Read Part 1 here.
John Geiger in his 2009 book ‘The Third Man Factor‘, documents what has been referred to as a ‘sensed-presence effect’ in mountain climbers, solo sailors and ultra-endurance athletes. The requirement for this effect? Monotony, darkness, barren landscapes, isolation, cold, injury, dehydration, hunger, fatigue, sleep deprivation, and so on.
Michael Shermer writing in the Scientific American in 2010 tells of the experiences of four-time winner of the two-wheeled ‘Race Across America’ and Slovenian soldier, Jure Robic. He explained to the New York Times that during one race he engaged in combat a collection of mailboxes he thought were enemy troops. Another year he found himself being chased by a “howling band” of black-bearded horsemen: “Mujahedeen, shooting at me. So I ride faster.”
It seems that my experiences while out solo hiking are not rare – they are perhaps just visions brought on by cold and solo adventures. Even Charles Lindbergh sensed a presence during his transatlantic flight to Paris: “The fuselage behind me becomes filled with ghostly presences—vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane … conversing and advising on my flight, discussing problems of my navigation, reassuring me, giving me messages of importance unattainable in ordinary life.”
By no means am I comparing my experiences with those of Everest climbers, famous endurance athletes or Lindbergh, but what ever the cause or reason, feeling a presence in the dark of night, alone in the wilderness, certainly adds another level of intrigue to a solo adventure. I don’t reach for an extraordinary explanation, I simply accept the brain is a wonderful thing in the solitude of nature.
By the time I broke camp I still had another one-and-a-half hours of dark remaining but now I was on my way to the beach and the rising sun. Mostly downhill and within an hour the pre-dawn light stood like a beacon from the strange and somewhat uncomfortable night that had passed. The crisp and clear sky had its familiar deep blues, yellow and red – the southerly wind was cold but I felt lighter now and happier. Far off in the distance a 4wd with its headlights on was making use of the low tide and compact sand and heading towards me making it the first human contact I’d had.
After an hour of walking I was within the beach camping zone where quiet campsites nestled in behind the dunes hid the occasional 4wd and campervan, or more rarely, a tent. Unlike the prime tourist times where this part of the beach can resemble a city of campsites, it now looked pleasant as the invisible occupants slept.
Back inland again
I kept a constant pace on the beach as previous storms had taken most of the dunes in sections and high tide wouldn’t be a fun time to traverse the beach – with little or nothing to walk on. High tide was several hours away so the timing worked out nicely. After 3 hours I’d leave the beach and hike inland along a quiet fire break trail and even make my way off trail for a while to cut short a section of the track. It wasn’t the best experience but it often feels good to rely purely on navigation through dense forest even if it means you get to carry battle scars for several weeks.
Once I’d rejoined the hiking trail I’d set my mind on the final hike back to the canoe. With the daylight hours disappearing I thought I’d attempt to be back at my car before it was completely dark. The one thing I tried to keep out of my mind was the wind. It had been strong – very strong and paddling across a lake, solo in a two-person canoe can be a difficult experience and I’d rather at least see the waves coming as opposed to have them crash over the gunwales in the dark.
I followed my footprints from the previous day and tiredness now made me look down more and every now and then I’d get into a brief conversation with myself and start doing time calculations. “At this pace I’ll be back at the boat by 2pm, its a 3-hour paddle and sunset is 5pm, that’s cutting it fine”. I have a simple rule when out there on an adventure. I don’t dwell too much on what lies ahead. Only just enough to ensure no navigational mistakes are made but not enough that it creates a sense of urgency or anxiety.
It’s interesting how those final miles feel the longest. My legs were tiring and I was looking forward to the canoe paddle. Hiking on the flat and paddling are about the same pace so the idea of resting my legs while still moving at the same speed was appealing. In the canoe I’d stowed food and sugary drinks for the return paddle – a smile came across my face again when I thought about them.
Little boat on a big lake
Casting the canoe off from the wharf I let it glide along the river while I drank and ate and laughed to myself about how good simple things can taste. Then everything was quiet. It gave me a moment to reflect and I realised yet again that this place is special and it has been special to people for thousands of years too. The sighing of the wind in the trees, the reflective black waters. Two hours of paddling and I was now looking out across Lake Cootharaba. The wind had created abundant waves so I reached for my kayak paddle and stowed the single canoe paddle away. It was time for one last effort. It’s a big lake – its shallow and exposed to the prevailing south-easterly winds. Today the wind was strong and the lake was big and my boat, tiny.
Paddling in a cross breeze is not fun. It’s as simple as that. I trimmed the boat as much as I could but the wind had other ideas so I thought about other things. I thought about what I’d just done and what I’d seen and how fortunate I am to move through the wild areas quietly and efficiently. Then I swore out loud. A wave crashed across the boat and wet everything and then within minutes the wind dropped. Just like that. It was the final act for the day.
The final 20 minutes the boat glided and I turned to shore and sat motionless as the canoe slid up against the sand. I turned my head torch on and walked up the sandy path to my car. That was it. As quietly as it all started it was over.
Out here there are no finish lines, just quiet satisfaction.
Total Distance = 112km
Total ascent = 1475m
Total Time = 23hr 32min
12 hrs 8 minutes
11 hours 24 minutes
Base weight (hiking)
2 litres of water