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The conversion of a non-walker!

Michael O’Connor, NSW

17 January 2020

Michael on the Track
Michael on the Track

Why would a 68 year-old man with post polio syndrome who didn’t like walking in the first place set out to walk the entire Bibbulmun Track? Friends said “well, he is Irish”. However, as I have spent two-thirds of my life in Australia, I claim I was driven by my Australianess (if that is a word), only to be thwarted by a twisted ankle and, in non-medical terms, a badly busted right shoulder.

For years I ran marathons and half marathons to raise funds for a charity, Friends of the Rang’I, dedicated to raising the standard of living and education for children in Rang’I, Kenya, and I have always jogged, until the effects of my childhood brush with polio stopped me running.

What to do? How to continue raising money for those kids?

I was never a bush walker and I still don’t think I am one, but I knew about the Bibbulmun Track as my late sister lived at William Bay. I was with her for her final weeks in October 2015, and I decided to walk the Track, with the goal of casting some of her ashes on the Track and raising funds for starting a library in Rang’I.

I visited the Bibbulmun Track office in Perth and  became a BTF member for three years, as I thought it would  take me some time to organise myself to do the walk. I went home and told my long suffering family and our Rotary Club in Narooma that I aimed to raise $10,000.

I started out by walking around town, generally around 10km a day, with a backpack to see how my back stood up to the exercise—and it seemed to cope. My first problem was how to raise $10,000—it seemed to present a bigger problem than the walk itself. I enjoy cooking and so I decided to put on a Christmas in July dinner for our Rotary Club, which raised over $1600. Once I realised funds were starting to come in I contacted the Bibbulmun Track office and sought advice, as I really had no idea what I had signed myself up for.

I got emails from volunteer Jim Baker, who gave me a lot of practical advice, and my wife and son Chris did a detailed risk assessment on the walk. A major problem was food, as I had recently been diagnosed as having a severe reaction to red meat and gelatin, which meant that my whole diet had to change.

On April 27th 2017 I began the walk from Albany. My backpack was very heavy largely due to the fact that I have to carry an assortment of first-aid equipment, and I was determined not to go short of food or water. Over the whole walk I was astounded to meet walkers who seemed to have only two-minute noodles to eat, no wet weather gear, no tent and no PLB!

First stop was only a short walk to Sandpatch where I had the shelter to myself. Next day it was on to Torbay, when I walked about an extra five kilometres through becoming geographically embarrassed (Ed: the BTF euphemism for ‘lost’).

I enjoyed the stunning scenery on the way to West Cape Howe, but apart from meeting an occasional day walker it appeared I was the only one walking the Track—remarkable how few people I met along the way. Rain then came in buckets, so I was glad to get to Denmark and enjoy a bed at the Blue Wren, plus a few beers at the pub. The camp-shop where I got some lighter gear knew of my late sister and generously donated to my walk, which gave me a lovely feeling.

By the time I reached William Bay I was getting used to walking on sand—no blisters, which I attributed to training by walking about three thousand kilometres over the last 12 months, at times with  a heavy backpack.

I got to Northcliffe with a few hiccups, occasionally meeting an end-to-ender, which made me realise that I was not a real bushwalker either in physique (Ed: they come in all shapes and sizes!) or through wanting to wax lyrically about the Track. I was, however, beginning to enjoy the experience and what was amazing to me was that the Track is, in part, maintained by volunteers. It was also interesting in places like Walpole or Northcliffe that the locals seem to have great pride in the Bibbulmun Track, but have little knowledge or experience of it.

I had a wonderful experience of meeting up with the Gourmet Club at Lake Maringup Campsite, a group of six young males from Perth who walk a few days each year on the Track, taking with them wonderful food and booze. My enforced diet meant I couldn’t accept their roast lamb, but they were extremely generous in that the winner of their poker game gave me $80 toward my fund raising—a typical Aussie response.

And then…talk about the luck of the Irish. The zipper on my sleeping bag broke. A few days later I lost one of the lenses of my spectacles, which popped out of the case as I was walking. Even my watch stopped never to go again.

Then, after leaving Northcliffe, I slipped on a mossy rock, twisted my ankle and cut my finger. Fortunately I had the right first aid gear so after bandaging my foot and finger (never knew so much blood could pour from a finger) I reached Schafer Campsite. Next morning the ankle did not seem too swollen and I rebandaged it. Then I felt every step to the Warren Campsite!

From Warren the rain came in buckets again, I missed a turning and ended up doing a U-turn. I realised my error but I was left to decide either to turn back to Warren or press on. I decided to be sensible and get back to Warren. That meant I had walked 25km to get back to my start point, and my ankle was now giving me hell.

After a night in some discomfort I set out and reached Pemberton where I took two full days of rest, icing the ankle and having a few beers. (Ed: I think this is where I might have caught the bus!)

I then set out from Pemberton to Beedelup. The ankle started to get sore after about 10km and even with some pain killers I was in a fair bit of discomfort.  Day 28 I was on my way to Beavis Campsite. It was wet and slippery on the Track, my ankle gave way again and I fell heavily on my right shoulder. When I think about it, it must have looked comical. I was on my back screaming and cursing, my right arm and shoulder were numb and I struggled to get out of my back pack as I could not get up.

At this point I thought I should get off the Track but as I had no mobile signal and I did not want to use the emergency beacon unless I had no other option, I kept going.

On day 30 I finally got a limited phone signal and rang my wife to say I needed to get off the track at Donnelly River Village, and Donna arranged for friends from Perth to come to the rescue.  I had passed halfway and walked about 125km with a twisted ankle and 50km of that with a busted shoulder…

…and now:

As I write this in September, my shoulder is very sore, I still have to sleep sitting up and I am going to rehab. The great news is that I raised $12,000, (shared between Rotary’s End Polio project and Friends of Rang’I). I am frequently asked whether I will go back and finish the walk. I doubt it as I am truly not a walker, but I do plan to walk some more of the Track sometime in the future with my wife, as we both love visiting WA and our friends over there.

Finally, let me say the BTF and its volunteers are a superb resource for anyone trying to walk this great Track. If I had not had their advice and support I doubt if I would have had such an enjoyable walk before my mishaps. The lesson was clearly learnt that you need to have a good and substantial first aid kit, plan what to do if something goes wrong, have an emergency beacon and take enough food and water. No matter how much training you do, without proper food and gear you are taking a risk. That is not fair to yourself, loved ones or those who may be called upon to get you to safety if all goes astray.

Michael O’Connor