For those of you who are following the story of my Epic trek, you will recall that in pursuit of my ‘Life is Too Short’ Lust List of a yearly adventure and challenge, this year I chose to hike the Larapinta trail in central Australia.
In my last post I shared the first 2 days of the trek along with some basic rookie hygiene tips. And so to the final assault.
Day 3: Section 8 Serpentine Campsite to Serpentine Chalet Dam: 15 km
I’m up at 5.45am to find dingo footprints around the camp. We pack up the tents and roll up the swags which the guides request should be neat and tight like cigars. Mine resembles a taco. As I squish my sleeping bag into its cover a fair sized spider crawls out and I freak the f**k out – was that in there all night?
Today’s hike involves a climb to Counts Point. The views are like nothing I have ever seen with the vast Ormiston Gorge resting between our crest and the Chewings Ranges. In the distance we get our first view of Mount Sonder which will be our final climb of the Epic trek.
According to the Arrernte Aboriginal people’s Dreamtime story, this region was created by giant caterpillars who travelled into the area without permission and their broken bodies became the ridges of the East and West Macdonnell Ranges. It is not hard to picture the giant caterpillars gouging out the valleys that lie between their resting bodies.
Spinifex dot the landscape as far as the eye can see and I finally understand Aboriginal dot paintings. Our guide explains that the Macdonnell Ranges were once the bottom of an ocean and we see ancient rocks (approximately 2 billion years old) with seabed sand ripples imbedded in them, now resting half a kilometre above sea level. This land is ancient.
We are officially half way through the Epic trek and today it occurs to me that our guides appear to be drip feeding us details about the days ahead. They are cleverly avoiding direct questions such as:
Are we there yet?
What time do we have to get up tomorrow?
How many km do we have to walk?
Will there be rocks?
It seems that they are the adults in charge and we are the kids who are perhaps annoying them with the repetitive nature of our questions. They are very, very patient.
So, here’s the drill. After dinner each night – when the guides know we are full of food, exhausted from the day, and slightly comatose – they drop the details of the next day’s itinerary (a.k.a hardcore SAS adventure) on us. At this point in the evening they know we are too tired and too full to complain. It’s a good strategy and I decide to tuck it away to use in the future with my own kids.
It seems that tomorrow we will be getting up at 3.30am and walking 32km. WTAF? Night kids, off to bed you go. Don’t forget to check your sleeping bags for spiders and mice.
Day 4: Section 9 Serpentine Chalet Dam to Ormiston Gorge: 32km
My jotted notes from the 4th day of the Epic trek read something like:
F**king hell. On earth.
Never ending story.
Another f**king river bed.
Happily, as I type this I am now experiencing ‘latent enjoyment’ (as defined in my previous article), and so remember the day with much greater fondness in retrospect.
We rise at 3.30am and packed our tents and swags. After a warming breakfast where surprisingly no-one speaks, at all, we are on our way. At 4.30am we queue obediently at the trailhead drop toilet as we have now trained our bodies to poo on command.
It is very cold and we are hiking in beanies and head torches – a sentence I am pretty sure I would never utter about myself, ever, but there you go. At one stage as we traverse a ridge I ask everyone to stop so that we can just look up at the heavens. It is seriously like being in a planetarium (only better, obviously, as it is real). We have a 180 degree view of the sky and a star gazer amongst us points out the perfect line made by Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. We watch satellites spin past.
I am feeling very happy (and to be honest, alarmingly smug and self satisfied) to have risen at 3.30am to experience this.
Our walk continues through the Inarlanga Pass – a sacred passage once an initiation place for young Aboriginal boys entering manhood. We are incredibly privileged to have permission from the custodians of this land to be here. As we walk through the Pass, this time in reverential silence, the early morning sun splashes across the orange quartzite – which in some places has buckled back on itself through a millennia of compression. The age and spirituality of this place are palpable.
From the Pass we walk 8km along Ormiston Gorge, and as the route is well marked with no harrowing cliffs to navigate, our guide lets us walk at our own pace. I find myself on my own for a number of kilometres without a soul in sight. I am in central Australia, in the desert, on my own and completely in my head and it is extraordinary. I have no wifi access (and haven’t had for days) and there is nothing – literally nothing – to distract me from my internal dialogue.
