Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bibbulmun Track revisited: Part 1

Hot christmas on the Bibb
 I must admit that I feel a bit guilty about hiking a trail again instead of trying something new. But I have had so many problems on the other trails that I just needed a break and something easy!!! I had enjoyed the Bibb Track so much last time and I hoped I would enjoy it a lot even a second time.

Well, so far my plan has worked out! The weather has really been cooperating. It has been overcast almost all the time and that means that I did not get baked in the sun. I was surprised to see a lot more people on the trail this time. But the trail and the various shelters are still as nice as they were 2 years ago.


And I had 2 very unexpected re-encounters. I was hiking down Mt. Cooke one afternoon when I met a group of 4 hikers. I politely said hello, when one guy asked me whether I had hiked the Larapinta Trail this year. I was very much surprised, but it turned out that he was the hiker who crossed the first flooded stream on the Larapinta before me after the torrential downpour. And he remembered me! Very surprising considering that these two events happened thousands of km apart.

Next surprise came when I came into my first resupply town Dwellingup and entered the Visitor Information Centre. I was immediately greeted by the lady working there - she remembered me from 2 years ago! This is such a small world.... But maybe I have been in Western Australia now enough...

Four of my American and European long-distance hiking friends have hiked the Bibb Track as well - probably having been lured into it by my recommendations and raving reports. It is a fun game to track down their entries in the trail registers and read their comments about the trail. They all seem to have liked it!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Life in a kayak and a monastery

New Norcia Guesthouse Entrance
After all the misery on the Hume and Hovell I flew into Melbourne to have a couple of relaxing days. But my couchsurfing host kept me busy till 1 am with all sorts of business questions - and lots of trail talk as well. In exchange for all my good business advice I had free internet access and he put me in contact with another ultralight freak like myself, Franco. I have seen his posts on backpackinglight.com for years and was thrilled to meet him in person.

So one sunny afternoon I made my way to Franco - and stayed there for more than 4 hours talking ultralight tents. Or as Franco's wife put it: "You two go outside and play!" And this is what we did: We set up several tents and compared them thoroughly in Franco's backyard.

In the end I did not see anything in Melbourne but my couchsurfing host's apartment and Franco's backyard, but that did not really matter as I had been in Melbourne before. Eventually I flew on to Perth, which was a real breeze without dragging a bicycle in a bike box along.

I stayed with another couchsurfing host, Prudie, in Perth. This world is so small... Prudie, had been recommended to me by my German friend Rita, because Prudie had visited Rita in Frankfurt just a couple of months before. Prudie is a German and French teacher and therefore I could not only speak German again, but also learned a lot of new expressions.

Alan, my paddling teacher
In Perth I was met by Alan. You might remember him - I have met him in January 2009 while cycling in Western Australia and we have always stayed in contact. Alan is a great paddler and had agreed to give me some paddling lessons while I was in WA. If I proved totally useless for paddling, we would just go snorkeling instead. Well, I did not go snorkeling once and we spent 4 days falling in and out of a kayak (called wet exit and entry). That means I was falling in and out of the kayak whereas Alan was just giving advice while I was exhausting myself. After 4 days I managed to get back into my kayak in less than 3 minutes and also I will never win a prize for grace and elegance I get the job done - and that is all that counts. I even managed to steer around an obstacle course without embarrassing myself too much. Alan declared me fit for further paddling adventures on my own and while he left to get back to work I headed to a monastery!

New Norcia church

Yes, that is right - I spend a couple of days in a monastery called New Norcia. I took the bus there that dropped my basically in the middle of nowhere. The only thing there is a huge Benedictine monastery - and I felt like in Southern Spain (this is were the monks had originally come from). The only thing to do there was to eat and sleep. The food was excellent and they even served wine with it!!! I slept in a bed again and even had air condition in the room. So much luxury.... I really needed this break after all the problems on my various trails.

But after two days I headed off to a trail again: Bibbulmun Track revisited!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hume and Hovell: Conclusion

Now: Can I recommend this trail to a friend? Definitely NO!!!!! The Hume and Hovell wins the prize for the most mismanaged and worst maintained trail I have ever hiked! And this is a pity because the trail could be a real gem.

Let's start with the good things: The trail goes through some really wonderful landscape and forests. You will see wild waterfalls, lots of wildlife and more temperate rainforest than you expected. Truly beautiful stuff that I have not seen on any other Australian trail.

There are really nice campsites all along the trail spaced about 10 to 25 km apart. They all have a toilet and a covered picnic area plus some more or less decent camp spots. They either have a water tank or access to water. And hopefully by the time you hike it the flood damage to some of these campsites has been repaired.

Echidna on the trail
Now let's come to the not so good things: It appears to me that this trail has been created with a lot of funding and energy. It must have been really nice when it was first opened. But then either the funding has been cut or the energy has vanished or both, because now it is totally neglected...And this causes various problems:

The waymarking: The trail is marked with wooden boards (totally over the top) or wooden/metal/plastic poles in the ground. In many cases these poles have disappeared or are overgrown making navigation extremely difficult. It is a total mystery to me why they just did not use blazes on the trees. They are much cheaper and cannot be brought down by animals. And there are trees everywhere! This combined with the fact that the trail is usually too overgrown that it is not recognisable make navigation a nightmare in places. Also there are no regular spaces between markers. The waymarking on the Heysen Trail was somewhat sketchy in places too but you could count on the fact there should be a marker every couple of hundred meters. If you do not see a marker for a km you have lost the trail. Not so on the Hume and Hovell: Sometimes there are markers every hundered meters and sometimes there is none for 10 km!!!!!!

Maps / Waypoints: There is a decent set of maps for the Hume and Hovell but the scale is 1 : 100 000 and that makes navigating with a GPS going cross country really difficult. The Heysen Trail has its complete track with waypoints on the website making navigation really easy. Unfortunately there are no GPS waypoints for the Hume and Hovell - not on their official website nor anywhere else. I was sort of lost almost every day...

Trail conditions: The Hume and Hovell uses a mix of about 50% old forest roads (thank God for that), 10% paved roads and 40% foot trail. Usually I would rather hike on foot trail than anywhere else, but not on the Hume and Hovell. The foot trail has been created about 10 years ago and sometimes it looked to me that they have not done any maintenance ever since. Foot trail was generally so overgrown and/or full of blowdowns that you are down to 2 km/hour of less. I scratched my legs and arms with all sorts of poisonous bushes, grasses and trees and I still look like an accident victim. I even tore my backpack climbing over blowdowns.

