Lessons from Hiking


Well, my planned hiking expedition was an epic fail.

The original plan was to traverse Lerderderg State Park from O’Brien’s Crossing along the Lerderderg river to Mackensie’s Flat and back, turning the overnight one-way hike into an extended four day trek. My pre-hike was successful. I explored the local region, learned my starting point was soon to be demoted from a campsite to a picnic ground due to it’s proximity to the water’s edge failing new regulations, and then visited one of the nearby sights.

The Tunnel, a hole blasted in the cliff by miners to divert the river around some rich gold fields.

The path to The Tunnel provided views over the gorge.

Then things began to turn. On the return to base, I saw a bad sign.

A bad sign. I’ll show myself out… 😀

Sausages cooked on a river stone, because, why not?

Mmmm, Sausage in bread. Basic goodness.

Shortly after, back at base camp, a fox tried to steal my dinner. I turned to slice some bread and heard my utensils fall. My food was safe, but there were shining eyes on me from the forest while I ate.

The heavy overnight rain found a path through my door seal and dripped onto the foam mattress in my van.

The next day I set off on my hike and managed to immediately saturate most of my gear and with only more rain in the forecast and no prospects of drying out I decided to abandon the trip before it really got started. I crossed the river at the first junction (marker 521) and returned to base via Nolan Track, turning a 40km trek into a 12km day trip. 20km in total with the previous day’s explorations, so the trip wasn’t a complete loss.

The soaking wasn’t from the rain, or even from falling in the river, which did happen (only knee deep) on my ‘escape’ route back to camp. The water was absorbed walking through the scrub. It turns out a wet fern can hold about 14 gigalitres of water per frond. Who knew?

My pants were drenched within 50 metres of setting off, as were my non-waterproof shoes, along with the odd spray down the back of my neck from the overhanging foliage. This became the new normal in a few minutes and wasn’t of much concern. However, the water had also managed to work its way into my backpack. I soaked almost everything except for some food and a change of underwear that were in sealed bags. Soggy jacket. Damp sleeping bag and liner. Wet towel and toilet paper. And I managed to get water in most of my electrical gear. Luckily, everything still works after drying out, although there is a slight buzzing sound from one of the USB ports on my solar panel when in use.

I hadn’t bothered to use my bag’s rain cover or don my poncho as it wasn’t raining when I set out. An obvious oversight, however they wouldn’t have been much use in the conditions anyway: the overhanging branches, most equipped with potentially lethal thorns and prickles, would have ripped them to shreds.

Beyond the obvious upgrade to proper waterproof hiking boots and gaiters, I need to do something about the water situation given the distinct lack of true ‘waterproof’ rather than varying degrees of ‘water resistant’ backpacks (I suspect mine is more optimistic in its use of the label).

Possible solutions:

a) Go in better weather – hard to plan for, although that good fortune did make my previous multi-day hike relatively drama free.

b) ‘Waterproof’ my backpack with spray on sealers – but I hear they’re largely ineffectual.

c) Put everything in dry sacks – expensive, weighty, fiddly and less space efficient (or use zip-lock bags with much the same drawbacks, except replacing ‘expensive’ and ‘heavy’ for ‘non-durable’).

…or, my currently favoured idea…

d) Bring a machete and remove the offending flora, and possibly any ravenous drop-bears or axe murderers lurking in the woods. It would also prove handy for firewood, I guess.

And I need to stop bringing items I don’t use.

I should have only filled my water bladder if and when venturing away from the river. Carrying an extra 3kg of water on every clambering step over rocks and branches when you are only 10 metres from a river with a filter in your bag is just plain silly. Between the cool, damp air and some pre-hike fruit and juice, I wasn’t even forced to call on my drink bottle for a single sip throughout the day.

Most of my electrical gear can go. My old camera never gets used as it’s inferior to my phone in most situations. The only real advantage is zoom but, due to it being a secondary device, by the time I get it out it’s invariably too late for whatever I wanted to film. Less gear reduces the need for power so I can also jettison the solar panel. A phone in flight mode will last a week on photos with the odd GPS check in. A small battery bank should suffice for emergencies. A new plan will be needed to re-accommodate more equipment after a camera upgrade, but this experience has settled one issue: my future camera definitely needs weather sealing.

I really need to scale back on the food. I’m relatively thin by modern, western standards but even I have enough reserves to survive for extended periods without food. Not eating for a week is common in nature, so a couple of small dehydrated snacks per day is more than adequate, and virtually size and weight free. A quick recount of the snacks and meals I threw in my bag revealed I could have lasted two hikes of the distance planned without even beginning to feel hungry. There’s being prepared, then there’s being overstocked.

Carrying an added 5kg or so is not only a burden, but being top heavy affects balance and reaction time (an aspect that hadn’t really come into my considerations on even and open terrain), and the wasted space led to some items being attached to the outside of the pack, causing snags and bumps: my river crossing shoes were constantly kicking me in the back of my knees as I walked.

The East Walk

The location itself was splendid. Lush green forest and rocky cliffs lining a gently flowing river with occasional small rapids. A handful of campsites lined the banks. Wherever a relatively flat clearing occurred, there was invariably a makeshift fireplace set up. While typically campers are permitted to light fires in State Parks, much of the central region of the park is marked as a conservation zone and as such fires are prohibited.

It may be illegal, but it does look inviting (provided it doesn’t flood).

The track itself was tougher than I had expected. The path was overgrown and covered in fallen trees, some that had to be climbed, others ducked under, which is a challenge with a 20kg, 75 litre backpack on your shoulders. The recent heavy rains had made the logs and rocks extra slippery, formed deep puddles on the track and at times the ground itself gave way. Here’s what I mean.

This, apparently, was the ‘track’…

…as was this…

…and this!

So the Park’s Victoria website isn’t exaggerating when it says the path is for experience hikers only, and that it should be tackled in dry conditions. The cliff face was actually quite easy to negotiate, but the logs were terrible; old rotten wood covered in slime and moss. I almost lost my footing a few times, then put my foot right through a seemingly substantial tree trunk that crumbled beneath me as though it were the tiniest twig. I fell almost waist deep, supported by my backpack and my free leg that was bent on an unnatural angle, and had to struggle free.

O’Brien’s Crossing

The soon-to-be day stop, situated on a bend in the river, has everything you need. A neat and tidy new toilet block, picnic tables and fire pits – some with grills – and there was even a pile of logs left behind for campfires. The traffic flowed into the night as it’s only an hour from Melbourne, but the people were well behaved and quiet.

Camping on the river bank.

Around the first bend in the river, headed north.

Animals

I found some native mammals in the forest. I wasn’t fast enough with my camera, but I saw the Australian fox, the southern rabbit and the indigenous goat. Okay, so the natives probably aren’t winning the war against introduced species, or maybe they’re just more reclusive. I did manage to capture this little frog. It was about 2cm in length.

I saw this tiny creature as it jumped from under my falling foot. Glad one of us was paying close attention.

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