North of The Scorpion Archipelago October 28th 1997
“Jesus, it’s the fucking Lost World, isn’t it? With any luck we’ll find dinosaurs still rule and we’ll have big game hunting with a difference.”
Jane’s knuckles were clenched white, in part through the ostentatious and unnecessary crude language from Pete, which showed disrespect for her father as well as underlining the ever-present simmering tension between the two men. Worse though, was that in his Rabelaisian way he had a point. She knew it would be wrong to underestimate his perceptiveness. After all, he had sensed well enough that her lust of a couple of nights before was not coincidental; had recognised, in her need for silence, other desires being satisfied. How else could she explain his mocking words after she had thrashed her way, sotto voce, to a voracious climax: “Was that good for you too, Lois?” Perhaps her anger now was for herself at some subliminal level.
Looking from the window of the plane, she, too, didn’t know how to react and had to wonder what the hell might be down there. Even from a distance the islands were unwelcoming, exuding the latent violence of a sleeping monster. The canopy of trees that softened the contours of the looming mountains was a dust-sheet thrown over the contents of a long-abandoned room; what ancient secrets or horrors might be concealed? Would anyone, even a people fleeing from deprivation or tyranny, really choose to settle here?
She prayed her father had not been spun a yarn, and if he had, why? Sure, it had made for unusual in-flight entertainment on the way from Perth as he told them the tale of Tariq and the amphora. Jane could understand why he had waited till they were en route before telling it. She knew everyone had been mulling it over since; a returning fisherman flees from his homeland, a place unknown to civilised man, when he sees it has been consumed by fire and lava. One of his few possessions, an amphora, passes down through many generations till the last of the line, knowing he is dying childless, gives it to an outsider, along with the revelation that the engravings on it hold directions to that long lost kingdom. There is a secret that will only be revealed if the recipient of the amphora finds the kingdom, if indeed it still exists; a place of fabulous wealth, where the people mined precious stones that bought them all they might ever need.
On its own it might have been an enchanting tale, as long as it didn’t turn out to belong to the Arabian Nights, which were not the basis for heavy funding of exploratory expeditions. Jane had not tried to read the expressions on anyone’s face, and didn’t intend to, in case she saw respect for her father replaced by incredulity or indulgence. But what right had she to hope for unquestioning belief when she, herself, didn’t know how she felt? Of course Pete had simply snorted, not bothering to hide his disbelief, but he was here now, and her father’s comment that this was a one-way ticket could prove to be double-edged; they were stuck with him.
There was no real mystery to her growing contempt for her husband. In the early days she had mistaken his cavalier approach to life as charming and debonair, instead of the spendthrift, raffish reality. Her family was well respected, and that had opened doors for him. Once marriage had bound them together, the tie had turned out to be a rope, at one end of which she tried to forge ahead, conquering the steepest slopes, blazing a trail, only to be held back by a pull on the line; the need for assistance.
And then, one night, over the ridge of the summit, Jim had appeared. Nothing had prepared her for the way time stopped when he walked through the door; or rather the clock had started afresh, with her wanting him; wanting to be possessed by him. Parts of her body tingled right now as she remembered how she had come time and again at the thought of him inside her, her husband’s body a mere tool – she had to smirk like a schoolgirl at that one – to fulfil the desires her imagination had sent into overdrive. What the hell was all that about? She was Jane Sutch – she had never taken Pete’s name – known for her affinity with the past and the dead. Yet she recognised that one smile of greeting from Jim had represented the drawing of a blade that could cut the rope, severing her from everything that had held her back.
She sneaked a sidelong glance at him. Perhaps five years her junior, but that didn’t matter; she was a hormonal teenager and, compared with the things he had seen and done, her achievements were like a pass grade in domestic science. She remembered his discussion about Rwanda at that first dinner:
“It was a privilege to be invited back by the transitional government to present my record of the horrors of the genocide. They wanted to use that as a forum for reconciliation. Do you know, some of the perpetrators are now helping willingly to rebuild the homes of their victims? Amazing!”
Jim had stated it all as facts, without bombast or arrogance. He was someone aligned towards the future. That seemed appropriate to Jane. She loved her work, but needed a private life away from the past, with its dust and death. He wasn’t striking or handsome in a classic way, but had open, honest features and sleepy green eyes. She nurtured the desperate hope that he didn’t feel he was here under false pretences, chasing ancient heirlooms and the ghosts of folklore, or that her father had allowed his pursuit of a dream to cloud his judgement. But Jim was being funded by the Society, doubtless earning top dollar for this jaunt. And after all, the rugged scenery approaching from the south would surely provide some fantastic photo opportunities, irrespective of whether they did find evidence of the fabled island kingdom.
She gazed just a little longer than she should at Jim’s profile, unaware that she was the focus of similar attention.
Gradually the scene unfolding before them became the focus of everyone’s thoughts. The general mood dipped as they had flew past the two oppressive fangs of rock. The Professor turned in his seat, looked at Jane and pointed:
“Hell’s Gate,” he mouthed and she felt her spine shimmy as she remembered the translation.
They were homing in on the slender, lumpy scar of the archipelago in the middle of that featureless sea. Flecks of white below became waves that had travelled unhindered across hundreds of miles of cold, unforgiving ocean. To a man or woman, the chill they felt was down to more than the utilitarian nature of the plane’s interior. The buffeting the Cessna was receiving in the strengthening wind was not helping their spirits.
