Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Walk: A 200 KM Survival Journey Across Outback WA

The following article is an amazing piece contributed by Joanne Cammack, who has trekked through the Pilbara, crossing the outback of WA - and written about it.  Joanne has been wonderful enough to allow me to read this and then to publish it.  My sincere thanks.


'Monday, September 6, 1993

'We left Perth in a minibus on a rainy September day to walk 200 kilometres through the Pilbara outback.

'On board the cramped bus were:  Bob Cooper (Outback Survival expert), Bob Hunter (helper) and nine of the ten walkers:  Laurie, Lawrie, David, Russell, Adrian, Glen, Jack, my husband, Maurice and me, the only female.  We were to meet the second vehicle at Mount Magnet, carrying the doctor, Barry, his wife, Tanya and the tenth walker, Des.

'Our group included a farmer, small business owners, office workers, engineers and a social worker.  We had all completed an earlier outback safety course and some lessons in orienteering.

'We would carry very little with us, only 2 x 1 litre water bottles, a 'Survival Kit' the size of a soap-box (containing items like:  a plastic bag, matches, mini compass, mirror, fishing line, hook, glucose tablet and an aluminium space blanket).

'Arriving in Wittenoom the following day, we studied our five maps that we would need for the journey.  It hit me then how far we would have to walk and I felt a surge of apprehension.

'Wednesday, September 8, 1993

'From Wittenoom we travelled about 70 kilometres in the minibus to the start of our walk.  Bob C and Dr Barry were to accompany the ten of us for the first day through the Sherlock River gorges before leaving us to our own devices.

'It was 11.30 am when the twelve of us were deposited on the track in front of the bus, the heat and the starkness of the land amplifying the sinking feeling of leaving all comfort behind.

'Passing through a gate, we walked towards a distant row of trees at the edge of the gorges and eventually to a beautiful spring-fed pool.  Tasting the cold, refreshing water, we poured some over each other.  Bob pointed out a standing stone which indicated a significant site and we saw the first of many Aboriginal rock carvings of our journey.  Peter Bindon, an anthropologist at the Western Australian Museum, had estimated this one to be about 35,000 years old.

'Coming to another pool, we were amazed by the beautiful scenery, with the late afternoon sun striking the edge of the gorge and burnishing it a deep red contrasting with the white gum trees nearby.  Bob showed us a a sacred carving of a traveller being protected by two spirits, each holding his hand, and I took up his suggestion of asking the spirits to guide me safely on my journey.  This water was considered sacred and used only for drinking.  We drank some of it and it was the best water I was to taste for some time.

'Walking further down the gorges we eventually came to a sandy spot - a good place to camp for the night.  We found Coggola (silky pear) vines and picked some of the fruit.  The outside of the fruit is tough and fibrous but the inside is edible.  Once cooked, you can eat the skin, but it's not as nice as the inside.  I'd picked lemon grass earlier, enough for everyone for tea, but not many people wanted any.

'I had developed large blisters on my feet and asked Barry to look at them.  He suggested I soak my feet in Condy's crystals, which I did, using a plastic bag.  However, I was then immobilized and felt useless to help with the fire.  Russell said to me:  'I hope you're not going to pull out because of your blisters!'  The very thought!  I assured him that I had every intention of going through the finish line.

'We made our beds in the sand near the fire, but it was cold and I didn't sleep well.

Thursday, September 9, 1993

'We left the camp at 6.15 am and walked through some magnificent gorges.  Some were breathtaking and reminiscent of those in Kairjini National Park.  The rocks were amazing in the way they had been scooped out so smoothly around the curves; and the curious flatness of those we were walking on resembled floor tiles.  It is almost certain that we were the first white people to walk here.

'After rounding a bend, we came across a flat vertical rock face.  It was about 1.5 metres high and 3 - 4 metres wide and was covered in Aboriginal carvings.  It was a wonderful place.  There were animal totems; a bungarra, dingo, wallaby, turtles and people from two different tribes carved into the rock.  On the right, there appeared to be a map of the gorges system, culminating at the point where we now were.  We compared our map to the rock map carved thousands of years ago and they were astonishingly similar.

'Bob believed that this was a marriage site, hence the two tribes and he confirmed the picture on the right to be a map.  Below the spot where we'd seen a wedgetail eagle, Bob discovered some carving of eagles hidden behind the branches of a kurrajong tree.  They were lifesize, about 50 cm tall, one with its wings spread and another with its wings in.  This whole beautiful area must have been very special.  I tried to imagine what a wedding would have been like here.  Adrian, who had worked with many Noongar people in the south-west, said that could feel the vibration and energy of this place.

