With a downward swing of my arms I gently dropped the canoe onto the sand beside the water. My exposed legs were feeling the cold as the first light started painting a previously blackened sky. Several trips to the car and back would see my gear loaded into the canoe’s deck near the bow. Then it was a simple case of smoothly sliding the canoe out towards the rising sun. It was like paddling into a painting that is slowly stripped of colour as the sun gains height.
Under an hour and I’m exiting the lake to the north into the narrow confines of the upper Noosa river. Up here the reflections are so perfect that it makes you question what is real. Am I looking up into the heavens … or down into the blue cloudless sky? Every time I enter this stretch of water I feel a sense of calm return. It’s at this point that I have these cliched pseudo-realisations. The trees stand, the water flows, the birds call – the sun comes up – this all happens regardless of us and our thoughts or beliefs – regardless of me and my canoe – so considering all this, what is more significant? “It’s too early for such deep thoughts”, I think to myself as I continue to paddle – attempting my best stroke to keep the canoe smoothly flowing forward.
The river narrows into a series of twists and turns, then briefly widens again near the vehicle-accessible camping area known as Harry’s Hut for a kilometre or two, before narrowing again. I’m heading to campsite 3, a larger camping area beside the river with a connection to the Cooloola Great Walk, the hiking trail I’d soon join. It’s at this location that it can start feeling remote. No sounds from so-called civilisation, just the wind moving through trees and the distance surf, over the large forested dunes to the east.
Up ahead on the right I can see the wooden wharf marking my destination. Three hours after pushing off I’m fastening my boat with an old bike lock to a timber rail and grabbing my hiking gear in a transition from water to land.
Settling into a rhythm takes time and I find myself stopping to adjust straps and remove warm clothing before I finally find that familiar pace. Winding through low heath the track is wet and so are my shoes but I knew I’d soon climb. Cooloola National Park is deceiving. It might not be set in the mountains of The Great Dividing Range to the west but the vegetation on these ancient sand dunes hides a terrain of ridges and valleys all running east-west, when my direction is north. This means the trail often winds its way upwards in a series of long, slow switchbacks and then plunges down again.
Hiking is a great reminder of perpetual forward motion, even when compared to running. Running has two basic gears , you run or if you can’t sustain that pace, you can slow right down to a walk. With hiking there is just hiking with its subtle variation of speed, while the other option is to stop – and that doesn’t make sense if you have a destination waiting for you. You hike because of the weight you’re carrying, the terrain and the distance. After a while it becomes more efficient than running and it has a beautiful simplicity. It allows you to hear more than just your own breathing and foot steps.
An Ancient Land
According to the local indigenous people, the Gubbi Gubbi, on whose land I move through, the name Cooloola, refers to the sound, a sigh, the wind makes as it moves though the cypress trees. You can hear that sigh out here, its everywhere and you realise how connected you can become once you are removed from modern distraction. This is an ancient land and it feels like it too. Time here is not measured on a human scale. This landscape predates us all and for a while I try and leave my somewhat rushed walking pace and settle into a rhythm more suitable of this landscape.
Convicts escaping the brutality of the English colony of Moreton Bay in the early 19th century after being stolen from their indigenous lands half a world away, made the trek up here too and lived amongst the original inhabitants for a time. They became known as ‘bunder’ or ‘white, black fella’. I can see why they were attracted.
As I climb another sandy ridge amongst the wallum, flanked by scribbly gum trees, I feel the wind pick up. It’s coming from the south west and it’s getting colder already – its only mid afternoon. I reached another walkers camp and sit down briefly with my pack off for a quick break. Twenty kilometres to go to my camp for the night at my current hiking pace meant I had 4 hours left. My destination was going to be in thick, tall rainforest, in fact, the tallest sand-based rainforests in the world, so the last hour or more was going to require a head torch. I wasn’t really looking forward to that, but “it is what it is”, I thought to myself as I once again slid my backpack on.
Into the dark
With an hour to go the vegetation changed and I was relieved the terrain had too. Less climbing now but the light was fading and I was tired. I’d been on the move for 11 hours and like all memorable adventures, I would have preferred to stop about 2 hours ago. Moving through a green tunnel of palms and figs quickly turned into a black one. The wind hadn’t dropped at all and I was worried about branches falling. I couldn’t see them anyway, so no point in focusing on that I guess – just keep moving forward. Finally, after the longest mile – which, as they say, is always the last one, I turned right and into the camp area. For the last 30 minutes I had been rehearsing in my head. Choose tent site wisely but quickly, take bag off, get warm, get tent out, pitch tent, put kettle on gas stove, take shoes off – sigh and then finally, rest. When I arrived, instead of jumping into action I stood there dazed for several minutes trying to make sense of my surroundings, before finally enacting my plan. By the time I’d cooked an awful meal and had my one and only treat – a snickers bar, I drank some electrolytes, jumped into my sleeping bag, put my headphones on and listened to a podcast about hiking. Before long I’m plugging my phone into a battery charger and turning my light off. It had been a long day.
A strange night – again
It was one of those nights. It was cold and the wind was strong so the trees were loud. I’d pitched the tent on a sandy site in the dark amongst the rainforest and was too tired to care. It was out of square and not set right so my head pressed against one side. I’d fallen asleep just before 8pm and must have woken every few hours. Restless, I was waiting for my 4am alarm to go off. I looked at my watch, “damn, its only 1:30am”. I must have fallen asleep again, when I felt a tapping on my shoulder. Gentle, but my immediate thought was a finger, more specifically, a finger nail tapping against my shoulder. Two taps. Then again slightly harder on my neck. Two taps. Then again, this time on my head, right on the top, hard, enough to wake me, and as I came too, I’m actually saying; ‘ok, ok ouch, enough!” “What? Not this again”, I thought as I reached for my head torch and unzipped the tent door.
This was not the first time I’ve had peculiar things happen on solo camps, but it was the first time I’ve actually felt like I was touched. My need to find a simple answer had me putting my shoes on, a jacket, then quickly inspecting the area around my tent. A bloody Bush Turkey I’m sure. I looked at my watch. It was 3:30am, sunrise was 3 hours away. A bit early for a bird. I look for prints, I listen for any movement on the dry leaves on the ground. The sand was too compacted from rain two-days earlier. I was hardly leaving a mark after analysing my own shoes prints on the ground. No time to ponder anymore, it was time for coffee and to prepare for the 12 hour journey ahead. You can’t afford to let your mind wander too far while isolated, alone in the bush. You need to focus on reality and once again I found myself repeating “it is what it is”. I’d have to log this down as yet another strange happening brought on by cold, fatigue and the simple fact, I was alone.
To be continued …