Note the driftwood on the table
Trail management: Due to the bad weather there were all sorts of detours and closed sections on the trail. This can happen to any trail - but at least you can warn the hikers!!! Not so on the Hume and Hovell! There has been a construction site causing a detour for over a year and there is no warning about it on the website or on the trail!!! Same thing for damage due to landslides or flooding! And there is an official trail coordinator for the Hume and Hovell... This was one of the most disappointing things for me - I ran into all sorts of trouble that could have easily been avoided if I had been warned beforehand. If you decide to hike the trail you definitely have to contact the trail coordinator beforehand: When contacted directly he answers emails very quickly and extensively. Just don't count on information on the official website or on the trail.

In hindsight the Heysen Trail was a piece of cake compared to the Hume and Hovell. The Heysen has difficult sections but at least the waymarking is generally good. And due to the Friends of the Heysen Trail it is generally maintained pretty well. Apparently there is no such a support organisation for the Hume and Hovell. I have not met ANY hiker on the whole Hume and Hovell - and in hindsight that does not surprise me. The trail is in such bad shape that hiking it is just no fun.

Bottom line: The Hume and Hovell could be a great and beautiful trail - but due to mismanagement and negligence is has turned into a hiker's nightmare. It is such a pity....

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hume and Hovell: A nightmare in various forms


Seems I do not have much luck with my hiking trail recently.... After a bad start the Hume and Hovell turned out to get worse and worse and worse and turned into some sort of nightmare. It threw almost everything at me that a trail can do to you and in the end I was longing to be back on the Heysen Trail, which is nice in comparison! But let's start from the start:

Are all radio speakers overweight?

I left my first resupply town, Tumut, in really good spirits. I had done a nice resupply, had updated this blog in a nice library and had met a nice older lady, who had dragged me into the local radio station where I was interviewed on air. The last time this had happened had been on the CDT in Chama, New Mexico where I had peeked into the local radio station and was immediately dragged in to give an interview. The station in the US was called "Rocky Mountain Radio" and the one in Tumut "Sounds of the Mountain". Another similarity is that both radio speakers were quite overweight....

But my good mood did not last long, because.... see what happened:

Note the flooded fire grate
The construction site: The trail goes around Blowering Dam and the first campsite (where I had planned to stay that night) was right next to the dam wall. I roadwalked out of Tumut and when I turned into the road leading to the dam I was alarmed to see all sorts of warning and danger signs. Apparantly the dam wall was being upgraded and therefore the whole area closed. I still hoped that the trail would go around this area - but of course, no such luck. At 6 pm I stood before a huge fenced off area with all sorts of signs saying "Danger" and "Keep out". What pissed me off most was that there was no warning about this on the Hume and Hovell website or a note an the trail. And this construction site existed since early 2009!!!!! I still had 1,5 hours of daylight left and all the construction workers had already gone home for the day - they had all passed me when I had roadwalked in. What the heck: I had already hiked into a prescribed burn and a airforce base in Florida, so I could deal with a construction site here. I sneaked in - but felt really bad! If I was caught, there was no way I could talk my way out of this like "I did not see the huge 2 meter high fence and the 100 "DANGER" sings. But I did not get caught... and made it to my camp site.

The flooding: Surely the worst was over now? No such luck! Due to all the recent rain the dam was full to the brim and that meant that large parts of the trail were flooded. And not only the trail: Even the camp sites. I saw firegrates and picnic benches under water....

The blow downs: The trail now moved a bit away from the shore and I was hoping for quicker progress now. But again: No such luck! Apparantly it had not only rained a lot, but there had also been a lot of wind. The shoreline is lined with pine plantations and hundreds of pines had fallen across the trail creating the worst blowdowns I have seen since the AZT. It took me 5 hours to hike 5 km and I ripped my pack open. This is when I started to hate the Hume and Hovell Track.....


The landslide: I knew that a thunderstorm was passing through this day and the next. I spent the first thunderstorm nice and cosy under a shelter and hoped to make it to the next for the night. But of course the trail was so badly overgrown that progress was slow and I was still on a 300 m climb when the next thunderstorm started. It got darker and darker and the lightning stared - and I had still one km to go. Great!!! And then: The trail was gone!!!!! There had been a major landslide and it had completely destroyed about 50 meters of trail. Of course there had been no notice about this on the website or on the trail.... There had been no reasonable place to camp for the last 10 km, especially with a lot of rain threatening. And there was also no real way around the bloody landslide. And I was running out of time, too... And therefore, I just climbed over it. In hindsight I do not know whether this has been such a good idea. Nothing has happened to me and I made it safely across clinging to tree roots and praying. If I had fallen, I would not have killed myself, but I could have hurt myself badly... I got even more pissed when I saw a small and weathered sign 1 km further along the trail with a warning. Why had there been no sign coming my way? When I arrived at the picnic area where I wanted to camp it had already started to pour down - and this was the only picnic area on the whole trail and probably in whole Australia that did not have a shelter. I ended up in the toilet waiting for the rain to stop.

I can still smile
The deluge: The forecast was for even more rain the next day, so camping in an area with no shelter seemed a bad idea. I had 50 minutes of daylight left and 3,5 km to the next campsite that was supposed to have a hut - the only one on the whole trail. But what if some hooligans where already having a party there or the hut did not exist? It could not get worse than standing in a wet toilet and therefore I almost ran to the hut arriving just with sunset. And I was lucky for once: The hut was full of empty whiskey bottles and beer cans, but nobody was there - although someone must have left not too long ago as there was still some hot coal in the fireplace. So this was my home for the night - and the next night, too! When I woke up in the morning it was still raining. It was basically raining for 24 hours straight with major downpours every 60 minutes. So I decided to stay put for a day. But I was worried about people showing up wanting to party here. The hut was accessible by 4WD and Australians love to drive around in their vehicles in all sorts of places. And for sure at noon three 4WD showed up with license plates like "BULL 1". Great, I would have some beer drinking company! I was still deliberating what was worse - spending the night with some drunk bogans or sleep in the rain - when I realised that there was a girl in one of the cars. She asked me what I was doing here and when I explained my situation she gave me homemade biscuits and milk!!!! The whole group had no intention of partying in the hut. They were out to see how the rain was doing (seems to be very popular in Australia) and had some car problems. After fixing that they left waving at me... How wrong had I been. 2 hours later more noise - but not from a vehicle. Somebody must be moving through the forest! Another hiker? I was very much surprised when I looked outside and realised that my "hiker" was in fact two wild horses that would stay around the hut for the whole night. Luckily they did not want to come in though....

