Saturday, 21 May 2011
We'd been planning our trip to Australia for over a year. The last time over there the two of us barely knew each other. All our time had belonged to us, children hadn't been talked about yet. We'd spent three glorious weeks together in the south-west corner of Western Australia, lazing on beaches, taking the occasional trip and just being together. When I proposed to Tammy at the Busselton Drive-In Movies towards the end of the stay, I knew that things would change. Our lives would become more complicated. An adventure had started.
Eleven years on, we were heading back. This time as a family - our first foreign trip together. We'd spend three weeks camping in Western Australia and a week with relatives in Adelaide. After several years' hard work building up a business, this month away over Christmas would be a god-send. It'd give us time to relax, to spend every day in each other's company and to reconnect with the things that i knew, deep down, were the most important in life, but which, oftentimes, got pushed aside in the hectic chaos of our day-to-day routine.
Tammy knew me inside out - that I'd be looking at foreign soil with an eye for a new adventure. 'Don't go getting any crazy schemes in your head, you,' she'd reminded me on countless occasions, 'this holiday is about us spending time together, not you going off on some mad trip for days on end.' For once, I'd agreed with her. I could get up early each day - when you're camping it's easy - and get in a decent run every morning. That'd keep me ticking over. And I was happy with this thought. Until I read the article, that is.
I'd finished work early on a Friday in August and enjoyed a run home. Once there, I knew I'd have the house to myself for a couple of hours while the kids did their swimming lessons and the missus did the shopping. I ran a hot bath, made a mug of sweet tea and grabbed the copy of The Strider that had been poking out of the mail box on my way in. Produced by The Long Distance Walkers Association once every quarter, it was mailed free to members and never falied to include articles about people hiking inspiring routes all over the globe. It's A5 size and slightly old-fashioned black and white lay-out always reminded me of the copies of Athletics Weekly I used to pore over as a kid, and had immediately endeared me to it.
As I lay in the bath, exhausted from another week of early starts, long hours and just enough empty miles, I flicked through this latest copy and came across a piece written by Andy Taylor. It started,
'For anyone looking for an excuse to visit Perth, Australia, The Cape to Cape Track must be the perfect reason. Stretching for 135km / 85 miles between the lighthouses of Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin in the far south-west of Western Australia, it features spectacular coastal and forest scenery and wonderful wildlife and fauna.'
Against all my best intentions, The Kid started whispering to me. Keep On Burning. Before reading any further, I knew it was something I had to do.
Whilst living in Perth for two years in my younger days, I'd fallen in love with Australia's south-west. Its beaches were amongst the finest in the world, its scenery was jaw-droppingly beautiful and its towns - Busselton, Margaret River, Walpole and Denmark - were places I could envisage spending the rest of my days.
I cut short my post-run soak, grabbed a towel and got online to check out more information on the Track. Before long, I headed to one of my favourite sites- Australian Geographic - and searched for 'Cape to Cape'. A piece by James McCormack appeared on-screen, and it's introductory paragraph merely confirmed what I already knew - this was one adventure I couldn't afford not to have:
'The 135km track is a succession of beautiful spots, spectacular headlands, high clifftops, tall karri forests and long, lonely beaches. The track runs along Australia's most south-westerly coastline, delivering fishermen to their tried and tested sites, surfers to challenging and world-famous waves, cavers to exquisite formations and climbers to spectacular granite sea cliffs. And, of course, there are those who come simply to walk the wild stretch of coast - to trace empty beaches, wend through wind-pruned heath and stand on high, watching rocks being pummelled by swells that have surged unhindered all the way from Africa.'
Running the Track would be an amazing experience. No doubt it would be hard work, but that was part of the attraction. The trickiest part, however, would be convincing Tammy that although this was another of my 'crazy schemes', the two or three days I'd need in order to do it wouldn't really get in the way of our holiday. That was going to be difficult, but I was sure that I could manage it.
Sat in the back room, I heard the car pull up on the drive. The front door opened and the two superheroes charged in. It's now or never. Take a deep breath now.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Months later, I'm stood at the start of The Cape to Cape Track. It's 5.45 am on a clear day in the middle of December. We'd flew into Australia a couple of days previously and driven down to Dunsborough, the nearest town to the Cape Naturaliste lighthouse. Camping overnight, I'd got up at first light and Tammy had given me a lift over the 12 kms from the camp site to the Track's start point in the car we'd hired. The kids had piled in the back, still in their pyjamas, and swiftly fallen asleep again.
