Tuesday, January 31, 2006

South Coast Track - Day 3

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Day 3, Fri Dec 30, 2005
It is a rare occasion indeed that I make it through a night's sleep in a small 2-man hiking tent and not wake up at least 5 or 6 times. It is an even rarer event that I manage to sleep right through. It was therefore quite an uplifting start to day 3 of the hike, that I woke up for the first time to the sight of day light streaming through the tent as I opened the tent fly. I lay there for a few minutes, contemplating the day ahead, and my general well being. I did this by running through a few self-checks:

Nausea: negative
Tiredness: minimal
Appetite: increasing
General Health (as a percentage): 75%
Assessment: Good to go.

It was great to wake up feeling (relatively) healthy. In fact, it felt so fantastic that when I emerged from my tent, I appeared to be the first at the camp site to do so. This is actually not so unusual for me. One of my simplest pleasures when hiking (or even just camping), is getting out of bed early (preferably first) to catch the early morning sun, and to just enjoy the tranquil and calming atmosphere before the masses awake, particularly when the location is beautiful. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, this camp site was nothing to write home about, but fortunately a short two minute walk out of the shrubbery deposited you at the mouth of the river we crossed the previous day. While the river itself was quite nice, the majestic view down the beach we had spent the last two days walking on (and in my case, vomiting on), was the real highlight.

The weather was still looking dubious, though it had stopped raining sometime earlier. What struck me when looking down the 6 or 7km stretch of beach, and at the surrounding hills around the bay, was that it was clear that the weather in the South West of Tasmania can vary significantly, not only from one moment to the next, but also from one mountain to the next. Of course, the track notes did mention something about it raining two out of every three days, but I guess you never really take these things in until you see it for yourself. While I could see some regions of the national park still receiving rain, others appeared to be basking in the warm morning sun. As I looked to the west, where the weather seemed to be coming from, it was encouraging to see that large patches of blue sky were prevailing.

As I turned my attention to the east, along the shorter stretch of sand that completed the Cox Bight coast line as I continued my weather watching, I was somewhat surprised to see that I was in fact, not the only person out of bed afterall. Claire and Alec had not only beaten me, but had clearly been up for sometime, given the distance they had walked down the beach on what appeared to be a most romantic morning stroll. I resisted the urge to run up behind them and scare the crap out them, as I thought that might spoil the moment, so instead, I decided to walk back to our camp site. Just as I turned to do this, I was surprised again to find someone else had emerged. Affrica appeared to be bush bashing through some beach side shrubbery, in search of a suitable location to call her own (i.e. a toilet). This camp site had no designated toilet, and so each hiker was left to find their own "place of contemplation". This is quite alarming when you consider the popularity of the walk, and the many years for which it has existed. I advise future South Coast hikers to refrain from exploring too thoroughly, the surrounding bushland of this campsite, for one may find more than one expects.

After an hour or so of beach side wandering, we all returned to the camp site to have breakfast, (muesli with powdered milk), and to discuss the days plan. The plan was uncertain because of the advice given to us from those who returned from attempting the walk the day before. They (or at least the old bloke I now name "wallaby Jack"), had suggested the river crossing would not be achievable until at least a day of no rain had passed. Alec, however, who is a very experienced mountaineer, argued that we should probably walk to the river and see for ourselves. We all agreed that this was a good idea, if only to ensure we had something physical to keep ourselves busy for the day. If we were by the off chance, successful in crossing the river, then the total walk time would be about 8 hours to the next camp site, if we were not successful, well, it would be about a 6 hour return journey to our current campsite. In the back of our minds was the fact that if we were to remain on schedule (we had always planned on taking a rest day, though not quite so soon as we did), we had to make it to the next camp site that day. So the choice, in the end, was an easy one. We would pack up our tents, and attempt to cross Faraway creek.

It didn't take long after this decision was made, to pack our back-packs, and say our goodbyes to the other inhabitants of the camp site. Many of those who had walked to the river the previous day, only to return, had decided to stay put, believing it was unlikely we would get across. This was of course, not very encouraging, but our keenness to get away from this dingy, over crowded campsite was motivation enough. Just as we were leaving, Cecil shouted some parting words: "Enjoy the mud!".

"Mud?", I thought, "excellent, that should make this a real adventure".

Memories of these thoughts now are quite amusing, given how little I understood of what "mud" really meant. It almost sounded like fun when I heard Cecil mention it. Sure, you're boots might get a bit dirty, and your socks a bit wet, but it was a sunny day (by the time we left, it was clear blue skies), and not particularly cold, so why not! Of course, what I had not really factored into my considerations was: 1. The extent to which the mud slowed you down, 2. The unknown depths to which you may sink in any given bog, 3. The effort required to avoid such patches, and perhaps the most under-estimated aspect of it all, 4. The relentlessness of the mud.

Hours of "mud dodging" lay ahead of us on this hike, and it all began on this day. Of course, one might think that the best strategy for dealing with mud is just to walk through the mud, rather than expending physical and mental energy on avoiding it. After all, you're gonna get dirty regardless (even if you are trying to avoid it, you inevitably end up having to trample through it). However, my personal reasons for trying to avoid the mud were not really motivated by any feeble attempt to stay clean (with perhaps the exception of the first half a hour, which began almost immediately after leaving the camp site). A far more important motivation was to avoid any ankle and knee injuries, for which I was particularly susceptible to due to a rather bad ankle injury incurred three weeks earlier. It is very hard to walk with any confidence whatsoever when you don't know, from one step to the next, where your feet will come to rest as they sink into the murky depths of a muddy bog. It only took about thirty minutes of negotiating the mud before Claire plunged almost waste deep into a particularly well disguised, swampy section of track. It was inevitable that who ever took the point position in the group, became the adviser for everyone else. Where ever they walked, you walked, except, of course, when they sank waste deep into the track surface. Claire was the shortest member of the group, and so waste deep for her translated to about knee deep on me, which was about the worst I experienced on this first stint of mud walking.

