The new Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail

The ranger is keen to ensure I have everything I need for a successful hike. First there’s a five-minute induction video, then I am given a waterproof/tearproof topo map and a quality 135 page guide book. She drops the weighty tome into my hands and I smile, trying to quieten the little voice inside that protests, “but that’s got to be at least another 250 grams!” It’s just one of the many little touches that the developers of the new Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail in South Australia have devised to ensure a first class experience for hikers.

Rocky River Cascades

Rocky River Cascades

The trail has only been open a month when I step foot on it, a 61km route beginning at Flinders Chase at the western end of the island and finishing at Kelly Caves further east. I begin on well-maintained trails close to the Visitor Centre through Black Swamp, a site famous for revealing the bones of the megafauna that roamed here between 45,000 and 100,000 years ago. Giant seven foot tall kangaroos and wombat-like creatures the size of rhinos once made this area home and while the real deal have long gone, life size cast iron cut-outs of these ancient beasts still manage to startle me, suddenly appearing from around bends or behind bushes.

I soon venture beyond the day trails and onto the KIWT proper. The Platypus Waterholes are quiet of action in the midday warmth so I carry on through dense eucalypt woodland to the Rocky River Cascades. Cool tannin-stained water rushes over a ramp of gently sloping rock. I lay down feeling the sun warmed rock beneath me, one hand trailing in the water, and start to feel that delicious peace and happiness that nature always brings.

dsc06653Twelve kilometres in, a discreet steel and wood sign welcomes me to Cup Gum Campground. This is cool camping – thoughtfully laid out with everything a hiker needs and constructed in materials that blend in with the environment. Individual campsites are tucked away up short paths offering a touch of privacy, some with timber decks complete with inbuilt seats. Near the communal cooking shelter I find a wooden sun lounge facing a grassy plain dotted with grazing kangaroos. It’s the perfect place to relax.

Cliff top panoramas

dsc06688On day two the bush trail meets the Southern Ocean, and a rough and rocky track climbs to the cliff tops where a stiff wind buffets my entire body. The forecast estimates 35-48kph winds for the middle three days of my walk. It’s not ideal for a trail of which nearly half is coastal – next stop Antarctica – but nothing can take away the beauty of the vast blue water whipped with white caps. Perhaps if it was less windy I’d have lingered at the divine cliff top views but I push on, reaching the next camp at Cape du Couedic by noon.

Listed trail times are generous and there is plenty of time to do a 9km side trip to the cape’s lighthouse as well as Admiral’s Arch, a partially collapsed limestone cave hung with stalactites. I shelter from the wind in the lee of the rock and watch the seals and sealions who live and play on the basalt platforms below.

Critters and Creatures

Wildlife is all part of the appeal of this trail – birds, frogs, echidnas, koalas, plentiful goannas sunning themselves on the trail, and even the island’s very own unique breed of kangaroo. At night I stretch out in my tent, dig out my new guidebook and discover the many interesting factoids about the flora and fauna contained within it. (Who knew a microbat could eat 600 mosquitos in an hour?) By the time I finish the trail I’ve read it cover to cover.

Remarkable Rocks

Remarkable Rocks

Remarkable Rocks

Day three brings another trail highlight, the Remarkable Rocks. I last visited these rocks ten years ago but I’d forgotten how remarkable they were. Five hundred million years worth of wind, rain and raging waves have carved out these giant granite boulders, creating sculpted works of art. There are great gaping overhangs and areas of smoothed rock pocked with holes like a giant Swiss Cheese. In places bright orange lichen sweeps across the rock making a striking contrast against the blue ocean. I spend half an hour staggering around the boulders in the near gale force winds, fearing I might be blown off out to sea, before retreating to shelter.

Inland Discoveries

The trail weaves inland more on the last few days, with a few short detours to sumptuous bays filled with soft white sand and water of a colour that belongs in the South Pacific. Alas the guidebook warns against swimming – apparently the prevalence of marine mammals in the area attracts large predators “such as sharks” – so I content myself with just watching.

My fourth and final night on the trail is at Grassdale Camp, a lovely spot straddling two sides of a river and complete with fire pit surrounded by bench seats. It’s yet another thoughtful design feature by the makers of the trail, offering a great hub for walkers to celebrate the end of a fantastic hike. Across the water I catch sight of a koala leaping from one branch to another and on dusk well over a hundred kangaroos feed and box with each other on the open grassland nearby. It’s a special place.

Hanson Bay

Hanson Bay

It takes only a few hours to walk the final kilometres to Kelly Caves. On the way I pass two huge lagoons, home to tonnes of birds, and follow trails lined with sugar gums, beautifully gnarled and flaking with bark. I’m just starting to fall into that glorious space when you feel like it’s just you and nature, but the trail is almost done.

The Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail has done it’s magic on me!

**Want to do this hike yourself?  Check out my KIWT planning advice.

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Choose your own Adventure

Hiking up Mt Fyffe near Kaikoura in New Zealand's South Island

“Ooh, you don’t want to hike there today.” It was an unequivocal statement.
Actually, yes I did.
“It’s too windy,” said the lady at the Visitor Centre with a note of finality in her voice.
“Oh well, I’ve been hit by wind before!” I smiled jovially, trying to defuse the ominous cloud of doom she’d infused into the air. After all, we were only talking about a three-hour low altitude walk, graded as ‘easy’.
She looked unimpressed though. “You could hire a bike and ride around the town. Or there’s a heated swimming pool.”
Seriously?
I looked at her. She looked back at me. Somewhere between our gazes a subtle standoff was going on though neither of us wanted to fully unleash our differing opinions. Eventually with a disapproving and tight-lipped smile she circled the trailhead on the map on the desk between us.

