2013 Diary of a Canning Walker

Day 3 - I cannot go on like this

Day 3

Day 3 on the Canning Stock Route

Day 3,  02 June 2013
Photo's - Solo Walk - Billiluna to Kunawarritji 657km

Body and mind rebelling. It is a late start that sees me drag myself onto the track by 7am, half an hour later than yesterday. Heat and exhaustion dulls my appetite. I am not eating much, consequently the volume of food in my backpack is growing … and with it the dreaded weight (groan). The travel mug, my prized possession, will have to go, and so must the excess food. I cannot go on like this.

As Murphy's Law would have it, no vehicles pass me this miserable day, which means I cannot offload the crippling weight of excess. My back is holding up well, but my protruding hip bones in front are sore and swollen from the pressure of the hip strap. Digging my hands under the shoulder straps, I take up the weight with my arms and shoulders, but this cannot go on. I have to protect my recently broken spine by keeping the weight below the breaks and on the hips. By midday I have only walked half the distance to my next drop - a difficult 12km with many stops under any shady bush I can find. Sometimes I only manage a few hundred metres. This whole walk seems impossible in light of this struggle. My walk has just begun and I am reduced to all but crawling on the third day!

Exhausted, unable to go on, I pitch my tent under a lovely stand of desert oaks and cook a meal of rice and lentils in my Trangia. There is no hunger, but I must eat. Oh, the difficulty just to eat! Flies are crawling over everything: my spoon, the rim of the pot, my hands, eyes, mouth and nose. The rice elicits a feeding frenzy in the flies. They are crawling everywhere, oblivious to my desperate hand waving! I cry out in frustration, 'Damn you!!' I can’t get a spoon to my mouth without taking in a mouthful of the unwanted, crawling, frantic protein. Forced to hide inside my tent in order to eat in peace, I watch the buggers settle on the outside of the mosquito mesh. They are waiting for me; their prisoner, my gate keepers.

Washing up, I contemplate moving on. After packing away the Trangia stove and food bag, I walk out onto the track. The flies are all over me. I would cry, but I am just too tired. Bleakly I look south, the way I must walk, deeper into the desert, and then north in the direction I came from, willing a 4x4 to appear to relieve me of my excess. Continuing on right now is not an option. I simply cannot. It is too hot and I am exhausted, the rice and lentils fuel have not yet reached my depleted muscles. Retreating to my tent to escape the flies, I lay down and doze in the drugging heat for four hours. My brain is foggy with heat exhaustion, my body slack.

By 4pm the temperature is slightly cooler. The glare of the sun is softening and the relief allows me to resume my painfully slow progress to my supply drop just 9km away. How unbelievably hard is it to walk just 9km! As the temperatures drop further with the approach of sunset, I come alive, revived, my step quickening.  It is 6pm and dark when I reach my supply drop. The markers of ribbons and sticks are invisible to me, my wrist Garmin 301 GPS guiding me to the buried food, confirmed by evidence of recently disturbed soil. Finding a tiny space in the spinifex I set up camp by the light of my headlamp. Digging out my supplies can wait until morning. 

Climbing inside my thin walled Vango tent, too exhausted to eat, I pull out a sachet of Hammer Nutrition Recoverite. Mixing up the protein powder with water, I drink it immediately. There is no hunger, only thirst, but I must feed my weary muscles. Knowing I have fresh supplies tomorrow, I drink water throughout the night. Despite this, there is no wee coming out the other side. I am dehydrated, my body soaking up every drop like a dry sponge, wasting nothing.

Although there is nothing for me to be afraid of out here in the Outback, I feel safer inside my little tent. Laying on my back, waiting for sleep, I wonder at a conversation I had in 2010 with Canning Stock Route travellers passing through Billiluna. The Community had given me permission to live with them for six weeks whilst researching the feasibility of hitchhiking the Canning Stock Route that same year. Travellers were always aghast when they heard what I intended doing, alarmed at the thought of me being alone and on foot out in the desert at night. One lady asked discreetly:

‘Aren’t you afraid?’

‘Of what’ I asked, amused.

