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“Me & Gryglie’s Bear”

Elsie Grygiel, Perth, WA

1 January 1970

Peter and Elsie.
Peter and Elsie.

Peter, my husband, had already had some surgery because of pains in his legs whenever he walked.  The surgery was not all that successful, and his specialist advised walking —lots of walking —as a better alternative to further surgical intervention.  We started out by walking around the suburbs. Peter started to show signs of improvement, and so given our love of the bush, we decided to “head for the hills”. 

On one of our excursions, we discovered the Camel Farm on Paulls Valley Road, and decided to treat ourselves to a camel ride, which took us across the Bibbulmun Track.  Having been reminded of the Track, we decided that walking sections of it would be an ideal way for Peter to obtain his much needed exercise.

I have known of the track since the late 70’s, and even then thought of walking it, but felt as a mere woman I had no chance. I also had children and a husband.  I followed the stories of the changes to the Track, but always saw it as unattainable for me.  Peter knew nothing of this until that day on the camel ride, and he was immediately inspired. His enthusiasm rekindled my desire.

So, we brought the first couple of maps and started to plan day walks.  We set off to walk a different section each Sunday. Our walks were slow, as at this stage Peter could barely walk 100 meters without stopping, in order to let the pain in his legs subside. However, by the end of July 1999 we were hooked, and we decided to take it a stage further and try overnight walks. We bought our equipment, some of which we later found to be unsuitable, and learnt by experience and by talking to everyone we met along the way.  

Throughout all our walks, Peter was always more concerned about my well being than his own. He helped me over logs, stiles and creeks, up and down sand hills, and all the time apologized for his snail like pace.  There was one occasion, when I didn’t think I could make it to the campsite. Peter offered to go on to the campsite, still three or four kilometers off, leave his backpack there, and then come back and carry mine. I did however make it, after a good rest.

Another time, in order to celebrate my 60th birthday out on the Track, he carried a bottle of wine in his already full pack for two days. I should add that by the time we opened this very expensive bottle of red, it had suffered extreme heat and much bouncing around and was unfortunately more like a bad vinegar than a good wine.

By the end of spring, we knew that somehow we would walk the complete track. That summer we accomplished our first long walk, from Northcliffe to Walpole. Because of the constant stops, it took us most of the day to walk from hut to hut.

We found, as an added bonus, that we were learning more about our flora and fauna, and we just loved the tranquility of the bush. It was so relaxing to escape all the hassles of daily life, and the need to rely on each other brought us even closer together. And Peter’s legs were improving.  We came up with some wonderful uses for the Track—people could throw away all their diets and pills for weight loss and sleeping problems. The Track was also a place to take people to get together. And, of course, we decided every couple should have to walk together for at least one week before getting married.

During these times, we discussed the idea of one day having our ashes scattered along the Track, with the surviving partner carrying the first ones ashes and scattering them along the whole length. Hopefully then another family member could do the same for the other partner.  Whatever, we decided that the Bibbulmun Track was our best holiday, and would be our final resting place.

Well, we walked our end-to-end in stages, some of them very small, and finished in January 2001. We started to do it again, this time it would be in bigger chunks and faster.  We also started taking our grandchildren out on overnight stays, and they all loved it and kept asking for more.  Then in February 2002, with our second end-to-end two thirds completed, our plans were brought to an abrupt halt. I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had to undergo surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.  We still managed a few short walks and took the grandchildren out as well.  Then, as I received my first clearance, Peter was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was never well enough to carry a pack again, and eventually in April 2005 lost his battle.

As promised, we took Peter’s ashes out onto the Track. I started planning an end-to-end, and decided to go solo. I wasn’t sure if I had the physical or mental strength to complete this task, without the support Peter had given me on all of our previous walks. He had helped me over logs and creeks and taken snake lookout all the time.  I trained and planned, and in early September 2005 I set off with my only companion, a bear that had belonged to Peter—hence my track name “Me & Gryglie’s Bear”.

Much to my amazement, it rained, it stormed and it rained some more, but to make up for the wet weather, the wild flowers were magnificent.  I met so many wonderful people along the way that I was never lonely.  Of the sixty days that I took to walk to Albany, I only spent twelve nights on my own and on every day, I saw at least one other person.  At times, I shared huts with the same people for many days and nights and made some wonderful friends.

On two separate occasions, when I had collapsed to sit on a log, thinking I would never find the energy to make it to the next hut, I was rewarded with a close encounter with an echidna. This gave me such a rise in spirits that I covered the last few kilometres to the hut in good style. 

By the time I reached Collie, I was actually starting to feel like a real bush walker. Most of the aches and pains had disappeared completely and I had not one blister.  However, the day I walked into Grimwade my resolve slipped a little. I walked for two hours in punishing rain, so heavy it was running in cascades down the tree trunks as I walked past them. My boots were full of water and I was frozen, but the next day was fairly fine, and I enjoyed being in front of a fire at the Balingup Backpackers.

For the next couple of weeks I had lots of great company—Belinda, Sandy and Jim through to Donnelly. We shared the schoolhouse, and a surprise bottle of wine supplied by a holidaymaker in one of the cottages, who thought we would enjoy a bottle of red on a wild and wet night.  We certainly did, and thank you again to that very kind gentleman.  The next day we were joined by Liz, Susan and Mark, who stayed with us all the way through to Northcliffe.

With all the rain we had been experiencing, we were starting to worry about the wet sections on the leg between Northcliffe and Walpole. However, they proved to be less of an obstacle than the tree root in the middle of the track just before Gardner Hut—I wore a beautiful black eye all the way to Denmark.  As for the swampy bits, we had a fair bit of wading, but luckily, most of it was only ankle or shin deep.  Another highlight for me was seeing the wreck of the Mandalay exposed. I had walked this section twice before and never seen it, wow!

The southern section was over all too soon. Managing the canoes, the beaches and even Mount Hallowell I found to be not as bad as I had feared.  It was the unexpected moments, like reaching Conspicuous Cliffs in the middle of a howling gale, and then trying to stay on my feet as I crossed the sand dunes, which proved the most challenging. 

And there were the wonderful times like finding a pod of Southern Right Whales, basking in the surf off Torbay Beach.
Best of all it was finally making it all the way into Albany, already feeling quite pleased with myself, to be greeted at the Southern Terminal by Belinda, Sandy and friends, with banners, balloons and champagne. What a great finish.

My feeling at the end was that if I could manage this on my own, I am very confident that whatever life deals me in the future, I will be able to do it.  Walking, and life in general, was much more fun with my beloved Peter, but he has given me such a wonderful present, in encouraging and helping me to get to the stage where I could achieve this.