The history behind this trip to The Prom started a few years ago, when I was going through one of my reminiscent moments, thinking back to the glory days of training for the Sahara event. Back then, which is 7 or 8 years ago now, I was regularly doing the “Lighthouse Loop” at The Prom non-stop. Then it seemed reasonably easy, at least as much as bashing through the bush for 62km non-stop could be considered easy. And 2 or 3 years ago I took off again, without enough thought, to recreate those glory days.
It didn’t go well. I came very close to coming badly unstuck and dying in the beautiful wilderness that is Wilsons Promontory.
So the meaning behind this trip, which this time was well planned and thoroughly thought out, was to again experience the joy of the rugged Australian bush, but in a rather toned down manner when compared to the glory days. I’m 7 or 8 years older now and haven’t been doing the marathon distance training sessions, so there was no way that I could do the loop non-stop. Instead I chose to do achievable distances each day, spread over 5 nights / 6 days. But The Prom being a wild place, that meant that there were a couple of sections where I was locked into distances of 16 to 18km. All still way short of the 62km of the full loop.
As the trip got closer, a number of people were expressing their concern that I was going out there for multiple days and would be entirely on my own. To be honest, given the memory of my previous experience a couple of years ago, their concerns were striking home and causing me to relive the awful memories of what happened that time. So in an attempt to at least partly satisfy people’s concerns I loaded up a GPS tracker on my phone, bought a backup battery for the phone, bought a solar cell recharger that I could carry on the backpack, and accepted the kind offer from my manager at work of an emergency rescue beacon. He’s a bit of an ex-army action man and just happens to have spare rescue beacons sitting around. He asked me a very interesting question when he made the offer to loan me the beacon. He asked if I would be capable of activating it if necessary. That question tells me that he has either had experience of type 1 diabetes (T1D) close to him through family or friends, or has maybe experienced it in some way through his time in the army. At the time, after some consideration, I said that I thought I could activate it. But thinking about it now that I’m home safe’n’sound no, I don’t think I would have been able.
But that’s enough of the history. Let’s start the journey around the southern Prom.
Bad weather had been threatening Victoria for a week before my trip, and it didn’t disappoint. Maybe the most likely place in Victoria to get rain is the southern Prom, and when the whole state is being threatened with abnormal amounts of rain, it’s virtually guaranteed that The Prom will get it.
The first day was taken up with the walk from Tidal River, up to the car park at Telegraph Saddle, along the track to Windy Saddle, then down the long and muddy track to the boardwalk at the bottom of the valley. This section of the track is one of the reasons why the only sensible direction to do the lighthouse loop is clockwise. To do it the other way would mean having this awful, muddy slog up near the end of the 62km. I did that twice in the past before I learned the error of my ways and suffered the painful consequences.
The vista and sense of relief is a huge relief as you emerge from the boardwalk and onto the beach at Sealers Cove, as the beautiful and serene sweep of the beach opens itself to you after more than an hour and a half of gruelling slog through mud. It is certainly better in summer when the mud isn’t there but at this time of the year, and with light rain falling the whole way?
With only half a dozen people already there, finding a good spot for the tent in the camp ground was no problem. Later though, when a couple of school groups turned up, where I was setup was an obvious place for them to put their tents. Fortunately for me they were great group of 16 year old’s and the noise and general mayhem was well controlled.
Having arrived at 3 o’clock, I had to keep myself occupied for a good couple of hours. This was one of the important considerations during the planning. On my previous trip, the main issue had been that I had nothing to keep myself occupied at the destination and I had laid down in the tent and gone to sleep. That turned into a disastrous situation as I slept through my meal time and when I finally woke in the middle of the night, my blood sugar level (BSL) was dangerously low. It was vital that I didn’t allow that to happen on this trip, so I had brought along a book and a pack of cards for that express reason.
One of the young girls in the school group made me laugh. As I lay in my tent, listening to them get themselves organised, she suddenly made the bold statement that “If it keeps raining, I’m seriously leaving!”. I had to chuckle. Here we were at night, with light rain already falling, at least 2 hours of hard slog through mud uphill to the first chance of a motor vehicle, and this young lady is threatening to leave and go home. Of course she wasn’t serious, but it did sound funny.
