The Canning Walker's Challenge for 2015

Les the Landy and Gaynor Schoeman the Canning Walker

3.5 months Bushtucker Adventure on the Canning Stock Route

Finding a suitable 4x4 for under $13 000 including Roadworthy and Registration whilst still in South Africa was not without difficulty, but I did get the right vehicle for me. An ex-Australian Army Land Rover named Les, as in Les Hiddens, The Bushtucker Man.

Next challenge was to equip Les with everything a woman might need for a solo remote desert crossing lasting last up to four months.

Vehicle preparations can be viewed here 4WD Gear and Sponsors 2015

Researching the availability of additional water sources and bush food was my focus in 2015. My goal was to determine whether I was capable of doing a future live-off-the-land traverse of the Canning Stock Route, WITHOUT resupply. This has never been done by a walker before.

My research entailed driving the full length of the Canning Stock Route from Wiluna to Halls Creek (about 3000km with side trips and backtracking) and with the aid of detailed maps both modern and old locating little known soaks and wells, visiting with Aboriginal Communities to learn about bushtucker, and putting my new found knowledge into daily practice. Then finishing with an easy drive back down the CSR with a passenger from Halls Creek to Wiluna (1850km) and finally Perth (1000km)

 

Alone for most of the time and being female, having never done any real 4x4'ing before, some thought this might be a bit of a challenge, me included.

I also wanted to get over my fear of walking at night, specifically the one where I might bump into camels in the dark. My 2013 experience with a charging bull camel in rut had left its mark.

Experiencing the tail end of the wet season was also of interest to me.  February is traditionally the wettest month on the Canning Stock Route. It is is also one of the hottest months. Mid March might be a good time to test my ability to handle more extreme temperatures. The painfully cold winter nights and early mornings I knew, but could I handle the tail end of the summer heat? I wanted to explore my outer limitations.

So why am I doing this?

Walking the Canning Stock Route alone in 2013, I was terribly vulnerable. My recently broken spine might incapacitate me at any time under the untested weight of my 30kg backpack. Any of my seventy supply drops each wrapped in a single black garbage bag might be compromised without warning.  I would only find that out as I dug them up. One spoiled supply drop would leave me in a state of emergency, compelling me to walk the another 21km at night to my next drop. At night in order to conserve water consumption. Two spoiled drops in a row would put me on the endangered list ... water-less ... conserving my energy ... toughing it out in the dubious shade of spartan scrub ... waiting to be rescued with water by a passing 4x4 traveller ... if I lasted that long.

Whilst many people mistake me for a desert survivalist because I go into the desert alone and on foot, the reality is that whilst I am careful and prepare well with Plan B, C and D in the wings, I do not know how to find food and water. I am a city slicker with the guts to go outside of my comfort zone, but in survivalist terms my supply drops were the equivalent of a walk to the local corner store. I was reliant on store bought food and packaged water. Without them I could not survive for more than a few days. I did not like that feeling of vulnerability. I wanted to be self sufficient in the desert I loved so much. 2015 was about increasing my skills in self-reliance ... adapting to, and learning more about the environment I walk.

So what is this Canning Stock Route that has me in its thrall? It feels like my Songline.

This media article I wrote gives the feel of what it means to me to walk the Canning Stock Route - The Path Less Travelled by Gaynor Schoeman in 4WD Touring Australia 

Pioneer History 1906 to 1951 will give you a brief outline of the white mans history of the Canning Stock Route. There is, of course, another history, but I don't know enough to say much about Aboriginal History. My 2013 photo gallery provides a visual interpretation of my Canning Stock Route experience.

A Timeline for CSR Cyclists, Walkers and other Notables highlights a comprehensive list of all those who have attempted to traverse the CSR on foot or bicycle.

Due to the challenges briefly outlined in The Canning Stock Route today - the viewpoint of a person on foot, I felt I needed a mobile base to carry equipment and emergency stand-by food for up to four months. My intention was to drive Les the Land Rover to locations along the Canning Stock Route, where I would then hike out for a few days, perhaps a week, looking for bush tucker and water, accruing much needed desert survival skills.

Learning from Books and Videos and through personal observation was a start, but I needed the participation of Community People, Traditional Owners and Rangers to succeed in preparing for a live-off-the-land desert crossing. Like Les Hiddens, the Bush Tucker Man, I sought out the assistance, knowledge and guidance of Australia's First People, learning from them what they were willing to share. What an incredible experience that was! Facebook Timeline posts from April to August 2015, tell much of that story, with photographs of those bushtucker adventures.

