I woke up at 5:30 am like we were instructed. Several people had already been up to use the toilets. After using the toilet myself, I started to roll my swag up as the others had. We were told to keep the swags rolled up when we weren’t using them so that critters wouldn’t crawl inside. The sun was slowly starting to rise, but it was still fairly dark outside.
As I rolled up my swag, I felt a pain in my hand. I instinctively said, “Ouch,” quietly to myself as I looked at a small prickly thing that stuck to my palm. I heard Damien say, “They hurt, don’t they?” I looked up, and to my surprise, Damien was sitting up on his sleeping bag on top of the truck, looking at me. He was well over 40 feet away and on top of a very tall truck. I didn’t realize he was watching me or could hear me. Maybe he doesn’t hate me after all.
I quickly went to the shower to change clothes. I realized the night before that I left my toothbrush and toothpaste in the cabinet at my last Airbnb. I asked to use someone’s toothpaste and used my finger to get my teeth as clean as I could. I asked Damien if we would stop at a petrol station that day so I could buy a toothbrush. He said we would stop in the afternoon.
After changing and packing up my stuff, I noticed that people were already packing up breakfast items. I hurried and scarfed down some cereal and some instant coffee, burning my tongue. By the time I was ready to go, everyone was sitting in their seats. The only seat left was the front seat by Damien.
I was ok with that because I liked the legroom and wanted to attempt to get Damien in a better mood. I was confident nobody chose that seat, even though he told people to switch seats, because he was challenging to be around. He didn’t talk much, and when he did, he was often a jerk.
Once we got into the car, I cheerfully asked Damien if I could play some music. Linda had complained the night before that his music was sad and making her feel depressed. I also felt bored and saddened by his music. I told Damien that I had music that more people would like. He looked disgusted and said, “It’s not about them. It doesn’t matter.” Wow. A tour guide who thinks it’s not about the people on the tour. Interesting.
I tried to hype my music up and said I would blow his mind with my music and introduce him to new artists. He wasn’t impressed. “Let me guess. You have a lot of country music. Americans always have country music.” I was offended. “Um, no. I actually can’t stand country music. Never have. It’s played all over Missouri (where I grew up), and I don’t like it.”
He agreed to let me play some music, and I patiently waited for him to hand over the cord. I couldn’t push it and knew I had to ease into this. After ten minutes, he handed me the cord to connect my phone. Unfortunately, I needed an adapter because my iPhone doesn’t have a regular jack. My adapter was in my bag in the back of the truck. I asked if there was a USB connection, and he said no.
Damien’s phone was connected to the stereo by Bluetooth, so he told me to try and connect that way. My phone wasn’t recognizing the Bluetooth. I tried repeatedly and told Damien I couldn’t find it and it was probably because his phone was connected.
He disconnected his phone, and I found the Bluetooth signal, but it wouldn’t connect. I tried twice, and my phone was telling me there was a connection error. Then Damien said, “You have to press a button on here once your phone finds it, so it pairs.” I said ok and tried to connect again. But the signal was gone, and the stereo display was saying N/A.
Damien was annoyed and said it was working fine before. I tried to explain that the signal was gone, and maybe we need to turn it off and on again. The stereo was closer to Damien, and it was a newer model installed in the old truck. The sun created a glare, and I had a hard time seeing the display.
Damien tried to get the connection to work, but also had to drive. After a few minutes, he gave up in frustration. He tried to reconnect his phone with Bluetooth, but it wouldn’t work either. After trying a few times, he put his phone down, upset.
I started to play around with buttons, but I was mostly feeling around because I couldn’t see them very well. They were small and blended in with the color of the dash. I searched for a power button, but couldn’t find one. I realized one of the big buttons probably needed to be held for a few seconds. Sure enough, that turned the stereo off and then on.
I kept trying to get it to work because I really wanted to play my music. I thought maybe Damien would like it, and it would put us on a better path. This all backfired big time. When the stereo came back on, it now gave an “error 10” message. Uh-oh.
Damien was really angry. “You broke it.”
“No, it was already broken,” I pleaded.
“It was working before you started randomly pressing all sorts of buttons.”
“No, I wasn’t pressing them. I was mostly just feeling around.”