There was a moment of silence, and then she whispered, ‘The dark.’

Sleep eludes me as I sit with this memory and wonder at my sense of vulnerability. There is anxiety present on this walk that did not exist on my last hitchhike in 2011. What has changed? I have more than two months to figure it out.

There is no need to share the everyday slog of putting one foot in front of the other. Walking has a certain monotony and 1657km is a lot of walking. In saying that, each day has its unique highs and lows. My overall focus is on ensuring that I do not suffer an injury that would prevent me reeling in the distance, one step at a time. I don’t care how long it takes me, but I am walking the Canning Stock Route every step of the way.

My mind drifts to before the walk; the preparation year ...

Sometimes getting to the starting line is the biggest challenge

It was not meant to be like this. I was not meant to be out here alone! There was supposed to be another walker, dammit. AND a driver with a support vehicle. So how the fuck did I end up out here alone?

The year before, I broke my back in a paragliding accident in New South Wales, Australia. Whilst lying in bed recovering, my spine knitting itself together again, I spent my days surfing the internet, researching my favourite topic, the Canning Stock Route.

A website called www.defyingadversity.com (since revamped to promote a third charity event that never happened) jumped up onto my screen. A group of women supporting Ushers Syndrome Awareness, planned to walk the Canning Stock Route! I could hardly believe my luck. They looked organised and they had support vehicles. Maybe I could join them?

A Channel TEN TV interview that is still being used to publicise this charity event that never happened, from six years ago.

Video Clip of the charity walk that never happened. (Pam in white top.)

Defying Adversity - Pams first CSR team

Excitedly I made contact with Australian mural artist, Pamela Armstrong, who appeared to be running the show. Inquiries revealed that the group had in fact recently fallen apart, just two months before the scheduled start. Consequently, Pam’s Canning Stock Route walk had been put on hold. Perhaps that was fortunate - expecting to walk the Canning Stock Route just two months after breaking my spine was a bit ambitious! Pam and I agreed to keep in contact with a view to walking together in 2013.

Our reasons for wanting to walk across this desert were very different.

Approaching a half century, Pam wanted to mark the occasion by doing something out of the ordinary.

Me? At 46 years with plenty of off the beaten track adventure under my belt, I just wanted to be back in my happy place, the Canning Stock Route. Having come so close to landing my bum in a wheelchair, I wanted to walk. And walk. And walk. I was so grateful I could walk!!!

The benefit of combining our dreams was that Pam had a Toyota 4WD which would carry all our camping gear, food and water. It would be driven by her long-time friend, Tony Rhodes, who would be on hand to offer us encouragement, safety and support. Walking with day packs only was an important aspect for me as I still could not bear the weight of an expedition pack. My contribution was very small in comparison. In the beginning Pam said she would foot the bill with regards to fuel, because she was doing it anyway, but as time went by and discontent muddied our relationship, I offered to contribute to fuel and was obviously taking care of my own food. More importantly, I was bringing a lifetime of solo off-the-beaten-track travel experience to the team, and having hitchhiked the CSR one and a half lengths in recent years, I knew first hand where we were going and what to expect from the terrain. I had the experience that would help prepare us for what lay ahead.

Pam and depression - Public postAn adventurous life has taught me self-reliance. An important aspect of self-reliance is knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses. From the start I had been concerned about my ability to cope with two other people for three months. Getting along with people for more than two weeks at a time is a challenge for me, as I suffer bouts of melancholic depression and push people away. Occupying my own space to the exclusion of all others has become a way of life. Put someone like me into a remote area, with two friends I had never met before, and we must proceed with caution, with back up plans for if (and when) things ‘go south’. What I did not know at the time was that Pam also suffers from depression, possibly Bi-Polar; a raging cyclone of positive energy in public, but another person entirely in private, especially when she did not get her way.

