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.


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