Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It can't be that hard...can it?

Of the goals I wanted to achieve on this trip, the ascent of Australia’s highest mountain was at the top of the list. I happened to mention this one lunch time while sitting around the table with my work colleagues at Lismore Base Hospital. The conversation went something like this (and forgive me for any inaccuracies, I can’t remember what day it is, let alone recite a whole conversation):

Me: “I really want to climb Mt Kosciusko on this trip.”

Colleagues: “That sounds good. It’s a fairly difficult walk isn’t it?”

Me: (with all the knowledge of the experienced mountaineer that I am) “They ride mountain bikes to the top. How hard can it be?”

Colleagues: (conscious of the ‘intensive’ training regime I was undertaking in preparation for the climb i.e. walking 100m from my car to my office each day) “Quick, write that down. We will need photographic proof that you actually made it to the top.”

That conversation was faithfully recorded on a cafeteria serviette and hung in the office, ready to be submitted as evidence when my broken and exhausted body descended from the mountain top; the taunts of, "Yes Sarah, how hard can it be" to be replayed over and over at every available opportunity.

As a precursor to this story, I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify exactly what I had in mind when I uttered those fateful words.

Mt Kosciusko – Sarah’s version:
Hiking shoes, day pack, bottle of water, a few snacks for the journey, maybe a warm jacket, a moderately challenging walk up a hill, nice view, easy walk back down a hill, high-fives and back-slaps all round for completing the walk, cold beer to finish off the day.

Enter stage right, Mt Kosciusko, Kris Flanagan version.

Earlier in the week, Kris had enthusiastically suggested a 2-day camping expedition to the top. And of course at one o’clock in the morning and a few bottles of red down, I had enthusiastically agreed. Kris’ version looked something like this:

Hiking shoes, hiking pack, sleeping bag, Thermorest, tent, hiking stove, thermal clothing, food for 2 days, energetic walk up a mountain, camp at the summit, sunrise, energetic walk back down. The only familiarity with my version was the cold beer at the end.

And so it was that I found myself standing at Charlotte’s Pass loaded up like a Himalayan yak on an Everest expedition, ready to embark on the great ascent of Australia’s highest mountain.

I should mention here that, like the highly experienced mountaineer that he ACTUALLY is, Kris was loaded up like two Himalayan yaks. In addition to the aforementioned hiking gear, Kris also lugged up 20kg of camera equipment ready to capture that perfect shot should the occasion present itself, such is the dedication of a landscape photographer. (His passion for the art continues to amaze me).

In the glorious afternoon sunshine we set off from base camp and made our way up into the beautiful alpine mountains. The Australian Alps in the summertime is a truly magical place to be; hardy mountain vegetation sprinkled with colourful wild flowers, crisp clean mountain air, and hundreds of green-eyed March flies nipping at your legs!

On and on we walked along the steadily rising track, the summit in the distance beckoning our arrival and urging us onwards and upwards. Eventually we rounded the final bend and there it stood before us in all its rocky magnificence…THE SUMMIT!

As though to welcome us, the sun began its own descent over the horizon and turned on the most spectacular sunset we think we have ever seen. For miles and miles in every direction, all we could see were purple and blue and mauve mountains, topped with a sky that was a million shades of red and orange and yellow. And best of all we had the show all to ourselves!

That night as we tucked into our feast of 2-minute noodles and settled into our mountaineering tent, we had to keep reminding ourselves of where we were, on the top of Australia and higher than anyone else in the country!

Daybreak provided an equally beautiful sunrise. Kris happily snapped away on his cameras like a paparazzo at a Paris Hilton drink-driving trial and eventually we packed up, said goodbye to our new friend Kosi and headed back down the mountain.

Now, anyone would think that when you’ve walked up a hill for 4 hours, the return trip would be a leisurely stroll back down the hill to the start wouldn’t you. Wrong!

Deciding on an alternative route, we headed off along the Main Range track, 12kms of steep inclines and descents, with some terrifically high exposed sections where chilly alpine gusts of wind nearly blew us over the edge of the mountain. Kris, in all his mountain goat glory relished the challenge. I determinedly battled on behind, the promise of a descending track around each corner dashing my spirits as I rounded to see yet another steep climb. But what goes up must come down and eventually it did, back to the big red truck waiting patiently for us at base camp.

I remember a high-five was thrown in there somewhere, and maybe a back-slap as well, and there was definitely an alcoholic beverage greeting us back at the campsite. But most of all I’ll remember the intense satisfaction of reaching the summit and sleeping on top of Australia, the magnificent sunset etched in our memories as a reminder of a goal achieved.

So, to my friends at Lismore Base Hospital, maybe it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be…but then again I hadn’t anticipated the 2-day Himalayan yak impersonation and camp out. Does that mean we’re even?!

In the next edition of ‘Where’s the big red truck’….tales of Talbotville.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On the Road...Finally

The big red truck stood proudly on the driveway, glowing in the Sawtell sunshine in all its red, muddy glory. This was IT, the day it had been waiting for, dreaming about, practising for, the day that it would unleash its mighty Toyota Landcruiser heart on the long and winding roads of the great Australian continent.

What had passed before were weeks of frenzied planning and preparation. There had been devastating lows (water in the fuel tanks) and exhilarating highs (the installation of homemade Spotlight curtains); the BRT had received a makeover even Backyard Blitz would have been proud of.

Now here it stood, ready for the ultimate test. What would the next 6 months bring? What adventures lay ahead? To what far flung corners of the country would it visit? And would the occupants make it past Kempsey without a breakdown or a fight?

Sleep deprived and 5 days behind schedule, the BRT set off that day to the sounds of ABBA’s ‘Mamma Mia’ ringing out over the 4L turbo diesel engine, straining to carry the load of a car that was, as our friend Tim puts it, heavier than a neutron star.

