4 March 2021
This last year, more than ever, people have looked at the bigger picture beyond the normal fast pace of life. Stuck indoors, with excess time to think about priorities and what gives us meaning and purpose, we may put family and friends at the top of the list. Many also reflect on the disconnect from nature and lack of open space, particularly for those of us in cities. As a result, walks and trails – whether metro or country, coastal or inland – have seen a huge increase in walkers. That search for meaning has also started many on a journey on the Bibbulmun Track.
Walkers find great joy and connection to nature through getting out on this beautiful and iconic trail. Some have gone further and become builders and keepers of the Track. Jim Freeman is one such caretaker, responsible for tending and maintaining the track for over twenty years. He demonstrates many pathways to a better life.
Finding your way around life's obstacles is something Jim takes in his stride. Working on a remote farm in Merredin and in the forestry industry in Dwellingup, with no hardware warehouses or supermarkets nearby, he became a master at innovation and making do.
Jim talks passionately to me of his time on the Track and how he sees it as a reflection of life. He started walking the Track back in 1976 and describes how easy it was to get lost in the early days. The Track yellow markers were simple equilateral triangles with no waugal, which made picking direction an interesting choice, rather than a definite guide. Many a time on his 14 end-to-end treks over the years, he had to backtrack and find a way around heavy flooding or impassable rivers. Jim found that trail placement – to avoid hills and dams – sometimes complicated navigation.
At that time, clean drinking water was sometimes a two to three day walk away. Trying to stay clean was also often a challenge, and it is not hard to imagine Jim as “The Mad Axe Man” (his Track name) he often wrote about in one of his many bush poems:
I'm the axeman mad, but I'm not as bad, as you hear some people say
I may look green, but that don't mean, that I can't walk all day
I set a good pace, with whiskers on my face, and I don’t have a wash for days
For the dirt will keep till the end of the week, that's the true mad axeman's way
I cook my tucker in a baked bean tin, boil my tea in a rusty can
I've a jam tin cup, and I wash up, in the same dish I use as a fry pan
Last thing at night, I blow out the light and I snore myself to sleep
I don’t comb my hair, coz there ain’t none there, and I never wash my feet.
Poetry of a Mad Axeman Book your spot here to experience an evening on the Track with Jim.
Jim used to get ready for a long trek by walking to work with up to 40kg of lupins in his pack, to build up some walking strength. "But the equipment has changed so much too now, and for the better" he remarks. No more cooking in baked bean tins on open fires! "Tents are now half the size and weight, but three times the price" he comments. The choice of food now is also wide ranging – a far cry from the packaged dried potato that was one of very few offerings in earlier days. The choice is even bigger now when you can hire dehydrators to make your own (from the BTF, of course!).
There have been huge improvements in safety equipment (like Personal Locator Beacons), well mapped Track access points and water tanks at every shelter; these have greatly reduced risks without taking away from the experience of being on a true wilderness trail. The many Track realignments allow for a better experience for new and experienced walkers, allowing them to complete long distances in smaller sections; in this way weekend and day walkers are well catered for.
“What's your favourite section?” I ask Jim....
"Aw, somewhere between Kalamunda and Albany" he replies with his usual cheeky dry humour. "The Track now is perfect for all to walk on" he adds.
Jim sees the biggest challenge on the Track nowadays as being the amount of people using it. But he has risen to the challenge over the years, along with hundreds of other maintenance volunteers.
Starting all the way back in 1998, Jim has undertaken varied and interesting work looking after a couple of different sections of track, in the Perth Hills and Donnelly districts. Sometimes the work was as simple as trimming back bushes and trees, to keep the path clear after storms; through to rerouting parts of the Track washed away in heavy rains. He remembers having to find and mark the trail again after a fire, which burnt tree stumps below ground level and annihilated any sign of where the track once was. "Part of the problem is you know the Track so well you could follow it without trail markers, so you have to put yourself in the boots of someone walking it the first time, when placing signs" he says.
Jim was also one of the BTF’s volunteer event guides. He enjoyed being ‘Tail End Charlie’ on the Team Challenge events, which brought out not only his skills as a guide, but his ability to entertain all with his humour, bush poetry, and stories. He was continually awed at the profound transformation these tours brought to people's lives. On the Team Challenge he often saw people from the city completely change as they immersed themselves into living in the bush. The bush proved a great leveller of the hierarchy brought from an office environment.
In all the years of walking the Track, Jim never had to use his First aid training that he acquired as a guide. But he did get to use it successfully at his local bowling club, when one of the older players had a heart attack and required CPR until an ambulance arrived. His most memorable walking injury was a self-inflicted puncture with a safety pin whilst doing up a bandage - something he would rather forget.
Jim finds it hard to describe what twenty years of working on a wilderness track means to him. His description of "wanting to give something back" is so simple and yet so powerful. It’s the kind of task that can give our lives meaning and purpose, and to leave a legacy beyond family and friends. A gift, of a wilderness track built and kept for all to use. The example of Jim Freeman’s gift to the Bibbulmun Track is one we can all follow.
Feature by BTF office volunteer, Gerry Killian.