It is interesting to note that the mud itself was only on the track, and so, if one wished to, one could walk off the track to avoid the mud. The vegetation by this stage, had changed from the beach side shrubbery we camped amongst, to open plains of button grass, with no trees or shrubs to hinder your path should you choose to walk off the path. The problem with doing this is that you effectively create a new path through vegetation which is regarded as highly unique to this area of the world. Indeed, let us not forget that this national park is World Heritage listed, and therefore considered of international importance. The effect of people walking off the track, as is often the case, is made evident by the many muddy paths trodden through the marshlands. However, at the time, I was not particularly critical of peoples decision to walk off the track. The fact is, it was near impossible to avoid walking off the path, because of the risking nature of some sections of the muddy track.

As we walked through the button grass, and away from the beach, we also began to gently ascend up a slope. We were now heading North-East, and due to the lack of trees, now had a impressively clear view of the path ahead. Apart from the mud, our next major challenge of the day was to pass over the Red Hill peaks, a 200m climb over a treeless range. After this, we would then descend into the Louisa river valley, where our uncertain river crossing awaited us.

It took us just over an hour to reach the Red Hills, and so began our first significant climb of the hike. I was particularly interested to see how I fared, given my illness over the previous two days. To my (pleasant) surprise, I managed with no problems at all. The climb was a steep one, but assisted by what appeared to a relatively recent installation of wooden steps. This was in stark contrast to the mostly unboarded sections of muddy track that had precluded this little luxury. Climbing a hill with stairs is much easier than scrambling on all fours, up a slippery slope.

We all made the climb comfortably, and upon reaching the highest point of the climb, located in a saddle between two peaks, we stopped to enjoy a well earned drink, and panoramic view of where we had walked from, and where were walking to. While the view back was satisfying, and quite picturesque, the view forward was what grabbed my attention. You could see the track winding its way through the valley for kilometres. While the distance was somewhat intimidating, it was the sight of the track at the further-most point, climbing its way up a 900 metre mountain range known as "the Ironbounds", that really made an impression on me. Thankfully, the task of climbing the Ironbounds was not on today's agenda, that was tomorrow's problem, assuming we made the Faraway creek river crossing today! The Louisa river camp site, which was hopefully our rest point that night, sat at the foot of the ironbounds.

After a few token photographs, and my increasingly used motivational slogan, the Lewton Hewitt "C'mon!", we embarked on our decent into the Louisa river valley. The downhill section brought us back to near sea level, with some of the steeper sections again assisted by wooden steps, and less useful gravel. For the next hour or two, we again walked through button grass fields, and of course, mud, though it was not as bad as it had been before the Red Hills.

After traversing a number of small hills and troughs, we finally arrived at the infamous Faraway creek. As we drew near, my heart sank as it became clear that a number of walkers who had started before us, were lying around in the sun, and clearly not going anywhere soon. The group of five females who we had briefly shared our first camp site with (before we moved on to the second) were there. They did not stay at the camp site we stayed at that night, but instead, walked through earlier that morning. Also sitting by Faraway creek was a father and son, who had arrived at the river the day before. On the advice of wallaby Jack, they had decided not to attempt the crossing when the water was waste deep, but rather than walk back to the previous camp site, they instead camped on the river bank. Being an open plain, this must not have been a particularly nice spot to camp when the wind and rain was pelting down the day before.

After we put our bags down, we all went to inspect the river. It was clearly flowing quite rapidly, and the water was significantly higher than it normally would be. While this at first seemed like bad news, the father and son, who were now the resident experts on the situation, explained that the water was in fact falling dramatically. I thought to myself, "great, another self proclaimed guru of the land", but as it turned out, they had put considerable effort into formulating this advice. From about 6am that morning, they had been putting sticks in the ground every hour to indicate the water level at that time. Given it was now about 3pm, a long trail of sticks lay before us, and it was indeed apparent that water levels were dropping fast. We estimated that another hour was probably all that was needed for us to cross the river. And so we waited, in the warm afternoon sun, content in the knowledge that our hike was back on schedule, and things were looking up.

It wasn't long before others arrived. A girl from Brisbane, and her partner, a rather large, tattooed bloke with a thick Scottish accent were the next to arrive. I was quite intrigued by their arrival, as I had not seen them at our previous camp site. I asked them where they had come from, and the girl answered rather smuggly, "Malaeuca". This was very impressive, and I quickly had to qualify our own lack of progress by telling the story of my illness. I quickly realised that conversation was not really their forte`. They appeared agitated at having to wait for the river to come down, and it didn't take long. It wasn't long before the big burly Scottish bloke decided enough is enough, and so without hesitation, walked down to the river, almost pushing those of us gathered at the rivers edge aside, and grabbed hold of the rope that was strung across the river to assist with the river crossing, and he walked to the other side. It was, admittedly, quite impressive, and he did appear to complete the crossing with relative ease. The group of 5 girls, who like me, had obviously had a less than satisfactory opening conversation with this pair, gave him the rather sarcastic title of "captain hiker", which I found rather amusing given this was exactly the persona both he and his (I assume) girlfriend were clearly trying to convey. After they crossed, and waiting a little while longer to make sure all of us could cross without being swept away by the current, we all made it to the other side, and continued on our way.

