Feet First Australia

exploring Australia (and sometimes further afield) on foot


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Walking in ancient footsteps

A week ago tomorrow Simon and I stepped off the Jatbula Trail, having walked more than 60km from Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) to Leliyn (Edith Falls); and there we celebrated completing the walk (and made up for six days of freeze-dried food) with barra and buffalo burgers and scrumptious rosella and plain scones hot and crusty from the Leliyn kiosk oven.

Graded moderate because of its length and the need to carry a backpack rather than its profile, the Jatbula Trail traverses relatively flat country from waterfall to waterhole to gentle rapids, following a route trodden for millennia by Jawoyn aboriginal people. So we were delighted to find ourselves camping, and sometimes walking, with a couple from Tasmania, two work colleagues from Brisbane, and a group of Jawoyn, two Jawoyn Rangers, a father and six community children walking the track, all for the first time, as part of a school holiday program.

Their company added an unexpected extra cultural layer to a week of geology, birds, subtly changing environments, refreshing swims, and rock art sites, that otherwise would have been limited to a close encounter with an extraordinary ochre female figure who lured men to their doom!

The following photographs are a tempting taste of this wonderful Top End walk:

Melanie Ball’s website

Melanie’s photography as art and clothing

Wearable Art from Appliquez Moi


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Red Red Rock and other outback hues

I’ve visited Australia’s Red Centre several times in the last thirty years yet each time I return the colours still surprise and delight me – ancient ochre rock, subtle shades of green across hardy desert plants, chalky white ghost gum stripes, all against a blue sky backdrop. So does the sun’s power to wash out those colours in the middle of the day, when I am, unfortunately, often out walking with camera at the ready, and to intensify them at dawn and dusk.

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Uluru takes on many different hues during the day.

Over the last week Simon and I have done five walks with colours and textures in common yet all distinctly different. We circumnavigated Uluru, delighting in its curves and crevices and the stories about their creation; trod the Kings Canyon rim walk, sans chiffon and killer heels – why attempt to best that famous scene in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, when we were doomed to fail? – and teetered on the edge of cliffs that are vertiginous even in hiking boots; wandered through a grove of red cabbage palms dating back to the Gondwana era and watered by the world’s oldest river; climbed to the highest point on the Larapinta Trail, to look out over mountain ranges worn by time from Himalayan heights; and, our current pick of the five – have you got a favourite outback walk? – approached Ormiston Gorge from the vast pound behind it, rock-hopping back to the car down a corridor of fractured, sloping, layered stone rearing skyward.

Each walk was like stepping into a painting. See what I mean!

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Gorgeous grevillea (TBC) and Tall Mulla Mulla

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Simon on the edge atop Mt Sonder and dwarfed by geology in Ormiston Gorge

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Layers in the rock on Mount Sonder and a eucalypt at Redbank Gorge


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A Flinders Ranges double bill

by Melanie Ball

Melanie Ball with her book Top Walks in Victoria

Simon and I last visited the Flinders Ranges about three years ago, to do the 3-night private, guided Arkaba Walk – think canapés on arrival in camp, hot water bottle to warm your swag, wine and gourmet meals, and final night in the historic homestead.

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During the course of that wonderful journey across Wilpena Pound (on the Heysen Trail) and in the lee of the magnificently striped Elder Range on private Arkaba Station, we made friends with the couple who run the walk and station stays, Brendan and Cat, who generously allowed us to camp behind the station’s historic stone woolshed on our return. So this time around we began each morning looking out of our tent at first light on the Elder Range.

We came back to Flinders Ranges National Park to walk independently. But which walks? (Do you have any favourites? Would love to hear.)

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Wilpena Pound is a geological artwork, a great rock bowl at the heart of the park and Adnyamathanha creation stories (the highest point, St Mary’s Peak, is the head of one of two serpents who surrounded an important corroboree and ate the participants, after which their bodies turned to stone). The best vantage points for appreciating the shapes and the textures of the pound and the park are deep down in its folded gorges and up in the air.