'We stopped at a pool where Laurie (the farmer) caught some spangled perch using the hook and line from the survival kit.  Soon he was joined by other members of the group.  I was continuing to have trouble with my feet - I hobbled around, helping to collect wood for the fire on which the fish were cooked.  There was enough for one small fish for everyone.

'Once we'd left this pool, it got rockier and water was less frequent.  We soaked our scrims (netted scarves), which helped keep us cool for a short time.  The walking was hard and it was getting hotter.  Maurice was sick; he'd got too hot and had realised too late that he was dehydrated.

'I walked beside Bob for a while.  He said:  'Look after yourself every metre of the way.  You need to look after yourself first and then you can help others.'  That advice has stuck with me over the years - even if I don't always follow it!

'We finally arrived at a pool, taking our clothes off and jumping in.  The water was beautiful and once in, it was an effort to get out.  I sat alongside the others on a fallen tree trunk - that is, until the ants started biting!  The late afternoon sun still had a sting in it and we were dry very quickly.

'After getting dressed, we were on our way again.  We covered quite a lot of ground.  Lawrie became overheated and was sick.  I wasn't feeling too good but my main problem was the blisters on my heels which were now causing me to limp.  We walked through spinifex, stopping at gum trees to collect edible bush coconuts.  The spinifex was prickly and not easy walking and I was falling behind.  I saw a glint of white in the red earth and uncovered some beautifully formed quartz crystals which I picked up and still have at home.

'The last part of the day seemed endless.  David was suffering from heat stress and had slowed down considerably.  Lawrie was still sick and my limp had become more pronounced. The campsite was finally decided on and I hobbled in behind David.

'Once seated on a rock on the river bank, all I wanted to do was to get my shoes off.  Carefully removing the tape from my feels, I was horrified at what I saw.  My whole heel was a huge blister, swollen to twice its usual size.  My ankles were large and puffy.  It occurred to me then that if this continued, I might be forced out of the walk, which was unthinkable.

'Bob called Barry over to discuss what should be done.  It was decided that Barry should lance the blisters and that I should soak my feet in a strong solution of Condy's crystals.  For a while I sat miserably soaking my feet in the encroaching darkness with swarms of mosquitoes buzzing around me.

'The others had moved away from the river bank and had lit a fire higher up in a cosy patch of sand surrounded by trees and I soon joined them, starting to feel much better.  Bob suggested getting some alternate footwear and dropping them off to me at a checkpoint further down the track.  I reluctantly agreed.

'Soon after this, Bob and Barry quietly got up and left.  We were completely on our own now.  We spent some time discussing how we'd organize the group, how often we'd have breaks and how we'd decide who was to lead while we cooked and at the fish that Laurie and Jack had managed to catch in the 20 minutes between arriving at the campsite and darkness falling.  We also had a small portion of bush coconuts that had been gathered earlier in the day.

'That night, sleep came easily.  I was able to dig a hole in the sand for my hips and shoulders and was relatively comfortable.

Friday September 10, 1993

'We got up, made tea and prepared to leave for 6.15 am.  I put my boots on, ignoring the pain in my heels.  I tried to walk but found, to my dismay, that my calf muscles had seized up overnight and I could barely move.  I was still having trouble with my blistered heels.  Each step was painful and was worse when I started walking again after having stopped for a break.

'We walked through spinifex for a while before coming to a dirt airstrip and then a track which led to an abandoned homestead.  The homestead was our first checkpoint.  bob Hunter appeared with a pair of his own soft boots.  'These are for you', he said.  'Try them on'.  They were about two sizes too big and he'd brought a pair of thick socks to put on with them.  I had to fold the socks over and under so that the shoes fitted properly.  I tried them on and felt immediate relief, grateful for the loan of his boots.

'We continued on our way, walking on a track past an abandoned mine, where there were traces of gold, copper ore and white asbestos in the ground.  We decided it was prudent to get past the mine fairly quickly before we had a break.

