This will be a post of limited interest to most of you. The hikers might appreciate it, but everybody else will be “Like, dude, WTF?” and segue back to your hunt for the perfect life-defining meme. Good luck with that. Right now, for me it’s all about Overland Track II preparations and more specifically ‘The Game of Grams’ — mostly so that I can avoid resembling the very unfit Peter Fitzsimons of old having his lightbulb moment on the Kokoda Track.
God I’m a fat bastard, how did it get to this? is what he’s thinking. But a disclaimer first: when I say the Game of Grams, don’t presume that I’m some kind of uppity ultralight hiker. Far from it. In fact, my beef with ultralight hikers generally is that they become snooty zealots. “You’re carrying a mattress?” they snoot, nodding toward the plastic bag in the pocket of their gossamer-thin running shorts which they later plan to sleep on, after filling it with effing leaves. The YouTubing ultralighters are the snootiest, and often derive an income from promoting ultralight gear, so their ‘adventures’ are little more than an extended sales-pitch. All I see are hiking-industry types with a vested interest who do good video. Besides, the Game of Grams can all get a little silly.
That said, if you could graph a bushwalker’s happiness, then the cardinal rule of hiking prevails — only carry what you need. But its also the rule which divides ultralighters from normal humans. We don’t ration toilet paper squares, or drill holes in our toothbrush handles. A tarp-tent is not even a safe option for a winter OLT expedition, so it’s a balancing exercise between the gram you take, and the gram you leave behind. So how to conduct this analuysis? By doing field tests, of course! Here’s one I prepared earlier:
Yep, I’m back at the ole bend-in-the-river for a sharp reality-check. If you can, picture Kaisson and his mate PS under identical Osprey Atmos AG’s waiting for the train, excited in that laid-back Aussie way that induces lots of sentences that both begin and end with ‘mate’. For example, PS berating me for my sneaky last-minute gear changes: “Mate, you said you’d be bringing your Crazy Creek; what’s the story, mate!” Picture him staring at glumly at the extra 800grams strapped to the bottom of his pack while I chortle in sadistic glee. But he’ll have the last laugh.
Picture us disembarking at Faulconbridge, where we both yield to the siren song of sausage rolls from the local servo. The humble sausage roll, too tempting to resist even were we tied to metaphorical masts. Which we weren’t. Marching on our stomachs, Grose Road soon becomes Faulconbridge Ridge Trail, the bitumen swapping for white metal as I consider adding two kilometres to take in the sublime views at Faulconbridge Point. But soon my oddly-tight hiking boots erase the thought. Tight boots WTF? They’re same boots I hiked Tasmania in 2016. Have my feet grown? But we’re committed now, a pansy-assed abort is out of the question, so we soldier on.
We hit the Grose River Walking Track trailhead, and take the first precipitous steps of the 600m descent we will negotiate over the next 1700m. Go plot that ratio, kids — it’s effing steep — but PS (god love him) is no pack-hauler, so where I’d normally drop my backpack and lower it manually (for safety, like a wuss who wants to live), he just brutes down the cliffs fully-loaded. I picture him dropping, arms flailing, gradually dismembering himself on the billion-year old rocks as he bounces to the bottom. I only have six bandaids in my first aid kit; not enough. But some blokes can’t be told, especially blokes our age for who it is a simple formula: get to the bottom. Tomorrow will be equally oversimplified: get to the top.
I sigh, and climb.
So we make our way down, my climbing legs less stable than usual. It feels more precipitous than ever, perhaps because we can see the peril at hand. National Parks and Wildlife (unkindly nicknamed National Sparks and Wildfires for their tendency to lose control of backburns) have backburned the entire north face of the track. I look down into all that spiky blackness and imagine being impaled on the sooty javelin of a syncarpia glomulifera if one of my wobbly foot placements go wrong. But I don’t die, instead arrive sweat-drenched at the bottom to a waiting PS, the hiking novice remember, looking upon me in surprise. “I think my boots are too short,” I mutter, splashing freezing water in my face, feeling faint, “and I have a blister.”
