This post was inspired by Elissaveta's beautifully written accounts of her far more intrepid walks into the mountains in Switzerland and the Balkans
After reading her posts, I began by thinking regretfully, “I've never really walked” and then made a list, discovering that I'd walked a fair bit. Hence this lengthy post.
I've always walked, just not as much or as far as I wish I had: I am a desultory walker, as I am a desultory most things. However, I in fact have a walking history in many places: bush and beaches; rainforest; the Gulf of Aqaba; south coast wilderness; city streets; red desert.
AS A CHILD …
As a child, I went bush walking with Girl Guides and with the social group of my church: to Bobbin Head, Lane Cove Park, Royal National Park; in the Blue Mountains, and down the escarpment from Heathcote, carrying a small backpack and a packed lunch. I wasn't very sporty but I enjoyed these walks and the intensity of adolescent relationship that seemed to accompany them. My attention wasn't really on the bush: that came later.
AS A STUDENT …
As a student, I walked a few kilometres to and from the station every day, my nose buried in a book. At high school, I learnt the whole of The rime of the ancient mariner as I walked: many stanzas remain lodged in my otherwise sieve-like memory. As I paced out that distance twice daily, I also read the four volumes of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, the longest novel in the English language. I am one of the few people in my known universe to have done so.
However, walking diminished as study took over and exacted a sedentary life in return for high marks. In retrospect this was a very dubious bargain.
AS A YOUNG TEACHER …
As a young teacher, I embarked on an overnight hike (here the language changes: it was definitely not a walk) in the Snowy Mountains. I have vivid spot-memories of this experience. I remember getting out of the car in a valley surrounded by mountains; hefting my borrowed back pack onto my shoulders; taking five steps; and thinking “What have I let myself in for?” I couldn't abort, so I continued, becoming oddly friskier as the day progressed, somehow drawing perverse energy from the twisted ankles and encroaching exhaustion of my fellow hikers. Our guide kept saying “The hut's over the next crest.” But it never was. Eventually, he owned up to being lost. My energy level soared. When we finally reached the hut – and we did, somehow – I was the only one who danced to our destination.
That night was cold, so cold we needed to get the porridge water and put it in the hut for the night. So I volunteered to go down to the creek with a man and a bucket, a creek hardly any distance from the hut. It was a dark night, but we reached the creek without any problems. However, when we turned to head back to the hut, there was no sign of its lights. After an anxious and increasingly cold half-hour we were reunited with our refuge and plied with brandy and foot rubbing to restore circulation.
We spent the next day pottering round the bleak rocky terrain, my companion a spelunker with a geological hammer, a delicious Scottish accent, a Viking name, and an unwelcome propensity for putting his hand on my knee. When we set off back to the cars, we encountered an unexpected barrier. Fire this time. The grass was alight and burning fierce but low. So we fire-jumped our way to safety, I again exhilarated. By now everyone was body weary and we booked into a hotel, tall and Gothic, where we staggered up five flights of stairs and sank into hot baths to ease our aches and fatigue.
This adventure unfortunately didn't lead me immediately to more overnight hikes. That had to wait until I was well into my 50s.
Four walks stand out in my memory from courtship days. There was a city walk, after a classy dinner at the Rocks: a stroll around through Hyde Park, past the Archibald fountain, down to the foreshores of Sydney Harbour under the looming shape of the Harbour Bridge. The palm trees were clacking in the wind and the air was balmy. We walked and talked – and canoodled – and missed the last train home.
There was a rock-hopping walk at Narrabeen, looking down into deep sea pools where the sea crashed in, and holding even deeper conversations about matters literary and philosophical. There was a walk through the sandstone bush down to a writers' house at West Head, where young poets and novelist gathered, some of them later becoming well-known names. That day our motor bike helmets were stolen from under the rock where we'd left them. And then there was a walk at Newnes near Lithgow, after a motorbike ride in summer sun, sunflowers nodding by the road and kookaburras laughing. We left the bike and walked through a tunnel dripping with water and alight with gloworms, to a flat rock overlooking a deep gulley, where we sprawled and talked about Somerset Maugham.
