Hiking and exploring nature is a passion of mine and one I love to be able to share with you all whether it is a story of an adventure of mine or of someone else.
This is a story I felt compelled to share, one I feel should be shared as it is a story of adventure and exploration in Australia’s history. A story I heard about from a fellow hiker whist walking along the Bibbulmun Track and he later sent me the book to read. I was so intrigued by it and impressed by the journey that the two men had taken on I tracked down one of them to hear more. I wanted to share the story and sadly over the past few years the magazines have not been at all interested in having it told so I will tell it here. Read and enjoy and remember this is of a time very different to now!
In 1860 two explorers, Burke and Wills, took a journey of 3250 km from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in far north Queensland. These explorers crossed the continent from the south coast to the north coast, through an unmapped and unexplored land that no European had done before.
In 1987 two explorers took a journey that saw them hiking some of the most challenging wilderness Australia offers as they walked 6700 km along the spine of the east coast of Australia. This journey was predominantly walking in places that no European had done before and unlike Burke and Wills they had maps, although some were insufficient, and were not venturing into the complete unknown. These two also survived to tell the tale and what a tale they told.
This journey took them 375 days from the far west of Victoria to the remote tip of Cape York in Queensland. Along mountain ranges, through rain-forests and open land. Navigating through thick vegetation, scrambling cliffs and experienced rain, snow, wind, extreme heat and any other type of element that nature chose to throw their way, at times no relief except to pitch their tent at the end of the day and comfort themselves with a milo.
This is a journey that needed strength, endurance, guts and little bit of craziness thrown in. It is a journey that not a lot of people would even consider undertaking and not many people have.
I’m talking about two Australian bush-walkers who thought it to be a good idea to walk the watershed of the Great Dividing Range. Now a part of Australian bush-walking history and it has been over 30 years now since they took their first steps on this mammoth walk. These two fellas are Steve Trémont and Barry Higgins. When asked on what inspire them to embark on such a journey Steve’s response was,
‘As bush-walkers with an adventurous spirit it was only a matter of time and progression to move from one adventure on to bigger and better exploits. With us both having decades of outdoor adventure experience prior to meeting and naturally were drawn together overtime shared several bush-walking trips. The idea for walking the length of the Great Dividing Range came about during a 70-day skyline traverse of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. At the time we were on such a high that we felt that we could do anything. For me personally I was inspired to plan and carry out the Great Dividing Range trip as an example of being able to do a world-class expedition that was virtually in our own back yards. This also made it easier and cheaper to organise food and water caches.’
So, what is it like to walk 6700 km of raw wilderness with everything you need attached to your back, with only the aid of a compass and map, unlike today where we have GPS and modern technology to help. How do you go about preparing such a journey? After reading Steve’s book, ‘The Never Ending Bushwalk’, I was in awe at the great feat they had accomplished, so much so I just had to contact and talk to him about it.
Preparing for such an expedition is a huge challenge and journey itself taking Steve up to 6 months and a mere 20’000 km of driving just to put the food and water caches in place. In total there were 139 caches, 118 of them for food and restock of items including maps and 21 for extra water. Steve had to deliver and bury them himself, carefully marking the burials while keeping in mind that some of these won’t be dug up for a year or more. Some locations so remote and difficult to get too, especially in northern QLD, at times like mentioned in his book,
“My problems at that stage, stemmed from the fact that navigation was difficult as the terrain was tree covered, low and undulating. In addition, it seemed that our maps weren’t entirely accurate”
I wondered and asked Steve ‘Did he ever feel like this is all too hard?’ and ‘did he want to give up before they began the walk?’ I asked the same question about how he felt while on this journey and he said “No, never even entered his mind”.
The challenges in burying these large caches was not just the terrain but getting permission from landowners to cross their property to reach the designated cache drops and for the hundreds of property owners that they contacted they came up with only one that refused meaning an extra 250 km drive and 6 km of ‘Bush Bashing’ through some spiky tangled scrub-land on compass bearings just to place it.
Terrain: the terrain as one would expect on such an enormous distance would be quite diverse in what they would experience. There were open plains, farmland, undulating hills, mountains, rocky outcrops where at times they were scrambling. Steve mentioned in the book of some sections clinging and climbing over rocks and through scrub-lands being very precarious trying to climb and negotiate cliffs that lay in front of them. One time he climbed trying to find footholds using clumps of vegetation to help pull himself up a knife-edged ridge and as he peered over to his surprise there was a young lady dressed in running gear sitting and eating her lunch! They had experienced such a steep and arduous climb through dense rain-forest, fighting their way through the stinging vines and slippery rocks, how did she get there? She pointed out there was a graded track that led the way up.
Scrub-land often difficult though with the aid of their secateurs they could get through however in the rain-forests at times the vegetation was so thick that the use of the secateurs didn’t even help as they battled some extremely thick tangled vines and Wait-a-Whiles.
“Their barbed tendrils hung everywhere and seemed to reach out to catch us. Even the barbs of one small tendril, catching our packs, would stop us in our tracks”. (p 125)
Maps: a total of 292 maps for this trip. They were a scale of 1:100 000, 1:50 000 or 1:25 000. Back then a large section of central QLD that had not been published so they got the “dyeline” maps through the National Headquarters in Canberra, this was 19 in total.