As I strap on my day-pack, I'm a little nervous. Last minute preparations have been a bit haphazard. My only means of navigation are two basic Cape to Cape tourist maps. Although I'd been assured that the Dunsborough Information Centre stocked OS maps of the route as well as the official detailed guide book, both had been 'sold out' when I'd popped in the previous day. Running with a rudimentary map would have been no problem as long as I knew I could keep in contact with Tammy should I get lost, fall ill, receive a snake bite or become seriously dehydrated. Herein lay the next problem. Although I'd planned to buy a cheap phone in Perth with an Australian SIM card, I'd just ran out of time. Hence, from the moment I left Tammy and the kids, I'd be 'out of contact'. I'd have no means to contact Tammy and Tammy would have no way of phoning me. This was by no means ideal. I'd worked out a rough time of arrival at today's finish point - Gracetown, 46 kms away - and added a couple of hours. If I failed to arrive 3 hours outside that generous prediction, I told Tam, you best ring the local police. She'd replied with a look that made me shiver.
Making last minute adjustments to my shoes and straps, another problem springs to mind. In my over-concern to carry enough water for the day (water sources are extremely scarce on the Track), I'd forgotten to pack sun cream and a hat - both were still in the tent. With temperatures of 38 degrees forecast, this could make for an interesting day.
So, things aren't perfect but they'll do, I think. I say my goodbyes, sign the register at the Track's Northern Terminus, and get off.
The Cape to Cape Track's first 5 kms are easy going. An undulating tarmac path winds down from the lighthouse in the direction of Sand Patches beach. Although I admire the 'Access For More' scheme that has funded this short stretch to enable the disabled to sample the Track, I'm soon longing to leave the tarmac and hit the more typically rugged 'goat tracks' the Cape to Cape is based on.
Soon enough, the 'improved' path ends and I'm running on a sandy single-track trod through scrubby dune vegetation. The day's already hot. The surf pounds the rocks below. The sky is impossibly blue, the beach impossibly white. I think back to a few days previously when I trudged through ankle-deep snow across the Saleby fields, headtorch pinpointing my early-evening route and the coldest temperatures I can ever remember in the UK stinging my cheeks. It seems so long ago now that I'm half the world away.
At Sand Patches car park, a sign details track maintenance work and diverts me slightly inland. I'm reminded of the literature I read about The Friends of the Cape to Cape Track in the Information Centre the day before. The Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park recreation planner, Neil Taylor, a keen caver who often used the rough coastal path, had originally conceived the grand plan of the Track in the early 90's, and although construction had started by the late 90's, money to continue the project soon became non-existent. The Friends of the Cape to Cape Track, now numbering 400, blossomed into being, each with a common passion for carrying the idea of the Track through. As a result of their sheer hard work, The Cape to Cape Track officially opened in 2001. It was a genuine and fantastic example of people power. Nowadays, sections of the Track are 'adopted' by Friends. Anywhere between once a year and every couple of months, these people will head out to prune, check guideposts, collect rubbish and do minor maintenance.
A rough 4WD access road climbs from the car park and, as I pull my map from my short's waistband to check the alternative route, I'm startled by a movement in the scrub. I'd heard carpet snakes and lizards were common along the Track, and I stop dead. Yards ahead of me, a kangaroo bounds onto the road and eyes me with intrigue. As quickly and silently as possible, I slip off my sack and rummage for my camera, desperate to get a picture to show the kids. I barely manage to take the photo before he's off - two bounds across the road and into the bush beyond.
I regain the Track at Sugarloaf Rock and continue across the tops of the limestone cliffs that stretch as far as Kabbijgup Beach. It's perfect trail running terrain - single track, interesting, but not too technical. The views to the west are spellbinding. At Kabbijgup, the Track drops to the sea for the first beach stretch. The soft sand makes for hard going. The holes in my favourite battered fell shoes suck in sand and make it difficult to run. As I leave the beach for the cliff-side path, I sit a while, empty the sand from my shoes and watch a group of surfers ride the three breaks - Baby, Momma and Poppa Bear - that give this spot its famous nickname, The Three Bears.
During the early stages of a long run, my mind races over all sorts of subjects. Gradually, as the miles add up and fatigue sets in, my thinking will become more focused. As exhaustion approaches much later, my only thoughts will be on my body - stay relaxed, stay strong, take another step. As I leave The Three Bears, I'm still feeling fresh. I ponder over this perfect way to end my running year - an important year defined by two runs in particular.
