WRIT LARGE: Ch 18, Part 1
The Journey is the Reward
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It is midday when we all gather on the campsite beach in shorts, short-sleeved T-shirts, and hiking shoes, our backpacks kitted out for the challenge. Todd has again painted two white stripes across each cheek. He tightens the straps on his backpack which has badges of the band, Walk the Moon, pinned all over the front flap.
I watched him swimming before breakfast, his strokes strong and confident, and now he seems energised as though the exercise, or the salt water, has made him buoyant. The caterers served a full cooked breakfast alongside a buffet of fresh fruit, cereals, and pastries, and Todd ate only fruit and cereal.
Jeff faces the group, hands on hips, his back to the ocean. “Everyone ready for the Reward Challenge?” He grins at us, somehow managing to direct the smile at everyone individually.
“Bring it on,” says Tony.
Jeff rubs his hands together. “Okay, you’re going to split into two teams, blue and red. We have an odd number of tribe members, so to make life easier for everyone, I’ve chosen Natalie to accompany me.”
Natalie jogs over to stand beside Jeff and watches us all. I wonder briefly if she is disappointed or relieved at not taking part in the challenge, but then I remind myself that I don’t know what she and Jeff will be doing while we’re hiking around the island, and we may in fact have the easier option.
Jeff reaches down to a box at his feet on the sand. “Okay, guys,” he says, straightening, “we’re going to do this the traditional way, by choosing straws. The two long straws will represent the team leaders.”
We step forward single-file and choose a straw. Tony hesitates when it’s his turn, studying the straws in front of him.
Sandra rolls her eyes. “Next he’ll tell us he can entice the long straw out using willpower.” When he steps back, a long straw held up in front of his face, she laughs. “I’m not sure how, but I’d have bet next month’s wages on you cheating that into your sticky paws.”
“I choose red,” he declares.
I’m up next. When I draw a straw that keeps coming, Olivia squeals. “You did it.”
Everyone instinctively stands back leaving me and Tony standing either side of Jeff and Natalie. It feels strange on this side of the tribe, as though I’m seeing the others through Jeff’s eyes, gauging them, anticipating their next move. Tony reaches across and shakes my hand firmly. “May the best team win.”
“You know the score, guys,” says Jeff. “The team leaders get to choose their team members. As our guest, I think it’s only fair that you have first pick.” He nods at me.
Olivia is my first choice.
“Yay!” Olivia dances across the sand to join me.
As expected, Tony’s first choice is Sandra. She raises a hand to high-five Tony as she joins him on the other side of Jeff.
When everyone has been allocated a place, I have a team consisting of Olivia, Todd, Parvati, and John. Tony’s team is Sandra, Jeremy, Kim, and Rob.
My team gathers on Jeff’s right, Tony on his left facing the island.
“Welcome to the 5-mile hike challenge,” says Jeff.
“Unless there’s something you’re not telling us,” says Rob, “you’re not on camera now.”
“Hey, in this game, you’re always on camera. So, the aim of the challenge is for each team to find their respective ice box and bring it to a designated picnic location at the other end of the island, where I shall be waiting with the lovely Natalie and my feet up while I drink a well-deserved bottle of beer.”
Everyone cheers including Tony who says, “I’ll be right behind you, so you’d best make sure my bottle’s chilled.”
“First come, first served.” Jeff winks at me.
Tony squares his shoulders, feet spread, and arms crossed. “You’re up against the king and queen, mate, but I admire your enthusiasm.”
I tell him that in my profession enthusiasm and perseverance beat skill hands-down. Beside me Todd whoops, and belts out the chorus to ‘Seven Nation Army’.
Jeff raises a hand in my team’s direction. “As leader of the blue team, you will be heading east.” He gestures to a distant hilltop to the right of the beach. “And Tony, you will be heading west with the red team. The hilltops are Point A. The lookout at each point is approximately 80 metres above sea level, from where you will be able to see your side of the island and plan the next section of your route. On the other side of each hill, you will arrive with your team at Point B where there will be a three-person canoe waiting.”