In all this adventure, in the back of my mind I hoped to meet my desert walking partner, someone far more skilled than I, who would be that tipping point in making a live-off-the-land crossing feasible.

Gaynor Schoeman Canning Walker 2015Northbound .....

Buying a 4x4 was the cheap bit, so long as you do not end up buying a lemon. I did okay. It is everything else required to prepare a vehicle for long, remote desert travel that bankrupts a traveller on a tight budget. I underestimated just how much of a challenge fitting out and preparing a vehicle for the Canning Stock Route would be to my bank account. Buying Les, the roadworthy, registration and fitment quickly drained every cent I had and I  found myself looking on in frozen horror as I slid inexorably towards the cliff of disaster, utterly helpless to stop myself. I freaked out. My desert journey was over before I had even arrived at the start of The Canning Stock Route!

In the face of this disaster, friends from all over the world came to my rescue, urging me to set up a crowd funding account into which they could donate money for fuel and vehicle expenses. They wanted the journey to happen. I am so grateful to these people for their generous support. My Fuel Sponsors for 2015. Disaster averted, the Canning Stock Route was on!

March:
Les and I arrived in Wiluna towards the end of March. It was raining. Aboriginal Elders cautioned me to wait a few days for the track to dry out, which I did. Whilst I waited a lovely Murchison lady by the name of Joan who lives at The Gunbarrel Laarger introduced me to members of a Community nearby whereupon I was immediately invited to join in on bush tucker trips.

April
The Birriliburu  were amazing. I went out twice with families comprising mostly of women and children. We ate karlaya emu, marlu kangaroo, bungarra goanna, wild green beans, silky pear/bush banana and witchetty grub. I learned how to gut a goanna without a single incision, to scale and to cook it. On the third day I went out with a group of men; Elders, middle aged and young adults. They showed me parakeelya and pigweed plants to eat when water is scarce. The young men also showed me how to catch yabbies in North Pool with a piece of meat tied to a string. We feasted!

Lawman Timmy Petersen Long honoured me with his skin name - BANAGA, in the company of Medicine Man Frankie Wongawol and the men of all ages. Timmy and Frankie also gave me special permission to hunt on Birriliburu lands, including Canarvon Range known to the Aborigine as Katjarra. Much of this interaction is recorded on GoPro, my hosts sometimes taking the role of cameraman themselves.

07 April 2015 saw Les and I finally on the Canning Stock Route.

April/May
For about a month I wound my way north, stopping in at Parnngurr/Cotton Creek Community which is roughly the half way mark between Wiluna and Billiluna, slightly off the main track. I’d had some success identifying unfamiliar plants and taste testing them, but the solanums (bush tomatoes) were proving troublesome. So many looked alike, not all were edible and some came with warning signs - toxic.

I had photographed plants south of Parnngurr and the Talawana Track but needed help confirming what they were. Murphy, a Martu living in Parnngurr, was very helpful in this regard, flipping through the photographs on my laptop, offering identification and commentary. Chairman Muuchie’s niece Rachel very kindly took me out one afternoon to show me wamula bush tomatos (solanum diversiforum), bura (a non edible solanum), gingiwirri desert raisins (edible solanum) and gum. The solanums had been a difficult plant group for me to differentiate between and this trip made a big difference to my northern bush tucker research. Thank you Rachel!

May/June

My journey from Parnngurr, (a couple of hundred kilometres from Well 23) to Kunawarritji/Well 33 was difficult as there was a section of 212km without reliable water and no rain at the time to provide surface water. I arrived in Kunawarritji dispirited. Even derelict Well 27 was dry. In the past this well had water and a lively finch community. This year it was ominously silent.

I stayed in Kunawarritji for a few days agonising over what to do. What was the point of carrying on if I could not solve the water challenge for this middle section of the Canning Stock Route? 212km is not a distance I could walk without replenishing my water, even if I had the courage to walk at night. Miserablly, I poured over my books and Canning’s old maps, seeking a solution. I had already dug deep in order to find water, but some of the derelict wells are just too deep to the source to make a dig viable. The soaks and Aboriginal wells noted by Canning are for the most part invisible today, the people who once kept them open no longer walking this land. In the face of this neglect, the desert has reclaimed these life-giving waterholes, sealing their secret. But there had to be a way to find them!