That the mood overall had remained buoyant during the flight was thanks, in great part, to the presence of the three students; hardy souls who had been only too willing to join the expedition without knowing where they were heading. They alone had seemed to accept things at face value as they had listened with deference to the Professor’s tale. For them, two guys and a girl, this had the makings of a big adventure; in fact it was already. They were young and as far as Jane remembered, bad things don’t really happen to you then and, above all, not when you are led by a luminary like her father. He had earmarked them after asking some loaded questions in their respective departments at their universities, and holding a disingenuous discussion with Jane, who also lectured at Kings College, Cambridge. Later he had explained how, having told each of them that he would be calling them that day, he phoned them all a little before his dinner party and checked their availability, leaving no time for them to rush off and tell anyone. Given the types of people they were, their acceptance of a place on the team had been almost a foregone conclusion – their types being enthusiastic, trusting and, on the whole, skint. Jane listened in on them, curious as to how they were dealing with all this, but also to get to know them a bit; without arrogance she knew they were too in awe of their older companions to dare talk to them yet, which made it all the more ironic that the muscular presence of the two guys in particular was reassuring.
“Man,” said Cobus, “it looks freezing down there. And I thought the waters off the Cape were bad.”
“Four minutes,” said Robbie.
“Four minutes what? You bloody Scots are tight with your words as well.” The Afrikaner gave Robbie a playful thump on the shoulder that might have injured a lighter man.
“Till ye die. Without a survival suit that’s how long it would take. We had a guy go overboard just south of the Arctic Circle on naval manoeuvres. Had him out the water in two minutes and his body temperature was already critical.” He grinned. “Mind you, that’s par fae the course for most Scottish kids who grew up with holidays on the coast.”
“Ja, why did you leave the Navy, man? I mean, it’s not like you have National Service, like we do in SA.”
Jane saw Robbie’s brown eyes grow darker as he focussed into the distance for a moment. She knew from the discussion with her father on the flight from London that Robbie had been travelling the world after his stint in the Royal Navy, fallen in love with and married a Polish girl, then brought her back to the UK whereupon she’d finished with him, having achieved her aim of UK citizenship. Heartbroken, he had been unable to settle in a job and become a mature student in her father’s Oceanography department.
“I realised that I loved the sea, but not the discipline.” He turned to Cobus. “How ‘bout you? You were in the army; didn’t fancy staying on?” Robbie took some of the Afrikaner’s long blond hair in his fingertips. “The sodomy get ye down – as in, not enough of it?”
“Hey, you poes!” Cobus cracked him on the back of the head, and then looked around in haste just in case anyone knew enough Afrikaans to understand his strong language. Part of the diaspora of white South Africans following the end of apartheid, he joked that he was a real rock spider – both a proud, rugby-playing Afrikaner, but also never as happy as when enthusing about rock strata, hence his chosen study path of Geology. “Don’t go accusing us Southern Hemisphere forwards of the same behaviour as you poncey Northern Hemisphere backs. We’re not the rugby world champions for nothing, man.”
Robbie rubbed his head. “Yeah, well, we all know you guys win by resorting to violence.” He looked past Robbie. “And by keeping Argentina out of the Tri-Nations tournament, eh Cat?”
The raven haired girl sitting in the row behind broke off from gazing out of the window, though the oppressiveness of what she had seen there still lingered in her green eyes. “Sorry? What did you say?”
Her Australian accent seemed incongruous issuing from the dark Latin beauty of that face; looks which had not gone unnoticed by any of the men, much to Jane’s chagrin. She had just about stopped herself from linking a protective arm through Jim’s, except her jealouscope had picked up that the girl was not casting any sort of interested glances in his direction.
“No good asking her, mate, she’s a Roo,” said Cobus.
“Australian by birth, but Argentine by blood,” said Catalina with a haughtiness she deemed appropriate to her origins.
“So your folks swapped a vast empty southern landmass for…another vast empty southern landmass,” ribbed Cobus.
“But I’ll always be a Puma,” she responded, referring to her beloved Argentine national team. With a dismissive shake of the head she turned back to the window, while her two tormentors exchanged glances of mock-penitence and schoolboyish giggles. “Call yourselves mature students,” muttered the girl, though not without a fledgling grin.
Jane could not help wondering about Catalina. To be fair, she seemed unaware of the reaction she caused and earlier in the flight had been holding an animated conversation with her fellow students, but there followed a gradual breaking off from the general discussions, and as the plane drew further away from twentieth century civilisation, some dampening of spirit had clouded her expression. It was puzzling in a girl who had spent weeks of her holidays on trails in the Australian Outback with only herself for company, and with a thirst for knowledge which had first drawn her to Jane’s attention. She had been the star student in the Botany faculty, though she managed to combine her studiousness with a touch of feistiness. When she had quit Botany at the end of her first year, after a long talk with Jane, to study Archaeology, Jane had been delighted. This was someone she would be only too happy to mentor; the girl had real potential.
However, right now, the usual gleam in her eye had dulled, as if the battery of a liquid crystal display were running low, and Jane could only attribute that to the view from the window.
Someone else had withdrawn into himself, Jane realised. She looked at her father sitting hunched by his window. He needed her support at what was a major life-moment, even for someone as revered in his field and, well, as old as Edward Sutch. Jane moved over to sit by him and adopted a positive tone that in no way reflected her mind-set.
“Well, father,” she patted him on the leg, “it’s ironic, isn’t it; a hotchpotch of itinerant people gathered on a small island that once ruled an empire on which the sun never set, and heading off in search of a kingdom on which it might never have risen -all because of the reputation of one man; you.”
As soon as he looked at her, indeed even as the words left her mouth, she thought: mistake.
“Yes,” he said with soft anxiety in his voice, “and I’m feeling the weight of that responsibility.”
“I know.” She rubbed his arm and said nothing for the moment, just cursed herself in silence.
He looked back out of the window. “What felt like conviction, when I solved the conundrum in my study, feels much more like a whim when faced by the threat of the landscape and the enormity of the Southern Ocean.”