AS A MOTHER …
I walked a bit in the bush near our south coast home with my children, sometimes carrying sausages, bread and matches for a bush barbecue. We occasionally stumbled across mossy logs and creeks, later recognised tiny rainforest patches. These walks were complex – one son was not a walker and the rest were always miles ahead. On one memorable occasion we hiked up Pigeonhouse (Didhol or Didthul to the Aboriginal owners). I can remember in my body the giant staircase of rock, and then the buzzing-and-butterfly-fluttering level heathland before the climb to the ladders leading to the rocky top. The children scampered up the ladders, but there was no way I would climb – too sheer, for my queasy height-sense and my trembling legs. So I sat below the peak and played Down in the valley on my recorder, until they returned, safe after unsupervised shiacking on the edge of a very long and unfenced drop.
Sometimes while everyone was at school I explored the forestry trails near home. I loved looking back at the house snuggled amongst trees on a far away ridge, and thinking gleefully “My feet brought me here.” I walked along tracks with intermittent views out to the Great Divide, and down into damp gullies. Sometimes I got lost, and once found myself walking an unintended twenty kilometre circuit.
One holiday when my sons came to Broken Hill we spent a week in the Flinders Ranges, where I embarked on another of my few 20 kilometre walks, to St Mary Peak (Ngarri Mudlanha), a sacred site for the local indigenous community who now ask that tourists don't visit it. My walking was interrupted as I fielded concern because I wasn't keeping up, and ended up telling everyone I'd go back if they didn't just forget me. So they raced ahead and I savoured. Until I came to an awkward rocky outcrop. I was ready to turn back, when a helpful man assured me I could do it, and waited until I did. I walked on, till I reached the last stiff incline, where I met the mob on the way down, J looking almost apoplectic in his attempt to keep up with his teenage son. Then there was the long walk down a rocky track through a festival of wild flowers and across Wilpena Pound. The sky darkened; branches creaked together eerily; footsteps lagged. The mile-markers were more depressing than encouraging, especially to my reluctant walker. We finally reached the car, exhausted and triumphant, especially J who was only a minute or two behind his son.
The next day everyone was stiff and sore. I left them sleeping and walked along Bunyeroo Gorge, through a wonderful soundscape of birds, frogs, clattering rocks and wind in the treetops.
Years later, when I visited my daughter in Egypt, we embarked on another long walk, this time from Dahab along the Gulf of Aqaba, looking across to the pale outline of the sparse hills of Saudi Arabia. We walked round rocky inlets, and up rocky tracks littered with toilet paper and turds, until finally we came to a cove where the water glimmered Tutankhamen blue and gold, and two men on camels rolled past, transistors blaring. For most of the journey my daughter was a figure in the distance ahead of me, staying just close enough for me to follow her. The return journey became a challenge, and by the time we reached the restaurant stretch I was fading with fatigue and stiff from unaccustomed exertion. We ate Bedouin food, Bedouin style on the floor, and rising from that position was evidence enough that I'd walked a very long way.
BROKEN HILL …
As a woman returning to teaching in Broken Hill, I explored the country on the outskirts of town. At the end of a teaching day, I'd head out into the desert, find a track leading off the main road, park the car, and hike into the reddish orange afternoon over quartzite rocks, up slight hills, soothed by the late afternoon light and the sombre green of the low bushes. Sometimes when I had a mass of exam marking to do, I'd pack up the papers and go out to Silverton (where the Mad Max movies were made, and some of Priscilla, Queen of the desert), following trails that led me to views of the Mundi Mundi plains stretching serene to the horizon. When I found a good spot, I'd sit down and mark half a dozen essays before I moved on, amongst yellow flowers, and very occasionally a patch of Sturt's desert pea.
