A few years ago, I went back to my hometown, met up with 6 childhood friends– Some having known each-other ever since kindergarten — and together the 7 of us, foolhardy middle-aged gits one and all, went on a back-breaking, thigh-quivering, mind-punishing, yet soul-stirring and ultimately-uplifting 5-night/4-day backpacking trek though the bush.
THE INCITING INCIDENT
This idea was hatched a year earlier, when I was back in Australia to be Best Man at my father’s wedding. At a BBQ a few days later, while waving those ever-persistent Aussie flies out of my face and chewing on a sausage that had been grilled into leathery submission, I caught-up with two of my childhood pals; STEPHEN (my first ever friend, we’ve been great mates since the age of 7) and MARK (a good friend since high school).
After comparing bald patches and love handles (I was the “winner” of BOTH contests) I mentioned that I’d be back again the next September for my Brother in Law’s 50th birthday. Surely we could synchronise schedules, meet each-other again, maybe rope-in some MORE school-mates and plan something more elaborate than another fly-blown Australian BBQ?
MARK proposed that a group of us walk the KOKODA TRACK, a grueling Trek through New Guinea that has almost become a rite of passage for some Australians. I liked the idea of a backpacking journey but suspected that I may not have been equal to a 10 day slog through tropical Jungle. I have a tendency to liquify in proximity to the equator.
STEPHEN suggested the THORA TRAIL, which goes through a National Park near our home town. The shorter trail, better weather, distance from head-hunters and proximity to where our Mummies and Daddies lived, all appealed to THIS particular thrill-seeker, and I was eloquent in my support of these logistics to the other two. Thus, we tentatively set the date for the trek to be 9 months away, contacted the rest of our group of friends — all of whom were immediately interested in the plan — and our number swelled to a total of 7 men.
Some had stayed in touch ever since we were kids. Others had lost contact over the years. I was excited by the prospect of almost a week with these old friends whom I so rarely see, but secretly, I wondered if I’d make a fool of myself, out there in the bush.
My childhood memories show me as the runt of our pack. The yappy chihuahua running along behind the other motley mutts (the little one that goes “YIKE YIKE YIKE”). Whenever we kids jumped on our bicycles and pedalled out into the countryside on the shenanigans-du-jour, which usually involved setting fire to something, or blowing-up something… or catching poisonous creepy crawlies and making them battle (or a gruesome combination of all of the above) I was the kid asthmatically wheezing along at the rear of the posse.
Now as an adult, I dreaded the idea of yet again holding up the crew as we wandered through the bush… So, When I got back to San Francisco, I resolved to get into better shape.
I ask you now to project several different scenes onto your mental movie-screen: Me, middle-aged and puffy, wheezing red-faced on an aerobic hamster-wheel at the gym. There I am again, now hunched over a laptop, exchanging trip-planning e-mails with trekking-cronies on the other side of the world. Now, throw in a few shots of me ogling equipment in camping stores, and breaking in new hiking boots on the hills of San Francisco, and you have the perfect “Rocky training to Face Mr T” montage that defines my prepation for the trip…
DAY ZERO: One-by-one, the crew began to converge on ARMIDALE; the old home town. MARK (who still lives there) was joined by MYSELF and STEPHEN, then RICHARD (who I had not seen since 1991) and JOHN (a great friend who I have stayed in constant touch with all these many years, including adventures we had in Japan). While waiting on the arrival of the final TWO, due the following day, we went to buy food supplies. Good-natured bickering ensued over the definition of “necessity” and “luxury” and there were hilariously differing opinions as to how MUCH of each to buy, so in the end, we just bought ALL of it.
DAY ONE started with MARK cooking us a hearty breakfast at his house. We set up a mini production line to ration-out the food-supplies, then went to pick up some gear-essentials such as the EPIRB; an I-WANT-MY-MUMMY panic-button that would summon a rescue-helicopter if anyone was so lacking in team spirit as to snap a shin-bone or get themselves fanged by a snake. (I wanted the button that called someone to tuck you in with a cup of hot chocolate, on scary nights, but that one cost extra).
Back at MARK’s place, PHIL arrived (I had not seen him since STEPHEN’s wedding in 1991) and we all did a last-minute gear check. Strapping on my pack, I tried to affect an expression of nonchalance, despite my spinal discs being squished into pikelets by 30 KILOS (65 pounds) of equipment, clothing, food and water… The other lads were likewise bent double under their burdens, when we got word that PETER, the last of our crew, had missed his flight, would catch a later connection and meet us at the drop-off point that evening. So, we loaded our gear into cars (of people kind enough to drop us off and later pick us up at the other end) and set off on the adventure we had been planning for so long.
