Monday, January 9, 2017

Planning for a long distance walk

I actually wrote this post an entire year ago, but failed to publish it. When I got back from my trip a couple of friends suggested that there wasn't much out there on trip preparation so I'm revisiting this post and adding extra information as I go. The original post is in italics, my comments after the fact in normal font:

As I mentioned I'm planning to walk The Bibbulmun Track this year, beginning early October. For those not in the know, this is a 1000km walking trail which traverses wilderness areas between Perth and Albany in the Southwest of WA. It is not a technically difficult trail as there are no wild river crossings, rock climbing or need for advanced orienteering skills, and there are overnight shelters at reasonable distances that have toilets and water tanks to replenish supplies. If travelling at less busy times of the year (like when I plan to go) it's extremely unlikely the shelters will be full meaning it's possible to travel without a tent. But the track isn't an easy stroll, there are very rocky, slippery sections, it's possible to get lost even though there are trail markers, and then there's the harsh Australian climate with its myriad beasties. Yes, there are lots of poisonous snakes, the likelihood of not encountering snakes on this walk is zero. Hence: gaiters!!

Due to the long wet winter and the fact that the track had multiple diversions for most of the last 18 months due to bushfire damage, 2017 ended up being a very busy year for end to end walkers on The Bib. On my first night, despite it being cold, rainy, and Grand Final Day, there were 19 people at the shelter. I had my first night camping alone on Day 45, it was a lot more social than I expected.

Next time I would bring a tent. The weather was quite cold, and it would have been warmer in a tent as the shelters are open on one side, sometimes two sides. In a tent you can keep your body heat contained, plus you can camp away from the early risers who really interrupted my enjoyment of the dawn chorus. There weren't many bad snorers (earplugs are worth taking), but some of the newer air mattresses on the market are very noisy when the sleeper moves around on them. I reckoned, after listening to the noise of these mattresses, that I would find the noise quite intrusive, and was very happy with my older style air mattress which only weighs 277g.

It was really easy to take a wrong path, particularly in the early sections nearer Perth. You had to stay focussed, and look for the Waugals, as there were numerous other tracks that could send you the wrong way. Pretty well everyone I met had a story of going the wrong way and then having to backtrack or find a way around. I wasn't immune either. I had the maps, which helped with identifying landmarks, but I didn't bring the guidebooks. I found some in Balingup and photographed the relevant pages, and found them extremely useful at times. You can do the walk with neither, but I'd actually recommend taking both.

I wore gaiters every day. I didn't need them in the early part of the walk as it was too cold for snakes, but they were useful for keeping your legs protected from sharp grasses and it was easier to wear them than carry them in my bag. Once the snakes came out in abundance, I felt much more secure having them on.

My original plan had been to do the walk in 2015, but bushfires in February closed large sections of the track, destroying bridges and camping shelters, and making it impossible to complete an end to end. By now it's possible to do an end to end again, but there are a lot of diversions in place whilst infrastructure is rebuilt. Delaying by a year gives the bush time to regenerate, and there is nothing more spectacular than the Aussie bush flowering in abundance after a bushfire and a whole bunch of rain. Which, as long as there aren't more devastating fires this summer, next Spring should deliver.

It really was a spectacular season for the flowers, including the orchids. Many plants flowered later than usual because of the long wet winter, which worked well for me as I only began my walk on the 1st October. I was incredibly lucky to be able to walk the entire published track. Sure the Dookanelly to Possum Springs section wasn't officially back in action, but the Murray River was able to be waded easily and I avoided a very boring diversion along Harvey-Quindaning Rd. We were also extremely fortunate to time ourselves with the reopening of the Lake Maringup section, one of the most tranquil campsite locations along the entire route.

I might comment that a lot of people were complaining in the books along the way about the rain, or the cold. Be prepared to be wet and cold. It's the south west, not arid Australia. Pack accordingly. I decided at the last moment to bring a proper rain jacket, not just a poncho, and despite not needing it all the time, I was extremely glad of it on many occasions.