There was much jubilation and excitement as the BRT chugged its way down the highway; Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen, Ferlando (Siam’s version), the hits just kept on rolling. Kempsey appeared on the horizon and we congratulated ourselves on making it this far without fight nor incident.

Note to self: pre-emptive congratulations can only result in one thing…

Suddenly, an orange light flashed on the dashboard. Warning! Warning! Under his breath I could hear Kris mumble, “Mamma mia, here we f#@!en go again”. The ‘Watergate’ fiasco was back to haunt us like a big John Daly hangover.

(For those not familiar with the ‘Watergate’ fiasco, in December 2008 Kris routinely filled up the tanks with 150 litres of diesel at Neumann petrol station in Casino, only to discover 15 minutes and a breakdown later that 26 litres of that was sludgy water. As Seinfeld would say…”Newman!”).

With precision and skill the likes of which any Formula One pit crew would be proud, Kris masterfully opened the what-its-name, broke the thing-a-me-jig and bled the sludgy water from the what-do-you-call-it (obviously I’m not the mechanic in this duo).

And so the tally begins…breakdowns = 1, fights = 0.

With quick stops on the Central Coast and Canberra to visit friends, and a reluctant goodbye to the lovely Siam in Wollongong, our adventure officially commenced on Monday 12th Jan. Desperate to escape the chaos and monotony of the highways, the BRT left the road and climbed its way through twisted and charred state forest, lingering evidence of the devastation caused by the 2003 Canberra bushfires. Slowly we wound our way into Kosciousko National Park, eventually setting up the first of our incredible bush campsites.

Camp 1 - Coolamine Homestead, an 1800’s settlers cottage tucked into a corner of the high country. The thick log huts of the homestead still stand defiantly despite a hundred years of harsh alpine winters and scorching summer sun. This is old grazing country where brumbies roam wildly and huge grey kangaroos bound through fields of wildflowers carpeting the valley floors. Poetic licence you might say but this was our actual experience on that magic first day.

Camp 2 – The banks of the massive Tantangara Dam, a beautiful, isolated trout-filled dam where Kris reverted to his primal hunter-gatherer ancestry and set about catching dinner. (Disclaimer: actual fish may not match photo).

We have continued on over the last few days, entering civilisation just once before returning to the seclusion and magnificence of bush camping under a million stars. Each day as the setting sun transforms the countryside into magnificent purples, pinks and mauves, we are finally starting to comprehend that this is now our reality for the next 6 months and how truly blessed we are to be able to witness this incredible Australian landscape first hand.

In the next edition of ‘Where’s the big red truck’ – Reaching for the heavens…our assault on Mt Kosciousko.

Friday, January 2, 2009

T minus 5 and sinking

There was nothing remarkable about that sunny December day when Kris and Siam set out for the promised lands. The car was stocked with rations for the night, camping gear was at the ready and excitement hung in the air like the smoke around a rastafarian tent at a reggae festival.

The countdown to Kris and Sar's excellent adventure had begun and their trusty big red truck (aka BRT) was on its first outing since packing had commenced.

It was a 'boys only' affair that day with only the kids in tow, wives and girlfriend left behind.

First mistake... Lesson 1 - always take the voice of reason with you when venturing out into the bush.

All was well until the black clouds of an approaching storm swiftly surrounded the BRT. The other camping companions had already arrived at the pre-arranged destination and all thoughts were on making base camp as the first drops of rain started lashing the car. No one could have predicted what was to come.

The puddle ahead looked innocent enough, the BRT had taken hundreds like it before without thought. On the other side lay shelter, a warm fire and a cold beer.

The BRT inched into the puddle, newly greased shackles and springs working in perfect synchronisation, new all-terrain mud lark tyres eating up the muddy surface with ease.

Suddenly, the car shuddered and ground to a halt, tyres screaming to gain purchase on the slippery ground beneath it. Kris peered over the bonnet in dismay to see the BRT slowly sinking into a deep crater hidden in the murky depths of the puddle.

"No problem" one would think for a well-equipped, 60's-series Landcruiser about to embark on a 6 month off-road adventure around Australia. Just pull out the winch and winch rope, perform a textbook 4WD recovery manoeuvre and disaster averted.

Second mistake... Lesson 2: Recovery gear is ineffective when it is sitting in the garage at home.

With the storm now enveloping the car, and with no immediate help in sight, options were limited. The rest of the afternoon looked something like this:

Part 1 - Attempt to accelerate out of the hole ... disaster!

As the car sank further, tyres wedged in the thick sludge, Siam furiously praying to God for a rescue, and no sign of camping companions to help, the tent was raised and all thoughts of rescue diminished with the fading light.

Part 2 - The cavalry arrives!

The earnest prayers of a faithful 6 year old were answered with the arrival of a snatch strap, 2 camping companions and a Ford Courier. As Kris donned flippers and a snorkel and dived into the brown waters to secure the strap, suddenly the heavens cleared and a the bright light of the sun shone down like a beacon straight from God.

Part 3 - The rescue!

The groans of the Ford could be heard from Coffs Harbour as the BRT was painfully dragged out of the crater. As the back end sunk down, the entire rear food storage compartments were filled with thick sludgy water, enough to add flavour to the sea salt shaker and leave a lingering aroma which should be gone by the time we reach Darwin in April!

The Ford Courier, our saviour of the day, emerged unscathed if not stretched about a metre under the enourmous strain of towing a 3 tonne truck out of a ditch.

Part 4 - The analysis

All in all, not exactly the most encouraging trial run for our beloved big red truck. However, the countdown continues and with only 5 days to our scheduled departure, the frenzied preparations continue.....

Disclaimer from Kris: Sarah's interpretation of the story may not match the actual truth!