Long distance hiking doesn’t have to put you out of pocket. Beg, steal, or borrow gear, catch your own dinner, and take joy in the small comforts.
Realisations on The Bibbulmun Track
There’s a huge sense of freedom that comes with realising you can survive and thrive with nothing but the gear in your backpack. More so when the gear hasn’t set you back a small fortune.
It took me two and a half days of a week-long solo trek to properly come to this realisation. The epiphany occurred while I was standing on an isolated beach on Western Australia’s south coast, partway along the Bibbulmun Track between Walpole and Denmark.
My $15 telescopic fishing rod from Kmart was paying dividends, delivering enough herring to give me a fresh protein boost. I was even able to provide for a couple of fellow hikers I’d met on day one who were walking the same route and would no doubt appreciate sharing.
The rod wasn’t my only cheap acquisition in preparation for my first solo jaunt. But it was one of the best, providing me with a boost of confidence in the knowledge that if it came to it, I could probably go off-grid and survive.
I’d found my nirvana in this minimalist approach I was seeking.
Choosing to go Solo
When I announced my intentions to break out of the monotony of COVID-19 isolation by going on a solo hike in the depth of winter, many of the extroverted people around me didn’t quite understand. But I was ready to recharge and for me – the poster-child introvert – that means being alone with nature.
I’ve also done enough travel with others to realise there are always compromises. I had my plan and wanted to stick to it. The only compromise I was making was not being able to spend 14 days on the trail, as there’s only so much time I could take away from family and work.
Nor did I want to be the hindrance and there was certainly some underlying doubt. I’d walked no more than a few kilometres a day around suburban streets as preparation, without any weight on my back. I’d also done a couple of overnighters on the Bibbulmun a few years earlier which had left me aching for days, but yearning for more.
Gearing up on the Cheap
I already owned a few essentials – a 3-season, lightweight tent that didn’t get used in the end. The Bibbulmun Track shelters, maintained by volunteers, are solid, comfortable and in the middle of winter, generally have plenty of room.
‘I had a sleeping bag with a dubious comfort rating, a cheap rain jacket that vaguely kept the rain off, a clearance water bladder, and a cheap-ish pair of hiking boots I’d used for those earlier overnight treks years earlier.‘
Paired with $7 woollen Explorer socks, they’d proven comfortable and I’d avoided blisters.
My pack was a borrowed Macpac – the older style canvas version that weighs more but puts up with a lot of punishment compared to some of the lighter, newer options.
I’d also borrowed a single burner stove – once you hit the south coast section of the Bibb, campfires aren’t allowed at any time of year, so I’d be cooking everything on gas. A borrowed Kathmandu inflatable mattress proved a godsend once I’d repaired a couple of holes with PVC glue.
For the rest, I looked for cheap and functional. The cheapest pair of walking poles I could find, a thermal liner to overcome my sleeping bag’s inadequacies, some clearance zip-off pants and a pair of no-brand gaiters. Kmart provided my fishing rod, a selection of dry bags, inflatable pillow and cheap camp sandals.
Loathe to cough up for purpose-made dehydrated meals, I opted for tuna sachets, dried pasta and rice meals, and various other accompaniments from the local supermarket. I figured I could top up on nutrients at the start and end, plus I had confidence I might catch fish.
Weather: Tales of Terror
A few days before heading off, the weather reports indicated we were in for the mother of all storms, a once-in-a-century phenomenon likely to hit every part of the WA coastline.
I wasn’t about to back out, so ousted a spare pair of track pants and fleece in favour of ski pants and jacket. The pants never came out of my pack, but the Huski jacket was a luxury when I’d reached camp and the temperature dropped.
The storms did hit and were widespread across the entire state, apart from where I was walking on the track. There were a few times I reached camp just ahead of storm fronts but the solid huts meant I stayed dry and warm and I could watch the rain being pushed sideways by gale-force winds.
Learning on the go
More puritan hikers may think I’m foolish, setting off solo for seven days with little preparation or experience. But a few small challenges aside, there was nothing I couldn’t overcome.
Climbing the first major hill out of Walpole on day one, I wondered if I’d be able to move the next day. But I realised quickly that walking through the pain was the best option.
I wasn’t precious about weight, figuring I’d just go slow if need be. My pack started at 23kg including water, a little tough on the shoulders to begin with, but when a charitable and far more seasoned hiker I met at the first camp showed me how to adjust my pack and use my poles correctly, things got easier.
Eye Candy and Pleasure in Pain
The pack weight didn’t reduce much over the week apart from when I’d consumed my daily water ration – maybe a couple of additional kilos as food stocks diminished – but it didn’t matter.
‘I toughened up quickly, gaining enough hike fitness to enjoy the pleasure in pain that came from knocking over another 20km each day.’
Many say Walpole to Denmark is the most challenging section of the track. I haven’t walked enough of it to make an informed decision, though there were times I was on the verge of tears from exhaustion.
I’d assumed the longer, slower inclines would be the killers, but realised a firm track that climbed uphill for a few kilometres was far preferable to some of the short, steep, sand dunes.
It was certainly among the most breathtaking scenery I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Two days of old-growth karri and tingle forests gave way to dramatic coastal headlands, hidden bays and long, isolated stretches of beach.
There are inlet crossings – one by canoe at Irwin Inlet, the other partway along an 8km stretch of beach, its mouth having recently been broken through to the sea.
I ignored the 20km winter diversion notice at Parry Beach that would’ve taken me along sealed roads, figuring at worst I could inflate my mattress and swim my pack across. I’m glad I ignored it and stuck to the track proper – it was low tide and the water was no more than knee-deep where it met the ocean.
Contemplation and Tribulation
The beauty of multi-day, solo hiking is that you soon find your rhythm, realise the best ways to shake off the pain, and figure out how to get into the happy places in your head.
‘On my own for so many hours, every sense became heightened. Smells of eucalyptus and golden wattle were intense. The sounds of birds, wind through treetops, different surfaces underfoot became surreal.’
The feeling of being barefoot, aching feet sinking into soft sand where it met the water’s edge, was almost orgasmic.
And the taste of simple things like beef jerky, sun-dried tomatoes, and flatbread were a sheer delight. Not to mention the herring, which filleted and added to a cup of soup, provided the freshest blast of flavour I’ve ever known.
There’s a sense of pride not just in finishing, but in passing through such beauty and leaving no trace, other than a few words in the campsite trail books.
It was a learning experience, a contemplative one with hard labour to boot. If I had to pick just one regret, it was that I hadn’t spent more on my boots. They gave out on the final day, both of them splitting in the final few kilometres.
But I cherished every minute of going it alone. Now I know I can do it and I’m planning the next solo jaunt as soon as I can get more time off work.
Feature photo by @caroline_gthomsen