Walkabout Woes in Australia: We’re barely into 2010, and I can already see that it will be an interesting year.
Coming into the year, I’ve had a few reservations – not the least of which is an agenda that entails us basing ourselves in Australia for another year; one that my itchy feet are objecting to.
However I truly believe that if we have faith (in the universe, in ourselves, in God, in whatever you want to call it), then we will get what we need when we need it. Sometimes the lessons aren’t so apparent when you are in the throes of their teachings, but indeed – I can already see that we get what we need, when we need it.
I got exactly what I needed on my recent walkabout in the Aussie bush.
This post was originally published in 2010. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
First of all, in respect to Australian Aboriginal culture, I use the term “walkabout” loosely. A walkabout in its truest form is an Australian Aboriginal rite of passage undertaken at adolescence, involving a solitary period of up to six months spent…“walking about”….the Aussie bush. It entails a spiritual as well as a physical journey in which the walkabouter (walkabouter? maybe walkaboutee?) connects with their ancestors and identifies with their heritage.
My walkabout didn’t last six months (in fact, it didn’t even last the full 10 days it was supposed to), but it did provide me with insight, strength, and lessons I had no intention of setting out to learn.
The Scene: A 10 day training course, where I learn the skills required to lead kids on trips in the Australian bush. Activities involve bushwalking (hiking), camping, paddling, high ropes courses, aquatics rescue, etc.
The Weather: Hot. No really – like, hot. With temperatures into the 40’s, high winds, and Code Red bushfire risks, the schedule changes daily in an attempt to remain out of the…ahem…line of fire.
The Lead-up: In December, Kelly and I were quite ill with a nasty virus. We lost a fair bit of weight during this time, and – as I soon discover – our fitness level suffered as well.
Day two sees my first big challenge: an 11 kilometer bushwalk with heavy packs on (the kind of heavy where you need two people to lift the pack onto your back). With temperatures in the mid-thirties (Celsius of course), scorching hot sun, and hundreds of flies settling on our packs and persistently buzzing around our eyes/ears/noses/mouths, the bushwalk is a challenge before it even begins.
But 11km isn’t that long. It should take about three hours. No sweat.
Less than three kilometers in, the term “no sweat” seems ludicrous. Our group is drenched with sweat, panting in the heat. The series of hills we are traversing are excruciating. Our collective pace slows as our initial burst of enthusiasm and energy gives way to a steady plod, heads down and eyes focused on the space of steamy ground where our feet are supposed to go next.
A few hills in, the pace of my breathing skyrockets. The more I try to control it, the more out of control it becomes. The process naturally gives way to panic, and in a few moments, I am hyperventilating. I vaguely recognize this sensation; the last time it happened, I was attempting a mountain summit in the Canadian Rockies whilst recovering from bronchitis.
I manage to control the episode in a minute or two, and we continue on. But the next hill and the hill after that see repeat performances. I’m tired, frustrated, and embarrassed. And we still have 8km to go.
Thankfully due to an ease in terrain and the empathetic support of the group, the rest of the bushwalk continues without ado and we set up camp for the night, exhausted but enthusiastic.
However my enthusiasm is short-lived when I can’t keep my dinner (or the ensuing dose of electrolytes) down, and I go to bed with a migraine and a tummy (sort of) full of pain-killers anti-nausea tablets.
My in-the-field diagnosis is heat exhaustion, and I don’t give it much thought beyond that. I expect to wake up the following day full of pep and ready to roll again.
After a painful morning of dragging my heels and being unable to eat, my entire being wants to rest in the fetal position, somewhere cooler than where we are. It becomes apparent that I can’t continue on this trip.
I am dropped off, the thick droplets of sweat on my face masking my tears. I am heartbroken. Irrational feelings of failure plague my psyche as Kelly drives me home to go to bed. This is not a happy homecoming.
But I remain as positive as I can. I have been invited to rejoin the trip if and when I feel better, and since it’s just heat exhaustion, all I really need is water, food, and rest. I might just be able to get back on the horse.
By the following day, I am a new person. Indeed it seemed that all I needed was a good dose of sleep, food (that stays down), and hydration. I rejoin the group that evening, and am enthusiastically welcomed by everybody.
I am so pleased to be back on trip. The next day is smashing as I play catch-up from the day before but shine despite this obstacle. Although the heat is stifling and the fire risk is ever-present, we all have a fabulous time together, enjoying each other’s company, the day’s activities, and the beautiful Aussie outdoor wonderland.
Oh, if only it could have continued on that way.
The next day sees us going for a dip in the river (the very, very cold river) to practice up for a swim test we must pass for our aquatics rescue class the following day. The cold water is refreshing, but also takes our breath away as we all struggle to complete what should be an easy swim if not for the strong currents and water temperature.
I struggle more than others in the group, and emerge from the water hyperventilating yet again.
“Gee Nora, you’re not good in the hot OR the cold!” remarks a fellow trip mate.
Wait a minute: That’s right. I mean, sure – I don’t like the cold, but why am I having the same reaction to it as I did to the heat? Why also is the remainder of the day an exercise in controlling nausea and other familiar symptoms from the other day?
And why the heck am I so bloody emotional every time my body fails me? I’ve spent a good chunk of this trip in tears, wondering why I feel so out of control.
I fall asleep that night pondering a new insight into my physical condition: I’m just plain out of shape. I’ve been whomped with some serious illnesses in the last year, the most recent bout being in December without a chance to regain my strength. I realize I am at a serious disadvantage and may just not have the physical ability to complete the course. We have three days left, and I wonder if – and how – I can pace myself to at least finish with the group.
If the fire danger wasn’t bad enough at the onset of the trip, we awake to Code Red fire danger the next day, with temperatures well into the 40’s and high winds creating an air of palpable tension. I realize that the fires of last year have had a deeper impact on me than I have been willing to admit, as I constantly scan the horizon for smoke.
I also find that although I want to finish the trip and am prepared to observe some sessions that may be too physically demanding for me, I am informed that the bushwalk scheduled for the next day is going to be just as challenging as the first one was.
With that, I realize that finishing this trip with the group will be impossible. I’ll likely do more harm than good to myself in pushing too hard, and I’ll do the group no favours in holding them back. For the second time in a week, I am evacuated off the trip.
This time, I am much less heartbroken. I simply realize that I am weak from my recent illness, and I need to take some time to train and strengthen.
I forgive myself for being unable to complete something I set out to do.
This is the first time I’ve been this kind to – and understanding of – myself in ages; possibly ever. As much as being unable to complete the trip is a defeat of sorts, it is also a victory.
A victory over a childhood fraught with incidents like this; being unable to keep up due to a lack of fitness and being slightly overweight.
A victory over an adulthood of overcompensation for my childhood fitness woes; taking up professional dancing, mountaineering, skydiving, and other “extreme” physical activities to prove to the world that I can do it (even when sometimes I couldn’t but wouldn’t admit it).
I was not meant to complete this course. I believe that I got what I needed when I needed it (as I had faith would happen). I was given lessons I had no intention of learning at the outset of the trip, yet lessons that are very important. No bridges are burnt, and I can complete the course when my strength improves. I can also utilize my new-found “freedom” from the job to explore some of the other options available to me – which include more travel, doing some artwork, reading books, forging and deepening relationships, and taking some time to get to know myself a little bit better.
We aren’t even two weeks into this new year, and I already know it will be one of tremendous growth and change. With that will come challenges, but as long as I can continue to be victorious as I have with this latest “defeat”, I have no doubt that good things will come.
To an adventurous year!