We grew-up inland, on a plateau called the NEW ENGLAND TABLELANDS, which is itself a part of the GREAT DIVIDING RANGE. An hour’s drive from our home town is POINT LOOKOUT, where the tableland escarpment can be seen to dramatically drop away, down to the ocean, many miles away. From this vantage point, at an elevation of 1500 meters (5000 feet) on a clear and beautiful day, STEPHEN pointed out our entire route; a 3-day walk down the escarpment through bushland within NEW ENGLAND NATIONAL PARK to the BELLINGER RIVER and then a one-day Canoe trip downstream to the town of BELLINGEN, near the coast.
While this was half the distance I had once imagined (initially thinking we’d walk ALL the way from our home town to the sea) it looked daunting now that I could see the scope of the trek with my own eyes… not just the sheer distance we needed to cover, but the terrain we would tackle, the drop in altitude and the time-frame we had to complete it in… As this became clear to all of us, so began the self-deprecating jokes about our physical failings, some of which become painfully real over the journey. Yet this sense of humor fueled the camaraderie that enabled us to deal with the fact that many of us would have been more sensible had we stayed at home and just rented DELIVERANCE, if we wanted an adventure.
As We pitched our tents, our number finally became 7 when the last of our crew showed up; good old PETER, (who I have stayed in touch with and had prior travel adventures with too; a great comrade on any mission). As PETER’s family drove away, so too left our connection with civilisation; we would see no other person in the next 3 days. We were on our own.
We cooked a huge meal, using as many of the “luxury” foods as possible. I found that 7 STEAKS I had bought were left behind in MARK’s Freezer. I’d planned to wait a day or two, until my fellow-trekkers had grown weary of reconstituted camping food, then unveil the 7 meaty treats (shrink wrapped to preserve them as long as possible) and thus bribe the other trekkers to tag-team piggyback me to the finish line… but alas it was not to be…
MARK’s wife and children dined well that night though.
A bonfire blazed, some grog appeared, and with it reminiscences of explosive adventures from our school days… then, by firelight we sketched the outlines of our adult lives: Of the 7 men assembled, only one still lived in the hometown. Though 4 had lived abroad, I am the only one who still does. A few had travel-adventures to tell… All but me had married. Two had since divorced. 5 had become fathers. One had even become a grandfather. Staying in contact with these old friends while living on opposite sides of the planet is challenging, and yet spending time with them makes the years melt away.
WITH LIGHT HEARTS & HEAVY PACKS…
DAY TWO was when hiking began. We got up early, once again ate as much of the perishable or heavy food as we could, broke camp, put on our packs and set off down the trail by around 7.30 AM… With full bellies, even fuller packs and one or two of us carrying heads heavy with hangover. Let’s ASSESS the trekking-crew shall we?
FITNESS: Some of us used to be splendid physical specimens but had now gone to pot (you all know who you are). Some had never been much to look at in the first place (I hereby nominate myself for this trophy). Some had been trying to get into shape for this trek with limited success (my 2nd nomination) and some either couldn’t be bothered or couldn’t find the time… A rare few had stayed active all along (MARK, PHIL & STEPHEN). In other words, physically speaking, probably only THREE of us SHOULD have come on the trip.
EQUIPMENT: Some had bought new gear (Myself, JOHN, and STEPHEN) while others used whatever old junk they found in the shed. PHIL’s approach was a hilarious combination of the two; his trekking-ensemble was some kiddie backpacks (labeled “MILO”) worn both front and back, to which he’d lashed pots and pans with pieces of string. This “jolly swagman” rig was complemented by boots so NEW that they literally had the price tags still on them. Though PHIL scoffed that he would BREAK THEM IN on the trip, in truth it would be the other way around; the boots would break his feet (though not his spirit). Let’s just say that, In terms of equipment, the well-prepared were, once again, the minority.
EXPERIENCE: All of us had done basic camping, in fact we often went camping together as teenagers (ironically, the fathers among us admitted they’d have difficulty letting their own kids go on the adventures that they themselves had done as kids). However, only STEPHEN, PHIL and RICHARD had done true wilderness backpacking (RICHARD having done military survival training). STEPHEN had considerable experience using topographical maps and GPS as a Field Geologist working in some of the most remote parts of this here Planet Earth.
Because his name consistently appears on the FITNESS/EQUIPMENT/EXPERIENCE matrix, STEPHEN would be the leader/navigator of the crew. Which is lucky for the rest of us galoots, who probably shouldn’t have come along and gotten in the way… Yay, STEPHEN!