It’s very hard to navigate using maps of 1:100 000 scale in the sort of terrain they will experience, seeing only 1 cm on the map equalling 1 km on the ground, means details are missed like rocky outcrops, cliffs. Maps scaled at 1:25 000, it shows more detail as 4 cm on the map equals 1 km on the ground.
Steve mentioned “Sometimes we’d walk on a single bearing for 25 to 30 kilometres and often we’d be unable to pinpoint our location on the map”. (p 94).
Another difficulty they experience was the dyeline maps not matching anything they saw in front of them. They were looking at a substantial range of rocky, cliff-bound hills that stretched out in front of them but according to the maps they should be looking at a large expanse of flat featureless country. Where the ground should have been level it had creeks flowing over the bluffs and hills! None of the map contour lines matched anything they looked at! Steve realised that this map had been printed back to front making everything 180 degrees out of line! To get through this stage meant Steve having to re-draw each section before walking.
Food and water issues: sometimes they would find the caches not holding up to the elements of time and cache number 72 was one. Just north of Jericho in QLD when they retrieved the cache, although it was buried, it was supporting a huge dent in the side causing the seal of the drum to be broken which means everything inside is exposed. It looked like a bulldozer may have gone through which caused the initial problem, but it was the devastating results of the insect world that was to finish it off. An army of ants raided their cache and demolished all their food!
As Steve had put it “The wonders of man’s modern world and its sophisticated communication network are nothing compared with those of the age-old insect, the survivor of all time”.
“Everything inside was shredded or eaten. The wrapper of each muesli bar was pierced and had an empty interior: all the breakfasts with oats and sultanas had been turned into a fine-grained mince of cereal flour, plastic and hollow sultana skins. There was no way we could eat that. Our precious Milo mix had been tunnelled out and looked like an ant nest, complete with the culprits in residence”. (p 91)
At times, especially when Barry was cooking these uninvited insects would be a part of the meal and not for extra nutrients as they were uninvited, often stirred into their food would be beetles, flies, spiders and ants to name a few.
Water on occasion was a huge concern and sparse so they would often carry up to ten litres each rationing themselves to a mere four litres a day for cooking and drinking.
“It took great willpower not to guzzle all of our water, or even have an extra milo”. (p 88)
At one lunch stop Barry announced, “To be a rich man in the bush would mean having another Milo and the water to drink it”. (p 88)
They were always looking for a water source and once it was heart breaking for them finding two large pools that were extremely unpleasant and foul with rotting carcasses of kangaroos, maggots and green slime. On further search they did become ‘those rich men of the bush’ finding a in a sandstone hollow some beautifully clean water. That day they enjoyed an extra milo. By the end of the journey they described their Milo as “the drink we’d almost kill for” and had consumed around 63,000 kg of it!
Cache number 74 was a disappointment as termites had gnawed their way into the wine-skins that held their water leaving them dry. This wasn’t going to be so much as a problem as they knew there was a bore just 5 kilometres away but on reaching it found the tank to be rusted and empty! Barry wandered around for a bit and looking over the gully he began to shout “We’re rich! We’re rich!”. (p92) The deep eroded gully contained water pool after pool, not only did they get their water for drinking they had a swim and washed their clothes!
Temperatures reaching in the shade mid-thirties but not much shade to be had was a concern. Packs weighing around fifty kilos each and the terrain so demanding it seemed like Barry was suffering from the heat far more than Steve, it wasn’t till a year later that Steve found out why. Barry had been consuming his own urine in his Milos causing him to have the effects of urea poisoning.
Another problem was when one stores food alongside other things like tea-tree oil for example for a long period of time you run the risk of having everything contaminated by the stronger substance. The flavour of tea-tree became common in their cuisine, so much so they named their food ‘Ward Seven Curry’.
Contact with people: This journey that took place back in the late 1980’s is a very different time to what it is now, and any form of communication was not as easy remembering this is a time before we had smart phones etc. I asked Steve how did they contact the people that were crucial to the expedition and keep them updated on their progress and on schedule as well as keeping in touch with their loved ones to let them know they were alright.
He came back with ‘Our communications consisted of a handful of blank, pre-paid post cards that we handed to people we met requesting then to drop them into a mail box at their convenience. On the card we would write a few lines indicating our location, date etc. and that all was going well. In the 12 months of our expedition we sent only 2 of these post cards.’
‘Our proposed itinerary was sent to friends and interested parties outlining projected dates that we were likely to cross accessible locations (highways and other roads) along the route. The plan was for any person who wanted to meet us, they would contact Paddy Pallin Pty Ltd in Sydney for the latest update of our progress. Our staunchest supporter in the field (Mac Beavis) met us many times. The first time he had waited for 3 days. By the last time he had honed his estimation skill to less than 12 hours. By the end of the trip we were 55 days ahead of our scheduled itinerary.’
