Footsteps pound outside the tent. Someone’s trying to break into our car, I think to myself. I’m listening intently now, not daring to twitch a muscle in case I lose my element of surprise. Nothing. Then I hear it again, thumping against the hardened ground outside my door. What’s he thinking? He’s not even trying to muffle his steps.

I sit up and peer into the moonlit darkness outside. Something rustles behind a bush, barely two metres from our tent. That’s no human being; it’s a kangaroo.
The longer I look, the more I see. There must be five or six of them. I should have known the footsteps belonged to them. It was obvious, after all. Theirs weren’t the pitter-patter of campers making the midnight shuffle to the toilet block. Nor were they the muted strides of sneaky carjackers. These beasts thudded against the dirt every time they hopped.

When I wake next morning, I’m looking forward to seeing more wildlife in Victoria’s Little Desert. We’ve got three days of hiking ahead of us, following an abridged version of the Desert Discovery Walk. Rather than trying to cover the whole 70 kilometres over the recommend duration of four days, we’re going to do around 48 kilometres in three, cutting the loop in half by connecting the northern and southern legs via the Wallaby Track.

I’m joined by a mate of mine, Craig Tucker, and as we sort our packs into manageable loads beside the car in Horseshoe Bend Campsite, five kilometres south of Dimboola, the third person in our party is yet to appear. Jo Ussing assured me she’d be here at 8am, but there’s no sign of her… until the throaty rumble of a V8 motor slices through the silence.

Jo had said something to me on the phone about making a grand entrance, but this is ridiculous. She’s being chauffeured to a three-day wilderness hike in a gleaming red 1969 Mustang that sounds like it’s suffering from chronic bronchial issues.

When she steps out, she introduces us to her partner Graham, who’s on his way to a swap meet in Dimboola. It’s the first time Craig and I have met Jo, too. I’d emailed her at specialist Outback mapmakers, Westprint, in Nhill, hoping she might have a topographical map of the hike or otherwise know of someone who did. Only a few hundred hikers tackle this trail annually – too few to warrant producing one – and the best I’d found so far was a crudely-drawn map sent by a park ranger stationed in Wail.

Mallee heath lashtail

A mallee heath lashtail (Amphibolurus norrisi) basks in the warm sun. Click to enlarge.

Jo didn’t have a map of the hiking trail. She did, however, confess to spending a fair amount of time inside the national park, so she knew it well. But she’d never hiked the Desert Discovery Walk, and it was something she longed to do. So I asked her along; her familiarisation with the park could help us to understand our surrounds better.

Without wasting time, we loaded our packs on our backs and set off. Mine was heavier than I would have liked, largely due to carting around my photographic gear and sufficient water reserves to last the day. I’d spoken to park rangers about water along the route and been told there would be untreated tank water at the two campsites where we planned to bunk down. They just weren’t sure how much there was.

Though the trail loops inland until it reaches Sundial Sands, we decide to hug the river while we can. A mob of western grey kangaroos is out feeding in the scrub. They’re the first of many I hope to see, until Jo sets me straight. “Don’t assume you’ll see more,” she warns. It proves sage advice – we don’t see any for the next three days.

We follow a firm gravel track through river forest for five kilometres, passing a father and his ten year old son fishing for redfin. The old man is on for a chat – like country folk all over – and he tells us he often brings his son out to the river from Dimboola to fish and camp, “away from civilisation,” as he calls it. He advises us to keep an eye out for a wedge-tailed eagle’s nest at the aptly named Eagle Swamp. “And watch out for snakes,” he adds. “I reckon I’ve seen a dozen of them down here over the past few weeks. King browns, all of them. Nasty things.”

The track bends inland at Sundial Sands, connecting one rise to the next as the river disappears behind us. From hip-high silver banksias and juvenile white cypress pines closer to the riverbanks, the vegetation becomes increasingly sparse the further we walk. And it’s soft sand beneath our feet from this point on, all the way
to Yellow Gum Camp.

Our sandy trail betrays any number of critters that have passed by before us. We see the three-pronged claws of emus and kangaroo paws side by side. An S-shaped pattern indicates a goanna that’s been dragging its tail, and Jo spots what she guesses to be feral cats. Strangely, there’s not a human footprint in sight.

Mallee eucalypts crown each rise, providing much-needed shade and a place to rest. We’re fortunate that the sun has been at our backs as we’ve hiked, with a breeze fanning our faces, but still it’s been hotter than I’d ideally like it to be. I had deliberately timed our hike here during October, before the days became too hot and the nights too cold. Summer temperatures hover above 40 degrees all too frequently to consider hiking then, and winter nights that dip below freezing are equally as common. Like deserts the world over, it’s one extreme or the other.

We make it to Eagle Swamp for lunch, having placed 11 kilometres behind us. We’re roughly halfway to camp. There’s no sign of wedge-tailed eagles. Nor do we find any nests in the trees surrounding this dry lakebed. A fallen tree trunk makes for a comfortable backrest as we sit in the shade to eat our lunch. Two Land Cruisers drive past, oblivious to our presence. Moments earlier, an emu with chicks in tow emerged from the bushes, then on seeing us scurried back into them, never to be seen again. We’d witness the same sort of behaviour repeatedly throughout the next two and a half days.

As the trees lining the river receded in the distance, our views to the south – beyond the park boundary – became evermore clear. Mount Arapiles and Mitre Rock rose above pancake-flat farmland that has suffered through an unseasonably dry winter. The scarcity of rain has affected everyone in this region, and Jo confides about the many townsfolk keeping suicide watch over debt-laden farmers whose lowly crop yields aren’t worth the cost of harvesting them. It’s a reality of life up this way.

Broom bush rises higher and higher as we draw nearer to Yellow Gum Camp, masking our views either side of the track. Jo makes a comment about how easy it would be to lose our way, then relates a chilling tale about three children – aged four, seven and nine – who were lost out here for days back in 1864…

…The story continues in Wild issue 152. Subscribe today.