I work through a lot of stuff. I cry. I laugh. I make decisions. This is what I came for. I firm up on my desire to live life stupendously and to spread this message far and wide.
Hours later, we are still walking and I’m not going to lie, I think I am slightly hysterical. I have, of course, a partner in crime – a young woman who I literally want to adopt as she seems to understand me very well. There is one moment where I trip with fatigue, bounce off a rock wall, ricochet into a tree and then bounce back onto the wall. I am like a human pinball. My newly adopted daughter and I lose it. For at least twenty minutes our hysterical laughter leads to more stumbling and falling and tripping over rocks and this is now becoming a self fulfilling prophesy.
Even more hours later I have reached total delusion. The guide, when pressed, promises that we have only 5km to go. I want to die.
At the 5km mark (we check our watches) there is still no end in sight and I decide that our guide is a trickster – I pledge to add at least 50% to every distance our guides offer up.
We stumble (well, to be honest, only three of us are genuinely stumbling, including me) along a dry riverbed for a good 8km, and my self talk seems to be taking a decidedly dark turn – I can’t do this. This is going to kill me. I can’t go onnnnnn.
I catch it in time and change the channel in my head, and the last hour of the walk has me chanting a mantra of: You are powerful. You are strong. You are powerful. You are strong. You are powerful. Etc. This seems to work and honestly, after this I know I can do anything I set my mind to.
We reach our new campsite on the banks of the Finke River – the oldest river on earth – to see that our other guide has already erected our tents. I am overcome with joy at this simple kindness and I think I might be experiencing Stockholm Syndrome.
My left knee has blown out. My hiking buddy has so many blisters on her feet that her toes appear to have been colonised by an alien. My adopted daughter has damaged both of her knees. We are the walking wounded.
We stumble towards the Finke River and I don’t even bother to change into my bathers. I strip off and submerge myself in my bra and undies and wonder what the hell it is I am trying to prove here? But as I am swimming in the oldest river in the world in a vast, beautiful, ancient land, I give myself a sharp slap and have a few stern words with myself.
Another magnificent meal. Another magnificent sunset. Another magnificent star studded sky.
The guides offer me a ‘day off’ tomorrow. There is no shame in taking a day off, they say, listen to your body, they say. Unfortunately my body is currently refusing to talk to me. It is on strike and clearly very, very angry. I fall into bed vowing to give myself a rest on the morrow.
Day 5: Section 11 Finke River to Redbank Gorge: 18km
Ok. I seriously would never forgive myself if I had a rest day. It’s onwards and upwards my friends. Mental. Emotional. Physical. Resilience. You can do this.
You are powerful. You are strong.
As today is ‘technically’ a slow day, we are allowed to sleep in until 6am and our planned walk will only be 13km. Considering our guides’ seeming lack of spacial awareness, I am thinking we are looking at around an 18-19km day. This proves pretty accurate.
My knee is killing me. My adopted daughter is limping. My hiking buddy has lost all respect for rocks. We have to scale a river balancing on a fallen tree and I swear to god, if I fall in I will kill someone.
More dry river beds.
Lot’s of amazing views of tomorrow’s challenge – Mt Sonder. Yeah, whatever.
We have not seen much wildlife on the Epic trek. A handful of lizards, a few birds and happily no snakes. There are, however, a lot of Golden Orb spiders dangling across the track and as the day heats up an increasing number of flies to feed said spiders. The Larapinta is surprisingly green in parts and the desert flowers are stunning. It is hard to imagine anything at all growing out here, but a reasonably wet Autumn has delivered up a stunning array of wildflowers.
Arriving at camp, and having not showered in days, our guides offer us the luxury of a ‘bird bath’ (essentially a small tray of water to wipe down our bits and bobs) and I seriously feel like I’ve been invited to a day spa. Clearly another sign of Stockholm Syndrome.
We sit around the fire and compare injuries. We are now very adept at caring for our feet and there is literally a production line passing along the fixomull to bind our blisters, voltarin gel to reduce our swelling, and Panadol to numb our pain. All is well as we are bathed in yet another glorious burning sunset in the middle of absolute nowhere.
