They say this is a hard walk. I had assumed they had 80-year olds with walking sticks in mind, or perhaps puffy coach-potatoes. ‘Hard?’ Yeah sure, it will be a cinch. Or so I think before setting out. My arrogant confidence in my physical prowess is soon to be reduced to more modest assessments.
The Great North Walk opts for the bush way between Sydney and Newcastle. Apart from some considerable stretches through relatively remote parts, that also means it climbs whatever mountain range one can find. Why skirt around one when you can climb it? The route covers 250 km, from Newcastle Harbour to Sydney Cove. It heads west from Newcastle and into the mountains, eventually turning south and twisting its way through mostly wilderness areas to Sydney. For a normal person, that means about two weeks walking. For those crazy track runners, it can be done – non-stop – in 56 hours. Or rather, two super-fit women did precisely that not so long ago. Not for me; I prefer the slow way, about 20 km per day.
At least I am well enough equipped, the result of long years of acquiring lightweight gear from bicycle touring. One change of clothes (only for emergencies), a billy, a tent, highly efficient sleeping bag, and backpack as tough and as waterproof as they get. Half my 20 kg weight is water and food, making the pack a solid one.
Day 1: Newcastle to Teralba (30 km)
The first day – a long undulating walk of 30 km – is one of adjustments. Backpack off; backpack on; and again and again; waistband a little higher, so it sits on the hips to carry most of the load; tighten a strap here; loosen one there; make sure the heaviest items are snug on my back and not hanging wide out, where they cause the dreaded pack swing. So also with my boots: laces pulled, tucked, readjusted. With shoes as sensitive to the shape of my feet as these, I need them firm but not tight, for otherwise nasty blisters form with the constant rubbing. I learn again that feet change over the day. Initially, they thin out, as the fluids that gather from sitting are sent elsewhere in the body. Later, my feet thicken once again as muscles and joints become tired, for until today they haven’t been used half as much as they should be. I also have plenty of time to ponder the fact that I have one pair of decent walking socks with me. I wonder how they will smell by the end.
It may be a longish walk for the first day, but the gradient is gentle, the walking easy. It runs south along the great beaches of Newcastle for quite a distance, then a turn right into Glenrock Lagoon and up the incline to Charlestown. It is the route that the local inhabitants, the Awabakal, used to take between Mooloobinbah (Newcastle) and Lake Awaba. From the rise in Charlestown, I drop slowly to the massive Lake Macquarie and walk its edge. Here the track is through urban bushland, with its expected scruffiness and weeds. Back streets too, skirting by golf courses, on popular lakeside paths. I have yet to get into the bush.
A wise person would travel light for the first 15 km, stocking up with food and water along the way. I manage to be reasonably wise regarding the water, but wonder why I have packed four days of food before departure. Ah yes, it means I can get used to the pack from the beginning. At the end of the day I realise it would be easy to ‘stealth camp’ somewhere in Teralba – a mining village on the edge of the lake – should I wish to do so. Tent up at dusk, down at dawn, no traces. But it’s hot, I sweat profusely all day. So I opt for a shower and the carefully mown grass of Teralba Lakeside Caravan Village.
In the tent as I drift off to a long sleep I think I am a champion, having walked a great distance on the first day. But the real hiking in the real bush is yet to begin.
Day 2: Teralba to Hunter Lookout … almost (24 km)
I wake a different, albeit stiff and tender man. The first day is always the toughest, shocking your body into working all day – which by rights it should be doing all the time. The second day is the most important. The urge to rest, coming from our overwhelmingly sedentary lives, is the worst option. Always best to get going as soon as possible, to get muscles working again. That way they recover an ancient, genetic memory, the pleasure of actually being used.
Used they certainly are, for I soon realise that yesterday was a gentle stroll. Today involves three mountain ranges, three tough climbs as I make my way into my beloved Watagan Mountains. And today I learn six lessons as the serious hiking begins.
1. Keep your rucksack snug on your back (and don’t loosen it for supposed comfort), for otherwise it throws you off balance and sends you careening down precipices.
2. Avoid precipitous descents and climbs along barely discernible tracks, with tree roots, massive fallen trees, mud, leeches … when the sun is setting! Foolishly, I attempt precisely that for the last part of today’s hiking, crashing, staggering, falling my way along.
3. Set yourself reasonable targets with a laden rucksack, full of food, water, camping gear and whatnot for a few days. Otherwise, you enter a liminal zone and arrive at your stop in a bewildered state.