As owner of the Troopy, Pam oversaw vehicle logistics. I was happy to leave her to it, as my recovery, training and earning money for flights and expedition costs occupied my every day. Pam declared she had done a Project Management Course. This sounded good in the fuzzy beginning, but when no logistical details were forthcoming, I became concerned and pressed for details.  The documents she emailed me made my blood run cold. The 'documents' for the most part, were standard guidelines from a course on how to run a project, but Pam had failed to fill in the blanks regarding our expedition. There was no list of items to attend to, no schedule and no progress report to indicate our level of preparedness. What it did show unequivocally, was an alarming lack of expedition planning ability. Despite her logistical practice run with Defying Adversity in 2012, Pam still had no idea, and was relying on a super optimistic ‘don't-sweat-the-details', 'she’ll be right', 'just-do-it’ approach.

Bi-polarAnxiety ate away at my stomach. Our walk was supported. We were dependent on that vehicle being with us every single day for up to three months in a very remote region. Getting the support vehicle logistics right was vital to our success. No matter our physical fitness, if the vehicle stopped, we stopped.

My Life, My Way, My RulesI tried to discuss various possible scenarios, and how we might handle them. Pam refused to consider the need for a Plan B and C, stating that having a Plan B and C showed I lacked commitment to Plan A. There was only one way the walk was going to happen - and that was Cyclone Pammy's way.

Optimistically, I judged that Pam and I could keep it together at least for the first month between Billiluna and the next human habitation, Kunawarritji Community, a distance of 657km. Even if the situation became hostile, I did not believe Pam would leave me in the desert to die. We would have to stick together until we reached the Community whereupon she could get rid of me without homicide being involved. But I needed a back-up in order to keep going to Wiluna.

Andy Sutcliffe, the Australian I hitched a lift with in the Peugeot 505 in 2010, agreed immediately to help me lay a supply line along the southern section of the CSR, a distance of 1,000km from Wiluna to Kunawarritji. This was my insurance should Pam and I only make it as far as Kunawarritji, walking from the north. With a supply line, I could keep going. Pam considered this a waste of resources and tried to get me to cancel it. Having being on a yacht in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and losing a man overboard, I had an inkling of what it might be like to be left stranded in the desert watching the 4x4 and its owner disappear into the distance. Like a life raft, it might be an unnecessary expense, but I wanted my insurance. I kept the southern supply line.

The closer we came to departure, the greater the tension between Pam and me.  I wanted us to succeed as a team; it was in my best interests. But Pam appeared to be taking the preparations too lightly. When I voiced my misgivings to Andy, he offered to speak with her and guide her. An Overland driver with 14 years of experience and having travelled the CSR one and a half lengths, once in a 2WD, I could think of no-one better to assist Pam. Andy knew what we were getting into and how to prepare a vehicle.

The two Aquarians hit it off, enjoying long telephone conversations. Andy’s suggestions were taken on board and things improved for a while. Meanwhile, back at work, Pam’s dream job of janitor (it paid well) with the Compass Group on the oil and gas mining island of Barrow Island, was turning into a hell. Perhaps the feeling was mutual because Pam’s contract was suddenly cancelled, with a bonus to send her happily on her way, not required to return. Pam now had idle months on her hands before the walk. She filled it with an overseas trip to Indonesia to have her teeth fixed (she told me), but to Andy she revealed that she was also having a boob job. He said he had no idea why she shared that detail with him, but I reckoned I knew why.

A power play ensued. Emails back and forth behind the scenes revealed that I was being left out of group communications instigated by Pam. I was being cut from the herd by the brood mare!

Andy, a straight up guy, brought these machinations to my attention almost immediately. I called Pam out in a group email and asked her to stop. It was a losing battle. Pam is a person constantly on the move, and now, with unexpected time on her hands, she was restless. Pam had lost sight of our common goal and had  refocused on winning men. Her friend Tony Rhodes was in a long term partnership with another woman with whom he had a child, and this, Pam admitted, was the reason they were only friends. She confided that she would have liked more, but it was not available. Now it appeared, she had set her sights on Andy.

Photograph provided by Pam Armstrong, whilst in Indonesia.

