Saturday, 23 August 2014

My ice bucket challenge

"It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves"  Sir Edmund Hillary

Last weekend saw me back out on the trail on another training mission. The plan was to pick up from where I left off last time at Albany Hwy and walk through to Collie or even further if I was able. The walk from Albany Hwy to Collie is 195km. I was planning on doing it in about three days. 

You must have heard by now about the ice bucket challenge that is sweeping social media right now. Well, somehow I have been spared from nomination so far. However, I think last weekend God decided that He would nominate me instead. Jenn dropped me off at the Albany Hwy on Thursday afternoon and I camped beside the road ready for an early start the next morning. I had planned to start at 0400 as usual, but because of a restless night, I decided I might as well get up and start hiking as lay there shivering. So I packed up and left camp at 0300. I figured it would give me an extra hour on the trail. 

The day started out well. I got going at a brisk walk and soon warmed up. It is still winter here and the nights and mornings are still quite chilly. I had only walked about two hours when I noticed a storm brewing far to the south of me. The sky would light up like daylight with sheet lightning and I heard the distant rumble of thunder. I thought nothing of it, the forecast said fine day today and it was a long way off. I kept walking at a good pace - around 6km per hour, punctuated by brilliant flashes that exploded through the dark night. The wind picked up, the storm was approaching at a rapid pace. Before I knew it, the lightning to thunder intervals were down to a few seconds. I quickly fished into my pack for my raincoat and got it on just in time. The lightning was right above me now, all around me, every few seconds an intense flash followed immediately by booming thunder. The wind was howling, huge drops of freezing rain fell in torrents. I hunkered down pulling my hood over my head and marching on through the storm praying that the lightning wouldn't hit me. Then I noticed that the drops of rain were bouncing off the ground. When I looked closer I saw that it was hail, the size of marbles. Pretty soon the ground was white with it. Still I marched on, head down leaning into the wind. Then, just as suddenly as it had come, it moved on. The rain and hail slowed down and then stopped. The lightning flashes were behind me now. The storm had passed. Ice bucket challenge passed, not that I really had a choice about it!

It was still about 2 hrs til daylight when I reached  a T intersection on the 4WD track I had been following. I looked for a trail marker but couldn't see one. I hiked up some distance to the right and left along the intersecting road but could not see any markers. I got out the maps and studied them. I decided that I would need to retrace my steps back the way I had come until I found the trail again. I finally found the trail once more very close to where the storm had attacked me. In the noise and confusion I had missed the marker where the trail left the 4WD track and had inadvertently walked on into the night. I had wasted over an hour and I estimated at least 6km of walking. 

I hiked on to the first hut which was occupied by a large group of teenage boys tenting nearby. I stopped long enough to dry out my feet and put on dry socks again. Not only was I wet now but cold from the ice storm also. The sun had risen by now and I had not had a good start to my trip. I hiked on to Mt Wells camp. This was a cool place. It was on top of the tallest hill around and it was an old fire tower lookout. The watchman lived in a very small two room hut, one room for a bed and the other has a small stove built in. As the tower is no longer used for this purpose the hut is now used as a track shelter and is the only one on the trail that has 4 walls, windows and a door! I did not overnight here but I can see that it would be very cosy on a cold winters night. I stopped here for about 30 minutes in an attempt to dry my feet out completely. My feet were already beginning to hurt from the 9 hrs I had been walking so far. I had learnt what can quickly happen to wet feet from the last trip and did everything I could to keep my feet warm and dry. The damage had already been done however from the early morning storm. After 30 minutes I headed out with warm dry feet again and for a while I felt great! I was running and dancing along the trail, in fact I ran the next 4km, I had happy feet! I could almost see the penguins dancing through the trees as well. 

A couple of hours after Mt Wells camp I met two ladies travelling the same direction as me. I stopped and chatted for almost half an hour, then bade them goodbye and headed off to Chadoora campsite. I only stopped here for about 15 minutes and hit the trail again. I was behind schedule again. I was hoping to get to Swamp Oak campsite by the end of the day which was the one past the town of Dwellingup. I still had about 20km to get to Dwellingup. 

I finally arrived in Dwellingup about 7.30pm. The sun had gone down around 6pm, it was cold, and I had been on the trail now for 16.5 hrs. I had walked about 72km including the 6km of "bonus miles" when the storm distracted me. It was 13km to the hut where I had hoped to go, but I decided to camp just out of town for the night and call it a day. Rather than getting my stove out and cooking a meal I called in at the local pub and had a delicious Turkish bread sandwich with eggplant and all sorts of other goodies in it, a serve of hot chips and a soft drink. I also called my wife since I had good phone reception and planned to meet her in Collie on Sunday.

