We strode out of Cox’s River campsite with purpose, stomping down on the trail underfoot. We’d arrived at the campsite a few short hours earlier worn down and weary. After a brief spell of rest and with some urgency injected into our itinerary, we stepped forth onto the trail with renewed vigor. Rest stops for Daniel and I would be kept to a minimum as we had a lot of ground to cover. The sun maintained its incessant beat down onto the path ahead. A staffer from the Six Foot Track Eco Lodge yelled down friendly words of encouragement, attempting to usher us up into the comfort of the café, where the temptation of an ice cold beer would wash away all of our worries. Tempting as it was, my better judgement reminded me that the café had nothing to offer us that could replace the fact that we had another 15kms still to hike in a small space of time. We’d be back someday I promised myself, turning to face the trail and trekking on, comforting my thirst for an amber ale with the knowledge that there was ice cold beer in the fridge at home. A few short (but steep) up and downs on a very narrow section of trail reminded me of the task at hand, whisking away any thoughts of alcoholic nourishment. We had agreed that we would proceed together for the next kilometer or so until we reached Bowtell’s Swing Bridge. Once we had all spanned the bridge, Daniel and I would push on ahead at a brisk pace, leaving behind Lydia and Juan to meander the remainder of the trail towards the next campsite at Old Ford Road, some 7kms further on.
Lead by fearless Daniel, one by one we marched across the bridge, genuinely surprised that this swing bridge actually swings – a lot! Conscious of the time, I had tried to stomp across the bridge in haste. Doing so made it feel as though the handholds either side would give way and throw me onto the rocks and rushing water below. Slowly but surely, we reached the other side. With little time to celebrate the effort, I kissed Lydia on the cheek and reminded her how proud I was that she has gotten so far under such trying circumstances. From here it is straight up and out of the valley floor, an arduous climb that would take the best part of an hour on tired legs.
As we neared the top the terrain cleared a little to a wider, more open trail on what appeared to be private property, complete with many cows and the odd bull, with small pockets of wallabies ambling about. There was a wedding reception in full swing inside a giant marquee perched on the highest point of the parcel of land. The dusty path ahead took us directly past the marquee. To the well-dressed wedding party inside who might have caught sight of us – grubby, tired and smelly - we must have been some sight! Although pressed for time, Daniel and I did manage to score some amazing afternoon shots with the late afternoon light looking golden and glowing. It was around this time that I began to notice my energy levels had deteriorated considerably. The cumulative effect of over exertion, mild dehydration, mixed with a feeling of undernourishment and capped off by carrying two fully laden packs for most of the day had me red lining. Knowing what was at stake and aware that we still had some distance to cover, we pressed on, functioning purely on grit at this point, until finally stumbling upon the campsite at Old Ford Road. With minimal service, I mustered the sense to take a photo and text it to Lydia, hoping that when her and Juan both arrive at this juncture, they would have the sense to check her phone and ensure they knew the way to go from here. In our haste to get going, we had made what could have become a serious error.
Instead of leaving the PLB with Lydia and Juan, it was still stowed securely inside my cumbersome backpack. The thought of the two of them getting lost and/or being unable to continue due to Lydia’s injuries burned inside me. I had also swapped Suunto watches with Lydia as my battery was about to die and I knew that hers had the entire trail coded into its memory. The thing was, I hadn’t swapped watches for the map – based on the posted signs so far seen along the course, I was confident that we wouldn’t lose our way – I had swapped them because I wanted to make sure Daniel and I were keeping to a sufficiently hasty pace. The aim was to arrive at our destination before sunset so that we could retrieve the car and double back to the campsite to pick up our fellow adventurers.
From here we maintained course on a fire trail that lead us on towards a wall of rock that ominously characterized the skyline ahead. The orange cliff side ahead was the wall that separated Katoomba from the Megalong Valley. I knew that when we hit the 1.5km to go mark, we would encounter a makeshift staircase that would wind along and up the side of the cliff edge, carrying us to our destination. What kind of hike would this be, I reasoned, without an epic final push towards a summit? This particular hike did not disappoint. ‘Almost there’, I chanted to myself. ‘Just keep on pushing’. Push on we did, aggressively, the lactic acid burning in my quads and making my back ache, my core straining under the weight of my big red backpack. By this point, the flesh that straddled my hips was red and raw! Each step caused only a slight movement of the pack to rub against my side. As the day wore on, the sores got progressively worse.
