What are the joys and pitfalls for women venturing out into the bush on their own? Tracey Hawke sets off to find out.
Words & Photography: Tracey Hawke
My first multiday solo hike happened due to a COVID- 19 related tantrum. The lockdown of a neighbouring area left me without work for a week, and without a playmate, so I made a snap decision to go for a six-day hike in Central Queensland, a place with few people and limited mobile phone coverage.
Four hours into my eight-hour drive to the middle of nowhere, I started thinking “Is this a bad idea?” I’ve heard people say that stupid people are too stupid to know that they are stupid. What if that is me! What if I am driving toward my own death? Or worse still, driving toward public humiliation by being featured on the evening news wrapped up like a store-bought burrito in a reflective emergency blanket?
In a patch of mobile phone coverage, I called a friend to check if I was being foolish. And while a complete psychological assessment is still pending, she was willing to confirm that my concerns appeared to be reasonable, and we workshopped some issues.
PROBLEM ONE – GETTING LOST
I am an accomplished nothing-box dweller for a female. That’s right! A trait once thought to only exist in males—particularly those who enjoy fishing and other ‘companionable silence’ activities—has infiltrated the female species. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, google ‘Nothing Box’, and watch Mark Gungor’s ground-breaking analysis of human brains. I am also a major ear-wormer—usually, the torturously repetitive Tainted Love by Soft Cell which has, on many occasions, driven me to believe that death by multiple fork stabbings would be a far more humane way to go.
My point, though, is that I’m not the chattiest person to walk with. If I have brain activity at all, it will be Soft Cell on repeat ruining my serenity. But, over time, what I have noticed by quietly walking behind fellow hikers engaged in a chat-fest is that people who talk while walking often fall off trails. Given that I am not prone to conversing with myself, not out loud anyway, being alone means that my concentration should be sharply focused. And with solo hiking, once you have broken camp you have one job—walk in the right direction. That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Surely that can be achieved.
Even if I’m not on a well-marked trail, and I’m using a topographical map to navigate, the absence of another person nattering about some deeply philosophical Day Five topic—such as the cherry-picking rules required to maintain order if chocolate-coated cashews are added to the shared scroggin mix—it’s much easier to gauge distance and read the terrain. Obviously in whiteout conditions, it’s pitch-the-tent-and-grab-the-sudoku time, because leapfrog-style navigation is a challenging activity to achieve solo. But for the most part, being alone both motivates and facilitates concentration.
And in the end, I am carrying a super small but military-grade GPS. I don’t know how to use it. But I’ve googled how to start a fire using the batteries it contains which eliminates the need for the burrito-style emergency-blanket wrapping when I make the evening news. Problem One solved.
PROBLEM TWO – GETTING INJURED
My long-held belief is that any injury I sustain while hiking will be due to a snake. I have a severe allergic reaction to the mere sight of the things. The ensuing muscle spasms caused by this reaction manifest themselves as a finesse-free version of Riverdance. Given my age, lack of flexibility, and decreased levels of coordination, such a dance spectacular is not recommended, and the subsequent injuries could be significant. And this is without the snake even making contact.
I have been told that women get bitten by snakes while hiking more frequently than men. Sounds crazy, right? But the reason for it comes down to plumbing. Women get bitten scurrying off behind trees and bushes to relieve themselves. And here’s a question for the practical among us: Where would you start the snake bandage if you were bitten down there? The answer is, I don’t know. All I can say is, if this happens to me, let it be a highly venomous snake, and let me go. I don’t need this type of injury on my permanent record. (Ed: Let alone on the evening news!)
These days I carry walking poles to increase the noise I make when walking, so that the snakes beat a retreat before I see them. I wear gaiters whenever the path is narrow and grassy. And because I’m walking by myself, the days of scurrying off behind trees are over. Problem Two solved.
“If this is it, I’m gonna go down fighting.”
PROBLEM THREE – GETTING MURDERED
In the 20+ years that I’ve been hiking and sleeping in walk-in campsites, I’m yet to come across a scenario where I have truly feared personal harm at the hands of another person. In fact, the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me in a tent occurred recently, while perched on the escarpment above Carnarvon Gorge the final evening of my six-day solo hike. I was sitting in the tent with the light on, absolutely dominating the sudoku puzzle I was working on, when the side of my tent caved in, and I was hit twice in the shoulder.
It was like a one-two punch. There was no lead-up noise. No warning at all. I scrambled from my tent thinking, if this is it, I’m gonna go down fighting, not running around zipped up inside my tent like a little kid in a white bed sheet at Halloween. But when I leapt out and spun around in a flurry of wax-on, wax-off style karate manoeuvres, there was nobody there. Just a heap of bugs and moths buzzing around my tent, and completely empty bush. The only logical explanation was that a large bird or owl had swooped down to indulge in the ready-made meal of bugs my light had provided and misjudged its braking distance. The double punch was probably each of its wings pumping to try to avoid the glowing blue mass of tent I was sitting in. It made sense. And—while I avoided a ridiculously annoying nickname due to my dodgy martial arts display—the absence of a witness guaranteed that I was in for a sleepless night.
Realistically, if I use the daylight hours to think about this (because my night-time mind is more than a little dramatic), is an axe-murderer going to pack an axe into a backpack, walk 15+km out into the wilderness on the off chance there is a single female in a campsite completely by herself? Unlikely. I mean, they’d take a tomahawk for starters. An axe is far too heavy. And it does seem like a lot of effort. Especially if it’s a thru-hike with a large car shuffle. What axe-murderer wants that extra hassle?
Rationally, I can see that the axe-murderer is a doubtful scenario. But, for me, it’s best if all the comings and goings of the campsite have happened before I crawl into my tent, because that is a vulnerable position to be in. Random night-time footfalls can render me unable to breathe let alone sleep. So, based on prior experiences, I have implemented a two-part process for selecting campsites to manage this issue. Firstly, the site must be further than a half-day walk from a vehicle entry point. This prevents the late arrival of the biggest pest of all—pack-roaming teenagers. This Bluetooth-music-toting species is generally known to be completely incapable of carrying their dinner plate from the table to the sink, but will carry a six-pack of illegally purchased beer for miles if the goal is to light fires and go swimming at night with mates. So, Step One is to camp far enough from a road that any reasonable pack leader will grow fearful of the beer becoming warm or flat and stop well before reaching me.
Step Two is to get well off the side of the trail. This one is to avoid the full-moon hiker, and trail runners who have decided that night-time temperatures are best for running. It sounds crazy, but I have come across both scenarios in the bush. The trail runners were particularly disturbing. I had flashbacks to waking up in a nightclub minus the loud music and toilet seat curled neatly into my arms. There were head torches flicking around like strobe lights, and everyone was yelling at each other. And it was well after midnight. The explanation: A local running club had decided to do a night marathon and claimed that they hadn’t noticed my tent right next to them while they whooped and wooted at each other. As you’d expect, yet another sleepless night was had, and the second of my camping rules was established.
Well, that’s it. These are the thoughts that bring me peace. They allow me to go wandering around in the bush in a deluded bubble, waiting for the day when a highly venomous snake bites me on the butt, and instead of a 30-second news story, I end up featuring on the reality TV show Ambulance. Until then, happy hiking!