Nothing untoward happened over night. My sugar level did not drop drastically and I was fully functional in the morning. If you have never had contact with T1D, this may not seem like such a big deal. But anyone who either lives with T1D, or has brushed with it, will understand the significance.
Day #2, Tuesday, and the goal was to get to Refuge Cove, 6.4km away. The morning routine of testing BSL, injections of insulin, arranging food all went smoothly, and I was ready to set off by 9 o’clock.
Another important part of the planning was the subject of water. For the whole 62km of the loop, there is only one source of fresh water, being at the lighthouse itself. That was approximately 40km from the start of the trek and in my schedule, day number 4. So I needed to carry enough water to be able to get me through to the lighthouse.
Water is heavy.
Early in the proceedings I started to consider that I wasn’t going to get through to the lighthouse with the water I had. If the weather was any warmer, that would definitely be the result. In my previous trip, running short of water had presented a bit of a problem. The high carbohydrate food that I need to eat to keep the BSL up requires a good amount of water to be able to eat, but also to be able to properly do the required job. It’s one of those quirky little unknown facts that high carbohydrate food requires a lot of water to digest and metabolise properly.
So before leaving Sealers Cove, I decided to throw modern caution to the wind and ignore the little information signs that were placed by the water supply in most of the camp sites. These signs clearly say that the creek water being piped to the tap is not of international quality, so should not be used for drinking without treating. But as I was facing a potential problem with water supply, I considered that this was the same water that we were using 30 years ago. The only thing that had changed in that time was public expectation and the little information signs. So I filled my bottles with the creek water and ignored the interesting brown colour.
Refuge Cove is aptly named in my opinion. It is such a beautiful little cove that I consider it to be a refuge from humanity. It’s too far for even the most adventurous of day trippers to get to, so the only people you might see are properly serious hikers.
Twenty minutes after arriving in the camp ground, and no more than 5 minutes after getting the tent up, the first hint of light rain started to fall. Oh well; it was only very light and could stop at any moment.
It didn’t. The light rain kept falling for the next 15 hours, with occasional short breaks. To fill my time and stay awake, I slowly walked up and down the beautiful beach, enjoying the overwhelming solitude that it brought. With the sky overcast and the light rain falling, I remembered back to a time back in those glory days when my training buddy, Robin, and I burst down onto the beach to find a couple of impressive ocean going boats moored in the bay. On that day the sun was shining, a couple of the boat people were swimming in the pristine waters of the bay and Refuge Cove was heaven on earth.
Today was not quite so pristine.
Another small school group came through as I was preparing my late lunch. Part of my efforts to avoid the dramas of the previous trip was that I had a cooked lunch each day, providing me with more substantial food that should help reduce the danger of going low over night. I do not claim to be a technical expert, but my experience through the training, and then the Sahara event, appear to show that the body – keep in mind that this is not technical fact – maintains a base level of stored energy. Maybe it’s the fat stored around the liver. After extreme exercise it seems that no matter how well the immediate BSL is replenished with fast acting carbohydrate, such as the fruit pulp strips and sports gels that I was eating, the body’s base level will still use some of that as it attempts to rebuild itself. And it is this process that causes the overnight BSL to drop. Obviously there is no way of stopping the body from rebuilding its base store; the body is going to do what the body is going to do. So one way of working with this process is to ensure that the lunch and dinner contained a good amount of meaningful carbohydrate of the longer acting variety. In modern parlance that is known as low GI. The dehydrated meals I was having at lunch and at dinner were for that purpose.
That was my thinking at least. Once again, for those who have no knowledge of living with T1D, you might just think that going without food would be unfortunate but doable. Sure, you’ll be hungry, but that’s not the end of the world. Unfortunately for a person living with T1D it is the end of the world. A healthy person could, if they had to, go through the entire 6 days of my Wilsons Prom trip without once eating. Yes, they would be a wreck at the end of it, but after some food and a lot of whining they would have a story to tell for the rest of their lives. But a person living with T1D will be dead before the sun comes up on day #2. Exaggerating? Sadly, no.
