*This article was highly commended in the IA Writing Competition Most Enthralling Fiction Work category.
I decided to call the little guy Pinky.
After three hours of driving through bushland (two of which were in the wrong direction but hey we all make mistakes right?), the koala cub had finally nestled down on the passenger seat. He was small, with large, looping ears and a pink splotch on the tip of his nose… hence the name. I glanced down at him, hoping I was doing the right thing by bringing him with me, it being my first day and all. We were well and truly inside the parklands when I spotted four stark-white letters amongst the canopy of green. G.K.N.P, or as most people knew it, the Great Koala National Park.
The letters were attached to a massive building that looked newly furnished. Its design was that of a centrepiece from a modern art gallery which now appeared as though it had been placed into the surrounding Neoproterozoic collection of wild treeland by some confused giant. It really was amazing what eighty million dollars from Labor could do, I thought to myself.
I stepped out of the car, a small rental I had gotten from a suspiciously over-eager salesman. The poor thing had barely survived the trip and the same could be said of Pinky. Gingerly, I carried him with me towards the front door. Upon entering the tranquil silence of the national park was shattered. It was only eight-thirty in the morning but already the park staff were in full swing.
Phones were ringing, emails pinging and… was someone singing folk? People in different coloured jackets were chatting over office partitions that didn’t quite partition, and the smell of brewing coffee led a mild stampede of sleep-deprived workers down the hallways.
"Heya, you must be the new volunteer ranger", called a cheery voice from behind me. I turned to see a short, plump woman with a mat of gritty blonde hair. She was beaming; a human smile coated in yellow overalls.
"I’m Maddie, pleased to meet you", she continued, reaching out a hand when she suddenly spotted Pinky. She let out a small gasp. "Well, well, who’s this?" she cooed.
"I found him, or well… I found it by the side of the road, back by the horseshoe trail when I was driving. It looked too small to be by itself so I thought the best thing to do would be to bring it here."
"You did the right thing love, he definitely shouldn’t be by himself at that age. Must’ve gotten separated somehow." Maddie motioned to one of the workers who was intently listening in. "Eve my dear, can you take him to Station 4? Oh, Eve here is one of our best koala carers."
Eve, a slim woman with trailing red hair and glasses, glided towards us and gently took Pinky in her arms.
"Don’t worry," she said. "We'll get him fed and GPS tagged right away." I waved Pinky a little goodbye as he glanced back at me.
"Those little guys need a lot of looking after," Maddie said, "but it's the least we can do after Gladys' department destroyed most of their habitats".
"Well, that's quite an impression for your first day, let me show you round the stables for now."
What followed was a shotgun tour of the office and (from what I understood) it was organised thusly:
The department was split into four sections, each one pertaining to its own colour, just like the seasons in a year. There was the autumn orange of Fire and Safety, the winter blue of Operations, the summer green of Land, Water and Heritage and finally (my would-be team) the spring yellow of the Park Rangers.
Maddie then guided me to a task board, at the bottom of which was a line of dots and dashes I recognised.
"Why is S.O.S written here?" I asked.
"Oh that's for flashlight communication," Maddie answered. "Just in case you run into trouble. Things can get more dangerous here than you’d think at night. Anyways, at the top are the tasks for the day. Don’t you worry darling, you’ll be shadowing Graham for most of it."
"You mean I get to go round the Park? Like, today?" Now I was the one beaming.
"Well, aren't you eager? Of course, you get to go round, why else would you be here otherwise? Let's see, the first job is…"
"... weeding" interrupted a gruff voice.
"... ah Graham there you are, perfect timing."
He was tall, with dark hair, tanned legs and sunken eyes. Unlike Maddie, he looked as though he had never smiled in his life. More of a thundercloud than a sunny day.
"Come on kiddo," he grunted looking down at me, "we’re already late".
Maddie gave me a friendly wave as I followed Graham out to his jeep in the staff parking area. We walked in awkward silence until Graham asked cautiously, "so you saved a koala eh"?
"Hmm. Well then, remember this. If you look after nature, nature will look after you. Got that kiddo?"
It was a 30-minute drive to the worksite, where I had been expecting to see the park’s beautiful flora and fauna up close. Instead, I found myself with Graham in a large man-made clearing full of dead logs and rotted trees. The ground beneath my feet was a sickly yellow and all around an unnatural stillness perforated the air.
"The NSW logging project," Graham spat, clearly noticing the look of horror on my face. "The logging companies nearly drove the mammals here to extinction and what did the Libs do? They bankrolled the entire thing."
I nodded, too dumbstruck to say anything of use.
"Well," Graham continued, "I’ve got some work to do at the next site over."
"Can I count on you to clear out the weeds here?" He looked at his watch. "I should be able to come pick you up at about 3 pm". He handed me a bucket full of tools which I grabbed at eagerly, ready to help mother nature in any way I could.
"No worries, I can handle that easy."
"Sure," Graham grunted. He then told me to stay hydrated and not to wander off, you know, all that common sense people like him follow religiously. When he headed back to the jeep I soon found myself entirely alone. Just me, a desolate logged area, and a wall of trees that stretched all around me. Using a trowel I began to dig out the foreign weeds that had sprung up in droves, thanks to our old friend, deforestation, and made some good progress.
After an hour or so I had done so well that I was nearly finished. Checking my phone, I saw that I still had about three hours to spare and thought there would be no harm in taking a short stroll. The logged area was dismayingly large but eventually, I got to a line of trees and pushed on through, finding a steep indentation that would’ve once been a stream. I knew if I followed it, I could use it as a guide to get back.