She squeezed his arm now. “It’ll be fine. It’s just a short trip. Don’t lose it, father; you’re a sailor at heart – and the figurehead of this expedition – so your gut feelings will be taken as omens by others, and if our hired hands suspect for one moment that you’re beset by doubts…”
But who was she kidding? The thought of it was eating at her already and the deepening silence in the plane told its own story about the reality of adventures.
Perhaps Dirk had noticed the torpor – they had spoken last night about his first reconnaissance flight a few weeks before. But he at least had concrete matters to attend to – his concern now was the landing. Maybe as much for his own sake as for the others, he tried to lighten the mood. “Hey everyone, this is your captain speaking. Please return your stomachs to the upright position. Sorry if it’s getting a bit rough back there, but this is nothing, eh Professor?” He looked at Sutch and gave a thumbs-up signal. “The Doc and me, we were in a Cessna C206 when we came down here last. This here’s a C208 Grand Caravan; a much sturdier bird. I hope the smokers among you appreciated that when I had to choose between making the plane non-smoking or non-toilet I chose the latter.” There was laughter, in the main through gratitude for the comic relief. They had all made use of the facilities provided in the form of some empty plastic bottles and a curtain. “Ladies, I hope you’ll understand if I don’t shake hands. After all, it’s been a rough flight.” More laughter. “I hope you’ve all jettisoned your handiwork – don’t want that flying around when we land. Gives a new meaning to a drop in the ocean, don’t it?” Toilets were not included on this aircraft, which was a very rugged floatplane with plenty of room for equipment, especially as some of it was stored in the underbelly luggage pods, but with the extra fuel tanks adding weight, any additional ballast would be offloaded, including bottles of urine. Having also reduced some of the weight of gloom, Dirk continued: “And now let me show you all where we’re not attempting to land.”
The archipelago was almost upon them and the details were looming larger. They could see just how dense the forest was; how in many places it came right down to the water’s edge. The Professor leaned across to Jane. He had been quiet for so much of the journey that his whisper startled her. “That,” he nodded towards the window, “is why I brought three fit, enthusiastic young people with us. It’s going to be hard work, even though I have an idea already where we should start.”
“Believe me, father, enthusiasm soon wears off when you’re confronted with hacking your way through dense forest. And who knows what lives in there.”
“Oh, very little I’d have thought.” He didn’t sound that convinced. “This is an isolated piece of land.”
“Yes, pristine forest, untouched by human hand, its eco-system completely intact. I’m sure there’s nothing creepy or crawly in there.”
He ignored her sarcasm. “My feeling is, most wildlife would have been destroyed by whatever natural disaster T…the returning fisherman saw. And some species would have died out through being cut off from any major landmass.”
“Either that, or the strongest, fittest and fiercest have survived, just like in Oz. We might find things no man – with the possible exception of a long-dead race – has ever seen.”
They were right over the islands now, crossing the largest one. Rain clouds clung to the treetops like enormous dusty cobwebs.
“Okay good people,” Dirk shouted over his shoulder, “just so you don’t feel too bad about things; here, as promised, is a quick look at what you’ll be missing – so look on the bright side. And hang on to yer hats; the air currents get a bit jiggly and temperamental…right about now.”
They all gasped as the ground beneath the plane suddenly fell away to a sheer cliff decorated by what looked like lacy frills hundreds of feet below, which they could see were ferocious breakers, and above which wheeled gulls and other birds that might have been cormorants. Jane looked away, her head wheeling like the gulls and her stomach dropping down that dark cliff-face.
“Wow!” said Robbie, the exclamation a mixture of excitement and fear, “I hav’nae seen anything like that since I scrambled up Buchaille Etive Mor.”
“Would you mind repeating that in English, man?” said Cobus in his broad Free State accent.
“You can talk. And aye, I would – I’m Scottish,” said Robbie with the playful disdain that marked much of the conversation between the two men. “But as ye’ve clearly not been tae God’s ain country,” he was laying the accent on thick now, “it’s a mountain on the eastern approach to Glencoe. At the front it’s a sheer climb, but ye can get up from the back and then, when ye stand on the summit ye’ve nothing but a two thousand foot drop between you and Rannoch Moor below. It helps ye understand what vertigo’s all about.”
Dirk arced the plane round again, and then continued to shout over his shoulder. “Okay everybody, now listen up. We’re landing round on the other side, not of this island, but the next one. It’ll be a bit choppy. We’re quite far out, but I can’t take a chance with the rocks. Then we’ll get out the inflatable boats and hopefully, if I’ve got it right, there should be a nice channel for the boats to get through to the shore.”
Jane was about to say something, but decided against it. However, Catalina spoke up and betrayed her increasing nerves, while at the same time voicing the exact concerns her mentor had swallowed in an attempt to keep the mood calm. “‘Hopefully…if you’ve got it right…inflatable boats…rocks.’ Does anyone else feel less than reassured by that?” She looked around, but before anyone could answer Dirk chipped in again, his voice full of humour, for which, whether it was forced or not, everyone was grateful.
“Strewth, Sheila, I’m ashamed a fellow Roo is whingeing. I’d’ve expected it from one of the Poms, but I was told you were made of strong stuff.”
Catalina tried to smile as the others laughed, but her concerns remained. “I just don’t think rocks and inflatable boats go all that well together. Besides, the sea is rough. How are we supposed to row a dinghy out there?”
“Please don’t call me Sheila.”
Mocking noises followed from Robbie and Cobus. They were playful, but the girl looked upset. This didn’t bode well for the coming days and Jane felt responsible. Catalina had been her unknowing recommendation and she did not want that to turn out to be a misjudgement. She looked in Pete’s direction, wondering whether he would join in the general mickey-taking, but he was just slouched in his seat taking in the view outside, a hand resting over the arm of his seat, an unlit cigarette balanced between his fingers. The pose looked almost studied, but for a moment Jane saw the man she had once believed she loved.