4. Speaking of leeches, be generous: give blood for a good cause. They need it. So refrain from using salt, insect repellent or burning cigarette ends on those innocent creatures.
5. Carry enough water. You never know if you will need to pitch camp – yes, a tent is the only way to sleep – in a dry location.
6. Washing? That’s part of conspiracy by manufacturers of soap, shampoo and detergent. Since the vast majority of human beings throughout our history have had two washes in their lives, at birth and death, let the natural colonies of bacteria flourish. Take socks, for instance: you can switch feet and then turn them inside out on each consecutive day. That evens the wear, for at least four days or more. And the seriously powerful aroma of days-old socks is a wonder to behold. The same applies to undies.
Today, I can claim to have adhered to only the last three. I clamber over a track though the mountains with a devil-may-care attitude to the niceties of gentle inclines and declines. A leisurely amble – like yesterday – is for wimps. Straight up and down is the way to go.
For this leg, the roadways and fire trails up on the long climb to the Sugarloaf Range require persistence and some stamina. I meet mountain-bikers on a tandem, a couple of track runners who are looking a little spent, trail-bikers and walkers. Over the morning, there are some glorious moments: the dappled sun on a leaf-covered track; sun filtering through grass trees; the burst of energy when lunch and a litre of milk kick in. Just before lunch the serious climbing begins: a sharp climb over an unexpected mountain brings me to Heaton pass, where I stop for a lunch of bananas, nuts and raisins, and a long slug of milk (from the roadside shop). I am feeling the two climbs I have already done – feet a little sore, body aching.
But the toughest is yet to come. Immediately after lunch I take on the winding, impossibly steep slope into the Watagan Range. The 1.2 km needs an hour of small steps, heavy breathing, near slips and tumbles. At the top, by Heaton Lookout, I ponder stopping for the night. 20 km are up by 15.30 and I have two hours and eight km to go. In a moment of overconfidence, I think I know where the track will go from here on. It will be a gentle walk, won’t it, following a fire trail to my stop for the night?
But no, the track veers off and plunges into the dense bush. Now begin rocky slides into gullies, with tree roots and vines to trip over, massive fallen timber (over which I have to haul my pack) and slippery heart-busting climbs. I am in another zone, popping chocolates, thundering and cursing along. There will be many more such sections on the walk, and I eventually become used to them, taking time and soaking in what are really quiet corners of wonderful bush. I guess the planners of the route wanted to give walkers like me the feel of some decent hard work.
In the last moments of rapidly fading light, I come into a clearing, a quiet, leafy corner with a view over the valley. I am shattered, but short of my imagined stop for the night. Even though I have managed the last four kilometres in a couple of hours (it should take three), I still have another four to go. In my bewildered state I ponder for a moment tackling the last part by torch-light, but I wake up to myself and pitch camp.
Dinner is a can of cold baked beans, stale bread and squashed banana. A small fire and a cup of tea are all that is needed before burrowing into my sleeping bag for 11 hours.
Day 3: Hunter Lookout to Barraba (18 km)
After a breakfast of muesli bars and some dried fruit and nuts, I ponder what to do. Yesterday I had wanted to get to my beloved spot: Hunter Lookout. Now I need water, for I know of tank there. So I break camp and am off, opting to stick to the track rather than take the easy forest roads. Like yesterday, there are more gullies, slippery drops and leg-twisting climbs.
Unlike yesterday, this time I love it! I take my time, enjoy the mountain streams, refill water bottles, and pause long by a pool and its mossy rocks, fed by a creek that plunges over the cliff face. A couple of hours later, I am at Hunter Lookout, with a huge smile. I stay for a few hours. The fire boils a billy, the little known water tank enables me to refill once again, and I sit and soak in the view over the Hunter Valley, my valley.
Since my last time here, a couple of goannas have made this their home. They have figured out that visitors have a knack of leaving leftovers, so they saunter in whenever someone is about, snuffling around for a tasty morsel or two.
Soon enough the time is up and I know I have some walking to do before the early nightfall of May. Now the walk slips into the national park and I notice the difference from the state forest immediately. Without trail bikes, four-wheel drives and logging trucks, the peace is palpable. And the animals know it. A pademelon skips out on the track and off again; a wallaby calmly watches me as I pass. The wombats may prefer the nights, but their multitudinous presence is marked by the many droppings. They like a clean slate to do their thing, preferably a smooth rock in a clearing. At times every single rock on my path is covered with their greenish, fibrous turds. The lyrebirds – yes, lyrebirds – have obviously not read the textbook that says they are supposed to be shy. I have never met one before in my life. In the next two hours I meet four! One does not bother to scamper off at all. Instead, it turns, stands and looks in my direction, wondering what this strange animal is doing in these parts.
