THE BACK STORY
1. Childhood Bushwalking – From the time I could walk the adventure began. Dad and Mum carefully budgeted for family camping and bushwalking trips to National Parks at least twice a year, as often as possible we would pack the car and trailer, we even had a caravan for a while, drive hundreds of kilometres and set up our camp with a little fire for the billy and breakfast toast. Where ever we went there were endless adventures through mountains, rainforests and beaches. Nothing was beyond the limits of our imaginations and endless energy. The memories are still vivid of discovering Australia throughout my early years including the Warrumbungles, Wollumbin (Mt Warning) near Murwillumbah, waterfall and cave walks around Binna Burra, scaring Mum as Dad and I scrambled across the tops of ocean rock ledges in Arakoon, hiking around alpine lakes and tarns on the way to the top of Mt Kosciuszko and the beautiful Cradle Mountain circuit in Tasmania. Walking started long before I knew it was going to be a significant part of my life.
2. High School Inspiration – In 1984, when I read Robyn Davidson’s book ‘Tracks’ as part of the NSW school English literature curriculum I saw what could be achieved by one woman alone. When I read her adventure, walking 2,700kms alone from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean with camels and a dog, her story resonated with my soul and I knew, at 12 years old, adventure and walking were going to play a big part in my future. I also knew whatever I did would be alone without humans or other animals
3. Living and Breathing Wilderness – In the summer of 1987/88 the family camping trip went down to Kosciuszko National Park in the Snowy Mountains. While we were there we explored just about every track between Sawpit Creek and Mt Kosciuszko but more importantly the place where we camped put up a “Lease For Auction” sign. We went back to Newcastle but less than 2 months later we were the new owners of the lease for “The Alpine Accommodation Complex”. We quickly renamed it “Kosciusko Mountain Retreat” and owned it for 15 years, until the fires of 2003.
This was a wonderland for me. I spent every spare hour in the bush, exploring the creeks, waterfalls, skinny dipping in secret waterholes far away from the walking tracks. I had a favourite walking circuit, off track, the markers were special places like ancient trees, hollows, creek crossings, wombat burrows, strange rocks and clearings.
(This intrinsic knowledge of the hills and creeks around Sawpit Creek helped rescue 2 small lost children in 2003 as I led police through the area in a mid-winter night search, the kids were found just before the police were going to call it off until daylight. If I didn’t know that place like the back of my hand those kids would have died of hypothermia before daylight.)
In the summer of 1989 I walked, ran and cycled Mt Kosciuszko more than 50 times from Thredbo, Charlottes Pass and Blue Lake. Many friends and family visited that year and I made it a habit to befriend campers so I could tag along. In winter I skied the tracks above the snow line, below the tree line, tracks I loved walking in summer like Porcupine Rocks and Rainbow Lake. On skis and snowshoes, with the right gear, enough alpine backcountry experience and survival knowledge, you are not limited to tracks.
Living at Kosciusko Mountain Retreat was isolating. School was an hour away (without ice or snow on the road) and the business was too busy for us kids to get into town very often. We had one set social activity per week, mine was Friday nights at Jindabyne Venturers. The 2 years I was there we had leaders who had lost interest in Scouting but we planned trips of our own and were involved in backcountry rescue training with State Emergency Services. Between my fellow Venturers, SES volunteers, SAS army training teams and keen backcountry adventurers regularly camping at our place I collected a lot of knowledge about multiday walks, safety (ignoring the No1 rule of not going alone), gear, rations, snow caves, huts, crossing rivers, weather, terrain, finding water, etc. It was only natural deciding to turn that knowledge into experience. Solo multiday walking in the Snowy Mountains became a new passion.
4. Walks For Awareness – In my 30s I started feeling a deep need to act on the pressure of responsibility for the state of our planet. The destruction of wilderness, senseless killing of wild animals and increased rates of extinction, global warming, pollution and exploitation was calling for action. The only thing I could think of was to walk. I wrote letters, signed and created petitions, joined demonstrations, etc, but the only thing that felt like I was making a difference was creating a series of walks I called “Walks For Awareness”. When I walked and talked and raised awareness or funds I felt like one person really can make a difference. I became one part of many proactively and positively walking and working towards a better future. There was no way I could have stayed still and watched with indifference as the world fell apart around me. I didn’t know at the time that my compassion and commitment, fervour and zeal were dangerously close to burnout. I put everything into what I did, it felt good but I took it too far before fatigue hit. At the same time, the abuse from those opposed to protecting wilderness and wildlife increased beyond what I could emotionally or psychologically cope with. In 2010 I stopped walking, went into hiding and lost my battle with mental illness trying to suicide 3 times.