We had all opted for keeping our boots on during the crossing, due to the unsure footing at the bottom of the river, so we now all had rather water logged boots, which made for more difficult walking conditions. While I managed to get a considerable amount of water out of my boots by bending my knee, and holding my ankle behind my thigh to let gravity work its magic, this effort was largely futile when I commenced walking again, and still felt the water sloshing around in my boots.

After about an hour of walking (or possibly more, or less), we came to another river crossing, Louisa creek. This time we had the option of climbing across a dead tree trunk that had clearly been placed here for precisely this purpose. The trunk, however, was not wide enough to simply walk across, and so had to be negotiated by dangling ones legs on either side of it, and dragging ones arse along the length of the dead wood. This, as I found out, was not an entirely pleasant experience, particularly when little knobby bits broke what was otherwise, a reasonably smooth surface. The greatest challenge of all, however, lay about three quarters of the way along the trunk, where a number of branches extended out, thereby forcing your dangling legs to somehow rise up, and over these branches. For those of us not so skilled in arts such as yoga, this posed an interesting, and quite nerve racking challenge. I spent considerable time, sitting on this log, considering just how I was to achieve this. Just as I was about to execute my plan, the group of 5 females appeared on the other side, adding further pressure to my predicament. Fortunately, I manage to lean forward and lean against some branches ahead of me, thus allowing my legs to pass over the branches causing all the problems. Soon after, I was safely on the other side of the river, and with all of us successfully across, we continued walking.

The rest of the days walking went without incident. For the most part, the track was boarded, and so the mud was largely avoided. It was, however, getting quite late in the afternoon (due to time spent at the river crossings), and so our desire to reach the next camp site was growing with each step. Adding to this was a growing sense of feeling slightly overwhelmed by the whole experience. While it perhaps seems a little strange now, at the time, I remember thinking "my God, this is only day three, and I am already over this!" The accumulation of having been sick, and then the uncertainty of the days proceedings, and of what lay ahead all combined to make me feel quite uneasy. This was not helped by the fact that I had started to feel slightly queasy again, and quite lethargic. I walked, as I most often do, in silence, trying my best to snap out of it, but ultimately just wanting to reach the next camp site, and go to bed.

After what seemed like many hours later, we finally arrived at Louisa river. Louisa river has camping options on both sides of the river, however, given the uncertainty of the weather, it is always best to cross the river and camp on the other side if you can. The river, by this stage, was easily passable, and so we forded the river with relative ease, again assisted by a rope. The camp site on the other side was quite beautiful, nestled among rather tall trees. Unfortunately, because we had arrived quite late, the sun was just setting, and we had little time to admire the location.

We quickly pitched our tents, and went about cooking dinner, which was pasta with tuna (or in my case, salami, because I hate tuna). Unfortunately, due to the return of my stomach problems, I did not particularly feel like eating. I did, however, force myself to eat, knowing that the next days hiking was to be the most difficult days walking of the entire hike, as we passed over the infamous Ironbound ranges. Soon after dinner, we all went to bed to get some much needed rest.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Paper Rejection - academic character building

I just realised I have been back at Uni for just over a week now, which is awfully scary when considering just how much stuff has happened. One unfortunate event occurred last week when I was notified by the chair of the European Conference on Computer Vision (ECCV) that my paper I submitted back in September, has been rejected. If accepted, I would have been in Austria in May, for my 30th birthday, but unfortunately this is not to be. To put things in perspective (or, in other words, to make myself feel better), this conference only accepted 140 papers from over 900 submissions. My reviewers provided mostly possitive comments, but they also poo poo'd a couple things, some of which I agree with, but mostly I just think they missed the bloody point .... anyway ... it is a very exclusive conference, so it is no great shame to receive a rejection. Its all part of the publishing game.

As it turns out, this rejection may in fact be the best thing that could happen, because now I am re-writing the paper and preparing to send it to another conference, the "International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems" which will be held in Beijing, in October this year. Having never been to China (unless Hong Kong counts), I am far more excited about going to China than Europe. However, this conference is one of the top two robotics conferences in the world, so it is no shoe-in either, but it has to be said, the odds are far better than ECCV (around 40% acceptance for IROS, versus 20% for ECCV).

There is no doubt that the publishing game can be quite brutal, particularly when you consider how many good research papers are rejected by the relatively few top conferences and journals. However, thats the nature of the beast, and everyone knows it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

We'll miss you Brendan ....

On behalf of all Australian Universities , I would like to wish Dr. Brendan Nelson a fond fairwell as he moves from education, to defence, as part of Johnny's re-shuffle.

We'll miss you mate! Just like we miss having equitable access to university courses based on merit and not on wealth, just like we'll miss affordable student services on campus, just like we'll miss adeqaute student representation on campus, just like we'll miss you're constant attempts to micro-manage university administration ... yep, we're really gonna miss you Nelson

.. and remember Brendan, you're in defence now, you don't need to be on the attack anymore!

The CSIRO diet - or - "How many animals can you eat in a week?"

While I am sure you are all excited about reading the next installment of "Why am I still Hiking? - The South Coast Track Chronicles", I thought I'd mix things up a bit because, quite frankly, its a bugger of a thing to write, and I need a rest.

So lets talk diets. "Chris on a diet ?" I hear you ask, "surely he jests?" ... well, while it is perhaps a joke, it is in fact true.

I have been convinced (or more accurately, "coerced") into taking on the great CSIRO dietary challenge, which as far as I can gather after a week and half of it, appears to be best summed up as: "how many animals can you eat in a week?" and, for extra points: "How long can your student income afford it ?"