Dirk spoke again. “These inflatables are not dinghies as you know them. They’re like mini inshore lifeboats, twelve feet long and six feet wide.”
“It’s called a six feet beam,” said Pete without looking away from the window.
“Yeah, whatever.” Dirk ignored the pedantic correction. “Anyway, they’re powered by a thirty horsepower Mariner outboard motor and can do fifteen knots. I’ve got ‘em ready to go in the back there, complete with twelve gallons of fuel in the flexible tanks, so they should be good for three hours.”
Something was nagging at Jane during this conversation; something she had overlooked perhaps? She couldn’t put her finger on it.
“I’m impressed,” said the Professor, reminding everyone that he was still there. Just the way he uttered those two words, alert and humorous, gave Jane hope. Perhaps now that the waiting was over and the time for action was here, he felt better,
“And I’ve had ‘em adapted so that you can deflate them once you’re ashore. Well, they are orange, and I know you didn’t want to be noticed from the air, Prof.”
“So those damned paparazzi won’t get their scoop then,” was Pete’s dry response. The throwaway line landed in silence. He looked around at them all and grinned. Behind him Dirk made a repetitive gesture with his hand, which caused suppressed smiles – even from Catalina, Jane noticed – and all seemed well in the world again. The irony of Dirk’s gesture didn’t escape Jane and she blushed once more as she remembered that she had started proceedings with Pete two nights before with the very same hand movement, and not on fresh air. It distracted her from her continued attempt to overcome her mental block; the feeling that she had a point to make.
“The boats inflate using the same principle as the airbag in a car. So they’ll be ready for use again in the blink of an eye.”
“Thank you, Dirk,” said Sutch. “What would I do without you?”
“Swim.” There was laughter all round. A crisis appeared to have been averted; for the moment at least.
“Now, unless you want that last part to come true, be ready for a swift disembarkation. I’m gonna bring the old girl down now, so please all get belted up. As soon as we’re stationary I’d like you to open the doors and drop the boats, but keep a bloody good hold on the ropes. You can see now why you’re all togged out in the dry suits. Oh, and put on the crash helmets. We’ll be rocking and rolling down there.”
“What about the gear?” said Jane. “How the hell are we going to get all of that into the boats? Does this thing have an anchor?” The nagging sensation was getting louder.
“The water’s rough, but it’s not deep at the point where I’ll be stopping. You’ve got most of the stuff you’ll need personally in the rucksacks; I’m a good packer, so they’re light. All of you – yes, you too girls – have got disposable razors in there, loo paper, survival bags, waterproof matches and malaria tablets, to name but a few things. I’ve put the camp kit in those flight boxes there.” He pointed to three large yellow cubes. “They’re adapted to float, so you can tow them in.”
Now it hit Jane, but before she could say anything Dirk turned the plane once more and started the approach. She thought it better not to distract him while their lives were in his hands.
“Will this tub make it?” It was Pete again.
Dirk raised his eyebrows, and then said: “If you’d had time in the air you’d know this is a very rugged, reliable floatplane. I’d appreciate it if yer didn’t call her a tub.”
Pete sucked on his cigarette then put it back in a studied manner into the packet. He had kept it out to wind up Dirk, who made it clear he hated the habit. “Actually I do have plenty of hours. Used to fly a DeHaviland Turbo Otter, taking people out for fishing trips into the wilds in Canada. Compared to that machine, which was inspected rigorously, this is a tub.”
Dirk glanced at Catalina and raised his eyebrows again. Jane noticed that, whoever Pete was trying to impress it was not working with the girl. She had a face like thunder. “Don’t you worry Sheil…sweetheart. She’s a sturdy bird. I like a sturdy bird.”
Nevertheless, it was a white-knuckle ride of a landing. There wasn’t much to line up with, but it went smoothly enough. At least there was plenty of room. Dirk had brought planes down on improvised landing strips while under gunfire.
They opened the doors. A maelstrom of noise, spray and disorientation greeted them, and the next moments were spent in a confusion of backpacks and flying boots as first the inflatables exploded like aggressive orange flowers, then the struggling passengers sought to disembark from the pitching plane into the rolling boats. The sea was calm by the standards of the Southern Ocean, but its surging power surprised everyone except the Professor, who had spent most of his life in its embrace. The plane had all the grace and stability of a new-born giraffe.
“Shit,” said Jim as he staggered and banged his head on the plane’s doorframe. “Anybody’d think this craft was made for the air, not the sea.”
The throwaway nature of the comment was lost in the general melee, which turned to panic for a moment when Cobus stepped into one of the boats, lost his balance and went over the side. But he was quick to bob up again and got himself back on board. The dry suit earned its corn. “Don’t worry,” shouted the South African, “it’s only a Martini moment – I’m shaken, but not stirred. And let me tell you, it’s too cold in there for any Great Whites.”
At last they were all aboard the inflatables, with the flight boxes attached by plastic straps. “Okay,” said the Professor, “let’s head straight for the bay over there.”
“What about Dirk?” said Catalina.
“He’s not coming with us.” It was Jane. She had sussed it out in the end. Everything Dirk had been saying had the air of someone who was not going to be hanging around.
Robbie turned to the plane, but Dirk had disappeared inside under some pretext. It seemed like avoidance of the moment. “Professor, why not?”
This was a blow. The rugged, experienced Aussie was a man whose air of confidence rubbed off on others. His departure was not the best start to the trip, but it also made a lot of sense. “He’s going back to Perth, Robbie.”
“Why?” asked five voices in unison.