The lake that is no more: I  made it in one piece and with the help of homemade biscuits into my next resupply town Tumbarumba. I sincerely thought that it could not get any worse now and inquired about trail conditions at the Tourist Information. The trail went around a lake next and that looked really nice on the map. But then I was told that there was no more lake!!!! How could that have happened? Well, the lake had been created by a dam and with all the recent rain the dam had BROKE flooding the whole region - and now there was no more lake, just a river and a lot of flooded ground. I heeded the advice and roadwalked that section. The flooding had been so bad that one campsite had been completely destroyed. The roof of the shelter had been "decapitated" and lay next to the foundations, which were badly eroded.... I kept walking.

Roof is next to shelter...

The ford: In the last part of the trail you have to go around Lake Hume, another reservoir. I had been warned on the map that a part of the trail would be flooded, but some locals told me to give it a try anyway. This part of the trail is a dirt road walk and when I approached the section I could already see that about 400 meters were totally flooded. But the alternative was to do a road detour of 7 km... so I just walked into the water and hoped for the best. The ground was good as this was a road walk and I could still see the traffic signs sticking out of the water. But the water got deeper and deeper.... I walked back and took off my backpack to put it on top of my head - and walked in again. I must emphasise that the footing was really good and there was no current whatsoever - elsewise this would have been totally foolish. I ended up on tiptoes with the water up to my mouth!!!!!! This was the deepest ford I have ever done in my entire life - but I made it! I was shaking badly when I arrived on the other side because it had been pretty exhausting to balance my heavy backpack on my head - but I had had a free bath!

Well, as you might have guessed by now the Hume and Hovell will not become my favourite trail... but I made it all the way to the end in one piece although I am badly scratched up!!! I am really looking forward now to the nice and easy Bibbulmun Track.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hume & Hovell Track: Difficult start

My Hume & Hovell hike did not seem to start under a good star....

First of all, the bus would not drop me off at Yass, which is the starting point for the track. You wonder why that is? I wondered, too. My bus was a VLine bus, which apparently stands for Victoria. And as Yass is still in New South Wales, VLine is only allowed to pick passengers up there, but not to drop them. This gave me another 3 hours of sightseeing in Canberra before the departure of the nationwide Greyhound bus....

Things did not go smoothly with Greyhound either. First of all the driver told me he would not go into Yass, but drop me off at a service station on the highway. Unfortunately, he could not show me on the map where that bloody service station was! Depending on the location that meant either a very long walk or actually cutting off a couple of kilometers of road walk for me. Luckily, it turned out to be the perfect drop off point saving me 5 km of boring road walk!

I got off the bus, grabbed my backpack and disappeared into the station's rest rooms to get water and arrange my stuff. When I re-emerged 10 minutes later, the bus was still standing there and a big commotion going on. This was  supposed to be only a short drop-off stop! I asked one of the passengers what had happened. While the bus's luggage department was open, a thief had stolen another backpack with 1,000 AUD in it. The robbed passenger had left in pursuit of the thief and now everybody was waiting for the outcome. Everybody except me: I got away from there as quickly as possible before somebody tried to steal my backpack and started my hike.

I was dead tired from 3 very short nights in Canberra that I had spent in front of the computer and so I stopped as soon as I found any decent camp site. I slept for 14 hours straight and woke up with a cold. Or at least this is what I first thought it was. My nose was running and my eyes were itching. I was especially worried about my itching eyes because the last thing I needed now was conjunctivitis.... But then it dawned on me: Maybe I was just allergic to something? Everything was blooming and Maik had already had allergy trouble in Australia. But I have never been allergic against pollen.. What was going on? Well, I still don't know - but the symptoms disappeared within 2 days.

Lake Burrinjuck
At least the boat ride across Lake Burrinjuck worked out as planned. I arrived in time, paid 30 AUD and was on the other side in 15 minutes. So far, so good. But then the hiking problems started. As you might have guessed.... this area had received a lot of rain and wind recently. Surprise, surprise.... And telling by the trail registers I am the first person on this trail for the last 1,5 months. And that means: This trail section, that has been rated "hard" to start with, was totally overgrown and full of blowdowns. Hiking was tough and I got more and more behind schedule. All that plus a serious attack of chaffing made life miserable. On day 3 I got lost and only realised it after I had climbed up 300 meters. Great - I descended back and climbed up 300 meters again on another hill. By that point I was already one day behind schedule and slowly running out of food. But to also tell you the other side of the story: The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful! Undisturbed rainforest, rushing mountain streams and the occasional waterfall.

Waterfall along the trail
I camped in a meadow last night only to wake up by a torrential thunderstorm. Although my tent held up pretty well, I did not sleep very well that night. I broke camp very grumpily in the morning to start what the map guide called "a delightful stroll along the river". There was nothing delightful about it. First the whole thing was totally overgrown preferably with thistles. Everything was wet and after 10 minutes I was totally soaked. The river I was following had been flooded so badly that there was tons of debris like huge tree trunks all over the place. I started yelling in German. To make things worse there was a nice little paved road on the other side of the river. But the trail was routed on my "delightful" side. I started to wonder whether it is more practical to swim across and get wet or continue walking and get wet, too. Finally a swing bridge showed up. I have been on many swing bridges in my hiking career but this was definitely one of the worst. It was so scary that it took me full 15 minutes to cross about 200 meters over. Do they ever check the safety of these bridges once they are built?

As you can tell from this post I finally made it in one piece. I arrived on the other side on the road with 2 choices: Either continue 15 km of "hard" rated trail and then hitch into town or hitch straightaway. Being totally soaked, pissed off and out of food I was still deliberating what to do when the first car came along. I put out my thumb and got a ride into town. Life is so much better now.... And prospects are good: the next sections are rated "easy" or "medium"!