As I was eating my noodles for lunch, the 2 “responsible adults” with the school group came over to say hello. I highlight that they were the ones in charge as to my eye they hardly looked much older than the students themselves. One of the ladies had dreadlocks and a bandana, so I asked her how she got her hair like that. Apparently it takes a lot of combing, knotting, braiding, beads, crocheting and pain to get it to that point. But, she said, it had been like that for 4 months now and in that time she hadn’t needed to do anything to it. Then the other lady lifted her beanie to show a recently shaved head. Her hair used to be braided in a similar way she said, but she had recently taken on a charity thing for cancer awareness and had shaved it all off.
We spent another pleasant 10 minutes chatting as the ladies took full advantage of the time away from the constant trill of 16 year old teenagers. I told them in all honesty that I didn’t know how they could maintain so much patience. I couldn’t do it. And the same goes for all of the “responsible adults” with the various school groups I came across on my journey. My hat is off to you.
An interesting little aside, to do with the school groups, came about when I had walked past one of the groups after leaving Sealers Cove. They had stopped for some reason back on the track. I already knew from my previous trips of a rock overlooking the bay that had a pocket of phone signal available, right there on the rock at the edge of the cliff. This was important for me simply because of the number of people who were a little anxious that I was still alive. I had promised my wife that I would call each morning if I had any phone signal, to let her know that I was still alive and how I was doing.
Sure enough, when I got to the rock I heard my phone indicate that it suddenly had signal, so I immediately stopped and took off my pack. As I was standing there trying to get a call through to my wife’s phone, the school group came along and also stopped. I turned and waved as I spoke briefly with my wife, assuring her that everything was still on track. After the call was finished, I announced to the group of teenagers and responsible adults that there was a rare pocket of signal right at that spot. Surprisingly the teenagers dropped their eyes and the responsible adults looked sternly at me for the briefest moment. I found this a tiny bit odd. Then one of the young fellows asked if I would take a group photo of them, as they all grouped with their back to the spectacular view behind them. He then handed me a small camera and instructed me on which button to push. After that had been accomplished and everyone was happy, I packed myself up, said goodbye then moved on.
Thinking about the interaction as I walked away, I came to realise that part of the experience for the school group was that mobile phones were banned on their adventure. No phones, no care for phone signal. No phones, no phone to whip out to take a photo. Ahhhh, the modern world we live in. Thirty years ago, who would have even imagined.
Day #3 and after a night of light rain, everything was very dim and damp. My gear inside the tent was mostly still dry, but everything outside was saturated. And the light rain was still falling.
The first thing I did each morning after waking and gathering my wits was to do a BSL test. And so far the result had been similar. A good high reading of 6 or 7 or 8 (108 / 126 / 144 in the USA) you might assume? Well, isn’t that what you would expect after having a double sized dehydrated camp meal for dinner the night before, containing at least 80g of carbohydrate, plus a couple of safety fruit pulp strips? Surely that would be the case. Well, no. As with most things to do with T1D, you can plan and expect anything you like. Reality is where it’s all at. That morning the test was 2.9. If this was a normal day at home under standard conditions, a reading of 2.9 would be something of note. Some might even post it to Facebook on one of the dedicated T1D sites, exclaiming how they had done everything right and had this horrible low in the morning. “Isn’t T1D a terrible bother!”
T1D never lets you forget that life is a balancing act, between food (carbohydrate), energy used (exercise / rest) and medication (amount of insulin). At no point can you rest on the balance, because as soon as you do the BSL will either go up or it will go down. Up at least gives you time to consider what to do. But when it goes down, and 2.9 is pretty much down there, you don’t have the benefit of time on your side. You have mere minutes to react and get it back up. Cruelly, one of the first things to happen when low is to lose the ability to think clearly and make decisions.
So after doing the test and finding a level of 2.9, instinct from doing this for 42 years kicked in and told me to grab one of the sports gels and get it down my neck. This was followed by the normal insulin injection routine, then by the breakfast routine I had decided on for that day. Today it was powdered milk with some of the brown water – yumm – one of the sesame seed bars I had brought for this precise purpose, each of which contained 26 grams of carbohydrate, then a couple of the fruit pulp strips.
