Stuart Parks, Perth, WA
22 November 2016
People walk the Track for any number of reasons; some personal, some for a cause and some just because it is there.
For me it was a combination of many reasons. I don’t come from a hiking background, and in fact had never done any sizeable walks, especially one that would take two months.
My decision to walk the Bibbulmun Track end-to-end was born the day a friend and colleague committed suicide in late July 2015 at the age of 48. He had succumbed to depression and PTSD and I took the news of his death hard, as did all his family and friends. As is often the case there seemed at the time to be no warning or signs, but in retrospect there were, and these were mostly missed.
Kevin and I had worked on the same shift for about five years as firefighters at a suburban fire station near Perth. We became close friends and had shared some very hard, confronting and graphic incidents, not to mention other workplace issues that seemed to plague Kevin’s career. Even though firefighters are very resilient and strong in carrying out their roles, they also are human and are deeply affected by what they see. It is when these invasive thoughts and memories are not acknowledged and dealt with correctly that the stress can lead to debilitating mental illness. I felt that the reasons behind his death should not be ignored. To me this was unacceptable, and I wasn’t prepared to let this happen to anyone else without at least trying to highlight how prevalent suicide is, especially amongst workers in the emergency services.
I had long service leave coming up the following year, so I had the time to plan and prepare for the journey—dehydrating meals, sorting equipment, booking accommodation, fundraising and working on my fitness.
In truth, nothing can fully prepare you for walking about 20km a day, for about 50 days, carrying a 21kg pack. Track fitness would come, but only after about two weeks of walking. I had to rely on determination and the will to succeed to get me beyond the initial pain, and the demons in my head. Walking solo has its challenges and adds a mental angle that you are forced to confront and overcome. You rely on yourself alone and have no one to encourage you and spur you on during the low moments.
The walk had three goals—to honour the life of Kevin Corbey, to raise funds for beyondblue, The Black Dog Institute and The Bibbulmun Track Foundation.
In addition, my aim was to raise awareness of depression and PTSD and reduce the stigma surrounding the subject of mental health. I formed an army of supporters on my Facebook page, which would be my contact point during the walk. I drew much strength from reading posts and comments urging me on as I walked.
13th March 2016 rolled around and there I was at the Bibbulmun Track Southern Terminus, being farewelled by my family. It was one of the hardest moments of my life—I wouldn’t see them again for 40 days. I had now left my normal life and my strong and capable wife Barbie to pick up the slack I was leaving behind. The sacrifices and hardships endured by my family in my absence have not been lost on me.
And so it began. In a moment of synchronicity “Walk On” by U2 randomly played through my earphones. As sad as I felt at this moment, I also was excited that I had so much adventure, so much to experience in front of me; to see, feel, hear, taste and smell. I felt empowered that it was just me, the Track and what I had on my back.
As the early days ticked over and the body slowly but surely adjusted my senses were treated to stunning scenery and wildlife. The south coast scenery cannot be done just in words – it was absolutely stunning and remarkable. I never once felt unsafe or in any danger despite the terrain and numerous snake encounters. There were, however, very real mind games to play. Mentally I did feel overwhelmed at times, especially those early days with hundreds of kilometres in front of me and homesickness to contend with. I missed my family horribly. To overcome these invasive thoughts I reminded myself why I was there, of the lives that could be saved and the people out there who were doing it much tougher than me. I told myself many times to stop feeling sorry for myself and the phrase I used when I came across any obstacle, mental or physical, was “it is what it is”.
As each section slid behind me and I started new maps, my fitness was growing to levels I hadn’t felt since my football playing days many years ago. I also was becoming more assured that I would reach the Northern Terminus in Kalamunda on May 13th. I particularly loved walking into a new town knowing that I could rest and bask in the knowledge that I had completed another section. A real sense of achievement and purpose for a cause I feel so passionate about.
At some point before the half way mark of Donnelly River I started to experience some very bad pain in my left shin making the downhill sections particularly excruciating. From here to Collie I had to draw on every reserve of determination I had to keep going. Pain was with me every step of the way over the course of about 250km. It did detract from the journey but you can mentally block out pain when you need to. By the time I reached Collie I was in real trouble and thought I would have to pull out. When the physio in Collie couldn’t even touch my badly swollen shin, he immediately suspected one or more stress fractures and I was advised to rest and let it heal. However, meeting up with my family again had me mentally on top of the world.
Against all medical advice I decided to push on. Nothing was going to stop me. By now I had obtained walking poles and that took some of the burden off my legs. Remarkably on the day I left Collie the shin came good and continued to improve. By the time I reached Dwellingup the pain had all but disappeared.
Now it was 800km down and 200km to go—finishing the Track seemed very real now. I really enjoyed this section and in particular the Darling Range. I felt I was at home here, as I live in Kalamunda. I doubled and even triple hutted some days, as I felt so fit and close to the Northern Terminus. The nights had become very cold and inadequacy of my synthetic sleeping bag became obvious. I had also lost over 10kg of body weight, so my ability to stay warm had diminished. But these hurdles were nothing compared to what I had already overcome and I savoured my last week on the Track.
I spent the final night at Hewett’s Hill, so it was only 12km into the Terminus at midday on Friday 13th May. To walk through Jorgensen Park and finally through the threshold at the terminus was almost surreal. There was a very large crowd of family friends and colleagues assembled, which was very humbling and overwhelming. But to know that I had touched so many lives and that all these people felt they were part of my journey made every step worth it. It may have been solo but there was a mighty team behind me.
Would I do it again? During the walk I can remember thinking never again, but since my return and missing the Track as much as I do—never say never!
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to my family, supporters, contributors and everyone I met along my journey. And thank you to the Bibbulmun Track Foundation and all the volunteers that contribute to the Track. We have a world renowned, remarkable and stunning resource on our doorstep.
This was a most humbling and rewarding experience that I will treasure until the end of my days.
beyondblue is an Australian, independent non-profit organisation working to address issues associated with depression, anxiety disorders and related mental disorders
The Black Dog Institute, founded in 2002 and based in Sydney, Australia, is a not-for-profit facility for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder