Footloose and kid-free, a nice long hike seemed just the thing to prescribe myself amid fears of an imminent depressive episode in mid 2014. With three days and three nights to spare, Luke, a friend and I ventured off to attempt hiking the southernmost 91km of the Heysen Trail, from Cape Jervis to Inman Valley General Store. Unfit, inexperienced and having only glossed over the guide book, it would be no mean feat. What I lacked in experience, Luke’s rigorous army training more than made up for. What I lacked in fitness, I apologise and hang my head in shame for. What I lacked in knowledge of the trail’s unrelenting terrain I soon gained as I put one foot in front of the other. Uphill. Downhill. Uphill. Downhill. Walkers follow beach. Walkers follow road. Walkers follow fence. Repeat. Nonetheless, we beheld all that is the glory and the beauty of the southern tip of the trail and we fell in love with nature all over again. Limping into Inman Valley–out of food, blistered and in agony–we felt such elation. Such pride in our achievement.
Light headed with vanity and fuelled by chicken pies and hot coffee, something of the pain was erased as we loafed at Yankalilla Bakery. And that’s the defining moment when we gave voice to our desire to hike the beautifully difficult Heysen in it’s entirety–and the kids would come too we announced–much to their surprise.
To say they were delighted would be a lie. A big fat lie. Worried about missing friends and being disconnected from their electronic vices were the biggest complaints. If we were going to pull this off we needed to gain momentum. Fast. So we applied for a Summit Club Adventure Sponsorship with Kathmandu. We nearly fell over dead when they agreed to kit our kids out with gear. Finally, as we begun to get the children to venture outdoors in preparation, the idea grew on them.
The months that ensued were full of training and research, planning and packing. Forty-two boxes filled to the brim with 10 weeks of food and resources to sustain our life in the magic outdoors. Seventy-two kilos of gear and rations compressed into five packs. Thirty something encouraging letters from classmates and teachers. And hundreds of kilometres of training hikes. There was no stopping us now.
Somehow it was still not enough to prepare us for what lay ahead. The first three days on the Heysen were painful. We dragged ourselves only six kilometres on our first day. It was pathetic. We didn’t even make the first campsite. (Sorry if the owner of the private land at Parachilna Gorge is reading this; we left no trace, promise.) The second and third days were not much better. It was hard going. Noah, our youngest, couldn’t bear the feeling of his pack, or shoes, or shirt. Every time we started off again after a break he complained for 20 minutes straight and dumped his pack in protest. It wore thin very quickly. We could’ve packed up and gone home but we still would have had to walk to Wilpena Pound first so we kept on.
Rain that threatened to be confidence-breaking, hit just as we had Yanyanna Hut in our sights. We ran like turtles but made it inside just before the 16 hour down pour. We delighted in not having to set up the tents and in the opportunity to lie shoulder to shoulder and take turns reading from the log book. It told of hikers like us, that had gone before us, proving that the trail could be conquered. Hikers we felt we knew. Even if their entries were only short.
Exhausted and not having seen a single soul (other than each other) for 6 days, we arrived at the humming Wilpena Pound Resort. It didn’t matter that the rain persisted. We downed hot pies and cold ice creams while rummaging through the first three of our 42 food resupply boxes and then soaked off the hiker-hobo grit under steaming hot showers. We set up camp in nothing more than thongs (the shoe variety), thermal pants and rain coats. Everything else went in the washing machine and Noah and Emily idly played cards next to the laundry, waiting for the machine to thump to a stop. A new routine was birthed.
An upgrade from our unpowered tent site to a suite at the resort, along with an invitation to dinner and breakfast to boot, came from the resort manager while we perused the kiosk for items we might just need.
Life was looking up. Morale went through the roof. We gladly traded in our tinned chicken and cous cous for surf and turf and a side of greens.
I wish I could say it was all smooth sailing from there. But it wasn’t. We still had to summit Mt Arden. That day we learnt that hiking is a type and shadow of life. There are ups and downs. And more ups and downs. And false crests after false hopes. But then there are triumphs and victories shrouded in spectacular sunsets and life is worth the living, once more.
A few short days later we lost the trail on Pichi Richi pass, not being able to see the trail markers for the scrub. We had already been delayed leaving Quorn, having to wash and dry one of the down sleeping bags at first light, and having left a hiking pole at the railway station when posing for a photograph. We never made it to camp that night. And that’s the first time we uttered aloud some choice words and the unspeakable question; “Why are we really doing this?”. Only, no-one had the answer. The days turned into weeks and the still unanswered question remained.
Friends along the way weren’t afraid to ask the question. Family friends with fresh popcorn from Port Augusta Cinema’s asked over a campfire at Buckaringa North. (We didn’t get the memo that the fire season was extended). New friends asked over dinner at Quorn. The Spalding publican asked while informing us we were a day behind potential trail friends. Good friends asked over Black Sheep Pizza and Barber Shop haircuts in Burra. True friends from our other life asked while picnicking with us at Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens. Woodhouse, Marabel, Tanunda, Norton Summit, Crystal Brook, Inman Valley, Balquidder. Old friends. New friends. Good friends. Trail friends. True friends. And our beloved extended family too. They all asked.
Every day held new experiences that showed promise of holding the answer. Red range held the first backtrack for lost items; a tidy 9km round trip – a lesson in that for everyone. Eyre Depot held water rations and a fire experience we should probably never mention in print. Wonoka Creek held mud baths and the thrill of underage driving in a trusty farm ute. Hallet held the promise of a new kitty for Emily, having worn me down after years of begging and kilometre after kilometre of hearing what her imagined life with a pet cat would be like. Mount Crawford held a busload of sweaty year 7’s who didn’t seem to notice that we got lost. There are not enough markers in that forest! Somewhere else held hours of Yo Mamma jokes being told to Grandpa in drizzling rain. Curnows Hut held our hopes of dry firewood and a cabin after a day of pelting rain and fierce winds along a ridgetop. Smith Hill tank held a cold water hair washing experience and splitting headache. Laura held another hobo experience; drying our long hair under the hand dryers. A paddock with a gazillion cows held the 1000km mark. Kapunda held the realisation that Luke would be forced to leave the trail due to stress fractures in his shins and the children and I would go on without him. Rusted out cars. Bee hives. Cows. Bulls. Baby lambs. Dying sheep. Mountains. Dried up streams. The Milky Way. Processionary caterpillars. Bardi grubs. Rain moths. Ant bites. Fly stings. Squelchy wet boots. Solitude. 360 degree sunsets. Misty mornings. Muddy bums. Ladybug colonies. Reroutes. Flat GPS batteries. Trail buddies. A night off the trail. Pebbles in shoes. Prickles in socks. Watching grass grow. A finishing welcome party at Cape Jervis, with an honorary arch of hiking poles and hot pies at Yankalilla Bakery once again.
So why did we, 5 ordinary people, really spend 69 days carrying heavy packs so we could sleep in teeny tents and eat rations from fold up bowls for 69 nights? I can’t tell you. Except to say that we did it for us. Because we could. And you can too. Eli, Emily and Noah (our three children); of whom we are incredibly proud, are only 9, 10 and 12 years old. The youngest ever to hike the spectacular and confronting Heysen Trail. And they loved it. No lie.