Finally, after all of that diabetes related stuff, it was time to consider packing up camp and moving on to the next destination, which was Little Waterloo Bay, 7km further along the track.
But it was still raining lightly.
I really didn’t relish the prospect of packing up camp in the rain, no matter how light it was. As that night was meant to be only 7km further along, I decided to give the rain a chance to stop, so I walked down to the beach to kill time and look for a possible signal. Do you know how much time you burn by slowly walking up and down a beautiful, secluded beach, contemplating every bird, every rock, every breaking wave? Do you know? Not much, let me tell you. No matter how angelic the setting, how tranquil the scene, how pristine the scenery and the natural environment, boredom soon sets in when you can’t even sit on the sand without getting yourself thoroughly damp from the rain and the wet sand.
After a couple of slow trips down to the beach, and even sitting on the little veranda thing outside the toilet, underneath the little overhanging roof, to read a few pages of book, the rain eventually backed off. I gave it a couple of minutes to change its mind but when it seemed to be determined to stay away, seized the opportunity to break camp quickly and get everything packed.
Little Waterloo Bay, here I come.
Surprisingly, it seemed that the rain had actually finished for now, as it didn’t rain again as I slogged to Little Waterloo Bay. After the last couple of days, this was a very pleasant change. Especially as the last time I was at Little Waterloo Bay, which was where my last very bad episode had occurred a couple of years previously, most of the camp ground was under water. If the rain had kept on falling this time, I doubted that I’d be able to find a place to camp that night.
The final hurdle you face when you get to Little Waterloo from Refuge Cove is an outlet stream from the lagoon which forms the back boundary of the camp ground. Depending on the tide, this can be a case of acrobatic stepping from rock to rock across the rushing water, through to a pants off, pack held high wade across 5m of water. Luckily today was the former.
Concerningly, much of the camp was indeed under water, however there was one section that, while quite damp, didn’t actually have water sitting on it. And there was only one tent there already, so I had my choice of spots.
With the time being about 13:00, the first activity was to prepare a lunch of noodles, before the laborious activity of filling in time. The fellow who was there, while polite, was obviously not looking for a deep and meaningful, soul searching chat session. If he was then he was definitely in the wrong place and in the wrong circumstances. He was like me, there on his own, and we were at least 20km and 6 hour’s brisk slog to the next closest human being. So if it was a chat he was looking for, he should have turned left a lot earlier.
After I’d finished setting up camp and having lunch, my quiet companion and myself both found ourselves down on the beach, where the weather was a big improvement from the last few days. The sky was blue with a few clouds, the sun shining with a very gentle breeze blowing. If Refuge Cove is paradise on earth, Little Waterloo Bay is its close cousin. This gave me an opportunity to get some warm into my chilled bones and hopefully get some dry into my damp clothes.
For the next hour and a half, my silent friend and I lazed in the sun. I stripped off all the clothes I could and laid them out in the bright sunshine, hoping to make some impact on their dryness. My boots were quite saturated, as were both pairs of socks and coat. I may have looked a little silly as I paced up and down the beach letting my damp trousers “get some air” while waving my handkerchiefs around to try to dry them off. And thankfully the effort paid off. By the time the cloud covered our beauty spot, my gear was noticeably drier.
That night was a standard night, with the exception that it didn’t rain. I had the same food and the same routine and was down to sleep by dark. All very exciting stuff. What was playing a little ditty in the back of my mind was the fact that my tent was setup in the same spot as it was last time, when my BSL had dropped drastically after I had fallen asleep early and had missed my evening meal. The nightmare that I endured that night was enough reminder for me to be extra vigilant this night to ensure it didn’t happen again.
Day #4 and the same routine morning routine again. One humorous variation this time was when I had chosen to make mashed potato with the instant mashed potato I had brought with me. As there was a dribble of brown water available at Little Waterloo Bay, I chose to live it up for breakfast and have something with a bit more body than the powdered milk and that required water. Also it was still cold this morning, so the mashed potato gave me an excuse to heat some water and get benefit from that.
