4) MOUNT WARNING
What time is it now I wonder? 4.17am. Oh, I’ve only been walking for quarter of an hour. I wonder if it’s going to take me the full two and a half hours that the guide said it would? it doesn’t feel like it maybe I should have stayed in bed longer I’m feeling really tired actually I could have done with a bit more sleep an extra half hour might have made all the difference, although maybe not I always wake up before my alarm when I have to get up early in the morning how does that work? what part of your brain stays alert and knows what time it is on those nights you have set your alarm even when you’re sound asleep? I wonder if anyone has ever done any research on that? what was that? oh just an owl I wonder if there are any dangerous animals awake at 4am in this part of the bush? I don’t suppose so australia doesn’t really have any dangerous mammals except maybe dingo’s but I don’t think there are any dingo’s around here and all the nasty reptiles would be sound asleep now surely it’s pretty cold I wish I’d put on another layer of clothing although the path is getting steeper and I’m starting to sweat a bit pretty soon I’ll be taking clothes off and then I would just have more to carry which would be a pain no I think I wore just the right amount of clothing although if I do twist my ankle really badly or break a leg which is not unlikely given all these sharp rocks and tree roots that I really can’t see because it’s so dark and I spend days lying in a ditch somewhere waiting for someone to come and rescue me, I would probably freeze to death. Then I would wish I’d worn another layer of clothing, or brought a space blanket or something with me. But it probably wouldn’t make much difference and I’d die anyway. Speaking of which, I better have some water. You have to stay hydrated, don’t you? Dehydration can creep up on you. How long have I been walking for? Oh, only 25 minutes. Not likely to be getting dehydrated just yet, I suppose. Maybe I should have brought more water. Two litres won’t keep me alive very long if I’m in a ditch with a broken leg. How much water does your body need to stay alive when you’re not exercising? Was it one litre per day, or two? I don’t remember. I'm sure I learnt that in a second-year physiology lecture. What time is it now I wonder? 4.32am. Wow! Time goes really slowly when you’re not doing anything except climbing a mountain in the dark, doesn’t it? Must be something about the darkness affecting your sense of time, or direction, or something. I wonder if they’ve done studies on that.
Mount Warning is in northern New South Wales, not far from Byron Bay. It's present-day peak is the central core, and all that remains, of a massive shield volcano that last erupted around 23 million years ago. When seen from the east, the contour of the mountain resembles the profile of a sleeping giant, his large nose pointing straight up to the sky. The steep granitic peak is visible for miles around, and is famous as the first point of mainland Australia to receive the sun’s rays each morning.
The area surrounding Mount Warning is of cultural and spiritual significance for the Bundjalong aboriginal people; Mount Warning’s aboriginal name is Wollumbin. The land closer to the coast, adjacent to Byron Bay, is associated with the feminine and is said to be their birthing grounds; the peak of Wollumbin and its surrounding valley represent the masculine. On this morning in 2003 that I am climbing Mount Warning I'm unaware of the indigenous people’s request not to climb the mountain. Had I known this at the time I would have respected their wishes.
Captain James Cook gave Mount Warning it’s English name in 1770, having used it as a navigation mark, and named it as a warning to future ships of hazardous reefs off the nearby coast. I'm climbing Mount Warning prior to sunrise today because I’ve heard from a number of separate sources that it's something I must do; an urban legend passed around backpacker hostels in the area for years. I first recall hearing about it more than 20 years before when I was staying at the Youth Hostel in nearby Nimbin: the year, 1982. As a lazy teenager, however, I hadn’t found the energy or initiative to get up before the sun to actually climb it. Today is the day.