"So why do it ?", I hear you ask. Well, the truth is, and this might come as some sort of shock to those familiar with me, and my beautiful physique - I am just an incy-wincy bit ....

. . . over-weight!.

Yes, its true! Despite the fact that I feel quite fit, and generally pretty healthy, apparently I am not in accordance with my original design specifications, and should in fact be about 15kg lighter than I am. Of course, I was as shocked as you when I found this out, and for many years, I have sort to defy this notion that I may in fact be over-weight!.

So I guess the next question is "why now ?" Well, for one, Christmas is over. It is, of course, the unwritten, but very well known 11th commandment: "thou shalt not diet over the Lord's birthday" that dictates this. Secondly, the weight loss has already begun, having lost about 4kg on the South Coast track - thanks mainly to a 24 hour vomit fest as well as general mal-nourishment as the days lingered on.

Aff actually purchased the CSIRO book a month or two ago, with all the best intentions to start it after Christmas. She eventually committed to starting the diet after our Tassie hike. I, however, was not so easily convinced, a fact that probably wasn't helped by Aff's choice to discuss this decision with me on the 10th day of out hiking trip, as I wearily swayed from side to side, while eyeing off a very juicy looking caterpillar. However, after finishing the hike and then proceeding to eati non-stop for three or four days after, I eventually reached a point where I could eat no more, and realised it was probably a good idea to try and keep the weight I had lost during the hike, from coming back with a vengeance as it often does.

As far as I can tell, the diet is pretty much common sense, but does provide some useful information regarding the proportions of different food groups for each day. I am generally very critical of dismissive advice along the lines of "just maintain a balanced diet" which is often farmed out by GPs and health professionals. I am sure it is true but this advice means absolutely nothing unless you know what the f@#^ it is you are meant to be balancing. If that sounded a little angry, you can probably blame it on my mood swings as a result of not getting my dietary balance quite right. The truth is, I do not eat a lot of junk food, and in general, do try to eat meat and vegies, and in addition, I involve myself in well over the recommended portion of per-day physical activity. Yet despite all this, I am still quite heavy, and as a result, have become increasingly dishearten by such advice. What I am interested in is more scientific, and ultimately more useful, responses to the question: "what should I be eating?".

Thankfully, The CSIRO's book does appear to provide just what I have been looking for, and so I was happy to give it a go. Of course, not everyone is head over heels about the dietary advice given. The prescribed quantities of red meat appear to be the main sticking point, particularly with regards to evidence linking red meat with an increased risk of colon cancer. I have to say, there is A LOT of red meat on Aff and my menu at the moment. Even more interesting, however, is that apart from fish, other white meats such as chicken and pork barely rate a mention in the dietary schedule. My take on this is that it doesn't really matter what the meat is, its the protein that appears to be most important to the diet, and therefore any adequate source of it is ok.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the diet, if you follow the week by week schedule they provide, is that you end up cooking for half the night. The preparation time for most of the dishes Aff and I have had have been at least an hour. At first, cooking new things is a bit of a novelty, and so you don't mind it so much, but after a couple of night's of it, you start to get quite tired of it (although, this lack of energy may also be a result of the low-carbs aspect of the diet, which is also quite apparent. Anyway, I am yet to see any firm evidence of weight loss, but I do expect to see some reduction in the next week or two.

I guess, like any self respecting dietary plan, I should probably have a before and after photo. So here is the before shot, taken as of today (using spherical lense on my robot):

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

South Coast Track - Day 2 - Thu Dec 29, 2005

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Day 2 - Thu Dec 29, 2005

After a pretty horrible night of only limited sleep, and much tossing and turning as I tried to escape the feelings of nausea and claustrophobia, the daylight finally began to show itself, which seemed to instantly have an positive impact on me. I lay there in relief that the night was over, and that I hadn't vomited for a number of hours, nor felt like vomiting. Of course, the big question was whether I wanted to tempt fate and drink some water, or be even more adventurous, and attempt to consume some food. First, I drank some water. Despite wanting to drink litres of the stuff due to my extreme dehydration that had accumulated over the previous 12 hours, I took only a few sips. Thankfully, my stomach appeared to have agreed to come back to work, and kept the water down. I kept drinking water for the next hour, while the sun light continued to brighten. Then, in what I can only describe as the most euphoric of feelings at that time, I suddenly realised I felt like eating something. I decided to try and eat a muesli bar, which was easily obtained from my backpack sitting just outside the tent door, under the fly. I ate it and lay back waiting for a response. Again, thankfully, nothing eventuated. The vomiting appeared to have stopped.

I lay in the tent for the entire morning, sleeping off the worst hangover of my life (despite not having had a single drink), while the rest of the group were up and about, pottering around the camp site. Well, at least this was what Claire, Alec and Aff were doing. James, as far as I am aware, spent most of the day playing his hand held Nintendo DS which he had brought along for the hike, along with enough battery life to power Hobart for a week. I don't think I'd include the Nintendo DS on my recommended hiking inventory, but it appeared to serve its purpose well for James, who probably had the most exciting day of anyone. In the end, it was unfortunate that a rest day had to be taken on only the second day of the hike. If it were later, and everyone was more hiking weary, then perhaps it would have been more appreciated, but such is life.

I eventually emerged from the tent in the early afternoon, and again attempted to eat something for lunch, despite not feel particularly hungry. The crucial thing was, of course, to drink lots of water, and to try and eat as much as I could to get my energy levels up. While the vomiting had stopped, I was still experiencing mild feelings of nausea, and still feeling very lethargic.