At one point I needed to duck over to the tent from where I was sitting. I cannot have been moved from the stump I was sitting on for more than 8 seconds when I turned around back to my spot and saw that a crow had taken that opportunity to raid my breakfast setting and steal the plastic bag of dried mashed potato. What the! I quickly shooed him away but I was too late to save the bag of mashed potato. He had torn the bag, tasted the contents and decided that instant mashed potato powder isn’t his chosen cuisine. And all that in less than 8 seconds. Fortunately, my planning meant that I had backups of backups, so the loss of half a bag of instant mashed potato powder did not mark the end of the world. Bloody arrogant crow.
Today marked an important point in my trip. Soon after leaving Little Waterloo Bay I would be passing a point where I could choose to change my route. The planned route had me heading left and continuing to the lighthouse. But if I headed right, I could cut off the southern section of The Prom and head straight across to Halfway Hut, Oberon Bay, and back to Tidal River a day or two early. Even though today was not raining most of the previous time on the track, with the exception of the last 18 hours, had been raining or threatening to rain. Did I want to remain open to the vagaries of the weather, or did I want to assume the worst and cut my losses?
Piling homily on cliché, when push came to shove, I didn’t even pause when I got to the decision point 20 minutes after leaving camp. I mean, I had put in months of planning for this expedition. I was here for a serious set of reasons, not the least being to again experience the joy of seeing the lighthouse, which is at the southern most point of mainland Australia. If I was to choose the easy option, I would be undercutting everything that this trip stood for. Plus, let’s be honest, I would never be happy with my decision in the future.
So when I got to the decision point, I stopped to call my wife to give her an update of my situation, then immediately turned left and continued on into the longest day of the whole trip; 18.1km.
The climb out of Waterloo Bay is teeth gritting. I’ve done it many times in the past, during my training for the Sahara, but none of those occasions diminishes the experience for the current occasion. It is long, relentless and painful. However, the jewel in the crown of that hard climb is that within 30 minutes of getting to the top, you get your first glimpse of the focus of your effort; the lighthouse. I relish the thought that very few people have ever seen that view of the lighthouse. Yes, many people visit The Prom. Yes, almost as many people walk to places like Sealers Cove and Oberon Bay. Yes it’s true that quite a few people make the trek to the lighthouse down the 4WD track down the middle. But very few people ever get to see the lighthouse from this point on the track out of Waterloo Bay. It is a very special view that is afforded to only a few people; and I am one of them.
I’m very proud of that fact.
Now for the fly in the ointment. When choosing to leave the main track and walk the 1km to visit the lighthouse, the last 300m is the stuff of legends. Raise the subject of the walk to the lighthouse with anybody who has been there and they will ask you about the final climb. It is the last, final bit before you are at the lighthouse itself and it is almost hands and knees climbing up what feels like a 45 degree hill of relentless, breath sucking effort. And when you are doing what I was doing and have 22kg of pack on your back, multiply the effort by 3.
But after only 6 or 7 gasping stops of knee holding as I pushed myself up, suddenly there I was. Almost as if the climb was but an illusion, the path levels out and the historical buildings present themselves to you, dressed in their pristine whitewash.
And there was nobody to be seen.
Out of the dozen or so times that I’ve been to the lighthouse, only once have I seen another human. That was during the period of training for The Sahara. And even more surprisingly, when I saw that lady park ranger back then, and she asked out of interest how I got there, she said “Oh, you’re Alex the diabetic.” I kid you not. Those years ago, my training efforts had become known through the Wilsons Prom park ranger community and this lady who I bumped into in such a remote place knew who I was. This latest visit was not so well publicised. I was entirely on my own.
A toilet stop, a water stop at the only clean water tap in the southern prom to refill water bottles, and cooking lunch out of the breeze in the doorway of one of the accommodation buildings, filled the hour that I spent at the lighthouse. That and a couple of photos, then it was time to head back down the (steep) hill and off in the direction of Roaring Meg.
Nothing at all extraordinary happened on the trek to Roaring Meg. One interesting little aspect of Roaring Meg is that of all the camping sites in the southern prom, Roaring meg is the only one that I had never actually seen. I’d walked past it many times on the many training walks those years ago, but the closest I’d ever got was the toilet, which happens to be right on the main 4WD track. Other than that, I’d never laid eyes on the camp ground.
