I wasn’t the sportiest of kids. I liked reading and collecting things back in the 80’s like stamps, coins and stickers. I wasn’t a huge fan of the outdoors but I didn’t hate it either. I kicked the footy with my brother and had the occasional hit of tennis but I didn’t feel athletic or fit or any real desire to pursue it for fun. Throw in a bit of exercise induced asthma and that was enough for me to avoid anything truly challenging physically. I hated running (I’m now a huge fan of running) and it was thanks to my mum that I walked. Mum would encourage me to walk especially in my teens. I did callisthenics and aerobics instead as Mum was trying to teach me then how good it made her feel and therefore how I would feel. It rubbed off on me (eventually) and I started to look forward to something each day that would get me active in some way and I enjoyed it.
When I went overseas as a Rotary Exchange student to Sweden in 1995 I became more active, which surprised even my family back home. Sport in Sweden was what everyone did and I lived in a country town. Playing badminton on a Wednesday night at 10pm was the equivalent of going to a pub, what else was there to do? I worked out early on that if I didn’t play sport it was a lonely existence!! The more I did, the fitter I became and I kinda enjoyed it.
Before I had travelled to Sweden, an exchange student had written about her hiking experiences in Sweden the year before. I read her article and apart from feeling grossed out about not having a shower for 6 days, the adventure button in me had been pushed. I decided that while I was not sure if I could do it, and it was way outside my comfort zone, I really wanted to go on this hike. I’d never ever been hiking before.
I remembered a year six school camp in the Adelaide hills where we walked on the trails near Cleland Conservation Park and I whinged and complained the whole time to my teacher. I can remember a moment of shame after being told off in front of my peers for complaining so much (I was a sensitive kid!). Reflecting back, I realise now I was unfit for my age, fairly solid/overweight and was probably walking in desert boots with blisters. No wonder I was miserable.
Fast forward to the mid-90s and with a bit less weight, a pair of walking boots and my first opportunity to do a multi-day track in the north of Sweden and all I could think of was adventure. We were to carry large earthy green rucksacks canvas bags attached to metal supports/harnesses with the Swedish military, carrying our own ration packs, tent, sleeping bag and a sleeping mat.
I had been given a second-hand pair of army fatigue pants and my host mum at the time sewed the legs and hems to fit me better. I had a second-hand pair of boots thanks to the exchange student staying with the family before me (and also the author of that original inspiring article). I can’t even remember what rain clothing or layers I had but my biggest issue at the time was the idea of not having a shower for 6 days.
And I had been warned about the mozzies. OMG. Summer in the north of Sweden is a very bitey affair.
I was put in a team with five exchange students. We were one of about 10 teams. Some teams were really cohesive, others argued daily over pointless crap. It was interesting to watch and at times entertaining.
Our team was a mixed group of Aussies and Americans, both girls and guys. None of us were particularly sporty but I had a couple of close friends who were my tent buddies. They didn’t appear to feel the struggle like I did. They even wanted to socialise and swim each night after walking! My body was too busy going into shock.
Those first days were tough. Really tough. The rucksack was awkward and uncomfortable. I learned that the weight on my hips had to be more than the weight on my shoulders. The bag soon became my enemy. My camera batteries died on day two. I didn’t pack replacements. No-one had spare batteries. I ended that day weeping silently in my tent. I skipped dinner in favour of getting some tent time to myself. I was exhausted and over it. Plus dinner was a fruit soup. Since when did fruit become a main meal? I was repulsed and ate my only bar of emergency chocolate instead. I slept 12 hours that night under the midnight sun.
Day three I was even slower. My calves were like rocks. DOMS had set in. I was the last one (out of over 60 hikers) to camp that night. But I had good company and instead of crying and quitting (which I wanted to do at that point) together we talked about good food and fresh meat to eat at the end of the walk. It was motivation of sorts.
The ration packs were revolting. No-one could poo or bring themselves to eat fruit soup to “move things along”. To this day, I am yet to come across food like it since. The guys who were literally starving came around and collected any left over meals from those who skipped so they could have a cook-up. They were desperate.