Pam Armstrong proudly displaying her reconditioned bustWith the important preparations taken care of (boob job and teeth) Pam wanted to start the walk earlier and change direction to finish in the north in order that she may continue to her house in Queensland. This was understandable, but my international flights were already booked and paid for and moving the dates forward a month would leave me physically and financially unprepared. Restless and irritable with the constraints I was putting on her, Pam’s ideas and plans became increasingly erratic without due thought for the consequences of each change. At one point she wanted to walk without a support vehicle, pulling home-made untested trolleys. I pointed out that I was still recovering from a broken spine and in no way fit enough for an unsupported walk and that walking supported was already going to be a big test for me. Having never done a long hike before, Pam had absolutely no-idea of the logistics involved, but was fuelled with the optimism of the untested. Changing from a 4x4 supported journey to unsupported with trailers would mean a huge adjustment to our logistics. Whilst I had light weight walkers' equipment, Pam’s equipment was 4x4 based, i.e. heavy and totally unsuited to her new plan. The situation was unstable and I dreaded what the next email from her might bring.

Building the Canning Walker website and creating a Facebook account (Gaynor Schoeman Canning Walker) opened up another can of worms. Up until that moment, I was a nobody without a face and without visible friends. The attention I received created ego issues and jealousy. Pam was no longer the focus of attention. She felt the walk was no longer 'her' walk, that she was losing control and being relegated to a supporting role. Comments thick with dissatisfaction, Pam stated that she no longer saw any benefit in having me on 'her' walk. We were in trouble.

Differences in commitment to what defined walking the entire length of the Canning Stock Route, was the last straw. I was committed to walking every step of the way from Billiluna to Wiluna, and going at a pace I felt was sustainable, i.e. a half marathon a day (21km), slowly increasing the distance, resting when necessary, and planning a full rest day once a week. The pace Pam was determined to achieve from the start was 30-35km per day.

She intended to walk the whole way, but if the going got tough, and she or I could walk no more, Pam was prepared for us to climb into the vehicle and ride until we could walk again. There would be no slowing down or waiting if my back needed resting. This approach left me vulnerable … and totally shocked. Under no circumstances would I climb into the vehicle. I tried to pressure Pam into agreeing to travel as slow as the slowest walker. This was an important detail. Me not climbing into the 4x4 was non-negotiable. Taking this stand did not sit well with Pam.

Realising that things were rapidly falling apart, I spoke again with Andy, and he agreed to help me lay a supply line the ENTIRE length of the Canning Stock Route between Wiluna and Billiluna. Our daily travel distances would be brutal as he had a short time for leave, but we could do it.

With a supply line in place, technically, I did not NEED Pam anymore, but I WANTED to walk with her. I did not want to be out here on my own. Nor did I want to carry an expedition pack. I was not even sure that I could!

At my wits end, I saw two paths: Call my walk off and say goodbye to a year of training, planning and sacrifice ... or do it solo right from the start. More than anything I did NOT want to do this walk solo. But I would not call it off. I pressured Pam into making a decision: Was she in or was she out? Were we doing it together or were we going our separate ways? The instability was freaking me out. I needed certainty, one way or the other.

Pam decided that a team effort was no longer in her favour and pulled out two months before I was due to arrive in Australia. She was, as she put it, going to paint her own canvas, and walk in the opposite direction, starting a month earlier.

Pam’s withdrawal and attempts to further sabotage my walk left me reeling. The stakes were so much higher now. When Pam renewed her attempts to scupper my solo walk, confiding in Andy that she thought I was jealous, Andy got the idea that he was the man in the middle of two women fighting over him. Holding the walk together was like walking a tight rope and now that I was walking on my own, I simply did not want Pam jeopardising my supply line. If Pam succeeded in severing this last thread in my lifeline, causing Andy to get fed up with the women fighting, my walk was over. Andy, bless his heart, held firm, but it was close.

Although I played no small part in this pre-walk drama, I could not help but feel at the time, that the bitch had set me up to fail. A burning coal of anger made a home in my stomach. The Universe works in unfathomable ways, but perhaps it knew that this is what I needed to fuel my courage to enable me to walk out into that desert alone … and keep walking.

There was only forward.

CSR Tip

The first four days on the CSR are the hardest.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 11 January 2018 13:47

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