(Bonus theme song to this post - sit back and enjoy the read!)
It was a long trip home but certainly nowhere near as long as I'd planned. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, and I managed to get the very last seat on the Spirit of Queensland, riding the rails in economy the 1300 or so kilometres from Townsville to Brisbane. Certainly more roomy and better appointed than long distance economy flights. I even managed to get a bit of sleep despite the carriage being packed full of snorers!! [Ed: kind of what it's been like since you've been back...]
From Brisbane I rode first class to Melbourne, via Kempsey, where I took a week out to visit family in Mungay Creek. First. Class. Wow! What an experience. The XPT service was commissioned in Australia in 1982 and was based on a UK service from 1971. The carriages did not appear to have been refurbished in all that time, and certainly rattled and squeaked commensurate with their age. I'm tipping they went faster in their heyday, though, as no doubt the track was in better condition. I know 1980s retro is a thing, so how lucky am I to have enjoyed this experience for 1700 odd kilometres, especially when you consider Puffing Billy is only 23 kilometres and costs about $60!
After a bit of 'googlage' shortly after boarding in Brisbane, I discovered the only difference between economy and first class is 5cm in leg room. Robbed on the retro rattler!
I arrived at Southern Cross Station in Melbourne on Friday 7th July at 7:30am. Clearly I was pretty excited to be soon seeing Beth and the kids as I dashed off to catch a train out to Lilydale. I got as far as Flinders Street Station before realising I hadn't collected my pack at Southern Cross, "You dickhead" I cursed to myself (unfortunately, though, out loud, much to the bemusement of my fellow commuters as I exited the train).
Home sweet home! Beth picked me up from Lilydale station with Hayley, Brooke & Jack in tow. It was so great to see them all - but geez it's cold down here in Melbourne, "Is the fire going at home?" I asked.
"Oh Tish, you are such a basket case" I said as I put my pack down and warmed my arse by the fire.
Since first experiencing searing pain with each step on the Trail, just past Gunnawarra on 16th June, here's what has transpired:
The final verdict..... tibialis anterior tendinopathy. Well, of the three injury possibilities, I am back to what Melanie, the physio I saw in Atherton, had diagnosed. If only I hadn't been so bloody impatient, and really heard what she told me I needed to do to properly recover, rather than what I wanted to hear, my recovery may have been weeks instead of the months it now is. I was told to rest it and that I would know when it was right to start again. Melanie said "Don't even think about walking on it for at least 3 days" and that when I do set off again "Stop walking if it starts to hurt again". Pretty clear right? Well, like the idiot I am, what I chose to hear was "It'll be ok to get back in on the BNT after 4 days of bludging at Innot Hot Springs, when you set off again if it starts to hurt give it a bit of a rub and you'll be right."
Now what? No walking for at least four weeks - anything that vaguely resembles hiking (or training for hiking) is off limits. I was told swimming would be ok, but no vigerous kicking, possibly cycling but stop if experiencing any pain. I'm going stir crazy at home doing nothing so I'm definitely going to get on my bike. The doc prescribed some stronger anti-inflammatory pills of the corticosteroids variety (prednisolone) - even after 3 weeks of no hiking, the MRI still showed a fair amount of swelling around the affected tendon.
After four weeks of no walking I will recommence a gradual build up of training for a return to the BNT in October. Yep, you read correctly, October - THIS YEAR!
In order for me to get back to the Trail as soon as I can, I'm recutting my plan for a South-North attempt. I'm aiming to set out from Healesville in mid October, and finishing at Innot Hot Springs. My official BNT exit point was Lucy Creek near the Valley of Lagoons but I love the idea of walking a few extra kilometres and finishing it at the hot springs.
Earlier this year a fellow BNT trekker, Eliza (of team Donkey Dreaming) correctly called it: "Geez, Victoria has mountains on its mountains!" Whilst seemingly not conducive to a gradual return to the vigour of BNT life, I'm lucky I live in Healesville and can plan to pre-drop supplies in a few family 4WD outings. This means I'll be able to front-end my return to the Trail with more rest days and lighter pack-loads. It also means I'll be able to attend the BNT AGM in Narbethong in late October.