For the first hour the trail was a joy to walk down and I fooled myself that the entire trip would be easier than I had feared. Then we came to a fork in the trail. To the left was a dark, twisted tunnel of fallen trees and tangled undergrowth. To the right was a path lit by bright sunshine in which danced pretty little butterflies. Which path do you think we took?
I’ll give you one guess…
We plunged into a trail so densely packed and overgrown that it resembled the creepy forest Snow White got lost in when she was being chased by the huntsman. It required a lot of stooping, climbing over fallen trees, clambering up crumbly embankments and pushing through tangled undergrowth in order to make headway, which is hard going with an overstuffed pack, and harder still with flabby muscles and 45 year-old knees. Another frustration was that just beyond the tangle of undergrowth were spectacular views of the escarpment, but we didn’t have time to go looking for views if no overlooks were presented to us on our journey through the stygian jungle, which, sadly, they were not.
Apart from a few short breaks to boil coffee and eat trail mix, we had a hard slog from 9 AM till 4.30 PM when we finally found the creek, our goal in order to stay on schedule. We finally pitched our tents and sat down to eat. I reflected on the grueling first day. All the stooping, twisting and turning really took its toll on my knees. I had the cardio-vascular fitness to go the distance but my legs were already giving out. If we’d had to walk even another 10 minutes that day, I would have been wimpering like an abandoned puppy.
DAY THREE we followed the creek, unless it meandered too much, when we’d take off our boots and walk THROUGH the water (sometimes up to our chests) negotiating the submerged and slippery rocks in SANDALS; a precaution against the BULLROUT, a freshwater puffer-fish that poisons if stepped on in bare feet (later, our canoe guide confirmed, from personal experience, that it was the worst pain of his life). That evening, we camped in a beautiful natural meadow and just had time to get some warm food in our neck-holes and compare foot-blisters and back-aches before being hit with a thunderstorm.
Lying in a rain-battered tent with the already-snoozing STEPHEN (ever an early-to-bed and early-to-rise type) while thunder passed over us and lightning lit up the tent-fabric, I thought about the day’s walk: less strenuous and scenically prettier than the day before. Happily, my legs, though aching, had done their job. I began to realise that my Achilles heel was actually my KNEES. Going UP hill was relatively easier but going DOWN hill was brutal and slowed me down considerably. I was happy with the gear I had bought; my boots were not chaffing (unlike some of the other lads) my pack was comfortable (though heavy) and my sleeping bag was warm and cosy (as I proved by sleeping like a baby that night).
DAY FOUR began with PETER tipping an enormous CENTIPEDE out of his boots. Apart from this creepy crawly, one RED BELLY BLACK SNAKE seen the same morning, and the LEECHES we were constantly pulling off of ourselves, we didn’t see any native wildlife. Hardly surprising given the racket we made, thrashing through the bush. Just the gristle-popping sounds from my knees alone were enough to scare away wild beasts.
However, we did see herds of abandoned horses and cattle roaming through farm lands long ago acquired by NEW ENGLAND NATIONAL PARK and now being reclaimed by the native Australian bush. We walked through hauntingly beautiful landscapes; from densely-forested misty hills, to undulating lush meadow-lands as we approached the coast. I tried to get ahead on the uphills, knowing I’d be dawdling down the other side on trembling knees.
Most of the trek was in a MOBILE PHONE DEAD ZONE. Being incommunicado was a plus for adventure but a minus in terms of safety (hence the EPIRB panic-button). Thus, if we did not call family members that night, when we were due to re-enter signal-range, there were contingency plans… I never heard what would happen if we did NOT check in on time… something involving helicopters and cadaver-sniffing dogs, I expect.
We came upon a pretty little water hole and PHIL did a little fishing while the rest of us watched, hoping he’d provide us with something other than a freeze-dried dinner. We still couldn’t use mobile phones, and STEPHEN didn’t want rescue-teams alerted unnecessarily, so he left us with detailed instructions on how to find the next camp site (on the nearby property of his friend) and set off alone, to find a phone-signal and contact family ASAP.
STEPHEN had not been gone 5 minutes when I decided to follow, both to keep him company and help set up our tent. After 10 minutes of walking I had not caught up, but after all, he was the fittest of us… I checked a turn off from the trail… nothing. After 10 more minutes walking, I wondered if I’d messed up the directions and 10 more minutes later I was sure of it. Heading back to the fishing hole, I hoped to get clarification from the other blokes.
They weren’t there.
How did they pass me on this simple track? Perhaps in the moment I’d explored a turn-off? Now I didn’t know how to find the camp site and couldn’t ask anyone who did. The afternoon turned to early evening as I thought what to do… Thankfully, 5 men leave a lot of boot prints. Following their tracks, I considered the possibility of spending the night alone… I had a sleeping bag and my share of food and water so that would be have been do-able.
