Week 14 – Little Desert National Park

We acknowledge the Traditional owners of these lands, the Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia and Jupagulk Peoples (collectively Wotjobaluk) people and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture and pay our respects to their elders past, present and future.

What a year 2020 is shaping up to be.  I have never imagined what I was getting myself in store for when I decided that this was the year, I’d set a hefty, year-long goal for myself. I’m not a fan of Resolutions, so committing to a 12-month task is significant for me.  And now with the country in government-enforced lockdown, the opportunities to get outdoors are closing rapidly.  We now tune into the news every night at 7pm, wondering what the death toll in Italy will be and what new restrictions are being enforced across the country.  Never before has the need to be in touch with the daily news cycle been so necessary, as reports online are often unclear and contradictory.  In times like this I turn to the ABC and try to disengage with social media and it’s inflammatory reporting.  Seeing all the closures and regulations in Melbourne feels like a world away, with life continuing as normal at Bonnie Brae.  The pantry is always fully stocked with staples, and we only leave the farm when farm supplies are required.  No one is coming and going; we are an island, surrounded by paddocks awaiting rain, cut off from the hubbub of the world around, with only the virtual world to connect us to the outside reality. 

The restrictions were still allowing outdoor exercise, so both Mum and I were keen to take advantage of this grey area before level 3 restrictions were enforced.  I wanted to check out Little Desert National Park, which is about 50 minutes north-west of Bonnie Brae.  Technically, we were within our district and if anyone asked, we agreed to say we were going to town for supplies.  The Landcruiser full of camping gear may have been a giveaway, but we were willing to risk it.  We didn’t have the blessing of my Dad or brother, who both thought we were pushing it.  Our desire to escape the farm for just one night was too great, so on April 1st, Mum and I set off, with everything we needed to avoid any stops along the way.  Driving towards Dimboola, the gateway to the Little Desert, we passed through an incredible wind farm, unlike any I have seen in Australia. There were well over 50 turbines, standing majestically in long, elegant rows, over the flat, dry landscape.  The road went through the middle of them and I hung out the window, trying to capture their mass and majesty.  Unsurprisingly, Dimboola was a ghost town, as stay-at-home recommendations were firmly in place and public facilities were all closed.  We made a beeline for Horseshoe Bend Campground, where I was to start my Little Desert Mission.

I’d already sussed out the trails on offer and was eager to undertake the Desert Discovery Trail, a 75km walking track that does a big loop of the eastern section of the National Park.  There was one out and back section from The Little Desert Lodge, but it was going to be a bit tricky to coordinate my support crew (aka Mum), so opted to do the loop, which would be roughly 60km.  Horseshoe Bend was deserted, with WARNING signs pasted on top of existing Park Information signs and caution tape billowing off picnic tables and toilet blocks.  By the time we arrived it was already 11am and I was eager to get moving.  I pulled on my vest and bid Mum farewell, enjoying the sunny but cloudy conditions.  As I left the Wimmera River, the landscape became more open and vast;  the vegetation grew to only waist height.  Undulating sand dunes offered the occasional view over the Little Desert, showing nothing but scrub to the faraway horizon.  It was the first day of the ‘Run for Wild Places’ Challenge, a virtual event organised by Simon Harris, who was also behind takayna Ultra.  We’d been chatting since takayna and I was giving him a hand with Facebook for the event, which ran for the entire month of April.  It was my goal to run 70km a month, which would be a big jump for me, but I was starting strong in the Little Desert.  The track underfoot was loose sand, occasionally disturbed by trail bikes, but more often dotted with emu and kangaroo tracks.  The track wound its way westwards; the scrub occasionally punctuated by patches of larger gum trees.  After 1.5hrs I arrived at Mallee Walkers Camp, which consisted of a stagnant dam, hut, water tank and toilet.  Everything was locked, but I took the opportunity to replenish my water as the day was warm and future sources were unreliable.  I startled a couple of emus as I arrived at the camp, no doubt drawn by the reliable water source amongst the parched country.  I continued onwards, relishing the opportunity to get lost into some solid podcasts. With the soft sand proving to be hard work, I fell into a routine of running in half hour blocks followed by a five-minute walking break while I sipped some water, had a snack and enjoyed some phone time.  While checking socials I saw that a mountain biker had to be rescued via helicopter from the Australian Alpine Walking Track.  Considering I was pushing the boundaries on what ‘daily exercise’ was, requiring medical assistance was weighing on my mind, so I was extra caution of keeping the ankles in-tact and the hydration up.

I pushed through the first 20 kilometres, with the landscape staying consistently familiar, with the clouds fully enveloping what blue sky was left.  Considering there was no overhead vegetation, I was thankful for the overcast skies.  There was a bit of water in Pump Jack Dam, and after diverting from the trail to investigate, I thought I heard a person in the bushes, and after a brief moment of fear, was thankful to find I was still utterly alone.  Onwards I continued, passing Albrecht’s Mill and continuing to Kiata Campground, where Mum would hopefully be waiting.  I was thankful to see the trusty Landcruiser there, complete with freshly brought Boston Bun. 

It was 3.30pm by this stage, and I was wary of leaving too many k’s on the agenda for tomorrow.  My legs were feeling pretty good, so we agreed to meet further along at Trig Point, which was another 7km south.  It was accessible via a 4×4 track, so we both set off, aiming to meet there in about an hour to set up camp.  The trail gradually transitioned from a sandy track to a rocky, gravelly surface, which was a welcome relief and allowed me to pick up my speed, in spite of the gradual incline.  I was feeling pretty good, buoyed along by banging tunes now that I had phone service.  I reached Trig Point at 4.15pm, with no Landcruiser in sight. While I waited, I reeled off a bunch of self-timer shots, consistently failing to get one that was half decent.  Mid-shot, my phone started ringing and it was Mum, in a tiz, with a flat tyre god knows how far down the 4×4 access track.  I’d already clocked 38 kilometres for the day and now had to pull on the vest again and go in search of Mum.  I followed the access track for about four kilometres, before finding Mum attempting to change her first tyre in quite a while.  Thankfully she had service and had been able to call Dad for advice – I hadn’t been so lucky when I got a flat tyre several years ago while out bush, and it took me longer than I’d like to admit to work out how to release the spare tyre.