Friday, November 5, 2010

My life as a tourist: Part 2

 Well, my life as a tourist is coming to an end tomorrow as Maik is flying back to Germany (with my bicycle!) and I will start a new trail, the Hume & Hovell Track. But I have seen a lot of Australia in the last 2 weeks since my last entry:

Brisbane: We drove into Brisbane on a Sunday and with a GPS - thank God, as traffic can be hell. We even found a parking spot immediately and started a 9-hour long non-stop tour through the museums. And what wonderful museums they had: A brand now Art and Contemporary Art Museum - absolutely fantastic! I even saw some pictures of the Australian painter Hans Heysen, after whom the Heysen Trail is named.

Glasshouse Mountain
Glasshouse Mountains: I had just planned to go there because we needed a place to camp in a National Park but this turned out to be truly spectacular. These mountains are the "plugs" of old volcanoes and while the volcanoes have eroded away, the mountains are rising steeply into the sky. We even climbed one!

Mount Morgan: is a former mining town that offers 2 hour tours of the town and the old mine. This did not appear in any guide book but we just took a risk and went - and found the most entertaining tour of small town Australia. The tour company is a family enterprise with Dad driving the bus and one of the five daughters doing the tour. They tell you everything - really everything about their town including even the names of the sheep that are kept by the local police to "mow" the lawn in front of the police station... They are named after Australian lawn mower brands. But that is not all: At the end of the tour you even get to see dinosaur footprints on the ceiling of a man-made fire clay cave... Not that we would have recognized that they are dinosaurs, but still....

Beach on Keppel Island
Keppel Island: is basically the stereotype of a Bacardi Rum TV ad tropical island with white deserted beaches, palm trees and clear water. To make things even better there was the best internet connection on this trip and fantastic snorkeling! Yes, I went snorkeling for the first time in 20 years. Maik says I am a natural for snorkeling because I did not drown myself on the first attempt...

Outback Australia: The outback we saw in Queensland was pretty green - it had been raining a lot recently. We saw the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and learnt everything about life in the outback. We even visited a wool scour and the Royal Flying Doctors and learnt that working on an oil rig or as a sheep shearer is probably not one of our dream jobs..

Blue Mountains Waterfall
Blue Mountains: Eventually we had to turn back southward again towards Sydney and discovered that Australian National Parks are not the most accessible ones: We drove 124 km along Wollemi National Park and there is not a single decent road leading into it. Out of frustration I suggested visiting the Blue Mountains - and big surprise: We encountered some of the most impressive scenery and waterfalls! Now I understand why the Blue Mountains are World Heritage.

Canberra: Here we are staying with Aussie Dave, an Australian long-distance hiker and his wife smack bang in the country. Maik is feeding the kangaroos and cockatoos every morning and then we go sightseeing of which there is a lot to do here. The Parliament building is very new, but not very pretty, but at least very interesting. And because the Old Parliament is now empty, they turned it into an even more interesting museum. Not to mention the National Art Gallery and a confusing Australian Museum. I am a bit sight-seen out and ready for hiking again!

Canberra War Memorial
I can't list all the National Parks and small towns we visited. We have seen everything from fantastic beaches, subtropical rain forests, spectacular mountains and arid outback to small towns in the middle of nowhere whose only claim to fame is a giant banana (Port Macquarie) or a statue of the local sheep shearer hero Jackie Howe, who had shorn 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 minutes (Barcaldine)! We ate lamb sausages and kangaroo steak! We never paid for accommodation or camping while we had the camper van. And Maik drove over 5.000 km! Great trip and I am pretty sure Maik will come back to Australia....

Saturday, October 23, 2010

My life as a tourist: Part 1

For 3 weeks I will lead the life of a normal tourist: No hiking (well, almost no hiking), no cycling, no paddling. Why is that? My friend Maik from Berlin has come all the way from Germany to visit me and now we are on a camper van road trip through East Coast Australia.

Inside an art object
Maik flew into Sydney and was rather jet lagged after 31 hours of flight - no surprise! For the first time in ages I stayed in a youth hostel again, and quite a posh one right smack bang in the centre of Sydney. We visited a lot of museums and even more food courts where I tried to recover from dehydrated hiker food by eating myself through the menus of Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese food stalls.

After 3 days of big cities life Maik picked up our rental camper van which is total luxury compared to an ultralight tarptent. It has a sink, watertank, gas stove and all sorts of kitchen equipment you can possibly think of plus a foldable bed. The kitchen entices me to all sorts of cooking adventures as you might have guessed. The only down side is the huge petrol consumption of our vehicle: 15 liters per 100 km. Although petrol is not as expensive here as it is in Europe, it still hurts me to see the gas guzzling....

I have planned our itinerary and my goal was to show Maik a lot of diverse Australian landscapes and cultures. So far we have seen:

Waterfall Way
Cities: Sydney, of course. But also Surfers Paradise, which makes Miami look like a little village and boasts the highest skyscraper in the Southern hemisphere, a fantastic beach and so much urban sprawl that it almost made me puke.

Beaches: Driving up the East Coast we have seen plenty of beaches and even for me it is still amazing to see how deserted they are. A beach here is crowded if there are more than 2 people on it.... A special highlight was an Aussie barbecue right on the beach.

Alternative Australia: A surprise discovery was the small village of Nimbin - apparently alternative life style capital of Australia. It is located in the Gold Coast Hinterland and boasts a hemp embassy, alternative eco cafes and unfortunately, a lot of drug dealers.

Rainforest: For me this has been the most amazing part of this trip as I have not hiked in rainforest before. We followed the "Waterfall Way" which showcases one waterfall in lush rain forest after another. Maik does not believe that Australia is a dry continent anymore - neither do I. We hiked several little rainforest walks including skywalks. In one National Park they apparently did not believe in trail maintenance as we ended up following pink ribbons through thick dark rain forest - a real jungle adventure that resulted in leech and tick bites for Maik and a very bumpy dirt road ride plus river crossing for our camper van. I got so enthusiastic about the rainforest walks that I even did a small (and very well maintained one) at night with a full moon. A bit creepy, but extremely interesting. I did not realize that Queensland has several so called "Great Walks", a series of multi-day walks in Queensland's National Parks: www.derm.qld.gov.au/parks_and_forests/great_walks/. That could be an idea for another hiking trip.

