Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Hike

What follows is a true and probably partly embellished account of the time me and a bunch of mates from Church Took The Hobbits To Isengard.

Hopefully that video works. But honestly, if you haven't already seen it, I don't know what even. It was one of the viral videos that predate Youtube, I think. I mean, it's on Youtube now, but the first place I saw it was on a website that wasn't the monster video-playing website.


See what I mean with the partly embellished? Okay, it was a cheap joke. Let's move on.

The idea started back in perhaps August. I can't actually remember how far back, but it was a long time. And I committed to it back then. It was planned for early December - I would have finished Uni and NaNo by then, and wanted to do something to celebrate having finished my degree.

Even back then, I wasn't quite sure what I was getting in to. I'd never done a proper hike - I'd done a lot of bushwalking and a lot of camping before, but I'd never combined the two. My optimism went 'how hard can it be?' and plans were thusly made.

Things began slowly, and then built up momentum as we neared the date. Camping passes were purchased. Boots were procured. Bog roll was packed.

And the day before, I still hadn't got hiking socks or a bag. I visited Kathmandu that afternoon, conversing with the store attendant about going on a three day hike. She asked when it was, as I paid for my goods. Tomorrow, you say?

I am yet to experience a look of more condescending surprise from a shop attendant than the one I got from that lady. Fair go, it's a late stage in the game to be picking up essentials, but I wasn't even the greenest one in our group, so let's leave my noobish behaviour to that, okay?

Something also worth listing right here and now, as it was something that didn't occur to me as important much later, was that the bag I bought was for day hikes. And I was all like, 'yeah, how bad can it be? This one will do, it's the cheapest I can get. We're hiking during the day.'

If your bag cannot fit your sleeping bag, folks, you will have problems.

Just saying.

Okay, where to actually begin?

The hike was a section of the Coastal Track, a hiking trail covering most types of Australian terrain, and was about 26kms long. Early Tuesday morning, we saddled up and headed down to South Sydney, catching the ferry from Cronulla to Bundina, a tiny township consisting of holiday flats, an IGA, and a disproportionately large liquor store.

It was at this point in time, as we sat on the back of the ferry in the hot December sun, that I realised I'd probably made another two errors, aside from the lack of sleeping bag. My hat, which was the closest hat I could find when I was picked up, refused to stay on my head for the most part, and instead its wide brim would alternate between falling over my eyes, completely obscuring my vision, and trying to blow off or fly away. The other was pointed out by my fellow hikers, who all wondered why it was I'd chosen to wear long pants in summer.

They are my khaki pants, obtained for the guerrilla theme we had during our last week of high school, and matched my army-surplus shirt nicely.

But between the two I was covered from wrists to ankles. In December. In Australia. It was a little warm.

Despite this, I still rolled in sunscreen. Y'all do not understand just how sun-sensitive I am.

But for the most part, that kind of worked. Everyone else got burned at some stage during the hike.


The albino. Yeah, that's right.


I'm realising that if I give a play-by-play, this post will take forever to write. And will never get written. Lemme tell you about some of the highlights and lowlights.

DAY 1:

Day one was about thirteen kilometres. It stretched, like the rest of the walk, along the coastline, but most of the hike actually went over the tops of the cliffs that skirt the southern end of Sydney. Highlights included me loosing my tube of sunscreen halfway through the day, everyone's scroggin bags splitting, and running into about half a million boy scouts.

Scroggin is home-made trail mix, for those unfamiliar with the word. Trail mix is a bunch of high-energy dry snacks; usually rendered as M&M's with obstacles. But. Don't diss the walnuts, okay?

The boy scouts must have been up on a different hike of sorts. We'd pass a [collective noun] of about twenty of them at a time, going back the other way, and since they had the larger party, we'd pull over and squash ourselves into the dry brush lining the gravel trail.

They kept asking if we were doing our Duke of Edinburgh, to which we'd reply 'nah. Doing it for fun', they'd give us a weird look, we'd get 200 metres up the trail, and have to bond with the shrubbery for the next group to pass us.

The fourth group or whatever was all like

"Gee there's a lot of you"

Our party was eight.

I responded

"I could say the same about you"

And then we continued, across hill and dale, until we got to the first beach.

It had nudists on it.

So I'll write about other stuff.

Late afternoon, we pulled up stumps at what I'm going to refer to as 'Rivendell'. It was a spot that our equivalent of Gandalf knew about and was far enough off the track that we could set up camp. Further along the path again, there was a tiny waterhole, complete with crystal clear water, wide, flat rocks for sitting on, and waterfall. Dinner was set up, eels nibbling on unsuspecting toes, and Psalms read in the half-light of citronella candles, the quiet of the tiny hollow interspersed with the waterfall and the roar of 747s as they occasionally flew overhead, reminding us that even though it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, we were still in South Sydney and in fact under the flight path marked out by the airport.

