"You won't believe what I just heard."
"Something like the sun's about to shine from the north? Come on my little fairy, wait until the splendid sun has set and you close your eyes. Then you can tell your stories to the sorcerers living in your fantasy world."
Mum was trying to be rational, a state of mind different to mine, even though I was only seven.
"Once upon a time, a gracious antelope was singing a song of tenderness, but its delicate legs were injured by the treacherous road." I sang the words sarcastically.
"Carol, I'm sorry my dear. I had a hard day at work and didn't mean to be harsh." She kissed me tenderly on the forehead. But I continued: "The rubble in the abandoned city would never let the antelope go. She was caught in a trap."
I gulped guiltily, wishing I was a more responsible daughter. "Oh, it's just a story, mum."
Suddenly she was gone and I was alone in the darkening void. The shadowy roads covered by skyscrapers rose before me as if they would engulf and break me into billions of shiny pieces. The black wizards galloped on their broomsticks, shooting thunder claps all over. It seemed the world was coming to an end.
"Wake up, sweetheart. It's eight o'clock and you should be sitting at the breakfast table by now!"
Mum's voice prompted me to reach for the alarm clock button.
I put on my ragged green hiking pants and a T-shirt with the words "Carol loves Coral" on it. The reflection in the mirror revealed my brawny muscles and a brave smile on my face.
"Carol, it's past eight and the bus to Sai Kung Country Park is not the magical bus you saw in that Harry Potter film!"
My toes curled nervously. I lifted my 8kg hiking backpack that I had filled to bursting point the night before and hurriedly took it to the living room.
"Mum, I have dozens of energy bars in my bag. I'm going now, see you!"
I swept out of the house.
When the station alarm system played Beethoven's Fur Elise as the bus approached the final stop, I opened my eyes, still bleary from sleep, and went looking for a piece of paper in my backpack. I released the nylon strings and pulled it out: "Open this when things are not going right."
Below this was the word "Emptiness".
The words were blurred but I could make out mum's handwriting.
"Hey, Carol, go over there and meet your Group 7 teammates," Ms Flora called out to me. I was excited as I sprinted to the Group 7 beacons with Karen, Lila, two boys and two girls. A team named 7 with seven people, seven backpacks, seven compasses and one map.
"Okay Team 7, let's get rid of your sleepy eyes. Do you hear me?"
We responded to Ms Flora with a cheerful affirmative. But you can't expect much from kids nowadays.
"Yes?" she said, still unsure.
We played along, Ms Flora laughed, and she reached for her backpack. We were ready for the four-day camp.
"Okay, I'll just be the watcher walking 10 metres behind the team. Now I'm going to explain the route," Ms Flora said seriously, ignoring our jests.
"From here, Pak Tam Au, you'll travel to Tai Cham Koi, Lo Tei Tun, Sai Wan Shan, Tai Long Au, Sharp Peak and Ko Lau Bay. Wong Shek ferry pier will be your last stop. Good luck using the hiking skills you've learned in school. I'll not say a word from now on."
My watch beeped 10 o'clock.
"Okay Group 7, now it's our time to beat nature. Woohoo!" a tall guy exclaimed.
Off we went, marching into a seemingly endless, deep forest.
We should be back in four days.
Without the dampness and heavy odour of slippery mud and moist trees, the air smelt more like herbs and grass. I gazed at the huge willow trees, listened to the brown cicadas and watched the rays of sunlight through the canopy. I felt like hugging a tree and yelling, "I'm part of nature!"
"Carol, I'm guessing you'd like to carry my backpack, too?" Karen whispered.
I frowned, confused.
"You were smiling for no reason, so she was just trying to remind you," Lila explained. We all laughed.
The tall guy whistled randomly. The other two girls stuck to each other and Karen and Lila chatted while we sauntered through a gigantic marsh and took a grassy shortcut. The happy hours had passed.
"People, we are lost." The shorter guy, his eyes screwed up in concentration, was examining the map with a compass.
"We are now somewhere between Tai Cham Koi and Lo Tei Tun, and the map shows there should be a fork in the path around here."
We all looked and saw ... nothing.
"Ms Flora, please help us," we cried out, looking back. There was no one to be seen.
"She told me that vanishing is the best way to expose us to nature. However, she gave me a cell phone and there should be a signal everywhere in Sai Kung Country Park," said the tall guy.
"Oh dear, she didn't mention a battery problem," he added.
Team 7 was lost.
"What should we do, keep walking?" Lila asked our leader.
The leader's eyes were glued to the map. "It's impossible ... The marsh we just walked through makes zero sense."
"What should we do now?" one of the girls asked anxiously, pulling the leader's sleeves downwards.
"You've been doing an excellent job, Daniel. Now we need your advice. Should we stay or move?" Karen spoke quietly as the crows watched us from ancient trees. Daniel was still scratching his head.
I remembered my mum's letter and grabbed it from my bag while the rest were staring at Daniel.
Did it mean imagination? Emptiness might mean no restrictions! I had an idea.
"No, no, we don't have any flares," Daniel said, still deep in thought.
"Let me bribe a rabbit. Maybe she can teleport us back to our route," I said.
I searched for a little pack of soda biscuits and dropped them down next to a white rabbit standing in the bush.
"Please, my dear, can you guide us out of here?" I pointed my finger at the marked spot on the map. The rabbit slowly mumbled and crawled towards my ears.
"Take the path there," the rabbit pointed to the field on our right. "It will lead you back to the route on your map."
"Guys, follow me, this path will lead us back to the original road."
Everything glimmered in the midday sun. There was a soft breeze as gentle, swaying chrysanthemums assured us that our journey would go well.
The two girls took out their flutes and played a song. Leaves, lying scattered on the ground, parted to make way for us. Water droplets were tumbling down giant rocks, humming a song:
Whistling on the peaceful morning
Tangled on the fearful evening
How the years have flowed.
Chant the smiling lovely words
On my back while travelling
The river was offering its hand to us! Maybe we could make it to the unknown paradise? But wait, I was finding my way back, not going to some remote paradise.
"People, the river will carry us back to the route. We should split into teams of three and make two rafts for the long river journey," I yelled out.
"Mistress Carol, it would be my pleasure to craft those mighty ships of yours," a two-metre-long creature covered in black fur said. "Your eyes tell me you have to rest. Let's take a short break in my shelter."
The strange creature led us to his untidy, rocky apartment. The odour inside was overwhelming but not unpleasant. I could hear him chuckling just before my eyes stopped working.
Ouch! The moonlight penetrated my eyelids and the sound of ocean waves tore my heart of hope apart. I had failed Team 7.
"Where are we?" Karen asked quietly, as she usually did. "It's not a narrow river any more but an endless ocean ...?"
"Wow, nice, Carol!" the tall guy said sarcastically. "So now you're going to ask a blue whale to carry us back to land?"
I missed my mum. I grabbed her letter and read it through:
Emptiness means think clearly, don't be misled and don't mislead anyone.
Team 7 had failed.
"So fa so fa so re fa me do," the announcer hummed the theme of Fur Elise again, indicating that we had almost reached the last stop.
I opened my eyes and looked at my reflection in the window pane. I blinked away the tears and glanced at the lively pasture filled with people.
My feet felt heavy but here I was, heading to lovely Sai Kung Country Park.
Stories from the other finalists