Canning spoke of a soak near Well 31 that produced water at only 5ft. I was going to find that soak! On my way south I met a couple of travellers who showed me a photograph of a dingo that had been digging in the +-2.5m hole I dug at the soak near Well 27. The dingo had improved upon my hole, digging another two feet and finding water! I was excited. I had been so close but given up too soon. I had to go back and witness this discovery myself!! 

At Well 31 I found the soak, if that was its correct location and I dug down to hard limestone. The limestone hole was bowl shaped, about 5ft deep and dry. Was this the right spot? There was another likely location several meters away, but I decided to take a look at Well 31 itself. Well 31 had a depression which I improved upon, finding water at 3m. It was a big effort but worth it. The water was good.

Travelling further south, the soak near Well 27 did indeed have water much to my excitment. That big dry stretch of desert south of Kunawarritji was now doable, the big distance between water reduced by half, to just over 100km. This, like several other 100km dry sections, equated to three days of hard hiking each, carrying about 15 litres of water in addition to equipment. Not impossible but pretty tough. Canning Stock Route Wells and Water

The Canning Stock Route is a long walk and there are many challenges along the way. Between Well 41 and Well 46, north of Kunawarritji is another dry stretch of almost 150km. There is water at Well 42 for those who are prepared to dig, treat and drink it, which I did, but again the clay pans that had water in 2013 were dry and brittle. Desperate to break this section down to 100km or less I dug down about a metre in a depression near Well 43 and struck water. It was brackish but the finches drank from it which indicated to me that the water was possibly okay in emergencies for limited human consumption. My thoughts are that a live-off-the-land journey might benefit from a portable desalinator, in which case finding any water was good enough. This section was now reduced to 100km max using these two water points.

Katie Whisputt showing me how to find bush potatoesArriving in Mulan, an Aboriginal Community near the eastern shores of salty Lake Gregory, Katie Whisputt, daughter of Monica Whisputt took me out on a bush tucker forage. Potatoes had been illusive the entire journey, an Aboriginal Ranger I met at Kunawarritji saying that the locals had eaten them out of existence there. Parnngurr people also said there were none in their area, the nearest potato plants they knew of were at Jigalong Community, a very long way away from the Canning Stock Route.

With Katie's local knowledge we identified the plant and how to spot where the tubers were in the ground by the cracks in the soil and tapping. We dug a few small tubers up, but it was hard work for low yield. The soil was not far short of being stone! Perhaps the drought was affecting the yield or they were more plentiful at another time of the year? Katie showed me a tree that produced black berries after the rains. Minyara, wild onions were also located and dug up near Lake Gregory. The latter was an eye opener for me as I thought I knew what wild onions plants looked like having seen and eaten some at Lake Nabbaru. Here the once wispy green leaves and distinctive seed heads were dry and dead, laying flat on the ground, invisible to the uneducated eye, very different to what they looked like in the early growth stage. But the onions were there just below the surface. I would never have known if Katie had not shown me. This brought home to me how important it is to see the plants in all their seasons. Katie also showed me how to find and extract witchetty grubs out of the trunks of trees (not roots). All in all, a brilliant afternoon. 

Marc Bridgman and the people of Mulan gifted me a bush tucker book that the Community published - Walmajarri Plants and Animals. Beautiful and very useful to those who want to learn about the plants they might see on the Canning Stock Route. This book can be bought in Mulan and Billiluna - Book and Video Recommendations. Marc, on behalf of his wife Napanangka, presented me with a coodjro, a clubbing stick to hunt and loosen food from the earth.

Monica Whisputt, mother of Katie, called my Skin Name. To the Walmajarri, I am NAKAMARRA.

June

After two and a half months I was missing people and conversation that lasted longer than a few minutes. I arrived in Halls Creek mid-June having completed my fifth crossing of the Canning Stock Route, the first time driving a 4x4 myself.

Halls Creek

In Halls Creek I had a couple of weeks before my passenger arrived to take stock of what I had achieved and decide what to do on the journey back south. What had I accomplished? Had I learned enough to enable me to do a desert crossing on foot sometime in the near future; completely unsupported and without resupply? The Canning Stock Route has never before been traversed on foot in this manner. The reason is that it is no small feat and will take a great deal of skill, level of desert fitness and determination to accomplish. Was I that person?