My favourite walking trail in Broken Hill was the Sundown Trail. I met it very early in my five Broken Hill years. Perversely I decided to watch sunrise from the track. However, I arrived two hours before the sun. So I spent an hour or two under the full moon, lolling on the rocky hillside after a clamber up an even rockier creek bed, making comparisons with the ocean I'd left behind. The sounds of the desert were not unlike the sounds of the sea – sussurrent, recurring, soothing. The little patches of cloud were like the patterns made by the sea in the sand. And here was I, 1200 kilometres away from my sons, un-married and oddly free. Then the sun blazed up, and I continued my walk.
I came this way many times over the next few years. I celebrated my fiftieth birthday here with a sunrise picnic. I walked through strong orb-spider webs with an arachnopahobe friend, unaware of the torture I was putting her through. I walked my final ceremonial Broken Hill walk here, leaving behind the treasures I'd brought with me from my coast-home: the lyrebird feather, the dried flowers, the shells.
At weekends, I travelled to Menindee and drove along the sandy track into Kinchega NP on the banks of the Darling. Each week I chose a different camping spot, set up camp and sat idle, watching and listening: an eagle catching a fish; the evening cacophony of galahs; the muddy swirls of the river as it circled fallen trees; the occasional plop and ripples of a fish; the odd car bringing other campers; the sunset glow; the thickening canopy of stars. After a dusk-till-dawn sleep, I'd walk away from camp, through the pink and pale green of hop-bushes along the sandy tracks away from the river gums until it was time to head back to town and lunch at Ruby's. I was never apprehensive on these solitary camping trips except one night when I read in the tent, and created with torchlight a distinction between me and out-there, which peopled out-there with phantom row boats, and giant birds in the river gums over my head.
In the holidays we camped at Mootwingee and walked along a sandy dry riverbed to a homestead dam built at the base of a smooth rock, and then along a ridge, down a rope (not a very long one) through a declivity and back to camp, rock hopping along another very dry riverbed.
One holiday, when my sons weren't available, I drove along the Great Ocean Road and found myself at Mt Eccles (Budj Bim) NP, a surprising treasure in a flat landscape, currently hoping for world heritage listing. I shared my campsite with a mother koala, who whizzed up a tree, baby on back, when I began pitching my tent. The next morning I walked along a lava tube, and then around the small crater lake, long wet grass soaking my trousers. Afterwards, I headed west to the totally different landscape of the Murray-Sunset NP tucked in the corner of Victoria near the South Australian border. There I walked over lake beds and through desert, companioned by emus.
My stint in Broken Hill also took me back walking in the Snowy Mountains in summer, again with work colleagues. This time it was a lot less hardcore: solitary ramblings through the bush and companionable ones in the mountains proper, down a razorback track to the Blue Lake, across trickles of snow, with the constant sound of running water, particular music to my now-desert ears. Stunted snow gums flaunted their beautiful striped bark, and the sun shone – until we headed up the track to Mt Kosciuszko. A cold drizzle began to fall, unexpected despite warnings about sudden weather change. We donned rain capes and rolled pants above our blue knees, feeling colder and colder. At one of the huts, shivering, we decided to turn back. A least we'd come a bit prepared. A straggle of walkers in Tshirts looked pitiful and some with little children were being driven back down by patrolling rangers. I was cold too, but I love it when nature gets the better of humans, and we had our warm cabin and scrabble to retreat to.
AS A NEWLY UNESTRANGED WIFE …
When J and I began to spend time together again after ten years apart, we entered the world of rainforests. I was uneasy at first in the dimness of the rainforest zone. The first time J left me so he could explore along the creek, I edged my way quickly back to the security of the sector of light. However this savannah-fear faded with familiarity and I relished dropping over the edge into a likely gulley, him reading the tree-signs from above, and strolling about under the canopy amongst tree ferns and lianas and entangling walking stick vines (my particular nemesis) and trees splotched pink and green and grey with lichen. Occasionally we found treasures: delicate epiphytic orchids or tiny red and blue fungi, almost impossible to photograph in the dim light. My spotted gum walking stick, my hiking boots and my bum were indispensable aids for negotiating this terrain.
