That morning I heard many complaints as people were roused from their beds to be met with headaches and dry mouths, all of it stemming from a hangover lurking around like an unwelcome guest.
But, if we were to make it to the Gorge in time to catch a glimpse of this blood river in all its glory we had to be there by noon, and that meant we had to rise and meet the aftermath of our binge drinking head on.
Though a pot of coffee and some aspirin did help a little bit…
Breakfast consisted mainly of powdered eggs mixed with some jerky and baked beans on the side, though Linda was almost put off her own breakfast thanks to finding a dead squirrel by her tent. I remember Keith mentioning that it must have been a “present” from one of the foxes.
Afterwards we began packing together some things we’d need for the trip to the Gorge, just a few snacks and some water, nothing too excessive. Though while we were packing everything together Keith discovered he had a teensy problem as well, he’d lost his jacket.
I made mention that be probably misplaced it last night when he was drinking, even mentioning that I saw him wearing it while he was sitting alone by the campfire.
He did look puzzled by my comment, stating lightly that he didn’t even remember getting up last night or falling asleep by the campfire, but then he was blind drunk last night so he shrugged it off. It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten so hammered that he passed out or forgot details of a night out.
Oh Hell, half of the time when any of us went drinking in in the city we’d be lucky to remember how we even got home…
None the less, with a belly full of breakfast and caffeine we set off on our trek to the gorge, Fitzy being his usual self was chatting away with everyone, mainly with Martin who was fresh meat to a lot of his stories and jokes. And like Fitzy, Martin didn’t really suffer with hangovers like the rest of us did; the pair were chuckling and laughing while the rest of us shambled forward like sleepy zombies.
Though along the way, it seemed like we weren’t the only ones visiting the gorge, at least so we thought. Our path’s crossed with another campsite, two domed tents standing side by side in a small clearing, though we couldn’t see anyone there.
The place looked like it had been abandoned for months, maybe even years… Both tents were left wide open and were filled with dried leaves and debris from the forest floor, while an empty cooler and some trash lay strewn around the outside.
An overpowering stench was emanating from inside the tents, like something or someone had been using it as a toilet…
“Um, should we be concerned by this?” Paul asked with a little bit of worry, prodding at the discarded cooler with his foot.
“Nah.” Keith dismissed. “It wouldn’t be the first time some kids went camping, got drunk and then couldn’t be arsed taking their tents with them in the morning.”
“So, no rapist axe-murderers then?” Paul asked again, still a little concerned about our findings.
“There’d probably be a lot more blood and guts lying around if that were the case.” Keith laughed. “There are also no backpacks around, so they probably just left this crap behind.”
“Seems like a waste…” I muttered, though in all honesty I’ve done the same thing before myself at festivals and music gigs, leaving behind cheap tents and even cheaper camping gear like litter. I almost smirked at my own hypocrisy, kicking aside some of the rusty beer cans and a leathery husk of what I thought to be an old jacket.
At Keith’s behest we strolled onwards towards our destination, following a trail from the derelict campsite which snaked through patches of feathery long grass and spindly saplings, eventually approaching the distant roar of flowing water.
“The River’s not far away from the gorge. We’re getting close.” Keith spoke aloud as the sound became more prominent, filling our ears with its persistent presence much like white noise.
And not before long, we encountered the edge of the Gorge’s maw, a gaping mouth carved into the earth that stretched down possibly fifty feet or so. Maybe even deeper.
While folks were snapping pictures of the view with their phones, Keith and I spared no time in eagerly making our way down.
There was a passage which cut downwards in a sort of natural staircase, creating a thick corridor of soil and moss, with slick stones embedded into the mud acting as steps which led down into the gorge. As we stepped and stumbled deeper through the small passageway, we had to climb past gigantic roots of trees which had been exposed from the soil walls flanking either side.
It was almost like stepping into another world, like something from Tolkien’s fantasy or a place untouched and unexplored by man.
But at the bottom, we were greeted with a grand sight.
The Gorge was lined with red sand upon the ground and dotted with black shining pebbles while the walls were composed more of soil than rock, the orangey clay texture almost looked like the side of a rare steak..
