Explorers Connect

How to . . . walk across Australia

Trip Report, Adventure RevolutionJames Hipkiss
"Should anyone reading this be considering something similar, then I would advise them to go for it and don't look back"

This is a good example of how an expedition can be research driven; the point at which it succeeds or fails is not out on the trail in the white-heat of endurance hardship, it is months before, at a desk, spending hours trawling through the internet, writing and receiving emails and gaining all the necessary information with which you will be able to make the planning decisions that will give you the best chance of success.

My main and most important decision was to wait until the winter. Summer temperatures in central Australia can exceed 60 degrees celcius, whereas in the winter the highest I experienced was a tolerable 40 degrees celcius. Early on I had gotten in touch with Andrew Harper, a man who walked across the country along the tropic of Capricorn, which neatly bisects the country from side to side. He had done this in several stages with camels to carry the water and food needed. He had been completely independent of civilisation and had worked with camels for many years. His advice was very useful and a starting point sounding board from which to choose my route formulate my plan.

Since I didn't have the time it would take to learn camel husbandry, or the resources to buy one and I didn't want to drag a trolley through the outback, I would have to pick a route which was relatively close to civilisation so that I could re-supply with food and water at intervals and yet still be off the beaten track. Based on Andrews advice that after conditioning, the body could survive on 1.5-2 litres of water per day and my estimation that I could live on 2 tins of canned food per day I estimated that I could carry enough to spend four days independent of re-supply or outside sources of water.

With that in mind, I spent the next two weeks on Google Earth examining Australia in detail and searching for a way across the centre which would allow for this radius of independence from water sources and re-supply. I emailed a lot of people to ask if specific creeks regularly contained water, I found reservoirs from the air, and identified cattle watering holes and wrote to landowners to ask if they were still in use or dried-up. The Lat/Long of every water source was recorded and every town hamlet along the way was contacted to see if they had a general store from which I could purchase food. Around the end of April I set off on foot from Port Augusta on the south coast. On the first day I did just 15 kilometres before camping by a road side amongst some woods.

For camp I set up a military-style poncho between two trees and pegged down the corners to make a shelter (the poncho had been cut in half to save weight), under this I strung a hammock (initially I was afraid of snakes spiders getting at me on the ground) I found the hammock quite hard to sleep in so most nights I would kip on the ground using a roll-mat for comfort. I cooked my tin of Staggs chilli by making a fire from dead-wood and placing the opened tin partially in the flames using a pair of leather gardening gloves, once the tin was bubbling hot I would use the gloves to retrieve it and still holding the tin in one gloved hand would eat the contents with a spoon. That evening I was joined by a phenomenon I was to become familiar with; the grey nomads. These are Australian retirees who up-and buy a van/caravan/RV and spend the remainder of their lives just driving round the country, going from place to place, staying in their vehicles and enjoying their retirement.

The folks who shared my campsite were two couples each in a caravan and like all the others I met they were very kind friendly, inviting me to eat with them, giving me a beer and offering me a lift the next day (which of course I had to refuse). The next day I walked to a town and took the opportunity to sleep in a guest house replenish my food water, the next town north was another 3 days walking so the initial stages were an easy progression, extending my endurance slowly toughening the soles of my feet. Each day I would walk an extra few kilometres until I was doing over 30 per day. Eventually I would be able to walk as much as 60 km in a day, however I would never do this much unless I knew I would be getting to civilisation that evening and a rest day the next. In the months beforehand I had purposefully not done any training as I believed that the only relevant training one could do would be to walk all day with a weight on my back, and if I was going to do that anyway then why not start for real.

Instead I spent two months training at a free-diving academy in Thailand, extending my breath-hold times and depths underwater. My reasoning being that this was a form of training in will-power, which would prove to be relevant to the walk when faced with hunger, thirst and exhaustion. The first 500 kilometres of the journey was on tarmac roads. In the occasional towns I would sometimes meet Australians who would criticise me for being recklessly foolish, telling me that what I was attempting was too dangerous, that I would die for sure and waste their tax dollars in search and rescue by the state authorities but mainly people were friendly and supportive if a little bemused, they regarded me as if I was made of dynamite; obviously crazy so best to be friendly and not offend.

Often in the day people driving by would stop and ask if I was lost, or if I wanted a lift, usually I would just say that I was walking North, or to the next town. I felt like telling them that I was going all the way to the other side was boasting and besides; being right at the start of the trip I was unsure if I could get that far. The most common annoyance was the flies, these would buzz around the face and drive me crazy, sometimes I would get so frustrated that I would sprint forward to try and leave the cloud of gnats behind, or flail my arms at them and scream obscenities in frustration. I also encountered a lot of road-kill; dead roos on the roadside in varying stages of decomposition, along with lizards, eagles, occasional snakes, etc. At one point I saw an emu in the desert which had been clipped by a car, breaking its leg.

Where I found it was about 100 meters from the track hobbling to get away from me, picking up a handy billet of wood I bonked him on the head to put him out of his misery and cut off one of the huge legs to take for dinner, cooked over a fire it was delicious. That same day I encountered another Aussie phenomenon; a biker gang, on a social run out into the desert. This group of over a hundred shiny Harley-Davidsons went roaring past me around midday and I was immediately reminded of the homo-erotic biker gang from Mad Max. I happened to meet some of them at a tiny truck stop later that day and they were very friendly, although some were obviously involved with crime in some way.

