The Spirit of the Oxfam Trailwalker remains long after the event has passed.
The Spirit of the Oxfam Trailwalker is found within the friendships, the people, the challenges, the captivating trail and its perils, the kindness, the wilderness and the random unexpected occurrences along the way.
This story begins before the actual event so get your muscles warmed up as we go out on the trail to follow Team181.
Early morning training walk
The track is damp from the heavy morning mist as they spread out across the fire trail.
There is plenty of chatter sharing updates on their fundraising efforts then the topic quickly changes as they talk about their past week. They have adopted each other as their weekend family.
As they chat and laugh meandering their way down the fire-trail, a cursing voice breaks through the stagnant morning fog.
“You’re a noisy pack of cackling hens”, according to the raspy voice in the tent. They continue on their way.
Their typical weekend regime, an early morning start on the trail while families lay sleeping in their beds and party-goers are just arriving home dishevelled.
The amazing landscape
Two hours later, they stop for their first snack break. Their small luxuries come in the way of morning snacks, a wholesome lunch and more snacks in the afternoon, one of many trailwalker blessings – food glorious food!
Many walkers pass by while they sit on their rocky outcrop. Most of them are training for the same event. Others stop to share information about the track and why they are here.
Team181 checks out the gear of the other teams on the trail and wonder if they should be wearing tights to keep their muscles warm or if they should trade their hiking pants for shorts.
They know they must be doing something right because many of the other teams are also use walking poles, one of the best discoveries of this event.
The Wildlife – A Crackle
Energised from their breakfast, they make their way around over-hanging rocks carved from the wind and the rain over millions of years. They are humbled to walk through old rock formations where the ancestors of this land have gone before them.
As they follow the narrow track, they hear a high pitched commotion piercing through the mist-shrouded trees. What a sight! A group of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos(known as a ‘crackle’) go about their morning ritual.
The entertainment far outweighs the deafening squawks as the cockatoos chase each other through the mist, hanging upside down on branches together like children on a play gym.
Their antics are hilarious, and their raucous cries are a challenge for the ‘cackling hens’ standing wide-eyed in wonder. They have found their brethren amongst one of the noisiest birds on the planet!
These rare opportunities will stay etched in their mind – they continue on.
Running and walking teams
Occasionally a running team comes from behind calling out a warning on their approach. Team181 quickly stands aside, watching the runners in awe as they run down rocky slopes without faltering. Our team carries on to the click-clacking rhythm of their walking poles for they are a walking team.
They continue to make their way through the bush, across rivers, over hills, rock walls and slippery slopes. They soon build up an appetite, and by late afternoon the conversation turns to the big hearty meals they are going to eat when they get home tonight. There are hot-pots, roast dinners, fat steaks, desserts, hot chocolates and much more on the menu.
But the reality is, they are going to grab some fast food on the way home, fall into the shower, stagger into bed so they can crawl out in the morning in time for work.
A Support Crew
During their longer training walks, they have the luxury of their amazing Support Crew who have the uncanny ability to appear in the remotest locations with a car full of hot food, hot drinks, chairs and rugs. This kind of support is the hugest boost to their energy levels and their spirits!
By nightfall in winter when they are sitting wrapped in a rug with a hot burger, a hot chocolate and looking into the darkness of where they are about to walk next, it is so easy to crave comfort.
Sometimes exhaustion gets the better of them, and they pile into the car, bellies full of food and hearts full of laughter because they just escaped those last few training kilometres.
The trail becomes familiar
Weekend after weekend they meet, covering different sections of the 100km trail, meeting more teams out training as the date draws near.
The trail becomes so familiar they start to recognise tree roots and rocks along the way. They know the smells, the sounds, the wild inhabitants, which they mostly see at dawn and dusk.
Their awareness is heightened at night as they walk with their headlamps. With vision narrowed to the beam of light in front of them, their ears become attuned as a second set of eyes. The thumping of a wallaby hopping in the bush nearby.
The flapping of gentle wings above is probably a fruit bat. The hoot of an owl echoes across the valley as the torchlight reveals many eyes amongst the bushes and trees.
They are mesmerised by the clusters of diamonds that sparkle on the track in front of them. They are the eyes of spiders on their nightly hunt.
They hear the trickling of the stream as they approach, the splashing from a pond in the darkness, probably a bunyip.
The imagination will do what it likes when you walk through the bush at night.
An Ultra Marathon
None of them has come into this event as seasoned athletes. School day sports was the average level of activity.