Crossing the Rangitata River on the Te Araroa Trail

Crossing the Rangitata River on the Te Araroa Trail

I felt like telling her about the last time I was in this town three years ago. Back then I’d been hiking the whole length of New Zealand, a 3000km epic through challenging terrain and often wild weather. Back then I’d left this town for an eight day stretch that saw me wade at least 70 river crossings, follow a trail-less route over rugged mountains, get caught in a snowstorm and holed up in a hut for three nights trapped by snow and howling winds – in summer.   I felt like telling the lady at the Visitor Centre all this and adding, “… so I think I can handle a little wind.”   But I didn’t.

Of course she wasn’t to know my level of experience in the outdoors or what I enjoy doing, but to my mind it would have been far more helpful to tell me that the trail was occasionally exposed, point out that it was a windy day, and then let me decide if I still wanted to go.

It’s not the first time someone in a visitor centre has tried to tell me what I would and would not like. A few years ago I turned up at a ski resort in summer with my top of the range, full suspension mountain bike strapped to the back of the car. I bounded into the info centre for a map and some advice from the barely post-pubescent kid behind the counter in a baseball cap and a T-shirt far too big for him. “Well there’s a trail that goes up the ridge and around the mountain,” he said, pausing slightly before adding, “…but you’d probably prefer the village trail.”  And how do you figure that, twerp?  I resisted the urge to poke him in the eyes and walked back out muttering under my breath.

People make assumptions. We’re all guilty of it at some time or another. It’s a habit we have picked up likely as a by-product of our method of learning-from-experience. Often there is merit in heeding the patterns we have observed over the many years of our existence but sometimes assumptions can get out of hand. Life doesn’t follow neatly set rules. The world is more complex and far greater than that. And we are far greater than that.

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-9-18-01-amThe comments made by my pals in these visitor centres were simply annoying but real danger lurks when we actually start to believe what other people say can we can and can’t do. These opinions can come from all directions – friends, family, society, media. Sometimes these opinions, once aired, seep deep into our psyche, quietly dropping into our subconscious mind unchallenged, forever more to be thought of as facts. They might lead us to thinking things like ‘I can’t do xyz’, ‘I’m not suited for a particular activity/challenge/adventure’, ‘this is the way things are’, or ‘people like me don’t do xyz’.

Which leads me to part two of my gripe. We all like different things.   While some of us might prefer to escape a windy afternoon ‘safe’ within the confines of a humid swimming pool complex reeking with chlorine others will prefer to pull on a rain jacket and head out for that hike in the fresh air where the wind will slap you in the face and remind you you’re alive. So that advice we get from others may not be entirely relevant to us.

I may once have said, “Okay Visitor Centre Lady, you know best,” and scrapped my plans for that hike up the Rakaia Gorge. But then I would have missed out on the intense blue of the glacial water flowing over rounded river pebbles, and the brilliant yellow flowers of the Kowhai tree against a brooding grey sky. I would have missed out on the endorphins that running along that cliff top in the rain gave me. And I wouldn’t have traded that experience for an afternoon in an indoor pool for the world.

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It bugged me greatly that, were it not for the fact I categorically knew I could happily hike in windy conditions, I might have missed out on that gorge walk. As I walked I wondered how often we let other people’s thoughts and opinions affect what we do and believe? How many times do we just go with the flow, doing what is expected of us, without challenging whether it aligns with our own beliefs and what we ourselves want?

This concept doesn’t just apply to adventurous activities but to all facets of our lives. Have you ever voiced a dream only to have someone else laugh it off as ridiculous or impossible or perhaps suggest that you ought to be ‘realistic’? I suspect most, if not all of us, has at one point been told they “couldn’t” do something. But in accepting the opinions of others we can sometimes limit ourselves in the quest of finding what is true for us and realising our own goals.

It takes a conscious person to be aware of external influences and not be drawn into them, whether they be verbal comments made directly to us or simply ideas that have filtered into us osmosis-like from the societal soup in which we swim. The question is what will you do? The option that everyone else thinks you should do or the one you really want to do?

Doing what makes me happy!

Do what makes you happy!

You might want to consider other people’s opinions – for others may have knowledge and accumulated experiences that you do not – but in the end I’m all for listening to your gut, being strong in your own mind and choosing your own adventure.

To Great Walk or not to Great Walk? – What to consider when choosing a hike in New Zealand

New Zealand is heaven for hikers. It’s stunningly beautiful, relatively uncrowded and absolutely full of trails, but how do you choose one that will suit your needs and desires?

There are currently nine ‘Great Walks’, a set of popular hiking trails developed by the Department of Conservation showcasing a variety of the country’s diverse terrain over both the North and South Islands. Their popularity is well deserved with excellently maintained trails passing through beautiful landscapes and with most walkers needs well catered for.

On the other hand there are countless equally stunning hiking trails throughout the country, serviced by nearly a thousand back country huts, so do you really need to book a place on a Great Walk?

You don't need to do a Great Walk to find great scenery. Hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island.

You don’t need to do a Great Walk to find great scenery. Hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island.

Tracks

Great Walks tracks are of a higher standard than many other tracks in the country and are well formed and easy to follow. They are often quite wide with gradients generally in the easy to moderate range and all rivers are bridged. This can all be a good thing if that’s what you’re looking for but just occasionally these routes lack the interest and variation in track surface provided by more natural trails. Add to this the sheer numbers of other hikers you are likely to be sharing the trail with and you can sometimes lose that full sense of being in the wilderness that many of us crave.

