The fire crackled again. The soft flickering glow played on the faces of the mixed group of paddlers gathered in a rough circle around the cluttered camp. As the wine flowed so did reminiscences of adventurous times past.
Another story came to an end with an eruption of laughter. As the conversation briefly hit a lull, the group leader looked over at an individual who had been quiet to this point.
“And what about our esteemed guest… you’ve heard some of our epics, what was your most dramatic moment on the water?”
“Me?” said the old man, and paused. “Well…” he hesitated again, “dramatic moment… well there’s been so many, but there was one particular day…”
Sensing some reluctance, another of the young Americans encouraged, “Yeah Norm, I know we’d all love to hear a genuine story from Down Under…”
Several others voiced their appreciation.
The veteran paddler composed himself.
“Well, I guess it was thirty years ago now… more than thirty years. His name was Ben… Ben Lehmann, and he was a good friend of mine. A good paddler too, strong, determined, and, like you people, good fun around the camp fire… always had a story to tell.
“But, just to give you some background, Ben was also bit of a practical joker, was always looking for opportunities to put one over his fellow paddlers. And particularly those with the best equipment, because Ben’s gear was basic to say the least. He paddled one of the roughest looking Greenlanders you’d ever see, repaired so many times it must have weighed 80 pounds.
“I remember one time he ‘stole’ a friend’s unattended ultra-light Kevlar kayak from a remote beach, lodged it up a tree, then insisted it was the result of a gust of wind… he later admitted to a bad case of weight envy.
“Then there was the day he organised a sea kayak sailing race and beat all the high tech rigs using nothing but a hand held golf umbrella.”
Norm chuckled and held out his hand for a refill of his wine mug, “That one was typical Ben.”
“Anyhow, one day, after a training paddle, he came up to me and said he had thought of a really good prank. There was a trip planned along the Murramarang National Park coastline the next weekend. We’d seen a shark there a month before, an event that caused quite a buzz amongst us paddlers. Over there, y’see, we’ve got serious sharks but we don’t see them too often.
“Ben, who never seemed to be scared of anything, told me he wanted to play on this. At the very place we’d seen the fin, he was going to capsize his kayak. He’d then quickly wet exit and stick his head into the air pocket in the cockpit of his upturned kayak and stay there, hidden from view. I remember saying, ‘So what… what’s that got to do with the shark’, and he said, ‘This…’ and he held out a Nalgene container. It was full of red food colouring. He explained gleefully that he would open it while he was under the boat, that all the other guys would see was an upturned kayak and red water. They’d freak out.
“I had to agree with that! Ben was pleased as punch with his plan. Me? Well I knew the whole idea was a bit sick, but Ben was my friend, and I knew there was no point in trying to talk him out of it.”
One of the listeners leaned forward and laid some more small sticks on to the flames. Norm continued on.
“The day came. It was a small group, Martin and Alan, two experienced paddlers, Joe, a bit of a novice, and Ben and I. We set off from a place called Depot Beach. I remember that morning well… the Murramarang coastline shimmered brilliantly in the early morning sunshine. About a metre of swell with barely any wind. Just perfect. As we paddled out Ben looked over at me and gave me a knowing wink. It was on.
“And sure enough, an hour later as we approached the headland, Ben began to paddle his Greenlander purposely to the front of the group until he was about 120 metres ahead of us. About a minute later his paddle flew into the air, there was a muffled cry, and he was over.
“Someone looked over at me and shouted, ‘What’s he up to?’ I shook my head innocently. Joe, followed by Martin and Alan, then accelerated over to Ben’s kayak, with me a bit behind. Joe got there first and immediately screamed a warning… something about a shark, a big shark. At that point I remember chuckling… this one obviously wasn’t just any old shark, but a monster! I could see the old orange Greenlander was just sitting there, upturned, a paddle floating nearby. There was no other movement.”
Norm took a sip of wine. His eyes now not leaving the fire, His total focus now on that day.
“As the three guys gathered around the kayak I could see the fear. It was like electricity was going through them. Bodies visibly tensed, all looked defensive and strangely tippy. Then suddenly Martin broke away from the group shouting, ‘I’m outta here,’ and headed for shore at speed.
“Anyhow, in the few seconds it took me to get to them my best attempt at a straight face had disintegrated into uncontrollable laughter as I saw what my mischievous friend had done… there was red stuff swirling around everywhere… not just on the surface but even down deep.
“Understandably shocked at my inappropriate behaviour, Joe turned on me, his face all fear and confusion. He hissed, ‘What’s so funny… can’t you see? A shark got Ben.’ Through glazed eyes I could see the man was petrified, holding his paddle up in the air like a weapon. But I was now laughing so much it hurt.
“I knew I was seeing real panic… I tried to tell them. I gasped, ‘Look, it’s OK… he’s OK…’, for I could hardly talk. ‘It’s just a joke,’ I was trying to say, but I just couldn’t get it out. Alan then really lost it, screaming, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’
“So, knowing the whole thing had gone way too far, I sort of composed myself, paddled alongside the Greenlander, lowered my hand under the coaming and flipped her over. And…”
Norm’s voice suddenly faded to a harsh whisper.
“It was then I stopped laughing.”
Something in the fire expired with a slow hiss. Norm stared deeply into the flames, almost in a trance, slowly, almost imperceptibly, shaking his head. More seconds passed as he struggled to gain the composure to finish his tale.
“But what did you see?” said a tense, almost pleading voice from the group.
For the first time in a while the old man looked up from the fire. He cleared his throat, turned towards the voice and said quietly, “Just an unopened container of red food colouring.”