As late afternoon approached, and I had completed a small walk up the beach, I discussed with Aff (who was walking with me), the possibility of us walking the few extra kilometers (about 4 or 5), to the next camp site at the end of the beach. This was not only to try and get a head start on the next day, but also to move away from the camp site which unfortunately for me, had become a constant reminder of my sickness. Also, a group of 5 female hikers had arrived, which made the camp site rather crowded. So after discussing this suggestion with the rest of the group, it was pretty clear everyone felt similarly, and so we packed up our tents, and embarked on the short walk to the next camp site.

Of course, almost perfectly on cue, the rain and wind arrived as we started walking East along the beach. While the rain was generally pretty light, the wind was fierce. Thankfully, it was blowing from the West, and so its only effect was to push us faster along the beach. The main problem was that it also whipped up the sand and drove it into any bare patch of skin facing into the wind. Each grain of sand was like a miniature bullet, and it wasn't long before my calves were completely red raw from the unrelenting sand storm.

Adding further adventure to what was meant to be a pleasant beach walk, we came to our first river crossing of the hike. At the time, I remember thinking this river crossing was quite a tricky one, but in comparison to the later river crossings, this was nothing of particular note. Being early in the hike, we were a little more cautious about getting hiking boots and socks wet as well, and so spent considerable time taking off shoes and socks to cross it. This was made less pleasant by the cold Westerly wind, and the rain. Once we crossed the river, we then made our way around the bottom of a rocky cliff face that jetted out towards the ocean water, and also served as a shelter from the wind and rain once on the other side of it. After putting our shoes and socks back on, we continued our journey along the Cox Bight beach, only to again stumble onto an even bigger river (name unknown). Again, we crossed this river with shoes and socks off, and then made our way up a path that led away from the beach, and into dense shrubbery, high enough to provide shelter from the wind and rain which had again picked up. About 20 metres in, we find the camp site.

Unfortunately, our decision to leave Point Eric probably turned out to be a bad one. Our new found camp site was no where near as beautiful as Point Eric, but even worse, the campsite was even more overcrowded as a number of other hikers arrived not long after us. These hikers all arrived from the opposite direction to us, which was a little confusing given three of them were people we knew had started the walk from Meleuca on the same day as us. As it turned out, they had attempted to walk to the next camp site, but due to the heavy rain, were unable to cross Faraway Creek, which was about three hours walk from this camp site. So these people had walked there, realised they couldn't cross the river, and then walked back to this camp site. That's a lot of walking for no gain in distance. Two of these people, Gaorg and Cecile, were fellow passengers on the plane when we flew in, and were very friendly. We saw a lot of them in the days to come. The other person, an older man whose name I never found out, was also a nice bloke, but also very keen to dispense his wealth of knowledge on hiking and existing in the wilderness. It was apparently on his advice, that the others did not cross Faraway creek. He also informed us that we needn't bother walking there the next day, as the river was unlikely to come down enough to cross, even if it stopped raining then. Given the rain had started again, and didn't look like stopping for quite sometime, things were looking quite grim.

In terms of my illness, the walk to this camp site, while not as easy as anticipated, did appear to distract me from my feelings of queasiness. I actually felt pretty good, and managed to eat dinner with no great problems. I was, however, still feeling very tired, and so went to bed quite early in the hope that day 3 would bring with it, new found energy, as well as better weather.

Previous post: Day 1 South Coast Track | Next post: Day 3

South Coast Track - Day 1 - Wed Dec 28, 2005

Previous post: South Coast Track Prelude | Next post: Day 2

Day 1 - Wed Dec 28, 2005

After spending the previous day in Hobart shopping frantically for food and sorting out other necessary things such as purchasing a decent pair of hiking socks, finding accommodation for the night we were intending to return, and ensuring coffee for the hike was adequately supplied (two boxes of Robert Tim's finest "pretend its not instant coffee when everyone knows it really is" coffee bags), we were finally ready to go.

It was, as always, an agonising task working out what clothes to take and what not to take. In the end I decided on the following:

- 1 pair of hiking boots
- 2 thick pairs of hiking socks
- 2 thin pairs of inner socks
- 3 pairs if undies !
- 2 t-shirts.
- 1 long sleeve thermal top.
- 1 pair of thermal bottoms (the always attractive "long Johns")
- 2 pairs of shorts.
- 1 pair of long hiking pants (from which one of the shorts is zipped).
- 1 pair of very light Thai fisherman's pants (for around the camp site, and for bed).
- 1 warm jacket (a wind breaker, also a good pillow)
- 1 waterproof rain coat.
- 1 pair of water proof over-pants.

I should say, there are changes I would make to this having now completed the hike, but I will leave such discussion until the end.

Our first day of hiking was to be an early start, as we had organised to be picked up in a mini-van at 8am by some bloke from Par Avion, the flight charter company of choice for flying us to the start of the walk at a little isolated airstrip known as Melaleuca. The only way to get to this place is by walking an extra five days from Port Davey (the closest point with road access), or flying. At $140 pp, its not cheap to fly, but given no real alternative accept a lot more walking, its not really that bad.

Upon arrival at Hobart's Cambridge Aerodrome, we were quickly ushered into a room with a rather large and intimidating set of scales. I don't know about others, but I always find it slightly disconcerting when airlines get hung up on the weight of baggage, as though the plane may drop out of the sky if things get to heavy. What added to my concern on this occasion was that they not only weighed our backpacks, but also ourselves. When I inquired as to why this was necessary, the pilot explained that this was to balance the weight distribution on the twin engine light aircraft we were to be flying in. Again, a little disconcerting I thought, but I should also mention that this was my first time in a light aircraft. After all weights were in, the pilot then announced the winner - me! - weighing in at 107 kg. I must say, I won convincingly - thanks again to Mum for a lovely Christmas lunch!