After another cold restless night I got going again about 0500. I had decided to cut my trip a little short so I slept in a little. It turned out to be a beautiful day, when the sun finally burnt through the thick fog it even warmed up enough for me to strip off my jacket. It was so nice to have my shadow come along with me again! I walked the 13km down to the first hut at Swamp Oak. Then after a short stop to fill up with water I headed off again to Murray campsite 19km further on. The terrain was pretty good, I had left most of the bigger hills behind on day one. The trail descends quite a long way down to the floor of the Murray river basin. Murray camp is situated right beside the now flowing river and it is a beautiful place to camp. I met a nice couple there and chatted for half an hour or so as I rested. It was after 3pm as I headed out again, they were very surprised that I was not staying the night, but I said I had to get at least one more camp under my belt for the day. So I headed down the trail towards Dookanelly campsite almost 20km away.

My feet were really bothering me again, and this leg of my journey seemed exhaustingly long. The fact that it is flat for the majority of it actually makes it seem longer. I went as hard as I could, but my pace was very slow now. Each step was agony, the balls of both feet were very tender. I had large blisters on the balls of both feet which later turned into good sized blood blisters about the size of cherries. There was one last long hill before Dookanelly camp, about 2km up, it is not very steep but it just keeps climbing. Finally I staggered into camp around 8pm to find 4 other visitors sitting around a cosy fire. It was a very welcoming sight and it was great to have some company for the night. I set up my tarp and hammock near the hut and had a well deserved hot meal before heading to bed.
As I lay there falling asleep I decided that I would not go all the way to Collie the next day. There was just one more pick up point between where I was and Collie. That was at Harvey - Quindanning road. It was 12.5km from where I was, and I decided that I would send Jenn a message to pick me up there in the morning. If I missed that opportunity I would have to go on to Collie and given the condition of my feet I thought that was probably a bad decision. 

I slept in until daylight for the first time ever on the trail. I packed up my gear and started down the trail just as the other campers were rising from their beds to greet the day. It was about 7am. I figured it should take me about 3 or 4 hrs to get to the pickup point 12.5km away given my condition and the fact I had to walk over the four sisters. The sisters are a set of four small hills. They don't look like much on the map but many people say this is the worst section of the entire 1000km trail. Each hill is steep and sharp, the trail follows a 4WD track but it is badly washed out and rutted. The trail is so steep it makes it quite treacherous with the small pea gravel underfoot. I was very glad that I had my walking poles and lightweight backpack on. I made short work of the hills and marched on towards my destination. 

I carry a small point of view camera that is mounted to my walking pole. I take video with this so I can document my trips. But for some reason it was not working this entire trip! I really wanted to film the hailstorm, and some of the beautiful scenery along the way, so I was really put out that I could not share any of that with you this trip. As I was hiking along today I came across an echidna scratching around in the leaves right beside the trail. These guys are very shy and seldom seen, especially in the daytime as they are mostly nocturnal. I was very excited to see him and tried once more to get my camera to work, I even dug out the spare battery and tried that but to no avail! On arriving home and telling my wife she mentioned I could have filmed him with my iphone but I had totally forgot I had it with me so I missed the opportunity. I have lived in Australia almost 45 yrs and only ever seen about 3 or 4 echidnas in the wild in all my years of hiking and camping, so I am always excited to come across these fascinating elusive creatures.

Echidnas are small mammals about 12 -18 inches long and are covered in spines. They are a monotreme which means they lay eggs. There are only two mammals on earth that lay eggs, the echidna and the platypus, both of which live nowhere else than Australia (and New Guinea- one of our closest neighbours). Echidna's are unique in the fact that when they lay their egg the female then deposits the single egg into her pouch. She then carries this around for 10 days until it hatches. The young echidna (called a puggle) then lives in her pouch for a further 50 days suckling on its mother's milk. After this they are ejected from the pouch and they begin to grow their spines that they will need in adulthood. They stay in a nursery burrow for 7 months until they are weaned with the mother coming back to feed the young puggle every five days. Echidnas are also known as spiny ant eaters as they forage around for ants and termites. They have powerful claws for digging up ants nests and when threatened will dig themselves into the ground leaving just a mass of sharp spines protruding. They have very poor eyesight and this little guy came right up to me as we wandered around searching for his lunch. It was really really cool to see him completely at home being undisturbed by my presence.

I arrived at Harvey - Quindanning road about 10am exactly 3 hrs after leaving Dookanelly campsite. My wife arrived soon after and we headed home again. I had only managed about 135km this trip but had done it in just over two days this time. So it wasn't a total loss. I learned some more and have some new ideas on how I can improve next trip.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Planning a camping trip and choosing a great campsite. Part 2

20 things to look for when choosing a good campsite

Now the time has come, you have done the research at home and you are out hiking. A lot of the decisions about your campsite will depend on what happens throughout your day. You will be gathering information all day unconsciously and will use that information to make your decisions when it comes time to search for a suitable site. Rather than give you a shopping list about what to do or find in order to have the perfect campsite, I have put together a list of questions. These will help you identify your needs for your campsite. 