Arriving there at 4:30 in the afternoon gave me time to have a look around. Many people have told me over the years that Roaring Meg, which is named after the creek that rushes past, is a very nice place to camp, so I needed to take the opportunity to find out for myself. I set the tent up in the top section of the camp ground, easy distance to the toilet, then went exploring. Down the hill, toward the swift flowing creek that was easy to hear, a whole new section of camp ground existed. I can now see easily why people like Roaring Meg.
The evening routine as usual, complete with the crow with the eye on my food. This time, however, I was ahead of him and he went to bed hungry. I was lucky in that there was no rain threatening, but I had the hint of another concern in my mind.
The day had been the most arduous so far on this trip, having covered 18km since leaving Little Waterloo Bay. With the evening BSL test showing a level of only slightly above normal, my niggling hint prompted me to set my alarm for midnight and layout 2 of the fruit pulp strips within easy reach. At midnight, when the alarm went off, I quickly and easily ate the 2 fruit strips then laid back down to sleep.
“Where am I?” “What is this?” “Wha…………?” I could see that it was no longer dark, so concluded that it must be morning. But where I was and what I was doing was beyond me.
That was when 42 years of raw animal instinct kicked in. The fact that I couldn’t figure anything out told me to eat something. All I knew in the whole world at that moment was to eat something. I reached for the leg pockets of my pants and pulled out a sports gel. Luckily they are easy to eat and I was able to squeeze one out in my mouth. The animal instinct prompted me to test my BSL and, much to my surprise now, I was able to rely on muscle memory to take me through the process. I looked at the resulting number and knew that it wasn’t good. At 1.6 (29 in the USA), this was the lowest reading I’d ever had and I was probably fortunate to still be conscious, so again the animal instinct told me to have another sports gel. But I knew that wouldn’t be enough, so before finally running out of brain power I managed to quickly push a fruit pulp strip into my mouth. At that point my mental power was exhausted so I laid down.
I find it surprising now, but my brain seemed to be working on 2 levels. At one level, probably the most basic, my body was floundering around. My arms were flaying in the air as I tried repeatedly to sit up, only to over balance and run out of energy and flop down again on the floor of the tent. But on another level I knew what was happening. I knew that my sugar was dangerously low and that I needed to bring it up. I also knew that I had already eaten enough carbohydrate of the fast acting kind, the sports gels, to bring it up at least partly towards where it needed to be. The fruit pulp strip would take a little longer and kick in after the sports gel had done the best of its work. So for the next 20 minutes I lay on the floor of the tent flaying around, talking to myself, waiting for my emergency actions to save my life.
Finally, after maybe 20 harrowing minutes of being as vulnerable as a new born baby, my emergency actions took effect and I was able to start taking back control. This led to the next part of what could be termed “An unfortunate morning”.
The next step was to have my morning injections of insulin. I have 2; a short acting insulin and a long acting insulin. Just as with the “muscle memory” mentioned above, I follow the same actions when doing my injections. However this time I was not only sitting on the floor of a tent, but I was also still recovering from a low sugar episode that almost knocked my socks off.
The injection of the short acting went as normal. However as I was doing the second injection, this time of the long acting insulin, I realised that the spot I was injecting in to was getting unexpectedly wet. An injection is not meant to get wet like that. Remember the muscle memory? It was then that I came to realise that the tip of the needle had either not been pushed into my skin, or it had come out as I was pushing the plunger. Either way, I now had no idea how much of the injection had actually gone in. All I knew was how much was still left to go in; in this case 10 units.
Even in my slightly befuddled state of post low BSL mind, I knew this was serious. For those readers who do not have any association with T1D, too much insulin in the system will definitely lead to significant trouble within minutes or hours, depending on how much extra there is. On the other hand, too little will lead to a requirement to rebalance later in the day, and over the following days, to bring everything back under proper control. So, working as if in remote control, my slightly befuddled brain needed to quickly decide what to do. I chose the safest of the 2 options and dialled up an extra 4 units on top of the 10 that I knew were still to be done. This would give me a guaranteed 14 units out of a requirement for 29. I would potentially miss out on a maximum of 15 units but, with the amount of insulin that had obviously not been injected because it was sitting on my skin, plus the 4 extra I dialled in, I was not risking going over the required amount. That option was unthinkable. The potential affect of not having enough was that I would have low energy later in the morning as I was slogging along the track.