WALKING FOR THERAPY
5. Escape into Wilderness – Unconsciously, from my teens through to my late 30s I used outdoor activities such as running, cycling, paddling, horse riding, skiing, snowshoeing, sailing, swimming and mostly bushwalking to prevent these illnesses from controlling my life. I had breakdowns and struggles, lost jobs and relationships, increasingly lost faith in humanity and became a recluse but I thought it was normal adult stuff with no idea it was anything more than what most people deal with. When I put my pack on my back and walked into the wilderness I left the troubles behind me. It was just Nature and my instincts. It wasn’t until 2010 I realised Nature nurtured me through some very confused and tumultuous years. Wilderness was my therapist.
6. Prescribed Walking – In May 2010 a lot of things changed. I stopped walking and it was the most detrimental change of all. Losing interest in your favourite things is a big mental illness warning sign.
Then I put on about 40kg because of inactivity and comfort eating. Sudden change in weight and eating habits, eg, food addiction, not eating and binging are also big mental illness warning signs.
I was diagnosed with depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), later diagnosed as complex PTSD and officially diagnosed on the autism spectrum with aspergers. The signs and symptoms for depression and PTSD started possibly as early as 1978.
It took a while to find a psychologist I felt comfortable with and when I did she soon saw clearly how important walking was for my heart, body and mind. Walking became my main therapy.
Walking as therapy has many benefits. For me these include exercise, sunlight (Vit D), Nature (- ions), fresh air, social interaction, smiling and clear thinking. It is free therapy too!
DEVELOPING AN IDEA
7. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” Fredrich Nietzsche
Haha! I’m not saying The Happy Walk is a truly great thought but when I conceived it while walking for therapy it was possibly the biggest step toward discovering my purpose and following my passion.
It was December 2010 and I was living in Bombala at the time. Most days I went for a brief walk around this quiet and pretty little high country town, down to the public library to borrow resources about mental health then the café to read the regional newspapers and eavesdrop on local gossip. As I studied and learnt about my mental health I also learnt about the state of Australia’s mental health, lack of resources, funding cuts to non-profits, removal of government services and staff, increasing suicide rates in rural and remote regions and complete political disregard.
So, I decided to help in some small way.
THE HAPPY WALK
8. Raising Awareness – The Happy Walk is many things.
When I set out on this journey I thought to myself “If I can save just one life I will have achieved my goal.”
Talking about suicide and discussing mental illness does not cause either. In fact talking is the best path to finding help and starting a path to recovery. Through talking and respectful listening we can help each other and shake off the old stigma society used to attach to mental illness and suicide. I am walking the talk all around Australia. There have been hundreds of road side conversations, over 100 media interviews and talks in schools and interest groups, social media and increased awareness amongst friends and family. Conversations about my personal journey from illness to recovery, how Lifeline helped me and millions of others, reassuring people they are not alone and there is hope has been like a beacon of light.
Emails, facebook messages and phone texts regularly remind me of how far The Happy Walk’s message has spread across Australia and the world.
This walk has helped save many more than “just one life”.
9. Walking for a Cause – During my recovery I used Lifeline and this walk is a way I can say thank you.
I did not know about Lifeline when I tried to take my life but when I finally found a compatible psychologist she gave me Lifeline’s number. Psychologists are not usually available 24/7, they need to set boundaries for their own mental health but Lifeline is available 24/7 every day of the year in Australia with call centres operated by trained volunteer and professional phone counsellors in every state.
During my recovery and therapy I experienced some really big and frightening relapses. These usually happened at night, on weekends or significant days like xmas or my birthday. I have Lifeline’s number programmed into my phone and used it. Each time someone gently encouraged me to talk about what was wrong, what had happened or was happening to trigger my relapse, how I might be able to ground myself again and seek follow up help. No matter how long it took they stayed on the other end of the phone until they knew I was safe.
Lifeline have taken calls from people in crisis for 54 years. They take calls from almost 1 million people a year and many more through their online chat support service.
Fundraisers like The Happy Walk help keep the crisis hotline and online support service running. Fundraisers are an essential part of Lifeline as our government has cut funding to this life saving non-profit charity. Each time you donate to a fundraiser, shop in a Lifeline store, visit a Lifeline Book Fair or participate in a Lifeline event you are helping save lives, you are helping to train phone counsellors and keep phone lines open.
Unlike many, Lifeline fundraisers DO NOT use donations, ALL donations go to Lifeline and the fundraiser (me) covers the costs of the fundraising event (The Happy Walk) through other means (personal funds and gifts from supporters).
10. For Me – Apart from being good therapy I am living a dream, staying connected to Nature, discovering many beautiful places, meeting fascinating people, giving back, taking responsibility, fulfilling my purpose.