Oh God. Why didn’t someone tell me I should bring a torch with me. I’m so stupid. I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that the climb would be this difficult, and I would get stuck on a rock ledge in the dark. I'm so stupid. I really need to think about these things more before I go rushing off like an idiot, unprepared. And what’s with these chains? Nobody told me about the chains. I mean, the first hour and a half of the climb were relatively easy going, a few steep slippery spots, but this is almost vertical. I guess if the sun was up it would be OK, but right now there’s no sun, or moon for that matter. In fact, I can hardly see my hand in front of my face. This overhanging rock above me is too scary to climb over without seeing where I’m going, and I’m not going down again, it’s really steep and slippery. What am I going to do? I guess I just have to wait here until the sun comes up. How long will that be? I think it was supposed to be around 6.30am, but it will start to get light a bit before then, right? And it’s . . . 5.25am now. So, in about 45 minutes . . . oh, God. Really? I have to hang onto this chain on this tiny ledge for 45 minutes? No way. I’m such an idiot. Oh . . . oh . . . I hear something? Yes. YES. YEEEESSSSS!!! Voices. And they have a flashlight. Oh yes, thank you, thank you, thank you.
“Hello. Hi. How are you?”
“What’s up, man? Are you climbing up here without a light, man? That’s pretty dumb you know, man. You could break something, man.”
“I know, I feel really stupid. Would it be OK if I tagged along after you guys?”
“Sure, man. Be my guest, man. It’s a free world, man.”
I arrive at the summit of Mount Warning with muddied knees and wounded pride about fifteen minutes before the sun is due to rise above the eastern horizon. At some point the sun did rise above the eastern horizon, but I'm unable to see it do so due to the heavy blanket of cloud that completely obscures any view in all directions. In fact, this morning the peak of Mount Warning is wearing it’s own personal halo of cloud, like a localised meteorological party-pooper.
I eat the single muesli bar I have brought with me in sullen silence as I sit, shivering, near my dozen or so fellow climbers, then I head back down to the car, and to the warm bed at my friends house in Tyagarah, just north of Byron Bay. I’m not close friends with Matthew, but he had offered me a bed whenever I wanted one, and as I have a week off work I've taken him up on the offer.
Emotionally this is not an easy time for me; it feels like my life is falling apart. I've been slipping progressively more deeply into depression over the past six months, and the anti-depressant medication I've recently been prescribed is doing nothing to lift it. Work is really getting me down, and if something doesn’t change soon I may just off myself, and be done with it. Life feels pointless, meaningless, joyless. I keep hoping that a black-hole will open up underneath me so I can jump in and disappear off the face of the earth without a trace. That way there would be no messy suicide for my friends and family to have to deal with.
As I lay my already aching body down on the bed at Matthew’s house, I glance at the clock on the bedside table and notice a book sitting beside it. The book isn’t mine, and it wasn't there when I had left the house earlier in the morning. I wonder if Matthew has put it there for me? No, I later find out, he has never seen the book either.
I reach over and pick it up. The word Buddhism is the only one I remember from the title, any other words being irrelevant at this moment, I suppose.
I open the book, and as I do so bright blinding light radiates from its pages, temporarily dazzling me. I shield my eyes with my hand and squint at this most unexpected of occurrences, my mind temporarily unable to make sense of what is happening. Then, a now familiar voice speaks, quite clearly, inside my head. Five words this time:
“YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY.”
“Oh . . . really?”
“What does that mean?”
The light that was radiating from the book — real or imagined, I don't know — fades. I lay the book on the bed beside me and stare at the ceiling.
What does that mean? I’m going the wrong way?
Then, still laying on my back gazing at the ceiling, the focus of my attention turns itself around, and looks inside for the first time. It doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything, it just happens. There I discover that what I have been frantically searching for my whole life—love, happiness, fulfilment, peace—is not to be found where I have been looking for it, in the outside world. I see that these things are waiting for me, and have always been waiting for me, inside my own self. I see that I had only needed to turn my attention away from the exterior world, and look inside to discover them.
That moment was the beginning of a journey into myself where I've discovered—and continue to discover ever deeper—the joy that I had known as a child. Joy that had vanished as my pursuit of objects of desire, and love, in the outside world had taken the focus of my attention. I’m not sure what part climbing Mount Warning in the dark that morning had played, but I am grateful for it none-the-less . . .
January 29th, 2015.
I climbed Mount Warning in May, 2003.