“It looked like vaguely the right direction, and after following for a minute I found a signpost to Rotterdam, 33km, further than I’d expected. That arrow was all I required. It really was that simple. I put one foot in front of the other, and began to walk.”
Nick Hunt, Walking the Woods and the Water
Planning for a solo overnight walk
I was in Australia last week walking the Six Foot Track at the Blue Mountains in the state of New South Wales. This was going to be my first overnight hike and I didn’t tell many people about it, in case it did not materialise for whatever reasons. Yes, I was alone but this was not a reason to stop me from enjoying the outdoors. I believe solitary walkers have every right to enjoy the outdoors as people in social groups. The thing is, despite my love for nature and walking, in reality, I am a recluse living in the city spending most of my time indoors. I live a reclusive lifestyle because going out in the city is becoming too unbearable and in order to survive, I had to minimise any unnecessary sensory triggers. My intolerance for the city has confined me to being an armchair traveller, which brought me into the Alaskan wilderness with Christopher McCandless; California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains with Randy Morgenson; Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains with Mark Obmascik; and the Appalachian Trail with Emma Gatewood and Bill Bryson etc. I was fascinated with each and every of their adventures and admired their courage, especially the ones that went solo.
I have always wanted to challenge myself to do a long distance walk, like the Oxfam’s Trailwalker but I didn’t want to be in a team, I don’t venture into the outdoors for the social or team experience. Neither am I interested in marathons or competitive sports events which involve being amongst hundreds or thousands of contestants. My interest in nature and walking is at a more spiritual level as I am more into explorations and establishing connections with a place through self-experience and the process of self-discovery. For the same reason I started this blog, for the same reason I got a tattoo and for the same reason I have been reaching out to strangers, I knew I have to set out for my own little adventure and re-establish my connection with nature so I am not just talking the talk but actually walking the walk (or better still, walking the talk). Still, I needed some encouragement and motivation to carry out my plan. A lousy job became my motivation, then I was inspired by this amazing lady from The Happy Walk who has walked 16,000km around Australia, solo and unaccompanied for the past 3 years. My dear Wander Woman, if you are reading this, thanks for your encouragement! After that, all it took was a few mouse clicks to book my flight and the date was set for my little adventure – 20 November 2016. (I will attempt to provide a brief description of the trail conditions below, bearing in mind my words don’t do justice to the experience and the beauty of nature, please excuse my errors, ignorance and inarticulateness.)
The Six Foot Track is a 45km historic track that was first established in 1884 to provide access from Katoomba (home to the famous Three Sisters rock formation) to Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains region. The most common itinerary involves a three-day hike and staying at camp sites along the track but I have chosen to complete it in two days with an overnight stay at an eco-lodge. For my first overnight hike, I will take it easy and being a pantywaist, I opted for the ‘luxury’ overnight stay at a lodge. Still, it was a challenge because this meant that I faced a longer and tougher hike on the second day with 15km from the starting point to the lodge on the first day and 30km with a lot of uphill walking on the second day. This was a cause of concern because if you have read my previous post, I have not hiked for a while. Essentially, I was expecting Day 2 to be double the challenge of Day 1.
19 November 2016, the day before the hike
Upon arriving at Katoomba in the afternoon where I planned to stay for the night, I walked from my motel to the starting point of the Six Foot Track just to make sure I won’t have any trouble finding my way the next day. My anxieties ease a little after confirming the directions. In 1813, the explorers Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth and William Lawson made their historic crossing of the Blue Mountains. It was reputedly reported that they engraved their names onto a tree, which became known as the Explorers Tree. This is where the Six Foot Track begins.
On the way back to the motel, I came across a guy walking in the opposite direction towards the Explorers Tree. He might be hiking the Six Foot Track although it was already around 3-4pm which I thought was a bit of a late start.
20 November 2016, Day 1 – 15km
I left the motel around 9:10am and reached the Explorers Tree half an hour later. Knowing that I had only 15km to walk on Day 1, I was feeling pretty relaxed. It was a beautiful day although the weather was hot (looking back at the weather record, it was around 25C). Not too much of a problem though as I was used to hiking 15-20km in hot and humid weather. Still, I dare not overestimate myself. Besides, I was carrying extra weight and 3.5 litres of water. Not long afterwards, a steep descent awaited me at Nellies Glen. By the time I reached the bottom of the gully, my legs were wobbly making it hard to stand still for a picture.