“Yes!” says John, punching the air with his fist. “We got this in the bag.”
“Thank you, John,” says Jeff. “Nothing like keeping your game strategy under wraps. Three team members from each team will take the canoe out to Point C, a floating deck, which is the location of the ice box, and then canoe the rest of the way, to the picnic location. The remaining team members will follow the beach until they reach the destination. However …” He pauses for effect. “You will also have noticed from Point A, an orange flag which has been planted on a steep hilltop inland. The team that claims, and returns with, the orange flag, earns dessert for their team.”
“If it’s chocolate cheesecake, it’s mine,” says Olivia.
“Honey, you need to find that flag first,” says Sandra. “And I know for a fact it’s going to be cherry pie just the way my mom makes it.” She blows Olivia an air-kiss.
I ask if we’re to be given maps.
Jeff shakes his head. “No maps. It’s pretty straightforward and you’ll get a good idea of the island layout when you reach Point A.”
“No sweat, man,” says Todd. “I hiked it yesterday and there’s nothing we can’t handle.”
“Remember to pace yourselves,” says Jeff. “Five miles might be nothing back home when you’re visiting the air-conditioned mall with a Starbucks on every corner, but you’re hiking during the hottest period of the day, with limited supplies. And Olivia …” He tosses her a can of insect repellent, which she catches easily, and holds in the air like a trophy. “Ready, guys?” says Jeff. “Okay, go!”
We all grab our backpacks and jog along the beach in the direction of our respective viewpoints. It isn’t long before we veer into the vegetation, which forms the backdrop of the island, and the land begins to climb gently. Although it is a little cooler walking amongst the trees, we’ve lost the ocean breeze, and sweat trickles down my back. Todd leads the way as he was part of the group scouting the area the previous day, and I ask him if there’s anything we should be aware of.
“Yeah, like snakes or venomous spiders.” Olivia is spraying her exposed skin with insect repellent as we walk.
“There’ll always be insects,” says Todd, “but we didn’t find anything alarming yesterday.”
Parvati walks side-by-side with Olivia and I wonder if she is deliberately keeping her pace steady so that Olivia can match hers to the more experienced hiker.
It becomes more difficult the higher we climb, and as the forest thins out, the terrain becomes rockier, steeper. I ask if everyone is managing and they nod, concentrating on their breathing and the ground beneath their feet. We are almost at the top of the hill when Olivia stumbles, landing heavily on her knee on the edge of a rock.
She sits back on the ground, her mouth a thin line. Blood wells in crimson beads on her knee. Parvati is first on the ground beside her, backpack shrugged over her shoulders, as she opens a side-pocket and locates a first-aid kit. She unwraps an antiseptic wipe, cleanses the blood from Olivia’s knee before placing a Band-aid over the wound. “Better?” she asks.
“Wow. My mum never cleaned me up that quickly,” says Olivia climbing to her feet. She takes a couple of steps and then stops again, removing her left shoe. “That’s why I tripped.” She lowers her sock and shows us the raw blister on the back of her heel. “That’s what I get for hiking in someone else’s shoes.”
Parvati produces another Band-aid which she places carefully over the blister. “It’s not ideal,” she says, “but it’ll take the sting away some.”
We continue at a slower pace and reach the viewpoint a few minutes later. Jeff was right. From here, we can see the canoe waiting at Point B on the other side of the hill, and the ice box on the floating deck at Point C. In the distance, at the far north of the island, is what we assume to be the picnic location on a wide stretch of pale sandy beach.
“Over there.” John points inland to a flash of orange at the top of another, more densely wooded hill. “Dessert.”
I like Olivia's character. She seems like such a strong woman character. I mean, how many people will walk 5 miles with a blister and no one know until she trips and hurts themselves?