The first had been my Bob Graham Round in June. I'd set that as my main focus for the year and had based all my running for over six months on that singular challenge. My success had brought deep satisfaction, and the knowledge and friends acquired during my training and the round itself had opened up a new world to me. It had confirmed the direction I wanted to take my running in the future. It had turned my empty miles into ones of unbridled enjoyment and promise I'd dared not dream of.
The second had taken place just the day before. After setting up the tent around noon, we'd driven into Dunsborough to find some lunch and ended up spending the afternoon swimming and lounging around on the beach. Itching for an easy run, I'd sidled back to the car later on to dig out my running clobber. A steady 5 mile trot along the beach would set me up perfectly for the next couple of days' exertions. Just as I slipped on my shoes, Little Man jogged over. 'Can I come Dad?' he said.
He'd been really enjoying the junior sessions at the Club over the last few months and had done well in local schools races, but there was no way, only having just turned 9, that he could run 5 miles.
'I'll not be long. You can run round the camp site when we get back,' I replied.
He looked back at me with tears in his eyes. 'But I want to run with you Dad,' he said.
In a moment, I came to my senses. 'Stick your trainers on mate,' I said to him, a smile now on his face, 'Let's get cracking!'
Over the next forty minutes, we jogged slowly up the beach and round the headland. We walked in the shore break, clambered over rocks, talked about school, about friends, about everything, and had a great time. As a training run, it was worthless. As an inspiring event I'll remember forever, it was priceless. We'd run together at least once a week on our return, we'd promised each other. I can't wait, I think as I jog along the cliffside track. And by the happiness painted across his little face the previous day, I know that he can't too.
I'm soon into the easy rhythm that usually comes after an hour of running. Progress is steady and enjoyable. However, the heat has started to become oppressive. I can feel any exposed skin starting to burn, but there's little I can do. I've a long way to go and there's a real possibility that I could end up a right mess. I'm doing my best to fend off dehydration - stopping regularly for a couple of sips of water, but I've a suspicion that I might be travelling too light. In order to cut weight and ensure easier running, I'd filled three small Coke bottles with water and brought them along. Before I'm even half-way through the day, I'm down to the final bottle and I'm battling with the urge you get when you're really thirsty of just chugging the whole lot and hoping I find more water en-route. I resist the temptation, take a couple of unsatisfying swigs and carry on.
In spite of a gradual physical deterioration, I can't fail to appreciate the beauty of the Track. One moment I'm scrambling over steep rock, another I'm plodding across the soft sand of a lonely beach, following the tyre prints of a 4WD or winding my way along the edge of a precipitous sea cliff. And I'm alone. There's a standing joke in the south-west that more than two people makes for a crowded beach, but when I'd read that the Track was a 'best kept secret' I hadn't realised the true sense of isolation it embraces. Since leaving the lighthouse, I've covered over 30kms, and whilst I've spotted the odd surfer, I've not passed another single soul on the Track.
By 33km, I'm at Moses Rock. I'm weary, despondent and still have another 13kms to run. The map says I can find water at the Moses Rock campsite and I'm dearly hoping it's true. I've a burning thirst which has started to over-ride all other thoughts. The campsites on the Track are extremely basic, mostly consisting of a clearing giving enough room to pitch a tent, and a wooden picnic table. I spot a portaloo slightly out from the camp and jog over, thinking I've located the water source. Inside, however, there's just a bush toilet. My spirits sink.
The next hour and a half is going to be murder. As I head out of the clearing though, I pass a rain tank obscured in the undergrowth, and thank my stars. A sign reads, 'Untreated water. Boil before drinking.' I fill up a Coke bottle and drink it straight down, pause for breathe and do the same again. I suddenly feel much better.
I've learnt over time that energy comes and goes in cycles during a long run. You're always likely to hit a 'bad patch', but that doesn't necessarily mean that things will continue to get worse until you simply can't go on. Rather, it's a case of stick with it, see it through and, more times than not, you'll come out the other side and feel ok. During the course of an ultra-run, this can happen several times, and when I'm struggling, I always remind myself that there's light at the end of the tunnel. I'm at the end of the tunnel now, the mood's upbeat again, and, before I know it, I'm floundering ungracefully over the rocky headland to Gracetown, waving at Tammy and the kids swimming in the Indian Ocean. It's been a tough first day. I'm badly sunburnt but the legs don't feel too bad. After a short swim and plenty of food and pop, I find a sheltered, shady spot, stick in my radio earphones and fall fast asleep.
