Half a World Away
It’s February 22nd. I’m sat in my conservatory in the UK, wrapped up in a blanket with a mug of hot squash, and the cat’s curled up on a chair next to me. The rain is hammering on the conservatory roof and outside it’s grey and miserable. It’s hard to believe that a month ago I was out in Tasmania, having finished our run two days earlier and about to get on a plane to come back home.
A month on and the whole trip seems like a dream. I’m back at work, back on my commute by train to Reading, back to the great British weather, the low temperatures, the dark mornings and nights, the never-ending rain. The days of sun and scorching heat, of Aussie accents and incredible terrain, of pounding feet, early mornings, and living off sandwiches and cereal bars seem like they never happened. My body has even mostly recovered with the ankle injury I sustained on the trip having miraculously disappeared and the mosquito bites long gone. The only physical proof of our amazing adventure are the sock and short tan lines on my legs, now starting to fade, and the skin that continues to peel off my feet where my blisters were.
It’s only in reading back my journal, looking through the photographs, watching the videos, that I can remind myself it did happen. I was there. We actually made it.
Now that it’s over, it almost feels like a given. Of course we made it. There was never another option. Never any doubt. This, of course, is not true in the slightest.
To be honest, I never thought I’d make it. The others, sure. But me?
When Ben first came up with this crazy idea of The Great Australian Triathlon, and Claire volunteered herself to accompany him on the first leg - the run across Tasmania - I thought they were completely mad. Insane really. But I knew they would make it. Each of their base levels of physical fitness are great, they both work physically demanding outdoor jobs, enjoy exercise in their spare time, and more than anything, they’re the most determined (read stubborn) people I know. When they set their minds to something, you can be sure they’ll achieve it one way or another.
Then, there’s me.
With Ben and Claire both up for the challenge of tackling Tasmania on foot, they decided it wouldn’t be the same without the third member of the Thrilling Three, our childhood sibling gang. So, they set about trying to persuade me to join. Of course, I rolled out the excuses: I’d never get the time off work, I was supposed to be directing a play when they were due to be in Tasmania, I couldn’t afford it, Joe (my fiancé) wouldn’t be impressed at being abandoned for a month and left to feed the cats when he would be in his busiest time of year at work. Of course, none of these came to fruition: my boss kindly gave me the time off, my co-director on the play was happy to cope without me for a few weeks, I had some money in savings, and Joe said he’d support me if I wanted to go. So, I was excuse free. My real concern was fear. I didn’t think I could do it.
I’ve never been a runner. I don’t like running. In fact, my motto was always: Why run when you can walk? Unless being chased by a hungry lion, which you’re unlikely to find in Berkshire, there seemed to me no logical reason to run. And even running aside, my general level of physical fitness was low. I work in an office sat in front of a desk all day and spend my free time acting and reading. The idea of running over 600 km terrified me. But somehow - whether having being worn down by Ben and Claire’s persistent nagging or from a desire to prove myself - I still eventually said yes.
And so followed 8 months of training. Building up from 2 mile runs twice a week to longer runs of up to 20 miles and getting out of the house in my trainers 5 times a week, rain or shine. It turns out I’m just as stubborn as my siblings - it must be in the genes!
By the time we got out to Tasmania though, none of us were in as good shape as we’d hoped. Ben and I, having both seen physios to help us successfully overcome knee problems, were now suffering with shin splints. Claire, on the other hand, had gone over on her ankle while out on a run back in October, and with working on a farm it hadn’t got the rest it needed to heal, meaning she was still struggling with it and hadn’t done as much training as she’d have liked. But none of that was going to stop us.
Lots of other things tried to though.
Our first challenge was the issue that had been headline news for weeks: the Australian bush fires. Whilst we weren’t on the mainland and were in a cooler climate less ravaged by the fires, our trip was still impacted by them. One of the trails we ran through had been closed due to fire only a week earlier, and, though opened again by the time we arrived, it was quite eerie to run through an area of blackened trees. Our main fire-related incident actually occurred on day zero though. This was the day we were due to walk in to South East Cape, the place from which we’d be starting the run the following day. However, arriving at Cockle Creek, the closest point accessible by road, our plans quickly changed. Speaking to the volunteer rangers there, we were informed that dry lightning was expected later that evening and that on the walk in to South East Cape there was an area of board walk surrounded by bush where there would be no way of getting out if the lightning struck, as the fire would spread far too quickly with the high winds expected. As such, we were strongly advised not to camp that night on the beach at South East Cape as we’d planned and risk getting trapped there by a bush fire. So, instead, we decided to race in to the start point and race back out to Cockle Creek that same day and camp there, effectively starting The Great Australian Triathlon a day early. It was a nerve-wracking experience rushing in and out as the wind started to rise and we could see the storm clouds gathering. Luckily, we made it safely back out to Cockle Creek and that was the closest we came to a fire in the whole trip.