Here they are conditioning themselves for an ultra-marathon, walking 100km in 48hrs in tough and sometimes dangerous terrain.
The Oxfam Trailwalker Event Day
The BIG day at last! The Oxfam Trailwalker Event organisers have worked all year for this weekend to happen. There are upwards of 250 teams of 4 for this location. There are hundreds of volunteers working over the 48hrs, many starting the day before the event placing distance and ID markers on tracks. Many will finish after the event gathering up markers and anything left behind.
Fundraising for Poverty
An event on a grand scale covering 100km, involving many townships, facilities, services such as police for road-crossings, Special Emergency Services(SES) for rescues, Ambulances for injuries or sickness and a whole host of other services at the Checkpoints.
Each team has paid to enter and agreed to raise funds equal or above a minimum. Now those teams must walk. It’s like having your cake and eating it too but in reverse – just joking!
This event raises funds for poverty
A running start
Well prepared for this day, Team181 have rested, carb-loaded and hydrated. They have worn in their equipment, packed their bags for their support crew to transport and communicated their plan.
At the Check-In tent, they receive their unique team number and four colour-coded tags, one colour per team member. These are their ID passes to get through the checkpoints.
The Check-In tent is alive, and a wonderful Volunteer makes up a clever rhyme for every number of every team. It feels like a game and relieves some of the tension.
Once all formalities are taken care of, they restlessly await their start time. The start signal is sounded – like a herd of cattle they run madly together, soon dispersing away from the other teams.
Team181 make a running start for the excitement effect but soon drop back to walking as they have carefully trained and timed their own pace for the long trek ahead.
First day of the event on the trail
The weather is rarely perfect, but they have trained in all conditions. It is either a little too hot or pouring with rain.
They encounter a few bottlenecks but nothing serious, it is expected soon after the start. There is still a buzzing vibe on the track, high energy and great expectations! As the hour’s pass, the teams become more dispersed, and they often find themselves alone as a team. Such a familiar feeling as if they were on one of their training walks.
An incredible team spirit
They have misjudged their timing due to the bottlenecks along the way – a lesson for all first time teams to factor in for next time. Their gear has been sent ahead with the support crew who are waiting at the next checkpoint.
Now they find themselves in a gully without their headlamps – darkness comes to the gullies before sunset. A team member finds a pen torch, and they huddle as they walk.
As a team approaches from behind, they hear a voice describing the track underfoot. One of their members is guiding another member over the creek for he is blind. It takes considerable effort to describe the track for the entire 100km, and their team splits this role into shifts.
The courageous blind participant laughs as he reminds Team181 of his advantage over them as they fumble their way through the darkness. His team have kindly offered to guide an extra four blind participants out of the gully.
The Spirit of the Oxfam Trailwalker shows up in the least expected places.
Have you ever been applauded in the wilderness?
Approaching and leaving the checkpoints, groups of volunteers applaud the participants. As they emerge from the wilderness momentarily onto roadsides, strangers toot their horns and cheer them on. It is an unbelievably warm feeling everyone should experience more of in everyday life!
Team181 are coming in for dinner at a major checkpoint. Other teams are arriving and leaving! First Aid and Massage tents are already busy with small queues – the smell of ointments and heat-rub wafting through the air.
Team181 departs, and their support crew pack up getting ready for the next meeting point. As the sun disappears behind the hills – so too do they!
A buddy team tags on
The hills still have the glow of twilight around them, but it is so dark as they descend down into another gully. They reach into their bags to find their headlamps. No sooner do they light up the track ahead and a group comes up behind them asking to follow them through the gully – they don’t quite know the way.
They are a team from interstate and have never walked the track before. Team181 is so impressed at the courage and determination of this interstate team they dare not reveal how often they have become lost in broad daylight. Instead, they simultaneously answer “of course you can tag along with us”.
They had suddenly become the brave and unlost!
First night of the event walk
Disappearing into the night, they occasionally see the distant lights of homes and imagine families sitting down to a warm meal with the TV blaring in the background.
Their buddy team is so grateful – they would have lost their way at the river crossings. It is hard to know where the actual track is when zig-zagging back and forth, trying not to slip on the algae-covered rocks. The markers can be easily missed when watching their footing.
The night becomes cool. As they focus on their walk, the idle chit chat stops, replaced by the calling of the track in the dark. Calling every hazard along the way – “stump middle of track”, “low hanging rock at left”, “slippery mud”. Calling from the front, repeated by second then third person all the way to the back – the back person responds with an OK!