“There isn’t a safe anchorage for the plane. Besides, Dirk’s a pilot. By his own admission he’d just be cooling his heels here during that time. He’ll come back for us in five days.”
“But we could use the extra muscle power,” said Jim.
“We’ve enough for our purposes,” said Sutch, his glance at Jane a silent request not to contradict him. “There is another minor reason as well. Satellites would spot a plane sitting out on the water and I’m paranoid enough not to want us noticed yet. Anyway, this is a preliminary visit. At some point, all being well, we’ll come back, properly equipped to deal with whatever we find this time.”
“I’m sorry, Edward,” said Pete, “but that statement suggests we’re not properly equipped now for whatever lies ahead.”
It seemed Sutch hid his annoyance, not wanting internecine warfare breaking out in front of strangers. And of course there was the little matter of it being a perfectly valid observation. “Look, let’s get moving. Once we’re ashore I’ll deal with everyone’s concerns, but I’m sure you’ll see that we’re more than adequately kitted out for this initial foray.”
Jane and Cobus started up the respective motors and everyone turned towards the plane as they prepared to set off. Dirk was nowhere to be seen.
“It’s a superstition of his,” said the Professor. “The last time he waved someone off they never came back.”
As they headed through the channel picked out by Dirk, the water seemed to grow quieter. Soon the boats and boxes grounded on the shingle. The team disembarked and dragged them a few yards further in, to where they could see the tide didn’t reach. As Sutch’s feet crunched on the black sand he turned to the others. “Well there’s definitely been volcanic activity here.”
Having waited till they were safe ashore, the plane now set off, picking up speed and pulling out of the water. Some of the party waved, not knowing whether the Aussie saw them or not, but then they had their own situation to think of. Sutch walked across to one of the yellow boxes. He opened it and removed a flight case, which had joined their journey courtesy of Dirk at the very last moment. He took a set of keys from his jacket pocket, opened it and the top folded out in two directions to reveal customised compartments filled with rifles and pistols.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” said Pete and reached towards the case, but Sutch nudged it and the spring-loaded top snapped shut, causing Pete to withdraw his hand at speed to avoid injury. He looked hard at his father-in-law, who smiled. “No, you’re right. Keep it under lock and key. I’m sure when some thirty foot anaconda, or a jaguar, or,” he pointed in the direction of the brooding forest, “whatever other prehistoric hybrid is lurking in there attacks, we can appeal to its better nature. Maybe offer it a fucking cappuccino.” He stalked to the water’s edge and stood looking at the plane, as it faded to a dot in the sky.
As the drone of the engine became so faint that no-one could pinpoint the exact moment they stopped hearing it, Professor Edward Sutch experienced a frisson of fearful self-doubt. He hoped he had done the right thing in agreeing to Dirk’s decision not to stay, and wondered whether he had given the Aussie the perfect excuse when he made known his paranoia about the plane being spotted.
He could not know that it had already been picked out on his first visit a few weeks before.
Robbie, Cobus and Catalina had started emptying the boxes, finding the tension between the Professor and his son-in-law a bit uncomfortable, but also feeling exposed and wanting to set up camp. Without mentioning it to each other, everyone felt like a thousand pairs of eyes were watching them from the forest.
Once Pete realised that there was no supportive wife standing by his side, he turned and came back to the boats. Picking up his kit bag he started rummaging in a side-pocket for a cigarette. “Okay to light up?” he asked of nobody in particular. “The flame of my lighter won’t act as a beacon, attracting spy planes from all points of the compass?” Then he noticed that Catalina had produced a mobile phone from her bag and was in the process of trying to obtain a signal. Fuckable, but stupid, he thought. “Keep trying,” he said to her, snorting smoke through his nostrils as he walked by, “I think the mast is on the far side of the island.”
Catalina looked up, did a double-take, then blushed and popped the mobile back into her bag before anyone else noticed. She looked in desperation at Pete’s departing back, hoping he would turn again and see that she got it; repair in some measure his opinion of her, which was not the greatest, judging by his acerbic comment. But she knew, she had been stupid. Did technology do that to you; cause atrophy of the most important muscle in the body – the brain? She prided herself on being self –reliant; well, in most things. She had trekked for weeks in the Outback with maps and no radio, with not a GPS unit in sight, but just now she might as well have been draped across a car bonnet in a bikini for all the impression of intelligence she gave. Now she saw Jane staring at her and her blush deepened. “I know, it was stupid. I guess we all get conditioned to…being…” Her voice trailed off as she realised that Jane wasn’t staring at her, but past her. “What is it?” She looked over her shoulder.
Sutch had been waiting for someone to see it and wondered if Jane’s skin now had goose-bumps, as had his when he first spied it through his zoom lens on that preliminary flight with Dirk.
Jane dropped everything she was holding and walked across with her mouth open to stand in front of the object, her head now tilted to one side, reminding Sutch of the first time his little girl had observed a butterfly close up.
It stood just inside the edge of the forest, half-hidden by ferns and the tangle of low-hanging branches, and camouflaged by a coating of lichens; a printer’s obelisk, telling the reader that the book they were opening might seem obscure, but here was one footnote, at least, to guide the reader.
The Professor had followed Jane across, and was likewise awestruck. Time, wind, rain and moss had all but obliterated what might have been a face near the top of the pillar, which stood about twice the height of a man. Jane moved closer, took a handkerchief and wiped it on part of the surface to remove the mould, though not without difficulty.
“My God!” she said, “I recognise some of these symbols.” She looked round at her father, who nodded and returned her knowing look.
The entire company had joined them now and stood amazed. Jane turned to Sutch and gave him an almighty hug. “You were right, father; to believe.” He saw realisation dawn on her and she gave him a playful thump on the arm. “You knew this wasn’t a wasted trip, didn’t you? Just wanted us all to sweat a bit. So that’s why we’re making base camp here. Boy, it must have been hard to keep this a secret.”