Our next challenge came in the form of injury, but typically not the injuries we arrived with! Claire struggled in the first few days with chest pain that was also making it hard for her to breathe, so on day 5 as we passed through the town of New Norfolk, she and I popped into the pharmacy and asked for some advice. The pharmacist couldn’t figure out what was causing the pain, so suggested she speak to a doctor. It was a Sunday though and there were no doctors nearby, so we ended up phoning Dad’s cousin Andy who lives in Hobart and he drove out to pick Claire up and took her to A&E. As we weren’t sure whether she’d be able to continue the trip or not, Ben and I decided to head the 7km back to our campsite from the night before in Lachlan and wait there to hear news. That way, if Claire was able to continue with us, she wouldn’t have missed any of mileage and would still be able to complete the whole run. We were delighted when she was dropped back off with us that evening, but concerned by the fact the hospital had no idea what was causing her chest pains. Their advice to “just dose up on painkillers” didn’t seem that reassuring, but we followed it anyway and Claire battled through the next two weeks to successfully finish the journey.
Unfortunately, Claire’s chest pains weren’t the only injury encountered. After kicking out rather ferociously at a fly that was annoying me, my left ankle started to feel a little worse for wear. Of course, I carried on, just trying not to aggravate it too much, and the running poles came in handy to relieve some of the pressure on the ankle. However, after an evening sat in a pub with my legs dangling from the chair, getting up to walk back to my tent was agony. And walking wasn’t really the word. It was more like an extremely slow and painful-to-watch hobble. I thought there was no way I would be able to keep going with the trip if I was in that much pain in the morning. After some sleep my ankle was still extremely painful, but I could limp along a little better than the evening before, so I joined Claire in dosing up on painkillers and off we went - very slowly. As the day progressed, my ankle warmed up into it and I managed a gallop using my running poles effectively as crutches. Claire and Ben ran at a normal place, while I followed along behind at my slow gallop and then they’d wait for me a little further ahead at an agreed spot and cheer me over the “finish line”. And that was how most of the day was spent. I can honestly not thank them enough. If it hadn’t been for them patiently waiting for me and cheering me on, I think I’d have been so downhearted at slowing everyone down that my mental game would have stopped me from finishing the trip, even if my ankle hadn’t. My ankle continued to trouble me for the rest of the trip (about another week) to a higher or lesser extent. The worst moment was when we were stopping with a very kind couple called Emma and Will in Launceston. We’d used their showers, eaten some lovely dinner, had a chat, and were just heading outside to set up our sleeping bags on their deck under the stars when I looked down and saw my ankle, foot and the bottom half of my calf had swollen to twice their normal size. Will grabbed me some ice from the freezer and a tea towel, and Emma (a physiotherapist, conveniently) used some compression tape to strap up my ankle. In the morning my foot was still fairly swollen, which meant getting it into my trainer became a two-person job and Claire helped me struggle through the pain to force my shoe on. I wore the compression tape for the rest of the trip.
Another troublesome physical affliction was the one we really should have anticipated, but with our other injuries on our minds none of us had really thought about: blisters. At different points in the trip we all suffered with debilitating blisters on our heels, the inside of our feet, even in between the toes. A lot of the ground we were running on was fairly uneven, rocky or gravelly, and the pounding our feet were getting meant that blisters were inevitable. With new blisters appearing daily and old ones continually growing in size, we started a daily blister clinic. Each evening before bed, we’d all inspect our blisters and pop and squeeze the fluid out of the largest and most irritating offenders. This was as gross as it sounds, but also quite painful. We got through an extortionate number of blister plasters and the state of our feet by the end was quite a sight to behold.
An additional challenge was the terrain. Tasmania is by no means flat. In fact, even the “flat” sections were continually rolling and we spent a lot of time going uphill, down a little bit, and then straight back up again. Some of the gradients of our ascents were just ridiculous and we plodded upwards, pushing ourselves along with our running poles and trying not to topple over backwards with the weight of our bags. Even the downhills were a struggle, with one particular section of very steep descent over very rocky uneven ground being quite sketchy, even at a very slow pace. The surfaces beneath our feet varied wildly throughout the trip, from sand to tiny gravel to huge rocks, to grass to mud to tarmac. The rocky surfaces made running almost impossible unless you wanted to twist your ankle or go flying. I did in fact have a pretty impressive fall in the first few days. I caught my toe on a rock, flew forwards, the weight of my bag took me straight down, I face planted into the ground and skidded along the floor into another rock. Luckily, I only managed to graze my knee and was completely fine otherwise, but I kept a much better eye on the ground after that.