'It was starting to get hot again and the heat was reflecting off the ridges of iron ore.  As the morning wore on, it became apparent that David (the least fit) was having trouble with the heat.  He kept falling behind and we had to stop to let him cool off.  We reached a water hold at about 11 am, where we stopped.  David was looking very heat stressed and we were starting to worry about him.  Russell, Maurice and some of the others poured water over him continuously to cool him down.  When he'd cooled down sufficiently, we went into the water for a swim.  I washed my clothes, as they were very dirty and smelly - and put them on a tree to dry.

'Russell and someone else explored the edge of the water and came back with two of the biggest melons I'd ever seen!  They looked like watermelons, except when cut open they were green inside.  We all had piece.  It was not very pleasant to taste and very dry compared with watermelon, but it was OK.  I didn't have much as I had been feeling a bit unwell.

'At this point David had decided that he couldn't go any further.  We stayed at the waterhole for about three hours, allowing David to cool off and maybe change his mind, but he explained that he couldn't continue the walk.  We had a number of options.  Stay here and wait for Bob to find us, split up and some go to one of the indicated campsites or all push on slowly to the closest campsite if possible.  David was feeling better than he had been but was still worried about the effects of the sun.  Lawrie devised a parasol out of a space blanket and some forked sticks, crossed with wood and tied tot he blanket at all four corners.

'It was my turn to pace and I was pacing at the front.  To my surprise, David and Laurie, both carrying the parasol, had no difficulty keeping up with me, as the parasol was billowing like a sail with the wind behind us.  They were literally being blown along and we made very good time with David having few problems.

'We stopped at the next water hole, some 300-400 metres off the track.  There was a huge gum tree, under which David and some of the others rested.  We carried water bottles down for those who needed theirs filling.  By this stage we were emptying anybody's water bottles into the others to create full capacity and save on carrying too much.

'As we approached the waterhole, we could see that it had a significant amount of water and that it looked beautiful.  We saw swans and cygnets and also pelicans swimming at the far end.  There was obviously a supply of fish here, but we needed to get to the campsite before dark and couldn't afford to stay there for too long.  I wished the others could see this beautiful spot and was glad that I had come down to fill the water bottles even though mine hadn't needed refilling.

'We continued on for a while until the wind dropped and the parasol was no longer 'sailing'.  We rested for a while, before starting out again.  David was making a real effort now and we had travelled over half of the 8 kilometres in just over an hour.  As we continue towards Nunyerry Gap, the sun began sinking in the sky and the parasol was dismantled.  It had been a great invention. 

'We came into Nunyerry at about 5.15 pm and the relief on David's face was enormous.  He sat down in the sand, by some melaleuka trees.  The campsite was chosen, a lovely cosy place, surrounded by melaleukas with a shallow waterfol on one side and a dry creek bed on the other side.

'My feet were still sore, but I knew I would manage now.  I went down to the creek bed to get some water to soak my feet in Condy's crystals and by this stage some of the others were doing the same thing.  We sat around the campsite deciding the best way to attract Bob's attention.  David had some fluorescent tubes which, when snapped, light up for 12 hours.  It was decided to build a pyramid on the road with a note and one of these tubes attached.  

'We made a camp fire and tea while Maurice and Adrian walked 500 metres down the track to position the note and tube.  As soon as it was completely dark, Adrian set off a flare.  The brightness of the flare took us by surprise.  Then within seconds a second flare was set off coming from the other direction but not more than two hundred metres away!  Bob had been within sight of us all along.  We could hear Bob's voice talking to the others.  David packed  up his things and within a short time he and Bob were gone.

'I had mixed feelings about David leaving.  I was relieved that we'd been able to attract Bob's attention and get David out.  Although I felt really sorry for him it had become apparent that the burden of carrying him was starting to have a negative impact on the group as a whole.  While I was one of the people who said we'd welcome him back into the group at a later stage, it became apparent over the next few days that it would be extremely difficult for the group dynamics if he were to re-enter the walk.

'The campsite was a lovely spot.  Lawrie collected bush parsnips to cook and eat.  You could eat the leaves and stalks and gnaw on the parsnips, boil them, make soup etc.  I was feeling a bit nauseous, so I didn't have very much.

'The fire kept going out and I remember waking up several times to put more wood on it, along with other people, as the temperature got quite cold.

Saturday September 11, 1993

'We had planned to leave before dawn this morning, but after seeing the steep walls on either side of us ten metres or so away last night, we decided to wait until dawn so that we could find a way out of the campsite.

