One of many things to do for tourists in Sydney, Australia is a walk of just over 150 miles. It goes from Macquarie Place in Sydney all the way to Queens Wharf in Newcastle. It was purpose built from existing trails some years ago and officially consists of 6 separate chunks, that take from just under a day to several days to finish. The terrain ranges from piss-easy to bastard-hard and it is signposted at semi-regular intervals. There are camping spots and most of the time the trail is no more than 3 miles from civilisation at the very most, so you can always wander off to find water/ medical help/ a cold beer.
I had wanted to do this walk for a while now. It sounded awesome and was going to be a test of stamina, with a safety net just on the borders for an inexperienced novice like myself.
I’m not naive, nor am I foolhardy so I took what I thought would be adequate precautions before I set off. I made certain I had an appropriate amount of gear (first aid kit, TWO cell phones, tent, loads of sun tan lotion and dried food, etc.) and made certain that I had good shoes. I bought a floppy brimmed hat and a dry fit T-shirt. I worked out the various points on the walk and how long I thought I could walk each day. I even enclosed my passport in a waterproof bag and always carried it in my shorts pocket. I even bought an electronic mosquito repellant thingy to back up the spray stuff I’d got.
When I set off I had a streamlined backpack with only essentials plus a LOT of water (including a thermos of “emergency water” buried deep in the darkest recesses of the rucksack). I got a photo at Macquarie Place and set off to catch the ferry to Woolwich, getting off at Valentia Wharf and starting the two hour slog through the town of Hunters Hill before I got into the actual North Walk.
The first bit was tiring but OK. I only took a 5 minute break every hour and got a refill of water into one of my bottles from some guy hosing his front garden (who also was generous enough to spray my feet). I got into the Three Patriots Walk around 5pm and was happy to simply stroll along, not yet using my extendable walking pole (the model being a “Strider” no less) and marvelling at the scenery and the changing views as I moved along.
When I got to a place called Fairyland I was starting to get tired and the day was getting a little greyer. I found a clear spot near the river bank, pitched my tent, made some soup on my converted beer can stove, and watched the sun go down before drinking half a litre of water and crashing out.
I woke at 7am and the morning was beautiful. Peaceful and calm. I made a coffee and sat on the bank while the sun came up. About 7.45 a squad of canoeists paddled up the river and assembled near to where I was, getting into formation before setting off on a practice run (I know it was a practice because I asked the nearest guy to me) while a guy in a boat bellowed enthusiastic encouragement via a loud hailer.
I “broke camp” at around 8.15, packing up and setting off again, looking forward to a good day’s hiking.
The fatigue from the day before kicked in again pretty quickly. While the sleep had refreshed me, my body wasn’t used to this type of prolonged exercise and as I moved onwards the terrain became a little more difficult, with rocks to climb and twisting paths to navigate. My hourly 5 minute breaks began to become 40 minutes, then 20 and finally 15. I got to a rangers’ station and asked for directions and the guy was super helpful, giving me a free map that normally costs $10, and taking great care to show me the best way to go. He even gave me his mobile number in case I got lost or needed help.
I moved on again and then found that the walk was very rocky and involved climbing. While my feet weren’t hurting, my legs, hips and shoulders were now crying out in protest at carrying 30-ish kilos of weight in 32 degrees celsius sunshine.
By the time I got to a place named Thornleigh Oval I was in constant pain, I’d used most of my water and my rest breaks were every 10 minutes.
I threw in the towel at that moment and, to reaffirm my belief in guardian angels, a guy then came down the track on a mountain bike…even though the last time I’d seen another human being was at least three hours previously. He told me how to walk out and get to the nearest shops, where I strolled up, bought a can of soda and while glugging it, booked a room on AirBnB via my phone and caught a bus over to it. The lady driver took one look at me and went “You walking?”
When I replied I’d just bailed on the Great North Walk she tutted and said “Good. It’s not the weather for it, better this way than they have to come and rescue you”.
I got to my lodgings an hour or so later and after a shower and chat with the owner, collapsed into bed, my shoulders and hips still hurting like hell.
Next morning I found out that I’d done the official first bit of the walk, a distance of around 20 miles from Macquarie Place to Thornleigh Oval. I’d done that in heat of up to 32 degrees while carrying a pack weighing 30 kilos and achieved it in a time of about 8 hours. I’d also done it alone.
As dissapointing as it was to bail after what I later worked out was only 13% of the Great North Walk, I’m pleased to have at least tried it and to have spent such a lovely time (up until all I could focus on was the pain my body was in) in such beautiful country. Camping by the river in Fairyland was wonderful.
The record for completing the whole walk is apparently 54 hours. That gives me a sense of scale for how B.I.G the whole thing is as the two people who achieved that, couldn’t have stopped moving and just did it like an ultra marathon. While I never even dreamed of competing with that, I never once thought when setting out that a little thing like stamina would get in the way.
I’ll be back. Next time with a partner and a week or two to finish it all.