You have no idea, my girl, he thought, what I’m keeping from you still.
“Yes,” he responded. “So at least we know that civilisation, however primitive, has visited this place. And that in itself is enough. But now, who’s to say that we won’t discover the secret of which the old man spoke?”
Jane hugged him close again, though not before he caught the doubt in her eyes. What and whom she doubted did not bear too much scrutiny at that moment, and if he was frank with himself, he preferred to leave it like that for now. Then she turned back to the totem-like structure. “What do you think it is? A drum-idol. I’ve seen them on Pacific islands, supposedly containing ancient spirits? But they’re normally in groups.” Now she tutted in exasperation and said: “Am I stupid or what? It’s made of stone; how could it be a drum-idol?”
Jim spoke up. “No, look. There seem to be some sort of metal rings halfway up. Could be a mooring post,” he suggested. Perhaps the sea came higher once upon a time.”
“Maybe,” said Sutch. “A major geological event could have affected the tide line.”
“A totem pole?” said Robbie.
“Or a whipping post,” said Pete. “Or worse?”
“What do you mean worse?” asked Jane, turning on him. Sutch could tell straight away that she regretted her display of disdain. Any time Pete got under someone’s skin, it was a little victory for him.
Pete took a long drag on his cigarette. He may have been excited by the find – who could tell – but he was not going to allow any cracks in his veneer of studied nonchalance. Sutch knew it was for his benefit and, by inference, Jane’s. “Look, even the most advanced of ancient civilisations worshipped gods who demanded human sacrifice. Maybe the unlucky ones were left chained here till the tide covered them, or the rats got ‘em.” Nobody said anything, not even Sutch. If his son-in-law was making a point of needling them, his tactics were spot-on; making observations that might well be correct.
It hit them now, to a man and woman – oppressive silence of the forest before them. It had given them one tantalising glimpse of the secrets it might hold; that was all they were getting for free.
Jim returned to the boxes that held his camera equipment and stood now taking shots of this ancient artefact. As he did so, he spoke. “So what made you come to this particular island, Professor, or did you just get lucky?”
“No, when I did a recce with Dirk it struck me that this bay didn’t look to be naturally formed. For me the tidal currents wouldn’t have worn it this way – wouldn’t you agree, Cobus? You’re a geologist.”
The Afrikaner flushed, flattered to have been asked something by the renowned academic. “Ja” was all he could come up with.
“Ah,” said Pete, “so you really are a rock-spider.” The colloquial, perhaps a touch derogatory term for a boer needled Cobus when coming from Pete, so Sutch moved on.
“And as we flew past a second time I got lucky and found our friend here. I think once we look at the arms of the bay more closely we’ll find that, whoever these people were, they decided this channel,” here he pointed out to sea, to the way they had come in, “was one of the few safe routes in and hewed the rock accordingly to build a harbour. This pillar could be a mooring post, but if we don’t find any others I’d doubt it.”
The sea breeze beat in their ears like myriad bats. It was time to focus on some positive action.
“Okay,” said Jane, who had organised countless camps in the past, “let’s check the equipment and make this place feel a bit more like home.”
“Ah, maybe now I’ll find out what I’ve been missing all these years,” said Pete, who looked up from opening his rucksack to find one pair of glistening eyes glaring at him and all others focussed too intently on what they were doing.
“A bit more like the nerve centre of the operation,” continued Jane. “Where do you stand on fires, father?”
“In a scout camp in the morning,” quipped Cobus, to the amusement of most of them. Jane pursed her lips then gave him a light cuff on the head.
“You planning a career as an after-dinner speaker when your rugby days are over, are you?” shouted Robbie to the Afrikaner, to be met by a pair of rolled-up socks aimed at his head.
Sutch, contemplating the original question amongst the banter, knew that a fire would be essential to buoying up spirits. This was a forbidding place, certainly an unwelcoming one. In his desire for secrecy he had contemplated banning a campfire proper and just using the stoves, but reality had kicked in some time ago. They were in a remote part of the Southern Ocean with no regular shipping lanes or flight paths to concern them. Paranoia really was a guest who would not stop eating; Sutch, as the host, needed to show him the door. Besides, he had proved already that people had been here and one of the most respected photographers had captured the evidence. That alone warranted the return trip that he would lead. His was the discovery, his the achievement. That could not now be taken from him. It was important not to lose sight of that. His other hopes for this trip might, after all, turn out to be nothing more than a pipe dream. It was why, on the plane, he had withheld for now from his story the element, in all senses of the word, of water. The secret of eternal youth – not something to discuss, he felt, if one wished to continue wearing jackets with holes in the ends of the sleeves.
“Father?” Jane could see the distance in his eyes.
Sutch blinked. “Fire’s good.”
Jane nodded at the three students.
“Okay, you guys,” said Catalina, “let’s see if we can find some wood.”
Cobus and Robbie looked at her, and then saw that she was grinning, so saved themselves the embarrassment of pointing out the forest.
The others checked through the kit. Catalina, who was a veteran of trekking, started pulling items out of one of the yellow boxes and nodded her approval of each in turn:
“Harrier Softie sleeping bag – Mountain Equipment breathable waterproof – North Face light fleece – Duofold base layers – hot and cold climate Berghaus hiking gear – heavy duty Scapa walking boots. No expense spared here. Campingaz stove – various cans of food. How much water do we have, Professor?”
“Sixty three litres.”
Catalina did a quick calculation. “Nine litres each.” She was too respectful to say anything, but Sutch saw the look of concern:
“Enough for three days. Dirk and I had to think of the weight in the plane and decided that either we’d find a stream or have to ration. You’ll find water purifiers and iodine droplets for stream water.”