Beautiful walking on the Kepler Track (a Great Walk)

Beautiful and easy walking on the Kepler Track (a Great Walk)

Outside of the Great Walks, trails range from flat and easy to steep and gnarly with added exposure, and everything in between. You may have to tackle bouncy mesh suspension bridges to cross rivers or even ford them on foot. The rewards though are often spectacular scenery combined with the peace and serenity that comes from hiking in less visited regions.

 

Accommodation

Sunset at Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track, a Great Walk

Sunset at Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track, a Great Walk

Great Walks huts are of an excellent standard providing bunk accommodation with mattresses for up to 50 people, and most supply gas cooking stoves, lighting, flushing toilets and toilet paper so you won’t have to carry your own. Bookings are required and for the more popular ones like the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn and Abel Tasman, sometimes six months in advance which can make planning a challenge. Huts  cost anywhere from $22 to $54 per night and if the weather is looking dodgy or you need to change your plans there are fees and charges to change dates, that is assuming your new dates are even available. These huts are busy and on the more popular trails during peak season you are likely to have a full house.  With capacity in these huts reaching up to 50 beds that’s a lot of people to share your slice of wilderness with.

Comyns Hut - a basic free backcountry hut

Comyns Hut in Canterbury – a basic free backcountry hut

Upper Travers Hut, a Serviced backcountry hut (non Great Walks)

Upper Travers Hut in Nelson Lakes National Park, a Serviced backcountry hut (non Great Walks)

Regular backcountry huts come in three standards with prices ranging from free to $15 per night. Some are no more salubrious than a garden shed while others are almost at Great Walk standard, with double glazing, modern and clean design, indoor running water and wood burning stoves with fuel supplied. For the vast majority of huts, bookings are not required with beds provided on a first come-first served basis. Capacity ranges from two bunks including mattresses to up to around 30 bunks, toilets are mostly of the outdoor long drop variety and water is usually supplied by rainwater tank, though occasionally a nearby river. You will need to carry your own stove and fuel, headtorch and toilet paper.

Logistics

All the work is done for you on a Great Walk. You simply collect your trail map and notes from the Department of Conservation safe in the knowledge that someone else has already worked out a conservative itinerary that will lead you through a beautiful hike, well marked with directional signage.

Outside of the Great Walks you will need to ensure you have adequate maps and a trail description before heading out. Some of the more popular backcountry trails are well provided for with DOC brochures available describing routes and walk times, but others may require a bit of research and planning.

Great Walks can be busy. An estuary crossing on the Abel Tasman trail.

Great Walks can be busy. An estuary crossing on the Abel Tasman trail.

Safety

Great Walks trails are regularly monitored and during peak season a ranger will be on hand in most huts to answer any questions you may have or to provide support if needed. In the event the weather is not conducive to an alpine area Great Walk the Department of Conservation will advise you against starting.

If you venture out on your own backcountry hike you will need to be self-sufficient and perhaps make decisions that affect your safety. You will need to consider whether the weather forecast is adequate for the route you are planning and whether the occasional unbridged river is safe to cross. Trail signage may or may not be easy to follow. While walkers always need to be responsible for their own safety, regardless of whether it’s a Great Walk or not, the majority of huts and trails are largely unmanned by wardens and rangers so walkers need to be comfortable with being on their own.

So, which walk is right for you?

The strength of a Great Walk lies in making New Zealand’s beautiful backcountry accessible to just about anyone.  But if you have a stove, a head torch, a bit of experience and value your own space then you will find many more equally stunning trails that provide flexibility in planning, are lower cost, and you just might have the whole place to yourself.

On the Gillespie Pass circuit (a non Great Walk)

The Gillespie Pass circuit (a non Great Walk)

A Different Perspective – the Great South West Walk

There was something about this walk. It changed my view of my place in the world, if only for a short time. Maybe it was the pair of emus that I came across. One ran off while the other came closer, tentatively peeking out from behind a tree for a better look before turning tail and zigzagging his escape through the forest. Immediately afterwards a dark and fluffy wallaby bounded across my path just metres ahead – there one moment, gone the next.

Koala on top of Mt Richmond

Koala on top of Mt Richmond

Maybe it was the three koalas I came across, in the midst of an argument.   Two males growled and bellowed loudly while a smaller female tried to get out of the way. I watched with my heart in my mouth as the larger male took a swipe at her, knocking her off the branch. She swung from one claw, dangling in thin air while the other two continued to scream at each other

Half an hour later the rustle of grass next to me on the path alerted me to a large furry body crawling along the ground. It was so big I thought it was a wombat. It turned out to be another koala.

Maybe it was the five snakes I saw, each one slithering out of my path… all except for one. I backed off after nearly standing on it and we both sat there watching each other in the longest snake stand-off I’ve ever experienced. His head was raised, tongue flicking the air and large dark eyes appraising me. The trail was overgrown, there was no alternative route around. I waited. He watched. Eventually he conceded to being the one to move and I tiptoed past.

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Maybe it was the big grey owl that landed on the ground just a few metres from my tent at dusk. He turned his face to mine, blinked his big round eyes twice in the torchlight and then flapped his mighty wings, lifting off into the darkening sky. Or perhaps it was the spiky echidna that crashed through the undergrowth emerging next to my tent, sniffing around my pack before realising I was there and then scuttling off again into the bushes. I saw a dozen other emus, more echidnas, countless wallabies, kangaroos, lizards and birds. It could have been any or all of these encounters that made me feel different.

It’s rare these days to find yourself in a world not dominated by humans. When I spent eleven days hiking the Great South West Walk in Victoria I experienced a rare insight. I was no longer the all-powerful and important human, top of the game, I was merely one animal amongst many. Part of a rich and complex interconnection, reminding me that there is a whole other world of animals on this earth apart from us and I was now amongst them. Without the distraction of other humans and our human-made world I could see the natural world beyond – one that has always been there though often not easily visible. It was nature in an undisturbed state, rich with life, and being in it took me to another place in my mind.