The trail then leads up to a small clearing through a gum forest, passing a concrete pipe with wild beehives and then a horse paddock, which used to be the site of the historic Megalong Village. I was in a jovial mood, being away from the hustle and bustle and being close to nature. The trail was also well-marked which dispersed any fears of getting lost. There was an abundance of birdlife but very ashamedly, I only recognised the crimson rosella and fairywren and could only make out the distinctive calls of the kookaburras and whipbirds. It was approaching noon. I had not planned for any rest stops in between, preferring to keep walking until I reached my destination or until I can’t walk any further. I remembered Nick Hunt’s words, “It really was that simple. I put one foot in front of the other, and began to walk.“ This is what I like about walking. Each time I walk past an arrow post, it is a reminder I am one step closer to my destination as long as I keep walking. This is also why I like to walk alone because I don’t have to negotiate with anyone else. All I know is there is only one route ahead of me that is called “Keep Walking.” After about 3 hours of walking, I crossed a carpark near Aspinall Road, which had a sign post pointing to the eco-lodge. I was half way to my destination.
The latter part of the journey passed through a mix of scenic farmland and open forest. It was also reaching the hottest part of the day. I was relieved to see the arrow post marking 35km, which meant I had another 5km to go before reaching the lodge. At this point, I couldn’t imagine going double the distance even though that was what I will have to do the next day. The trail passed a couple of granite boulders and another wild beehive before the Coxs River Valley and the swing bridge came into sight. The highlight of the Six Foot Track must be crossing the Bowtells Bridge, which is a suspension footbridge that provides an alternate route when the river is in flood. The bridge spans 100 metres and provides an exciting experience and great views of the river below. I have been looking forward to cross the bridge since the day I planned to walk the track even though I was nervous about it at the same time given the height of it, the safety restrictions of one person at a time and knowing that it could swing a fair bit. The experience reminded me of a pirate ship ride except that instead of strapping to a safety belt whilst sitting down, I had to try to walk across from one end of the ship to the other whilst holding on to the rails for support, each step sent my heart pounding out of my chest as it felt that the bridge could topple over any minute. It would have been a nicer outdoor experience if not for the fact that there were two adults and two kids before me who crossed the bridge at the same time, blatantly ignoring the safety restrictions sign.
The eco-lodge is located along the Six Foot Track and about a ten minute walk from the swing bridge. Towards the end of Day 1, I came to the verdict that it was a wise decision to invest in a new backpack which was worth every penny for I couldn’t imagine hiking with the extra burden of a bulky canvas backpack that wasn’t suited for hiking. After nearly 6 hours of walking, I arrived at the lodge around 3pm. I drank about 1 litre of water during the walk.
My hosts for the evening is a young family originally from the Czech Republic who bought the premise about a year ago. I was joined later by a young couple who were also hiking the track. It started to rain in the late afternoon accompanied by thunderstorms. After a delicious meal of kangaroo goulash with mashed potatoes, I had an early night given the longer and tougher challenge awaiting the next day. I woke up a few times during the middle of the night in anticipation of the day ahead. Despite not having slept through the whole night, it was an amazing experience waking up to total pitch black darkness, which was a rare experience given the constant distraction by lights in the city and from electronic devices.
21 November 2016, Day 2 – 30km
I woke up around 5:15am with the intent to start the hike at 6am. Given it took me around 6 hours to walk 15km on Day 1, I expected Day 2 to involve 12 hours of walking. The fact that there will be more uphill walking on Day 2 meant that I might even have to take additional time. My hosts woke up at 6am and served a scrambled egg breakfast I couldn’t resist. We ended up having a conversation about their life in Australia, my Australia dream and hiking in Australia. When I saw the young couple set off, I thought that was my cue to set off too. My hosts were telling me from their and other hikers’ experience that it would take about 8 hours to reach my final destination at Jenolan Cave. I was in disbelief for it took me nearly 6 hours to walk 15km on the first day, there was no way I can walk 30km in 8 hours. I thought they must be referring to hikers in super fit conditions. I bid my hosts farewell who gave me an apple and left the lodge around 6:50am, shortly after the young couple. I was carrying about 2.5 litres of water on the second day, having drunk a litre the day before although I could have refill my water at the lodge.