Now Catalina produced a rolled up piece of leather and opened it to reveal a carefully packed machete and ice-axe.
“Each rucksack contains one of those,” said the Professor.
“Hmm, that would have been interesting at Heathrow,” said Jim. His personal specialised equipment consisted of a Canon EOS 50 camera with a 70-200mm lens and a bag full of Fujichrome film. He looked across at Jane as he saw her take a battered Nikon from her rucksack and she pulled a face of mock shame.
“Looks well-travelled,” said Jim.
“Well mishandled and mislaid as well,” she said with a grimace.
“What are those?”
Jane had produced her precious notebooks. They contained her on-hand observations from twenty years of archaeological digs and bore the scars to prove it.
“Never go on a dig without them. I’ve got this old-fashioned, pseudo-Victorian approach; sketching and noting the things I see. I hope one day they’ll find a place in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society. I love delving into the records.”
“It’s a kind of hobby for me.” She stopped for a moment and looked into the distance. “Something about the sepia prints and pen-and-ink drawings appeals to the…” she hesitated “…romantic in me.”
“Perhaps they encapsulate a time when there was still a world to explore; when it seemed a brave thing to do and was, above all, subject to chance.”
Jane gave a rueful smile. “Perhaps it’s because I’m better known for my dealings with the past and the dead that I envy those who’ve unearthed the mysteries of life.”
“Like I said at dinner the other night, you have an ability to bring the past to life. Your work under modern-day Alexandria is fantastic.”
Sutch sat smiling at them, wondering whether this trip might bring him at least one unexpected reward – a new son-in-law. Then he shook his head and turned to his goods and chattels. He had come with minimal equipment, relying more on the others. The one thing he had ensured accompanied him, which was in some ways a mistake as he was loathe to let it out of his sight, was the amphora, packed with loving care – indestructibly, he hoped – in a small flight case. But he knew he was not the lightest equipped – that was Pete, who had brought cigarettes and a Zippo lighter, as well as a hip flask. He was, in Sutch’s eyes, the very definition of someone along for the ride.
Unbeknown to the Professor, Pete was carrying a bit more baggage than he might have been prepared to admit to.
They were all delighted to find the Coleman tents. “They’re just like me, man,” said Cobus under his breath to Robbie and Catalina; “erect with one quick flick of the wrist.”
“I’d have thought you’re more like the Softie sleeping bags,” said Catalina.
“Ja, I’d keep you warm at night for sure.”
Last, but not least was the safety equipment. In addition to the arsenal of rifles there were flares, whistles, lanterns, GPS tracking systems, brightly-coloured, heavy-duty survival bags, ropes, and another sort of lifeline, which the Professor produced like a rabbit from a hat.
“Is that what I think it is?” asked Jim.
“That depends what you think it is.” Sutch was looking a little smug.
“A satellite telephone.”
“Correct.” He could almost feel the ripple of relief pass through the camp. “Well, you didn’t think I was going to leave us completely cut off, did you?”
Jim took the equipment from the Professor’s hand. “Light and compact,” he said, and then looked at Sutch with raised eyebrows. “That means expensive in my experience. I had one similar to this in Rwanda. I was glad I was only renting it for a short period.”
“You’re right,” said Sutch grinning. “That’s why I pulled a few strings and, shall we say, borrowed this from my team in the western Indian Ocean. Otherwise it would have blown most of the budget.” He looked at the others, who had gathered round. “This means we have worldwide voice communication through a network of satellites. But I warn you now, this is not meant for you to impersonate ET. Emergencies only, okay? So hopefully we never have to use it.”
“Good old Dirk,” whispered Sutch to himself. Having supported many an expedition or exploratory team, the Aussie had known pretty well what to provide to cater for most needs within the budget, even down to the tin of cigarillos that Sutch had just discovered at the bottom of one of the cases; he liked to puff on one from time to time. With the tents pitched, a fire lit and Jane in the process of organising the stoves, he lit one now and stood looking at the pillar. For a moment he half-expected to find a symbol at the top of it, like the acorn on the West Highland Way markers, showing him that he was on the right track. Well, stranger things are happening, he thought to himself. Perhaps there are more of these leading the way in.
And that was when it struck him. He turned and looked towards the sea. This might indeed have been a way marker. Perhaps there had once been an iron basket or brazier of some sort at the top, which contained a fire or lamp to guide boats through the narrow channel. Maybe.
Standing facing the sea, Sutch relished his first moment of supreme contentment, finding it hard to believe that, just a few weeks ago, he had been preparing a lecture on the impact of overfishing on coral reefs, and this mystery kingdom had occupied a recess labelled ‘Pending’ in the very back of his mind, while heading his way, courtesy of FedEx, had been a big boot that would kick him out of his comfort zone and onto this narrow strip of shingle at latitude 50 in the Southern Ocean.
The last two words generated a sudden chill and the moment of contentment passed. He headed to his tent to get a fleece.
Cobus approached Sutch, now that he didn’t feel he would be disturbing him. “Excuse me, Professor.”
“Please, call me Edward.”
“If it’s all the same with you, I’ll keep it at ‘Professor’. I feel more comfortable that way; must be down to my time in the army. And I haven’t earned the right to be on first name terms yet.”
“You’ve earned the right, as you call it, by being here on this beach with us.”
“That’s just a stroke of fortune. If it’s all the same with you…”
“As you wish, young Cobus. Anyway, what were you going to say?”
“I was just wondering what the plan of action is?”
“Good question, Cobus, good question. The truth is there isn’t one. We’re at the bottom of page one. We have to write page two ourselves. Tell me something; as a geologist, what did you make of the cliffs? Describe them to me.”