'We started climbing out along the rock walls of the gorge and it was a precarious walk for two hundred metres.  After that, we were able to walk on a track.  We set a cracking pace along the track with Glen (the fittest of us) taking the lead.  I think we all wanted to make up the time we'd lost yesterday.  It was getting hot already and I was still feeling nauseous.

'We stopped at a lovely water hole, the last one for some time, to take on extra water.  We needed to carry an extra two litres of water in plastic bags.  I carried mine over my shoulders, but it was really too heavy despite the padding of my jacket underneath.

'We continued walking alongside the iron ore ridges, which were reflecting the heat from the intense sun.  It was getting hotter and hotter, but we were covering a lot of ground and despite feeling queasy I was quite happy.  My water bag was starting to leak and I didn't mind at first, as the water dripping down my back was cooling me off.  However my trousers started getting wet and I could feel chafing between my legs.  The water wasn't getting any lighter, despite the bag leaking.  I was hot, my shoulders were aching and I started feeling unwell.

'At the next stop, I took my trousers off and let them dry on a tree - and lay down, my head spinning.  Laurie offered around some pine melons and I took a bit of the tasteless stuff but only had  a small bite.  When we were ready to go, I got up and then was sick.  I had half a glucose tablet then felt a bit better.

'It was decided that I would lead at my pace for the time being.  I was feeling good.  Maurice had taken my water and I was walking at a pace not much slower than we'd gone before.  I kept this up until the next break, when we all laid down under a tree.  For the first time I noticed how hot and tired everyone else looked.  I'd been only thinking of myself and not of other people!  In fact, when I laid down, I realized that I was actually feeling pretty lousy and every time I tried to get up, my head spun.  I asked for another ten minutes' break and fell asleep in that time.

'We decided we'd been going at much too fast a pace in the heat.  I realized how silly I'd been.  Des looked heat stressed and he asked me why I went so fast.  I told him I had been feeling okay at that point,  but it hadn't occurred to me that if I felt sick and stressed from the heat, so must everyone else.  We thought the temperature must be in the 30s, but we found out later that in nearby towns it had been 42 degrees in the shade.  How hot it was in the sun on the iron ridges was anyone's guess.

'We arrived at our next check point, a tree by a bull paddock near Powerina Pool.  We decided to spend the afternoon there and cross the bull paddock (complete with dangerous scrub bulls, for which we'd been armed with flares) in the evening.  We let Bob know we'd leave a message for him there tonight and we proceeded to the cool springs to escape from the scorching sun.

'It was about this time that Adrian picked up and ate what he thought was a kumbal baja, or bush tomato.  As soon as he felt the sting in his throat he realized it wasn't and spat it out.  However, he was starting to feel ill.  we made our way down to Powerina Pool and everyone dived in straight away, before we had a chance to fill our water bottles (this means that the water would be muddy since the bottom had been stirred up).  The water was beautifully cool and I stayed in until I started to shiver.

'Des filled the water bottles by diving in and we threw them to him one by one to avoid getting the muddy water from the banks.  The water was still awful anyway!

'Laurie, Maurice and some others did some fishing and caught enough fish for two each.  We had a meal around a small campfire.  We all washed our clothes and hung them out.

'We had to decide our next plan of action.  Adrian still wasn't feeling well, but had a sleep and was somewhat recovered.  It was decided that Adrian would determine when we left.  We eventually left at about 8 pm after some compromises and decided to walk until we dropped on the track for a sleep.  Although we were a bit worried about the presence of bulls, we decided to risk it.

'So we set off in the dark and arrived at the gate to the paddock.  We thought we saw some lights but couldn't be sure.  Then we read Bob's note at the gate.  It said:  "Beware of kangaroo shooters in the paddock.  They don't know you're here!"  Oh great!  Not only do we have the threat of savage scrub bulls that can lift Toyotas off the ground, but we also had to contend with being shot at!

'With some trepidation we set off along the track in the 27 kilometre stretch of bull paddock.  Russell and Adrian (who had recovered by now) were in the lead, using their night vision and armed with flares to ward off bulls and people with guns.  The rest of us followed, in two files along the wheel ruts of the track, with the leader, Lawrie, at the back with map and torch.

'I kept imagining I could see lights, when someone else commented on it too.  They came closer and closer and suddenly we had spot lights trained on us.  I felt like an escapee from a concentration camp and had no desire to be shot at by some drunken station hands with 240 mm calibre bullets.  As the light shone in our eyes, Russell shouted:  "Duck!" - we hit the ground and he fired a red emergency flare.