When I stopped in the tiny towns along the way I would usually make some chance acquaintance who would offer to help me in some way; at one of the last before I reached the empty centre I went to the police station to let them know where I was going and the copper offered to let me stay at his house with his family for a couple of nights, then the next day we drove up to a tiny bush hotel hundreds of miles from anywhere, there the owner had found a rusty rifle in the bush and wanted to put it behind the bar so the copper was headed up to check it didn't need a licence.

I was able to get a look at my route and drop a few days water food off at some of the tiny isolated cattle stations along the way. At a town called Maree the tarmac ended and the Birdsville track began, from here the towns ceased for 517 kilometres and the only civilisation along the track were four or five isolated farmhouses which served the vast ranches that scratched a living out of the desert. A days walk north form here took me to a strange place where there was an abandoned farm that tried to make a living from farming dates during the 50s, here there was a shower-head which came up out of the bare desert and produced hot water! Fed from aquifers of geothermal heated water that had been capped and piped, it was the perfect temperature and taking a hot shower in the middle of an otherwise empty desert was very surreal.

Further along this track I was to come to places where water came up out of the ground in hot streams of boiling water surrounded by little oasis of greenery. Once I reached the tiny outback hotel at Mungeranie I managed to find a couple going north to Birdsville back again the same day, with them I was able to bury food and water every 30 Kilometres in the desert for the rest of the way and get back again. Along the dirt track we had 3 flat tyres and only just made it back OK. Along the Birdsville track to get a flat could be fatal; if no cars happened along for a week the occupants would perish trying to walk out so it is recommended to carry multiple spare tyres and heaps of water. At one of the farms I stayed at for a rest day further up, the Jackeroos (Aussie cowboys) were just about to head off and get a camel and so I went and helped them butcher it.

One of them handed me the heart and invited me to put my fingers into the aortic valve, while still warm and slippery it felt just like a part of the female anatomy, they jokingly told me that this was referred to as the stockmans delight and if rumours were to be believed, that it had often been used as a substitute for female company by lonely Jackeroos. I kept some of the heart meat (not the aortic valve) and kebabed it over a fire the next night. Ten days walking was the longest I went without seeing any signs of civilisation apart from the occasional 4x4 that would pass going up the track, each day digging up the caches of food water that I had buried when passing this way before, at the end of this lonely 300 kilometre stretch I came to the tiny town of Birdsville, slap-bang in the centre of the country and just across the border from South Australia into Queensland.

Here I met an aboriginal family who invited me to stay with them for a few rest days, they were very friendly and I was grateful for their hospitality. The advice about conditions water sources further North I got from them was invaluable. From here I walked North again and the days seemed to blend into each other as the scenery gradually changed and flat empty desert was again replaced by splashes of greenery; trees, shade, creeks, hills, more frequent tiny towns which grew in size and ammenities. I can still taste some of the amazing meals I was treated to after a hard days walk; delicious steaks butchered on farms only hours before where the owners had invited me to stay for an evening and icy-cold beers supped on the verandas of saloons in the tiny towns I came to after a long hard, dusty day in the sun.

After the first month my feet stopped getting blisters and no longer required being taped up each day, the flies no longer bothered me and my legs and feet grew accustomed to the mileage. Whenever I was coming to a town the next day I would wake up at 2 am so as to walk through the morning, seeing the sunrise and arriving before midday to be able to have the afternoon off for rest and self-admin. Whenever I had the luxury of a motel and a general store I would buy armfuls of junk food and sit on the bed watching TV while absorbing a weeks worth of calories in a single sitting. One noteworthy incident occurred when I was walking at night and came upon a dead snake with its head missing. The body was still dripping blood so had only been dead for 10 min or less, so I popped it in my bag and walked on. My Aussie girlfriend happened to be driving to meet me at the next town that day. When I showed her the snake at the motel we stayed at she told me it was likely just killed by a Goanna lizard that had dropped it when I happened along, the snake had been an Eastern Brown; the second most deadly land-snake in the world.

Later I skinned and cured the hide and stitched it into my hatband, weaving in a necklace given to me by my Aboriginal hosts. The snake meat my girlfriend and I cooked over a campfire on the next two nights when she would drive to catch up with me each evening. Some nights were very cold and if I had the luxury of plentiful fire-wood I would make a heaped bonfire in the desert and sleep beside it. Where there were no trees to put up my poncho I would just sleep out under the stars, looking up at them and identifying my own constellations to make up back-stories and legends to go with them, for much of the time I was the only human being for hundreds of miles around. One evening I was followed by a pack of dingoes that howled all around me in a most chilling manner as the sun was setting and into the night.

Attacks on humans are almost unheard of but I still didn't fancy sleeping out in the open, so I walked on until midnight and found an abandoned barn with a big old trailer that allowed me to sleep up off the floor where the dingoes couldn't come at me in my sleep, in the morning they were gone. After eighty four days walking and 2,300 kilometres I reached the town of Karumba on the North Coast. My girlfriend had flown out to see me again and we celebrated by eating a heaped plate of prawns (the local delicacy) and drinking gallons of icy cold beer.

Walking Oz was without doubt the most enjoyable expedition I have ever been on, because I paid for it myself; no sponsors, no website, no publicity, no blog. Just a simple journey for the sake of it, the pleasure of meeting the outback Aussies and experiencing their hospitality. Should anyone reading this be considering something similar then I would advise them to go for it and dont look back.