Overlooking the Glenelg River

Overlooking the Glenelg River

There are many amazing things about the Great South West Walk but for me it was these encounters with wildlife that were most special. The 250km loop trail out of Portland in Victoria’s west is full of surprises. The scenery changes significantly along the way, winding through four very distinct landscapes. I started in the forest. It’s an easy way to begin. The trail is largely flat and well graded, moving through swathes of Blackwoods, Swamp gums and Stringy Barks. In places the trees have been blackened by bushfire, and green ferns and flowering tea tree fill the undergrowth along with wildflowers in shades of purple, white, pink and yellow.

After eighty kilometres the trail merges with the mighty Glenelg River and the scenery changes dramatically. The trail becomes rocky underfoot, the earth red, a striking contrast against the greenery. The track climbs and then undulates over cliff top paths overlooking the white limestone gorge walls that line the river’s edge. Birds are drawn to the water, amongst them black cockatoos, kingfishers, blue wrens and gang gang cockatoos whose call sounds like a squeaky door overhead.

DSC09893After another 54km the river delivered me to the sea and I followed the ocean beach back east again. For hours I walked in the sand with not another soul in sight. Flocks of birds rose from the sand and landed further ahead as I moved forward. I liked not seeing anything but ocean and sand as far as the eye can see in both directions. It reminded me that I’m out there alone. Well, just me and my furry and feathered friends. The trail markers pointed me into the dunes and I followed the three pronged footprints of emus pressed into the sand. The wrinkles in their fat feet were clearly visible in the impressions, tipped by claw points. Aboriginal middens sat aside of the path, mounds of seashells abandoned from feasts several thousand years ago.

I wandered further inland over Mt Richmond, a low and lush forested peak, the remains of a volcanic tuff cone about two million years old. The soil is sandy here and the forest jam packed with animals. I couldn’t sleep for the noises outside my tent – koalas growling in the trees, unidentified crashing about in the undergrowth and other animals screeching in the night air. The land was alive.

A good few days of cliff top hiking

A good few days of cliff top hiking

I headed back out to the beach for another few hours of sand slogging before the beach abruptly ended, blocked by a rocky bluff. I climbed it and followed a path for several days that sat sometimes precipitously right on the edge of an unprotected cliff. One wrong move here and I would tumble into the blue ocean crashing up against the cliffs far below. The water frothed and foamed over the dark basalt platforms that spill out into the sea formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. The trail skirts around Cape Bridgewater and over some of the highest coastal cliffs in Victoria. In the clear water below it’s easy to spot seals and dolphins rising and falling with the swell. Just 20km from the finish the white lighthouse of Cape Nelson stands strong in the gusting wind on the last of the unprotected cliffs before returning to Portland.

I hadn’t heard a lot about this hike before I did it, nor is it heavily visited compared to some other trails, however this is a hike that deserves to be appreciated. The scenery is hugely rewarding and the distance is far enough to give you time to let go of everything that distracts us in everyday life.  And like me, you might just find it makes you see things just a little differently.

Enjoy.

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Changing Tack

DSC08027I thought it might be vaguely interesting to try and quantify how seasick I felt.  Sitting in the cockpit and watching the waves roll out behind us I pondered perhaps a three out of ten? – Unpleasant but perfectly manageable.  Half an hour later it was more like five or six.  I looked around at my crew mates, peacefully sipping cups of tea, engrossed in books while the twin hulls of our catamaran careened sideways down the blue water face of a two and a half metre swell like an out of control shopping trolley.  Was I missing something here?  Within another half an hour my seasickness had risen up the ranks of my unofficial grading system to an alarming eight out of ten, gusting at nine and a half.

Hurling over the side of the boat is a no-no – too many people have fallen overboard in the process.  I needed a bucket urgently but just the thought of saying the word bucket out loud triggered forboding sensations to flush through my mouth.  Instead I crouched and crawled my way over to the back of the boat, all the while staring at the horizon with an intensity that could bend spoons.  Suddenly a mug of steaming ginger infused water appeared in front of me and after sipping some down the urge to vomit slowly began to subside.  I was spared another day.

The Good Times

View from the summit of Fitzroy Island near Cairns, Queensland

View from the summit of Fitzroy Island near Cairns, Queensland

I’ve been on this sailing journey for nearly six weeks now and while there have been moments of bliss, unfortunately, for me, most of them have occurred off the boat.  Walking barefoot through the powdery soft and blinding white silica sand of Whitehaven Beach, hiking the many deserted jungle trails of the Whitsunday Islands, snorkelling over vast beds of coral and sea kayaking have all been glorious highlights.

I’ve always been a big fan of kayaking.  The opportunity to slink quietly into the domain of other creatures without unduly disturbing them provides a secret insight into their world.  The best time is low tide when you can glide with minimal effort over swathes of colourful coral just a foot or two beneath the boat.  Sand flats are filled with dozens of turtles, stingrays and baby black tip reef sharks whose dorsal fins lazily pierce the surface of the water.  A turtle and I surprised each other one afternoon.  A massive body of water lifted and thrashed right on the back of my kayak, drenching me.  I thought it was a crocodile (I may have screamed) until the oval shape of a huge shell appeared in the settling water.   These times immersed in the world of other creatures are magical.