In the immortal words of Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith (and showing my age with an A-Team reference) "I love it when a plan comes together."
After four days relaxing at Innot Hot Springs it was time to get on track.......again! I was a little apprehensive for a couple of reasons: had I rested enough so my leg would hold up in what promised to be a harsh and unforgiving section? Would I get a ride back to where I left the trail, or would I need to spend two or three days catching up and expending supplies I didn't have?
I was certainly eager, packed up and ready to go with my thumb out on Kennedy Highway at first light. I'm sure the motorists checking their mirrors after passing me and seeing my lips move thought I was saying unkind words. "Thank-you for your consideration" was all that I said for the first hour as 20 or so cars passed. Ok I admit it, I had been reading The Hunger Games and was channelling Katniss Everdeen firing off an arrow at the game makers for not paying her due attention. I finally got a ride all the way to the Gunnawarra Rd turnoff, past Mt Garnet, so about a third of the way. The next leg was going to be a little more challenging, with fewer cars to get me the next 50 or so kilometres. Great! It was starting to drizzle and 15 minutes on, not a single car had passed.
Similar to drought breaking strategies many folk adopt, whereby if they want rain they hang their washing out, I decided it was time for a bowel movement. Off to the side of the road, behind a small bush with my pants around my ankles - surely a car would come along now. No car came along but I felt better anyway. I think I must have been on the right track though because not long after feeling a bit lighter, a ute came along and gave me a ride.
Wayne knew quite a bit about the Trail, and when I told him I wanted to get dropped off just shy of the Minamoolka camp, he said he knew an even better camp spot a bit further on. A bit further on turned out to be 15 kms into the next days hike. It was a great spot, though, on Leichhardt Creek. After thanking Wayne profusely for the ride, I weighed up whether I take advantage, set up camp, and have another rest day or walk the next 10ish kilometres to the designated BNT camp. I deliberated for 30 minutes before deciding I'd like to test the leg out.
At around the 7 kilometre mark I could feel my right leg tightening up. Luckily I only had about 4 kilometres to go so, after a brief rest, I pressed on and got to camp.
I was up early enough the following morning, however it wound up being a late start, with me not getting away until 8am. I was in two minds - rest day or hit the Trail. I thought initially it was going to be a cloudy drizzly day and figured the leg could do with a rest day, but after the sun rose, the early cloud and fog lifted so I decided not to be a slack-arsed wussy, and get going. Whilst I'll never truly know, looking back I think it was probably a poor decision, as it was a long day's hike ahead of me, and the late start only put unnecessary pressure on me.
At around the 20 kilometre mark it was getting late in the afternoon, my leg was killing me and I still had about 6 or so kilometres to the designated camp. I hadn't seen a single vehicle all day but was a little relieved when I came across a road crew in a water-tanker who offered me a ride. I had been offered a few rides along the trail but had always enjoyed knocking them back. "Can you drop me at the abandoned Wairuna homestead a few kilometres up the road? I'm hiking the National Trail but have injured my leg so thinking it might be a good place to camp and rest." They agreed and I clambered up into the cab and got dropped off at the gate to the old homestead. Initially I was thinking it would be great to sleep under the veranda, but in getting there and seeing all of the asbestos warning signs affixed around the now sadly dilapidated place, I decided especially with the wind that it probably wasn't a good camp spot after all. In the end I walked the remaining 3 kilometres to the last finger of the Burdekin River. It wasn't flowing like the first finger I crossed, but there was a waterhole and the water looked good enough. Given the lateness of the day I quickly set up camp and collected some wood for a fire; I slept well apart from a dull ache in my leg that I hoped would go away after by morning.
The ache was still with me when I woke the next morning before daybreak - not a good sign. I stayed rugged up, initially deciding I would rest my leg and hope for the best. I decided against this after sun up, realising the road works finished just before Wairun Homestead and the likelihood of anymore traffic would be slim. I was down to my last painkillers and anti-inflammatory pill and I recall the tanker driver telling me the next time I might get phone reception would be around the Valley of Lagoons. It was another biggish day with 25 kilometres to get through to camp. I quickly packed up and set off knowing I would have to set a reasonable pace, but thinking it was doable if I dug down and got on with it.