Having limited time and neither the money for a scenic flight over the pound nor the aerial skills of the wedge-tailed eagles that cruise over it, Simon and I chose the Bunyeroo Gorge Geology Walk and Mt Ohlssen Bagge.

Bunyeroo Gorge (8km return, easy grade) follows the Bunyeroo Creek through the Heysen Range, a product of hundreds of millions of years of geological sedimentation, compaction, buckling and erosion. We spent about 3 hours on this walk, treading a fairly easy trail along and across an often dry creek bed littered with every colour of stone – pink, red, grey, blue – chipped and smoothed by time and water. Informative posts name and describe the different rock work along the way, the calcareous shale, sandstone, quartzite, siltstone and limestone, the seafloor flute casts and stromatolites, sedimentary layers upended to vertical and buckled to serpentine curves.

Our companions on the walk were majestic river red gums that have experienced hundreds of scorching summers and probably as many flash floods.

In the 19th century, bullock teams and wagons loaded with copper, mail and produce took this route through the range to the western plains, and the walking trail ends at a gate beside a huge river gum where the creek broadens and straightens to run across the flat.

The Bunyeroo Gorge trail is unformed and rough in places but there are no hills and this stunning walk is suitable for big kids and small.

Our second walk, next day, beneath a chalky blue sky, was up Mt Ohlssen Bragge, on the pound rim. And unlike the previous day’s leg stretch this hike (6.4km return, grade moderate-hard) is steep, exposed, rocky and worth every energetic step uphill and knee-testing one down again. We passed several family groups having fun – climbing up rocks seems to have endless appeal for many children – but questioned the sensibility of one couple with a toddler in a backpack because some of the rocky slopes would be a challenge, if not a risk, for the bub-carrier.

Having followed Wilpena Creek from the Visitor Information Centre and cafe (good hot chocolate) through the gap that leads into the pound, we crossed the creek and climbed from leafy, riparian eucalypt forest up through native pines, she-oaks, grevilleas with pretty, curlicue red-and-green flowers, and acacias with wattle blossoms 1.5cm in diameter (the biggest I’ve ever seen). Climbed and climbed to a rocky aerie on the pound’s rim (and then down again).

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It’s a gobsmacking view from up there, taking in Wilpena’s battlement-like walls and flat floor, the distinctively striped battlement-like Elder Range and the plains to the east.

You could spend days exploring the wonderful nooks and crannies, the big-sky views and the many cultural sites in and around Wilpena Pound but if you have the time – or energy – for only a couple of outings on foot then I reckon that Bunyeroo Gorge Geological Walk and Mt Ohlssen Bagge are the perfect double bill.


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Walk Safe & Comfortable

 

by Melanie Ball (this post is based on an article written for and published in Royal Auto in 2010)

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As Simon and I set off on a 9-week walking-focussed road trip around NT, WA and SA, the time seemed right to remind myself and others how best to keep safe on foot.

I love  bushwalking. Because it stimulates every sense – a sandstone cliff lifts my gaze to an expanse of blue sky patrolled by a whistling kite, fingers trace an insect’s scribble on a tree, each step intensifies the smell of eucalyptus, or rainforest humus, or seaweed – and nothing compares with the self-satisfied weariness after a day on foot and the guilt-free pleasure of sating an exercise-fuelled appetite with high-calorie treats.

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But bushwalkers also break limbs, suffer hypothermia and dehydration, and become lost and spend unplanned nights outdoors, their rescue engaging numerous people and making headlines, and some die from their misadventures. However there are ways to limit the risks to life and limb (and self-esteem) that don’t detract from the fun of going bush on foot.

Books and web sites repeat mantras such as “always plan for the unplanned” and “expect the unexpected” but some people do not even expect the expected or plan for the likely; just look at Mt Kosciuszko! It’s a fairly easy 6.5km walk from the Thredbo chairlift to the top of Australia (2228m) and you’re rarely alone on the metal walkway on a sunny summer’s day. But alpine conditions can change suddenly and dramatically so why do people – even teachers leading school groups! – ignore the warning signs and set off in coffee-shop attire when dressing sensibly and carrying water, a muesli bar, and a waterproof jacket might save their life?

