Rowan Brookes ran 250km in five days along the Great South West Walk in Victoria. All to raise awareness of our disconnection from nature.

Running for the Planet

When I was 10, I punched a boy because he said trees had no feelings. As a grown woman, I still believe the environment is worth fighting for, but I now take a more productive approach. I decided to stage my fight by putting my body on the line. Running 250km over five days around the Great South West Walk seemed suitably gruelling.

When you set out to run 250km, you’d better hope there’s a solid reason why. I’ve always planned adventures because being outdoors unlocks my spirit. Lately I’ve started to feel like adventuring just for pleasure wasn’t enough. I wanted to make people care about our pressing environmental issues by marrying endurance sport and messages of sustainability. I called this project Tread Lightly.

Most people ask first about the pain. Sure, I could tell stories about agonising knee pain, enormous 50 cent sized blisters and somehow being covered head to toe in my own poo. I might’ve been in pain and discomfort, but I certainly wasn’t suffering. 

My prevailing memories are of belly laughter with my crew, blissful swims in cool rivers and being blown away by the stunning, ever changing scenery. This journey was about forming an intimate relationship with the environment, my crew and the community.

 

The Environment

They call it a walk of four symphonies because of the four majestic contrasting environments that the Great South West Walk traverses. The 250km route passes through heathy woodland forests, along the banks of the Glenelg River, with its slow moving deep green water, over endless beaches with pounding surf and finally around the three capes with the highest cliffs in Victoria.

More than just an ecological paradise, the area has high cultural importance because of the 30,0000 year relationship between the Gunditjmara people and this land. Nearby is Budj Bim, one of the world’s oldest aquaculture sites. So rich is the spirit in this landscape, I could almost feel the heartbeat of the land pulsing. As I ran along the isolated beaches of Discovery Bay, I’d find myself looking over my shoulder because it felt like somebody ancient and wise was there, guiding me and keeping me safe. 

As I learnt about the environmental threats to the region, I was struck that an area that has supported humans for so long is so at risk. Discovery Bay Coastal Park is one of the last wilderness coastlines of Victoria. I’ve never experienced a beach so abundant and full of life. The playful birds lining the shoreline helped take my mind off my heavy and tired body and hinted at the rich food source beneath the waves. 

Even with the brain fog and physical agony I was experiencing, it was difficult to ignore the human impacts in this area. Over 50km of spectacular beach, almost every step I took saw plastic and other rubbish cast ashore from ocean currents. There was plastic layered into the dunes, large fishing lines tangled with seaweed and a confetti of small plastic scattered across the surface of the sand. This staggering amount of rubbish wasn’t something I’d encountered on Australian beaches before.  

Around the three capes, delicate coastal plant communities hugged the dunes and cliffs. These remnants were the last habitats for critically endangered orchids and other plant species. Before European arrival, these coastal plant communities were firestick farmed by the Gunditjmara people, which kept the ecological balance. Now many of the plant, animal and insect species here struggle against extinction.      

In 2019, Australians showed the highest public concern ever recorded about the environment. We’re being bombarded by messages of environmental change. Without personal connection to environmental issues, it’s too easy to turn away. My hope in doing this run is that the stories I share will move people enough to take action themselves. 

The Crew

At the core of the best adventures are the bonds forged with other people. I’d chosen to do the run as a solo supported runner, but I was far from alone. My incredible support crew consisted of two close friends; one who supported our logistical needs and another who accompanied me for long sections of the run. We also had two photographers who documented the whole affair.  

The Great South West Walk has campsites conveniently located every 15km or so. This made it a fabulous route to explore and an exceptional circuit for a multi-day run, with easy access for the crew.

The Lower Glenelg National Park is an outdoor playground for adventure lovers. You can take the trail, or travel down river by canoe. There are caves to explore and numerous jetties to cast a rod from. 

I ran the majority of these riverside trails accompanied by my friend. Through this section, temperatures soared above 30 degrees and made it a battle. We swam numerous times in the magnificent Glenelg River to try and keep our temperature down. Despite the hardships I was physically experiencing, the exceptional trail, encouraging smiles of my crew and the purpose behind the run, meant I never questioned whether I’d complete all 250km.

The Community

Throughout the run I collected stories from local people who were working on Country as environmental stewards. As I heard their deeply moving stories, I was filled with hope and joy and inspired to do more. One such local was Garry Kerr. 

My crew and I met Garry on the outskirts of the Cobbobonee forest. He was wielding a chainsaw to remove invasive plant species choking the trees. Garry is a stoic cray fisherman who spoke plainly about the environmental plight of the area. When I asked him why he dedicated his spare time to such back-breaking work, he responded simply ‘somebody has to do it.’ 

It became obvious the importance of Garry’s work (along with the South West Woody Weeds Action Team) as I ran into the Cobboboonee forest. As Victoria’s newest national park, the forest ecosystem is home to animals such as the Southern Brown Bandicoot. Once invasive species take hold in an area, the bandicoots struggle to survive due to loss of habitat and an increase of predators. These changes can have cascading impacts on ecosystem function.

Living away from nature, it becomes all too easy to disconnect from the environment. Seeing images of our country burn, our cities cloaked in bushfire smoke and messages of the climate crisis coming with increasing urgency has sounded an alarm.

For the scale and implications of the environmental challenges we’re facing, everybody needs to make drastic behavioural changes to support a healthy planet.  

Kudos to icebreaker for the epic trail running gear. We partnered with them because of their commitment to our environment and their industry-leading sustainability ratings, plus their gear kept me cool and comfortable on the trails.

Credit to my support crew, Simone Brick and Simone Backhausen and the photographer and videographer Pat Corden and Timothy Arch.

You can support restoration work on the Great South West Walk by donating to Nature Glenelg Trust.

 

Photography by Pat Corden