A shallow and almost still river flowed through the middle, and even at this light we could see that it did indeed look scarlet red. It created a very macabre landscape especially with the long dead trees and branches poking out of the crimson pools like they were grasping hands reaching towards the sandy shores.
In stark contrast, much of the black soil and red clay walls were covered in layers of emerald green moss and I followed its trail towards the top where we saw Fitzy, Paul, Linda and Martin waving from above.
Paul shouted something unintelligible and I just waved back, beckoning them to come on down.
As everyone arrived below and started taking in the sights, Keith acted as a kind of mock tour guide to the place, explaining how far the gorge stretched, where it led to and where the caves were, which we were going to eagerly explore next.
We followed the crimson riverbank further into the gorge, snapping photos with our phones and exchanging comments about how cool or creepy the terrain was at every turning point.
But just around the corner we found the first opening.
A massive cavernous mouth made of wet black stone and tinted with green hues of mossy slime greeted us with a wide yawn. Whatever daylight reflecting off the pools of water inside caused the rocky walls to glimmer and move with fluid patterns of light. I remember well even now the sights of this place almost like I had the photographs in my hand, but I also remember feeling somewhat apprehensive, like a kid caught trespassing in a place off-limits to them.
I don’t know what spurred this instinctive gut feeling, but it seemed to be just me. Everyone else seemed eager enough to go exploring, and I just went with the flow.
My flashlight was not particularly powerful, but it did make navigating much of the cave easier, and I scanned the walls and jagged ceiling in amazement that there was no graffiti, no trash or presence of man anywhere to be found. It was almost humbling in a way to be standing here.
Paul didn’t seem to share my sentiments as he waited outside for fear of getting his feet wet, Fitzy was walking along some kind of upper ledge he’d found which gave a better view of the grotto, trying his best to encourage Linda to join him.
Keith and Martin were chatting away to each other, presumably Keith was telling his work-mate about all the other places he’d been to, trying to encourage the guy to venture out with us more often.
I on the other hand was inching my way towards the throat of the cave which led deeper into who knows where. My flashlight only stretched maybe less than ten feet in front of me, highlighting important areas where I could walk and not fall and injure myself on the slippery and jagged rocks which layered this cavern like predatory teeth.
I nearly dropped my one and only light source in shock when I heard Linda scream.
I ran stumbling back to the cave’s mouth, following the sounds of shouting and cursing as quickly as I could without misplacing my footing on the slick and slippery stones.
I got back in time to see Linda standing in shock and Fitzy shoving Keith away and to the ground in anger. Fitzy bawled out in pain as he pushed back, hobbling and hopping on one foot before collapsing down on a nearby rock, cradling his foot like a new-born baby.
“What the hell happened?” I yelled out at the commotion.
“He fell.” Linda exclaimed, moving closer to check on her boyfriend’s leg.
“I didn’t fall, he fucking pushed me!” Fitzy yelled angrily, pointing a finger at Keith who was picking himself up off the ground with a bewildered look on his face.
“I didn’t do shit.” He shot back.
“I fucking saw you!” Fitzy grunted back, holding his breath to fight back the throbbing pain in his foot.
“Mate, he was with me the whole time. He never even touched you.” Martin stated as he put himself between the pair in case a fight was about to break out, though judging from Fitzy’s injury it didn’t look like he could start swinging even if he wanted to.
“Dude, you must have just fallen down.” I added, just hoping to help diffuse this before it got much worse.
“I’m not even joking.” Fitzy blurted out between painful cringes. “I was pushed.”
“Did you see anything?” I asked Linda, but she only shook her head and shrugged in response, clearly just as confused by everything as I was.
I scanned my flashlight along the area where Fitzy had been standing, but nothing was there, or at least nothing was there Now. But unfortunately that fall he took, regardless of whether he was pushed or fell resulted in an apparent broken ankle.
The trip was officially over. It was time to go home.
Getting Fitzy out of the gorge was hard enough, we practically had to carry him AND ourselves out of there up that slippery passageway we used getting down. Afterwards we had to help him walk back to camp at the pace of a snail, every hour became two as he limped back, being flanked by Lisa and Keith who supported him at each shoulder.