1. How long do I plan to stay here?

The length of time you will be at the one place makes a big difference. If you are only there to get a few hrs sleep and off again at dawn the following morning you may get away with a less than ideal place for a temporary camp. But if you are using this as a base camp for a week much more consideration needs to be taken as to the exact location of your tent. 

2. How early do I plan to pack up and head out tomorrow?

If you are doing a through hike and want to get in 20 or 30 miles on the trail tomorrow you will likely want to be up early and head out as soon as possible. This may mean your tent or tarp might be still wet or icy. You may be striking camp in the dark, so care should be taken not to camp too near any hazards. If you have a more relaxed schedule you might have time to wait for your tent to dry completely before packing it away. If this is the case you might want to think about where the sun will rise in the morning and where the shadows will be. Perhaps the sun might not reach your camping spot until 10am due to high mountains to the east.

3. What is it I want to do there?

You might be camping alone and just need a quiet spot to sit and think or to write. Perhaps you are the leader in charge of a bunch of boy scouts and need to occupy and entertain them for the weekend. It could be that you are camping as a family, with you and your partner and a couple of young kids. You might plan to go swimming or fishing tomorrow. Or perhaps you are here to try some new climbs on the slabs of granite nearby. These considerations will make a big difference to the decisions you make on choosing a campsite.

4. What sort of tent do I have?

This will make a big difference to the site you choose to pitch it. I have a very large canvas tent that I use when we go car camping as a family. It has a very large footprint, is very comfortable and is great for extended camping in the one spot or for use as a base camp. Sometimes however I go solo and just need a very small area to pitch my tarp and sleep on the ground. Or sometimes I am in my hammock and pitch my tarp over the top of that.

5. Will I be needing a campfire?

For some people a campfire is a necessity. I have to say there is nothing quite the same as sitting around a lively campfire singing songs, eating baked vegies from the coals, toasting marshmallows and smores, and just gazing into the dying coals late into the night. There is a time and a place for a fire. If not carefully controlled they can be a dangerous thing. I have seen many a young boy burnt from playing in a fire, and if not carefully monitored and completely extinguished they can lead to forest fires and cause catastrophic disasters. When you venture off the beaten track deep into wilderness areas campfires are frowned upon. The leave no trace principle is the code by which we try to live. This means doing any cooking on a small camp stove and completely removing any trace that you had been there when you leave. There is nothing worse than seeing the ugly scar of a fireplace in an otherwise pristine location. 

If you are in a campground where fires are permitted, use the fire pit reserved for that. Don't light multiple fires all over the place. Keep them contained and monitored. Keep your fire away from your tent, it only takes a small spark to burn a hole in your tent. Make sure you never light a fire on a peat bog. These fires can burn for years deep underground and are impossible to put out. 

 6. Do I have water with me or do I need to camp near a clean water source?

When you are camping water is a big priority. You need to have a source of clean drinking water nearby. This may be in the form of a creek or river, or it could be a well or spring. It could be a water drum or bottle that you have carried with you. If you are camping near a natural water source like a creek it is a good policy to camp close but not too close.  It is a good rule of thumb to stay about 50m or more away from the creek so that you do not contaminate the source. There are other considerations to think about. You may encounter animals that come to the water source to drink during the night or early morning.

7. Will it be cold or hot tonight?

If it is a still night and likely to be cold, the cold air will flow down to the bottoms of the valleys. Fog and mist generally form along waterways and in hollows. This will make a very damp campsite and condensation on your tent will be much higher. A better plan might be to camp a little way up the side of a hill perhaps facing east so that you will warm up a lot faster in the morning. If it is likely to be a hot night a spot beside the river in a clearing will give you the best chance of a nice breeze.

8. Will there be bugs?

There will usually be a lot more bugs around water sources especially if they are slow moving or still. Stagnant pools are excellent breeding grounds for gnats and mosquitoes so keep clear of those. You will encounter a lot more bugs if it is a still night than if there is a breeze. If you do happen to have a fire the smoke will help to keep the bugs at bay. If you can't escape the fact that there will be bugs, make sure you are well prepared. Screens on tents need to be zipped up at all times especially if there is a light on inside the tent, bugs are drawn to a light. Long clothing and mosquito head nets are a better solution than bug spray.

9. Is there a storm or strong winds likely?

You should have some idea of the weather forecast from your research you did before leaving home. I also have a barometer on my watch which lets me know if the air pressure is dropping rapidly. If it looks like a storm is likely try to find a sheltered spot. You don't want to camp under large trees in case there are strong winds. Trees can blow over or drop limbs and can be dangerous. You are better off camping on the leeward side of a hill to get out of the main force of the wind. Using cliffs or boulders as shelter can be better than using trees in strong wind. If you can find a grove of small trees or shrubs these make excellent wind breaks without the danger of falling limbs.

