The first day out from Walhalla: An unexpected encounter
“Are ya the bloke who’s going to walk all the way to Canberra?”
The voice had a strong undertone of the nasal Australian tang. It belonged to an overweight lady whose expression was laden with incredulity.
“Yup.” I replied.
“Well you know there’s such a thing as a car!”
Being quite impressed with her own wit, the lady roared a laugh, and before I had a chance to respond again, walked off to her car and drove off.
We were sitting in the shade outside the general store in the relic town of Walhalla; once rich with gold, now rich with day trippers from Melbourne. My friend Joel and I were enjoying a hamburger with the lot, chips and a cold beer. I figured I would make the most of the last commercial kitchen before switching to my dehydrated meals.
It was the 6th of September, and a perfect spring day. I could not have asked for better weather to begin my walk; the air was cool, but the sun was warm enough to allow for T-shirt and shorts.
Being a model friend, Joel agreed to accompany me for the first day of my walk.
Our packs were leaning against our wooden table, his being a reasonable overnight bag, mine a monster, made from the heaviest canvas available. It took two of us to simply lift it out of the car. My pack’s contents weren’t just limited to essential gear, but also a number of luxury items that would help me pass spare time; an electronic book reader, camera gear, as well as a solar panel and battery to allow me to recharge all my electronic devices along the track.
When the meal came to an end, we said our goodbyes to the friendly owner of the general store, who waved us off with a smile on her face. She informed me that if I was successful I would receive a certificate on the other end at the National Parks visitor centre. It sounded wonderful.
With much effort, we loaded the pack onto my back, and with a final glance back at the pretty village, we struck out towards the staircase that led up to the official start of the AAWT.
I will always remember walking up those steps. It was the first time that I’ve ever taken any steps with my fully loaded pack. While I felt jubilant that my adventure has truly begun, I was also concerned. We had barely gone 50 steps before I was out of breath and feeling faint. The weight was crushing me into the ground and I was walking slower than an overweight sloth. Still, there was nothing in my pack that I was willing to take out, so there was nothing for it, but to take another step, and then another, and then another…
As we took to the meandering path, I was reflecting on the words of my brother, who gave me some ‘older-sibling’ advice just the previous day.
“The best thing about your trip is that you cannot prepare for everything that will happen.”
While very poetical, his words did not do much to reassure me. Anticipating all the possibilities was exactly why I’ve spent a year planning my trip! The idea that something could go wrong and there was nothing I could do about it was a nagging thought in the back of my head.
However, I don’t think that even my brother would have expected his words to come true on the first day.
We were walking in a single file on the narrow path that was cut into the hillside. On my left was a steep drop off to the valley of the Thompson River, and on my right was a vertical cliff face, rising high above us. Following the path was effortless, for there was nowhere else to go.
I was leading the way, enjoying the afternoon sun and the scenery. It would be fair to say that I wasn’t paying much attention to where I was putting my feet. My friend Joel was closely behind, and we were walking in a companionable silence. Unseen to me and lying on the path, was a beautiful and rather large snake.
I saw movement before I saw the snake. It must have been basking in the sun, for it wasn’t sluggish at all, as they so often are. Its head was raised, ready to strike. My leg seemed a viable candidate for a target, easily within striking distance.
At this point, instinct took over. In one movement, which was neither graceful, nor measured, I turned around, ready to retreat, and raised my hiking poles as a defensive weapon and yelled, in case Joel hadn’t caught on to the situation,
“Go, go, go!”
The urgency of my tone must have conveyed my message better than the words actually did. By the time my body has turned around, Joel was already sprinting back down the track, as fast as his legs would carry him. I did my best to join him in the hasty retreat, while keeping my eyes fixed on the snake.
What a beautiful snake it was! Its scales glistened in the sun and displayed impressive hues of yellow and green. A healthy specimen, its length must have been over two metres. I just wished it wasn’t quite so angry at me for having disturbed its afternoon nap!
As I was moving away, the snake slid after me, its head raised ever so threateningly. I had my hiking poles raised, just in case it was to strike.
The chase did not last long. The snake, upon deciding that we were neither an imminent threat nor a digestible meal, stopped, then slid off the track and disappeared into the undergrowth.
Afterwards, we laughed, and congratulated each other on the successful evasion of the grumpy snake. We walked on with elevated heart rates.
When we eventually reached our campsite for the night at O’Sheas camping ground, we were both ready to curl up right there on the ground and go to sleep. Instead, we set up our tents, cooked our meal, then iced my shoulders, which were red and throbbing from the weight that’s been sitting on them during the day. My hips were also purple and bruised from the excessive weight loaded onto them from my waist belt. I went to bed trying not to think about putting my pack on the next day.
In the morning, after an elongated breakfast, we said our farewells. I waved to Joel as he started heading back on the track, returning to his life in the city. When he disappeared, I was alone in the wilderness.