Boy, do I have a blister! Limping, I guide us to my favourite campsite and note the enormous fuel load of leaf litter and fallen wood waiting for an errant spark. Our camp will have to be tight, and our fire tiny, or this place will explode into an inferno with us in the middle of it. But my favourite camp is no good: the spring that trickles from the cliff is dead dry, and the rocky shelf too hard to take the golden stakes of our Hilleberg Akto’s. I spot a sandy semi-clearing about 100m closer to the river and we bash our way to it. After a bit of work, we have space for both tents, a nice rock to sit on, and a good spot for a fire. Home, sweet home!
Not quite marshmallows, but you get the gist. I collapse for a breather, but PS (to my chagrin) sets straight to work. His silent rebuke of my poor camping form goads me into action and before long the tents are up, we have wood for the fire, and we’re back in the scrub divining the best route to water. We make a good team, PS is a hard worker and what he lacks in inspiration he makes up with perspiration. So while he filters 8L of water, putting his Steripen to good use, I empty the contents of a vegetarian laksa by Strive Foods into my trusty pot, where it’s ready, simmering and delicious by the time PS returns.
What a beautiful place it is. We complement our dinner with a bit of Johnny Walker, the moods growing loquacious as PS lounges grandly in his Crazy Creek taking the air while I hunch miserably on a rock, back aching ferociously, staring enviously. We regale each other with tall tales until about 6:30pm, when the consensus is that we’re both nicely hydrated, physically shattered, and ready for bed. I change into my Icebreaker merinos and wriggle into my Sea to Summit sleeping bag, thinking it might be nice to listen to some tunes on my iPhone before… but then I’m out.
Normally, it takes about four Ibuprofen, half a litre of water and one toilet break to get me through the night, but I sleep like the dead. The next morning’s duties (breaking camp, refilling water bottles, and breakfasting) are conducted with military-esque precision. It’s a good start, although PS becomes geographically embarrassed on his way back with the bladders, and I have to guide him to camp with naught but the sound of my voice. But all’s well, we chug a litre of water apiece ahead of the ascent, heft our packs with a groan, and head off.
But, immediately, something is wrong. Somethings, plural, are wrong. The blister on my heel is agonising, the plasters inadequate for the job. I have fresh hotspots on both big toes. My legs are wobbly-weak and my bag sways monstrously. The velcro of my hip belt has failed, and I can’t tighten it enough to take the weight off my aching shoulders. The 3L bladder at the top of my pack is throwing my centre of gravity, so that every movement is unstable. PS is ahead of me and getting further ahead. At every step I’m self-auditing: Is there something wrong with me? Am I getting sick? What’s wrong with my legs? I know I’ve reached that age where men’s ears get bigger and most of our hair migrates to our nostrils and ears, but do our feet grow too? Why has my backpack betrayed me? Why am I so effing thirsty? PS patiently waits every ten minutes or so, catching his breath, but as soon as I reach him he hares off again. “Mate, fair go!” I call after him, “I need a breather too, mate!” I watch him bound up the trail, “What’s wrong, you hurting?” he calls out, disappearing behind a tree fern. “Only when I walk,” I mumble through parched, cracking lips, and trudge after him.
Again, image selected purely for illustrative purposes: I’d never wear a bandana, but the incline is about right. I stop to ease the pain in my feet and catch a final glimpse of the boulder-studded Grose River far below. There’s a cool breeze and a bellbird, and for a second I remember why I came. But then it resumes, the left-foot-right-foot (ouch) sequence that, step by bloody step, claws me out of the valley and back onto the spine of Faulconbridge Ridge. PS comes back down the last 200m, having dropped his gear up top. He offers to carry my bag for me like I’m some kind of fuc*ing invalid. It’s almost insulting. At the top we stop for a rehydration break and I perk up, de-perking when I remember its another ten kilometres back to the train station!
See my bike there in that photo from an earlier trip? How I wished for my lovely bike! Anyway, the return was a blur. Before I know it, I’m home and slowly peeling off my boots, astonished at the raw meat of my heel. In the shower I scrub myself from head to toe, then do it again. Clean, I make myself a sandwich and collapse onto the sofa, replaying the past 48 hours over in my head. What did I learn? What gear failed, and why? Why did my body fail? What needs to be done before I walk 83 kilometres through the Tasmanian high country? My gear test in the Mountains uncovered weaknesses I hadn’t expected, and I have exactly one month to get my shit together.
Because, ready or not, OLT here we come.