I had already begun the planning stages, having joined the Bibbulman Track Foundation, been in to get some hands on advice about my itinerary from the experienced volunteers in the office, and purchased yet more lightweight backpacking gear. I'm actually glad for the delay, because the planning is a lot more involved than I originally realised.

I met a lot of poorly prepared walkers. People who didn't pack enough food, or had excessively heavy packs a la Cheryl Strayed in Wild. I've probably spent a small fortune on lightweight gear, but I don't expect The Bib to be the only time I use it. I also got some great tips and advice from other walkers about gear for future trips.

The first step is to peruse the maps and guidebooks and website and decide on an itinerary. With a little advice from the volunteers (mainly agreeing with my choices of which sections to double hut), I have settled on a 60 day itinerary which includes a full rest day in each of the 6 towns I pass through. All have good accommodation choices and places to eat out. Nothing quite like a pub meal after a week eating out of one pot. Not to mention a cold beer! There's opportunities to arrange food drops at 10 locations so that I don't need to carry more than a week's food supply at any time. Less weight in the bag makes me very happy!!

My itinerary was at the long end of the spectrum. Most people walked the track in the 45-55 days range with the crazy ones all trying to do it in around 30 days. There were many times when I could have physically walked faster and done more kilometres per day, but I loved exploring each campsite, giving myself time to take some side trips, and of course stopping for photo opportunities. I could happily spend a few hours climbing the rocks behind a campsite, with my cup of tea in hand, and enjoy some views, a few rays, and a little solitude and meditation.

I also appreciated the rest days in each track town, though usually I spent most of that time writing my blog. Using a phone rather than a laptop to blog is a right royal pain in the arse. Period. I got better and faster at it over the time, but it took up a huge amount of my rest days. As it turned out there wasn't much to do in most of the towns themselves anyway, and a rest day is supposed to be just that. What I can report is that there are some really great coffee shops and pub meals to be found in some of those towns. Dwellingup Pub took the crown for best evening meal (both nights), and Collie had some great eating options. The Blue Wren (also Dwellingup) gets my vote for best breakfast. Ravens Cafe pipped Mrs Jones (both in Denmark) for 2nd best breakfast, though I reckon the bacon and eggs I cooked myself in Pemberton were up there too!!

The 10 food drops worked out really well. I purchased 10 prepaid satchels and sent them to myself along the track. I sent them to my accommodation in track towns, or to a tourist office (which are usually open 7 days a week unlike the post office), as well as North Bannister Roadhouse and Peaceful Bay Caravan Park, having rung each place beforehand to confirm I could send my packages. Each package was addressed to me, with expected arrival date on it, and they all arrived on time. My friend in Perth sent them off for me to a timetable I had given her, allowing 3 weeks for the postal service (it can be very slow in regional WA, I was taking no chances), but I could have easily sent them all myself before I left.

Deciding on the food to bring is the most logistically challenging part of the planning. I need to carry 48 breakfasts, 54 lunches and 46 dinners, plus snacks and desserts, spread out over 10 resupply stations.  I began food planning a year ago, by dehydrating a number of items, and storing them in the freezer. But these foods won't last another year, so I've had the opportunity to rehydrate and trial them. I'm extremely glad I have gone through this process, because reconstituted dried eggs aren't that nice, nor is rehydrated yoghurt. So it's back to the drawing board. Homemade muesli with reconstituted powdered milk is actually more palatable than the remade yoghurt, and much less hassle to prepare! I'm working on an alternative to eggs for breakfast: buckwheat pancakes with apple sauce and sultanas. Yum!