10. Is lightning a possibility?

If an electrical storm is possible you might encounter lightning nearby. You want to stay away from anything that might attract the lightning. Stay away from antennas, metal towers, and tall trees. I have seen large trees blown completely apart from lightning strikes and they can also be the cause of forest fires.

 11. Is it likely to snow?

I love camping in the snow! As long as you are adequately prepared! The experience of waking up to a new snowfall is like nothing else. The silence during a snowstorm is magical. Don't be put off if it's likely to snow. If you are expecting a large snowfall make sure your access point back to civilisation is still clear and don't pitch your tent under branches that may break with the added weight of the snowfall. Evergreens are usually ok they will shed the snow naturally, but you don't want 100 pounds of snow toppling onto your tent at midnight either!

 12. Is it likely to rain where I am staying tonight?

Rain is a very common occurrence when camping. It is only a matter of time and you will experience camping in the rain. Make sure your tent is pitched well. If it has an inner with an outer fly make sure the fly is pitched taut and not touching the inner. Don't pitch your tent in a depression or hollow as water will collect there. You want a base that is well drained and won't turn to mud. A base of pine needles are excellent as a ground cover. You also need to consider ground water. If you are on the side of a hill and it rains heavily the water will run down the side of the hill and onto your tent. Be aware of this and be prepared. You might want to make a small wall of rocks to divert any groundwater away from your tent. Just remember to put them back where you found them when you leave.

13. Is it likely to rain upstream of where I am?

This is something a lot of people miss. Sometimes flash floods can sweep through an area in a matter of minutes with no warning at all. This is especially true when you are canyoning or canyoneering. It might be a fine sunny day with no sign of rain where you are but 50 miles upstream they might have had a downpour a week ago. People have lost their lives in canyons where water levels can rise suddenly with nowhere to escape them. Be aware of what is upstream of you and do your research.

14. Are there any animal paths or tracks nearby?

Animals tend to follow paths of least resistance to get around. Especially grazing animals. They tend to come down to drink at rivers each day and are not expecting a tent to be in their way. If you are observant you will see where there are natural tracks. You might see tufts of fur on branches or scat on the ground and paw or hoof prints in the mud or dirt. This will give you clues as to who is around and what to look out for. Best to keep away from animal paths and also human trails as well.

15. Are the any insect nests nearby?

Insects can be problematic especially if you happen to camp near their nests. Bees, wasps or hornets nests are definitely something to avoid. Ants can also be dangerous. There are fire ants in USA and army ants in Africa. Here in Australia we have bull ants which can grow up to almost 2 inches long. They are highly aggressive when defending their nests and have a painful sting as well as large jaws capable of a nasty bite. If you want to see an 6'6 Australian man run stir up a bull ants nest next to him! 

16. If you are camping under trees are they sound?

Even if there is no wind around it is good practice to look carefully at the trees you will be camping under. If they are dead trees or have dead limbs on them - often called widow makers - steer clear of them. 

17. Is there any danger of falling rocks or avalanches?

It is not a good idea to camp too close to crumbling cliffs or shale which can be very loose. Similarly camping near glaciers or in avalanche prone areas is very dangerous. Best to keep right away from these areas unless you have no other choice. I once camped in a canyon bolted to the sheer cliff just inches away from the top of a waterfall as I had no other choice at the time. There was no danger here as the rock was sound and there was no danger of rising water as there was no rain in the catchment area at the time.

18. Is there a level spot that I can pitch my tent on to make it more comfortable?

If you camp on a slope, chances are you will be cursing your choice of location somewhere during the night. You will tend to roll towards the downhill side of your tent and you will end up touching the side of the tent, letting in moisture and probably soaking your sleeping bag as well. Not to mention if you are sharing the tent with anyone they will likely roll into the other side of you. It is a good idea to have a slight slope to your tent site for run off if it rains but you don't want it too steep. If you have no choice but to camp on a sloping site position your tent so that you sleep up and down the slope not across it so that you don't roll and with your head at the top. 

19. Is there any poison oak, poison ivy or nettles around?

There are some plants that you need to avoid as well. Some will give you a nasty sting or rash. We even have stinging trees here in Australia, in fact the giant stinging tree is one of the biggest trees in the Australian rainforest. Blackberry thickets and Lawyer vines or "wait a while" are also common here. They are long vines with prickly stems that grow in profusion in the rainforest. 

20. Will camping here have a negative impact on anyone else? 

We all try to leave as little impact on the environment as possible. We leave no trace that we had ever been there when we leave, and don't damage the environment in any way while we are there. If there are other campers around try to keep the noise down and be considerate of others.  

Can you think of any other suggestions I have missed? Please let me know in the comments!