The birds woke me, one last time. The drawn out cackle of the kookaburras made me open my eyes to narrow slits; the promise of first light diffused through my tent’s fabric. The job ahead of me was simple, yet difficult. My day’s walk would only take five hours, but with it, I would complete my 10 week journey through the Australian Alps. I felt victorious, but vulnerable, unwilling to close the book on a gripping chapter.
I struck out 73 days previously from Walhalla in Victoria, and walked nearly 800kms to end up where I was, sipping a strong coffee from the comfort of my sleeping bag at Honeysuckle Creek Campground, only a day’s walk from Tharwa, the official end of the AAWT. I had walked 35kms the previous day to set myself up for an early afternoon finish; I expected an easy day’s hike and a timely arrival to the visitor centre. I should have figured that the AAWT would throw one last challenge as a farewell present.
I packed up quickly that morning, keen to get going; it was going to be a scorcher of a day. I checked my map; there were plenty of creek crossings, so I took less than a litre of water in my bladder from the rainwater tank. I’d collect the rest later, I figured. The sun climbed higher in the sky.
Rolling up my tent, I remembered the first week of my walk, ten weeks past, when I climbed to the Baw Baw Plateau and encountered snow that came above my knees. I remembered staggering along in the heavy drifts with my 40kg pack, wishing for warmer climate. Since then, I had watched the snow melt and the landscape transform with the anticipation of summer. Right then, as I took the first steps of my final day in the Australian Alps, I wished for winter back. Then I remembered that it’s silly to make wishes for things that are impossible.
The water in the creeks had dried up. It was barely the beginning of summer, and the beds were bone dry. If I had done my research, I would have known to expect this. The eastern section of the Great Dividing Range is in rain shadow; the prevailing westerly winds mean that the clouds loose most of their moisture by the time they reach these hills. I had minimal water left in my bottle and I knew it had to last a long way. I kept plodding, trying to find my rhythm, pretending my mouth wasn’t as dry as the leaf litter underneath my feet.
I wasn’t just grappling with my mounting thirst, but also the inevitable realisation that my nomadic routine would be over tomorrow. I had to say goodbye to the simplicity of waking to bird call each morning, brewing the perfect cup of coffee at my leisure, even hauling my monstrous pack over the endlessly undulating landscape; tomorrow they would all be memories.
In the mountains, my existence became aligned with the cycles of Nature; the passing of the moon, the daily gift of the sun and the shifting of the seasons. After ten weeks on the trail, I was feeling the benefits of having adjusted to Nature’s clock; I was stronger, fitter and happier than I have ever been in my life. My mind was steady, unwilling to give in to the fluctuating moods of my flitting thoughts; in short I was centred, and able to enjoy every single moment, exactly the way it was, rather than the way I wished it would be.
There wasn’t a drop left in my bottle. I turned it upside down, just to make sure. My head was aching, and my throat had been dry for hours. My only option was to keep plodding. I reduced my pace to maximise efficiency; going too fast now would only wear me out. The staircase leading me down Mt Tenant appeared endless; I kept stepping, and the stairs kept going. In my mind’s eye, I was frolicking in cool, calm waters. My reality was very different. I just had to put one foot in front of the other. Swat the flies. Bloody flies. More steps. Keep. Going.
I arrived at the Namadgi Visitor Centre unceremoniously. As I plopped my sweat soaked canvas rucksack onto the picnic bench, a dark swarm of flies lifted up, then shortly attempted to land on me instead. I barely had energy left to shoo them away. I only had one thing left to do. I grabbed my water bottle, walked over to the water tank, unscrewed the lid and opened the tap. The delicious water cascaded in. I lifted the bottle to my mouth, closed my eyes and drank…The life force traveled down my throat and within minutes, I could feel it becoming part of me. I mused about how many times I have drunk water, and had taken it for granted; then figured, to truly appreciate what we have, first it must be taken away.
“Would you like your certificate laminated?” The lady behind the counter delivered the question with a smile.
I was standing in an air conditioned Namadgi Visitor Centre. I was struggling to cope with the reality of having arrived at my destination after 74 days of walking through mountainous wilderness. The ranger’s question caught me by surprise; it all felt so surreal. A piece of paper, coated in plastic, seemed meaningless, but also, strangely satisfying.
“That would be wonderful, thank you.” My words came out as a croak.
I felt like a king, riding on the bus into Canberra. It sure was an extraordinary ride back to the ordinary world. For the first time in 10 weeks, I was sitting down, and moving at the same time. It felt wonderful. The world outside flitted past, impossibly fast. The faces of my fellow humans on the bus were withdrawn, their minds absorbed in their own worlds. My eyes on the other hand, were popping out of my head. Everything felt like a miracle. Every moment was cosmic justice, and I felt amazed at simply being alive.
Arriving to the hostel was the real beginning of my internal celebration that would last many days. I dumped my giant pack in the dorm room, much to the amusement of my roommate, who exclaimed: “Where did you come from, man, Antarctica?” I laughed at his reaction, and shared the quick version of my story. He wanted to hear more, so we decided to head down to the pub, conveniently located in the basement of the hostel.
My newfound friend knew how to work a pub. Before long, he was introducing me to everyone sitting within earshot. “This guy has just walked 74 days through the mountains to get here!” I felt almost like a celebrity, answering questions and accepting genuine handshakes and congratulations. Slowly, the accomplishment of my trek began to sink in. So I bought another beer, and then another and shared the story of my adventure with everyone who was willing to listen.
I stumbled to my bed with a heavy stomach but a light heart. The novelty of crisp, clean sheets was lost on me as I passed out, and entered a deep and peaceful sleep.