Along my stroll I let my mind wander, all the better to take in the splendour that was the G.K.N.P. tall gum trees swayed in the light breeze, the gaps in their canopies showing glimpses of rocky mountainsides in the distance. All around me there was the skittering of unseen critters at the edges of my hearing. I suddenly remembered to watch out for snakes.
After an unknown amount of time had passed, I found a small brook of fresh springwater, feeling somewhat like a famous explorer. I should’ve brought a flag, I thought. Chuckling, I haphazardly checked my phone.
My expression quickly changed.
"Half two!?" I yelled. How have I been walking for nearly two hours?
Crap I’m going to be so late. It's not like Graham needs an excuse to hate me even more…
Maybe if I ran fast enough I could get back before three. But it would be close. I began to sprint, heading back to the dried-up ravine. This carried on for almost twenty minutes before I realised that I must have gotten turned around at some point. No matter how far I went in what I thought was the right direction, I couldn’t find it. Panic set in, so I ran faster, dry branches snapping under every frantic step.
There! A gap in the trees with a clearing I recognised.
I dashed towards it with a relieved grin plastered on my face. I was going to get back in time without Graham noticing.
A flash of white-hot pain shot up from my left ankle. I didn’t get a chance to see what I had stepped on before I was thrown off my feet, the flat ground beneath me vanishing.
Oh. There’s the ravine my useless brain had time to say before I tumbled down into it, landing with a heavy thud onto my back, knocking the wind from me. When the world stopped spinning, I opened my eyes. I tried to stand but my entire leg was on fire. With a sharp gasp of pain I fell back down. Something was broken or at least very badly sprained.
"Damn, that smarts", I said rubbing my leg, as if that would magically heal it. The pain was slowly starting to numb but I quickly realised that I wouldn’t be able to walk back in this condition and that I was still ages away from the logging site. Desperately, I tried my phone, holding it as high as I could. But I didn’t have any signal. I hadn’t had any since I left my apartment.
"Well, this is a real mess you’ve gotten yourself into…" I said to nobody but myself.
I tried my best to get out of the ravine, I really did, but the sides were so steep I needed both my legs, and the pain from trying was too much to bear.
The only thing I could do was follow the ravine along as it twisted around dozens of tight bends. By the time it was starting to get dark, I had barely made any progress.
6:30 pm. Surely Graham would be looking for me? Though would he really care?
I huddled down, submitting to the unavoidable fact that I would have to spend the night in the ravine.
How could this have happened on my first day? I thought. How could I have been so stupid?
I fought off tears that prickled at the corners of my eyes. A deep fear from taking root in my chest. People have died in situations like this. You hear stories about it in the news, kids who wandered off. I had always thought it was the parents' fault, not keeping an eye on their own but now I realised how tragically easy it was to make a mistake in the wild.
Something small and light shuffled the leaves to my side.
Crap, was it a snake? That's the last thing I need. Arming myself with a large twig, I waited as something did indeed come crawling around the bend of the ravine. But it wasn’t a snake.
I gasped. "Pinky?"
It couldn’t be, could it? I took a closer look. It was indeed a koala, one that looked a lot like Pinky, with a similar pink splotch on its nose, but it was noticeably larger, and had a thick yellow collar attached around its neck. No, not Pinky but perhaps this was his mother. The koala came right up to me, curious about who was making all the noise. It seemed very used to humans.
"Hey there, nice to meet you." I reached out a hand to gently pat her on the head. I now noticed that the collar she wore was huge, and seemed to have a large battery pack sticking out from it. It was then I remembered that Eve mentioned something about Pinky getting "tagged".
My eyes lit up. It was a GPS tracker!
Carefully, I unclipped the collar. After checking the device from top to bottom I found only one switch that seemed to turn it on and off again. Not exactly multi-functional. I sat back down thinking that Eve did seem like the kind of person to monitor her koala’s very closely. But how can I let her know that I’m here as well? A wild idea came to my head. Would it work?
I had nothing to lose.
Systematically, I flipped the collar switch off, then on, then off again.
Three dots, three dashes, three dots again, over and over.
I repeated the signal until the last rays of sunlight disappeared behind the mountaintops, turning the sky into a ceiling of velvet. Placing the collar next to me, I settled down to spend the night with Pinky’s “mother” who was in no rush to leave. She was close enough that I could feel her warmth against the encroaching cold of the night. With nothing left to do I prayed they would find my message.
"Hey, you okay? Wake up."
A familiar gruff voice woke me from my sleep.
"You gave us quite the scare darling." Another familiar voice.
I opened my bleary eyes and saw Graham, Maddie and Eve in the ravine with me. Pinky’s mother was gone.
"Here," Graham said, handing me a flask of warm tea. I drank it graciously.
"I noticed one of the collars acting up until Maddie pointed out it was Morse code," Eve said.
"You certainly were a clever duck," said Maddie, "we might’ve never have found you otherwise".
Graham looked at me sternly. "I told you not to wander off," he said.
"Oh please," said Maddie. "You wander off all the time. Besides, you were the one searching through the night whilst we monitored from HQ."
"Really?" I asked in astonishment.
"I couldn’t stop him," Maddie chuckled.
"Well you don’t have to tell them everything," Graham grumbled, hiding his face as helped me up.
‘Come on, we’ll get you fixed up,’ he said as they took me out of the ravine. The others went on ahead, clearing a path through the thicket of bushes. I sighed in deep relief, all tension washing away from my bruised and battered body. Then I waited until Maddie and Eve were out of earshot.
"You were right," I said to Graham. "About what?"
"If you look after nature, nature will look after you." For the first time, I saw Graham crack a smile.
"It always will kiddo."
Harry Bough is a copywriter and aspiring writer.
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