I must say, being on the heavy side is not always a bad thing - your alcohol tolerance is usually better, you can survive for longer without food, you stay warmer when its cold, and perhaps best of all, you get to sit next to the pilot when flying in light aircraft. I was effectively co-piloting the plane, which was almost a dream come true (I say almost a dream come true because my real boy-hood dream involved a train, rather than a plane). I even had my own head phones and microphone so I could talk with the pilot, which I did, at great length. Perhaps the only slightly disconcerting aspect of my seating arrangement was that I had access to all the controls the pilot had, and as such, was next in line to fly this thing should the pilot suffer a sudden heart attack. I made sure to observe everything he did, and asked lots of questions, just in case.

The flight to Melaleuca took around 50 minutes, and was not without some turbulence. In fact, most of the flight was pretty bumpy, but particularly so as we began to fly over the mountain peaks of the South West National Park. Being in the front seat, and in constant discussion with the pilot, I was fortunate to get considerable warning about when the turbulence would hit. It wasn't hard to predict - "is mountain, is bumpy". After crossing through the most turbulent section of the flight, known as the portal, which seemed to be perfectly timed near the end of our journey as a kind of climax (and also ensuring that anyone who wasn't already feeling nauseous, certainly was now), we then quickly descended and landed at the Melaleuca airstrip. The pilot then announced, "welcome to sunny Melaleuca". It was raining, a theme that was to continue throughout the hike.

After alighting the aircraft, we all looked for acknowledgement from each other that we all felt like throwing up. Quite amazingly though, no one had vomited during the flight, nor needed to upon getting off the aircraft. Of course, little did we know what lay ahead, for like the weather, vomiting was also to become a continuing theme for this adventure.

Given it was raining, and there was only limited shelter to stand under in the form of a little shed which held containers of fuel for our stoves, we quickly prepared ourselves to begin the journey. Due to laws disallowing the carrying of flammable substances on planes, we had to pre-purchase our fuel from Par Avion and fill up our bottles in this shed at Melaleuca. In order to cook in the National Park, you are required to take fuel stoves because the entire National Park disallows wood fires. We took along two stoves, Aff's Trangia which requires metholated spirits, and Alec's shellite stove. We ended up taking about a litre of metho, and 1.5 litres of Shelite. When it comes to fuel, I generally think, particularly after this hike, that you should take about 30% to %50 more than what you think you will need. Its not that heavy to carry, and its nice to not have to stress too much about running out, particularly when things don't quite go to plan.

After making some final adjustments to our very full back-packs, and taking the obligatory "beginning of walk, look how clean we are" photo (which I unfortunately do not have at the moment), we set off on our 13km to Cox Bight, which involved 3 to 4 hours of reasonably comfortable walking Southward, along a mostly boarded track. The rain cleared not long after starting the walk, which was slightly annoying given the time I had spent finding my rain coat and re-organising my backpack to be more waterproof (wrapping things like my sleeping bag and mat in large plastic garbage bags).

It was apparent very early on that mud, and water, was to feature on this walk, although the early signs were quite tame. One thing we all agreed on at our first drinks break (about an hour or so in), was that we were glad we spent the time the night before waterproofing our boots. A lot of the boarded track was actually submerged in water. We were essentially walking through a boggy marsh, and given the considerable rain the South West of Tassie receives, it is not surprising that you end up walking in water. When you weren't ankle deep in water, you still had to be careful because the boards themselves were quite slippery. Unsure footing was also a sign of things to come.

It was as we approached Cox Bight, a rather large bay on the Southern coast of Tassie, that my mood started to change a little. Until this point, which was about 3 hours in, I had been walking quite comfortably, admiring the marshy planes, and the hills that bordered this quite remarkable area. Until this time, I remember thinking to myself how good it was to be out in the wilderness, away from all the Christmas madness that had brought me here. However, as we approached the beach, a sight that should have served to further establish the good vibes I had been experiencing, I started to feel a little irritable, and worst of all, a little queasy in the stomach. I attributed the irritableness with perhaps, a lack of water, and so stopped to have a drink. The queasiness, I assumed, was some delayed response to the turbulent flight three hours earlier. Everyone seemed to be saying they were not feeling 100 percent, so I had little reason to fear anything serious was looming. That was, until we arrived at the beach, and decided to stop for lunch.

Again, no one felt particularly hungry after the flight, so I didn't think anything of my lack of appetite. I was, however, concerned that unlike everyone else, I really felt quite light headed . Before continuing the walk after lunch, which was to be entirely on the beach until our first camp site, I drank some more water, and ate some chocolate to get my sugar levels up in the hope that this would improve things. Unfortunately, it did not. I soon began to fall behind the pack, much to the disgust of my "wannabe alpha-male-ness". Despite the sandy surface being perfectly smooth and firm, I also started stumbling every so often as my concentration deserted me. "Surely this is more than a small case of delayed travel sickness?" I thought.

