If you have been following The Happy Walk for more than a month you probably read about the incident on the Barkly Highway. That was just part of it.
It has taken a while to feel comfortable enough to write a detailed post about exactly what happened. Part of the process has been recovery from the anxiety caused by trauma, understanding a few timely insights and applying necessary changes.
To help you understand the synchronicity of these insights and my own state of mind I will explain a bit more about where I was walking and what was influencing the deterioration of my physical, emotional and mental health. It helped me to see all this to understand why I needed to change plans.
Way back in Katherine I had a bumpy start to this final leg of The Happy Walk. It didn’t smooth out and became more of a rollercoaster ride. It was still very hot, average daily ambient temperature of 36C, road surface temperature hovering around 60C, radiant heat around 48-52C. A migraine sent me to hospital with police assistance on the first day of walking then the story of the escaped rapist was on the cover page of the same paper my story appeared in, which triggered a PTSD relapse associated with the night I was raped in Darwin in 2007. I was shaken up for almost a week. The temperatures rose again to 38C so I waited a few more days until the forecast anticipated something below 36C. On the road with the burning bitumen under foot and radiant heat engulfing me like a suffocating blanket all day I struggled. Leaving Katherine and walking south on the Stuart Highway I had a lung infection, burn blisters on the soles of both feet (the hot bitumen burnt through the soles of my thongs and shoes), bleeding bowels and urinary tract, full body heat rash, back spasms, dodgy knee, blood nose, bleeding chaffing and a strange pain in my side. Being too stubborn for my own good I pushed on figuring my body would sort itself out eventually. And it did but in that time I was on the verge of collapse many times. I wondered if I had drunk enough water (usually7-8ltrs) or too much or needed more electrolytes or had used too many. Sometimes I was sure if I let go of Dory’s handles (the barrow) I would fall down and not be able to get to my feet again so I kept walking to avoid falling. After 2 weeks I felt better, most of the problems were gone or reduced in pain intensity.
Then the logistical and technical problems began. There was only a little, barely any support in the way of donations of shelter, food or drinking water so I burnt through the support funds raised during the summer crowdfund campaign, especially when I needed to rest in a bed because I was in too much agony to climb in and out of the tent and sleep on the ground and I had some issues which required a toilet to be not too far away.
Spokes in the wheels started loosening and snapping, I tightened them several times a day but the rocky gravel and continuously rolling off and on the edge of the bitumen all day to give way to passing traffic loosened them faster than I could keep up. Eventually one wheel started buckling and each time the warp rolled past the guard rail it rubbed and caught, acting like a brake every 2 metres.
Australia Post “lost” one of my 2 week ration and supply packs which I had sent to a roadhouse (confirmed address with manager before posting) and the post office couldn’t recall if they had received or delivered the other pack so I had to cut back to half rations. They also “lost” 2 other parcels of expensive nutrition supplies sent separately from the supplier.
There are big mines out there, surveying has begun on a gas pipeline from the gulf to Port Augusta and coal seam gas permits on ecologically sensitive and culturally rich land within major water catchments have recently been given to mining magnates. Not good for the environment, locals or tourism.
Each day along both the Stuart and Barkly Highways I watched many road trains full of cows and other animals going off to the ships for export and slaughterhouses. Pro-export and beef sentiment was everywhere, in my face every day, even stickers for “get your teeth into beef” and “support live export” were on road signs, on roadhouse counters and behind the bars. I knew I was deep in enemy mining and beef territory and because I was walking alone I let my actions and choices speak rather than words. I was vulnerable as it was without making myself a big vegan greenie target.
Never the less, it was distressing. I started noticing signs of depression like crying most of the day, loss of energy, needing too much sleep, craving old comfort foods, wanting to disappear, doubting my worth. I still have some resilience work to do on compassion fatigue. I started falling into old self-destructive habits and the worst old habit of all, hiding it under a mask of health and happiness, smiling and waving cheerily as tears welled up behind my sunglasses. All I wanted was to be on the east coast, near friends and family, to smell the ocean, walk through the green hinterlands and feel the comforting and familiar presence of the Great Dividing Range. I was tired of being alone. I was tired of the outback. No amount of positive energy, searching for beauty and imagining hope could pull me out of my melancholy.
While this was happening, the idea of becoming the first woman to walk around Australia solo unaccompanied became an obsession. Without noticing what was happening I shifted my focus from Lifeline and the message of hope, health and happiness to that single goal. I spent hours fixating on how it will change my life, how the title will help me sell books and paintings, people will ask me to tour the world to talk about such a great achievement, blah, blah, blah, ego, ego, ego. It wasn’t until I listened to an interview with Sarah Marquis on a podcast that I realised how unhealthy my obsession was. I was already intrigued by Marquis and a little miffed because she had never replied to my emails or messages over the years to congratulate her, ask for advice, share a connection and try to meet up when we were very close to each other last year in the Kimberley. But what really shook me was how I reacted when the podcaster worded her Australian walks as “14,000kms around Australia”. The “around” bit made my heart race with fear that another woman was already claiming to have walked around solo unaccompanied. It wasn’t for a few days and a bit of research later I learnt it wasn’t “around” as in a circuit, but “around” as in here and there.