Getting Skills
Mastering the art of sailing takes a lifetime and while I’m unlikely to persevere at the sport long enough to be remotely competent I have slowly but surely accumulated new skills.  I can tie a bowline and a clove hitch knot, launch and drive the dinghy, and steer the catamaran on engines or wind.
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On the complex art of sail management though I’m like a trained monkey, performing small sequences of actions that form part of a larger manoeuvre I do not yet fully understand.  Wrap the rope around the winch three times, once around the tailer, release the cam and press the button to ease the rope until I am instructed to stop. My contribution to our forward progression feels like a token.

The Reality of Cruising
Sailing across the world sounded such an exotic and adventurous thing to do.  I imagined myself sitting on the bow, perhaps in a white bikini, dazzling sun reflecting off the endless blue ocean ahead of me like a carpet of diamonds while dolphins frolicked in the bow waves.  I would leap around the deck to hoist sails and wind winches, providing ample opportunity to flex my muscles and tire myself out.
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From what I can gather though, sailing, at least of the cruising variety, appears to involve hoisting the sails with electric winches (on this boat), setting a course and then settling in for a solid day of reading books.  And perhaps those frolicking dolphins are up front but unfortunately I don’t see them because I’m too busy sheltering from the wind and waves in the rear cockpit, bundled up in a windproof jacket and beanie.

There may be a jibe or two sprinkled throughout the day for a brief moment of excitement but other than that the day is largely spent seated or horizontal. The lack of movement is a challenge for a hiker.

Changing Tack
Last week a friend prepared lunch for me while I was busy staring at the horizon.  Noodles simmered on the stove and a can of tuna sat on the galley bench with its top peeled back, waiting to join them.  It was the smell of hiking.

I confess to daydreaming about it.  I’ve tried to steer my mind away from my churning stomach by imagining all the trails I would do if I weren’t now on a boat, and there are plenty out there calling me like a siren song.  I’ve sailed over 700km (435 miles) of Australia’s Queensland coast but the thought of multiple weeks at a time sailing across oceans for the next ten months, reading books in a bucking and rolling vessel is not appealing.  I need to move.  I fear I’m not being me on board this boat and that, as I’ve learned, is not a healthy way to live.

So I’m disembarking in Cairns, in far north Queensland and will bid farewell to Chat Eau Bleu and her crew as they continue on their journey across the Indian Ocean, and I will dive into planning my next hike.  I’m excited at the thought of it and that feeling is my compass, guiding me to where I should be.

Next week I fly home to swap diving gear for hiking gear and set off on the Larapinta Trail, a 223km (138 miles) hiking track in Australia’s Red Centre.  It promises to be a walk unlike any other I’ve done before, with spectacular red desert, dry rocky ridges and cool damp chasms hiding pools of water and creeks.

I can’t wait.

Until then…

How Hiking Changed My Life

Lewis Pass, New Zealand's South island

Lewis Pass, New Zealand’s South island

My life is so good these days I have to pinch myself.  I have hiking to thank for it.

I live a simple yet rich life and a 3000km walk on New Zealand’s Te Araroa trail last year was the kicker that got me started. After it, fear was largely gone. I realised most fears are largely imagined anyway, a construct of my brain, not something to stop me from going forth. I realised how few possessions I actually needed, and how the freedom and simplicity of a walker’s life could bring previously unknown delirious happiness. The urge to know my heart’s desire and then to follow it demanded attention. The old narrow view of my life expanded to reveal the many possibilities available to me.

Leap and The Net Will Appear

Cascade Saddle, South Island, New Zealand

Cascade Saddle, South Island, New Zealand

I’ve had an amazing journey since that one big hike. I quit my corporate job to follow my dreams and I think I can quite safely say its all working out. In the last six months I’ve done more travel, more stunning hiking, and now – through a chance meeting at a hostel in Wanaka – I have the opportunity to sail from Australia to the Caribbean. And all of this has occurred with never more than four days to four weeks of forward planning.

Cover Girl

Cover Girl

I’ve also had time and energy to focus on my personal goals, getting my first few articles published in magazines and making progress on the job of writing the book about my Te Araroa journey.

None of these amazing experiences and opportunities would have occurred had I stayed seated at the swivel chair of a grey desk in a Melbourne skyscraper.

Leap and the net will appear is a pearl of wisdom I discovered years ago but I’d never really tested it to its full until now. Now that I’m living it I truly believe that if you head in the direction you want to go opportunities will arise that you never could have dreamed of or planned for. As Martin Luther King said, “You don’t need to see the whole staircase, just take the first step”.

Live Simple

As a nomad my living expenses have been greatly reduced. There is no car to maintain, no utility bills, no public transport costs, and a minimal wardrobe to update. My life is uncluttered. I no longer feel pressure or find myself rushing.

Live Authentically

But most importantly I have been able to follow my dreams. I think one of the most damaging ways to live is incongruent with the real you – pretending to be happy when you really wish you were doing something else… being somewhere else. If you ever find yourself feeling this way then I wholeheartedly urge you to take the leap and follow your passion.

Listening to my heart rather than my head has also made life a lot more straightforward. No longer do I need to make decisions based on the complicated weighing up of pros and cons. I simply ask myself does this feel good? Am I excited about it? And for some reason when I follow my heart things work out. Ideas sprout. Opportunities arise. The right people cross my path.

Best of all… its fun!

Gillespie Pass Circuit, South Island, New Zealand

Knowing What You Want

Immersion in nature strips away ‘noise’. I’m talking not just about actual noise, but distraction by advertising, consumerism, media, general city-living busyness, and the sort of brain static that goes along with it all that can prevent us from hearing our own inner voice. Nature provides perspective and clarity to find your own personal truths. Then all you need to do is seize them without letting the fear of ‘what if’ stop you from trying.

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? 

