Camping: a word that evokes a thousand emotions for me. At first it is happiness, which gradually leads to excitement, but eventually it turns to fear. This fear started because my grandparents would always give us warnings and tell cautionary tales. One of my Pop’s favourites was: “Kids who play with fire wet the bed.” He’d sit me down and tell me that before every camping trip. It was the tales of the squieelie, however, that really made the fear stick with me.
According to my grandparents, the squieelie would kidnap us if we were by the river at night and devour us whole. The last bit made it stick. When camping we had to sleep in a line, youngest to eldest, from the back to the front of the tent. Our Pop slept at the front and we would have to climb over everyone to get out – it made us think the squieelie was real, and being taken by it was possible.
This camping trip started like all the others I had been on as a kid and young teen. We packed the car early on the morning of Boxing Day 2011 and cruised along the beautiful tree-lined drive from Adelong to Tumut, and then from Tumut to my Uncle’s farm. We set up tents and swags and collected a pile of wood for that night’s fire bucket. When all of that was finished, we put on our swimmers and headed to the dam. Finally!
The sun was still beaming in the sky when we filled the boats and cars with eskies, biscuits, knee-boards and water-skis and set off on the thirty-minute drive to Blowering. A day in the sun was what the doctor ordered – being cooped up at school and in cars had made us restless, and Sarah, Keegan and I needed out. We stayed at Blowering until dinner time, and then headed back to the farm. We took it in turns to shower and cook dinner – it was the usual barbeque that all of us loved.
Well-fed and relaxed, none of us could have expected everything to change that night.
We got ready for bed, said good night, made some last-minute jokes about who was the worst at skiing and reminded everyone to watch out for murderers and kidnappers. It must have been about midnight when my mum called out: “Jane, did you brush your teeth?”
“Yes mum,” I shouted back with a roll of my bright-blue eyes.
“Okay. Nighty night. Don’t let the bed bugs bite! Watch out for the squieelie! No playing near the river until morning.” This was a very common warning for us on these trips.
The squieelie. Even with the stories from Pop and his insistence on the weird sleeping pattern, I never really believed the squieelie was real – I always believed it was a made-up story used to knock sense into us about the water.
My bushy, blonde hair was falling on my face as I made my way to my swag. Now that I was 12, I no longer had to sleep in the tent with Pop and the younger kids.
I was dozing off. The crackling of the fire and the humming of the resting bugs formed a continuous natural soundtrack that made it all too easy to fall into a long-awaited sleep. I had been asleep for no more than 20 minutes, however, when I was woken by a terrible sound.
A scream that could only have come from my cousin Sarah. The youngest. The one who was on her first trip and wasn’t aware of the squieelie.
The one who had been playing by the river at night.
I scrambled out of my swag as fast as I could, almost tripping on the cords that kept it upright. I stepped into the worst scene I could’ve expected.
One of Sarah’s shoes was lying on the ground by the river bank. There was nothing to indicate what had happened to her … nothing but footprints leading off into the darkness.
My Uncle Andy was standing by the river. His tanned face screwed up into a bemused expression. His bemusement soon turned to worry as he pieced together what had happened to his daughter.
From that moment, the whole farm was on high alert. Family members swarmed from every direction, crawling out of tents and swags like cockroaches from rubble.
The riverbank was too dangerous to walk along. We crawled on our hands and knees looking for Sarah, our concern for her overshadowing the discomfort caused by the wet grass that soaked our clothes. Our 18-year-old cousin Keegan started crawling through bushes and under fences – Sarah was his favourite.
I grabbed a torch and started looking around the area where we found her shoe. The ground was hard, but there was enough moisture to leave footprints. There were two trails: one was Sarah’s, the other was harder to interpret – it was like a combination of a dingo and a bunyip. Strange, because dingos were rare in this area.
I called to Keegan and we started to follow the trail. It wound through the bushes and down into the rocks lining the river. At some points, we could hear the footsteps of our relatives above us.
The distinctive, wise voice of Pop called out: “Jane! Keegan! Come back. We can all go together!”
“Bloss! Come back,” he said. That was his nickname for mum and me. He really wanted us to stop.
We hesitated. Maybe they were right. Maybe we should wait. They’d handled a lot on these camping trips already: I’d flipped a quadbike and Spider, our uncle’s friend, had a heart attack. We could all do this together.
We waited. Pop caught up and greeted us with the same look he gave me the day I flipped the bike: pride because we were brave enough to go ahead, but disappointment because we had. The look brought back so many memories that it made it hard to continue knowing that if I did he might lose another grandchild. But I had to try and find Sarah.
“I’m sorry, Pop. I have to go. I love you,” I said. I brushed a tear from my eyes and kissed his cheek. I honestly believed I may never see him again. He couldn’t come, the footprints went on forever and he would slow us down. He was also too fragile to see what we might find.
Keegan and I rushed on. My Pop frantically shouted “Bloss” from behind us.
We walked. We walked until we found the cave. The cave that now haunts my nightmares.
We followed the footprints into the heart of the cave. There were Sarah’s little prints, and the unidentifiable animal prints … but these animal prints became human and adult-sized as we got further into the cave. This terrified us more than the idea of the squieelie did.
And then we found Sarah.
She was breathing. Unharmed. Alive.
Sarah would always refuse to talk about or say who took her. She wouldn’t talk to anyone.
That left us with two questions: Who was the squieelie, and why had they left Sarah alive?