This is stupendous.
After dinner the guides announce we will be up at 1.30am tomorrow to scale Mt Sonder to watch the sun rise and I am truly thrilled and excited and I go to bed at 7.30pm anticipating a good 5 hours sleep before we start again – Stockholm Syndrome for sure.
Day 6: Section 12 Summit Mt Sonder: 16 km
I wake ready and willing and exhilarated at 1.30am as I know for a fact that this is the last day I have to get up and hike. I agree that this is a very wrong reason to be excited, but it’s working for me.
Our guide instructs us to change the batteries in our head torches, stick together, watch the feet of the person in front, walk like caterpillars joined together and do not trip. Sage advice.
We are all incredibly excited – we know this is going to be spectacular.
There is not much to share about the ascent. Eight kilometre and 4 hours straight up a big, big mountain, non stop, in pitch darkness concentrating on not falling. What I can say is that I now appreciate that there are degrees of ‘pitch’ darkness. There is the pitch darkness where you are aware that you are surrounded by trees and rocks, and then there is the pitch darkness where you are aware that you are walking alongside an abyss that falls away to a bottomless pit.
Do not trip. Do not fall. Watch the feet of the person in front of you.
We reach the peak at 5.45am. It is freezing cold and we are as high as kites. Our guide pulls out a homemade banana bread studded with M&Ms, plunger coffee and hot chocolate and we are all literally in love with him and this time I’m pretty sure it is not Stockholm Syndrome.
We each find the most comfortable 2 billion year old rock to sit on. And then we wait.
Mt Sonder is a feminine being. From a distance the mountain looks like a woman reclining. This morning, we have scaled her foot, marched up her shin, shimmied up her thigh and we are now perched on her belly button overlooking her breast to the East.
The sky slowly begins to change colour from a deep black studded with a blanket of stars to a deep purple to a warm purple to a soft lilac dissected by a burning gold outline across a ridge to the East, until finally the sun spears the horizon and I channel Eartha Kitt singing It’s a new dawn, It’s a new day, It’s a new life for me. And I’m feeling good.
Meanwhile my hiking buddy is loudly humming the theme song from The Muppets and I am seriously worried about her.
The walk down feels like a different hike on a completely different day altogether. It is more than 8 hours since we woke up and in the cool light of day we get to see all of the passes we could have died on if we had, in fact, tripped on the way up. We flick away the last of the flies. We take our last photos of the gigantic Golden Orb spiders. We stumble over our last rocks and we squat for a final wee hovering dangerously close to the spinifex.
We have done it. 130km in 6 days.
And so, what have I learned about myself?
One – it has been supremely wonderful to take an extended break from the constant, incessant accessibility of mobile phones and laptops. I spent a good part of the week in my brain on my own and I have decided it’s a pretty good place to hang out. And while I was reluctant to reconnect to wifi, the afternoon the hike ended the pull of making sure the kids were still alive and sharing with them the news that their mum is a hardcore rockstar SAS chick, was too strong. I called home and revelled in their admiration and cried when they told me how proud they are of me.
Two – while I missed my kids, I didn’t spend hours wondering if they were OK. I know they are smart, resourceful, resilient young adults and they can do very well indeed without me every now and then. It’s time to step back a bit, relinquish some control and let them work out stuff for themselves. This will be good for them and for me.
Three – without question, this has been the hardest physical, emotional and mental challenge I have experienced. I didn’t get voted off the island and I’m phenomenally proud of what I achieved. I know without a doubt that I can absolutely do anything I set my mind to.
Four – I said goodbye to my ex-husband as a brave friend who lost his fight with cancer way too young. I miss him and that’s OK. I promised him to continue to be the best possible mum to our amazing kids.
Five – and most importantly – it is very, very OK to prioritise myself and my needs and my ‘Life is Too Short’ Lust List without any sense of guilt. I absolutely deserve to live an exceptional, stupendous life without limits – and that’s what I plan to do.
I am powerful.
I am strong.
Sign me up for my next adventure.
I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which I walked and pay my respects to their Elders past and present and thank them from the bottom of my heart for everything I experienced.
Written by Kate Christie.
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