Martin and I kept trying to call emergency services on our phones to arrange either pick up at camp or at the minivan but we couldn’t get a bloody signal out here. We were too far in the arse end of nowhere to reach anyone we needed, and to make matters worse?
At the pace we were walking it would likely be almost nightfall when we reached camp, and the four hour journey to walk back to the minivan might easily become an EIGHT hour journey if we hobble along at Fitzy’s limping pace.
There’s no way we’d be able to do that in the dark… This meant that Fitzy would likely have to grit his teeth and suffer with it for the evening until morning. And I sure as hell didn’t want to be the one to have to tell him that…
By the time we managed to shuffle back to camp it was just after 7pm and the sky was already turning a faint orange over the distant horizon. We’d at least made it back to our tents, but our elation quickly turned to bafflement, then to anger and further disappointment by what we found.
Three of our tents, including my own, had been torn apart and trampled to the ground, Martin’s sleeping bag had been ripped to shreds and the entire campsite was speckled with the tiny white feathers held within. Our bags had been emptied; their contents littered around the campsite, much of it our spare clothes and food.
“No bloody way…” Paul sounded out in a gasp, almost ready to break out into a cynical laugh of disbelief.
Martin shared a knowing glance with me, and I felt we were both thinking that this was the work of that fellow who ran from us yesterday at the riverbank. I just shook my head, not in disagreement, but more with shared disbelief at our sudden turn of bad luck.
“Guys, I think we’re fucked…” Paul stammered as he picked up the remains of his backpack.
“Calm down.” Keith stated flatly, helping Fitzy over to one of the fallen logs to rest his foot. “Some asshole vandalised our camp and fucked up our stuff. It happens; you just need to get over it.”
“Oh yeah? And what if he comes back? What if he’s a bloody psycho and he’s armed?” Paul shot back again, quickly checking his phone hoping to see a signal.
“We’re armed as well.” Martin announced angrily, unclipping the hatchet from his belt. “If it comes to that, we’ll deal with it.”
“Look, nobody’s chopping anybody!” Keith spoke aloud, trying to talk over the discord of angry complaints. “If he shows up, then yes we kick his ass for wrecking our stuff. But leave the hatchets and blades out of it!”
Martin and Keith continued arguing over the necessity to dispense justice on our “visitor”, who I assumed would be watching now and giggling at everyone pissed off at his handiwork.
Little did I know that he actually WAS watching us even now.
Linda gasped with fright and pointed frantically into the woods and our heads followed her finger to the source of her concern.
There stood a man in the distance, standing still like a statue and just staring, staring at all of us in the small clearing amidst the remains of our gear. He wore a dark jacket with the hood covering his head and faded grey jeans which looked soaked around the legs with mud and water.
Martin charged after him like a raging bull with hatchet in hand and I gave chase, worried that either his anger might get the better of him and he does something stupid with that hatchet or he might need help if the guy was indeed armed or more dangerous…
Standing nearly seven foot tall with arms as thick as my waist, Martin was not a flimsy guy like me and living in the area of the city he did, I knew he’d be no stranger to a fight.
He certainly ran fast for such a big guy too… He outpaced me in nearly the blink of an eye, barrelling forward to the silent stranger who had watched us bicker from afar.
I called out after him once I saw he’d stopped running but I was struggling to catch my breath and could only call out his name. At first I thought he was just talking with the guy, but I noticed instead he was looking… up?
I arrived huffing and wheezing, not sure whether to expect a confrontation or indeed the aftermath of a confrontation and one guy lying bleeding from an axe wound. But it was just Martin and I.
“Where is he?” I asked, still looking around for our intruder.
“Up there…” Martin said in an almost confused yet childlike manner, pointing up towards the nearby tree with his axe. Puzzled, I looked upwards but couldn’t see anything but before I could even ask what the hell he was talking about, he stated again. “He went up the tree.”
“He climbed the tree?” I asked sceptically.
“Climbed? He fucking ran up it like a spider monkey!”
“I don’t see him…” I muttered as I looked up towards the myriad of branches and leaves towering above us.