The Next Leg: Sailing across the world?small

So I’ve not actually done a lot of sailing. In fact my experience has been limited to a week long family holiday cruising up the Coorong River in South Australia when I was 14 on a 21’ yacht. I have been known to get seasick, I’m scared of waves and I’m wondering how I will cope with a total living space of 42’ x 22’. But being a Box-Ticker with a strong FOMO tendency (fear of missing out), I will board Chat Eau Bleu in a few days time to sail from Mackay around to Darwin and, all being well, I will continue west across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans all the way to the Caribbean.

I will hoist the sheets and trim the sails (or something), and explore the many exciting islands and ports along the way. I will learn new skills and become familiar with all the many peculiarities of living on a boat (apparently no more than three squares of toilet paper per flush).

I’m excited to start the next chapter. Fingers crossed I’m up to it!

Until next time me hearties…

 

 

Great Ocean Wanderings

DSC04321 copyWhat the hell was that? An alarming sound that was part pig grunt, lion growl and elephant wheeze pierced the air. I lay alone in my tent considering the options. I was either in a whole lot of trouble with some crazy marauding ‘pig-lion-elephant’ or… (I unzipped my tent and poked my head out to breathe a sigh of relief)… it was a koala. For such a gorgeous cuddly looking creature they do make the most awful sound. Wrapped around a limb high on the tree next to me was the offending grey ball of fur. It was the second koala I’d seen on the trail and I was only three hours into it!

The Great Ocean Walk is just over 100km of incredibly diverse and stunning trail sandwiched between the famed Great Ocean Road and the great ocean itself. Over five and a half days I hiked from Apollo Bay west to the Twelve Apostles, every day on the trail bringing some new scenic wonder to dazzle and delight.

DSC04384From my first camp at Elliot Ridge I walked along wide forest trails through tall gums accompanied by the occasional growl from a koala, eventually leading me to a camp nestled amongst the tea tree at Cape Otway.  As I downed my pack the sky began to darken, and during a post-hike micro-snooze I awoke to a huge gust of wind that felt like someone had grabbed the two corners on the long edge of my tent and given them one almighty loft that literally rolled me over in my bed. Shocked out of my slumber I awoke dazed and confused in the fading light. Too scared to head for the cooking shelter lest my tent blow away, I then cursed and fumbled my way through a challenging session of noodle prep in my tiny vestibule. And so began a long and sleepless night, pushed and shoved in my bed every five minutes by the crazy wind, and blasted by pelting rain, thunder and lightning. I was very impressed (and happy) that my little tent survived the testing conditions.

DSC04363 copyFrom the next morning onward though the weather steadily improved and the full glory of the ocean walk was revealed. The sea, now bathed in sun, sparkled a brilliant blue contrasting with red sand cliff top paths dotted with green and silver shrubs. After heading inland to cross the Aire River I hiked back out to the ocean, walking a low path sandwiched between towering red brown cliffs and the sea. Eagles circled above the escarpment on the updraft and I had to keep reminding myself where I was. The scenery was so world class yet completely unfamiliar to me as a stretch of coastline I’d visited a dozen times before just a few hours down the road from home.

Overlooking the Aire River

Overlooking the Aire River

The following days brought steep rolling green hills dotted with kangaroos, beach walking on golden sand covered in tiny mauve shells, and a wealth of wildlife including blue wrens, rosellas, black cockatoos, echidnas, and a handful of snakes which slithered peacefully off the path as I passed.

I spent my fourth night at Ryan’s Den, possibly my favourite campsite on the trail, high on a point overlooking the sea.  Its lookout above the trees was the perfect place to observe the evening’s red lunar eclipse.

Wreck BeachWaiting for low tide the next day, I tackled the beautiful Wreck Beach where the rusted remains of two shipwrecks protrude from rock pools fringed with almost fluorescent green algae. Their iron anchors have now bonded solid with the rock that was their downfall nearly 150 years earlier. Perfectly circular and oval rock pools cut holes in the flat rock ledge like a slab of Swiss cheese, revealing clear and deep water below.

The Devil’s Kitchen, my final camp, was yet another primo location and since I was largely alone on the trail I was free to snaffle the best site yet again. Suite 8 – the last numbered camp with a private picnic seat and sea view.

The Gibson StepsAfter hiking past the imposing Point Ronald, the final kilometres of the trail wound their way along the cliff tops with stunning views of the iconic Twelve Apostles, a series of ocean bound sandstone pillars. It all ends at the Gibson Steps, a steep flight of stone steps cut into a smooth and vertical golden sandstone cliff sweeping around in a huge arc that towers over the beach – just one more highlight in an absolutely stunning walk.

I thought I knew this stretch of coastline reasonably well but this hike has shown me a side of the Great Ocean Road that I never knew existed. I feel like I’ve had a backstage pass allowing me a greater understanding and appreciation of this very impressive and diverse region rather than the usual brief glimpses of its attractions from the designated lookout points.

The Great Ocean Walk – Do it!

Sunset at Ryans Den camp

Sunset at Ryans Den camp

The Benefits of Solitude

View from the Treehouse

View from the Treehouse (my current home)

There is something about this place that induces laziness.

Where the first month was a challenging oscillation between paradise-found and cabin fever, I have more recently found myself surrendering to the slow pace and tiny world that is my island home.   No longer pacing the deck, itching for some movement and variation in my day, I am now more regularly okay with flopping in a hammock with a book.

Being on such a tiny island for an extended period has definitely had its challenges though. Like some mega meditation-marathon I have regularly been forced to sit quietly with my own thoughts, which as anyone who’s ever attempted meditation will know, is no easy task. In these moments I can feel my mind grasping desperately for stimulation and distraction, but finding none, the occasional pearl of wisdom or insight surfaces instead – the benefits of solitude.