The first 5 kilometres I averaged a little over 3.5 km/h in pain but bearable. There was a little bit of climbing which gave me hope on two fronts - a slither of reception to call home, and I deluded myself that I would be working different muscles to help me stretch out and ease whatever was causing me grief.
It was nice to speak with Beth - I tried to sound upbeat but I let her know I was in a bit of pain. The chat with Beth, the brief rest and possibly the placebo effect of the slight climb, I upped the pace to around 4km/h, with only a marginal increase in the pain level over the next 5 kilometres.
I was still holding onto to the hope that I could get through this and waved at a passing 4WD instead of trying to wave it down. The terrain flattened, but unfortunately my pain levels didn't - each step became excruciating agony.
I had about 2 litres of water remaining, with about 17 kilometres to go before reaching the designated camp. It was also the warmest day in over a week, so not conducive to conserving water. The guidebook indicated there was a creek at the 15 kilometre mark that may hold water if there had been a good wet season. I reset my goal to get to Lucy Creek hoping there would be water, but recalling the wet season hadn't been all that flash.
The last 5 kilometres were very tough physically and emotionally. I realised my injury wouldn't allow me to continue, and I now really regretted not waving that 4WD down earlier.
I got to a spot where I had a good view across the dry lake and was rewarded with a bar of reception - but it was dropping in and out. As I was trying to get a text out a wave of texts and Faceboook messages started coming through - clearly Beth had sensed how down I actually was and let some family and friends know I needed some encouragement. Fucking sooky la la - I bawled my eyes out!
I don't know why I sooked up, I think in my heart of hearts I realised my injury was a BNT breaker and I felt like a failure - I hated myself for my weakness and poor decisions. Clearly I was physically and emotionally wrecked, dwelling on the pain and what that meant. It had sapped my resolve, but after an initial blubbering the messages did provide the lift I needed to refocus. I reset goals: get to camp and get water - repeat until I can get a ride and absolute clarity on recovery. I would be able to make some firm decisions then.
Crikey, this post is going to be longer than my time on the BNT in 2017 - I'll wrap things up.
I got to Lucy Creek and there was good water. Big waterholes in the creek and a largish lake a little further on. It was a great camp, one of the best on the Trail so far.
I got 5 kilometres the next morning and was able to flag down a passing 4WD. The ride got me to a station about 60 kms away where I had mailed my resupply parcel. The bush telegraph got into full swing and a ride to Townsville was arranged.
I would dearly love to share the story of the two days it took me to get from my resupply point to Townsville in more detail, but that wouldn't be doing anyone any favours. It was an amazing experience that I wouldn't swap for the world where wonderful people went out of their way to help me. In sharing this experience I would be setting an expectation - having no expectations is what made it so amazing. I will be forever humbled by it!
After visiting the hospital in Townsville and then a GP, the earlier diagnosis of Chronic Exertional Anterior Compartment Syndrome was confirmed. The doctor advised that conservative treatment is unlikely to succeed and I either cease hiking entirely or have a fasciotomy.
I'm now on a train on the way home to Healesville. I'm stopping on my way through to see my brother-in-law and his awesome family in Boonangi near Kempsey. I've already made an appointment to see a specialist in just over a week - an expert in sports medicine who has published a number of articles on chronic exertional compartment syndrome and treatment options. If I can avoid surgery I will, because it sounds full-on, otherwise I'll do it sooner rather than later as it will be a long recovery.
I'm now planing my 2018 assault of the BNT. It's simply too much fun not to have another tilt. Stay tuned - in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger: "I'll be back"
PS: excuse topless pic - I'd been told it was nude hiking day ;)
At 47 years young, Chris Anthony, who is married with 3 wonderful kids, tried his hand at being an adventurer for the 12 months tackling the BNT.