Day 2 sees me back at the beach at dawn. It's the biggest day today - 57kms from Gracetown to Hamelin Bay. As well as including some long beach stretches and over 10kms through the karri forests, I've also got to cross the mouth of the Margaret River. During the winter months, this is impossible, but in summer, a sandbar which runs across the mouth makes it possible to swim or wade across. An inland diversion takes you on a safer route, but I'm keen to avoid this, not savouring the prospect of adding even more distance onto an already long day. I've waterproofed all my food inside plastic bags just in case I get wet on the crossing.
I'm in too much of a hurry to get off today. I set off from the car, having told Tammy and the kids that I'll see them later, and jog up the road uphill to the general store where the Track heads in the direction of Huzzas beach on the southern side of Cowaramup Bay. Just as I get to the store, the car goes past and stops a few yards in front. 'What's up?' I ask Tam once she's wound the window down. She points into the back. Whirlwind looks at me, bottom lip out, mardy face.
'You forgot something Dad!'she says.
'Get out then,' I go.
She climbs out and I give her a big kiss and a long squeeze. 'Is that better?' I ask. She smiles and gets back in.
Lightning's not the kissing kind. I lean across and mess up his hair. 'See you later mate,' I say and I'm off again.
It's a beautiful morning. This is a truely gorgeous spot. After only a few minutes jogging, I pass nine small, white crosses huddled together in a protective carress on the edge of the cliff-top. I jog on a little further and come to a look-out point. The metallic wall has a wave motif, and on looking more carefully, I notice that there are nine names inscribed just below the top railing. I stop, lean against the railing and take in the view. I'm about to run again when I notice a small, unobtrusive plaque. It reads:
'A surf competition, between the Cowaramup and Margaret River Primary School, was held here on the 27th September 1996.
While watching the final heat, children, parents and teachers were sitting on the beach under the cliff, overlooking Huzzas surf break.
At around 3pm, more than 2000 tonnes of rock and earth collapsed upon them.
Onlookers dug desperately to save those buried. As news of the tragedy spread, they were soon joined by rescue workers, friends and relatives.
Two excavator drivers came to assist in the frantic rescue efforts. One risked his life manouvering his machine over and then down the cliff.
Sare Jean Otto (10) survived and was freed from the rubble 2 hours later. Sadly 5 adults and 4 children were killed in the tragedy.
We remember those who lost their lives at Gracetown that day, in the ocean waves which will always carry their names.'
I've tears on my face and that hollow feeling deep inside that I get when hearing or reading some unspeakably sad news. I turn away, walk for a while. I'm reminded that all these trips are just games I play. I'd feel less of a person without them, but a life without running would be a good life nonetheless.A life without my loved ones though? Well that would be no life at all.
Eventually, I return to a run, but the next hour goes by in a daze. I'm haunted by a vision of frantic parents digging in vain on that terrible day, by a police woman telling a parent that their little boy or girl has died on the beach. I can't get the thoughts out of my head. If I could phone Tammy, I'd tell her to pick me up - this is all pointless - but I can't. I've no choice but to go on.
I run hard, immersed in myself, past Left Handers and the Ellensbrook settlement, and gradually the thoughts are swallowed and replaced by others. This thing we call Life. What a pointless, meaningful, tragic and estatic creature it is.
15kms into today's run, I reach the river mouth diversion point. Someone's pinned a note onto a tree at the fork saying simply, 'River Xing OK.' My mind's at rest now, my running's good and 20 minutes later, I'm padding over the sand bar that separates the river from the sea. The driest Western Australian winter for decades has worked in my favour today.
The track leads inland now through dense bush. The path is narrow and claustrophobic. I wouldn't like to be lost here. This stretch is requiring a great deal of concentration. The wooden guide-posts which were very prevalent at the start of the Track are becoming more sparse. A couple of times I've dithered at path junctions, only to find, on closer examination, that a guide-post is hidden by vegetation or has fallen down. If I missed one and took the wrong route, it would cause a whole lot of hassle, and if it resulted in me hitting my finish point way behind time, Tam would be out of her mind with worry. I make a deal with myself. Make it to the next beach and you can try and get the latest Premiership football scores on one of ABC National Radio's hourly updates.
A bit later, I'm scoffing a snack on Redgate Beach, taking my radio earphones out and sticking the little personal radio back in my bag. Good timing had meant I'd heard the results almost straight away. Newcastle 3, Liverpool 1. That was all the bad news I needed. The mardy face was back on. Hodgson wasn't up to the job. The travelling fans were calling for Dalglish, but I couldn't help but think his appointment would be a backward step - a trade-in on past glories. And as for that Andy Carroll. Not a bad player for the Championship, but a handful off the pitch and definitely over-rated.