Arriving at the base of the staircase at dusk, we stopped for a brief moment to break out the torches and then began the assault on the staircase in the dark, the temperature rapidly diving. Fumbling around in the growing darkness, Daniel received a call from Juan to let us know that they had made the second campsite, some 6 kilometers behind us. This put my mind at ease. For a few minutes, we pushed on with fervor, covering ground at a respectable rate. This didn’t last for long. About halfway up the ascent my pace had slowed to a crawl. One stair at a time. I was in serious trouble. This was the first moment in my life where I can recall my brain sending a signal to my body, willing it to give more…and there being no response at all. As a former elite level distance runner, I can’t recall ever being in a position before this where I was so exhausted that the notion of giving up was ever taken seriously. At this point, exhausted, dehydrated, frothing at the mouth, climbing a seemingly impenetrable wall of stairs that, in the darkness, seemed to go on forever, I was spent. Totally and utterly spent. I had not calculated that the last 6 hours of carrying my backpack as well as Lydia’s in the hot sun, with only staple foodstuff to sustain the effort would sap me of the necessary energy that would carry me to finish line. As Daniel pushed on ahead, benefiting from a second wind, I stopped. I stopped and sat down on one of the cold, wooden, makeshift stairs. Even sitting there in the dark silence was painful. I ached everywhere and started to shake, violently. A voice somewhere in the back of my mind reminded me of the real danger of hypothermia setting in if I sat here too long. But the message trailed off into nothingness, the transmission cloudy at best. I laid back against the next step and reveled in the feeling of weight disappearing from my shoulders and back. A fleeting moment of bliss. My mind was shutting down because my body wouldn’t listen and do what it was told to do.
Through a crack in the canopy overhead, I could see the moon shining down and was thankful that it illuminated small portions of the trail. Our torches did most of the hard work however the moon was a welcome addition to the team. Looking back out over the expanse of land from whence we had come, I could make out the flickering, warm-white glow of festoon lights that adorned the wedding reception marquee that we had passed 2 hours earlier. It was probably the first time since we began the hike that I was able to see a sizeable portion of how far we had come. It was here that I became acutely aware that my hands were shaking heavily. The sweat that drenched my long sleeve top had begun to cool on my skin, cooling my core at the same time. My mind flashed back to the only thing that mattered…Lydia (and of course, her Dad!). I thought of my suffering and assured myself, having seen the condition of her feet, that she was probably suffering considerably more than me. I was buoyed by the knowledge that they had made the second campsite but still, I pondered, she must be in a bad way. I don’t know if it was my unwavering love for Lydia and the desire to finish what I had started - a monumental effort to help her in the only way that I knew - or the pride inside me that refused to consider giving that got me going again. There was no way I was giving up on Lydia. Equally, there was no way that I would be adding to what would already be an oversized number of hikers who had to be rescued from their journey. In hindsight I can say that it was probably a combination of the two that got my sorry ass off the stair I had been sitting on. I rose with what little determination I had left, stood as tall as I could and spoke to myself in the dark, willing myself on to tackle the next step. And the next one. And the next one after that. All the while my mind consumed with an image of my best friend, waiting patiently for me at the campsite. Like a machine, I rerouted every bit of power I had to my mind, focusing on each mountainous step, only to conquer it and then move on to the next with the same steadfast singlemindedness. I reached a wooden assembly piece that marked what I hoped was the end of the stairs. “Thank FUCK that’s over!” I cursed between greedy gulps of oxygen. I looked up and saw the silhouette of Daniel standing at the crest of the next rise. Clambering to his side, I let out a laugh, bewildered at the predicament we had gotten ourselves in to but hysterical that we had conquered the worst of it and were now within shouting distance of Explorers Tree, the traditional starting point of the entire hike. Rounding a final bend, we were there. We had made it! Without a word we both slinked inside the dark bus shelter off to the side of the trail and threw ourselves onto the picnic table inside. For a few moments, we just sat there, not saying a word. I wouldn’t say that I was happy but rather relieved that we had made the end. 45 km in total of hiking over two days. I was full of admiration for Daniel’s renewed vigor as we worked that final climb. With utmost respect, I held out my soggy, sweat soaked hand, feebly offering a token of congratulations for what was a titanic effort on his part. We turned off our torches and let our eyes adjust to the dark, the moon still casting its dull glow over the land below. As our eyes adjusted to the night, we became aware of the giant map that adorned the wall of this bus shelter, only disappointed at the news it had to tell us. We had parked the car at Katoomba…which was still another 2 km’s down the main highway. There was no way we were walking that! When you have measured out your mettle and steadied it for an assault on a particular goal, stretching your resolve thin to achieve that mark, only then to achieve it and then find that you need to give more and reach further, finding ‘more’ and reaching ‘further’ is a tough ask. I had spent everything getting to this point. It looked like there was really only one thing to do…