This was a real eye opener for me. An unhealthy ego was creeping in. I started forgetting I am an ordinary person taking advantage of an extraordinary opportunity for a worthy cause. It scared me. Rather than react I decided to think and analyse what happened and how to adjust my attitude.
At the same time as all this I had begun reading and meditating on “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”, a relatively modern Buddhist text written about 1300 years ago, about the enlightened path of altruism and dedicating oneself to the happiness and end of suffering for all beings. For a feminist it is not easy reading, a lot of old traditional sexist references, but there are gems of insight in there. It reminded me why I started this walk and the direction I hope to take after it has finished.
Looking back now, this awareness was possibly the only thing which kept me going after the most frightening incident I have experienced to date while walking around Australia.
Since 2008 I have undertaken numerous solo charity and awareness walks. The walks which follow roads require road sense and respect for all road users, their safety and my own. There is legislation written specifically for pedestrians and you can find it in the “Australian Road Rules Part 14 Rules for Pedestrians 238 – Pedestrians travelling along a road”. I abide by these rules and state regulations and the sub-clauses regarding the use of common sense. I even have a side mirror fitted so I know when I must give way to oncoming traffic if there is traffic approaching from behind (this last is safe only on the quiet open highways with broken centre lines).
The only times I have had trouble with traffic is the occasional (only 9 in 12,000kms) road rage incidents where drivers, usually truckies, coming towards me leave the road and try or pretend to try running me into the bush or fence line. For every heavy vehicle driving towards me I leave the road, usually leave the shoulder and sometimes the gravel verge if the road is narrow. 2 metres is the clearance distance I like to give all heavy vehicles if there is room. My comfort zone is 1 metre (watching their trailers for wobble) but from the driver’s seat 1 metre doesn’t look like much so I understand they feel comfortable with more. This is how it has always been and there is never an excuse for aggressive behaviour.
Then, the day I was half way between Barkly Homestead and Camooweal, a fully loaded 3 trailer cattle road train tried running me down from behind with intent to kill.
There was a strong headwind roaring across my ears so I plugged in some earbuds and listened to Deb Ozarko’s status-quo crushing podcasts. The highway was quiet. It was cold, about 15C, but the sun glare was fierce. I had been walking in layers of thermals, gloves, balaclava and bright yellow jacket to block the wind. My energy was very low and every half hour I needed to stop to lie down beside the road and rest. I didn’t even have enough energy to lie on a mat, just on the gravel beside my barrow. Interesting side note, nobody stopped to ask if I was okay or needed help.
When I‘m exhausted instinct takes over and that was how I walked most of that day. Shutting out everything except what was essential for survival and moving forward. I was 3 days east of Barkly Homestead and 3 days west of Camooweal with no phone range between. My poor mental and physical health made the geographical isolation feel worse. By now the podcast was just background noise to counter the wind noise. My entire focus was on the road ahead and each footstep. It was a very strange feeling I had walking around the outside of a wide corner when my instinct told me to turn around. If I hadn’t I’d be dead.
I slightly turned my head to the left to look over my shoulder and caught a glimpse of something that didn’t make sense in the side mirror. I twisted around to see a massive road train moving across into the oncoming lane and towards me. The driver looked back at me. I had seconds to push my barrow off the road and run out of the way. I turned back to where I had just been walking to watch the road train drive over that very spot with all 3 trailers and then he moved back to his side of the road. There was no way he would have been able to safely move back and avoid running me over if I had not moved. He had no intention of changing his course. He was not pretending or threatening or sleeping at the wheel. He wanted to kill me.
Immediately shock set in, dizziness, jelly legs, cold clammy skin, uncontrollable shaking and anger. There was another vehicle behind the truck so I couldn’t see his registration plate which made me angrier because I wanted justice. I managed to find my UHF radio and gave him a piece of my mind but the state of shock I was in it probably didn’t make sense (but any sailor would have understood the gist of it).
After about 10 minutes I managed to regain control enough to keep walking, telling myself it was wasted time and energy standing there shaking and crying, hoping for help. I took the earbuds out so I could hear if traffic was coming from behind but that was useless, the wind was too strong and loud and I remained deaf to anything behind me. Every vehicle passing from behind made me jump, every truck passing either direction triggered a panic reaction, so much so I started yelling (shakily) power words to try and counteract my weakness. I walked another 3 kilometres before fear forced me off the road, also fear of the same driver returning to finish off the job. It all felt scarily primal.