No, living with T1D is not like having a cold. It is a non-stop juggling act with potential death hiding behind every dropped ball.
So after all this drama, I was packed and ready to leave Roaring Meg by 8:30.
I’ve done the 4WD track from Roaring Meg to the turnoff to Oberon Bay many times, and the part from the turn off to the Telegraph Saddle carpark once. From Roaring Meg to the turnoff was more often in the dark, back in the time when I was doing the non-stop lighthouse loop for my training for the Sahara.
The 4WD track is reasonably easy, not requiring much mental effort. It rolls along for somewhere between 12 and 15km, with a few reasonable hills and some soaring vistas. During one of my earlier training walks, I came over a rise in the track to be presented with a wide, shallow valley down to Oberon bay. Rolling across the valley were fierce looking thunder clouds with that slightly grey / green colour that spelled trouble in the form of hail. Luckily for me on that occasion, the hail passed close by without actually going over. This time the vista was equally vast, but happily without the looming threat of hail.
I was now well into endurance mode. My pack was down to around 20kg, as I ate my way through my food and drank my way through the water, but my energy level was way down. This was now day #5 of my adventure and I had walked approximately 50km through rain, cold, mud and sand and the effort was taking its toll. And of course my misadventure with the second of my injections this morning was starting to have a mild affect as my energy level sagged further. With no other choice available, the only way to compensate for the sagging energy level was with more physical effort. I was hurting and I hadn’t even got to the cruel and relentless climb up the last couple of kilometres of 4WD track to Telegraph Saddle. Having done that once previously, I was girding my mental loins in preparation for that onslaught.
After an hour or so, I got to Halfway Hut. This was where Robin and I had spent a long and very cold night curled up on the wooden floor, trying not to freeze to death back in the training days. On that occasion I had succumbed to the excruciating waves of cramps associated with low potassium, but which we had misinterpreted as being associated with low BSL. The cramps were crippling, so on that occasion we chose to spend the night resting in the hut. It was that experience that finally led me to adopt the electrolyte hydration supplements for the water that did so well in helping me in the desert. Sadly it was also them that, because I didn’t know the story behind my need for them, were what forced me to pull out of the Sahara event when I concluded that I hadn’t taken enough with me to Morocco.
That is a sad day that I will never forget.
After a brief rest at Halfway Hut, I set off on the next leg of the final trek. The morning’s scare with the low sugar had put paid to any thought at all of continuing on to the final scheduled day of the round trip, being to turn left and head to Oberon Bay. That would have been an irresponsible step too far down a dangerous path. So when the left turn to Oberon Bay came up, I didn’t even break step; I simply kept plodding along the 4WD track toward Telegraph Saddle.
It was at around this point that I saw my first humans for a couple of days, since leaving Little Waterloo Bay. There in the distance, marching slowly but resolutely toward me, were a perfectly outfitted older husband and wife. They would have been middle to late 60’s in age and were perfectly dressed in the latest in must have outdoor gear for the young-at-heart wilderness wanderer. I salute them for their willingness to get out into the wilds of Wilsons Prom and for their resoluteness to get to the accommodation at the lighthouse. However their questions and tone of voice made me wonder if they thought the lighthouse was just over the next hill, at which point a cup of Earl Grey would be waiting.
I gently helped them to a little clarity in their undertaking, telling them that they had about 12km of the 4WD track to go before they would then have about 3km of “goat track” before arriving at the base of the hill that the lighthouse sits on. It was then that the lady mentioned that she had heard that there was a bit of a climb up to the lighthouse. I quickly decided not to alarm them too much, so gave them the watered down version of reality.
“Yes, it’s a killer. The track is almost 45 degrees, goes for 300m and you’ll be almost on hands and knees before you get to the top.”
Silence from both.