The buckwheat pancakes ended up being my biggest cooking failure of the trip. Not only were they messy to cook, but they didn't provide me with enough energy to get through until lunch. Once I bought some nut butter in Collie and added that to the apple sauce topping, it was much better. My other cooked breakfast, a recipe involving cooking cracked wheat with onions and spices, then adding soy sauce and cheese, was my favourite breakfast of all. I'd also recommend adding more milk powder than less to your muesli premix. The extra fat and protein is appreciated.

I've been busy designing and trialling recipes. First to see whether they are easy to make and taste good, and secondly to trial making them with the limited cooking implements I'll have on the trail. I don't intend to resort to noodles, beans and rice for a full 2 months, but there has to be a balance between eating well and the amount of weight I am willing to carry. The trail towns all have supermarkets, but they are small places, so some supplies may be limited. Doing most of my food preparation before hand, and just buying staples in the towns, is a more practical strategy.

I had some fantastic meals on the track, and yes I'm happy to share my recipes. The portion sizes were adequate, and although I did lose some weight, I would have been happier to have lost more!! Dwellingup and Balingup were particularly sparse for resupply options, and North Bannister Roadhouse was abysmal. The other towns had quite large supermarkets, but being able to buy dried food was limited. Northcliffe, however, had a great little bulk food co-op that would package even small quantities for walkers.

There are two options for trail meals. One is to prepare meals, dehydrate them and then reconstitute them on the trail. The second option is to bring the ingredients along, preferably in dry form, and cook them from scratch. Of course a third option is to carry fresh food, but as that means carrying extra weight in the form of the water within the food, I only intend to do this for the first day or so of each section.

Many of the fast walkers didn't carry stoves, and did their resupply in each town. Their food probably weighed more than what I was carrying as it wasn't dehydrated. None of my food packages, including the 8 day package, weighed more than 3 kg, most were well below that.

Many people purchase prepackaged dehydrated meals. Since I'm a bit of a food nazi that's not an option for me, plus they're expensive, the portions are quite small, and I've heard mixed reviews as to tastiness. Anyway, I already own a dehydrator so it seems wasteful not to use it!!

It appears that the dehydrated meals have improved and there are more companies making them so there's lots of variety. Most people were very happy with the taste and portion size of their prepackaged meals, and I think it's a good option for a short trip, but too expensive for an extended trip. The other thing I noticed is that the packaging is excessive. My smaller vacuum packed meals took up less packed room, and less garbage afterwards. Your garbage bag can get quite large after a few days...

The general consensus, from the books I've been reading on trail food, is to settle on a choice of 2 or 3 different breakfast options, snack type lunches that require minimal cooking, if any, and a selection of 10 or so dinner choices. Along with a few judicious spices, the menu shouldn't get boring. And even though I don't normally eat desserts, planning for a few sweets along the trail as little treats is also recommended. Let's face it, when you spend all day burning calories, a little dessert won't hurt will it?

This was my best piece of advice and I am glad I heeded it. I ate really really well on the track. I loved my meals and enjoyed choosing what I would eat each day. My lunch choices were also really yummy and I would always be looking forward to each meal. I also had a few jealous fellow campers eyeing up my meals.

It's actually quite a lot of fun making up these little one pot wonders. I'll be travelling with a single pot and a frypan, so I do have a little flexibility. Getting the dried ingredients together, packaging meals in single serve portions, and weighing them. Then rehydrating and cooking them on my little alcohol stove to make sure they work out OK, taste good, and most importantly to get an idea of fuel usage. Yes, I am getting very anal about this trip....

Bringing a frypan along gave me a little more flexibility. Yes I could make pancakes, and my cracked wheat breakfast, but it was a bit of a hassle as I had to bring a separate tripod as my cooker was too small to balance the larger diameter pan on it's inbuilt pot stand. This may have been the cause of the burnt fuel tubing that occurred one morning when I was cooking breakfast. When my home made savoury energy bars started to get a little mouldy, I fried them up for breakfast rather than throw them away. They tasted great, and I had no repercussions in the intestinal department.

So yes, preparation paid off. I'll share my recipes in another post.

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