This is how they know everyone is still here, and this is how they stay alert and connected in the pitch dark!
Saftey Angels – Marshals and Saftey Officers
At different points along the track, they see torch lights shining towards them and Hi-vis jackets up ahead. On these dark and lonely trails are the awesome volunteers who make the track safe.
Knowing the walkers are tired and not as alert, the “safety angels” are there to warn them of sheer drop-offs as they navigate the cliffs ahead and to stay inside the guide tape. They light up the path ahead.
They will meet many such volunteers out on the tracks such as these Trail Marshals and Road Safety Officers who work day and night.
A hub of activity in the wilderness
They soon hear the sound of a generator breaking the silence of the night.
As they approach it gets louder and they can now hear voices, and soon enough they emerge from the track into a flood-lit park – a hub of activity and life and noise and excitement. There is a blended smell of food, coffee & liniment.
The support crews are tirelessly attending their teams, and the Oxfam Volunteers are manning tents for Check-in/Check-out, First-aid, Massage, Refreshment Tents. There are Captains and Wardens and no shortage of help and encouragement.
Some walkers are worse for wear, and others are looking refreshed. Some teams will sleep in the Night Tents, and others will keep going. Team181 has chosen not to sleep – they are afraid of seizing up if they stop for an extended period of time.
They are probably misguided, but their plan has always been to walk continuously.
Walking in their sleep
Sometime around 3 am-4 am, they are now walking in pairs as planned. They support each other every step of the way, linking arms with their buddy as they take turns at falling asleep as they walk. They are grateful for their walking poles and eternally grateful for their amazing team buddies.
Why don’t they stop at this point? Because this feeling is not constant, it comes in waves and passes after some minutes. They know to watch each other closely, and they do not navigate dangerous tracks until everyone is back on board and awake!
They have made it through the REM sleep phase!
Day 2 of the event walk
Soon they greet the morning sun – they have felt this familiar time of day during training, but this time they are looking forward to breakfast at their next Checkpoint. They also look forward to the strength and encouragement of their support team. The support team have been doing it tough too – it is a demanding role!
The running teams have finished the event while other teams and individual members have chosen to exit the event at various Checkpoints. Most teams are still walking into the second day.
Along the track they hear a guitar and singing – a lone musician sits upon a rock serenading them as they walk. Their spirits are lifted again.
They keep going and going and going, and soon the sun is starting to go down as they head into their second night.
Night 2 of the event walk
They are close to finishing, but they will need their headlamps again, and the feeling is quite defeating as they never planned to be this far from the finish line, but stuff happens, people get injured and tired – most importantly they are still a team!
Another team comes along offering words of encouragement, yet they are struggling too. They pass a team that has stopped on the side, and they check if they need assistance before they carry on.
These are the reminders they are not alone, and there are other teams still out there.
Team work prevails!
They have lost their spark, but they haven’t stopped caring, occasionally glancing at their teammates, that silent language that says “I understand, I feel the same”.
It starts to rain, and the track is so slippery, the mud so deep in places after hundreds of people have already passed this way, but they have trained in these conditions, and they know this track intimately and how to find the best way around.
In the last sections, the team is managing injury and now engaging their strategies. For the one that suffers from knee pain on the down-hills, another takes them by the hands and walks them slowly backwards. For the one that is breathless on the up-hills, another walks behind pacing them through their breathing rhythm.
They start to break the track down into tiny sections: out of the bush, onto the road, across the beach, up the hill and into the last flood-lit park to the Final Checkpoint.
For the first time hope feels real!
The Home Stretch to the Final Checkpoint
They are running totally on auto-pilot, and have their training to thank for this because the body remembers and takes over where the minds have left off.
The ocean is black at night and with a soft sea breeze and the sound of gentle waves lapping the shore, it is almost tempting them into a sense of calm and surrender.
They take off their shoes and with the sand beneath their feet they make their way across the beach, heading for their last and final climb!
This post is dedicated to all of my fellow team members who walked with me over the years: Tara, Michelle, Masae, Antje, Nicole, Monia, Yuko, Minako, Catherine-Ann, Daisy, Suzie, Stoj, Selva, Graeme, Sam
And our amazing support crew: Willie, Carl, Pravin, Meera, Peter, Prasad, Sandy, Phil, Larry, David, Cameron, John, Sarah, Denis