Between the two of us we managed to get the old one off, which was completely shot after grazing a tree-stump. After about 15 minutes we set off for Trig Point, very relieved to be on our way again. I was pretty smelly by this stage and after deciding to camp on the trail next to the Lookout, I attempted a ‘wash’ using a tea towel and bowl of water. It wasn’t ideal, but certainly better than nothing. My toes were filthy and my months-old nail polish was well overdue for removal. I set up my tent in the usual 4 minutes flat, and then helped Mum set up her Aldi monstrosity. It had a front awning, so we set up the kitchen here, awaiting the rains we could see looming on the horizon. As I cracked a well-deserved beer at about 6.30pm, the rain started to fall. We were camping on red, clay soils, so everything was slipping and sliding around us and the rain was pooling in the canopy, requiring an occasional poke to ensure the entire tent didn’t collapse under the weight. Dinner was one of my camping favourites – green curry with rice noodles. Despite the rain it wasn’t too cold, but with a fully belly and the pitter-patter of rain, bed was looking pretty cosy. 

The following morning was an early start, as I was keen to knock off the remaining kilometres and get back to Bonnie Brae.  We hadn’t seen one other person since being in the Little Desert, however Mum had run into the Ranger who wasn’t the least bit concerned about our presence.  I packed up my tent and pulled a fresh change of clothes onto my still grubby, smelly body.  After my favourite pre-run breakfast of overnight oats, I gulped down a coffee and set off at roughly 9.15am, leaving Mum to enjoy a leisurely morning.  The first stint was downhill; always a great way to start the day.  My legs were feeling a bit sluggish, but thankfully with no major niggles.  The grey, cloudy hangover of last night’s rain remained, with the temperature slightly cooler than the previous day. The landscape was much the same; low, scrubby bushes with the occasional larger tree, and even less frequent woodland.  The highlight of the morning was passing Salt Lake which still had a bit of water and made for a great self-timer background! I jerry-rigged a tripod from a tree branch and ran back and forth several times on the exposed lakebed, peeved at the tyre tracks disturbing the natural tranquillity of the scene.  I pressed on, still in my 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off regimen.  It wasn’t only to give my heaving lungs a rest, but also to break the boredom and enjoy some phone time, when service permitted. The landscape was unchanging and despite the endless podcast, my mind was still fixated on the goings-on of the world outside the remote Little Desert.  Friends were being stood down from work, businesses were being shut down and everything felt very uncertain.  Constantly refreshing my newsfeed didn’t curb my need for information in an everchanging news cycle.

Last night’s rain hung from the native correa and heath, small burst of colour in a mostly brown and green landscape.  At around 11:30am I reached Yellow Gum Camp, which was also locked and lonely.  With no real reason to stop, I continued on after a quick gander, now headed east, back towards the Wimmera River.  The closer I became to the river, the more the landscape changed, with taller eucalyptus and more undulating terrain.  The heavy cloud slowly parted, with the Mallee sun peeking through for brief, sweaty moments.  As the trail stated to deviate north, I poked my head in at Eagle Swamp, hoping to see some more wildlife.  I was disappointed to find it like most of the Little Desert; deserted and dry.  I was relieved to finally see the Wimmera River just after Crowhurst Flat, with the trail meeting a gravel road, which would lead me along the final riverside stretch.  I finally came across a bunch of kangaroos hanging out on the slightly green grass on the river flats; the most wildlife I’d seen over the past two days.  Knobbly, towering gums lined the track, which were a nice change from stunted bush I had grown accustom to.

I arrived at Horseshoe Bend rather confused – It looked nothing like the picnic area I’d left just 28 hours earlier.  I was pretty cooked by this point; I just wanted it to be over.  I consulted the map at the toilet block and realised I still had a few river bends to round before reaching the finish line.  The sight of the Landcruiser patiently awaiting my arrival brought a relieved grin to my face, as I picked up the pace, bringing it home strong.  Mum had her whopping zoom lens at the ready, so I did my best to hide my fatigue as I lurched towards the Little Desert Loop sign, which mentally marked the finish line after a whopping 36.7 kilometre day.

It was 2.30pm by this stage, and I was pretty hungry and rather smelly.  We jumped in the car and drove around to the ‘beach’, a bend in the river with an accessible point for swimming.  I stripped off and jumped in my undies, with the cool, muddy waters of the Wimmera River washing away 74 kilometres worth of sweat and dust.  After drying off and pulling on some clean clothes, it was lunch time. I threw together a big, delicious bowl of fresh and roasted veg and devoured it in minutes.  Before saying farewell to the Little Desert we went for a short walk to look at a ring tree; a huge river gum who’s branches had been manipulated by the Wotjobaluk Peoples hundreds of years ago to create a landmark.  The branches had fused together, and were quite high up on the trunk, which demonstrated it had been done while the tree was still a sapling and was of considerable age.

It was finally home time; and for how long we didn’t know.  Impending restrictions were imminent and future travel plans seemed like a faraway dream.  But I was thankful to be returning to a farm, with endless chores and vast, open paddocks to roam in.  My legs were certainly worthy of some rest, but I was feeling good after my efforts and excited to keep building the kilometres during April whilst running for wild places.

For more information of Run for Wild Places, visit www.runforwildplaces.com.au

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