“Neither do I, but that’s where he went…” Martin and I continued staring for what seemed like ten whole minutes, both in confusion and disbelief. And at that moment I wondered if we were seeing things, if our imagination was playing tricks, or more likely Martin just lost sight of the guy or misinterpreted what he saw. After all, there was no way anybody could physically climb a tree like that, that quickly, and then just disappear…
Back at camp we began clearing up some of the mess left behind by our friend the “vandal”, seeing what was salvageable and what was still left intact. But it would be likely we’d only be able to take back what we could carry anyway, the rest would still have to be abandoned…
It was also going to be dark soon, and despite a few complaints of having to spend the night here with some asshole harassing us, none of us wanted to hike through the woods in the pitch black of night.
So to compensate, we’d take shifts staying awake and watching the camp. Martin and I would take the first shift and then Keith and Paul would take over the second, we’d keep a campfire burning through the night and at first light we’d get ourselves to the minivan and into the closest town.
While Keith stated flatly that it was just the work of some guy who just wanted to dick around with us, I still feel that he felt this guy, whoever he was, could be dangerous. A shift system was a good idea in that eventuality.
Other duties were handed out by Keith in the meantime, Paul was to fetch more firewood for the campfire, and we’d need a LOT more lumber than we had if we were to keep a fire going the entire night.
Fitzy and Linda stayed huddled up in their tent and tried to get some rest, Fitzy in particular would have it rough tomorrow when we began our trek back to the minivan in the morning. The walk was long and arduous, and on a bad leg it would be absolute torture.
Martin kept watch around the campsite, doing odd jobs and keeping an eye open for our guest to return or start more trouble with us. He kept a hold of that hatchet like it was a child in his care, which I assumed made Paul’s job a little bit harder, since it was the only axe we brought with us.
Keith and I were mainly cleaning up the place, looking for whatever could be taken back with us. There wasn’t much left…
One backpack had one of its straps torn, but was in serviceable condition to carry some goods; our pots, pans and canteens were slightly dented and covered in mud but in otherwise working order.
Our clothing was scattered around but was surprisingly not torn or ripped like the rest of our gear, instead some of it was polluted with some kind of greasy oil. It wasn’t sticky or viscous in any way; it had more of the consistency of cooking oil but with none of the smell.
In fact I couldn’t smell anything from it whatsoever, it was another oddity which nagged at my sense of reason that things were getting VERY strange. Stranger than us being screwed over by some prankster with too much time on his hands, everything just started to feel wrong to me by this point.
I kept shrugging it off as best I could, I was getting anxious, there was nothing more to it than that, my imagination was wandering into the fanciful and out of the bounds of reality. Sure, you hear of strange tales from books, movies and games about people encountering weird situations and all hell breaking loose, but those are works of fiction. They’re not real.
Even though I kept telling myself this, it didn’t dispel that feeling that I have even now, that something was just not right. There was something going on that was beyond us and we were in serious trouble.
Keith put on a brave face, but I could see he was feeling it too.
It was panic that our visitor wanted, he wanted to scare us, make us angry, distraught with our predicament. He was definitely messing with us, but to what end we would have to wait and see. To see whether he continued his interactions or started getting violent with us.
Calm was the order of the day, so long as we maintained our composure we’d be fine and not give this guy the satisfaction of seeing us frightful and bitter.
By eight thirty in the evening, we’d assembled what we could and Paul had returned with a bindle packed with sticks, twigs and dry leaves. More than enough lumber to keep us going for the evening and beyond, he even found Keith’s jacket somewhere out around the woods near our campsite.
Unfortunately the inside of it was coated in the same oily mess much like our clothes were, and it understandably dissuaded Keith from wearing his reunited parka.
Paul pretty much just went straight to bed after that and Keith soon followed, they’d both need as much sleep as possible if they were to wake up early enough to relieve Martin and I from watch duty.
The sun eventually receded, changing the fading skyline from a fiery orange to a blinding black, there is no moon tonight and the claw-like branches of the tallest trees kept our prying eyes from seeing any distant stars.
The woods themselves were smothered in darkness like a black curtain that blocked our sight from beyond the campfire’s glow, and the crackles and pops of smouldering twigs are the only sounds tonight besides hushed conversation between Martin and me.
Not a sound beyond that treeline, not of nocturnal birds hooting, or chirping insects or even a hint or sign that our guest is out there watching us.
