Katoomba, Australia - It's late winter and my last day in Australia. My friend Mary and I get to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney at 4:30 pm, a little late, but there's still time for my favourite kind of sight-seeing - rushed. Just get the sky train down to the bottom of the gorge, we're told, take a 10-minute walk through rain forest and then catch a train back up at the other end. Zoom!
We start out with three Muslim women who are wearing hijab and smoking cigarettes. The two young boys with them are having manic, mocking fun. Leaving them behind, we hurry past a Japanese family, including an oldish woman with notable scoliosis.
Like speed freaks, we stride through the fabled greenery toward that alleged other train station, but suddenly the boardwalk ends. Still, the path ahead is well trod, so we keep faithfully at it.
Another 10 minutes and still no sign of the train station, so we pick up the pace.
Have we somehow gone astray? Apparently. Since Mary is tiring, we agree I should rush back the way we've come and try to hold the last sky train - if it's still there.
It's after 5 now, cold and getting dark. The Japanese family has turned back, as has the Muslim family, the three women smoking ever more fiercely and looking worried.
Panting, I get to a stairway that proceeds steeply up the gorge - 800 steps! I'm tempted to bolt up it, two at a time, hoping to reach the park employees before they leave for the day, but it will soon be dark.
How will it be, I wonder, halfway up a gorge in the dark in an Australian rain forest in winter. Haven't I seen some warning about brown snakes?
Wisely, I run on back to the place where the sky train first let us off. Not only does the train terminus have no personnel, but no pay phone, no instructions, no emergency kit. Just fencing and forest. O, Australia!
Quite concerned, I begin to yell way up - about the height of the CN tower - to the top of the gorge.
"Hey, is anyone up there?"
Eventually there is a distant response.
After that - silence.
This gets my hopes up, but it turns out to be the two Muslim kids having a little fun with me. The bastards.
By the time they all catch up with me, it's 5:45. Darkness should fall in about 15 minutes and the children are dressed only in T-shirts. The Japanese folks, too, are underdressed for winter in light summer clothing, and the old lady doesn't look like she'll last the night.
Entering high management mode, I keep hollering until I'm hoarse. Finally, somebody calls down, "Do you need an ambulance?"
Foolishly I yell back, "No, but we need help."
After that - silence. The darker it gets, the more enraged I grow. I know I can bunch up with Mary and possibly even the Japanese folks and the smoking Muslim women and their ever-playful children and make it through the night, but I have a plane to catch home in the morning. And is that lightning I see flickering through the Southern Cross?
Yes. Later that night the sky freaks out in a fantastical non-stop electrical storm, followed by a pelting, pinging deluge of hailstones covering the ground inches deep. By then we're back in Sydney.
But for a few minutes more we are stranded in the gorge. Then, slowly, through the moonlit canyon, the sky train descends. I'm extremely grateful to see the man at the controls and thank him effusively, but I add, "There's not even a pay phone down here."
"Of course there's no phone, mate," the man replies curtly. "This is a national park."
As the sky train ascends, one of the Muslim kids breaks into panicky relieved sobs. We all turn to soothe him, "It's OK, it's OK," and then the kid bursts out laughing.
The little bugger has completely taken us in.