Tuesday, May 30, 2023

I walked the 650km Australian Alps Walking Track at 19, alone. Nothing was as I expected

I was 19 when I decided, with a fervour and fixedness, that I would walk the Australian Alps Walking Track: the 650km trail that follows the Great Dividing Range from Canberra in the ACT to Walhalla in Victoria. I decided that I would do it alone, that I wouldn’t deviate from my timeline or route and that I wouldn’t need help – and that I would never admit to these decisions being beyond my control.

I told my parents, who knew better than to argue, then made a call to my on-again-off-again boyfriend-who-wasn’t-my-boyfriend. He also worked as an outdoor educator and he asked me whether I thought I was ready for such an undertaking. I told him that I could handle anything on my own.

I was in midst of this challenging relationship, in between jobs and degrees, and had decided that I needed to do something that ripped the rug from under me. The AAWT was a test to prove that I was still the same capable, competent, vibrant me. While I understood that this track would be monumentally challenging, I knew that I had enough experience to avoid perishing. The goal was base – get from A to B using my feet – but the task all-consuming. Perfect.

I started the track in Canberra with a pack almost half my weight, shoes too narrow for my equilateral-triangle-feet and carrying too much food. I didn’t tell many of my friends that I was taking off into the bush, actively informing only those directly responsible for monitoring my progress or providing food drops. I didn’t need the external accountability and utterly craved the anonymity.

‘The goal was base, but the task all-consuming. Perfect.’ Photograph: Ya Reeves

I was right about my capacity to avoid death, but the resulting journey was far from the careful experience I’d envisioned. Some of the chaos was within my control, but much of it was not.

I lost toenails on day two. I narrowly avoided being trampled by feral horses, then saved a wildly unprepared hiker from the Murrumbidgee flood waters. Despite my declarations of independence and self-reliance, I called my parents for assistance and moral support frequently. My mum even joined me for a few days and I became enraged at her for no reason, as we children sometimes do. I was anxious and scared constantly, but never told a soul.

One morning, a police search party woke me at 2am, summoned by my panicked family who hadn’t heard from me in 24 hours (a GPS device failure). Halfway through the walk, during a rest weekend at a friend’s property, I had an anaphylactic reaction to an ant bite. I slept for weeks, utterly blowing out my timeline. One night, a couple of postie-bikers gifted me a trout. Each time I got lost, I panicked in that unrestrained way one only can when one is alone.

Ya Reeves, 19, on the Australian Alps Walking Track.
Ya Reeves, 19, on the Australian Alps Walking Track. Photograph: Ya Reeves

But the walk was also a beautiful stripping back of existence. I watched the sun rise and set over three states, and although I felt every other thing – fear, joy, rage, pride – I never once felt boredom. I liked pushing my body, feeling my muscles firing, going fast. Each walking day began at dawn with coffee and ended at around midday, with one meal halfway between lunch and dinner. Food was for energy only and I didn’t like to risk stopping often due to my ant allergy. I swam and napped and re-read familiar books for comfort. Small tasks (navigation, water collection, toileting, walking) were all-consuming. I didn’t listen to music or podcasts, barely turned on my phone, took only 15 photographs on one roll of film and developed a miraculous ability to lose myself in my own head. There was true joy in the simplicity.

But I finished the AAWT much later than I’d planned to and by the end I cut off at least 60km. As such, some people in my community still don’t count me as an “AAWT finisher”. And immediately after reaching Walhalla, I felt flattened. For a year, I’d been dependent on my “boyfriend” for self-worth and this walk was meant to shift that. But at the finish line, I felt I hadn’t proven my point – and I wasn’t proud of myself. All I could see were the imperfections and moments of weakness. I’d said that I’d do it alone, but I’d reached for help. I’d changed the plan, and I hadn’t maintained control of the experience. I finished, and life just went on.

Change took time to percolate. The fear that my strong body would soften now that I wasn’t walking was crippling. I went back to my boyfriend, thinking that my own transformation would affect some difference in him. It didn’t. It was months before I extricated myself and years before I really understood the enormity of what I’d achieved as a teenager.

A woman sits with her back to the viewer, looking at a rocky foliage-covered outcropping in the Australian wilderness
‘It would take years before I really understood the enormity of what I’d achieved.’ Photograph: Ya Reeves

The “track” – the neat, singular hurdle I was determined to overcome – wasn’t as linear as it seemed on paper and it was never something I could control. But perhaps that wasn’t the point. There are always extraneous circumstances that we cannot prepare for. Nothing in life is ever so clean, but that is the joy of it. That is the point of walking, of ripping out the rug, of adventure.

The recipe for a successful pilgrimage, I came to realise, is really just a loose plan and the ability to lean into the chaotic unknown – to embrace whatever emerges.

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