I switched on my head torch to navigate the flights of steps leading down to the beach. The once-taut elastic headband, further loosened by the humid coastal air, kept slipping over my eyes. I turned off the dancing light when I reached firm sand. As my eyes adjusted, the constellations swam into luminescent glory above.
I tore my eyes away and stepped out at a fine military clip, whistling Verdi’s ‘Victory March’ under my breath to take my mind off the tight shoulder straps. The whistle died away when a torrent of water, coursing from a saltwater pond to meet the incoming tide, barred my way. I took off my shoes and waded knee deep between black rocks, unbalanced by the ebb and flow of the current and the weight of the pack. For the first time, I acknowledged how vulnerable I felt on this remote stretch of coast, at a time when most people were tucked up in a cozy bed.
Safely back on firm sand, my torch revealed more footprints. I followed them up and over the first of several ridges, tufted with grass tussocks, shrubs and rock slabs. Behind me, the lighthouse flashed its eerie warning light. On the ridge crests, the moonlight revealed lines of sand dunes stretching to the south. Shadows pooled in the hollows. I climbed up and over each of them, breathing hard and feeling the strain. The sound of surf died away behind me while a susurration to my front deepened to a distant booming.
90 Mile Beach! Yet how to reach it?
The line of footprints petered out. I cast about for the trail, trying one way, and then another, each time retracing my steps. A nippy breeze arose and I grew chilled and disheartened. In the lee of a dune, I dropped to my aching knees, rolled out of the shoulder straps and lay panting on the sand.
“Tea!” I muttered to myself. “I need tea!”
I made a hurried camp. When the stove flared and hissed in the gusting breeze, I scooped out a hollow in the sand, lined it with the camping mat, exchanged the damp shirt for a dry one, and slid into the “onesie” with a sigh of pleasure.
It was the same sense of ease I’d experienced 25 years before in the sands of Kuwait during the first Gulf War. The same stars shone overhead now as then, although in different configurations or absent altogether, like the North Star. But there! An old friend, rising from the horizon: Orion the Hunter.
When, a few mosquitos whined around my exposed face, I put the empty mug on the sand and lay back, letting my eyes droop. Orion paced higher, keeping watch whileI drifted, cradled between earth and sky.