Gaynor Schoeman

Gaynor Schoeman Canning WalkerPrior to 2013 Walk

Age: 46 yearsWESPAC Rescue Helicopters

Gender: Female

Nationality: South African

Born to travel. Life has been a never ending adventure since the day I was born. I don't know how to live without it.

When I broke my back in a paragliding accident in Australia on 31 March 2012, I came close to realising one of my worst nightmares - a life severely limited in movement, forever. I was spared by the grace of all that connects us.  

My charity drive for WESPAC RESCUE HELICOPTERS tells some of that story.

To hasten my recovery and leave the nightmare of what could have been behind, I began to walk.

I walked and walked and walked...

Walking makes me feel good about myself, strengthening my body, rebuilding my spine, giving my mind focus and discipline. Without surgical intervention or a brace, walking toned my muscles and gave them the strength to support me whilst gently squeezing the splinters of the burst vertebra away from the nerve canal and back into position, forming half a vertebra. Did you know that a person can live a fully active life with half a vertebra? I do now.

Almost a year since my accident,

I have fully recovered as far as normal day to day activities are concerned. It is in weight bearing and having the confidence to fly again, that I am challenged. With all that changed in my life as a result of the accident, walking the Canning Stock Route gives me a goal. The goal keeps my mind occupied, whilst my body continues to recover.

People say that the desert is much like the sea with its wide open spaces, gentle undulating landscape and never ending horison. Over the years, I have come to agree. In the deserts of Western Australia, particularly the northern section of the Canning, I feel like I am home. It is here that I rest, deep inside. The mind quiets in the presence of immense solitude..... and life begins to bloom again.


How it all began:

Subconsciously, I have been preparing myself for this particular journey for more than 3 years. But even deeper in my psyche, this is yet another training walk. My ultimate goal is to walk the Canning Stock Route without support. No designated support driver, no supply drops. Just living off the land, hunting for food, finding water and sharing a meal with a passing traveler from time to time. Don't know if it can be done, but each step takes me closer to finding out. I have much to learn.

My desert love affair began in 2009 when I stopped overnight in Billiluna Aboriginal Community on my way to Alice Springs via the Tanami Track. I shared a dinner with the then CEO of Billiluna, Sue Kelliher and slept overnight in one of the houses for rent. But I was just passing through, hitchhiking. The next day I continued on my way down the Tanami and on that journey I met a convoy of CSR travelers, Dan Rigall, Carol, Phil and their dog Jake and friend Mike. It was their camp fire stories of great adventures, personal reliance and ingenuity that piqued my interest. It reminded me of my childhood. I wanted to travel the Canning Stock Route too!

The first time I traveled the CSR was in 2010. Sue put me in touch with the new CEO's who arranged permission with the Aboriginal Council for me to live in Billiluna for six weeks doing volunteer work whilst I researched the feasibility of hitching the Canning. During that time I spoke with the occasional CSR travelers passing through this northern gateway, either coming out of the desert or going in. Just as I was becoming worried that I may not find a lift from Billiluna and might need to pay one of the locals to drive me to the first well with water, my lift arrived in the form of a Peugeot 505 two wheel drive vehicle with ex-Overland truck drive Andy Sutcliffe behind the wheel. Andy's Mum and Dad were driving point in his old 47 Series Toyota Landcruiser with friends Kev and Jen in the Discovery bringing up the rear of the convoy. Initially I wanted them to drop me off at the first well with water, Well 49, but we got along so well, I went with Andy all the way to Wiluna and then Kalgoorlie.

In 2011 I did it again, but this time I wanted to spend more time at the wells in order to get used to living on my own in the desert. Only capable of carry a months supply of food, mostly nuts and dried fruit, I decided to hitch part of the Canning, flying into Kunawarritji Community and heading north to Billiluna. I walked some sections of the track, but the weight of my backpack was crippling, 30-40kg depending on my water levels. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic experience leaving me wanting more.

2012 saw my annual pilgrimage to the desert interrupted. I had a paragliding accident in New South Wales, breaking my spine in two places. Recovery was fast in some sense, but slow in others. I could not bear weight like I used to.  It was during my recovery, surfing the internet, that I came into contact with Pamela Armstrong. Another woman, in fact a whole group of them, wanted to walk the Canning Stock Route. I could not believe my luck. They had support vehicles. Maybe I could join them? The original group did not walk the Canning Stock Route as intended, falling apart 2 months before the start date. Consequently Pam's 2012 desert walk was put on hold until 2013. Perhaps that was fortunate. Expecting to walk the Canning two months after breaking my back was a bit ambitious. We kept in contact and planned to walk together in 2013.

In 2013 and Pam and I were in the final stages of preparing for the walk of our lives. Two months before departure, the team faltered and Pam again pulled out from a team effort, taking her driver and vehicle with her, leaving me to fall back on my Plan B; establish a supply line across the desert with Andy Sutcliffe and walk it alone. This was always my insurance to make sure I finished what I started should Pam and I not be able to complete it together. I ended up walking across the deserts alone for 66 days.

Media links to TV, Radio, Newspaper and Magazine articles are on the home page in the right hand column.

