It finally stopped raining after a few weeks and eventually everything dried out. There was a loud cheer in the classroom one day when Mrs Mills announced that we would be going on an excursion to a rainforest. She frowned at the noise and then said we wouldn’t be going anywhere if we couldn’t control ourselves better than that. When the boys at the back of the room eventually settled down, she told us about how we would be visiting a very special place that was one of the last patches of big scrub rainforest that used to cover most of the coast before it was cleared for timber and farms. At recess, Stephanie and I were excited to think we were really going to be explorers.
I could hardly sleep for the next week until the day of the excursion arrived. Mum packed sandwiches for my lunch in a bag and she made me wear sturdy shoes and long pants, even though I thought it would be too hot in the rainforest. She drove me to school and kissed me goodbye before I hopped out of the car and joined all the other children waiting on the footpath for the bus. It was running late and Mrs Mills was trying to keep everyone quiet and sensible, but there was just too much excitement about the trip. Eventually the bus came around the corner with a cloud of greasy smoke and some of the children cheered. Mrs Mills frowned at them and told us to line up and be quiet.
Stephanie and I sat together on the bus and watched the world passing by outside the window. It felt like we were making the first steps on our journey of being carefree explorers of the world. That was until I started to feel car sick. I closed my eyes and rested my head on Stephanie’s shoulder as we drove along, trying to ignore the way my stomach churned as though it had been dropped into a washing machine. This wasn’t how explorers were meant to feel.
Soon I was in a magical place with a dense leafy canopy, unusual birds and the sound of rushing water that made me feel peaceful. There was nobody else around and I wondered where Stephanie and the other children were. I started to feel a little afraid when I realised I was all on my own, but explorers should be determined to be brave so I started to look around my surroundings. The dense atmosphere of the rainforest was closing around me and the path was wet and slippery. I knew I was lost, but I had to keep moving through the seclusion and smell of decay, carving my way through the scrub and searching for a hidden kingdom. When I got tired, I sat down on a log and started to feel hungry. I thought about the little snack Mum had packed in my school bag and closed my eyes to rest. I could feel the log swaying and I started to feel car sick again.
Suddenly I opened my eyes and Stephanie was right there beside me, resting her head against mine and the school bus was pulling into a car park. I grabbed my bag as we all piled out of the bus and lined up like little soldiers while Mrs Mills read the roll. I could already hear the wind whispering high up in the trees and an occasional cracking noise like something was moving through the bushes. It was just like in my dream.
“Sounds like there are monsters in there,” said Darren. I didn’t like the sound of that but I couldn’t think of any other explanation for the noises in the bushes.
“Don’t be so ridiculous,” said Stephanie. “You’re the only monster here.” Some of the other boys laughed and Darren pulled an ugly face.
“Well you better watch out for snakes then,” he said. “They like to eat girls, particularly cry babies like Molly. They sneak up when you’re not looking and take you in one big bite.” He made a biting action with his hands right in front of my face and nearly knocked me over, but Mrs Mills came over and saved the day.
“That is enough of that,” she said sternly. “Okay everybody, take your buddy’s hand, we are going for a walk on the nature trail first. Make sure you walk carefully and don’t get lost.”
I grabbed hold of Stephanie’s hand and we followed Mrs Mills down the path, surrounded by towering trees that went so high I couldn’t see the tops. Ferns hung over the path and I had to brush them aside as I walked along. I was looking carefully for snakes because, although I didn’t really believe Darren, I wasn’t taking any chances.
As the morning went on we looked at all sorts of strange plants and Mrs Mills explained to us how they all lived together in the rainforest and some plants protected other plants from the heat and how the plants were home to lots of little animals. She told us how the early settlers were timber getters that chopped the trees down with axes.
Suddenly we came to a clearing that opened onto a river. There was an old wooden wharf and Mrs Mills told us this was where the timber getters had once loaded logs onto boats and sent them down the river. She said we could rest here on the grass and eat lunch before heading back toward the bus.
High in the trees I could see dried grass and broken branches and the trunks were covered in mud. Mrs Mills said it was from the floods recently and I was amazed at how high the water had been and what it must have been like here when the water was rushing past. Now it was nice and peaceful by the side of the river and I could hear the water burbling along. I was glad to sit down and rest my legs and I thought how nice it would be to paddle my hot feet in the cool river.
As I ate my lunch I kept trying to imagine what the countryside must have looked like all those years ago before the bush was cleared away by the timber getters. I started thinking about the people that had lived here before the timber getters and what had happened to them. I turned to Stephanie after finishing my sandwich. “Steph, what do you think happened to the people that were here before the timber getters? You know, the Aboriginals.”
“I don’t know.” Stephanie looked at me over the lid of her drink bottle. “Why don’t you ask Mrs Mills?”
“Oh, it’s okay,” I said, not wanting to attract any attention to myself.
“All right, I’ll do it.” She turned around to face our teacher. “Excuse me, Mrs Mills, Molly and I were wondering what happened to the Aboriginal people that were here before?”
“Well that is a very good question, Stephanie. I’m glad you asked. You see, once upon a time there were a lot of people living along the coast. They moved around for food depending on the season and they had many sacred grounds. A lot of it was destroyed by the timber cutters and the Aboriginal people were hunted away. Around this area they were known as the ‘Bundjalung’ and a lot of them were killed by the white settlers in the early days. Any way children, it is time we started heading back to the bus.” Mrs Mills stood up and told the class to pick up any rubbish from the ground and line up with our buddies.
I sat looking sadly at the water and thinking about what Mrs Mills had said. I wanted to know more; I wished I could say I was sorry to all those vanished people. I wanted to understand what it had been like for them.
“Come on, Molly.” Mrs Mills called. “It’s time to go.”
We walked back along the same path past all the tree ferns and strange plants, until suddenly there was a lot of yelling from behind me. One of the boys had brushed against a stinging fern and was screaming from the prickles in his leg. Mrs Mills took him by the hand and we were all marched back to the bus as quick as we could. I was glad that Mum had made me wear long pants after all.
When I climbed back on the bus I saw Darren’s leg all covered in red spots and Mrs Mills was putting ointment on it. There were some tissues covered in blood on the seat beside him and I could see tears on his cheeks and he was sobbing. His face looked sad as he sat on the bus seat and all of a sudden I could feel tears building in my own eyes. As I walked past his seat I stopped and offered him a lolly from my bag of snacks to make him feel better.