Maik testing water depth
Life with the camper van is pure luxury: Tea and toast for breakfast, 2 course dinners with wine every night. I have even found several Aldi stores here on the East Coast! I love shopping Aldi's and even found Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and Christmas Stollen! I think you can only understand how that feels if you have hiked for a year and only eaten crappy food.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Heysen Trail: Conclusion

I first want to mention that my conclusion has nothing to do with the bad weather I encountered on the Heysen Trail or with my accident. I had bad weather on the GSWW and still liked the trail. And my little accident three weeks ago is already a great adventure now.

So: Would I recommend the Heysen Trail to a friend? The answer is unfortunately very easy and clear: NO!!!! There is only very few people I would recommend this trail to. For example you would probably like the trail, if
  • you want to study the design and construction of cattle fences and gates.
  • you are an outdoor shoe designer and want to find out how much abuse your newest shoe creation can take.
  • you think that hiking is only good when it is painful.

Me at the end of my hike
But seriously now: I was very much disappointed with this trail. The Heysen Trail people have created a trail, but they have done almost nothing to make it enjoyable. It is very obvious to me that they did not have thruhikers in mind when they planned and constructed the trail. And this reflects on the amount of people who hike it. I have not met any other thruhiker, only very few section hikers. The Heysen gets only a fraction of the hikers the Bibbulmun gets and that is for a reason.

So what makes the trail so bad?

My biggest complaint is the lack of trail. I have written a whole entry about that so I don't want to repeat myself here. The Heysen is bloody hard because there is no trail and you are following barbed wire fence lines on insanely steep up and downhills. This is just no fun at all if you are doing this day after day after day. In the end I got so frustrated that I was bashing Heysen Trail signposts with my trekking poles swearing at them in German. (Don't worry, I did not damage them...). I never got that mentally deranged on any other trail. The absurdity is that the trail does not have to be so tough. If there was actual trail and switchbacks (that word apparently does not exist in Australian English), it could be quite pleasant to walk. But the way it is it is just tiring, exhausting and sometimes outright dangerous.

Second frustrating issue is the shelter/hut/campsite situation. Again I have written a whole blog entry about that but I still cannot understand how inconsiderately this trail has been planned. The camping situation is not a real problem: It is just frustrating to arrive at a wonderful hut at a rainy day just to find it locked - because you have not been able to hike a detour of 50 km to pay 3 AUD at the forestry headquarters and book it.....

Third problem is the unreliable data source. Although the Heysen Trail website has quite a good forum there is not much information there for thruhikers. I could not get any information about the availability of gas cannisters or what sort of supermarkets to expect. The guidebook maps are quite good, but the rest of the guidebook is a disaster. The two volumes are too heavy (printed on glossy paper!!!), the written information is useless and there are no distances given in the Northern guidebook. In the Southern guidebook the little distance information is often wrong on top of all that.

Is there something good about the trail, too?

On the final 60 km
It is difficult to come up with positive aspects of the trail, but I must say that the scenery is quite spectacular in places. The Northern Section in the Flinders Range, especially North of Quorn is quite stunning. The same applies for the last 60 km of trail along the ocean. In between there are long stretches of grazing and agricultural country which are not exactly stunning, but still sort of pretty albeit a bit boring after a while. Also, I have encountered very nice people and interesting history (like the German settlers) along the trail.

In the Flinders Range
Navigation was not much of an issue either. If you are lost, just look for the highest point in the vicinity. Then look for the most difficult way to get there by following a fence line. You can almost be 100% sure that this is the way the trail goes.... But seriously now: The trail was generally pretty well marked, but unfortunately different volunteers have put up the signs with arrows. And these arrows can point ever which way, but not the way you are supposed to go. I was misled several times by arrows pointing the wrong way. And up in the North were the trail goes cross country a lot sign posts were often knocked over by sheep or cattle and then navigation was a big problem. But you can download GPS waypoints for the whole Heysen Trail from their website. This was quite useful for me in the Northern part, but when my GPS broke in the Southern half, I could easily navigate without a GPS.

Final recommendation for potential hikers in Australia:
  • If you want to hike a nice long-distance trail, hike the Bibbulmun Track.
  • If you have less time, but want to see much and hike an easy trail, hike the Great South West Walk.
  • If you want to see stunning scenery, hike the Larapinta. 
  • If you are a glutton for punishment, then hike the Heysen....

Monday, October 11, 2010

Heysen Trail: The people

Marschall Hut built by German settlers
I want to mention first that I hardly met any other hikers on the Heysen Trail. I did not see any other thruhikers like me, only section hiker - if at all. The Friends of the Heysen Trail organise weekend walks and these groups hike the whole - but it takes them 2 to 3 years..... Compared to all the other trails I have hiked in Australia, this is a very lonely trail....

But I still met some very interesting and lovely people. My first "homestay" was in Melrose where my Adelaide host had arranged for me stay with friends of his. Unfortunately, he did not have their exact address, but he gave me a vague description of Hugh's and his Japanese wife Kyoko's place. But when I was wondering around in Melrose (in the rain of course, what else!), I could not find their house. And of course there was no cell phone reception to call them either.... Melrose is a small place and so I decided to just ask around. I flagged down the first car, but they were tourists like me and had no clue. The second car I flagged down by more or less jumping in front of it was driven by an older gentleman. I asked him whether he knew where Hugh and Kyoko were living... long silence. Eventually he said: "I did not know they are called Hugh and Kyoko. I always just call them neighbors. They live across the street from me." Bingo!!! That evening I was rewarded with DIY-sushi and miso soup.

Me and John
My second "homestay" resulted out of my fall. Heather and John, who had "rescued" me, own a farm right next to the accident scene. This farm is huge! When Heather gave me a tour of the place in their 4WD she always said: "As far as you can see this way, it is all John's land". Well, you will never hear a German farmer say anything like "as far as you can see...." And you will also never see that much farm machinery and monster trucks in a German farm shed. I had lost my cap in the hole and Heather gave me new one - with "John Deere" written on it. I now look like a real Aussie farm girl and everybody asks me where I got the cap from. John is also owner of 3,000 sheep - which resulted in a wonderful roast lamb leg for lunch and me learning a lot about sheep, sheep dogs, wool and mutton. I will never forget their hospitality and can't thank them enough for their help.