Gaynor's Past Adventures:

I have been fortunate to travel in over 50 countries. Some of my more unusual adventures :

Age 11/12 - Two years sailing on the family yacht my parents and grandfather built. From South Africa to South America and the Caribbean, I learned to rely on myself and my family and deal with whatever nature threw at us, including two hurricanes. There was no-one around to help us in the middle of the ocean. A bit like the desert.

Campervanned across the USA and Canada for two months.

Age 16/17 – One and a half years sailing from South Africa to the Mediterranean on another family built yacht. One trip took five weeks at sea with no sight of land. We were visited by many storms, one tropical storm threatening to sink us. There was loss of life with a man over board. I learned how easy life is lost with one simple mistake, compounded by the domino effect.

Campervanned across Europe.

Age 18 - Trained as a travel agent and worked as junior consultant for two years. The main perk of this job was traveling to holiday destinations inside and outside South Africa in order to learn more about the products. Loved the job, but gave it up when I realised I had to save for months to buy a pair of inexpensive shoes. Be nice to your travel agent.....

Age 20 - Joined the family business and became a yacht broker in Durban.

Age 21 - Opened a franchise in Cape Town.

Age 22 – Started traveling on my own. Flew to Greece,  joining my 19 year old skipper sister on the family charter yacht, a 76ft catamaran. One months holiday flowed into eight months of solo hitch hiking on yachts from Greece to Gibraltar. My first venture out into the world on my own. I learned that I can take care of myself. Cruising the Med by Gaynor Schoeman, in Multihulls Magazine, Nov/Dec 1989

Age 23 – Returned to South Africa. With very little formal schooling, I used what I learned as a sailor and started my own company spray painting yachts and motor craft, expanding into boat building. I managed a team of men that grew to 23 over four years.

Started martial arts training, my sights set on becoming South Africa’s first female full contact fighter/kickboxer. Women were banned from fighting in South Africa until I campaigned and proved we could hold our own in the ring. I went on to become South African female champion and retired undefeated four years later in January 1995. My father was a South African judo champion for many years. Being a fighter is in the blood.

Age 24 - Backpacked with a sister through Argentina and Chile. Went on to discover New Zealand and Australia for the first time. The seed was planted for my return.

Age 26 – Two months volunteer work in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Hitchhiked on a Russian Illusion military aircraft into Uganda in early August 1994, then in a Hercules C130 USAF aircraft into Goma, Zaire. Hitched with the Irish Army into Kigali, delivering water tankers. Spent most of my time as a volunteer rehydrating men, women and child skeleton’s with the GOAL Irish Aid agency in Goma, helping to bury the hundreds and thousands that died and build refugee camps in Kibumba. My last two weeks were spent with UNHCR moving refugees to new camps at Kahindo where there was water and health facilities. Escaped being taken hostage in a riot by being bundled into a car and driven through barricades. Decided the refugees had shown themselves strong enough to take care of themselves and I hitched a ride with the German Luftwaffa back to South Africa.

Whilst in Zaire, I did get to play for two days. Climbed the active volcano of Nyrogongo and sat within its bubbling crater. Nyrogongo  blew three years later. Under the Volcano by Glynis Horning in Femina Magazine Summer issue 1994. Sat with silverback gorillas in the Virunga National Park and was humbled by these gentle, intelligent giants.

Time line wanders from here on due to post traumatic stress disorder. I lost a few years.

1999. Finding my feet again, I built and ran two successful niche companies in the film industry for eleven years - Gaynor Boat Co-ordinators and later, Gaynor Sports Talent. The seasonal summer businesses allowed me to travel overseas for four months each year. Never ending summers :-) I sold up four years ago and have been traveling ever since

Multiple visits to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia and Fiji, including:Gaynor at Canning Well37 in 2011

Two months solo cycling of northern Scotland, including Orkney Islands and Outer Hebrides. Scotlands 'summer' was so cold, I took a holiday from my holiday and cycled the three Greek islands of Zankinthos, Kefalonia and Peloponese in a heatwave of 50C for two weeks. Then flew to Spitzbergen in the Arctic Circle, joining the Russian ship "Multanovski" traveling to Greenland and Iceland. Marveled at icebergs, musk oxen, long eared white hares, polar bears, one foot thick moss, glaciers, rhyolite rainbow coloured mountains and other incredible scenery. Never did see those huge colourfully plumed penguins that captured my attention in photographs. I guess they must have been elsewhere :-)

Scuba diving in the Red Sea, Barrier Reef and Maldives.

Sailed from Mozambique to Madagascar in a 43ft catamaran. Hopped off onto a beach at a village called Belu sur Mer, famed for building sailing dugouts. For two weeks I negotiated with the locals to buy an 8.5m sailing dugout. No-one spoke English. Much of our communication was pantomime. Sailed up the west coast of Madagascar with two Vezu tribal sailors for two months, sleeping on the beaches, on larger boats, in mangroves and villages.

2001. Started paragliding. Paragliding took me flying around the world for 12 years. Acquitted myself well enough in the XC Open World Series competitions over six years. Acquired an instructors rating to take passengers flying in 2011. Crashed whilst flying cross country solo in 2012.

Hitchhiked around Australia extensively for the last four years, including the Canning, twice.

In 2013, I walked it

Every Step of the Way


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