'The light swung away from us and we breathed a sigh of relief and started walking again.  We could hear the vehicle now and knew they were coming to find out where the flare had come from.

'They were totally surprised to see us and thought we were an army training unit.  They were actually very pleasant, responsible, non-drinking shooters who'd got permission from the station owner, who hadn't mentioned our presence to them.  They offered us some fresh distilled water from their camp some way up in the direction we were walking.  Since our own water was quite revolting, we accepted the offer.  After thanking them, we went our separate ways.  Now all we had to worry about were the bulls.

'We walked for several more hours.  Darkness, monotony and lack of sleep made me feel exhausted and I was nodding off while stumbling on.  Eventually we lay down in a clay pan next to the track and slept.  I slept soundly and didn't wake up til 5 am.

Sunday September 12, 1993

'We left after the sun had risen and were slow getting underway.  The sunrise was gorgeous.  We had learned to slow our pace and get less tired than before.  The heat was already in the sun at 7 am and we knew we were in for another hot day.  We stopped at Maurice Well to fill up our bottles.  The reservoir was muddy and cattle-trodden and there was no wind to turn the mill for fresh water.  Russell climbed up to turn it by hand but was unsuccessful.

'We continued on, passing more wells, one of which was beautiful and had lovely water and birdlife.  We gave ourselves showers from the tank and continued onto the next well.  This was in a hot and desolate place, with almost no shelter from the now boiling sun.  We cooled our feet off in the reservoir and then retreated under a lone tree, barely big enough for the nine of us.  Jack's feet by this stage were giving him a lot of trouble.  Several other people helped bandage them up and Russell got water to pour over him.  It was a place which we were glad to leave, but there was nowhere else to go but to continue in the heat.

'Des and Adrian were really tired.  We were aiming for Kangan pool, which seemed increasingly remote, given the heat and late start.  Even Cullingina pool, our next choice, 10 kilometres closer, was looking difficult.  We had to walk across country for 4 kilometres with no shade over rocks and spinifex in the heat.  I was really tired and Jack, Adrian and Des were having increasing difficulties.

'We finally saw the line of trees which indicated the Sherlock River which we were to follow to the coast - and walked in that direction.  We couldn't find Cullingina pool, just a dried up river bed and occasional damp patches.  The kangaroos had dug in the river bed and had found water only a few centimetres below the surface.  So we knew we could get water in an emergency, but our water supply was running very low.

'We headed west along the river bed, hoping to find the pool very shortly.  We didn't find it and it seemed to have dried up, but Laurie found a large catfish in a puddle a few metres long.  He threw a knife at it and speared it in the head, pulling it out in a Crocodile Dundee fashion and then removing its 3 huge sharp poisonous spikes.  It couldn't have lived much longer in the drying waterhole and was clearly meant for us to eat.  It was so big that two people had to carry it on a stick up to the hill above the river where we tried to work out what to do next.

'For the first time, I felt we could be in trouble.  Des, Adrian and Jack were exhausted.  Des was severely heat stressed.  I poured the little water I had left over his head.  We had very little water left between us and we were all tired.  Glen and Laurie walked down the river bed to see if there was any water.  They couldn't find any, but after consulting the map, we realised we were close to Petroff Well.  We followed them above the river bed, then suddenly the well came into view, backlit by the sun.

'The well looked beautiful, as the sun, low in the sky, lit up the clouds that were beginning to appear.  We all had showers.  Maurice was the shower-master, pouring water over everybody as they washed themselves.  I dressed my feet by the well as did Jack and Russell who now also had blisters.

'We moved down into the river bed to set up a campfire and cook the catfish.  Maurice and I shared one piece of fish cooked on a green stick over the fire - very tender! - and made soup out of the other piece with half a chicken stock cube.  They were both very tasty.  now that I was no longer feeling sick, I had an appetite again and was hungry for the first time since the walk began.  I lay down in the sand by the campfire and fell asleep like everyone else for a while.  We had covered nearly 40 kilometres in 24 hours in the heat.

'It was my turn to lead that night and I was feeling apprehensive about it.  I'm not confident at night and had little experience with map reading.  Bob arrived at the river bed and we told him of our plan to go to Nigel Well tonight (5 kilometres away) so we have been only five kilometres in the morning to Kangan Pool.  He said:  'Good, but make sure you count your paces!"  I was to realise what he meant by that later on.