Note the German misspelling
My third, but short homestay happened after a night in rat infested Marschall hut. I had arrived very late the night before and was very much surprised to read that the hut had originally been built by Germans from Spreewald, which is less than 100 km away from my hometown Berlin. When I was packing up next morning I saw a 4WD coming up to the hut. Out came Mr. Huppatz, the land owner - of German descent with blue eyes and blond hair. After a short chat he invited me to a tour of the family cemetery and his farm. Of course, I agreed and learnt a lot about the German settlers from Prussia who had come to Australia in the mid 1800 because of religious persecution.  Mr. Huppatz even had a book with his family history - but has never been to Germany.

Heysen Trail: Where to stay

The Heysen Trail provides several designated campsites/shelters and huts. You need these places mostly for their water supply, because they are all outfitted with a rainwater tank. That is the good news. Here is the bad news: Whoever designed these shelters and designated their location has probably never been on a camping trip before - at least in most cases. The situation is especially bad in the Northern part of the trail where there is the least rain. Strangely enough there the shelters have the smallest roof. They are so small that you could not sleep under them and stay dry. They don't even have a little bench to sit on while having lunch or dinner. And to make things even worse they are situated where camping is difficult or impossible because the terrain is steep or rocky or exposed or whatever. The only thing you can do is get water and move on. Not very cleverly designed.

Would you want to stay in there?
In the Southern section things are a bit better. The shelters are bigger, often have seats and/or benches and sometimes you can even sleep in them. Actually some are even quite nice and have bunks for sleeping. But unfortunately, there are not too many of these good shelters. And sometimes strange things happen and the shelters are damaged.... This shelter was damaged by the same storm I had camped in with my crappy little Tarptent!



Hisky's hut - now with dental floss
Now let's talk about the huts. At first sight these huts are really impressive. They are mostly old renovated homesteads and there is even an old train station and an old school house to stay in. These huts offer a lot of luxury from fire places to kitchen sinks. Although I really enjoyed the fireplaces I think that these huts are more trouble than good. First of all almost all of them are mice or rat infested. I was lucky to hike at the end of winter and there were hardly any mice left, but judging from other people's comments in the logbooks the rodents are a real problem. Second, they are built with brick and mortar and plaster - and this means they look like shit five years after renovation. The plaster is peeling off and the places generally look very dirty - especially with rat poop all over them. In one hut the corrugated metal sheet roof had come off and was flapping in the wind like crazy. It was so noisy that sleep was impossible. I temporarily fixed the problem by tying the corrugated sheets down - with dental floss.....Not quite a totally professional repair! And third: About half of these huts are property of Forestry SA. That means that you have to pay to use them. You have to book them ahead of time to get the combination for the lock! Great for thruhikers: How do you book a hut at the forestry office that is 50 km  away? This totally stupid system forced me to camp most of times right next to a wonderful, but locked hut.....But one time I was lucky: It was bucketing down and I was just praying that the hut would be open - and it was. This was the one and only time on the Heysen Trail that I shared a hut or a camp site with other hikers. Two section hikers, David and John, had officially rented the hut and even had a fire going when I arrived. Sometimes life is good even on the Heysen Trail....

But what about camping along the trail? Well, that depends if you want to be legal or not.... Generally, camping is very easy all along the Heysen Trail. There are very few houses around and the terrain is mostly good for camping - especially if you have a wind stable tent (unlike me....). But if you want to be legal - well, then forget about a thruhike. Most of the trail is on either National Parks or Conservation areas or private land where camping is illegal. But intelligently, the guidebook maps do not show you whether the trail is on private or public land.... so planning ahead to camp legally is almost impossible. I just camped wherever I had to camp - and nobody bothered me, basically because the area is so sparsely populated that there is nobody there to bother you. But whether all this was 100% legal? At least I never build a fire or leave trash...

And in towns? Unfortunately, there is only one hostel along the Heysen Trail and that is in Quorn. The guy running this hostel must be out of the Australian version of "Deliverance". He had about 1 tooth left in his mouth and his clothes and hair have probably seen their last wash in the last millenium. Strangely enough, the hostel itself was very nice and clean - until I discovered a mouse running around my room. I complained to the manager and was told to be happy that it was only one mouse. There had been a mouse plague recently and other guests told me that half a year ago they had seen 50 mice running around the common room...

So the only other cheap choices to stay in town are pubs or caravan parks. Up in the North rooms were fairly cheap, although these pubs must have been build 100 years ago and have never been renovated. The South Australian version of central heating is an electrical blanket in your bed. Better than nothing.... Down South, especially in the Barossa Valley or the Adelaide Hills accommodation got so expensive that I decided to just hike on....

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Heysen Trail: Dangers and Annoyances

Well, I don't want to talk about the danger of falling into a hole again - I think I have covered that quite well... But some other unexpected threats have appeared:

Harmless sheep visiting me
For the first time in my life I have been attacked by a bird, a magpie. I was happily hiking along in the rain when a big magpie started circling above me. First I did not pay much attention, but the bird would not dissappear and came closer and closer to my head. Eventually I got scared and started waving my trekking poles around when it started another attack. The magpie then kept its distance but launched another attack 2 minutes later. These birds are huge and I must admit that I got a bit frightened after the 10th attack, but after walking further it finally stopped its attacks. I talked to some locals later and found out that these magpie attacks are not uncommon. Their dangerous swooping is even extensively explained on Wikipidia as I later found out. Apparantly I had come too close to its nest and it just tried to scare me away. Still, a very scary experience reminding me of Hitchcock's "The Birds"... Well, at least I have not seen a snake yet on the Heysen Trail.

The second Australian-only problem is gum trees or Eucalyptus trees. In order to survive in such a dry environment as Australia a gum tree can shed tree branches. Yep, that means that a huge tree branch can just break off without any wind or any previous warning. And these branches can be very heavy. You might ask now what's the problem with that. Well, imagine you want to camp.... I am always looking for a forested area to camp in to have some sort of wind shelter. But almost all forest here is Eucalyptus. Never camp under a gum tree if you don't want to be slain by a tree branch. And that makes finding a camp site rather difficult....