Thankfully, it did not come to that; 20 minutes later, MARK came jogging down the trail in my direction with a relieved grin on his face. The lads had indeed shot past me, not realising I was missing until meeting up with STEPHEN, when MARK was despatched as NONG-recon patrol. He led me to our final camp site. We all ate, and made a huge bonfire.
Though happy, everybody was visibly tired. Even a FIT bloke can be tag-team pummeled by the cumulative effects of sub-par equipment; a day shuffling on feet blistered by ill-fitting boots, followed by a sleep-deprived night shivering in a thin sleeping bag can take its toll. Our leader was fit AND had quality gear but, by the end of day 4, even he looked tired, as the responsibility of getting us other idjits safely from A to B was his extra burden to carry.
And it wasn’t over yet. We slept to get our strength up for the NEXT and FINAL day…
DAY FIVE: The wicked genius of our plan was that once our LEGS could walk no further, our ARMS would take us the rest of the way, in CANOES. The river water-level was such that we could not start from the point of our last camp site. Instead, our canoeing company picked us up, and drove us about 20KM (12 miles) further downstream and put us in the river there.
Poor JOHN got clumsy ME as his canoe-partner. We were still learning how to work together when the group paddled to a fork in the river. The guide shouted that both paths converged later but that one was harder. We prudently head for the easier path, to the jeers of “YA SOOKS!” from the others, who’d gone the harder way. Thus baited, we made a last-second course adjustment, almost over-turning, and went through the more turbulent path.
Later, on shore, while eating our lunch and licking our wounds, JOHN and I resolved to “POUR IT ON.” Back in the water, we paddled like men possessed! Our steering was sloppy and we zig-zagged across the river like a drunken snake, but pulled ahead of the rest through (A) sheer volume of water shifted by our paddles, (B) post-lunch food-coma kicking with the others, and most importantly (C) the fact that nobody but us saw it as a “race” in the first place. Be that as it may, reaching the end-point first, and waiting smugly for the other blokes as they limped in, one by one, was a soothing balm for our chapped egos.
I am not a drinker, except on special occasions, such as our return to civilisation; a PUB in an old Victorian Hotel in the pretty town of BELLINGEN. Despite not having any enthusiasm for beer, it tasted like amber ambrosia on THAT particular night. We ate fine food (peppercorn kangaroo, in my case) at the hotel bistro as we happily reflected on our TREK.
Backpacking teaches how little you need; carrying it all on your back requires simplification. Then, on returning to modern life, there’s a keener appreciation for simple pleasures; Dry feet! What a magnificent invention. A bed! With linen! How sublime. After a week hanging your arse over the side of a log, a flushing toilet is a wonderful thing. We relished each of those joys while staying overnight at the hotel. It was a very happy end to a satisfying trip.
The last to leave after breakfast next morning were myself and JOHN, picked up by his brother Martin, who noticed a fat, blood-engorged LEECH thrashing around on the ground outside the pub, where we’d just said good-bye to our departing comrades. Clearly this blood-sucker had fallen off one of US, during the back-slapping farewells, and was now wondering where all his good times had gone to… a parasitical Wall Street Crash.
Talk of leeches, aching muscles, and blistered feet doesn’t convey the immense satisfaction of the trek. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of our adult lives… The physical pain was handled with grace, and self-deprecating laughter. Nobody had a meltdown. Hardship can actually be a joy if endured in good company and the right spirit, yet even a PARTY can be made miserable if someone can’t deal with life’s inevitable little setbacks…
Looking at my photographs from the trip, I am struck by the fact that most of them show us resting (I didn’t think to take pics in the midst of the hard stuff) so the impression they give is of a bunch of scruffy, puffy duffers sitting on their arses at various picturesque spots.
Thankfully, JOHN shot some video of the trekkers in action and sent a wonderful mini-movie to the rest of us earlier this year. In stark contrast to the heroic image of us that I have lingering in my mind’s eye, the video shows a doddering bunch of old geezers, so I can only conclude that JOHN must have somehow messed up the settings on his camera….
OK, sure… we 7 goobers, in questionable physical condition, carrying bulging backpacks festooned with clanking pots and pans, while traipsing through the forest, could accurately be compared to the 7 DWARFS… However, I PREFER to see us as somewhat adventurous, even heroic… A Muffin-Topped 7 SAMURAI, or A High-Cholesterol MAGNIFICENT 7…
Writing about this Journey has taken me almost as long as it did to walk it!
Originally published on my FALLOUT blog, September 2009.