We only had two anxious walks, me more than J. West of Bodalla near Hanging Mountain, we left our campsite and walked through the bush to the headwaters of the Deua River. It was flowing, but not too deep, so we decided to walk along it back to camp. Of course it was further than we envisaged, and the afternoon drew on. By then we were walking in the river, the water became colder, and I was hugging myself to stay warm. We were looking for a very steep track to take us back to our starting point. I'm the timid one and I had visions of walking on endlessly into the night past the track. Of course this didn't happen and soon we had the billy boiling and the stars above.
Once we really got lost. “Just a short walk down here” said J, armed with topos, as we descended from the campsite. It was fairly ruinous country at first, leading to logging coupes. Then it became more interesting and we strode happily along an easy flat path, bushflowers blooming beside us. We turned off, and the track became impassable. We turned back, turned off, turned back. In the end, J said definitively, “There's always a track at the top of the ridge”. By this time the sun was sinking, and I was pursued by sunset up a very steep hill through Jilliga ash. I could tell that J was a bit anxious too but I couldn't move fast. I was pretty well belly-crawling as it was. So I moved slowly on into dusk. Eventually we did reach a road on the top of the ridge, and J seemed confident that camp was to the left. The road was easy walking, passing through little gullies of tree ferns, and the moon was full. Soon our kettle was whistling on Dark Helmet, but it was a while before I could look with equanimity at the map and think “Aha! I walked there.”
The centrepiece of my walking life was a six day, sixty kilometre hike with J into the Nadgee Wilderness, which straddles the border between eastern NSW and Victoria. We prepared for this one for months beforehand, training walks up to ten kilometres at the weekend, and a rigid auditioning of what we'd take with us. We spread everything out on J's floor, and our secondary weekend occupation was an ongoing discussion about what we'd absolutely need, since it was all going on our backs. Water was the big problem. National parks couldn't give us a definite answer about water in the wilderness.
After a disappointing start along a wide dirt road, the delights began: ferny gulleys; high ridges with long views out to sea and mountains; heathland flowering up to our neck; swamps; rivers; lakes, one the most pristine on the east coast; and in the distance, beyond our plans, vast sand dunes. We camped surrounded by wombat burrows near the sea; beside a lake which caught the reflections of the bars of sunset light and the first stars; near a river (full of potable water) which we had to cross naked, carrying packs on our heads, since I wasn't prepared to teeter my way over a log bridge; and finally on high heathland where the drama began.
All night two thunderstorms battled it out, about a metre over our heads, cracking with monumental force. Once I got over the terror it was exhilarating being so close to the elements. Then of course it started to pelt down, and our dry campspot turned to marsh. By morning the water was a few inches deep in the tent, and we were sitting on our soaking rolled-up sleeping bags eating bush bread and the last of our jam. There we cowered, until I said to J “What would you do if I wasn't here?” He said “Pack up and start walking”, and so we did, thirteen kilometres back to the car in pouring rain, with lightning, thunder, hail and high wind thrown in for our greater pleasure. My capacity to thrive on adversity kicked in, and I was high, he not so much. The weight of his pack, a lot heavier than mine, was telling on his knee. When we reached the car we discovered that the creek had risen and was rushing over the ford, so there'd be no escape that night. Nor could we camp because everything was soaking wet. So we settled in the car, a very small sedan. I opened one eye, saw it was light, and groaned, thinking it was still today. In fact it was tomorrow and I'd slept so soundly through the night, without my usual snuffles, snorts and grunts, that J, uncomfortable and wakeful, thought I was dead, and wondered what he'd tell the children. The creek had dropped, so we risked a crossing that nudged the car gently sideways, and headed for food: a very large breakfast that was half-eaten before the plate hit the table.