Along the way at Bob's Hollow, I eventually meet two fellow travellers - a young couple, hiking the route over 8 days in the opposite direction. They're laden with heavy packs and finding the whole experience a bit depressing. I'm glad I decided on the super-light option.
At the 82km point, the nature of the Cape to Cape Track changes suddenly. The path steers eastwards and winds for several kms through the impressive Boranup Forest. I'd been dreading this section, but as I jog up the rough track marked as Georgette Davies Road, I savour the shade and marvel at my anonymity in this dense Karri wilderness. The legendary Devil resident in these parts spares me today and I'm almost disappointed when the coast appears again and I descend to Boranup Beach with the 8km section along the sand to Hamelin Bay the only distance left to travel.
The Bay sweeps around in a majestic arc with the settlement of Hamelin Bay barely visible on the far reaches. I'm pleased with today's progress. My legs are tired but ok. The suncream has protected my burnt skin from the worst of the natural elements. My feet, however, are killing me. But what could be better than an easy 5-miler barefoot in the ocean's edge? I take off my shoes, stick them in my sack and splash wearily, but happily, to the far side of the Bay, where I know the kids will be playing and Tam will be waiting with a smile, a sigh and 2 litres of Lemon Solo.
I'd originally planned to jog the Track in 2 days. However, as the time neared, I'd convinced myself that 2 70km days would be too heavy and might detract from my enjoyment of the route. Instead I split it into 3 sections - the 2 long sections I'd already completed and a final 24km leg that I could knock off early in the morning, giving us the rest of the day to tackle the long drive down to the south coast.
I sneak out of the tent early on Day 3 (the Hamelin Bay Caravan Park is right on the beach along which the Track passes) and run over the headland with the scent of the finish in my nostrils. The morning is colder, overcast, with a strong on-shore wind and looming storm clouds. But relief from the sun is a blessing and my progress is rapid.
In under half an hour, I'm hop-scotching over the ocean-side rocks at Cosy Corner, Each time a swell hits the land, the water rushes through hollow channels and escapes through blow-holes in mesmerising abstract patterns like liquid fireworks. It's a joy to be running here. The occasional low points of the trip are forgotten and I am once more Here, in the moment, counting my blessings.
The 10km drag along Deepdene Beach is hard work, windswept but exhillarating, and the views from the climb onto the cliffs at the far end is one to remember forever. Ahead of me, for the first time, I can see the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse on a distant promontory - the end of my journey is nigh. And over to my right, a movement amongst the ocean waves. A pod of dolphins. I stand for several minutes and watch them play before they dive deeply and disappear from view. A grand finale indeed to a spectacular trip.
Within an hour, I'm jogging over smooth rocks to the Water Wheel that marks the official end of the Cape to Cape Track. Tammy's taking photos. The superheroes are running out to meet me. I touch the Water Wheel, walk around slowly, then sit down on the grass and take off my shoes. The satisfaction I feel is diluted by the familiar anti-climax I'm overtaken with at the end of every trip. It's a feeling which doesn't disappoint me now - I know it's a natural reaction after a hard endeavour and it'll be a couple of days before the sense of achievement hits home.
We stop off at the giftshop before we leave the lighthouse complex. Whilst the kids are buying souvenir pencils and snow-storm paperweights, I wander over to the guide book section and browse lazily. One of the guides catches my eye - 'The Bibbulmun Track'. I pick it up and look at the blurb on the back cover:
'The Bibbulmun Track is one of the world's greatest long distance walking trails, stretching nearly 1000kms from Kalamunda, a suburb in the hills on the outskirts of Perth, to the historic town of Albany on the south coast. It takes walkers through towering karri and tingle forests, down mist-shrouded valleys, over giant granite boulders and along breathtaking coastal heathlands. It passes through many of the most beautiful national parks of the south-west forests and coastline.'
The Kid's not satisfied for long. Keep On Burning he's whispering. We plan to come back to Australia in 3 or 4 years. Now there's an idea.
Tammy leaves the kids to explore the postcards and wanders over. 'Alright Babe?' she asks, 'What you looking at?'
'Nothing really,' I say. But there's no time like the present I guess. Take a deep breath now.
I hand her the guide book. 'What do you think of this then?'