The trail continued past the lodge access path (although I didn’t see the young couple who were likely to have gone all the way back down the stairs to the bottom of the lodge) and gradually opens up to a wide dirt path where there were many kangaroos (or wallabies?) grazing around. It was mostly ascent from this point. Other than taking a few seconds to regain my breath every now and then, it was “keep walking”. A little over an hour later, I passed the arrow post which marks 25km to go. I was a little surprised because it felt like I had only started to hike and the uphill walk should have made the distance and time seemed longer but instead I felt it made the distance shorter (contrary to the Naismith’s rule). Shortly after, I walked past the Alum Creek campsite and saw a solo hiker with his tent. I continued on until I came to a few obstacles. Some of the creeks have become impassable after the thunderstorm rain. I do however remember reading that some creek crossings might involve getting wet feet. This was when I discovered a new purpose for my hiking pole, which came in handy. I used it to test the depth of the water and as a support to walk across the creeks. I can now gladly announce that my recent purchase of a backpack and hiking pole have both been put into good use and were useful. (Yay!)
I have been walking for about 2.5 hours when I came across the arrow post which marks 20km. This was significant because it meant that I had completed 1/3 of Day 2. Still, I was puzzled by the fact that I seemed to be making good progress despite a lot more uphill walking on the second day. Nevertheless, I wanted to make the best use of time and decided to only take a break when I reached the Black Range Campsite which was another 10km away and the mid-point of my remaining journey. The most part of this trail involved walking along a 4WD dirt road through open forests. I knew I was reaching Black Range Campsite when a pine forest came into view. It was noon by the time I reached the campsite and 5 hours since I started walking. I took a ten minute break to eat my apple, which was truly a gift from heaven.
From this point, I had only 10km to go which I was finding it hard to believe. I started to contemplate the fact that I might be able to reach my destination in 8 hours just like my hosts had said. Part of this trail involved walking on a path alongside Jenolan Caves Road. After an hour later, I arrived at the arrow post which marks 5km. Excited by the thought that it was actually possible for me to finish it in 8 hours, the last stretch of the trail turned out to feel like the longest 5km I’ve ever walked. Nonetheless, the view at the end did not disappoint and I did manage to finish my walk on the second day, which was allegedly 30 km, in 8 hours. Don’t ask me how I did it. I have absolutely no idea how I managed to walk 30km in 8 hours. Perhaps, the distance wasn’t that accurate (the last 5km did seem way too long)? Or by a stroke of luck and surprise surprise, miracles do happen?
22 November 2016, the day after the hike
I stayed overnight at the Jenolan Caves and was due to return to Katoomba where I will take the train to return to the city in the late afternoon. I was sitting at the cafeteria when I spotted a guy with his backpack. I was instantly reminded of the solo hiker I saw at Alum Creek Campsite and sure enough, it was him. He is a tourist from France and have been travelling in Australia for 9 months. I always held great admiration for people who go about travelling in different countries for periods long enough to experience the local conditions and are flexible enough to do things spontaneously. Towards noon, I saw two figures approaching down the stone footpath opposite the cafeteria, which was the same footpath I took coming down from the Six Foot Track, I watched closer before confirming that they were indeed the young couple who had stayed at the same lodge with me. They saw me too and before I knew it, I was waving my hands eagerly and walking hurriedly towards them to congratulate them as though they were my long-lost friends. I was truly excited and happy to see them again. I may not see the young couple or the French tourist or my hosts at the lodge again but nonetheless, our friendship was real albeit brief, like what the French tourist described, these were my temporary friends, and the fact that it was temporary doesn’t make it any less real or less worthy. On the train station waiting for the train back to the city, I reflected upon the whole journey, from the day I arrived at Katoomba to the end of the hike and then an image suddenly appeared across my mind. Not only have I seen the French tourist at the Alum Creek Campsite, he was the guy I came across on the day before my hike when I was checking out the starting point! Well, while it wasn’t really that of a coincidence, it was interesting to see how the connections interweave.
I survived my first overnight hike unscathed, other than a pair of wet feet, I didn’t come across snakes, ticks, leeches or things that caused me a bit of concern before the hike. All in all, I’m glad I did it. The Six Foot Track is a well-maintained trail. It was not entirely remote and I could imagine the trail to be quite popular during the holidays. Nonetheless, being my first solo and overnight hike, it was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience for me. Would I walk the track with someone else? It depends, but it would have been a totally different experience. I sometimes get the feeling that I haven’t really done something until I’ve done or tried it on my own. During the journey, a question keeps popping into my mind, what am I doing this for? I don’t think there is one single answer to this and even if there is, I don’t know that reason for now, which is why I’m walking to find out. After all, when I used to stand in the rain and talk to it like a friend, I never asked why, it just felt right and natural, so why would it matter now?
“I’m here on my own, though I never feel alone
In the silence, all is said”
Cold Weather Company, Fellow in the North