It also felt like defeat. After 12,000kms being forced off the road by a truck, raising awareness about mental health while almost being killed by someone who needs help, a vegan being run down by a cattle train, if it wasn’t so harrowing it would have been ironic.
The idea of the truck driver returning to try again was enough to make me go into hiding in the bush, indefinitely. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing or how I was going to get out to the next town, I couldn’t think straight. I pitched my tent well out of sight of the road, covered up my tracks leading into the bush and pulled out a note book to calculate how much food and water was left and how long they would last on emergency rations. After working out I had 2 weeks of food supplies, about a month worth of body fat plus bush tucker and 3 weeks of water rations plus 1-2 litres I could collect daily using survival techniques I wondered if I could learn to stay hidden, go a bit wild and change my identity. Remembering someone would notice my absence from facebook after a week and realising that would lead to emergency services looking for a confused hiding stinky person I needed another plan and decided to sleep on it.
That night I read “The Wisdom of Compassion” by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan. This insight struck home so it was the last thing I thought of before sleeping;
“It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act. There are two aspects to action. One is to overcome the distortions and afflictions of your own mind, that is, in terms of calming and eventually dispelling anger. This is action out of compassion. The other is more social, more public. When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefiting others, one needs to be engaged, involved.” HH Dalai Lama
These were the words I needed to help make some difficult decisions in the following 2 days.
When I started planning this walk in 2011 my intention was to help others and help my own recovery. For 2 ½ years and 12,000kms I had put my whole heart and soul into this, put my body and mind through extremes, met and rose above many challenges, selling everything of value I owned, to carry a message of hope and happiness and help Lifeline. I had just pulled myself out of a serious ego trap to refocus on intention only to be caught by fear. I needed the message of compassion and altruism reinforced. I needed to remember the first intention, my purpose for walking around Australia. The words of the Dalai Lama reminded me to take care of myself so I can help others. I had some difficult decisions to make but I still had a purpose to fulfil.
When I woke up I felt completely drained of emotion, numb. I spent the day meditating, reading and writing down options which included continuing on the same stretch of road, quitting the entire walk, taking a break then returning to the Barkly Highway or continuing the walk but not on the Barkly Highway. I knew hiding wasn’t an option but I still needed to figure out how to stay safe. Giving up really wasn’t an option either. Taking a break would delay reaching the east coast and friends which I wasn’t prepared for psychologically. Skipping a large section of the lap was a challenging idea but after working through the issues which came up the previous week I was reluctantly prepared to let go of the goal to become the first woman to walk around Australia solo unaccompanied if it meant protecting my original intention and my mental health. Regardless of all that, I still chose to continue on the Barkly Highway because I’m stubborn. There was still a strong element of unhealthy ego attached to this choice, I wanted that cattle train driver to see I was not beaten but I also wanted to give it one last try in the hope everything would be okay.
There was a free camp 20kms down the road so I decided to head for it and looked forward to having the company of other travellers, grey nomads and backpackers. Safety in numbers. I packed up camp at 2pm giving myself enough time to arrive before sunset but I did not anticipate the fear reactions continuing with vehicles passing from behind and trucks. It felt like I was walking in a perpetual panic attack, shaking and struggling to breath, tunnel vision and trying to jump out of my skin all at the same time. I ended up arriving at the free camp after dark but there was only one other camper and he was drunk, stank and sounded like he had tuberculosis so I kept walking until out of sight, turned off my safety lights, hid the reflector vest and disappeared into the bush. It wasn’t going as I hoped and I still had not been able to talk to anyone about what happened. I desperately needed to speak to another human, it was becoming too much to cope with alone.
This time I didn’t sleep on any options. Before closing my eyes I decided to leave that section of highway, to leave the isolation with no intention to return. The only thing I wanted was to go to the east coast, be with friends and recover. The next morning I walked back to the rest area hoping someone could help me get the hell out of there.
Now, here I am, 3 weeks later, on the east coast, fully recovered and confidently walking safely beside the road from Cairns to Canberra. A lot of people came together to help, fellow travellers, Avon Downs police officer Robyne, Donna and Des, yoga teacher Steven Golding, welfare check-ins from Lifeline HQ and especially Belle Sinclair who drove almost 2,000kms to pick me up and her house mate Nadine who gave me a room to stay and relaxing company in Townsville for 2 weeks.
That’s what happened out there. I won’t go back to Barkly Highway. I no longer feel the need to complete a solo unaccompanied lap. I am looking forward to the last 3,000-4,000kms for many reasons, not least the number of people my message of hope and happiness will reach. I feel comfortable with the decisions I made, especially for my personal health.