I had successfully opened them to the idea that this was not a walk in the park and that they had some work ahead of them. I followed by reassuring them that it sounds worse than it really is, but is worse than they had been led to believe. After getting their breath back, and them giving each other reassuring words, we said our farewells and parted company.
I really do hope they made it to the lighthouse.
After this pleasant encounter, a number of weekend groups walked past in the general direction of the lighthouse. We all waved and smiled and said “Hello”, with none of them realising that my smile was starting to become a grimace. The distance was getting me. And the worst of it was that I knew from prior experience that the worst was yet to come, in the hell climb to the carpark, followed immediately by the painful trek on the road down the hill to Tidal River. I had prepared myself for the climb by telling myself over and over to just take it slow, stop if necessary and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And finally, the time arrived.
There it was at last. The only other time I had done this climb was after I had a very bad low sugar experience at Little Waterloo Bay a couple of years before. On that occasion I was right at the end of my choices, even contemplating calling for emergency assistance. At least this time I had more control of the situation. I had plenty of water, plenty of food, my pack was well packed and balanced, I had time on my side, I was medically in a much better place and the weather was OK.
What a sorry state of self-delusion that was. By the time I got to the top almost an hour later, I was close to giving up from the relentless exertion and mind bending nature of the track. At no point can you see more than 50m ahead, so each turn you go around simply presents you with the next section of climb without any let up in between. And this seems to go on and on and on. I followed my own instructions and ate fruit strips and gels regularly, stopped quite a few times, sat on rocks a couple of times, adjusted my pack and jacket to ease the numerous stress points that developed. But every time I thought the end was around the bend, the track would twist away cruelly into another hump to climb. Minus 55km, 5 days and 20kg of gear, the climb would no doubt have been easier. But I didn’t have the benefit of those details. I had the reality of that hill.
As the philosophers say, all good things must come to an end. After what seemed like far too long, I rounded the latest bend and was finally looking at the first sign of the carpark. A couple of minutes later and I was stomping across and heading down the carpark access road, heading towards Tidal River.
Now, you may think that the deal was done and the rest is just fluff. That’s what I was hoping for as well but, no, that was not to be. The moment my feet met the down hill slope of the road down to Tidal River, they started to yell loudly at me.
“AY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? STOP YOU FOOL AND SIT DOWN!”
Tidal River was still more than 2.5km down the hill, and that 2.5km wasn’t going to walk itself. So instead of stopping and resting, I chose to maintain my state of numb brain and simply keep going, without even breaking pace. But my feet were now hurting like they hadn’t hurt during the whole expedition. And as the road down the hill is non-stop downward slope, I needed to walk very slowly with small steps. I couldn’t believe the pain in my feet, but it was just the next hurdle to overcome.
Forty minutes later and the most painful part of the walk back was happening. Isn’t it funny that the closer to the finish you get, the more painful every step becomes. My very slow steps finally brought me to the main carpark and there it was; the car I had been dreaming of for the past few hours was there obediently waiting for me.
Suddenly the pain in my feet multiplied three fold.
With lots of stumbling and grimacing, I finally got myself organised under the nearby picnic shelter where, for the first time in 48 hours and 25km, I took off my boots and swapped them for more comfortable shoes. I was really surprised at just how painful my feet had suddenly become. I was keen to get prepared for the careful drive home, so I simply swapped my shoes, had some food, called my wife to give her an update, then sat in the luxurious comfort of the car and set off for home.
It wasn’t for another 2.5 hours, when I had made it home and finally took off my socks, that I realised that the walk up that hill, then down to Tidal River, had bruised two of my toes almost black and I was going to lose 3 toe nails. No wonder my feet were hurting.
My Lighthouse adventure was over.
This trip has finally convinced me that this type of dangerous undertaking is now over for me. My age, my changed body chemistry regarding the T1D and the very real danger I had exposed myself, and had almost succumbed, to has finally convinced me that after 42 years, it’s time I stop waving the middle finger at death. I have not used the word “fear” in the story above, but I now accept that there was an unspoken fear underlying many aspects of this trip. My wife and I have agreed that we will find a safer way for me to wave the middle finger at type 1 diabetes.
To paraphrase a recent famous person – WILLIAMS OUT.