I seem to remember jokes about Tomorrow When the War began made at some stage that evening as well (I can't remember if I was Robyn or Ellie), but am happy to allow the rest of that evening to lapse into the stillness and the quiet enjoyed by eight people who'd walked to the point of fatigue and beyond. We turned in for the night, me hoping that my sleeping bag liner would be enough if I used my tarp as a blanket to stay warm.

It wasn't. Sleep that night was memorable, partly because I froze, partly because my knees seized up in the middle of the night, but mostly because I found a leech in my clothes.


The next day we set off at a leisurely pace, only having to cover a couple of clicks before we reached the beach and the man they call Jed.

The guys who knew Jed spoke well of him as we headed off on day one, and I think I tried to ask what he was like.

"He's like the Kennedy administration without the Marilyn scandal"

"He's everything good about the 60's, but with modern sensibilities"

"He's tops"

By this time my head was like the scene in Bleach when Chad, Ishida and Inoue are trying to figure out what their cat guide's best friend looks like.

(And if I had that clip, I'd show you. *shakes fists at Youtube*)

And then we arrived at this beach which had flushing toilets and shade and no running water and Jed was there with fresh cold water and bananas and muesli bars and Jed is a Champion of Men, that's what he is.

For an hour, or longer, we stayed at the beach, still exhausted from the day before along with the tiny walk it had been to get to where we were.

Jed is actually a mad surfer, so we got along great. It was kind of like talking to any of the lads back home, since my home area is a major surfing spot on the NSW coast. So we yabbered about breaks and boards, and that was when everyone else found out that I used to do comp surfing.

I wasn't very good, but it's always a good story to bring up.

After a while we realised that if we didn't leave soon, we'd be setting up for night two in the dark, so we headed off again, Jed coming with us for a little while.

I think at about this point we had Carl leave the group, since his ankle had gone beyond the point of mere pain and we were close enough to civilisation that he'd be able to get back to Sutherland okay.

But on we continued, and with gritted teeth, when the discovery that the shorter path for the track had been closed due to falling rocks. Thusly, our next challenge would be to go over the cliffs again instead of around the bottom, skirting the coastline alongside the sea.


Was Eagle Rock on Day 2? I think it might have been.

I had Eagle Rock explained to me on Day one, by Josh, who'd lived on campus at the uni prior.

Apparently it's a college thing, that when Eagle Rock plays at a party, everyone drops their pants. Pants go back on afterwards, but for the duration of that piece of music, everyone at the party goes pantsless.

It was actually enough of a thing that the Red Frogs crew, an organisation of folks who bring food and the gospel to partied-out teens, had to figure out a course of action specifically for it. Because being in a room full of pantsless minors isn't a good thing.
Thusly, everyone in Red Frogs leaves the house for the duration of Eagle Rock, should it begin playing while they're at the party. I had explained to me.

The more you know.

This is relevant, as one of the rock formations we passed on the second day of the hike was called, funnily enough, Eagle Rock.

This is also where we got our group photo, and if photos ever surface, I may consider putting one up. I'm still not sure if the guy who explained Eagle Rock to us made the photo better or worse by opting to photo-bomb it.

Day two's afternoon progressed in a swirl of piggybacking flies, and the singing of old hymns. Until we got to the Stairs and then I kept singing out of stubbornness. Everyone else stopped because those were steeeeeeep stairs. My legs are hurting even thinking of those stairs.

Consider yourself, as an untrained couch potato, carrying a sixteen-kilo pack, in shoes you've barely broken in, climbing stairs higher than your knees, up a slope that continues at an incline close to vertical, for about 2-300 metres.

And yet in the middle of this incredible pain in hiking and the steady fight to keep my heart rate at something below 300, I found something excellent.

There was quiet in the middle of all of this.

I've probably talked about this zone before; this elusive zone I've stumbled across at 3 in the morning, when the noises in the mind dwindle, blinking out one by one. You feel a sense of magnificent purpose steal over your soul as the tiny cares that your mind is preoccupied with shut down. At that point, I was unable to care about whether I'd be back in time for the opening night of my art show. I was unable to worry about the state of things at home, or the way I was choosing to relate to everyone on this trip, or back in Newcastle. I was beyond the point of caring that I smelled like a horse, or was wheezing like an asthmatic.