We were sitting on the old gnarled logs, our eyes flitting back and forth from one dark corner to the next as the shadows moved to the embers of our campfire. I grew more and more worried that one of these dancing shadows may indeed belong to some dangerous invader who would cause us harm.
“No offence mate, but I’m never going camping with you guys ever again.” Martin speaks in a subdued grumble, still keeping his small hatchet in hand.
“After this, I’ll be sticking to the city too. It’s bloody creepy tonight.” I admitted, thinking about all the hassle we’ve had so far and hoping for a better day in the morning.
“Aye, it’s like a Blair Witch project out here.” Martin grimly snickered back.
“By the way I meant to ask, did you get a good look at that guy?”
“The tree guy?” Martin responded, pointing a thumb back in the general direction where he disappeared.
“Yeah, was it the same guy from the river yesterday?”
“I don’t think so, but I do know he moved up that tree like nothing I’ve ever seen.” He shook his head at the recollection and stared thoughtfully at the burning fire.
“You’re sure he went up the tree? I mean, does that even make sense? You think you might have misjudged it or something?” I tried again, hoping maybe Martin would admit to something he missed or reassure me that what he saw could be wrong.
“I know what I saw.” Martin growled back. “The guy bounded up there like it was nothing, he just…” Martin motioned with his finger in an upward flick to demonstrate the speed this guy ascended.
I sighed defeated, maybe he DID climb up the tree, and maybe he was a frigging parkour master or had something more elaborate to help him up. Martin seemed convinced of what he saw but I couldn’t tell if his conviction was truth or just him trying to save face for letting the guy get away.
We’d been talking away for around an hour or so to pass the time and at some point during that time of our conversation, for who knows how long, he’d been sitting there beyond the campfire’s glow. Perfectly still, perfectly silent, caked in shadows and watching us as he did when we first noticed him earlier.
Our mystery guest.
The moment I noticed and realised he was actually there I fell backwards off the log crying out in fright, I scrambled back to my feet but he was already gone, vanishing with a rustle of leaves into the night.
Martin had clearly seen the guy dash into the shadows beyond the clearing, and he stood brandishing the axe threateningly and bellowed into the darkness.
“Aye, you better run you chickenshit!”
Linda and Fitzy were the first to rise from their sleeping bags at the sound of the commotion, poking their heads out from the tent with wide eyed stares. Keith was next to follow out in sleepy strides, clearly irritated by the persistence of our intruder, carrying a flashlight in his hands.
The beams of light did not travel far in the omnipresent dark; and there were too many places for a man to hide out there. There were too many trees to hide behind, too many shrubs casting long shadows, all of it working against us as we stood by the reassuring light of our fire.
“Our best pal is back.” I uttered to Keith as I pulled out my own flashlight.
“Yeah, I figured.” Keith murmured before calling out to the forest. “We don’t want any trouble, just fuck off and leave us in peace!”
“You really think this guy is gonna listen to that?” I asked sceptically.
“If he doesn’t, he’ll listen when I introduce my foot to his arse and wear him like a bloody stocking!” Martin yelled aloud, loud enough to ensure that our visitor would hear the threats directed at him.
After a moment of sullen silence, Keith asks a question which sets me even further on edge..
“You tell me, he was sleeping in your tent!” Martin yelled back, his anger clearly growing with every frustrating minute.
“You mean you two didn’t see or hear him leave the tent?” Keith grunted disapprovingly, still keeping his eyes on the treeline with his flashlight.
“Well, did you?” I shot back, and Keith never bothered answering me, instead he started shouting out Paul’s name, calling out to him in the forest.
“What’s going on?” Linda asked, fearing she already knew the answer.
Our voices fill the forest as we call out to Paul, I’m getting incredibly concerned by this point. Not just at our situation which is growing more and more ominous with each minute, but for Paul’s welfare. I’d known that guy since my early years of school, I dragged him out on every outing and every hike I’ve ever done.
And now he was in trouble, and it was likely my fault just for bringing him out here.
Keith suddenly hushes us for a moment, motioning us all to be quiet with a frantic wave of his hand and we all fall still like trees to better hear the sounds of the forest.
And then we hear it, it’s faint, but it’s there.
