I walked through what must have been higher ground than the surrounding areas. The vegetation had changed, the trees were mainly large, old eucalypts and I was miles from the nearest civilisation. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him. A small boy peering out from behind a tree in what looked like a 19th century toddlers sailor’s uniform. You know, the classic white and blue, shorts and shirt and boots. I looked again and of course he wasn’t there. I laughed quietly to myself knowing it must have been the start of exhaustion setting in. It’s quieter in the forest compared to the windy coastal heath. Everything was still and quietness heightens your senses.
“I wouldn’t want to walk through here at night”, I thought to myself.
Well, strangely enough, hours later, slightly after midnight and during a sandblasting white out I stumbled back into the same section of forest on my return journey, barely able to see as my headtorch did nothing but light the sand particles flying at my face. This was my solo non-stop, 24 hours hike through the Cooloola National Park.
About 2 in the morning I stopped to boil up some water and have a coffee to try to spark some life back into myself. I was recovering from the flu, been cooped up in a stuffy classroom for a few months and I just needed to get out amongst nature no matter what the consequences. Everything hurt but I was feeling alive again. The sandy trail had predictably delivered sand into my socks and my feet were raw, I was wet from recent rainfall and tired, very tired.
I must have been asleep for about 3 minutes as the tiny kettle woke me up as its lid bounced with the boiling water. My head on the sand, from this point I could see lights of my destination in the distance, 25 km away. I still had a long hike ahead of me and all I could do was drink my coffee and get up and walk again. I brushed the sand off my face and knew the adventure was only truly just starting. At least that’s what I told myself, when in fact every aspect of what I had done in the hours before was breathing life back into me. Even that cliched apparition I had seen, was all part of another great adventure.
I was in a hut in the Alpine National Park, in Victoria months later. A relatively rare cold front had moved in and I had spent the day in knee deep snow and ice. I was tired, my feet freezing and I knew I needed to find shelter and start a fire. The trail was obscured where it transitioned into the forest of dead snow gums. Deep snow, a group of fallen trees and suddenly I couldn’t see the trail anymore. I sat on a log, took my pack off and studied my gps. It had to be downhill and I was close. I didn’t want to make the wrong move so I sat until I was sure, then headed downwards quickly discovering the trail again. Within 30 minutes there it was. I timeless hut, surrounded by patches of snow and emerald green grass. Swinging the door open I knew it was going to be a good night ahead. I started cutting wood with the saw provided and prepared for heat to return to my cold feet. I looked into the burning fire, as you do when you sit on your own looking into a fire. I wondered where my second pair of socks were, I was annoyed at myself for losing them. Then I smelt a strange smell from the fire, looked down and to no great surprise it was my socks, my only pair of socks had burnt. In my haste I’d put them too close to the fire. I saved them, they were still complete but now carried a worthy scar. Got to be more careful I thought to myself, I need these socks.
The weather looked to be clearing outside, it was still cold, but the hut was warm and I could gaze out the window. Two rabbits were hopping around then jumping in the air together. A rabbit dance, of sorts. It was pretty cute. The sun had broken through and with the warmth, the bush TV through the window with the only show being rabbit ballet, I could feel my attitude was changing from slightly defeated, to content.
I looked out the opposite window and noticed a plaque on the ground. Guessing it was something to do with the hut I wandered briefly outside. The words mentioned that the old man had ridden through the mountains for 75 years. He was long dead now, but this was his hut.
As the sun disappeared and after a good meal I slowly drifted off to sleep listening to FKT podcasts. It was 3am when I woke and the moonlight had made strange dancing patterns on the ceiling. My eyes took a few minutes to adjust then I looked into the deep black space around me. The fire had died. It was colder and there in front of me was the outline of a man wearing an old bushmen’s hat. The old man! I quickly concluded. I looked towards him and he faded away. I laughed as it brought back memories of the young boy I’d seen months before. I knew it was just my imagination and it was almost comforting because the mind can be somewhat predictable in these circumstances. I wasn’t scared at all, just curious how fatigue and loneliness can help conjure up these visions. It can play on your mind and I think that all becomes part of the journey.
Exhaustion can be a very personal and somewhat spiritual experience I’ve found. That’s the value of adventures. I’ve done many races but none have come close to experiences I’ve had when on self-designed solo adventures. Fatigue comes in many forms. Constant navigation, the environmental conditions, general physical fatigue, seeking water and the uncertainty that you can even complete what you’re doing, takes its toll. But I think it’s a combination of all these factors that produces a truly memorable experience. Uncertainty is a powerful adventure on its own and requires constant courage in its face. Racing, on the other hand, is based on certainty. Known distances, support and known terrain. Remove all this and replace everything with uncertainties and you have something that perhaps more closely mimics real life. Real life, outside our often sheltered existances.
I’ve felt a great sense of peace and connectedness when on long solo journeys. The chatter of modern life doesn’t exist out there and you can quickly find that adventures are often more than just the physical. You can quite easily return from them slightly changed, slightly mentally stronger and perhaps a little more content. More importantly you might just return a little more useful to those around you.