The track undulates, with no climb too tough. I encounter a stile or two, passing through private nature reserves that abut the national park. I manage the last hill to the camping spot – Barraba – as the light is fading. It one of those entrancing spots, high up and in amongst ancient grass trees, with soft ground for a tent, and a fire place around which one can sit into the evening pondering the universe as the coals glow at the base of the fire.
Day 4: Barraba to Watagan Creek (23 km)
After a stunningly good sleep, I wake at 6.30, notice the hot ashes on the fire and put some leaves and twigs on them. By the time I have packed a dew-heavy tent, the fire is flaring. The ensuing cup of tea means I leave a little later. Soon I pass by an old logger’s hut – all corrugated iron and rough beams – and meet a couple up on the ridge, escaping to their own hut on the mountain. They envy me my walk and the chance to enjoy the last of the good weather.
Eventually I drop out of the Watagans and down to the Congewai Valley, a drop that is glorious in the early rays of the sun. Here I walk through more of those private nature reserves, bought as private land but legally locked in as reserves for perpetuity. Walkers welcome, but not those who tear up the land and vegetation, scaring off the animals. Here too is a water tank that walkers are welcome to use, by a hut in the peace of the bush.
I might have one pace on those impossibly steep climbs, with their slippery leaves and soil, with massive rocks around which one must edge. I have another speed entirely when given a flat stretch. So it is along Congewai Valley: five and half kilometres in an hour, and that with a wary cow and its calf out on the road. At first they run ahead, until they reach their fellow bovines in the field. While the mother hides her vast bulk behind a bush, her comrades draw near to give moral support. The calf puts its head against the mother’s flank, leaving the rest of its body in full view. It obviously feels that if it can’t see me, I can’t see it. I walk past, while the mother nervously stands guard. Obviously, the experience with human beings is not usually a pleasant one. A little further down the road, a creeping white sports car stops. Its occupant, a 20-year old bedecked in a singlet and smartphone, asks if I can get reception here. I shake my head as he tells he is looking for a mate, who is staying with a friend hereabouts.
The route as a whole counts at least one serious climb each day. This one is no exception, for I have to climb Mount Congewai: a gruelling 2.4 kilometre climb, with the last 900 metres particularly so. Finally up on the ridge, I follow a forestry road for four kilometres or so to Flat Rock Lookout, thinking to camp close by. But the spot is ordinary, to say the least – with room for one tent, it is right by the side of a dirt road that will have logging trucks rumbling by at first light.
As I pause to assess my weary legs, heavy pack, the remaining light (about half an hour) and water supply, a grizzled forester stops to chat. And talk he does – about the timber, trucks, tents, a walker he met entirely lost for two days and without water. His parents had been waiting for him in Cooranbong, but he was headed west, in the opposite direction. A call to his parents and a lift ensued. The forester claims that he too has been walking all day, so he is keen to get home.
My decision to walk on to Watagan Creek pays off, for not only does a heavy pack love a decent, but the spot is one of those that come by unexpectedly. I stop to fill my depleted supply of water in the creek, and then strip down for a quick wash. As I do so, a 4wd stops up on the bank. I dress smartly, as an ancient local comes down. He makes a passing show of checking the electric fence and then asks where I am headed.
‘The camping area on the other side of the road’, I say.
‘There’s nothing there’, he says. ‘No water, nothing. How long are you stopping?’
‘One night’, I say.
‘You can stop here,’ he says.
I look around at the creek, its grassed banks, the grand trees overhead. ‘Thank you,’ I say.
As they are about to drive off, I remember – a fire!
I race up the bank and ask his wife. ‘Yeah, no worries’, she says. ‘It’s not fire season. Just be careful’.
With the tent pitched, I light a fire of driftwood and sit by it until I feel the stiffness of my muscles. Bed at 8.00 pm is one of the great pleasures of life.
Day 5: Watagan Creek to The Basin (13 km)
Today is the toughest day I have ever walked, let alone with a backpack: 13 kilometres in 6 hours!