The Penthouse, Oravae

The Penthouse (my home for the first month)

In the past I have often likened hiking to meditation – focused solely on my surroundings, my mind empty of other thought – however even then I have more to entertain my brain than on this tiny patch of coral. I’m getting better at it though, the mind having surrendered to a degree, and the laziness that had so frustrated me at the start has now taken a hold, I have slid into island time. Now even to sit upright seems to take great effort. Better to lie in a hammock or recline in bed with a laptop.

An Adventure off the Island

So it really shouldn’t have been any surprise to me that a 15km walk from Gizo town to Saeragi Beach on the main island of Ghizo a few days ago was such a shock to the system, but for some reason it was.  Despite having a significant walking pedigree and being on largely flat terrain, my hammock-softened feet ached pathetically and muscles that I thought had long since given up complaining about walking were back on my case. Barely seven months ago I was a highly tuned walking machine, hiking briskly with a full pack for up to 10 hours a day up and down the mountains of New Zealand. Even up until six weeks ago, my city routine at home included 12km of walking a day as part of the daily commute. My feet just don’t hurt walking now, or so I thought. Just one short month of lolling about on an island seems to have changed all that, and it was depressing to think I might have lost all that hard-won condition.

DSC05074The road to Saeragi, comprised largely of hard white crushed coral, reflected the hot sun and the four hour journey in the searing midday heat was made all the more challenging by a battle with dehydration, sending me slightly cross-eyed. It was tempting to try and utilize the tunnel of tall palm trees arcing over the road for some shade but at the same time, remaining cognisant of the fall line of coconuts. Death by coconut is not uncommon here. The walk was well worth the effort though, and as the road wound its way along the coast I passed many houses and small villages filled with friendly locals keen for a chat.

Island Life

Back on tiny Sepo Island, the days continue to merge seamlessly into one another. Every morning from my bed in the Treehouse I watch a golden sun rise up over the top of Kolumbangara Volcano in the distance, and every night I watch the silvery luminescent glow of tiny worms gliding in slashes and loops across the surface of the inky black water below like the vapour trail of a plane across the sky. The much-feared (for me only) spiders of the island continue to loiter annoyingly on the sidelines of my world, popping up every few days to spoil the serenity. I have a new philosophy though – do not seek and ye shall not find – so I’ve stopped searching the room with my headlight before going to bed, preferring to just focus on where I’m going and trying to avoid wondering what else is lurking in the shadows.

The Book

My mission here, apart from helping the good folk of Oravae Cottage with some business ideas, was to begin writing a book on my New Zealand end-to-end hike. So how is it coming along? Slowly. Despite having churned out 30,000 words so far I’ve come to realise they’re unfortunately not the right ones. It’s all part of the learning process though and as Teddy Roosevelt once said, better to “fail while daring greatly”, and I do not regret having left my ‘safe job’ to try. Having said that I’m not planning to fail, it’s just that success might take a little longer than I thought.

I have just two weeks left here before the next chapter of the journey of a Soul Trekker begins. My life has quite regularly taken radical changes of direction that I could not have foreseen perhaps two months earlier, however I don’t think I have been quite so without a plan as I am now. I have absolutely no idea what will happen after my time on the island is up, but I’m sure it will be interesting.

Stay tuned…DSC05070

The First Week of A New Life – following the dream…

Oravae Solomon Islands

Ten days into my new life on this dollop of sand and coral in the South Pacific and I already feel like I’ve been here a month. I eat, write, swim, eat, sleep in a hammock, write, swim, eat, gin & tonic, sleep. Every day is the same. It’s Groundhog Day, but in the best possible way.

My mind is still clinging on to the old life a little and I find myself referring to my old workplace as though I still belong there.   I guess that’s to be expected after 10 years with the company.  But now my life is following my intuition and heart, wherever that takes me.  At the moment it is Oravae Cottage in Gizo, Solomon Islands.  If you ever want to have your own island complete with chefs, but can’t afford Richard Branson’s Necker Island, this is the place to do it!  (AUD$120pppn will see you through…)  For three months I will write and ‘sing for my supper’, doing whatever I can to help the resort.

Living the Dream

Every day I commit to making progress on my book on hiking the Te Araroa Trail. Some days the words flow, others it’s like trying to get juice out of a hard unripe lime. I’m giving it a go though and it feels good to do that. I’ve let go of the old world, the ‘safe’ normal world that never made me happy.   I’m following my heart.

A work in progress - writing my Te Araroa Trail memoir

A work in progress – writing my Te Araroa Trail memoir

This truly is one small island though, and if I was used to walking 15km a day in the city, I’d now literally be lucky to walk a few hundred metres. My only exercise is swimming and it’s become a necessary part of the day.

Underwater Heaven

As a diver with hundreds of underwater hours on the clock I am absolutely thrilled with the amazing snorkeling right offshore. Inquisitive reef sharks, delicate lionfish, giant iridescent clams, clownfish hiding in pockets of anemones quivering in the gentle current, and hundreds of others too numerous to mention. I could float for hours above it all. And I did on Day Two, burning my poor pale city-girl back in a way that I wont forget in a hurry.

Great fish life is often easier to come by than great corals but in this regard we are again blessed.   The front side of the island, exposed to nutrient rich open waters, is filled with stunning blue staghorn corals, pink mushroom corals, lime green and purple corals and huge round plate corals the size of a double beanbag. Such a tasty feature has unfortunately not gone unnoticed by the Crown of Thorns Starfish and it blooms here feasting on the coral polyps, sucking the life out of their limestone skeleton before leaving them bleached white and dead.