Just as I thought this, we approached what essentially was the half way point of the Cox Bight beach walk, in the form of a relatively small hilly peninsula known as Point Eric. Traversing Point Eric involved leaving the beach temporally, and following the track through some pretty dense vegetation, and slightly up hill. It is perhaps a testimony to how ill I was feeling at this point, that my memory of this would have me believing this small ascent from the beach was like Mt Everest, and the vegetation, something from the Amazon. I was struggling as we clambered through the bush. However, there was one saving grace - point Eric had a camp site, and if we wished to, we could stop there rather than continue the walk to the other end of the beach. It was probably only 10 minutes after leaving the beach, that we stumbled onto a quite tranquil camp site. And clearly, we hadn't really gone up hill much at all because it was right on the beach. There was no doubt in my mind that we should camp here. Without a word, I dropped my back pack, and just sat on my bag, with my head in my hands. I was sweating significantly more than was justified for a relatively cool day, and not a particularly difficult walk. Thankfully, everyone seemed quite happy to stop (as others were also not feeling 100 percent, but seemed to still be attributing this with the flight, and were not exhibiting the same debilitating symptoms I seemed to be experiencing). I was quite conscious of the fact that perhaps I was just a big woos, and everyone else was just better at handling it. After helping Aff put up our tent (which from memory, I think involved me handing Aff a peg), I was just about to get in and rest, when an overwhelming need to vomit came over me. Suddenly, my apparent lack of ability to walk without stumbling vanished as I exhibited a Cathy Freeman style sprint out of the tent and away from the main camp site area. The vomiting continued in about half hour intervals for the rest of the evening, and to a lesser extent, that night.

Most people know what its like to be vomiting constantly, but is quite something else when you are away from all the comforts of home, and knowing you have only just begun a very long journey that will need all your energy, and you have a group of people effected by your illness. While some memories are a bit vague of this time, I do remember feeling very stressed, and Aff telling me to calm me down, saying "don't worry, we'll have a rest day tomorrow if you need it". There was, of course, little chance of me being able to walk any great distance the following day, if at all, for even if the vomiting stopped, I had lost so much water, and felt so lethargic, that just getting out of the tent was a huge effort. Also contributing to my woes, was a growing feeling of claustrophobia in the tent, which further compounded my nausea. In the end, I left the tent and walked down to the beach, away from everyone else (they had started cooking dinner, which was difficult enough to listen to, let alone smell). I just lay on my side on a grassy embankment, and stared out at the ocean. For some reason, lying on my side seemed to help things, but as soon as I sat up, I would soon be on all fours, decorating the Tasmanian wilderness with my own attempt at a Pro Hart style masterpiece.

As the sun set, I decided to try sleeping in the tent again. Thankfully, I was pretty exhausted, and managed to drift off to sleep for what must have been about 4 or 5 hours. I did, however, wake up at some insane time of the morning, again feeling nauseous, claustrophobic and feverish. The only relief was to zip open the tent, and stick my head out in the cold night air. Unfortunately, it was also raining, but this didn't stop me again sprinting out for one final performance. After this, I drifted back off to sleep, and next awoke as the sun was rising for day 2 of this already eventful hike.

Previous post: South Coast Track Prelude | Next post: Day 2

Monday, January 16, 2006

"Why am I still Hiking?" (The South Coast Track - Tasmania)

"Why am I still hiking?" These were the last words I said to Aff before drifting off to sleep for the 10th night on what was meant to be a 7 night hike along Tasmania's South Coast Track. I regard this hike as the hardest I have done yet, for reasons which cannot all be attributed with the track itself - all of this I will get to. First, let me set the scene.

After a Christmas spent largely in the car driving, and over indulging, there was a clear need for some sort of physical activity in order to satisfy the great waist-line Gods, and return my abdominal bulge to an acceptable circumference (or at least, to something resembling what it was on Dec 24). Thankfully, all was in place to achieve just this, for on Dec 27 Aff and myself, along with our friends Claire, Alec and James, were scheduled to fly out of Melbourne on a 8 day hiking trip in Tasmania. Our hike of choice, after some deliberation over email in the weeks leading up to the adventure, was the South Coast Track.

The South Coast Track has the reputation of being one of the great wilderness walks, and is quite popular among experienced hikers because it is a relatively easy walk in comparison with other hikes in the Southwest national park of Tasmania. Most hikes in the area are generally regarded as advanced. The South Coast track is not regarded as advanced, but I can tell you that it is certainly not an appropriate choice for the hiking beginner. Of course, it always sounds bit wanky saying this, after all, it is just walking along a track, it can't be that hard can it ? I think its one of those things that is difficult to articulate. I have done a number of hikes over the last 10 years, but I learnt a hell of a lot more about hiking on this trip, than on any one prior, with perhaps the exception of my first overnight hiking trip in first year uni (I don't count high school camps) for which I took no sleeping mat, I carried my sleeping bag under my arm (to be shared with my girlfriend at the time), and only one 750 ml bottle of water for over 20km of walking in one day. It was a horrible experience. This time round, however, the lessons were more subtle, and a lot more about dealing with difficult conditions, changing plans (I never cope well with change), and the infinitely fascinating world of group dynamics when under duress.