AS A GRANDMOTHER
There's a macabre tradition in the Mt Tamborine family that no holiday is complete without an attempt to kill Nanny Meg. They've tried drowning me (from a kayak in two inches of water) and losing me on a mountain (by sending me off at dusk on a two-hour drop-off-kids drive, halfway to Brisbane and then halfway to the Gold Coast) but the first attempt was the walking one, by heat exhaustion at Tuross Falls, in the hinterland behind my south coast home. It began innocently enough, in a desire to take me somewhere I hadn't been. The day was hot, and the heat increased as we climbed the mountains by the back road, spinning a bit on the hairpin bends and the fine balls of granite. We ate lunch with a few large goannas looking on, and then set off on a track towards the falls. I lagged (this is becoming a theme!) and got hotter and hotter. Soon I'd drained my inadequate water bottle, and walked on feeling more and more lethargic. Finally I lay down on the track, thinking I could go no further, the bush bleached of all its beauty. The only thing that drove me back onto my feet was the thought that the family might go back to the car park by a different route. I staggered on as the temperature settled in the mid 40s. What was supposed to be a pleasant encounter with a waterfall was turning into a nightmare. Finally I reached the lookout where the mob was assembled, to find my granddaughter in melt-down too, because the promised swimming hole was far below, an impossible climb on such a day. I sprawled on the lookout platform and drew breath. Soon however it was time for the heading back ordeal, still without water. I made it to the car-oasis, barely, where I drank two litres and lay comatose in the shade until they had finished frolicking in the cascades. And so the tradition began, with the longest two kilometres I have ever walked.
Grandmother walking doesn't seem to be a safe pastime for me. Many years ago, before he started school, I took my grandson A walking in one of the national parks on Mt Tamborine. We pottered along, talking about this and that and stingers. He was wearing shoes and stamping revenge on stinger leaves, after falling victim to stings when he trod on one barefooted not long before. We walked a bit further, talking some more, and suddenly there was an almighty crack, followed by a crash, as a large tree fell over so close to us that we hugged each other in shock. We hurried on and out of that park as fast as we could.
AS A RETIREE
Once I retired walking became a very important part of my days. My beachside home provided me with sand and bush and headland. Most days I'd head off with a book, a water bottle, sometimes lunch, a campchair, my recorder, a camera and tripod, and explore places that should have been familiar to me for years from having lived long in this part of the world. I'd sit in a spectacular place – on the headland amongst the casuarinas looking south to Gulaga: under the twisted spotted gums behind the headland where one day I was startled by a pair of emus; by the lake, glittering in the sun, where I saw a father emu followed by his nine chicks; in a fly-swarming clearing high on a hill where I had a view from behind of familiar coastline – and work on my World War 1 research or reading music with the help of my recorder.
I'd head further afield too, sometimes camping. I walked in Bournda NP, through casuarina tunnels; down rocky stairs with orchids cascading on the cliff above me; across the lagoon once host to a suspension bridge; through eucalypt forest, hakea and kunzea; over a carpet of caladenias, back to the sea, where there were wombat tracks in the sand and a python curled up in a crack in the rocks. I walked the Tathra – Bournda track in two bursts, once from each end, edging along a narrow path amongst coastal banksias. A loud thumping noise stopped me in my tracks. A whale on its annual migration was slapping its tail on the water just below me.
So many walks. So many pleasure. My memories of walks are sharper than many other memories, maybe because when I'm walking that's all I'm doing. The focus is on my surroundings. Many of my walks have been solitary and exploratory, giving me that lovely feeling of curiosity that drives me on: I wonder what's around the next bend?
I have regrets, so many walks not taken: the Hume and Hovell track in NSW; the Larapinta trail in central Australia; the Bibbulmun track through the tingle and karri forests in the south of Western Australia; the Corn Trail down the Great Divide closer to home; and full moon overnight walks with the bushwalking club into the desert in Broken Hill.
For walks all over the world, accompanied by splendid photos, you might like to join Restlessjo and her companions on their Monday walks.
I'm indulging in a frenzy of memoir at the moment. There are five more in draft form, as I tease out important threads of my life. Please don't feel any obligation to join me in this egotistical photo-free journey.