I’ve always wanted to do a multi-day hiking and camping adventure, but having a 3 year old and 6 year old has put a hold on that dream…until now! Joel offered to look after the kids so I could attempt the first 4 days of the Heysen Trail, which is South Australia’s long distance walking trail that extends for 1200km from the Fleurieu Peninsula to the Flinders Ranges. I think my main goal in doing the trip was to put myself in a situation where I would need to rely on my own resources more, and in doing so improve my resilience, problem-solving and decision-making skills.
The section I wanted to do was the first leg along the spectacular southern coastline of the Fleurieu. The guidebook describes it as “Starting at the port near the small town of Cape Jervis, the trail traverses steep cliffs, rocky inclines, wooded valleys, a long sandy beach, two conservation parks, a dense forest, and a magnificent waterfall before ending near Victor Harbor, one of South Australia’s most popular seaside towns”.
It also states “A challenging walk, this leg of the Heysen Trail is rugged and potentially dangerous, with few flat sections. Walkers need to be experienced, have a high level of fitness and be well equipped. The trail’s proximity to the Southern Ocean means rapid, unpredictable weather changes are frequent”.
It’s fair to say that the main preparation I did in the lead-up was watching many YouTube videos of North American “thru hikers” demonstrating such things as how to pack light, how to pack a pack, hygiene on the trail etc. A fascinating subcultural vortex to be drawn into! I also thought that carrying 20kg+ children around the farm and on bushwalks was good training, and also did some big day walks in the lead up.
I borrowed lightweight camping gear from friends and packed sparingly, and my “base weight” (weight of gear and bag excluding consumables) ended up being 9.35kg. My consumables of food and water added up to 7.61kg, so I totalled almost 17kg which went down over time. Some sites I looked at said that total pack weight should be no more than 20% of your body weight, others said 1/3 of body weight, which puts me between 14.4kg-23.76kg. In future I would try to get it down below 15kg. I definitely ended up packing too much food – I ate less on this trip than I do on a normal day at work in an office! My main regret was a packet of pumpernickel bread which weighed 500g and went untouched…the bagels were lighter but dense enough for a lunch so were a better option. Also could have reduced the muesli bar/nut/dried fruit snacks – but kept the chocolate! I welcome advice on how I could have reduced my load further…
Joel and the kids accompanied me for the first few kms until Land’s End, where we saw a big pod of dolphins feeding on fish. A group of these dolphins kept me company as I headed around the cape, through dunes and in and around multiple windswept rocky coves with occasional shacks interspersed with designer homes and always a view across to Kangaroo Island. I startled a brown snake and nearly trod on a shingleback lizard, before coming down the hill to Blowhole Beach where I saw my first humans for 12km.
The final part of Day 1 involved a 3km punishing uphill ascent through sheoak and pink gum scrub of Deep Creek Conservation Park, and then I pushed on another 2km down to a wet and green little valley where I camped the night at Eagle Waterhole. This is a walk-in only campsite with a sleeping hut with basic beds, rainwater tank, and picnic table, and a great place to spend the night together with lots of kangaroos, blue wrens, and galahs. Alas, I also developed my first-ever ear infection in the night which made for an unusual sleep despite my super comfy sleeping set up.
On Day 2 my sister joined me, and we hiked across the rest of Deep Creek. Some sections were more burnt out and open, while others were closed in scrub or creeks with mini-waterfalls, and some near-vertical uphill climbs where Emmie tried to motivate me by falsely saying “You’re almost at the top!” over and over as the path kept climbing. We spotted an echidna and so many shingleback lizards.
I did find it challenging walking with an ear infection on top of the heavy pack, I couldn’t hear out of that ear and the pressure changes of going up and down slopes was intolerable at times, but we made it to Tapanappa Campground. Here I came across the only other Heysen hikers I saw for the whole trip, a couple who had walked the entire trail from the Flinders and were almost at the end. It was so nice to exchange knowledge about campsites, clean water and other tips and have a sense of camaraderie with others on the trail.
The pain in my ear was pretty intense that night, so I stayed at Glenburn Cottage down the road where Joel and the kids were holed up with Joel’s parents. I felt like I was cheating, but it didn’t lessen the length of the walk, and I certainly appreciated the good company, oven-baked dinner and dessert, and hot shower. Joel excelled in his role as “Trail Angel”, and the support he provided reminded me that no achievement happens in isolation and to always appreciate inter-reliance with others.
On Day 3, I headed down out of Deep Creek Conservation Park through some of the nicest pink gum/yacca landscape I had encountered, smelling so good after the light rain.
The view down to Boat Harbor Beach was amazing, and I had one of those moments where everything comes together to create perfection – the light and clouds were stunning, my panadol had kicked in, multiple pods of dolphins were frolicking in the waves below, and the view swept up this beautiful forested river valley.
From here the trail went in and around a few more coves before a 5km section of Tunkalilla Beach which was also a revelation. Steep hills to the left, crashing waves on a secluded beach to the right, and in between farming homesteads with pasture adjoining sand dunes. From here the path took a near vertical 100m climb up a hill on private grazing land, had to use the fence to pull myself up and I can’t imagine doing it in reverse! After crisscrossing some sheep grazing land, the trail then followed a dirt road for several kms before winding up at Balquhidder station where a camping area has been set up with a rainwater tank. And there my journey ended, 48km into the 72km walk. I decided it was prudent to get my ear seen by a doctor, as it didn’t seem to be healing while pushing the rest of my body to its limits.
I also realised a short way into the walk that, despite the guide book calling it a “3-4 day” walk, the way the campsites and water locations are laid out it would be difficult to do in that time frame. I was going to have to walk almost 29km on my third day to make it to the next water/camp site at Waitpinga, to then do 15km to get to Victor on the final day. I know I can do 25km in peak physical condition on a single day, but not sandwiched between other long walking days. Even the long distance Heysen hikers I came across were doing it in 5 days and just pacing themselves due to the slopes involved, I think around 15km is ideal per day when doing multiple days in a row.
While the trail was well-marked for the most part, I was pleased at my map-reading skills and ability to predict how long it would take me to complete each section. I was also pleased with my walking pace and my body’s ability to keep up with the demands placed on it (not including you ear!). I made some good decisions along the way, and enjoyed being fully in control of my situation. I think next time I would prefer to hike with someone else for the duration, especially given the isolation of the trail and lack of other hikers, but I also enjoyed walking at my own pace and taking breaks when I needed to which is a real novelty when usually parenting.
I feel like I should be feeling more disappointed that I didn’t achieve my distance goal, but I don’t feel disappointed at all. The challenge was only against myself, and it was my first effort at hiking/camping and many useful lessons were learnt. I consider it a practice test for next time!
My advice to anyone who is considering doing this trail is that a walking stick is an absolute must, and don’t underestimate how much paracetamol you may need! It’s a great way to see some otherwise inaccessible parts of our beautiful region, and I think the only way the trail could be improved is for there to be more walkers on it.
Thanks to everyone who supported me in my endeavour, particularly Joel, Asher, Annika & Emmie, and also those who lent equipment and advice xx