There was only the path before me, and the effort required to take a step, shift the weight of my body and backpack onto one screaming leg, and then climb the stair. And then do it again. And again.

On we climbed, the sense of anything but the moment gone. The flies didn't matter. The wind didn't matter. There was silence in my mind, and it was glorious.

Eventually we crested the hill, and received a lesson in reading the surf from Wizard Jed, and then he turned and we parted ways; he heading back towards his car and we onwards to the site for our second night. As the trail flattened out and it became a little easier to breathe, I pulled out my ocarina and began, not for the first time, to play Concerning Hobbits. And then more Lord of the Rings music, and then Zelda themes, because that's really all I know how to play.

And somewhere along the line. Actually it was probably earlier, that Jim piped up, requesting that I play the Song of Storms. I said no, because even though you can put it down to superstition, we were out on a hike, and I was not going to play the freaking Song of Storms. So I continued on with whatever I was playing at the time, and inwardly frowned when he continued to whistle the requested piece of music.

This becomes important in a minute.

Finally, with the yellow light of afternoon giving way to the grey light of dusk, we descended from another hill and came upon our camping spot for the evening. Sitting was lovely, and dinner, which this evening was my job, was excellent also.

Portable Protein, it was called, since I had no name for boiled rice with curry, coconut, rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, chopped boiled egg and peanuts.

No name, but it was delicious, and it also managed to remove about two kilos from my pack. We washed the dinner things in seawater and spent part of the evening watching the stars, praying and singing again.

Dude, singing at night with a bunch of people is great. Singing Rock of Ages at night with a bunch of people is better, the sound of the ocean punctuated only by the regular beat given by slapping hands to knees, keeping time as we sung.

We turned in for the evening, thankful that the grass here was soft and would hopefully be more comfey than the night before. I remember taking a cursory glance outside the tent before zipping it up, absentmindedly wondering if Josh would want to bring his hiking boots inside his tent, since he'd left them out. I can understand why - we all smelled pretty ripe at this stage. Still, this was Australia, and there were usually bugs. I shrugged and closed the tent. Josh is grown man. If he wanted to leave his boots out, he could.

This is also important to note. Because that night

There was wind. That's what woke me and Cait first. Mostly because the poles in the dome tent kept being blown down and then fwapping back up, blustering about as a howling wind came screaming off the ocean. I was voted to go out and do something, and my half-asleep brain complied and pulled the tent poles down. They lay on top of everything in the tent, including us, but that would be okay because they weren't really that heavy and then the tent wouldn't break.

I went back to sleep.

And then the rain started.

The first thing that I noticed of it was the water dripping onto my leg. I tried to ignore it, rolling up in the tarp in the half sleep and hoping that it'd go away. And it got worse. I reached up for my phone to check what forsaken hour it was for the rain to be here, only to have my hand plop straight into a puddle.

Next to me, Cait rolled over, having discovered that her sleeping bag was likewise soaked through.

And out I went again, frantic brain and fingers trying to reassemble the tent so the poles could keep the water off, the wind whipping my hair and my half-whimpered mutterings reduced to discernible noise around the torch I had clamped in my teeth.

Which idiot was all on Storm's Song business? Yeah. Not me.

Finally, soaked, shivering, and cursing the boardshorts I'd chosen to sleep in, Morpheus visited and I slept, too tired to care about anything else. The tent had nearly blown down. We'd half-flooded. I was done.

The next morning was cold, but mercifully dry. Drier. The other tents had fared a little better in some ways, and a little worse in others. Liv and Bri's tent had the addition of a waterbed come morning light, but I think the guys had gotten on alright. Until Josh stumped over to our kitchen setup and looked mournfully at his boots before tipping out a solid inch-and-a-half of water.

The morning progressed faster than the previous one - we had eight or nine clicks to cover, and I wanted to be back in Sydney in the early arvo. Before leaving, as there was nowhere to dump rubbish, we did a quick pickup of our mess along with other stuff that previous campers had just left there. For a while, things looked as though they'd start sprinkling, and it was at that point, when we'd donned raincoats (or binliner coats, depending on your budget) that Sam the Wizard taught us some gnarly dance moves.

The rain ceased, and we headed off down the beach, which gave way to a seashack hamlet, which lead to overland hiking, and then some kind of weird rainforest, and then there were more stairs. I remember those stairs with more pain than the other set, since at this stage I had hit the don't stop phase of hiking.

I was simply at this point where I could no longer stop and enjoy the scenery properly. I was in a hurry, and i needed the others to be in a hurry too, and the longer I walked with this mindset, the more I realised that this was how I did a lot of things, or was heavily encouraged to do a lot of things.

