I could have cried when I drained the last of my water. It was only the third day of the trip. I was seven hours into the climb. It was hot and dusty, but somehow I was still running. I definitely couldn’t afford the water loss from shedding some tears. But, when I rounded the spur out onto the southern aspect of the Nunniong Plateau, I wailed with relief. A babbling creek, kept cool and shaded by ferns, had saved me at last.
As an outdoor environmental educator, I’m always seeking ways that humans can foster respect for the environment, and a love for the non-human things that shape us. Adventuring is often my answer.
“If I struggled, I reminded myself, you’re outside, you’re moving – what more could you want?”—
Last summer, I decided to run from my house in Mount Beauty, on Dhudhuroa Country, across one corner of East Gippsland to my childhood home in Marlo, on Gunaikurnai Country.
My friend Grace asked to accompany me on her gravel bike, and we gathered a support vehicle crew of parents and friends. I pored over maps and threaded together a 300km trail of remote roads and tracks that crossed both the Bogong High Plains and the Nunniong Plateau.
I plucked a number from the air.
“Six!” I declared. An average of 50 kilometres and almost 1000 vertical metres of elevation gain every day for just under a week.
We named our adventure Beauty to the Beach (B2B), printed outrageous T-shirts, and then organised food and equipment. We took off into the mountains at dawn on a Monday morning in mid-January, utterly ecstatic to be underway.
I am not an athlete. I have been a consistent runner for years, but somewhat unintentionally. Running was a procrastination, a mindfulness activity, then just my daily routine – as regular as eating breakfast. The longer distances snuck up on me because I only ever ran slowly, with careful control over my breath, and in beautiful places.
If I struggled, I reminded myself, you’re outside, you’re moving – what more could you want? This attitude was so effective and the running so meditative that as my body adjusted, I moved from marathons to ultramarathons.
But this, a mountainous series of consecutive ultramarathons, was another level.
Beauty to the Beach existed in the Unknown – a place somewhere between achievable and impossible, the sweet spot for an adventure. The Unknown is almost always uncomfortable and wears down the boundaries between the self and the world. I’m no stranger to this place, but I’m now drawn to it for different reasons than I once was.
While I have always loved adventuring, particularly in wilderness areas, I no longer adhere to the traditional ‘conquering’ attitude. Wild places are often considered tough and uninhabited settings that humans battle against in order to prove themselves.
But there is an opportunity here to act a little radically. What if wilderness adventures could soften us to the world rather than hardening us against it?
At the time of the run, I had just finished writing my debut novel, Over This Backbone. The story follows 19-year-old Peta as she walks the remote 680km Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) alone amidst an abusive relationship.
The book is based on some of my own experiences, as I also undertook the AAWT alone at 19. As with B2B, I did so knowing that I may have bitten off more than I could chew.
The most common question I receive about both the run and the hike is: why?
There are some similarities. Firstly, in our current, complex society, it is pure luxury to spend a long period of time focused only on one thing – walking or running, for example. It is also an undeniable privilege to have the physical and financial capacity to do so, and one not afforded to all. I never forget this.
While both adventures existed in the Unknown, the greatest difference was why I was seeking the Unknown in the first place.
I undertook the AAWT to prove a point, both to myself and to those around me, that I was an independent entity. I was a teenager with different limits and more to prove. It was the ‘conquering’ attitude that pushed me out across the Great Dividing Range with a desperation to control my experience in every way possible.
I was hardened to the landscape. I had a timeline and set expectations. Listening to the place required an openness that I wasn’t capable of. The mountains were the backdrop for me to prove my own separation from the world – my independence. I finished in Walhalla a little later than anticipated, utterly unsatisfied. The destination was the point, and it felt hollow.
Since then, I have studied outdoor education and environmental philosophy and pushed again and again into the Unknown. I have expanded my own limits and my comfort with the unfamiliar.
For B2B, the goal of reaching Marlo was not the point, not the why – Marlo was the pie crust, but not the filling. Both the joy and fear of the Unknown comes from the fact that the filling can never be predetermined.
I ran into the mountains on that warm Monday morning with no idea whether I’d make it to the ocean. I was open to the new ways my body and the place might interact. I had a team beside me, as I had hiking the AAWT, only now I was not afraid of leaning on them.
When my anticipated water-points were dry, I called for help. When a muscle in my left thigh stopped firing on day five and my run became a hobble, I wasn’t ashamed to hear Grace riding slowly beside me. She stayed for 20 kilometres whilst I sobbed, and I was grateful.
We moved for hours each day, feeling keenly everything that wasn’t us and the way these things affected our journey. I relished every lucky and painful step. My mum taught my friends how to weave baskets at camp. The creeks were cold enough to be ice baths. I ran, then ate to fuel the running, then dreamed about running in order to wake and continue running. Simplicity. Some nights my hips ached so much from the gravel roads that I cried or couldn’t sleep. Both Grace and I vomited at various points, but we slowed our speed and continued. The ocean was on the air before it was in sight, and that smell fired us along.
We reached Marlo on the Saturday and crossed the estuary in canoes from Corringle – keeping the gravel bike on board because we knew it would be sillier. That night was less a celebration of the end than it was a reminiscence of the middle – the pie filling that we could never have predicted, but for which we were already nostalgic.
We did it – whatever that it ended up being.
The Unknown can be terrifying, particularly when it is physical. But to move into these liminal spaces is to allow the subsequent states of discomfort, fatigue, fear and the possibility of failure to strip back our boundaries. This rawness allows us to tune in. It humbles us and decentres us momentarily – as individuals, and as humans.
At the edge of our boundaries, we are permeable. We feel sharply the capacity of the non-human world to shape our experiences – to even reshape who we are. Adventure is not about conquering. We will always be humbled. Our choice is in whether to fight it, or whether to fall in love with our own lack of control – with our own smallness.
I reckon I’m in love. And what is that if not a radical act?