'We set off, Maurice pacing.  We were to follow the track straight there.  It should not have been difficult.  At 1.2 kilometres we should have passed a track to our right.  There wasn't any sign of it.  Laurie, who had been quietly using the stars as navigational points, said:  'Which direction should we be going?"  "North", I said.  'But we're going east!" he said.  It was really odd, as the track went north and we should have followed it.  The track we passed should have gone east.  We realised we were on the wrong track, but we don't gone off the original.  We traced our steps back 300 metres.  "There it is!" someone said.  It was so indistinct as to be hardly visible at night.  None of us in the dark had noticed a change of direction.

'At this point we were all so tired we decided to camp on the track and make sure we were going in the right direction in the morning.  It was the best sleep on a track that I have ever had!

Monday September 13, 1993

'We all slept so soundly we didn't get up till after 5 am.  In the morning light we could see we what we'd done.  There was a wide sweeping bend on the track on which we'd walked, which should have gone straight ahead.  The map showed a continuing road where there wasn't one and the T junction now was a very indistinct 'Y'!  It illustrated to us that maps are not always accurate.  Of course, Bob knew this, which is why he had said about counting paces.

'We started walking along the track and it became more distinct, if very uneven.  We walked to Nigel's well (about 4 kilometres) beside the track because it was easier.  It was still leading.  After the well, we had only a small amount of track to walk down before we turned to our right and walked across country parallel to the Sherlock River until we reached Kangan Pool.

'Although it was still only early (about 8 am) it was becoming very hot and sticky.  More pine melon was distributed and this time I found it quite refreshing.  I was feeling more confident at this stage.  Our plan was to spend most of the day at Kangan Pool.  Once there, we could set our sights on the end of the walk, only two days away.  Kangan was a point to aim for, a milestone.

'We walked down to a beautiful pool in the river bed, just as we were all getting very hot and tired.  our energy levels were becoming lower now and our ability to sustain walking in the heat was less.  It wasn't Kangan Pool, but at that moment we didn't care.  It was water and it was sweet.  We wet out heads and our scrims, filled up our water bottles and Jack took off his shoes.  He said later on that this waterhole was so sweet to him, in a way, Kangan Pool was a bit of an anti-climax.

'Once rested, we climbed back out into the heat and walked until we caught our first glimpse of Kangan Pool.  It was beautiful - the water a deep blue, swans and pelicans and birds of prey and reeds.  Unfortunately it proved harder to get to than we'd first thought.  We had to climb over a rock face to get to the main pool, where a track was leading out from it.  As we were climbing we saw a plane fly over us, which we found out later was from Pyramid Station.

'From on top of the rocks we could see the huge expanse of this beautiful permanent waterhole, surrounded by trees, a lovely soft sandy beach and - of all things, a rowboat!  It was like heaven.  We made our way down to the beach and set ourselves up under some melaleucas.  We all took our clothes off and dived in.  It was only about 10.30 am but we'd been walking for five hours and the day was very hot and oppressive.  Clouds started coming in and I wondered if we would get rain.

'Bob came down to see us to discuss what our next moves would be.  He told us the tide times, because when we got to the coast we could only walk along the causeway when the tide was out.  It was exciting to be planning our finish time, two days away.  Up until now we'd been living only in the present, partly because to look too far ahead would be overwhelming and because there was no need to, apart from looking to the next waterhole.

'We slept, fished and laid around for the whole day, having decided to leave at 5 pm - when it started cooling down.  We had difficulty finding the track out at first, because there were several.  Jack was leading and found the correct track, but the group split in half, some following what they thought was right.  Eventually everyone decided that since Jack was leading we should follow him.

'We continued walking as it became dark and cooled off.  We should have come to a T-junction but hadn't found it, so we stopped for 10 minutes to have another look at the map, then decided to walk a little further.  We walked no more than 10 metres and there it was!

'We were to pass a mine site and then leave  a note in a creek bed before going across country.  We couldn't see the mine site but felt the cold damp air as we walked into the creek bed.  It was about 9.30 pm.  We'd been walking for four hours and though it was early we were getting tired and didn't feel confident enough to walk across the rocky country with no moon.  We decided, a little reluctantly, to set up camp on the track and leave at moonrise, about 3 am.

