I became a hermit gradually. It started in 1987 on a mountain near the small town of Harrietville in north-eastern Victoria. This was soon after my HIV diagnosis, when I was 19. Disclosure of my HIV status to people had resulted in impassive rejection, not curiosity or empathy. Health, for me, seemed more attainable within secrecy.
The sensible thing to do - I thought back then - was to drop out of university. I sold most of my possessions and then started travelling on my own in an old car with a vague idea of going fruit picking. The car blew a head gasket while on a steep road towards the peak of Mt Hotham. For the next two days I slept on the back seat considering what to do; I had little money until the next pension cheque, and no roadside insurance.
On the third day, while exploring deeper into the surrounding forest, I found a ruined hut. There are lots of smaller paths that you can never find on a map, which lead to remote places. I enjoyed somebody else's choice of rocks for a campfire. Suddenly the prospect of learning to live outdoors seemed more attractive than returning to Melbourne. For almost two years I lived as a solitary in the ruin of that tiny prospector's hut, which I made waterproof with layers of tarpaulin.
Initially I felt afraid of nature in the forest. A snake might rear its head as a form of warning. The eucalyptus trees seemed to move at night in the strong winds as if they were miming. Even the noise of possums mating in trees frightened me.
Simply, I was unfamiliar with an environment that was not enclosed by walls. In the first months I would get up once every night and place more wood on the fire, just to keep it smouldering. Soon it became hard to return into the hut because I would be mesmerised by the stars.
Sometimes I would have HIV-related night sweats that would dampen my sleeping bag in the swag, so I would make a much bigger fire and drink a pannikin full of hot cocoa. Then I would get back into bed with my coat on.
I learnt to keep warm by lining my swag with sheepskin, which had covered one of the car seats, in the cold months. And in summer I found a small tent worked when the forest was swarming with insects.My mother provided a home for me during each winter. I stayed there for as long as she and I could tolerate each other.
Both years, I returned to the forest after winter in poor health. It took about a month for my body to detoxify from the substances consumed back in the city. My legs were very fidgety at nights. And then it would be another month before I started to enjoy my aloneness again.
I probably was unaware about how rarely I spoke with people. Usually, if someone approached and asked me a question, I would try to answer but I seldom attempted to start a conversation. And talking to the creatures such as a bird, a wallaby or a wombat only made them more likely to flee.
My favourite times were in the evening by a campfire, while reading with two candles. There is a certain a peace inside solitude, particularly when you are camping near the sound of moving water.
It soon became possible to save more than half of a disability support pension each fortnight. I would hitchhike the 40 kilometres from Harrietville to Bright, visit a bank and buy enough supplies to half fill a backpack. Also the small shop in Harrietville had a few healthy items.
It is possible for short periods to live mainly on a mixture of raw oats and soy milk powder. I often consumed a lot of nuts, raw carrots and vitamin supplements. I prepared meals, which were always a great feast made from dry goods and spices. My favourite vegetarian dish was lentil, sweet spice, dried apricot and prune stew. I used one stainless-steel billy for every meal, which had a small fitted bowl for warming up food beneath its lid. A wooden spoon and a steel-scourer were the other most useful utensils.
Someone I met said a useful possession for living in a forest is one of those netting bags that you buy oranges in. You can place some food items in the bag and place it in a streamto make a reasonable fridge.
Occasionally people who provided a lift would ask what it was that I did in the forest. They began by asking if I had owned the land that I lived on. Often they wanted to know if I was currently employed. Usually I just turned towards the passenger's window and said nothing in reply, until their need to examine me abated. If they became persistent, I might mumble my intentions about fruit picking.
Soon my sense of a routine in the forest became dependent on the position of the sun or the brightness of the moon. Hours could pass just peeling bark from rotten twigs and finding dry leaves for the evening fire. I think the prettiest orange seen by humans was through the trees at sunset. That was the time when I would start a campfire with old newspapers, usually choosing to burn first a news section.
When fit, I tried to walk once a week to the peak of Mt Feathertop and make an overnight camp near there. From that alpine peak it is possible to watch the sunset over valleys and Mt Buffalo. On overcast days I stared up and into the inner workings of clouds.
I did a lot of mediation inside the forest and I liked to have short walks every day. There were many good guidebooks about the area. Whenever I went into Bright I collected guidebooks on just about any topic, including a few on how to navigate the soul.
There were a few other people who were also living reclusively on the same mountain range, near the Ovens River. They were recognisable from a distance, as they always wore the same clothing. I followed after them sometimes, hoping to meet. But they would mostly disappear after one or two bends in a foot trek.
I once met another hermit at riverside, near a large fallen tree. He was drinking from a cupped hand. Then he splashed his face with water and began to loosen the muscles of his neck. I may have coughed or made some sound to let him know that I was there.
I recall (from my diary) suddenly feeling anxious, as if being alone for so long could hinder my ability for communication. I stood and stared at him: his still and soft eyes. He looked back with detachment as if we were perhaps in a town and I was just another passer-by. His hair was grey and matted. He wore an old skivvy and a pair of loose shorts, which seemed to be inadequate clothing in early winter.
I looked at his bare feet and then back toward his green eyes. Then his stare fell abruptly like ripe fruit to the ground. Soon we passed on the narrow foot trek without speaking.
One night, as I slept, I dreamt that the older hermit and I met again. Within my dream, he whispered as he moved closer toward me. He said: "This forest is a church and the wind is my preacher."
It was not long after meeting this other hermit that I returned again to Melbourne. My mother had written to me about a group of HIV positive people who were treating themselves with a regimen of complementary therapies. We held regular group meditations and meals together. It was because of those people and the support of my mother that I was able settle into a social life again.
Recently I decided to revisit my former dwelling near Harrietville and see if it was the same as I had remembered it. My life had become busy through employment and having a family, so I could only manage eight days for this solitary sojourn.
It was much harder than I had expected to find the place of my old dwelling. I had to often leave crossed sticks on the ground to find my way back.
The hut had been destroyed, probably by bushfire. The location was recognisable only by a small cluster of rocks amid rye grass. I could not recollect any non-native grass around this particular area of the forest in 1987. It was likely that I had carried the rye seeds there in the mud on my walking boots.
Over the next five days I hiked around the alpine range and fell frequently through time into recollections, such as: the constant slithering sound on the forest floor of shedding bark from mountain ash trees; the lyrebird's voice in the early morning mimicking all the birds. I wandered through an area of nature that earlier in my life had fostered my will to live.
I rediscovered some favourite foot-tracks, which were still not defined on any official maps. Some of these tracks led me back to remote places within my memory. There were tracks that ended at open and sunny spots in the forest, where I could rest in the lively company of tall trees, upon a shoulder of the mountain.
I felt content just to wander and breathe again the healthy forest dust, far away from rooms and industry.It seemed a pleasure almost to utterly tire my muscles. I hiked every day until dusk, in the hope that my mind may yet achieve some emptiness of thoughts. I took frequent rests and dreamings.
I wore my old compass again around my neck - it was still working. I did not worry about the cuts, bruises and insect stings; nor the heat and a constant shortage of fresh water. I slowly learnt again to ignore the pain from a backpack, which was a necessary weight to carry if I wanted to reach a place away from people. Those few nights alone again, deep in the forest, gave me an inner peace, which lasted for months after returning to the city.