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.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Heysen Trail: Postscript to Jinxed

Flinders Range when it is not raining
First I want to add that the Flinders Range in South Australia received half of its yearly average rain fall in the two days I have described.
When I hitched out of the rain on a dirt road, a family gave me a ride: They told me they had driven one hour to the Flinders Range just to see the rain! They had never seen so much rain in this region and wanted to sightsee the flooded creeks..... Welcome to Australia where people sightsee the rain!
When I was sitting in the library writing my last blog entry it had just started to rain again and it rained another 50 mm. To hike and hitch out of the misery had been one of my wisest decisions. I spent the rainy day in a warm hostel bed reading a book and listening to the rain and wind outside.... And funny enough the only other guests in the hostel where a bunch of older Heysen Trail hikers. They hike the trail in weekend long sections every month over several years. And because their hike had been scheduled for that weekend, they had gone out and hiked that day.... poor bastards!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Heysen Trail: Jinxed

I know this is getting old and nobody is probably believing this, but I still have to tell you: As soon as I started hiking the Heysen Trail, South Australia has had record rain! And of course, I had to hike right through it....

Me at the start of the trail
Yesterday it just dumped 54 mm of rain on me. Ok, the weather forecast had predicted thunderstorms. But I had assumed thunderstorms means half hour of rain and then sunshine. All wrong! This is Australia. It started to rumble around 2 pm. Everything got dark and some drops started falling down. Not too bad, I thought. But then it really started. It just bucketed down for half an hour and left me with an unexpected problem. The Heysen Trail crosses lots of creeks with very steep creek banks. Normally not a problem, but the creek banks are mud. And after it had rained, the mud was slippery as hell. And after half an hour of trying to climb up a creek bank I looked like a pig after a long mud bath!!!! But I made it up and the sun was shining, so all was well.

Wrong again! 2 hours later the rumbling started again. Everything got dark and lightning everywhere. And of course the bucketing started. Only this time it would not stop! I was hiking on an old vehicle track and within 2 minutes the track converted itself into stream. Water came gushing down everywhere. Seriously, I could not walk the track anymore. On top of all that the muddy ground become very soft and I sunk in all the time. I tried walking on the grass which was a bit better. But the worst of all that: It was soon getting dark and I needed a camp site. Unfortunately, everything was drenched, absolutely drenched with water. I almost panicked!

But luck was on my side. Just as it got dark I found a wonderful camp spot under pine trees next to a creek bed. The pine needles had created a soft bed and soaked the water in. Perfect! I set up camp and was optimistic. Wrong again. The rain stopped soon and the wind came up. Remember, I am hiking with a Tarpent Contrail. Not very wind stable to start with. But a desaster in 64 km/h gusts. Despite tons of rocks on the tent stakes one came off and disappeared forever. I tried to fix the problem as best as I could at 2 am in the morning in hurricane winds. I seriously thought that my tent would not survive the night. I did not sleep a single minute and tried to hold up the tent walls when the wind blew them in. It did not help when I heard a tree branch crashing down close by. In the US they call those widow makers.... I was camped under small trees and hoped to be safe!

I checked my watch about every 15 minutes but time would crawl only so slowly. I ate breakfast at 5 am and decided to hike out. No way I was going to stay on the trail in that weather. I found a nice dirt road and started walking at 6 am. After 4 hours eventually a car came by and brought me back into civilisation - where I am sitting now in front of a library computer watching the strom outside the window...