'I couldn't shake off the cold, damp feeling.  I didn't like the area we were in.  I had been perfectly comfortable elsewhere, but wasn't here.  I tried to go to sleep but kept hearing what seemed to be a vehicle driving around.  We later found out that we were only about 12 kilometres from the North West Coastal Highway and the traffic sounds had been carried on the wind.  There also seemed to be an abundance of mosquitoes and ants and I was bitten in the eye which was very uncomfortable.  I had just gone back to sleep when I heard thrashing and jumping in the bushes.  Panicking, I woke Maurice up, but we realised they were just kangaroos.  Nonetheless, I was glad when they finally moved on.

Tuesday September 14 1993

'We decided to get going after 3 am, even though there was still no moon.  As it happens, there were no problems with navigation.  Jack did an excellent job.  We came in the Sherlock again just before dawn when the moon was rising.  We were beginning to see 'civilization', discarded rubbish, cans etc.  We walked past a series of waterholes degraded by sheep and cattle.  The banks were ruined by cloven hooves and we disappeared into the slimy mud.  We came into sight of the highway and the bridge.

'There was an Aboriginal site 500 metres from the bridge, with many rock carvings, above a waterhole that formed part of the Sherlock River.  The waterhole was extremely degraded now but probably was as beautiful as some of those we'd passed, sacred enough for the hundreds of carvings that were on the rocks.  It must have once been a beautiful, spiritual place.  It made me sad to see the rubbish there when we passed such beautiful spots out of the reach of most white people.

'It was about 9 am and was already getting hot.  We sat in the shade of a tree under the bridge to decide what to do next.  We decided to continue seven or eight kilometres onto a spring until it got too hot.  This would give us less to do tomorrow and we could rest there this afternoon.

'So, exhausted, we crossed the bridge to the other side of the highway.  Only 27 kilometres to go!

'We walked across cattle paddocks in the heat of the sun until we discovered that following game trails on the edge of the river was cooler and shadier.  In this section we had our closest encounters with bulls.  One followed us for quite a while, walking parallel to us and eyeing us balefully.  It decided to come closer and we were wondering what to do when Laurie took off his hat and ran toward it, waving the hat madly.  We all cheered - there was no need for the flares after all!  The next bull was less lucky - he was pelted with some well aimed stones thrown by Des.  The bulls left us alone after that.

'We finally found the spring we'd been looking for.  It was further along than expected.  It was hot by now and it was great to stop in the shade of the sparse melaleukas.  However the water quality was pretty terrible and the banks of the spring were destroyed by cattle.  We all laid down in the dappled shade of the trees, except for Des who entered the murky smelly water like an elephant seal.  We were careful with our water and added extra Condy's crystals to it.  Ordinarily we wouldn't have dreamed of drinking this water!

'We left the spring after dozing in the shade until about 5 pm.  We walked into a beautiful sunset, people's silhouettes against a bright orange sky.  Russell and Maurice went to leave a message for Bob.  They reported the water at the check point was much nicer than where we'd been.  It was a pity we stopped so early!

'We walked into darkness, stopping and resting on claypans which were quite comfortable to sleep on after the rocky ground.  At this stage even a ten minute stop was enough time to fall asleep.  We arrived at another spring at about 9.30 pm.  The sand was soft there and we were all tired.  We were tempted to sleep there except for the voracious mosquitoes.  We left a message in the creek bed and walked up the track to settle down near a fence at about 10 pm.  I slept well that night, despite the rocky ground.

Wednesday September 15, 1993

'We woke up just before 9 am as it was becoming too cold to sleep and got moving straight away.  We thought we'd be walking on a track parallel to the Sherlock, but couldn't find it and were stumbling across small creek beds in the dark.  We had spread out looking for the track, but that meant we had to each pick our own way across the stony ground.

'When we couldn't find the track easily, we walked on a bearing that would finally intersect it.  We again walked single file, with the people at the front (Russell and Adrian) warning the others what was ahead - eg:  'Big rock!', 'Creek up!', 'Creek down!' etc.

'We finally intersected the track 1 kilometre ahead.  I was falling asleep again while walking along the track.  As the sky lightened, it was easier to stay awake.  The tiny last quarter of the moon and Venus rose together at about 5.15 am., quickly followed by the sun.  This morning seemed cooler than previous mornings.  Perhaps the day wouldn't be so hot.  It had taken us 2 hours to walk the first 2 kilometrres.  We were aiming for Tommy's camp, 8 kilometres from the fence, where we planned to rest for the morning.  After that it would be only 6 kilometres to the finish line.  We had walked for more than five hours and still hadn't found the turnoff to Tommy's camp.  I knew that mistakes were most likely to be made near the end when we were most tired and complacent.