“You mean apart from sheer and bloody frightening…excuse my language… and a bit more than a grade one scramble?” Sutch laughed. “Well, they were granite.”
“And the weathering?”
“Smooth as a baby’s bottom. Must have taken…” he paused, and then gave up bothering to wonder, “…God knows how many years, even allowing for the power of the wind and the sea down here.”
“That would be a challenging climb, don’t you agree?”
“You kidding me? No handholds, and then that overhang for the last hundred feet. Amazing man…sorry, Professor,” he looked embarrassed. “Those are some waves coming in down there.”
“How do you think the cliffs were formed?”
“Who knows? We’re not far from Antarctica. Maybe the icecap once stretched out to here and the glaciers wore them down. In fact thinking about it, the cliff face is smooth, but there are some marks that could be striations from a glacier.”
“But whether by glacial or other means, you think we’re talking erosion here over a long time.”
“You don’t think the land fell away in a recent volcanic eruption, I mean in the last three hundred years.”
Cobus rubbed his chin. “The beach looks like volcanic sand, but that could have been carried a long way in the air. If there was volcanic activity here, it was a long time ago.”
Sutch nodded, all the time remembering Tariq’s tale. “Yes, I agree. I mean, the way those waves come in is a bit like Hawaii, isn’t it, as if they’re in full flow, unbroken by any continental shelf that reduces their height or impact, so while there’s a chance the land has fallen away, or this archipelago has risen from the sea, as a result of volcanic activity, even three hundred years ago, mankind would have known of something of that magnitude. Even then. The forces that shaped this island are far, far older than that.”
Comprehension lit Cobus’ face. Jane and Jim had both picked up on this conversation and moved closer to listen. “Are you saying…?”
“Yes, the land here may have fallen away millennia before,” continued the Professor, “yet Tariq spoke of the island looking as if it had been hit by a wave of some sort. He told also of streams of lava. But from what you’re saying, and what I believe, I can’t help feeling something else is at play here. Nothing quite fits.” Sutch stopped and frowned, and then he tried to sound positive. “So if this is a harbour there’s every chance that between here and the far side of the island we’ll find something of the original settlement. Even if there were a giant wave, it would have to have been incredibly powerful to surge up these mountains, and drive everyone and everything over the cliffs.”
“This could just be an unfinished tourist resort,” said Pete from his place by the fire.
“I’ve seen modern Greek towns in a worse state.”
Sutch ignored the attempted witticism and looked at Jane. She returned his troubled gaze with one of her own. He thought he knew why; always concerned for her father’s reputation, she might have been concerned that, if Tariq had bent the truth, just what was her father to believe? If those were her concerns, they mirrored his own. The thing Jane didn’t know – that none of them knew – was just how much his mission depended on belief.
Sutch spoke again. “Anyway, thank you for your valued input, Cobus. For now, I guess the question of what destroyed this civilisation is less important than what was destroyed. That’s what will occupy us during our time here.”
“So Professor,” said Cobus, still glowing from the compliment, “going back to our original conversation, I assume,” here he pointed to the darkening fringe of the forest, “we just take our pangas and hack our way in.”
“I’m afraid you’re right.” He turned to the others. “So, as the summer down here will be granting us a long day tomorrow, I suggest we all garner our reserves of energy with a good night’s sleep; and before that we grab something to eat. What have we got, Jane?”
“How would I…” She stopped, having caught the wink from her father. “You had me going there.” He knew she was a hunter-gatherer, not a domestic goddess. Years in a male-dominated field meant she had scrapped with the best of them. A homebody she was not. “A corned beef hash or equivalent is the best you’ll get from me.”
“My daughter could wipe out entire civilisations just by cooking them an omelette,” joked Sutch. He received an appropriate glare.
“Ok, what’s for dinner then, Catalina?” Robbie joined in the fun and got pursed lips and a narrow-eyed frown that could not quite conceal the girl’s grin.
“Don’t worry, Catty,” said Cobus. “We all know why the Outback is so empty. Everyone’s run from your tucker.”
“Where are the machetes when you need one?” said the butt of the jokes. Jane looked at her for a moment. Despite seeming to cope with the abuse, there was some sadness or discomfort rippling below the surface still. Jane made a mental note to talk to her later.
“Well she knows it’s a machete anyway,” said Robbie. “I could’ve sworn I saw her trimming her nails with one.” He got no response.
By now the Professor was rummaging around in the food supplies. Suddenly he burst out laughing and produced a vacuum-packed kangaroo steak. “As I said, good old Dirk.”
They decided that one person should keep watch that night to keep the fire alive, in case any wildlife had been attracted to the smell of food. The fact was, though, the forest seemed devoid of any sound and was all the more menacing for it, as if its dead eyes were watching them. Its presence weighed on Cobus as he took the first watch. In his experience, night-time was when jungles and forests came alive – for better or worse – but there was nothing; not the scurrying of a mammal, the chirp of an insect or the croak of a frog. He found also that his heart was racing, but not through fear. When you had already represented your province at 1st XV level in South Africa, and been at the bottom of a ruck on the wrong side of the ball, not much scared you. No, it was as if he had an excess of adrenaline. It appeared Catalina felt the same, because after an hour’s fruitless search for sleep she joined him.
“Can’t sleep, man, eh?” said the Afrikaner.
“Nah, I’m fidgeting a lot. Feeling a bit restless. Plus I don’t like the silence.” She gestured with her head towards the trees. “Even the sea can’t seem to suppress it.”
“Doesn’t feel right, does it?”
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the rainforest on Tas. I’m not a great lover of snakes and spiders, but I can tell you, I’d prefer the sound of slithering or scratching or crawling.”
Cobus put an arm around her and she moved in against it, her need for some comfort clear. “Oh well, down here it’ll soon be morning. Let’s see what that brings.”