He yelled at me, “You’re trying to tell me what happened when I was sitting right here. You broke it by pressing all sorts of buttons.”
Trying to keep it light, I said, “No, it already said N/A before I started pressing buttons. It already wasn’t working when you tried to reconnect your Bluetooth.”
“All I know is that my phone was connected to Bluetooth just fine before you came. Then I disconnected for you, and now it won’t work.”
I felt awful. I couldn’t get it to work. We argued, and Damien was not happy. I tried to make up for it and asked if there was a manual somewhere. He pointed to a box above my head. I pulled out two manuals, but neither were for the stereo because it was newer. I said, “I just need Google. I need to find out what error 10 is.” Damien snapped back, “Well you won’t have cell service for at least two days.”
We sat in silence. After ten minutes, Damien plugged his phone into the USB slot that was hidden behind a button. That irritated me because I asked early on if there was a USB connection, and he told me there wasn’t. He plugged his phone in, but that wouldn’t work either. The only two things that worked were the fuzzy radio and the AUX. He used the AUX cord and was able to play music from his phone.
He looked over at me, holding the cord that connected his phone, “Now I have to use a cord.” Being dramatic, I said, “Oh no, you’re living in the Stone Age.” I thought I saw a smile and hoped we would overcome this. I felt terrible that I couldn’t fix the Bluetooth connection. I was also bummed that I couldn’t play my music.
The drive would be a few hours, and suddenly, Damien stopped the truck on the road. He leaned back and shouted, “You can give your legs a stretch and walk around. I’ll drive the truck up the road around the corner a few hundred meters. Meet me back at the bus in 15 minutes.” And just like that, we were all stranded on the side of the road as he drove away. I thought maybe he was leaving us there. I peed in the bushes and then made my way to the truck. He hadn’t left us.
Damien and I started talking about U.S. politics. I was surprised by his views. He seemed like a hippy and free spirit, so I assumed that he’d be pretty liberal. But he was actually pretty conservative.
He told me that he couldn’t stand the Clintons because they’re horrible people. He mentioned Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and said she’s just a pretty face who can speak well, even though most of what she says is wrong. All people care about is a pretty face who sounds good. I had a conversation about her when I was in southern Australia.
Damien liked Trump’s domestic policies and thought they were doing really good things. When it came to Trump’s foreign policy, he didn’t care for it. We talked about U.S. wars, including Vietnam. He didn’t like how the U.S. has been so involved overseas and thinks they have ulterior motives. Australia also fought with the Americans in the Vietnam war. Damien pointed out the cruelty of agent orange used by the U.S. I told Damien I was in Vietnam, and the agent orange rooms with pictures of deformed people were misleading because the dates of some people were born decades before the U.S. was ever there. We had a good discussion about what is humane and inhumane when it comes to war – what justifies the means to an end and what does not.
We arrived at Bell Gorge to hike into a natural pool. Damien put on sunscreen, but only put it on the top half of his face. He didn’t rub it in, and instead just left it as a coating of white cream. He also put on a dirty, brimmed hat and told us that we should put sunscreen on. I was frustrated by his lack of communication. Sunscreen is supposed to be put on an hour before you go into the sun.
As we hiked into the gorge, I continued to be frustrated by Damien. He was smart and had his own viewpoints. It’s such a rarity these days. Most people are either not informed or only speak in sound bites that they heard from biased TV shows or biased news articles. Damien was confident and able to hold an intelligent conversation. But he was also judgmental and cruel. And I still wanted his approval.
After 30 minutes of hiking, we arrived at the pool. We climbed down large, smooth rocks. There were other people there sunbathing and enjoying the water. Damien just sat on the side of a rock. Most people in our group were getting into their swimsuits or taking off their clothes to reveal a swimsuit. I had mine under my clothes, so I took them off. We had to slide slowly on our butts because the moss made the rocks too slippery.
The water was cold! It took my breath away when I first got in, but it felt refreshing within a few minutes. I swam over to the two waterfalls, where the streaming, clear waters were sun-warmed.
As I swam towards the rocks, I talked with Glen. He was in his 60s, from Sydney, and was traveling with his wife. Glen and I somehow started talking about minimum wage. I told him there was a recent push to double our minimum wage. Glen was in favor of it, but I tried to explain to him that Australia’s prices are much higher than in the U.S., especially the food. That might have something to do with the high minimum wage (the highest in the world).
