On the evening of the second day, Anthony tells us that the hike to Manning Gorge will not be on the group itinerary.  He doesn’t think it worth the effort at the end of the dry season, and if we leave by 9 AM we can make it to El Questro before dark.  We are welcome to do the hike if we want to, but he wants us back by 9.

“Nine to five” takes on a whole new meaning when you are on an extended camping trip, especially when you are sleeping out under the stars.  Most of us are in bed by nine and up by five, when the birds began to squawk.  It starts to get hot well before seven.

The hike itself begins with a swim across the river.  Styrofoam boxes are stacked by the bank, essential if you want to keep your boots and clothes dry for the crossing.  There are four of us who decide to go for a hike about the same time, not really caring if we arrive at the gorge, simply wanting some exercise before the bus ride.  One by one, we slip into the water like beavers, pushing our precious cargo through the placid water to the other side.

We dress quickly and head down the trail, which seems to be nearly all rock, and would be impossible to follow without the numerous markers that guide the way.  We should be able to reach the gorge and get back in time, so long as we don’t dawdle.  Brian, Kylie, Lynne and I come across Bronwyn on her way back from the gorge and she confirms our estimate.

There is no shade, and the sun is already high enough to feel hot.  Perhaps we are going a little quicker than I am comfortable with.  Searching for clues in retrospect is foolish, but it is difficult to resist the impulse.  Two weeks earlier, I had my second cataract operation.  The second lens has a different focal length than the first and this may have thrown off my depth perception.  At Bell’s Gorge I tried to reach the bottom by swimming down from the surface and came up with a punctured ear drum for my trouble.  I may be 64, but like most men, I can behave like a teenager at times.

We finally reach a ridge and the pool in the gorge spreads out beneath us.  We sip some water and start down.  That is when I miss a step and do a somersault among the rocks.  Ten minutes earlier I had tucked my camera into its protective pouch.  Now I’m flat on my back looking up at my concerned companions.  My mind goes elsewhere for a long moment.

I take stock of my body.  It seems to be intact.  Nothing is broken.  I am sore and winded, but my awareness returns after the odd absence when I seem to have been in another place.  Brian, Kylie and Lynne help me to my feet and take my pack.  We rest awhile, before continuing the descent, more slowly. I am grateful to be alive.

I don’t realize until I get back to the bus that my arm is bleeding. By then, the puncture has swelled to something the size of a small egg.  Accidental falls are the number one cause of death in the wilderness.  I have been very fortunate, missing several large rocks and landing on my backside, not my head.  For the remainder of the trip I’ll be nursing a sore bum, arm and fingers.  My buttocks will be black and blue for a week or two, but I’ll live to tell the tale.  For that I will always be grateful.