50 Shades of Green
Or so it looked like as the sunlight was falling through leaves and ferns. But I wasn’t exactly bounding along – I carried 7.2 kilos and an intense speed session a couple of days earlier made every step painful.
I’d gotten up early to jog the three kilometres from Katoomba to the start of the 45 kilometre Six Foot Track before it got hot. I was planning to do the track twice over two days. I wasn’t traveling lightly. While I had booked accommodation at Jenolan Caves and only carried a change of running gear, toothbrush and light merino clothes to sleep in, I also had a stash of emergency gear with me including a police supplied emergency beacon, compression bandages, whistle, map, emergency blanket and two torches. Including four litres of water, trail food and 6 slices freshly baked banana bread, my running pack was filled to the brim.
From Explorers Tree at the start of the Six Foot, the trail lead down hundreds of steps, over rocks and tree roots through Nellies Glen rainforest and ended in a fire trail in Megalong Valley. Temperatures were forecast to reach 29C but it wasn’t hot yet. Sometimes I was surrounded by clouds of tiny blue butterflies, then admired crickets and caterpillars and saw wallabies and kangaroos bound out of the way ahead of me. I took it slowly. I wasn’t there to race, I was there to spend time on my feet. I walked when I felt like walking, ran when I wanted to run, sat down to have lunch on a hill and just loved spending a beautiful day in the mountains.
After several kilometres on a single track through the woods following Coxs River, it was time to cross it. I’d always thought that wet feet lead to blisters and used to avoid getting my shoes in the water, but in hot weather like this, the feeling of cool water on one’s legs is a blessing. It reached to mid thigh-level and a large fish shot off in front of me. I wouldn’t have minded staying longer. Following a well-maintained fire trail, I made my way up two steep climbs and then followed the track through the woods, again surrounding by the most stunning colours as the light played between the branches.
It was hot now and I made sure to drink regularly and eat every half hour to avoid energy lows. The hours flowed by and a few kilometres from Jenolan, the narrow trail looked so peaceful in the evening light that I no longer felt like running, even though it was all downhill. The heat had dissipated and there was a slight breeze in the warm air, the soft light of the late afternoon sun gleamed through the trees and lit the track with dancing patches of light. Bellbirds filled the forest with their calls and a couple of wallabies watched me pass but didn’t move. In ten hours, I’d only twice passed hikers, once a group of trail bike riders and trice some cars. The slow speed had paid off. Instead of feeling sore, the pain in my hamstrings was gone. Making my way into the valley towards the Jenolan Caves village, I saw Caves House and the backpacker lodge through the surrounding trees – my home for the night. The Jenolan Caves are limestone caves estimated to be the world’s most ancient open cave system dating back to around 340 million years ago. I love visiting them, but right now, I could only think of the breakfast menu I’d studied online – I was already looking forward to the morning.
As I checked in, I was told I had the room to myself – but not so. A bat already occupied the upper bunk. I’d seen it flying in the hallway and had unsuccessfully tried to direct it outside. Then, suddenly, it was gone. When I went to my room, I was greeted by the bat. The tiny animal had crawled through the gap under my door and now it sat on the bed, partly covered in cobwebs. I felt honoured to have such a room mate, but didn’t liked the idea of it potentially wanting to cuddle at night, so I wrapped it in a bed sheet to carry outside. The bat complained with loud squeaks and, worried I was hurting it, I opened the sheet to look inside. Out came the bat in a flash and once again fluttered in the hallway. I finally caught it once more and released it under a bush.
After a good-night’s sleep, I thought I’d better make the most of the breakfast buffet to strengthen myself for the long road ahead. When I tried to stand up after a large pile of scrambled eggs, baked beans, toast, croissant and a heaped bowl of musli, I realised I’d overdone it. Standing was so uncomfortable that I went straight back to bed and once I got going at close to 10am, I was still so full that every time I tried to run, my stomach just wouldn’t have it. So I walked very slowly for the next three hours. Could I have known better than stuffing my face until I couldn’t move? Of course, I’ve done several ultras, marathons and many long training runs. But I hadn’t wanted to know better, I’d wanted to have a giant breakfast. Greed comes before the walk. I was well prepared for a late arrival with two flashlights and spare batteries.
As I came up the narrow serpentine walkway from Caves house, a lyrebird saw me approaching and fled around the bent. There weren’t many places to go on either side, so every time I came around another bent, the lyrebird was still ahead. We played catch for a while until the path opened up and the lyrebird could have taken the wider walking track ahead. But instead, it chose to take the stairs following the Six Foot Track, looking back at me from the top. When it AGAIN saw me taking the same direction, it flapped its wings and fled once more. On spotting me one final time as I reached the top of the stairs, it had enough and made a scene, fluttering towards a lyrebird mate down the hill. I could only imagine its complaint: This woman has been following me all the way from Caves House! She’s not leaving me alone!
A few kilometres down the track, I came across an echidna that was busily looking through leaves and twigs. Curling up at first, it soon stopped worrying about me and starting roving through the undergrowth again, coming up to just a few centimetres from me trainers. They mustn’t have smelled so good, as it then turned around and walked off into the forest.
As the day went on, I heard rumbling behind me. While the sky got darker, I could still see a stretch of blue ahead and picked up my speed. A storm had been forecast, but perhaps I could get away! I imaged the weather chasing me, as it seemed to rumble behind me every time I was particularly slow. The first weather front moved on quickly, but the storm couldn’t quite decide what to do that day. An hour later, it was back, this time with a bang. The sky turned black and it looked like late evening instead of mid afternoon. It bucketed down, lighting flashed above me and I anxiously counted the time to the sound of thunder to see how close it was. What would it be like to be hit my lightening? I probably wouldn’t notice, it would happen so quickly. I was happy whenever I made it over a hill with no trees where I’d been the tallest thing around. How scary would it be if a tree got struck right next to me? Would the force throw me back? Already on edge, I jumped when a bellbird rang out right next to me and then laughed about how easily I got worked into instinctual fear, which was doing nothing to help. I concluded that worrying was pointless and turned my attention back to my feet. I just hoped it was over by the time I had to cross Coxs river. I wouldn’t have wanted to stand in thigh-high water when lightening was close by.
Finally, patches of blue sky returned as the dark clouds rushed off. I crossed the river and munched the rest of my banana bread as I trotted through the forest. Soon, I could see the cliff faces of some mountains ahead – a view that always stuns me. Somewhere on top of those mountains was Katoomba.
The Long Way Home
As I was hopping from stone to stone over a shallow creek, a strange feeling suddenly overcame me. I remembered coming this way yesterday. But yesterday seemed incredibly long ago, as if I wasn’t quite coming back to the same place or wasn’t quite the same person. Two days away from mobile and computer screens while being immersed in the moment and the environment around me had stretched time to such a degree that I could hardly believe that as little as one weekend had passed.
By the time I was making my way up the steep section of Nellies Glen it was completely dark. A light drizzle had returned, but the headlamp gave plenty of light and the air was still warm. I hadn’t told the police what time I’d be back, but they called once I’d reached the top to check on me. All was fine and I ran the last three kilometres into town to drop off the emergency beacon back at the station after two days and a total of 22 hours on the trail. When I closed my eyes to sleep that night, my whole body was buzzing with a sense of aliveness and fulfilment, and I felt complete contentment and peace of mind. People who, like me, work on computer screens all day sometimes ask me “why do you do that to yourself” when I talk about trail running. Because I like feeling so alive.