Monday, November 24, 2014

The final stages

This month it has been an all out effort to finish the great wall of Drummonds. The weather has been hovering in the mid to high 20s and aside from a few hours around midday when the sun is overhead, I've been working in shade most of the day.

Having put cement on the top of the steps they next needed to be rendered. I dug down to some lovely yellow beach sand and made a lovely mix which looks great when it's wet. Sadly it all dries to a nondescript white colour which I'm thinking may be too intense, so I'm contemplating painting it at a later date. Still undecided on the colour....

Then it was on to more of the wall. First I needed to extend the chicken wire and stuffing as far as I could go with what rubbish I had around the place. Old PVC plumbing bits, a couple of old windsurfing sails, any old plastic bottles and old shoes lying around, joined what few cans I had and the last of the wine bottles. It appears I hadn't drunk enough to fill the wall after all, and all the donated cans take up so little space once they're crushed.

So with just one small section to go it was time to remove the huge black wattle in the way. Initially I'd thought I could just build the wall behind it, but it became apparent pretty quickly that that wasn't going to work as the level of its roots was just all wrong. They aren't long lived trees anyway, and this one's been around over 10 years so it probably doesn't have long left. And it's just plain in the way.

Sunday was a warm one, and it wasn't long before I was sweating away, slowly removing sections with the chainsaw. I'd chopped the smaller branches off earlier in the week using a handsaw up a ladder, but the lower thicker trunk needed the help of power tools. My cheap little electric Ozito did an awesome job, and with the help of some ropes I managed to remove the sections without them falling and damaging my wall. PHEW!!

Then I had to remove the stump. Wow what a lot of big thick roots that wattle had. Nothing that a shovel, a chainsaw and choppers can't resolve though.

Out it came! And some steps put in to reconcile the levels.

Two weeks later, more donated cans, and the whole wall is stuffed and ready for rendering.

Back to mixing up sand, cement and lime with water and slapping it on. I really enjoy this process, especially the final bit when you try for a smooth even surface. Not dissimilar to icing a cake...

Layer upon layer gets thrown on and the surface builds up to something truly beautiful.

Only a small section left to go

A last minute realignment of the end of the wall, and the final stages of covering up the steps on the southern side and infilling with rocks.

And then I went windsurfing!

Today the temperature heads into the 30s, and tomorrow it's forecast 39 degrees with a storm. So I'm packing up for the week and will see if I can finish it off next weekend.

That's all for now folks...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Gear for an extended walk through the woods Part 1

Having now decided to walk the Bibbulman Track next year I am fully into preparation mode. At some point I intend to join the Foundation, if only to give them a little money for helping maintain such a valuable resource, but also to get a discount on any merchandising. In the meantime, I'm using on line resources, the two old guidebooks I have, and a few books on ultralight backpacking and backpacking food preparation.

The key to ultralight is to reduce the weight of your "big three" items - cooking, sleeping, shelter - without compromising safety or comfort. This requires a combination of trimming down what you bring to the bare necessities, bringing items that have multiple uses, and purchasing or finding lighter weight materials. A journey through the ultralight forums on the internet reveals many DIY solutions that don't actually cost a lot of money. For instance the penny stove I made last year!

this weighs 20g!

That's not to say I haven't spent any money, because I have. For instance I bought a tent last year, and after realising on my Java trip that a hammock has limited applications at altitude I knew I was better off with a ground based shelter. But that means bringing along a sleeping pad.

I spent a very cold windy night at 2800m in this hammock earlier this year

So bear with me here as we journey through this process. I have a great sleeping bag that I used in Java last year, which is 492g without its stuff sack and has a rating down to 2C. Which is more than enough for the Bibbulman.

ditch the stuff sack and lose 60g
Next I have a 3 quarter length (which is almost full length for short little me) Nemo Zor inflatable sleeping pad. Last weekend I inflated it and slept on it just to see whether it could handle an entire night without deflating. Also, to see whether it was comfy enough for a good sleep. It stayed inflated all night, and I used my backpack under my legs and feet to insulate them from the ground, and found I slept quite well. It's not as comfy as a thicker mattress or pad, but with my seriously low comfort needs, it's quite sufficient. I normally sleep on a hard futon, so mattress softness isn't high on my comfort needs, but warmth is. The Zor weighs 292g and 15g less if I ditch its stuff bag.

tiny little brick, takes a while to squeeze all that air out and stuff it in its bag everyday...

Ditching the stuff bag achieves a bunch of gains, not least of which is 15g less weight. Every gram saved means those luxury items I wish to bring won't hurt so much, but the real gain here is in speed,  reduced frustration and multiuse. By not packing that pad up into a stuff sack I won't be cussing away at how freaking difficult it is to get all the air out so it can fit into its teeny tiny bag, that then feels and looks like a small brick and needs to be packed somewhere. That will be an everyday occasion if I persist with the tiny stuff sack option. Instead, I'll be folding it up neatly and tucking it in as extra back padding in my backpack, and also to protect my laptop whilst trekking. A much tidier and hassle free solution...

perfect macbook size!