I couldn’t help but feel like Damien watched me and listened to my conversation as he sat on a rock above. The sound echoed, so it wouldn’t be very hard. I was always getting a sense that he was listening to me.
Suddenly, Damien walked off and said if anyone wants more of an adventure to follow him. A few of the younger people followed, climbing over large rocks in their swimsuits. I followed in the back but saw they were jumping off of a cliff edge into another pool. I decided to pass on the diving, and they continued to other pools. I went back to the original pool to lay out in the sun and enjoy the warmth.
There was a family of five from the U.S. who were traveling with a guide. They were from New York and Connecticut. Their daughter just completed a short internship in Melbourne, and the husband had just worked in Sydney for a few days. They decided to take advantage of the opportunity and see some more of Australia. It was rare to see another American in Western Australia.
It was time to go back to the truck for lunch. We set up the chairs and two tables to prepare the food. It was hot and dry outside, so we all hunkered down under a large tree for shade. Kayla dropped her camera into the water for a second, and it wasn’t working. I felt so bad for her. She was crying and was so upset at the thought of losing her pictures from the first leg of her trip. They put her camera in a rice bag and hoped it would come back on. We were all confident the S.D. card would work, and she’d get her pictures, but it broke my heart to see her so upset. Her dream is to travel the world taking photographs.
While the back of the truck was open, I climbed up and found my adapter in my bag. It was time to leave, and when I got back into the cab, I asked Damien if I could play some music because I had my adapter now. He reluctantly let me plug my phone in. I played two songs by The 1975, and he seemed to think they were good. He even asked who the band was.
He grabbed my phone and skipped the next two songs because he thought they were too pop-sounding. I felt torn. I have a mix of music on my phone. I knew people in the back wanted more happy songs, but Damien preferred slower Indy songs. I grabbed my phone, so he couldn’t skip songs and tried to be more selective about which ones to play. After a couple more songs, Damien reached for his headphones.
I was insulted. Damien said, “You acted like I’d hear all this new music.” I asked him to give me another chance, but he wasn’t having it. I was visibly upset and offended. He angrily responded, “You don’t have to sit up here. I do. You can move to the back. But I’m stuck up here.” That hurt my feelings. I thought he was somewhat enjoying me being at the front with him, but maybe he hated it. It wasn’t even my choice to sit there, which made me even more irritated.
We rode for another hour or so, and out of nowhere, Damien slowed down and pulled off the road into a dirt section with branches lying around. Everyone woke up wondering what was going on. He turned off the engine and said nothing. I leaned over and said, “Why are we stopping?” He said, “Firewood.” I asked, “What kind?” He only said, “Big ones.”
Damien got out of the truck, and we all followed. People asked me what we were doing, and I told them, “getting firewood apparently.” Once everyone was out of the truck, Damien instructed people to grab wood for a fire that night and hand it to him on the roof to secure it. I wandered around, not sure of which logs to grab. Damien pulled out an ax and started chopping away at a large tree trunk on the ground. Then he climbed to the roof. Some of the men carried large tree trunks and lifted them to Damien.
Once he felt we had enough firewood, we continued driving. We got closer to our campsite, and I saw a smoke cloud in the distance. I asked Damien if that was smoke or a cloud, and he simply responded, “Smoke.” As we got closer, the smoke got thicker. The sun was setting, making the smoke even worse. The road was bumpy, and the sunset in front of us made it difficult to see. Sometimes rocks appeared just below the surface, and we couldn’t see them until it was too late, and we went flying. A couple of times, I got airborne, and my butt came off the seat. One time I reached for the ceiling out of panic.
We pulled down another dirt road and came across a pickup truck going the opposite direction. We were close to our campsite, and Damien rolled down his window to talk to the other driver. He said the fire was just across the river from where we were camping.
As Damien pulled into our campsite, he sang along to the lyrics of a song that I was playing. He didn’t put his headphones back on after we got firewood, so he listened to about 30 minutes of my music, and I was hopeful that he liked it. As he pulled in the campsite, he said “Just walk away,” in reference to the song that was playing. I said, “So these songs were decent?” He responded, “Oh, I wasn’t listening.” What a jerk. I huffed in disgust. He said, “What? I don’t have to like your music.” I snapped back, “I know you don’t have to like it.” I wanted to follow it up with, “But it would be nice if you at least had an open mind and listened.” But I didn’t bother.