The third problem is more an annoyance than anything else but it really pisses me off. As I have explained in my last post there is no trail on the Heysen Trail. It is all cross country. Right now I am going crosscountry on grazing and agricultural land. Sometimes I have to fight my way through thigh-high grass. And because of all the rain and the morning dew the grass is always wet. After 10 meters the water soaks through me shoes and after 50 meters my pants, my socks and my shoes are just soaking wet. Great way to start a day I can tell you. I have had soaking wet feet every day for the last three weeks - all in South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent.....

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Heysen Trail or What trail?

To start with I want to mention that the Heysen Trail will probably never be one of my favourite trails. I will finish it, I will be proud of it, but I will not love it. The main reason for that is that there is hardly any trail on the Heysen Trail! For whatever reason - no funds, no manpower or maybe hiking philosophy - the Heysen Trail Association has not built a single km of trail. At least I have not seen any and I am 2/3 through now. Only when you are in National Parks there is trail - and quite beautiful and well marked one as well. But unfortunately, you spend very little time in National Parks....So what are you hiking on the Heysen Trail then?

4 km/h road
The Heysen Trail Association (or Friends of the Heysen Trail) have 5 signs they use for waymarking and these signs very well reflect my hiking misery:

Walkers follow Road: This is the best one! You are usually walking on nice dirt roads and average 4 km/h! Beautiful!

Walkers follow Track: In the best of cases you are following a nice, level, easily identifiable track. Life is good! But more often this track has not been used for the last 50 years and is obsured by blow downs, creek beds and wash outs. It can be almost vertical and you wonder how any jeep ever travelled on that track. But still, this is usually one of the better parts of the trail.

Knife-edge walking
Walkers follow Ridge: That means that the Heysen Trail takes you up an incredibly steep mountain range, usually going cross country on rocky terrain and when you are on top of the whole thing and can look down on a beautiful, flat dirt road paralleling the range, the markers on top where you are all of a sudden disappear and the last one says: Walkers follow Ridge. Instead of hiking 4 km/h on the parallel dirt road down there, you are climbing around steep precipices clinging to rocks and lonely trees at an average speed of 1 km/h. The problem is not so much getting lost as the ranges here are very pronounced, but finding a way where you will not sprain your ankle or fall into the abyss.

Lovely rocky creek bed to follow
Walkers follow Creek: Of course, all the creeks are usually dry - except when I hike the Heysen Trail. But water is not the biggest problem here. The creeks here can be pretty wide and can flood - therefore the Heysen Trail people have put the markers on top on the creek banks. So far so good. That means you have two choices: You follow the markers on top of the creek bank where the terrain is usually quite nice - but every 200 meters there is a side creek entering. And that means that you have an almost vertical climb down and up the bloody side creek. Or you stay in the creek bed stumbling along on football sized boulders and hike into the wrong side creek, because you have not seen the trail marker on top of the creek bank. No matter what: You are averaging less than 3 km/h and risk sprained ankles. Of course the Heysen Trail maps do not give distances and the creeks can be very winding. What looks like 2 km on the map can turn out to be 4 km. Sometimes you follow a creek for an entire day - and you never know how far you will get that day.

My most favorite marker
Walkers follow Fence: This is the very worst of all!!!!! Fences here are drawn regardless of what the geography of the terrain is. Usually the fences go straight up the steepest hill and then almost vertically down. Or they follow a steep hill side on apple sized rocks. Or they take you straight through a deep creek bed. And they always go cross country - no trail whatsoever. The terrain is so bad that I have wrecked my shoes after only 3 weeks! Usually a pair of hiking shoes lasts at least 6 weeks, sometimes 8 weeks. I am constantly sewing and glueing the soles of m shoes. To make things worse I could not use my trekking poles for the last week due to my hand injury. Things got so bad that I stood on top of one of these steep slopes and started to cry looking down... All I could see was an almost vertical downhill. I was tempted to sit down on my butt and glissade down, but there are too many rocks.
Look for the fenceline

I realise that the Heysen Trail is routed along the fence lines for practical reasons: First of all it has to do with liability - the Heysen Trail Association has insurance for hikers while they are on private property, but that covers only a small corridor of the private property, usually the fence line. Second, this is open grazing country. Sheep, cattle or just the elements would knock down trail markers if they were in the middle of nowhere. Third, the terrain is just very difficult here in general: Extremely hilly and rocky. But nevertheless the terrain is getting to me: The elevation gain per hill is not much, usually just about 50-100 meters. But you are CONSTANTLY hiking straight up and straight down. You think you know about PUD's (Pointless Ups and Downs) from the AT? Forget it! The AT is tame compared to the Heysen....

But no matter what: I will finish this bloody trail....

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Heysen Trail: The fall

September 14th was another rainy gray day for me on the Heysen Trail. I had hiked the day before in drenching rain and was throuroghly fed up with it already. I expected a lot of things that day, but not in the least that I was going to have the most dangerous and unpredictable hiking accident of my entire hiking career.

To understand what had happened and why, let me start with the circumstances. And unfortunately, all goes back to the rain. It had been raining almost every day on the Heysen Trail. This has been a record rain September for Southern Australia. So the ground was totally saturated leading to erosion.

Still happy before the fall
On that specific day at 5 pm I was walking along one of the Bundaleer canals, an irrigation system that was built at the last turn of the century. Although mostly disused now, most of the canals were full of water now due to excessive rain. The canal bed is made of concrete, but around it is a wall of rocks and soil with a narrow track on it, which now has become the Heysen Trail I was walking on.

The canals used to take water out of natural creeks and at that specific place I was approaching the concrete canal connects with a creek. In order to cross the creek you leave the one meter wide walkway paralleling the canal and step onto a wooden bridge.

Everthing looked perfectly normal. There was no way to foresee what would happen now. Because I did not know that the canal was leaking and the water streaming out of the canal had been eroding the wall next to it underground. I could just see a nice walking trail with undisturbed surface leading up to bridge.

What happened next is something you would only expect in a horror movie. Only that it happened to me - in real life: I took just another step on the walkway and was just about to enter the bridge when the ground underneath my feet crumbled and gave way. The best way to describe it is to say: The earth just swallowed me. The ground collapsed and I fell through a hole in the ground into the eroded cave underneath that collapsed as well. I fell all the way to the bottom of the creek with the soil and rocks following me and burying me. I fell 5 meters straight down.