Had I solved the two primary considerations:- Food and Water?

Water 100km apart is not an easy distance to walk in the desert, but 100km is a great deal better than the almost impossible 212km I was originally tasked with. Given some fickle rain falling in the right places and the situation would improve further. Multiple 100km distances between water was not going to be easy, but with some walking at night, it was doable.

Food is where I could have done better. On the journey north I had not identified and gathered enough bush food to sustain a person on the move. There is plant and animal food out in the desert. It was scarce in the months I travelled due to the terrible fires that had laid waste to the land, but also due to the fact that I was only in the fledgling stage of identifying edible plants and would have missed a lot. Lizards and birds are available and something I should have been able to hunt. I chose not to, even shooing away a goanna that climbed inside my vehicle and slowing down a number of times to prevent running over bush turkeys! The camel is the jackpot food source in providing a large supply of protein that will sate those hunger pains and feed stressed muscles. It is after all, the one animal that is in plentiful supply along the Canning Stock Route. The problem was that I needed a gun license and permission to shoot, but the even bigger problem was my resistance to killing. I was just so excited and enthralled to see those few animals doing their thing, surviving, living and Being at One with this Country, that all thought of extinguishing that life was wiped from my mind and I just wanted to observe and enjoy. Having food in my car meant I took the easy way out and ate it instead of learning to hunt.

I realise I am a hypocrite when it comes to my phobias about killing as I am quite prepared to eat an animal killed by another. In part, my resistance stems from not wanting to cause stress to the animal in a bungled attempt to end its life. Death is a part of life, I just want it to be quick and clean and I don't trust that I am capable of doing that in the beginning. Killing efficiency takes practice.

And so I thought to find a compromise. Perhaps if I could solve part of the challenge with regards to finding enough water to make a walk possible, and combine that with a reasonable arsenal of plant food knowledge, I might be able to contribute to a team effort and do this walk together with a hunter. The water challenge I believe was solved, but I failed to find enough plant food.

Did I find my walking partner?

Sadly, I did not. Walking great distances over many tribal territories is not the Aboriginal way, past or present, the ability to live off the land exclusively fast becoming a fractured memory ... The knowledge of the Old Ways is dying with the last of the Old People. It is with heavy heart that I acknowledge this disaster and it fills me with dread for the future. I can’t help but feel that our connection to the land is what will save the human race … and we are all losing that connection.

What about walking at night?

Unfortunately I became dependent on my safe vehicle base only managing day hikes and no night hikes. Walking away from the safety of a perfectly functioning vehicle somehow felt wrong, which would be amusing if it had not been debilitating, considering that two years previously I had walked alone for 66 days across this very same desert without vehicle support!

How easy it is to become psychologically dependent.

Southbound

Whilst waiting for my passenger in Halls Creek, I mulled over the question of whether it was time to give up on my dream to walk this land without support and resupply ... the challenge seemed so out of reach ... beyond my present level of skill and physical fitness. On 02 July my passenger arrived and I came to the decision to give one aspect of the journey another go; I was going to try and force myself to hunt by becoming very, very hungry.

My trip south was to be on bush tucker alone for as long as I could endure. My friend and I were travelling in a 4x4.  We would do day hikes looking for food and water, so because of the 4x4 travelling, my energy output would be less than if solely walking and we would be covering greater distances allowing me a better chance of finding food. Still, I had already travelled the Canning Stock Route this year and knew that I would not find enough plant food. I had to hunt goanna and birds. I estimated that I could survive on body fat and minimal plant food for at least three weeks and during that time perhaps I might be motivated by hunger to break through my resistance to hunting. By the time I exited the south end I wanted to have come to a decision: walk away from this land I love and start a new life, or make that unsupported, without resupply walk happen. It has been six years of Canning adventure after all and in September I turned fifty years old. I needed to go for the ultimate crossing on foot soon, or let this passion go. Some things must end for there to be new beginnings.

For nine days I survived solely on bush tucker, with only two cheats – salt on my mud mussels the first night and a tot of port on my last night. I ate wild figs, mud mussels, witchetty grubs, bush tomatoes, flame grevillea nectar, gum and bush coconut. Food was often only a handful a day, some days nothing at all. I handled the hunger well though. I have been hungry before. After about 48 hours I was no longer hungry. My impulse to eat simply switched off, but I knew I had to keep feeding myself with anything and everything I did find. Sure I felt weak when hiking and listless when digging unsuccessfully for bush potatoes, my energy levels low, but otherwise I felt fine.