The biggest mistake bushwalkers make, says Sgt Ian Colles, Coordinator, Blue Mountains Police Rescue Squad, is insufficient planning and preparation.  “They don’t take enough equipment, they don’t know where they are going, and they don’t have basic navigation skills.”

WHAT, HOW & WHEN

DSC_7146 (664x1000)Choosing an Australian hike is like visiting a lolly shop. The assortment, from city-fringe stroll to remote multi-day trek, can tempt you to take on too much.  Don’t! Select a walk that suits your group’s experience, age and fitness; and that doesn’t necessarily mean one that everyone completes without raising a sweat, just one that doesn’t test limits of endurance and enjoyment.

Research the walk’s grade, length and profile (climbs and descents). Check track conditions (with park authorities), weather, and fire danger ratings before departure, and cancel/postpone if extremes are forecast. Download a map of the track and buy a topographic map for longer hikes – and learn how to read a map and use a compass.

Four is the optimum minimum group size, because someone can stay with an injured walker while two seek help, but coordinating four people is sometimes impossible. Solo bushwalking has unique risks (and pleasures). When doing a remote day walk or overnight hike, tell someone your plans and contact them on your return so they don’t raise an unnecessary alarm.

Fill in walk registration logs where provided and/or leave a note on your car. You can download a “Trip Intentions” form, with safety hints, from Victoria Police’s Search & Rescue Squad webpage. Blue Mountains walkers who register their intentions with authorities are asked for information about medical conditions, intended route, etc. so that the police don’t have to waste time asking for this if you make emergency contact.

On the trail, don’t make or follow shortcuts because this leads to erosion and plant damage and increase the risks of injury and becoming lost. Only go off-track if you’re experienced at wilderness navigation. And if you do become lost (or injured), and a brief scout around reveals no obvious way to safety, stay put. Make your position visible, relax and conserve energy, food and water.

WALKING GEAR

The worth of what you wear and carry becomes clear only when something goes wrong. Footwear is a vital piece of hiking kit however the variety can bamboozle.  While walking sandals suit many situations, including hikes with water crossings, because they grip while allowing your feet to breathe, and ankle support is important on rougher tracks and when carrying a pack, one of my close friends wore elastic-sided boots in all conditions and some people still swear by Dunlop Volleys!

“I could list a whole lot of attributes that I think a hiking boot should have,” mountaineer and adventurer Peter Hillary told me when I interviewed him for this article, but if you find boots that lack in some areas but are really comfortable, they are the boots for you.  “If you’ve got uncomfortable feet your great adventure has got serious limitations.” Always wear in new boots/shoes at home and treat hot spots as soon as they develop; blister pain can be dangerously debilitating. WARNING: gruesome blister photo further on.

Socks affect comfort (and safety) too. Some hikers advocate wearing two pairs, others one (you can buy socks with distinct left and right for a perfect fit). Only trial and error will reveal what your feet prefer. _MEL1128Erskine Falls (664x1000)

And although they provoke repetitive quips about lost skis, hiking poles can lessen jarring on hills and improve balance on slippery stepping stones. Swinging the poles forward as you walk can also stop fingers swelling.

Unless you are into nude bushwalking, and there are websites and at least one designated trail for those inclined, what else you wear depends on climate. Cotton is cool in warm weather but is cold when wet so jeans are downright dangerous in alpine country – take note Kosciuszko summitters! Outdoor shops are full of synthetic-fibre layers that keep you warm even when wet. How you put them together is personal choice. I wear cotton leggings in hot weather to limit heat rash and allergic reactions to foliage and in cooler temperatures hike in thermal underwear and modesty shorts. A windproof and waterproof jacket should be in your pack whatever the weather.

As for clothing colour: I wear rainbow stripes to decrease my risk of being run over by a snowplough and increase my chance of being seen and rescued should I lose my way. FTlegsBut my colour preferences are unusual. “I don’t know why they [walkers] want to wear blue, grey, black,” says Sgt Colless, because such colours make lost and injured walkers difficult for air crews and ground crews to see.  “Black and dark blue is nearly invisible in the bush,” he says.  “Wakers should wear high visibility clothing.” And don’t worry about scaring off the wildlife; you don’t need to wear boring environmentally-sensitive colours to have welcome encounters with birds and animals. (Bright colours also look better in photographs.)