'I was having trouble with cramping in my left foot.  We had travelled along a tidal river which curved around and instead of going north, as we should have been, we were going west.  I was increasingly concerned that we'd come too far.

'Finally we stopped and the map was consulted again.  We'd walked about 2 kilometres too far, but could hopefully intersect the track by walking east.  I was devastated.  Two kilometres! That was the most we'd been out so far.  My foot was getting worse.  Adrian was having increasing trouble with his ankles and Jack had blisters and chafing.  That was the lowest point for me in the walk, even though we were less than 10 kilometres from the end.

'We walked towards the sun, which was becoming hotter now.  Somebody yelled:  'There's the track!'  I was relieved.  No wonder we hadn't found it when we passed it.  It was almost totally overgrown with spinifex.  It was obviously disused.

'The track went through the river bed that we'd been walking alongside and Tommy's camp should have been on the other side.  We planned to rest there until about midday before walking the tidal causeway shown on the map and crossing at the prearranged time of 2 pm.

'When we found Tommy's camp we discovered it was a tiny metal lean-to in a hot, sandy, treeless expanse.  Since it was now about 10 am and hot, none of us felt in the least inclined to stop there.  We had a drink of water before deciding we'd continue to the beach and wait for the tide to drop.

'We crossed the river again and walked down the track that would take us to the beach.  We could see recent tracks so we knew that at last we were going in the right direction.  Low coastal grass, saltbush and succulents were growing along the track.  We were close to the coast!  We couldn't see it, just an endless expanse of gently rolling hills.  As we came over the crest of each hill we expected to see the water but it didn't appear.  Jack was walking faster now and most of the others were walking at his pace.  Adrian had slowed down considerably, as his ankle was giving him a lot of trouble.  Russell was walking beside him.

'We caught our first glimpse of the beautiful blue ocean and everyone cheered.  We were still slightly behind the rest of the group and they waited for us at the edge of the ocean.

'We realised we'd reached our end point and that even though we were early (it was 11.30 am) we must have walked over the tidal causeway without knowing.  We decided to shelter under a mangrove tree about 800 metres away to wait for the support crew.

'We walked close to the water's edge.  The ocean, which had looked so beautiful, was a seething mass of water, undermining the edge of the soft red earth near us.  As we walked along, there were periodic crashes and great chunks of earth fell into the water.

'We finally got to the shade of the mangrove tree and sat down to wait.  I got some water for Adrian to soak his feet and we poured water over ourselves.  It would have been lovely to have gone into the water but sea snakes and stingers weren't good swimming companions.

'We had only been there half an hour when we noticed a cloud of dust and 2 vehicles approaching us.  The Oka and a small 4 wheel drive from Pyramid Station were coming towards us.  The support crew (Bob, Bob, Barry, Tanya and David) were in the vehicles.  Bob Cooper said:  'You're early - just give us half an hour to get the finish line ready!'

'About 20 minutes later they were ready.  We all linked arms and whistled 'Bridge over the River Kwai' as we walked through the finish line, arm in arm, to congratulations from the support crew.

'After beer, cool drinks and sandwiches, we got into the vehicles and headed for Pyramid Station.  At the station were some hot showers and beds in the shearers' quarters.  Luxury!

'That night, the people at Pyramid Station put on a barbeque for us.  We had kangaroo kebabs and steaks.  The station people and their friends quizzed us on our motives for doing the walk.  They thought we were crazy.  We realized that we knew their land more intimately than they did.  But then I bet they haven't slept on their clay pans!

'Reflecting on this walk some time later, I realised that we had all come to it with our own set of skills, strengths and weaknesses.  There had been some conflict (as is natural) but we had managed to navigate our way through this as well as we had navigated our way to the coast.  I learned that although I was physically the weakest team member (and the worst at map reading!) I was able to contribute to the team in other ways.  Over the course of the eight days, I had listened to the stories of the participants and I was privileged to be taken into their confidence as they told me things they hadn't yet told anyone else.  Maurice and I were also the first married couple to participate and he was always quietly there for me when I needed support.'

Again, my thanks to Joanne for this.  What an adventure.  One brave lady. 

No comments:

Post a Comment