice its current height. Layers of ash and lava were deposited over its outward slopes to a diameter of about 100 kilometers, from Byron Bay in the southeast, Lismore in the southwest, and north across the Queensland border to Mount Tamborine.
The huge size of the Tweed Valley is testament to the monster Mount Warning was in its fiery prehistoric days. Today, the caldera valley is over 1000 meters deep and over 40 kilometers in diameter, making it larger than the famous Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.
"What's a caldera?" Graham asked.
"A bowl-shaped depression in the earth caused by the collapse or erosion of a volcanic cone. Don't you do geography at school, dumbass?"
"So where's the hole?"
"You're sitting on it...the central magma plug."
"You mean this is like a champagne cork ready to pop?"
"I don't think so, mate. It's stayed corked for a lot longer than you've been around."
The return trip was, thankfully, much easier. We negotiated the first of the steps and enjoyed an easy walk to the carpark.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon in a rocky area where we enjoyed pot-holing and exploring the vertical cliffs. I showed Brett a small stream that formed a rock pool before continuing its winding journey. "I was a little Kyle when my dad first brought me here. It was my first trip to Wollumbin. My dad told me this was a pixie river and that, at night, the pixies mysteriously appeared and danced under the trees. Jeez, folks can lie," I laughed, "but it's something I'll always remember. It was my mom and dad who first got me interested in my mountain."
"That's how I feel about it; my mountain. Rick and I hiked up here often. It was our special place."
I led Brett and a few others to a cave called Tree Snake. Inside, we investigated a central cavern, from which smaller circular tunnels extended and returned. The other guys eventually left Brett and me alone to go adventuring. "Wanna get naked?" I asked. "We can pretend to be cavemen."
Brett's reply surprised me. "Sure, we can go down one of the tunnels and you can blow me."
Was he joking? It wasn't worth the risk of returning to Byron in an ambulance. Rather, I ran my fingers over the bare volcanic rock walls of the cavern and pondered our apparent isolation from the lush and forested world we exited only moments ago. "Just imagine it was only you and me in here, and nobody else on the planet."
"I'd run and hide, Kyle. So would all the dinosaurs and giant wombats. On second thought, knowing you, the wombats would probably relate."
The unexpected return of the others from their short expedition abruptly ended our conversation. The group moved outside where we stood for a while in the intense heat enjoying the spectacular view. "That's where I'd like to be right now," Brett sighed, pointing to the ocean. "It's so damn hot here." I asked him if he was disappointed to be on the hike. "Nope. Actually, it's wicked; not like I thought. It's a whole different world."
For ten minutes or so, Brett quizzed me about nearby Nightcap National Park, its mountains and stunning scenery, the crystal pools and waterfalls, the dense tropical rainforest with its giant ferns, the magic places we would visit during our major hike. The more we talked, the more enthusiasm Brett showed for my special place. He began to appreciate where my soul resided--that the very core of my being was inextricably linked to the mountains and the sea.