Which gets me to shelter. Remember I said I got a tent. It's a four season light weight tent that's perfect for cold rainy windy weather, like Scotland (where I used my last Vango tent) or South Island New Zealand. Well that weighs 1.4kg, although I can probably shave that down a bit by substituting the pegs for lighter titanium ones which is not only an expensive option but probably won't save a lot of weight anyway. Thing is, a tent's not an essential item for the Bibbulman Track, because it has sleeping shelters all the way, and it's unlikely that they'll be full. Most people just walk small sections of the track, usually on weekends, and large groups aren't allowed to use the shelters until after 6pm to ensure that the small group and solo walkers get a chance of a berth, but bringing a tent is encouraged just in case, and each shelter site has spaces for pitching tents. From my reading of the ultralight literature "just in case" isn't something that should be considered, it's either necessary for your safety/comfort etc, or it isn't. And we're not talking extreme weather conditions either...

my Vango force 10 tent, not necessary for the Bibbulman track

Bush camping along the Bibbulman track is really discouraged, mainly to try and preserve the pristine nature of most of the bushland through which the track passes, but also because large sections of the track are through water catchment areas. Usually public access to water catchment areas is prohibited in most of Australia, or tightly controlled, so free access through this area isn't to be taken lightly. And with so many shelters and campsites with water and toilets, it's hardly necessary to camp elsewhere. But down on the south coast, I'm planning to walk a little slower and stay in a couple of camping areas that don't have shelters, so yes, I do need to bring my own.

I love swag camping. For those non Australian readers, a swag is a bedroll made up of a foam mattress and bedding rolled up in canvas. You throw it down where you plan to sleep and climb in. You lie in your bed nice and toasty (the canvas provides superb insulating and waterproofing) and watch the stars as you drift off into nigh-nighs. And in our Aussie outback, the stars are amazing! In the morning you wake to the sound of birds singing as the gentle light of dawn approaches, and turn over for a few more hours of zeds!! Nah, I'm an early riser, especially when camping.
I have one of these awesome swags, made just down the road from me

I've swag camped in Central Australia, where I've had to break the ice on a frosty morning, yet I've been snug and warm inside. Of course I had my snugglebug Hazel to keep me warm back then, what an awesome hot water bottle a cuddly little dog can be. However, a big heavy canvas swag is hardly for backpacking!!

The ultralighters use tarp shelters, and if combined with a bivy bag, there's extra insulation and warmth, the option to just sleep in the bivy if there's no rain forecast, or erect the tarp if there is. The tarp can be a pillow if not being used, or set up as a sun shelter should I want an afternoon snooze. And a tarp and bivy combination comes in at 750g! Plus pegs. Trekking poles can be used to erect the tarp, another example of multiuse!

I've gone and coughed up for some titanium pegs, which are 6-9g each. Once all the gear arrives I'm going camping for a night, so I can try everything out and see how comfy I actually am. Of course I promise to take lots of photos.

Can't wait...

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ultralight here I come

My next 2 big adventures are skiing related. First Japan in February for 3 weeks skiing and one week sightseeing in Kyoto. I'm pretty well researched out on that trip, just need to get the body into shape. Hmmmm...

Then July I'm off to NZ again, for 3 months in Wanaka, skiing at Treble Cone and maybe a little ski touring, then return to Australia to do some long distance trekking on the Bibbulman Track from Perth to Albany.

That's what I'm actively researching right now. 11 months away but you just can't start planning too soon. Walking in the wilderness for 2 months does require a little preparation, something I've actually been doing for some time. In fact I bought the guidebooks a good two years ago.

As those who've been following my blog know, I've been trying to reduce the weight in my backpack for some time, to allow me to travel easily without the discomfort of heavy bulky gear. Wishing to bring a laptop, a quality camera and other peripheral electronics, means making some really hard decisions about what to bring and what to leave behind. Then decide to go walking in the wilderness with the need to be self sufficient and things start getting really interesting.

So I have been slowly and carefully researching and purchasing choice items for my dream system. Since I have a well paid job, price isn't necessarily a sticking point. Lucky for me. Though not everything has to be expensive. I still haven't found a better raincoat solution than a cheap $6 plastic poncho that only weighs 49g!

Yeah, I'm pretty nerdy when it comes to that sort of planning. Even before I read books on ultralight backpacking I'd begun using the kitchen scales to measure the weight of all my gear. Those books, however, have encouraged me to start hacking away at the extra cords and doodaddles on my backpack, remove extra weight by ditching superfluous items, and getting even more minimalist on the clothing I bring. Having done a fair bit of travel out of a backpack now, I've a pretty good idea of what I really need, vs extras just in case.

However, wilderness walking is quite a different scenario, because carrying enough food between towns is a limiting factor. Carrying less superfluous stuff means more consumables can be taken for the same weight. And your backpack gets lighter as you consume them!