The hole I fell through
Everything happened in seconds, but I still remember every milisecond. When I felt the ground giving way, I first thought that I would just sink in knee deep and that would be it. In the next split second I realised in growing horror that I was going in the whole way. Everything went dark around me and rocks were falling on top of me - but at least I was still upright. The next split second was the very worst: I realised I was doing a sommersault in all this rockslide and hitting my head. And to make things worse: I was in a narrow gully and all the soil and rocks were coming after me and burying me alive.
The gully I ended up in
In all the panic I still had two flashes: First: Protect my glasses. Second: Keep moving so I stay on top of the rock slide. I remembered reading about snow avalanches where you have to keep moving to create a cave inside the snow. And luckily I did both things very successfully.

After what seemed like an eternity the whole commotion stopped. My head was not buried. I could still breathe. I could still see. My glasses were on. I tried to move. I could still move every limb. I successfully buried myself out of the soil and rocks and assessed the damage. My clothes were more or less completely torn. I had lost one trekking pole, a water bottle and my cap. I was hurting all over and worst of all I had a very deep cut on my wrist that was bleeding profusely. I could recover the trekking pole and the water bottle, but the cap was lost under the rock slide.

The hole again
I was shaking and totally confused, but I had to do something. I had to get out of this creek bed somehow. And I thought how lucky I had been to survive all this with only minor damages. I basically thought that this is the end of the horror movie. But unfortunately, I was wrong.

The muddy creek
The creek was only about 10 meters wide and had very little water in it. As I could not climb up the steep gully and the cave I had fallen through to cross the creek on the bridge, I had to cross the creek down in the creek bed. And that looked easy enough. Piece of cake, I thought. Just cross the little muddy bit, jump over the little water flow and climb up the cliff on the other side. But what looked like muddy ground was in fact deep liquid muck. I took one step and was in it thigh deep. Still being confused from the fall I took another step in and suddenly I was in horror movie part two. I was in waist deep liquid mud and sinking in further and further by the minute. I could not feel any firm ground underneath my feet - I was just sinking in more and more. I had flashes of people dying in a moor. I started thrashing around to find firm ground but the only thing I achieved was to sink in even further. First I still tried to protect my bleeding hand, but after two minutes panic set in and I frantically tried to grab something firm with my hands and pull me out of the muck. Carrying a heavy backpack did not really help. After what seemed like an eternity I had pulled myself out of the muck crawling and clinging to firmer ground with my hands. My bleeding hand was totally dirty now. But at least I was still alive.

Down in the back of my mind two things dawned on me now. This is a situation were I cannot cope alone any more. I needed help. And second I realised that I was probably in shock. Not in the colloquial sense, but that I really was in the state of a medical shock. I remembered seeing a farm close by on the map. I staggered out of the creek bed with a lot of pain and problems and saw farm sheds and a gate. I opened the gate and found a farm house. I could not see a car, but the place looked inhabited. I was praying for someone to be at home, but I could only see dogs. Oh god, please don't let this be horror movie part three - being bitten by a dog. But the dogs were friendly and I just stood there in front of the house shouting "Hello!" and praying for someone to be at home. After a couple of minutes I heard steps and Heather came out of the house.

Me still in shock and mud
Heather later told me her side of the story. She can't hear very well and never heard me shouting. But she said she felt that something is totally wrong and got up to look out of the window. She saw a tall mud covered person (she could not tell whether male or female) with a completely white face. She said I looked like a living dead. But having lived on a farm she luckily knew exactly what to do and she even figured out what had happened before I tried to explain. She made me sit down. She realised immediately that I was in shock whereas I was just worried about my bleeding hand. Step by step she took care of me. I got rid of my backpack. She washed my hand with salt water and desinfectant. She inspected the bumps on my head that were not bleeding. She let me take a shower - luckily they had an outside shower on the farm. She brought me clean and dry clothes from her partner. And contrary to me she realised that the biggest problem was not my bleeding hand but the shock. And that hit me when I had finished showering. My blood pressure plummeted and I nearly collapsed in the bathroom. I sat on the toilet to recover and somehow managed to get into the dry clothes. She made me lie down on her sofa next to the fire and gave me hot sweet tea. I was shaking badly then and my face was white.
My pack used to be black
But from then on everything got better by the minute. Her partner showed up who is a First Aid helper. They inspected the wound that had stopped bleeding and dressed it up. And he prescribed me a drink... After all, this is Australia! So when their friends showed up an hours later for dinner, I was in a presentable and coherent state again. I even joined them for dinner and after hearing all sorts of stories about farm accidents I felt that things were not so bad after all. Heather and her partner John invited me to stay over night. When I was lying in bed that night and reflected over what had happened I realised how incredibly lucky I had been. I could have easily been killed falling through that hole.

Next morning we all inspected the scene. It looked even worse than I remembered. There was a nice little hole in the walkway - just big enough for me with a backpack. And down the hole we could see the cave and the gully I had slid now. John informed the Heysen Trail people and WaterSA who are responsible for the maintenance of the canals. They came in the afternoon and sealed off the area. Nobody could believe that I had survived that fall with only a minor wound.

The scene fenced off 
Heather drove me to the next medical centre 40 km away. I was still worried about the cut on my wrist. The wound was still full of mud and it was so deep that I thought I might need stitches. When I had woken up that morning I felt like I had been put through a mincer. I had bruises all over my body, everything was sore and I could hardly move my head. I had several bumps on my head and my temple was hurting when I tried to open my mouth.

At the medical centre I felt like a wuss. Because this is a rural area the doctors and nurses there are used to all sorts of gruesome farm accidents. Cut off fingers, chainsaw wound and broken limbs. My little cut was nothing compared to that.... Still, they took an X-ray to make sure nothing was broken in my hand. Then the wound was thoroughly cleaned and nicely dressed. No stitches necessary.

My saviours
In hindsight I must say that I have been incredibly lucky. I don't know how I survived the fall so relatively unharmed. Probably my backpack saved me from back and head injury. Also I was so lucky that all this happened so close to a farm where I could get help. But the best of all is that I met Heather and John - I can't think of any better people to take care of me after that accident.

Heather and John invited me to stay another day and therefore I am now having a rest day at their farm. This is day two after the accident and I already feel like back to normal again. My bruises are already turning into purple, I can turn my head again and the wound only hurts occasionally. Tomorrow I will start hiking again. And no matter what - I will finish the bloody Heysen Trail.