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In addition to sunscreen, sleeved shirt and shading hat, warm-weather hikers need to carry sufficient water. I prefer a collapsible, bladder-like bag with tube and mouthpiece rather than a water bottle I’d have to stop to retrieve and uncap. And even on short walks you should take energy boosting snack bars, just in case. A notebook and pen, a compact head torch, a box of matches in a waterproof container, and a whistle (for attracting attention), are other lightweight items that could get you out of a pickle.

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A first-aid kit is a must on long and/or remote walks. Blister-specific treatments used early can make the difference between a wonderful walk and a nightmare: hikers’ wool protects suspect spots and cutting a hole in adhesive padding puts some space between your boot and a hot spot/blister. Insect repellent, anti-itch cream and antihistamine tablets can keep bites and stings in check. Elastic bandages work for sprains and snake bites.  And you never know when you’ll be glad of your first aid training.

TECHNOLOGY

As in everyday life, technology now plays an integral part in adventuring and few bushwalkers step out without some electronic link to the world. Many walking tracks have limited or no mobile network coverage you have to hike up a ridge to make an emergency call. A popular alternative is the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB or EPIRB), which emits a signal that is detected (conditions allowing) by satellites and aircraft and relayed to a rescue coordination centre. PLBs should only be activated in life-threatening situations when no other communication system is available and penalties apply for unnecessary use. PLBs with integrated GPS cost from $400, however the Tasmanian government hires them through Service Tasmania for $40 per week, and a free hire system operates in the Blue Mountains. You can also hire them on line with Australia-wide delivery. The Blue Mountains beacon loan system is part of the “Think Before You Trek” initiative between the NSW Police Force and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. “The beacons get all the attention,” says Sgt Colles, “but we push people to plan and prepare so, hopefully, they will never need to use the beacon.”

We put too much emphasis on technology, says Peter Hillary, who made satellite-phone calls from atop Everest fifty years after his father scaled the mountain.  “I was interviewed by CNN on the summit.  It was bizarre when you think of it in terms of 1953 [four days passed before England learned of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s success] but technology is here to stay.” BOG43The danger is people relying on technology over planning and preparation.  Hillary thinks the Queensland, AustraliaGPS is a marvelous aid but should only be used in conjunction with the more traditional, older navigational system – map and compass.

 

Off all the hiking equipment available now, though, Peter Hillary’s favourite is a stove.  “It’s survival,” he says.  “Melting snow and ice, bubbling water, it’s life… a very happy sound.” Carry a hiking stove even on a day walk and you can boil water for a cuppa with a view!


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Stepping Out!

G’day bushwalkers of every level of fitness and experience and welcome to Feet First Australia, a blog about the simple pleasure of getting out and about on foot.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Melanie Ball. I am a long-time travel writer and photographer and author of Top Walks in Victoria and Top Walks in Australia, guidebooks published by Explore Australia; Top Walks in Tasmania is due out October 2018.

My motivation for this blog is the thousands of kilometres I’ve walked over the past few years and a 2015 spent travelling and hiking around the extraordinary country I call home.

And Australia is extraordinary. Where else on Earth can you traverse an outback mountain range worn from Himalayan heights to a gnarly rock spine? Stand at the altar of a moss-cloaked Antarctic beech tree which sprouted when Ancient Rome held sway across Europe? Or venture solo into big-sky country so flat you can see the curvature of the planet?

I hope to entertain you by describing and recommending bushwalks, swapping favourite hikes, answering questions, discussing and reviewing hiking food and equipment and just following wherever the blog takes me. I hope to inspire you to get out and about on foot.

A huge thank you to Simon Box, my husband and mostly-patient photographic model (that’s him in the stripy shirt above and those are his feet on the header photo), another Australian born in England. He wrote the Food For Thought post.

Thanks to all the other friends who join me on walks and everyone who hikes with me through this blog. I hope you have a great time.