In the morning, I dwell long by the fire for breakfast and over a cup of tea. At a deep level, my body seems to anticipate what is in store. Eventually I set off, briefly across a farmer’s field and a road and then up the first climb – Mt. Warrawolong. It is over a kilometre of steep, slippery track, corroded by trail bikers. Often I need to use my hands as well as feet for stability. I meet a biker on his way down. We chat briefly, he wondering how I do not get lost.
The second climb: steeper but shorter, now over rock, loose pebbles and some twisting vegetation that holds it all together. At the top I pause at a wonderful camp spot, or rather, a clearing with a simple fire place and a great view. Next time I may use this place for my tent – but I will need water.
To get to the third climb, I need to drop steeply down to Wollombi Brook. In the midst of an autumn dry spell, the brook is empty, so refilling the water bottles has to wait. That climb is the steepest of all, requiring in places stone stairs, or rather, some pieces of rock roughly arranged between crevices. Moss covered it all is, since now I am in one of those gullies with temperate rainforest. Mottled light peers through the canopy, creepers and vines hang low, leeches wave from every leaf on the ground.
No more climbs today, but the last 2.5 kilometres – after an equally precipitous descent to the Washpool – is along a narrow track half way up a cliff face. To my right is a bone-breaking fall. To the left is the cliff face. In between is the narrowest of tracks, at times merely a footfall at a time. Add to that fallen trees, slimy edges, rock overhangs – one slip from a weary hiker would mean an enforced rest until help comes.
A real hike and I am buggered.
The question is: what do I think about, on my own during those long hours walking, climbing up and scrabbling down slopes?
Water: will the next creek be dry? Do I need to ration it out over the next couple of days? Will there be a tank or a stream at the next camping spot? I think of my writing, my legs, where to stop next for the night, women …
When tired, I begin to argue with those who have annoyed me, or perhaps me them. It used to be my father, but now he is dead. It used to be women of former, bad relationships, but now they are gone. It may be my employer, with different expectations from my own desire to be on the margins, off the radar and undisturbed so I can write.
But then, with a campsite, a fire, a meal and a billy of tea, that soon passes.
Day 6: The Basin to Yarramalong (20 km)
The last day (for now) is one for meeting people, which feels a little strange after the solitude. But then more than half of the walk is along roads leading into Yarramalong.
After giving the tent some time to dry on a dewy morning, the first task of the day is … yes, a climb. Unlike yesterday, it is none too daunting, with the early part of the climb a little steep but the rest gradually and relentlessly heads upwards. Most of it is along fire trails, as is the slow decline for the rest of the morning. But now the trail is hardly used, so leaves and branches and stones make it their home. I love this part of the morning. After a long sleep and then finding the rhythm of the day in the first hour or two, I stride along taking in all that is about me – the trees, rocks, plants, occasional animals, a view from a height, the cool of a gully.
Along the trail I pass by a glorious camping place: a grassy circle surrounded by trees, a jumble of rocks for a fireplace, no one passing by. Here I have one of my regular feeds, preferring to down some nuts and raisins every hour or two rather than have a large lunch.
At last – and reluctantly – I need to come out of the mountains. The drop is an enthralling section of track that passes through three mossy gullies en route to Cedar Brush. I take them slowly, pausing often to suck in the cool air. From Cedar Bruch the trail follows the paved road to Yarramalong. I cover the 11 kilometres in two hours! By now, I have become used to my usual rapid pace along a flat track, even with a pack – a damned good pack too.
But the road also brings people. I meet a dozen middle-aged and identically clad trail bikers roaring up the road. A few wave as they pass. An odd old couple stop for a chat as I am trying to find a semi-hidden spot for a piss. She is far more interesting; he is a pain, full of yellow-toothed stories about Ginger Meggs, of all things. At Yarramalong a forty-something artisan, Decorah Buckley, chats as I sit on the step of her shop in the late sun. Too much makeup, but very friendly …
But as I roll along the road, past the farms and houses, I think of Friedrich Engels in his weeks-long walk from Paris to Berne. He was a young man, fit and vigorous, sought after by the Paris police for his activism, and without much money. So he decided to walk to Switzerland, through the French countryside. He stops in villages to take part in festivals, to sit on grassy hillsides and smoke tobacco, drink wine, and chat up the local women. In the mountains I may recall Lenin the climber, but on the flats it seems to be Engels.
Yarramalong: a village in the fold of the valley, is the end of this leg of the Great North Walk for now. It marks roughly the half-way point to Sydney, and getting here I have covered 120 kilometres in 6 days, with 8 stiff climbs. The other half, from Yarramalong to Sydney, is yet to come.