Back in the land of home and reality, I'd just completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts. I was still waiting on results, but was fairly confident that things would be okay. And once I'd told my folks, they were immediately asking what would happen next.

"Can't I just enjoy having this thing done for a little?"

Regardless, that was how I hiked for the first half of the day. We made good time, in part because I was refusing to stop and look back to see what we'd already covered, in favour of looking and seeing how much more still needed to be done.

And then the rainforest began to give way to Australian scrub, and the most heart-bursting set of stairs you'll ever see, and I kept at them with roughly the same speed, because if I stopped, I would be unable to start again.

I didn't throw up when we got to the top, but it was close. Slowly, painfully, my heart rate slowed down, and the two guys who'd been keeping pace with me at the front of the group turned to head back and help the others.

Well, one made it.

Cait had caught up, and we were talking a little, until we heard a snap and an almighty yell of pain.

There are different yells, different shouts, that people are capable of. The one concerning pain is never heard often, but to hear it is never a good thing. I went to investigate.

And there was Jim, kankle in the stream - because that's what it was even at this stage - looking at me like 'this kind of hurts'

And I was looking at him like 'I am not surprised'.

"I was running to catch up and my ankle went snap-crackle-pop on the slope"

"Yeah. I can see that."

I can't remember the finer details of that conversation, but for some context, Jim is a RAAFie. I've written about him on the blog before, because we dated for a while. He was the one in the group who decided to take eight-ten litres of water instead of four, the one with a pack that was bigger than me, and the heaviest guy in the group. With a kankle that might have been broken.

I think there was a raised eyebrow and a sigh on my part somewhere, before heading back up to where the stuff was, to find the first aid kit, painkillers, and some food to help with the shock.

By the time this was taken care of, the rest of the crew had caught up. We stayed a bit longer, Jim had his ankle strapped up, and the rest of us divvied up the pack he now had zero chance of being able to carry. It was at this point that Sam gained his fourth or fifth nickname, due to the rubbish we were carrying.


Binjuice is the worst. It is the scent of death and decay, its cloying smell enough to make even a hardened veteran gag. And it had spilled from the rubbish bag Sam had strapped to his pack, onto his pack, shirt, and the tent that had been strapped on there as well. It was not pleasant.

So down the hill we went, Jim's bung ankle setting the pace, my mind accepting that there were more important things to focus on than being at the art show as we made our way slowly through the leaf-littered floor of the forest.

I found myself carrying the binjuice-soaked tent with Liv, and we talked at length about the Realm of Eventide and the story I'd written for NaNo that took place in it - Skybound. We yabbered about the plot, and I got to share the history that had been written for the place, trying to figure out how to phrase things so that they made sense to other people and not just me.

We sung again, the highlight of which was Sam the Wizard bringing up the Songs of Angry Men or something. It's from Les Miserables, a movie which everyone raves about and I have not had time to see yet. But it was memorable, this rendition, given as Sam leapt atop a nearby boulder and sung with gusto, beating his chest in time with the words, to the laughter and invigoration of everyone.

And somehow, after much stumbling and half-steps, we clambered out of the brush, down some stairs and into a car park.

There was a sign and everything, noting the beginning of the Coastal Walk from the Otford end.

We'd made it.

We rested a while, and then began the trek back to civilisation, looking first for the train station we'd need to get back to where the cars were.

I think I got called a Sargent when we got to Otford by two young yahoos, which was confusing until I remembered that my kahki shirt had triple-chevron badges on the arms. And then, somehow, we managed to get to Sutherland.

Dude, you want something surreal?

Try going on a big hike, being all dirty and smelly and tired, and then somehow get yourself to a busy train station, full of workers, mums and school kids. On the one hand, my brain comprehended that we looked kind of homeless. On the other hand, my chocolate stash had melted and reformed around my lolly snakes, and although the result looked kind of gross, it tasted amazing.

Eventually, we got back to Cronulla, reshuffling our car crew for the leg home so that Jim wouldn't have to drive with a bung leg or something.

Successfully, Bri, Cait and myself, three ladies who'd never done much Sydney navigation, managed to get out in one piece, before driving back to Newie and getting Raj's. It was a pretty satisfying curry, if you ask me.

And then there was a shower, and then there was an inner spring mattress with pillows and a doona, and there was sleep.

And it was very good.

That kind of covers the hike. There was more, and there was less that happened. But I need to get back to Job Searching, so that's all you'll get for now.

Perhaps an update if/when photos happen. (Hey, Bri and Cait?)

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