“Pieter” says our island keeper Patson, standing on the balcony of our overwater bungalow one evening. He’s pointing down at a patch of bleached coral below us, clearly visible in the clear water. “See that? The crown of thorns starfish is doing that. If you see one can you kill it for me please?” The next morning a wooden spear appears on our verandah.

Removing the pesky crown of thorns starfish from the reef

Removing the pesky crown of thorns starfish from the reef

A brief snorkel that afternoon yielded a kill of six, carried to shore two at a time on the head of the spear but it was clear “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”. The next day we ventured out again, this time trailing a leaking wooden dugout canoe behind us on a rope. I was uncomfortable at first, taking the life of one of God’s creatures, but after seeing the devastation they have wrought it was clear these guys have to go. In areas the coral has been completely wiped out, leaving white and brown skeletons furry with algal growth where they were once bright and brimming with fish life. One after another we hunted them down, hiding under plate corals or wedged between rocks. Lifting them up on the spear we dumped them in the dugout at the surface. Total kill rate: 46.

Creepy Crawlies

So far I have managed to avoid any major arachnid encounters that I was so fearing. My first evening here was a jumpy affair, nervously reading more into the flutters of the shadows than I needed to. Once lying in bed though with the warm glow of a kerosene lamp bouncing off the pale thatched walls around us, and listening to the gentle lapping of water underneath our floor, it was impossible to feel anything other than bliss.

A few days later though whilst lazing in bed in the morning I gazed up to see a spider stuck to the thatched ceiling directly above me. Eyes wide in horror, I leapt up and ran outside cursing. Pieter gave it a prod, sending it scuttering into the folds of the thatch, which of course didn’t remove it but simply removed it from sight. That seems to be the best we can aim for here. The place is wide open. Geckos and bugs and other small critters come and go through screen-less windows and doors at their leisure.

A few hours after my arachnid encounter I sat with laptop in lap, legs propped up on the bed. Something dark fell from the ceiling and plopped onto my leg sending me into leaping conniptions.   Tentatively poking through the folds of bedding my spider wrangler discovered a small gecko. Thank God for that…

Until next time…

Laura

Happy days...

Happy days…

 

Time to escape

From the moment I returned from hiking the Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand my time sitting in an office in the corporate city world was limited.  In the words of wild man Bodhi, resisting arrest at the end of the classic surf movie Point Break, “You know I can’t handle a cage man!”

The Turnaround

When I sat down to chat with my boss at five to five on a Monday afternoon, pausing to find the right words, he already knew what was coming.  “Time to go?”  He’d smiled ruefully across the desk at me and I’d nodded.  An alternative to normality had presented itself to me.  A job helping manage a two cottage resort on a remote island off Gizo in the Solomon Islands.  It’s called Oravae Cottage and it will be my new home.  The island only takes one booking at a time so I am banking on having a reasonable amount of spare time to begin writing my book in earnest and pondering the meaning of life.  Oh and a spot of snorkelling, scuba diving, and hiking up the neighbouring volcano across the lagoon too.

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A New Life

Although I won’t be adding to the bank account during my time there, my quality of living promises to be rich.  Life will be simple but I consider the benefits…

  • swimming in warm clear tropical waters every day
  • turtles, sharks, fish, clams and even dugongs, all just a few fin-kicks offshore
  • fresh clean air
  • time to write
  • free from crowds and noise
  • a far slower pace of life
  • healthy simple food, rich in fresh fish and vegetables

Yes, this definitely promises to offer a life more aligned with my new values and needs. Of course there is downside too.  Actually I can only think of one, but it’s a considerable one in my book.  Spiders.  Quite sizeable ones too apparently.  My skin shivers at the thought every time I imagine what I might encounter in the middle of the night while I head to the loo.

A Challenge of the Eight Legged Variety

The friend who offered me the opportunity to move there several months ago did a wonderful job singing the praises of the island paradise that could be my new home as he outlined living arrangements and what would be required of me.  Just as the deal was nearly done he gleefully added “Oh, and they have these huuuge spiders too!”  He spread the fingers of one hand out wide and placed them against the wall next to our table in demonstration.  Registering the look of horror on my face he immediately started back-pedalling, “oh they’re not that bad actually.  And last time I went there I didn’t even see one at all!”  But the seed had been planted and my heart sunk.  In all seriousness, this wasn’t a matter I could gloss over.  This is a creature known to reduce me to a whimpering ball curled up on a bed, sobbing in horror.  I have been known to drag complete strangers off the street, innocently enquiring how they felt about spiders before asking if perhaps they wouldn’t mind removing one from my hallway.  No, this was not something I could realistically deal with.

My friend’s face fell “Really?”  He was disappointed.  But then I thought again about the other wildlife there – the fish, the sharks, the turtles and birds.  Every day.  Just offshore. In 30c degree water.  Maybe I could find a way to deal with the insects?

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Moving Forward

So the next chapter is locked away – three months on a beautiful tropical island, starting 29 October.  I will say goodbye to the city and to my high rise office building.  Say goodbye to writing office policies and procedures that no one ever reads, say goodbye to meetings, never ending corporate planning sessions and other tasks that induce glazed eyes and an empty heart.  I will breathe in the fresh air, follow my passion and let intuition be my guide for the chapter to follow.  I’m throwing it all to the wind and will see where I land.

Of course I am plotting future treks too.  Somewhere amongst it all next year I will do another long distance hike.  To tune myself to the environment again and make sure I’m “keeping it real”.  Out there I can hear my inner voice saying whatever it is I need to hear.

Hopefully I’ll hear it in the Solomons too!

Laura