My very last overnight hike was during the Easter long weekend in 2016. While I had been going for day hikes, it had been some months since I’d gone for an overnight one. I was looking forward to it. It was an 11-kilometre hike in and a return walk the day after with a group of people I mostly knew and in a new national park. I was especially keen to spend time around the campfire, cracking jokes and having a laugh. It had been a rough year and a bit for my mental health and this getaway in nature with friends was just what I needed.
I left early on Friday morning, pleased about the good autumn weather. It would be perfect for hiking. Given it was just one night, my pack wasn’t too heavy either. We met at Kanangra-Boyd National Park. The plan was to hike to Mount Cloudmaker. It was an uphill hike but 11 kilometres didn’t seem too daunting. Little did I know. At about 11 a.m. we embarked on our trek, a little late thanks to a few stragglers.
One of the things I enjoy about hiking with a group is the ability to talk endlessly to different people at different times. But there’s also the opportunity to stay in your head and appreciate nature. For me, at the time, it was great to be able to catch up with a number of people I hadn’t seen for a few months. As the hike progressed after lunch, the terrain became more difficult. Fire trails gave way to rocky paths. We were ascending but I didn’t know at what rate. What had started off gradually, soon became steep and around the edge of the mountain. I hadn’t expected a precarious climb on uneven terrain. As someone scared of heights, this was not a pleasant experience. I was towards the end of the pack; a friend in front of me and a couple who I’d met for the first time, behind me. Despite being relatively fit, I was struggling. I felt faint and I wasn’t sure if it was the height, the uneven path, or even what seemed like hours of climbing with no respite.
At one point, I honestly I wouldn’t be able to go further. The couple behind me brought out lollies and biscuits from their packs and fed them to me. ‘You need sugar,’ was their advice. Two others who’d gone ahead turned back and offered to carry some of my stuff. I wasn’t carrying much but I gladly offloaded my sleeping bag and a jacket. It didn’t help all that much. When we finally got to Mount Cloudmaker, it was anticlimactic. There were no glorious views that we were promised. There was just bush around. And there was still a fair way to go to the campground. We continued on only to realise that maybe we were lost. Or maybe the campground was further than 11 kilometres away. By then, it wasn’t just me struggling. We made an executive decision at the next reasonable looking spot – flat enough to set up camp, trees around, but no water or toilets.
I was more exhausted than I’d ever been. I needed friends to help set up my tent. Dinner helped a bit but I crashed in my straight after. I conked out before any of the chats around the campfire. In the morning, my body was sore but I was glad we were getting out. I wasn’t enjoying the adventure. Luckily though, I had more energy on the way back, buoyed by the knowledge that there would be a nice meal, beers and a hot shower at the end of the day.
But the return walk wasn’t without it’s share of adventure. Sure, this time a lot of the walk was downhill, but the terrain was still precarious. And then, somehow, while following the organiser, three of us went off-track. It resulted in us needing to bush-bash our way to find the track. During the bush-bashing, my foot got caught in a root and thump! I fell. And my ankle twinged. I disentangled it from the roots and attempted to stand. It hurt. But I was too scared to undo my hiking boots and check. I was worried if I did, they wouldn’t go back on again and that would mean I wouldn’t get out. So I walked. In pain. After what seemed like hours, we saw the light in the end – the fire trail – which meant the cars weren’t too far away. At the sight of my car, I could’ve burst into tears. I finally untied my boots and surely enough, my right foot was bigger than my left. I didn’t know if I’d torn anything but I figured I could deal with it the next day. Or the day after. All that mattered was we were out and I could have a beer and food and a hot shower.
Later that night, after a hot shower, in the comfort of my home I made my decision – I wasn’t going on any more overnight hikes. I was thirty-two and over it. I’d stick to hiking with my day pack and for the purpose of enjoyment and being out in nature rather than the challenge of an adventurous hike. Or I would go camping where I could drive my car close to the campsite and set up my tent. A couple of days later while taping up my swollen ankle, my physio agreed with me.
The purpose of hiking was to enjoy nature and the company of people. It wasn’t about nearly killing myself or injuring myself. Where was the joy in that?