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....