I'm pretty keen to make my own dehydrated meals for the trip, and have been researching recipes and instructions for dehydrating vegetables, fruit and meat. There's absolutely no need to purchase prepackaged meals at $18 - $20 a pop when some time spent cooking and preparing can see you sending off some packages of home prepared meals to your food drops along the way. Australia Post offers parcel post for $17 up to 5kg, which I can send to myself at post offices along the way.

The longest stretch is 13 days between towns, if I take it slowly and stay at each hut. But if I travel lighter I can walk further and carry less food as a result. 10 days seems a good compromise, and there is a roadhouse enroute if I'm desperate.

For the record, the definition of ultralight backpacking is base weight of less than 10lb. This is 4.5kg in my lexicon. That includes your backpack and everything you carry on your back, excluding consumables (food, water, fuel), and doesn't include the clothes you wear. And since you carry it continuously, unlike sightseeing backpacking where your backpack stays in your hotel most of the time, there is no point taking anything unnecessary on an extended walk through the woods.

Over the next few months I'll be discussing what's going into this backpack, why, how and what it weighs. I know I won't make it under the 4.5kg mark with a laptop and a solar panel array (now there's a teaser for you!) but I'm going to give it a damn fine try!

I'll also be test driving some of my gear, especially those purchases I've yet to take out into the field.

I hope you'll enjoy following the journey with me...

Monday, November 3, 2014

The ongoing saga of the Great Wall of Drummonds

The last couple of months have been strange, weatherwise, with more than our usual fair share of rain, falling usually on the weekends. This has meant a little bit of a delay in getting finished on the retaining wall, as I'm not one to be out in the wet with power tools. Thank goodness the fronts seem to have stopped, so at last I have been able to get cracking.

The length of the wall is essentially finished, although the black wattle still needs to be removed to finish off the final section and make access to the second tier easy. This is a big job, though not quite in the realm of the bougainvillea wars, because it involves the manhandling of a chainsaw whilst on a ladder. I may just wimp out and use a hand saw, because quite frankly I don't trust a man to get the job done right, even if he's holding the chainsaw rather than me, and not allow the tree to topple down onto my wall and crack the render. If I can chop down all the bigger branches first, I've a chance to get the heavy trunk out using some rope to stop it all crashing down. Then it's just a matter of digging out the roots. Totally doable, just in stages.

So, back at the other end of the wall I've been affixing chicken wire to the tyres and stuffing them with bottles, cans, and when the cans ran out, junk. First was the big pile of fishing rope and twine that washed up on the beach a couple of years ago. I retrieved quite a few useful lengths of rope and netting for use in the garden, but the rest has just been sitting around waiting for a plan. Now it's part of a wall. Then, I added crushed plastic bottles and old clothes. Any old rubbish really, that can fill in the gaps between the interlocked tyres so the lot can be rendered over. Even some old shoes and sandals!

The steps gaps, however, are filled with stones. That's because they are weight bearing, so I want a bit more strength for them. I did the same with the steps on the first tier and they have held up fantastically. It's weird to remember how difficult it used to be clambering up the sliding dune to get to the chicken pen. So easy now.

After running out of bottles and cans, though I still have a good supply of old clothes and other useless junk, I deemed I'd covered enough of the wall to get cracking on a weekend of rendering. The first step in the render plan is checking the weather forecast for a week of mild temperatures so the render gets to dry and cure slowly. It's actually in the shade most of the day, which makes working on it a lot more pleasant as well!

So, Saturday morning bright and early I mixed my first batch of render and finished covering the risers on the top steps and the side walls around the steps, then extended the wall render southwards. This is a really fun job, though messy, as you throw the mix at the junk and watch it stick. Slowly, as you mix more batches and add more, you fill in the gaps and the wall starts to take shape. Then a final layer and a smooth over and it starts to look like a work of art. I took a 2 hour break in the middle of the day when the sun was beating down, and finished it off later when the house put me in shadow again, and got a good 3m done. I'm yet to finish wiring and stuffing further along the wall, but I'm hopeful I can finish it and render it by the end of the month. Once December hits, so does the heat, and working out in the garden for any length of time becomes unbearable.

Sunday was concrete day. I source my gravel and sand on site, so after sifting out the gravel and digging a few bucketfuls of sand, it was time to mix everything up with cement and water and lay it down on the tops of the steps. This was all done by hand. Unfortunately, the promised cement mixer didn't materialise, as the motor was broken, so it was all done with a shovel and a hoe. I don't mind, because it totally shows that if you make batches small enough (and my job isn't a big one that really needs machinery) it's possible for anyone to build what I'm doing with very little technology at all. It's physically hard work - which my body needs given I have such a sedentary occupation - and takes a lot longer than if a machine mixed up the batches, but it's also incredibly empowering to look at what you've made and be able to truly say that every part of that wall was made by you.

The concrete making didn't take as long as I expected and by 2pm I was done. I was also, to put it mildly, shattered. Next weekend I'll render over the steps and then that whole half of the wall will be finished.

I might even tackle that tree...