What I did not realise was that not only had my impulse to eat switched off, but my impulse to drink as well. Normally paranoid about dehydration on long hikes, I usually drink copious amounts of water throughout the day, but during those nine days I drank too little, despite water not being a restriction. In turning my  focus onto bush tucker I had neglected the most important element of desert survival – water.

We arrived in Kunawarritji on the eighth day but I waited until the ninth, umming and ahhing as to whether I should continue with the experiment. A visit to the local nurse to record my weight loss influenced my decision to stop the next day. I did not think I had lost much, certainly nothing like in 2013. I had in fact lost over 7kg in 9 days. The nurse did not like the colour of the skin in my mouth either and asked me when last I had urinated. Shockingly, I could not remember doing so in the last 24 hours. She did a ketone test. My ketone levels were moderate to high i.e. my body was not getting enough food and had resorted to burning body fat to keep going. Not the end of the world. It is what many people dream of when going on diets. But I had very little fat to begin with and worse,  I was dehydrated. Not drinking enough water meant I was not clearing the toxins from my body that are a bi-product of burning fat at a moderate to high rate. This was evident visually in the colour of my urine – cranberry juice. This tell-tale sign of dehydration had gone unnoticed as I had been peeing into the sand, not a toilet bowl. I had never seen pee that colour except during menstruation. Further evidence of fat burning was in the deflation of my buttocks and breasts, although this was not as sever as in 2013. The muscles on my back and shoulders that looked so good just two weeks before had now wasted away, muscle cannibalised for energy, leaving me with a flat featureless landscape I did not recognise.

The situation was not dangerous at this stage – all I had to do was increase my water intake. I could still carry on with bushtucker, but what would that achieve? I was not finding enough food to sustain me in the long term and that was without the effort of big distance walking. To the south I knew there was even less food due to catastrophic fires devouring plants, animals and insect life for hundreds of kilometres. Nevertheless, I reckoned I could survive without danger of harming myself for a total of three weeks, but I would be living off scanty body reserves and proving nothing more than what I already knew, which was that I was not getting enough food and nine days into this bush tucker diet I was still not hungry enough to track and kill a lizard or bird. Travelling in a vehicle full of food I knew I had an easy way out when I'd had enough. This was not a survival situation that demanded I find food. My meal was there waiting in the 4x4 anytime I needed it ... and I knew that. I knew I did not HAVE to kill. The experiment was over. I began eating slowly on the ninth day.

And so my decision was made. I was not prepared to kill unless in a real survival situation and I was not prepared to put myself into that situation where the likely outcome was my death. I simply do not have what it takes to make a live-off-the-land survival walk of the Canning Stock Route viable. Whoever does achieve such a goal, pure and without compromise, whether it be living off the land or pulling a trolley, that person or persons will have undergone a pretty spectacular personal achievement. I hope to meet them one day for I do have an idea what they might have gone through in order to come out the other side and I will know that they planned well, learned much, trained hard and dug deep. 

Thank you to everyone who put fuel in Les's tank and fitted him out for the desert. You got me exploring the Canning Stock Route one last time ... for three and a half months. What an adventure we have had!!

There is a book in the writing spanning six years of desert adventure with reflections from my past which I hope will explain what drives this person to walk into the desert alone. From Canning Stock Route hitch hiker to spinal accident, to solo walker, to solo 4x4'ing, I have explored aspects of desert survival, overcome challenges as far as I am willing to go ... and now it is time to write my story ....

... and leave the Ultimate Canning Stock Route Walk to someone more capable.

With finances exhausted, Les my trusty and adored-by-many Land Rover, was sold to a nice young adventurer, thus financing the next six months of writing adventure. You can continue to read the adventures of Les and Chuck, on Facebook - Chuck it in Low Range

A new day begins…

Where is home?

“Homing… is the instinct to return, to go to the place we remember. It is the ability to find, whether in dark or in daylight, one’s home place… Home is an internal place, a place somewhere in time rather than space, where a woman feels of one piece.” ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés

'Home is not a cottage, a house, or the city in which I live. It is the moment when I am fully present and fully alive. It is when I am aware of myself and the love that surrounds me, of where I come from and who I am.' ~ Kristen Roderick

 

 


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