Social media didn’t exist over 30 years ago, and Steve said if it did they would have utilised the technology to keep in touch with our sponsors and supporters. At the time they used the most up-to date technology that was realistically practical for them and recommends to anyone contemplating an expedition should consider using the most modern and convenient-to-use communications technology.
The guys were in contact with many land holders in Victoria, Southern NSW and scattered throughout southern and central QLD. In all they had contact or met with around 50 land owners during and prior to the trip. Firstly, to notify them and to seek permission to walk across their land, and secondly to accept their hospitality if they happened to meet them during the walk. Some landowners held food caches for them for up to a year.
I asked Steve did he feel adventures had it “easier” today with this technology and is there still the same motivation out there to undertake such a journey? Steve’s response was ‘the physical component is certainly not easier, and I feel that the motivation is still the same. However, communication and navigation technology take the skill component out of the equation to a large degree. My motivation was the joy of self-reliance and the sensation of remoteness. I feel that with modern communication technology, participants never truly experience a sense of remoteness where they become psychologically and emotionally fully immersed in their surrounds’. As for documenting a journey back then it meant carrying a SLR camera and having film rolls in their caches along the way and hand writing diaries.
Route: starting out in Dergholm Western Victoria they crossed over the Glenelg River which would be their first and last river crossing for the entire journey. The route from there took them east towards Ballarat and Omeo before heading north up over the state border between the Cobberas and Pilot Wilderness then into the Kosciuszko National Park.
Crossed Dead Horse Gap then over Rawson’s Pass, a high mountain pass at 2.124 metres. By November 12th they came across Seamans Hut, this is an alpine hut built back in 1929 to give emergency shelter and was constructed a year after the deaths of two skiers who had got caught in a blizzard. This place provided just that for them as the weather had turned quite dramatically from calm conditions and light snow to near white-out and low visibility with icy cold winds.
“On compass bearings and trying to keep each other within visual contact, we waded through deepening snow, probing into a swirling wall of white, ice-laden mist” (p40)
By mid- morning the following day the weather started to clear, they set off to the summit of Australia’s highest mountain, Mt. Kosciuszko, at 2,228 metres. Describing the view from the top as splendid with the sky immense, clear and the air sparkling. This was relief after the blizzard the day before. From here the journey continued through Cooma, then onto the Southern Tablelands of NSW and into Kanangra-Boyd National park and the famous Blue Mountains National Park. Going through the northern part of the Blue Mountains the landscape changed to the very distinctive pagoda sandstone outcrops providing them with a great place to sit and admire their surrounds.
“A tranquillity enveloped us, and I found myself listening intently to, and enjoying the sheer pleasure of silence. In my chest I felt emotion welling up: my mind was totally at peace. All the senses within me were fully open and receptive, alert and understanding, harmonising with the all-pervading serenity which surrounded and entered us.” (p 51).
Continuing northward crossing over the border to QLD they entered the ‘Scenic Rim Region’ giving them the most incredible views from all around of Lamington Plateau, Mt. Warning, Mt. Barney, Bald Rock and more. Here Steve pitched his tent right on the of NSW and QLD, something he had always wanted to do. Continuing through Toowoomba, Roma, Jericho, then by day 272 they reach the Atherton Tablelands in Tropical North Queensland. The terrain has now become more rainforest and gives them a whole new set of challenges as it is thick with stinging trees including the Gympie-Gympie Stinging Tree, (Dendrocnide moroides) also known as the ‘guardian of the rainforest’. It is one of the most venomous plants in the world and is found in the rainforest regions of the north-eastern Australia and Indonesia. It has been known that the sting is so excruciating in its effects and can last months or even years. Steve got to feel these effects in full force.
As described “my first reaction to the sudden, excruciating pain that engulfed both my shins and calves was disbelief. Within minutes the lymph nodes in my groin had swollen and all but crippled me. With effort, I walked a further fifteen minutes, trying to work the poison out of my system, but I succumbed and lay down, almost lapsing into unconsciousness from the pain. Barry could do nothing for me and stood helplessly by. My heart sounded loud in my chest, beating erratically and I wondered with detached interest whether it was going to stop. Somehow I didn’t care”. (p 104)
For the rest of the journey they battled some extremely harsh and dense terrain tangled with prickly vines making it increasingly difficult to find their way and stay on track with the watershed line and one day only covering 6 km’s!
They eventually made it into Cape York on the 28th September 1988, a mere 375 days after starting.
Looking back over 30 years later: Steve said ‘For me, looking back, I am very satisfied with having experienced and achieved such an adventure. However, it is not the only adventure I look back on with fondness, but admittedly it was the longest. It is also the adventure that has grabbed the most attention from people when they hear about it. I also know that for Barry the GDR walk was a culmination of a lifetime of adventurous bushwalking into often unknown territory.’
“I treasured the moments when my mind had been at utter peace and my soul filled with serene contentment. For me a personal awareness and understanding of one’s spiritual state far surpassed any external recognition of our physical accomplishment. All the hardships of our walk, together with its many rewarding moments, merge into an experience which would remain indelibly etched within our minds and souls.” Steve Tremont (p 141)
Photos and map provided by Steve Trémont.