The Tasmanian temperatures also gave us something to contend with. For Ben and me, going from UK winter out to Tasmanian summer was a huge shock to the system. Then to try to run in it… Even for Claire, slightly more used to the Tasmanian temperatures, it was really tough. The first few days easily hit the mid-thirties and with the sun beating down and long stretches with no shade at all, we had to be really conscious of making sure we drank enough and stopped in each tiny patch of shade we came to in order to try and cool down. We also plastered on the sun cream at every possible opportunity to avoid sunburn. Amazingly, though, we also suffered a couple of times from being too cold. While in the lakes, we were at quite a high altitude and at night in our tents and one-season sleeping bags it got quite chilly. Claire kindly bought us a woolly hat each at one of the tiny shops we passed, we started wearing as many layers as possible to bed, and we cuddled up next to each other to share body warmth.
But, by no means was it just a physical struggle. The mental game was just as hard, if not more so. One particular day that stands out was our penultimate day. It was due to be our longest so far and was all on a single road, making it mind-numbingly dull. We were due to stay the night at one of Claire’s boss’s farms, 5 km out the other side of a place called Gladstone. It was slow progress, as by this point in the trip we were all exhausted and our feet destroyed. Then, a few kilometres before we hit Gladstone, JD (our trusty companion and cameraman) managed to fly his drone directly upwards into a tree where it wedged itself in a branch and refused to come down again. So followed a good hour of throwing things up at the drone to try and knock it out and holding the canvas of one of the tents out below to try and catch it. The attempts were unsuccessful and we decided we needed to keep going for now and would have to return later to try to rescue the drone. With an hour lost we plodded on exhausted to Gladstone where we stocked up with food in the shop, keen to get the last 5 km of the day out of the way… only to discover that the farm we were staying at wasn’t in fact 5 km away, but 12 km, making the day 53 km in total. Needless to say, those 12 km saw us in truly low spirits, especially given we knew we’d have to repeat the majority of them the following day to get back onto our route to the finish.
And yet, despite all the pain and torment, I can honestly say it was worth it.
Having never been out to Tasmania before, I was really excited to get to see some of the local wildlife. Whilst I saw far more mosquitoes and flies than I’d have liked, a huge amount of roadkill, and disappointingly not a single snake, I did still get my fair share of animal encounters. Wallabies were everywhere, we saw numerous of them hopping around both during the day and at night, fairly close and at a distance. Then there were the two possums, which I heard more than saw one night while filtering water in the dark. I followed the rustling with a torch and spotted them up a tree just a couple of metres away. My favourite was the Echidna we discovered at the side of the road burrowing into the soil. They are really funny looking creatures with their long noses, but after stroking one I discovered that between their sharp spines they are really fluffy with very soft fur. The one I almost missed out on was the wombat. Ben and Claire spotted one early on in the trip, but I missed it. Luckily, though, just before we rounded the last corner of the road on the last day, I saw one run across in front of us and disappear into the bush which was an incredible moment when we were really running low on energy.
One of the other highlights for me was experiencing Tasmania’s stunning landscape, and what better way to do that than on foot? The sheer number of trees, the variation between plains and forests, the way the environment changed from the south to the north of the island, the real rural natural of the place. It was quite amazing.
Then, of course, there was the teamwork. There may have been disagreements about when we should be getting up, which direction we should be going in, and how fast we should be going… However, at the end of the day, we were all there, putting up tents as a team, cooking dinner and doing the washing up as a team, making sandwiches for the next day as a team, sharing out the weight in someone’s bag if they were struggling with too much to carry, giving each other a hand over streams, helping each other up from the ground, filling up each other’s water, washing each other’s clothes in the rivers and lakes, and so on. Plus, there was the singing. When the going got tough we’d start belting out some Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sound of Music or Disney songs and it would lift our spirits, even if just for a few minutes. After three weeks crossing Australia’s most southern state on foot, you’re either going to have killed each other or bonded more than ever before. And whilst there were times when we came quite close to the former, I’m tremendously glad to say we ended the trip as we’d started: together.