That night we collected our second set of ration packs by food drop for the second half of the walk. Our bags became a bit heavier again.
A member of my team told me on the morning of Day 4 that I had appeared in a dream of his. Not sure exactly what he was about to say next, (we had not yet bonded – at all) I suddenly feared what he was about to say to me – I was definitely not attracted to this guy. He then proceeded to tell me how I had appeared in a warlike conflict and I arrived into the scene by jumping out of a helicopter, barking orders to those who needed rescuing to get into the chopper and then with a loaded weapon (lets go with an AK47) I proceeded to take out the enemy successfully and be hero of the day.
My jaw dropped as he told me this story and then I laughed. I laughed and laughed til I cried. This guy thought I was a hero both in the dream and suddenly in waking life as well. It was a breakthrough moment for me, I was being so hard on myself. I’d forgotten to have fun. My mood relaxed. Suddenly I was a war hero. How funny and weird and wrong was that!? I was so caught up in the wallowing with no camera and a ridiculously unprepared body that had sat for 3 weeks on a boozy bus tour of Europe before this trek (what training had I done?) it was no wonder I was slow. I was dealing with muscle, shoulder and back pain I had not experienced in life til that time.
Finally though, my body and mind loosened up a bit. My spirits remained higher for the rest of the trip. I wanted to quit most days but I willed myself to just keep going and talking. There were a couple of people who were airlifted out due to extreme lack of fitness or illness (the speculation among hikers was scathing). Everyone was talking about them and I didn’t want to be “that” person who got lifted out. Back then I actually cared what people thought of me. So I just kept going. We were over half way – I was actually starting to think I might be able to finish this!
The scenery was stunning. We sighted reindeer, the snow-capped Norwegian border and green grassy plains as far as the eye could see. While I would take no photos, another exchange student Leah from South Australia kindly offered to give me copies of her pictures. It was a lovely offer and I was so grateful.
The rivers and creeks were icy cold – a swim (stupid idea) became a hypothermic disaster (we were desperate for showers). I remember bending over to wash my face and refill my water bottle and a mozzie bit me on the only available flesh on display when my shirt lifted (on my butt). They were quick, relentless and intense.
We got to play with permanent snow patches, take in beautiful views and get to know other teams as we mingled throughout the day. Eventually I didn’t care about being last or slow. I could see others struggling just like I did on those first few days.
I thought about the end often. A hot fresh meal, hot shower, warm comfy bed. I’d realised I’d not gone without any of these really ever in my life. A humbling moment. I was suddenly really grateful.
Our final day finished with a roasted reindeer luncheon (I can still taste it!) and very tame white water rafting experience (more like a cruise down a rocky river!) and just like that, I had forgotten the struggle.
After that initial super long hot shower, a boozy night at the local pub and some sleep and OK maybe a small hangover the next day, I realised the feeling of accomplishment. Hmmm that was a new feeling. One that I kind of liked too. I’d never completed anything that physically challenging in my life. I had learned a lot. I overcame some massive limitations I had put on myself and realised I had really taken the camera battery disappointment way too hard.
This hike left me wanting more. The photos of that trip reminded me of how far I had come, how much I had grown and changed. I needed the challenge, loved the challenge and craved the next one. I just wanted to do it all over again, but better.
And so the love of hiking started…..but it would be 9 years before I did my next one……The Overland Track……to be continued……
PS Remember how a lovely exchange student Leah had offered her films for me to copy?
We didn’t bump into each other for another 2 years after we had returned home, despite going to the same University. These were the pre-Facebook, pre-digital days and I wasn’t really even on email yet and we had lost touch. I gave up on the idea of ever getting a few pics of that trip. So when we collided at the Uni bar one afternoon, I asked about the films. Leah had posted them home when she left Sweden but the package had become lost and sat on a dock in the UK for 12 months before being located and reunited with her. As luck would have it, I then worked part time at a photo lab so I was finally able to make copies of those films. I finally felt that my journey had come full circle and I now had the missing pieces of the puzzle. The photos in this blog are from Leah’s films.