When it comes to descriptions of walking tracks, those that include the word easy should never be taken literally. Hiking, particularly over many days, is never easy, and any suggestion that this is the case should really be avoided in track notes. They also have a tendency to make you feel quite inadequate, and lower your morale when you're struggling away after 8 hours of walking on the fourth day and not really finding it quite as easy as the track notes suggest. Perhaps this hike, above all others, made it clear to me that it is quite important when going into a long hiking trip (say 5+ days), that you have the right mental frame of mind. Expecting it to be easy is just setting yourself up for a very rude awakening, and ultimately, will cause you to resent things when times get tough. I am saying all this because this was probably the main problem with my own preparedness for this hike. Having comfortably completed a number of 3 day hikes over the last year, I think I went into this one expecting to breeze through it. This couldn't be further from the truth, and because of this mentality, I probably spent quite a number of days feeling quite resentful and ever so slightly bitter about what my much anticipated Tassie holiday had become. I will say this though - I think there is a real market for a book titled "The fat blokes guide to hiking in Australia". Track notes and descriptions from hiking enthusiast's on the web do not necessarily provide the best guide of what to expect. Those rosey coloured glasses don't take long to block out memories of the hard times. The thing to remember is that people who write track notes, and spend time writing about walking in the wilderness, are probably experienced walkers, and therefore quite fit, and ready for anything. In addition, they are writing with their fellow bushwalking lovers in mind, and so they tend to talk up the beauty of the hike, romantacise it a bit, and constantly refer to the "amazing experience" they have had. You don't often read stories about how difficult it is for a rather large bloke to squat over a pit toilet as diarrhea sets in, and while feeling nautious as another bout of vomiting looms near due to some 24 hour gastro illness. Perhaps I've said too much, but that's what my first night of hiking was like on this trip. Not sure if Frodo and Sam faced similar problems .. I guess Frodo had the ring to contend with (but no 25 kg backpack!), which might have felt similar. Of course, I was unlucky, and this could have happened anywhere. However, it is the accumulation of such difficulties that can make you quite travel weary after many days of it, and it probably doesn't get mentioned enough in the official guide books and track notes. I guess I want my next series of posts about the hike to serve this purpose.

So I guess the real question is, did I enjoy the hike ? Well, if you'll indulge me, I would like to hold off answering this until after writing the full story - this is not some sort of Sandra Sully style "keep'm watching" strategy, but rather, a chance for me to assess this question after having put down the events that occurred. To give some perspective on this, if I had been asked this question on day 9 of the hike, I would have answered with a resounding "no", but this was very much an immediate reaction to our predicament at that time, which in essence, is exactly what makes an adventure .. Well ... an adventure.

So lets get to it! Pack up your tents, fill up your water bottles, and strap on your backpacks .. The adventure begins next post, with day 1.

Beach side Blog'n

Written Friday Jan 13th

So I guess it would be rude of me to write my first post for 2006 and not wish everyone a happy new year ... but its my blog, and I'll be rude if I want to. Perhaps my reluctance to wish everyone a happy new year stems from the fact that my new years eve was spent huddled in a tent, cold and wet, on the south coast of Tasmania, with rain pelting down and only a single dry t-shirt to wear. Like just about all inhabitants of the camp site that night, we all went to bed by about 9pm. What else can one do when your four days into a hike, its raining, you have no music, no dry clothes to wear and you have four more days of hiking left ? .. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that you still wake up the next morning exhibiting all the basic symptoms of a hangover, despite not having touched any alcohol (actually, that is not strictly true - Aff pulled out the Rum'n'Raisin chocolate for the special occasion). It was, of course, so lovely to hear that the remaining 99.99 percent of the nation enjoyed a balmy, 25+ degrees New Years Eve while we were huddled up, trying to cope with the near hypothermic conditions of our predicament -just lovely. I will of course, provide the full excrutiating details of our hiking adventures in some up-coming posts on this blog.

And what of this blog - well, after a few weeks off, I must say, its good to be back. I have to admit, as last year grinded to a halt, I was somewhat lacking in time and energy to post much on the blog. It is a time consuming exercise, particularly when you are as vobabularly challenged as me, but sitting now at my parents beach house down in Cape Paterson (SE coast of Victoria, about 120km from Melb), with time and energy resources back in the black, it is indeed a pleasure yet again to be writing, and the words are flowing - "is summer, is good!". Such is my jovial mood, that I may even be looking forward to getting back to Canberra. I am generally very supportive and positive about living in Canberra, but I must admit, every time I leave the place, my thoughts of the place tend to be less enthusiastic. Canberra is a pleasant place to live, but it is not a place I think I can call home in the long term. My enthusiasm to get back now is as much about getting stuck into a new year of work, and just getting back to our place in Belco, which does feel like home. I am also anxious to see whether my rather hastily installed watering system and timer has successfully kept our three lettuces and four carrots alive. I am also interested to see just how much of our stuff has been burgled (particularly given Aff and I forgot to arrange someone to pick up the bloody mail).

Aff and I drive back to Canberra tomorrow, which should suitably deplete any feelings of being refreshed and relaxed - it usually happens at Albury, just after negotiating the unavoidable maze the Hume Hwy paves through greater-Albury. It is for this reason that I believe Albury holds the title of Australia's least-livable rural city. If you want country living, Albury surely is the worst possible choice - you could get more peace and quiet living on the corner of Alexander Parade and Hoddle Street! - but I digress.

Anyway, as I mentioned, the next series of posts will be dedicated to telling the story of the main event that occurred over the summer break - namely - The South Coast Tassie hiking trip. This turned out to be quite an adventure, as indicated by the fact that we emerged from the wilderness almost 4 days later than we had originally planned. The hike had everything - sun, rain, mountains, planes, beach walking, mud, brown creek water for drinking, and a whole lot of vomit (not due to the water though). It was by far the most difficult hike I have been on, not so much due to the terrain or the landscape, but more so the track condition itself, illness and the duration of hike (the longest I have spent without a shower, and only three pairs of underwear!) itself. So over the next few days, please indulge me as I tell the full hiking story in all its unrelenting detail. Bare in mind that blog posts may be a little thin as I try and catch up with other things and attempt to tame the monster that is my inbox.

And yes, finally, happy new year to one and all