I pulled out my iPhone, powered on the screen and turned on mobile data, desperately hoping for a single bar of reception. Success! It turned out that even though for all appearances we were still in the thick of it we were actually very near to town with a radio tower nearby. I googled ‘Katoomba Taxi Service’ and selected the first option that appeared. The operators voice was music to my ears! Surprisingly, even with my slurred speech trying to explain where we were for pick up, the mention of ‘Explorers Tree’ was all that she needed to hear, they knew exactly where we were. Maybe we weren’t the only ones who had reached the end only to order a taxi to ferry us back to town. Shortly after hanging up, I became intensely aware of the effect the cold was having on me both physiologically and psychologically. Combined with fatigue and a saturated shirt I was shaking, violently and uncontrollably. I had slurred speech and my vision was blurry. It was hard to concentrate and finish thoughts. I knew I had to get out of these clothes and put on something dry and warm. Instructing Daniel to keep an eye out for the taxi, I fumbled with the articles of clothing that clung to my skin until I stood naked inside the shelter, no doubt looking like a disheveled ghost haunting the darkness. I had figured that, being out here in the bush, the taxi would be a while before it reached us. I was wrong! Our surrounds had begun to lighten and it took a while for my senses to register what was going on. Then it hit. Those were the lights of our taxi fast approaching, he must have been nearby when the call went out. As he neared the shelter, the flashlight that hung off the side of his car pierced the darkness, glancing for two passengers that had sent out the call. I’m not quite sure what the driver made of the scene that the light fell upon. As he bathed my pasty white skin in a golden glow of light I was so wasted from my efforts that I just didn’t care. I stood there, letting it all hang out. I hoped that as he drove off he would make a hasty u-turn and somehow understand the innocence of the situation. As luck would have it, he sympathized with our plight, assisted in part by Daniel chasing after the taxi to assure the driver that everything was above board. Clambering into fresh clothes, even with dry sweat stuck to my skin, felt like hopping into a nice, hot, welcoming bath. We labored our gear into the boot of the taxi and slid into our seats, profusely thanking our driver for getting to us so quickly.
Exchanging pleasantries with our driver, painful as it was to even talk, was tough. A few short minutes later he pulled up alongside Juan’s compact hatch. We almost crawled out of the car. It took our efforts combined to open the boot in order to retrieve our belongings. I thanked the driver a final time and, much to his surprise, insisted on paying double the fare as a way of expressing my gratitude for his assistance.
Now of course our primary aim was to drive as quickly as possible to the Old Ford Road Campsite to pick up both Lydia and Juan but there were two minor details that needed tending to. The first involved returning the PLB back to the police station, insisting to the attending officer that no, I was not drunk, but rather exhausted after such a monumental effort. The second, was raiding the local Woolworths for replenishing snacks that would (we had hoped) recharge our batteries enough to carry out the recovery of our absent party members and make the drive back home to Western Sydney.
The drive itself was a rather uneventful one in the dark. I can say that I was so eager to see Lydia again. I needed to know that she and her father were ok. I needed to hold her. I needed to tell her that I loved her and that I was so incredibly proud of what she had achieved over the last two days. Pulling up in the campsite carpark to the sight of two unkempt looking souls waiting patiently for us, I leapt from the car and did exactly those things. Lydia’s warmth pressed against my chest was the kind of remedy that briefly washed away all my weariness. Jamming our belongings into the boot of the car, we bid our farewell to the Six Foot Track and took off into the warm night, cutting through the darkness with our headlights, the tracer fire of our red taillights ferrying us home. We left nothing behind on the Six Foot Track, certainly no sign that we had ever been there. But we did take a lot from the trail. We took the memories of our insane efforts that can never be taken from us. We also took an imprint inside of how much it meant to us to be out there having a go. We had made the commitment to go as far as we could. Our combined effort took us a distance that I feel the four of us should be extremely proud of.
The hiker may leave the trail…but the trail will never leave the hiker. That is something I have been unable to get out of my head since our return. I’m thankful for the thought. It leaves me yearning to be out in the wild once more. It leaves me yearning for our next adventure. It leaves me searching for something I only ever find when I’m out doing the things that soothe my soul.
It is the thing that both of us only ever find when we make living fun.