When we pulled up to the campsite, it was almost dark, and the forest fire’s smell was strong. Smoke was surrounding the place. Damien stopped the truck and turned around to the group, “So the fire is in the gorge that we’re camping at, just across the river, so tomorrow we’ll have to change plans. We won’t be able to hike it. Does anybody have asthma?’
A few people in the back said yes. Damien’s response was, “Good luck.” Sophie spoke up, “Can I get a tent for tonight, then?” Damien condescendingly said, “Yeah, because a tent will stop smoke.” I couldn’t believe how he was treating people.
We all got out of the truck and started to unload it. Sophie and Suzanne told me they were both setting up a tent that night. The smoke was bothering me, and I thought maybe the tent would help block some wind. Plus, I didn’t sleep well in the swag the night before. We’d be staying two nights at that location, so I thought setting up a small tent would be fine. Most of the others just used swags.
As we set up our tents near each other, Sophie vented her frustrations about Damien. She said she called him an asshole as she got out of the truck, and he heard her. She planned not to talk to him for the rest of the trip.
After setting up tents, we took showers. By the time I got one of the showers, the water was cold. I was happy to have lights this time, though. Sophie gave me her airplane toothbrush and toothpaste that she used once. She was keeping it as a spare in case she needed it. I was grateful because we never stopped for gas, so I had no opportunity to get one.
After the shower, it was officially dark outside. The fire was so red and so illuminated that it looked like a sunset or sunrise. It also seemed to be in two directions, almost surrounding us. Damien said he would hike up near the river to see the fire, and anybody could join. I grabbed my headlamp and hiked in my bedtime cotton t-shirt and shorts.
There was sand by the river, and then we climbed up rocks for ten minutes. At the top, we were just above the river. On the other side, the fire burned away the trees just below the cliffs. I couldn’t believe that we could see the actual flames. In California, we would have been evacuated. In the outback, there wasn’t anywhere else to go. The fire department wasn’t trying to put the fire out because bushfires usually go out independently. We heard a rumor that six people went hiking that day, and only four came back, so they searched for the other two. There were a handful of people also camped nearby at the other sites.
Once we checked out the fire, I sat at the picnic tables under a canopy. My group wasn’t on call for dinner, so I could relax. I talked with Phillip. He was from Belgium, was in his 40s, had a shaved head, and wore glasses. He is an organ pianist and played a solo concert in Sydney for a few days. He also did some teaching while he was there. He said he comes to Australia every three to four years to play concerts. He decided to extend his stay and do this tour to see other parts of Australia.
I also talked with Oliver. He was 20 years old, from The Netherlands, was thin, fairly short, and had such blonde hair that it looked white. He’d been traveling in Australia for two months and had a working visa. He ended up not working and decided to keep exploring instead. He only had a month and a half left on his visa and wanted to see what he could. He was sweet and could be really funny at times.
We were also sitting with Linda from The Netherlands. She was 28 but told us a story about when she was 20 years old dating a 26-year-old. A girl reached out to her on social media recently, asking if she had dated him. She confirmed she had. The girl asked Linda if he was ever abusive to her. Linda told the girl that he wasn’t abusive, but he left her for a 15-year-old.
Linda was full of stories. She also told us about a time that she was on a school trip to the mountains. They took the gondola up to the top to see the black diamond runs. A girl accused her of kissing her boyfriend. She didn’t realize the guy had a girlfriend, so admitted to kissing him. The girl tried to push Linda down the mountain.
It was time for dinner, and the cooking team (mostly Damien) had made steaks. They were good, but Australians like their meat well done. After dinner, I sat by the fire and talked to some people. Then it was bedtime.
It was warmer that night, likely because of the fires. I used my swag inside the tent, so I still had the mattress pad. I kept the swag unzipped, though, so that I could get some air. I heard snoring yet again, even though I tried to distance myself from the snorers. I couldn’t find my earplugs, so Suzanne gave me her spare pair. I thought I would sleep better in the tent, but I had a hard time stretching out. It was another night of restless sleep.
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Post Edited By: Mandy Strider