At 4:30am, half dozing, I listen to the continuing rain on the tent. It is like sleeping inside a drum; each drop amplified and resonating as it hits the taught roof and walls. It has been going all night and beneath the rainforest canopy the drips filter down to us as fat, heavy notes with no rhythm. Then suddenly, above the drumbeats, comes a loud, long and tortured scream. In the treetops, a woman is being murdered. Twice she screeches out and we are both instantly wide awake. It is pitch black. I sit up, listen and wait. It comes again, slightly further off, one final drawn out scream then all is quiet.
I am immediately reminded of a story I read, of a similar encounter. Alex Gaddes, who started work as a cedar getter at just 14 years of age, describes how he was left alone for days on end in rough bush camps in the steep forests south of here, terrified of the dark and the night sounds of the creatures.
"There was one particular occasion which stamped itself indelibly in my memory. My father had gone away for a few days, and left me in the camp, as usual...(our camps were usually open-ended affairs, built of the ubiquitous turpentine bark)…I was barely holding my own with my apprehension, when suddenly a blood-freezing scream rent the night air. Now it was not just any old scream, but one which ended in a gurgling death rattle." (Alex Gaddes, Red Cedar: Our Heritage).
Gaddes explains that he heard the scream repeated two more times and every other creature in the bush fell quiet. His father later called it a 'yahoo bird' and in more than 50 years working in the forests of the North Coast, Gaddes says he only ever heard the bird on one other occasion.
|Upper Falls - Hastings River|
Caz and I are camped in a remote patch of forest, miles from other people or any farmhouse, but in similar terrain to where Gaddes spent his formative years cedar getting. We are camped above the Hastings River in Werrikimbe National Park's wilderness zone, with deep valleys in all directions. The scream is still fizzing in my blood with its spookily human sound and the undertones of a raptor-like hunger. I stay awake listening for more, but instead catch the distant call of kookaburras and closer, outside the tent, the morning chirrups of a golden whistler. Dawn arrives and the mystery of the screaming woman bird leaves us wondering exactly what we heard.
We have been tent bound since 4.30pm the previous afternoon due to the persistent rain so a certain amount of "cabin fever" forces us out into the forest for a wet breakfast. The night sounds have been a distraction because what we are really here for is a big day's adventure - a trip down off this ridge to find the Upper Falls on the mighty Hastings River.
If you are based locally, the walk to the Upper Falls can be done as a day trip, although undoubtedly a long and tiring one. Essentially it is about a 15 km return trip with 4-5 km of that being off-track as you follow Gorge Creek through a narrow band of stunning coachwood rainforest to a point where the creek drops over an 18m waterfall. To bypass this obstacle the suggested best route is down a steep gully immediately south-east of the small waterfall.
We begin the gully descent in the rain and everything is steep and slippery. At the top, the terrain looks like more of a landslip than a gully and it is a wild scramble, carefully picking our way over rocks and fallen trees, using our arms and shoulders as much as our legs. The gully spits us out onto Gorge Creek immediately at the base of the waterfall and it is so pretty one I wonder how it has not received more of a mention in the few track notes we have read.
|Gorge Creek Falls|
We continue down Gorge Creek towards the Hastings River and it is still a scramble, every muscle turned on and working hard. But, stepping out onto the rocky bank of the Hastings, the Upper Falls is immediately visible and surprisingly impressive. The last 24 hours of rain has perhaps lifted the river level as there is a good amount of water pumping over the 50m, spectacular drop. Getting to the base of the falls scores us wet feet as we criss-cross upstream. The rocks near the top pool are slippery like verglas, covered as they are in black lichen and wet slime, mist from the waterfall and light drizzling rain. Every now and then the waterfall lets out a muffled boom as water hits water in just the right way.
We have plenty of time to enjoy the spectacular scenery so we stop for lunch on the rocks and the sun even comes close to shining through a tiny patch of blue sky. At least it is enough to dry our jackets and shirts. On the topographical map this section of the river is labelled as Nothofagus Canyon and at the top of the falls it looks like there is a tempting, dark, deep rock walled gorge stretching back out of sight.
It's equally wild, returning after lunch back up the steep gully beside Gorge Creek. Rocks shift and move under us. But, we are in camp by 2:30 and drinking hot soup at 3pm with the rest of the afternoon to explore the forest around us - the pretty waterworn boulders in the creek, the huge variety of fungi that seem to have sprung up overnight. We make the rainforest our home. The clouds have lifted and so we string out our wet gear. Caz sniffs out a stinkhorn fungi and I am off stalking the golden whistler that seems to call this patch of forest his. The rainforest only stretches a short distance from the creek edge and then the landscape is dominated by large eucalypts.
The weather holds for the afternoon and evening, long enough for us to cook a hot meal but, as the clouds drop and the forest mists in, the rain begins to fall again so we crawl into the tent and the drumming takes up its beat. The forest gets dark and another night of murder and screams threatens.
Back home and we have tried to identify the call we heard. Gaddes writes, that an ornithologist friend of his suggested the 'yahoo bird' could have been a Powerful Owl, something Caz and I both feel would be likely. However, having scoured the modern resources of the internet nothing really comes close. A good sight for Australian bird calls is Graeme Chapman's site but the only thing we find here that sounds slightly similar is a fox mating screech! Unfortunately foxes are not known for roosting in the top of tall eucalypts. The Barking Owl has some history of being known as the 'screaming woman' bird but the recorded calls we find are not nearly blood-curdling enough.
Our chances of hearing the call again are probably slim, if Gaddes reports are anything to go on: more than fifty years in the bush and only ever two encounters. I am not sure if this is reassuring or disappointing.