It’s Paul’s voice, but instead of rushing out to help my missing friend, something puts me ill at ease, it’s a question which holds me in place and roots me to the ground.
Why is Paul yelling his own name?
I share a confused glance with my fellows, and it seems like they too share the same thoughts. The voice is getting closer and growing louder from in front of where we stand, and even though it was our friend, who may be injured, who was lost and may be returning to us. We all seemed to take a step back almost instinctively, as if this voice of our long-time friend was now a threat.
“Paul, is that you?” Fitzy called out as he tested fate and hobbled a step further.
Another voice replies angrily, this time far to our left. “Better fucking run!”
And then again, back in front of us from the shadows. “You Chickenshit!”
I turn to look at Martin who’s staring at me with the same dumbfounded expression I must be wearing, “That sounds like you…” I comment, and everyone shares a frightful glance.
“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Martin accuses angrily.
Paul’s voice interrupts us all once more, it sounds dry and crooked, like he’s being choked or struggling to speak clearly against a sore throat. It’s all around us now, never staying in one spot before announcing another comment, such as “Is that you?” Or “The hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Nobody move from the campfire!” Keith barks to us all, “Whoever this guy is, he’s just fucking with us, if we stay lit and together he can’t do shit.”
“Dude, do you even hear what’s going on right now?” Fitzy stammered, his eyes struggling to pick out anything, any clue which may betray this phantom’s presence in the darkness.
“And what about Paul?” Linda cut’s in before Keith could reply.
“Look, if we start wandering arou-“ At least, I thought it was Linda who cut him off, Keith cut himself off and just stood staring towards one of the trees behind us.
I turn to catch a fleeting image of Paul, and at first I think he’s just upside down hanging from the tree by his ankles, but he scuttles around out of sight like a spider on the bark, quickly and silently almost like a ghost.
“Tell me I’m not fucking dreaming…” Fitzy blurts out.
“That was NOT Paul.” Keith stammered, his voice shaking.
“It bloody looked like him.” I whispered blankly in disbelief.
“IT’S NOT PAUL!” Keith yells back and suddenly we hear Linda and Fitzy scream.
The next thing we knew, Fitzy was on the ground and Linda was being dragged by her heels towards the treeline at great speed. Keith, Martin and I make a scramble towards her as she reaches out for dear life; I throw myself in a lunge to grab at her and pull desperately at her clothes and shoulders, trying to pull her towards the light of the campfire. And I almost let her go as my eyes meet with the figure pulling at her legs.
It was Paul.
His long hair was covered in dried leaves and broken twigs, stained with soil and mud from the forest floor, while his skin was pale and oily but his expression was blank and his eyes almost dead or even completely alien.
The campfire’s light wasn’t perfect and the struggle was hectic so I’m not sure what I saw exactly whether it be true or not, but I will describe what I “thought” I saw.
I remember his lips just hung open limply with that blank stare of his, but inside his mouth I could see teeth. Teeth like silvery needles arranged in dense rows and sealed tightly shut.
I remember it more like a snapshot in my memory more than a sequence of events, because as quickly and desperately as I had managed to grab at Linda, Martin also delivered a solid kick to “Paul’s” face, sending him reeling into the thicket of shadowy shrubbery bordering the clearing around our campsite.
Linda scurried back to her feet and towards Fitzy, the leggings of her jeans were sliced and bloodied, but Martin bounded into the shadows after Paul, swinging his hatchet in wild strikes against the clawing branches and smothering leaves only to find nothing.
Instead of a body, we heard a yowling groan from the other side of the clearing, sounding like a strange mix of a distressed cat or bleating goat.
Within moments the forest was alive with unnatural sounds like garbled deer calls, shrieking birds, off key dog howls and even a facsimile of Linda’s screams was repeated to us all from everywhere around us.
The sounds of leaves rustling and branches breaking forced us to huddle together in the centre of the clearing, like we were sheep being herded by a Shepard’s dog.
And then suddenly we were met with silence.
We waited for another call.
We prepared for another attack.
We watched the shadows intently for the slightest clue to deliver Paul’s whereabouts to us.
Nobody slept that night.
Even as the sun rose beyond the horizon, we still waited.
We were just too scared to move.