Wednesday, November 30, 2005

St. Elmo’s Breakfast

The morning of the ‘Six Foot Track – Slow Version’ had finally arrived! At 7.30am we assembled in the dining room of The St Elmo Heritage Hotel for breakfast. Six of us were fueling up for the long day ahead – I was joined by Wildthing, Mr WT, Luckylegs, Flash Duck, and Peter. A tempting cooked breakfast was included ‘free’ with our accommodation, so how could we resist?

I started with my usual 4 Weetbix with fruit then tucked into scrambled eggs, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, French toast and hash browns, all smothered with tomato sauce, washed down with a couple of glasses of OJ. To my slight surprise, Chickybabe and Peter were doing the same (minus the Weetbix) even going back for ‘seconds’! Carolyne was ‘enjoying’ a big mug of coffee with her Fortijuice. This would surely keep us going until our picnic lunch!

We arrived at the Explorer’s Tree a little after 8am, meeting Horrie, Belinda and Chonky. With strange optimism we tried to keep dry whilst photos were taken in front of the very unhealthy looking tree. Then, it was down to the starting line near the shelter shed and at 8.18am, watches, Forerunners and footpods were started.

The descent of Nellies Glen was full of wonderment and anticipation. Carolyne was busy taking photos whilst Chickybabe held my hand to make sure I didn’t slip on the wet timber steps or mossy rocks. After 42 minutes we hit the valley floor and were off and running. Chonky had well and truly disappeared but we’d meet him later on his return from the river. Belinda and Horrie ran out in front, followed by Carolyne and Peter. Chickybabe, Wildthing and I settled into a steadier pace which would serve us well later in the afternoon.

The run to Megalong Valley Road was very enjoyable. There were many puddles to negotiate and the Bellbirds were in full song. We managed to sight some of these tiny rather plain looking birds which I wasn’t able to do when running the Six Foot back in March. Lines from the poem by Henry Kendall almost do them justice: “The silver-voiced bell-birds, the darlings of daytime! They sing in September their songs of the May-time; When shadows wax strong, and the thunder bolts hurtle, They hide with their fear in the leaves of the myrtle”.

At the bitumen road crossing more photos were taken and we bid farewell to the Wildthings. It was all lightness and excitement! Little did we know how much we’d look forward to seeing the Pajero in another 3 hours or so. After running through some cow paddocks (full of curious cows) we were soon on the lovely single-track I’ve enjoyed so much during my previous two ‘Six Foots’. The rain had stopped and our CoolRunning gear was being dried by the sun as we ran. Although we took great care not to hit the deck on this tricky section one of the faster runners in our party was successful in losing some skin.

Soon we reached Bowtell’s Swing Bridge. Peter was keen to try it out and he persuaded a tentative Belinda to do the same. I said ‘why not’ and followed. After 20 minutes or so of ‘fun’ we continued on to the official crossing point of the Cox’s River. We filled our water-bottles from the ‘honking big tank’ and set off up the first hill. At the first ‘steep bit’, Horrie and Belinda said ‘goodbye and good luck’ and headed back to the Explorer’s Tree as they only had time for a ‘short run’ [32k!]. Carolyne might beg to differ but there are only 3 hills on the Six Foot Track – the one up to Mini Mini Saddle, the one to the Pluviometer and the one on the Deviation. Carolyne and Peter started running up Mini Mini with the enthusiasm of novices but soon switched to walking.

We had hiked less than half way up to fenced yards of the old Kyangatha Homestead when I noticed Chickybabe had dropped behind. I was quite shocked to see the worried, confused and helpless look in her face. She was struggling to maintain a slow walk with still the Pluviometer and 28 kilometres ahead of us! This was not looking good. How could she possibly make it? With some encouragement from Carolyne and Peter she kept moving, just taking it one corner at a time on the switchback ascent of Mini Mini. Even the waiting cows near the fenced yards seemed unable to cheer her. The final nasty steep pinch to the summit of Mini Mini was truly awful. I kept thinking ‘if we can make it to the Pajero, have a lie down and get some food in, things might improve.

Welcome as waters unkissed by the summers
Are the voices of bell-birds to the thirsty far-comers.
When fiery December sets foot in the forest,
And the need of the wayfarer presses the sorest,
Pent in the ridges for ever and ever
The bell-birds direct him to spring and to river,
With ring and with ripple, like runnels whose torrents
Are toned by the pebbles and the leaves in the currents.

We had a long rest sitting on a fallen log in the shade of some gum trees at top of Mini Mini. I borrowed some Bodyglide from Carolyne to put on a blister I could feel on the back of my right heel. The next couple of kilometres are flat and downhill to Alum Creek. You would normally run this bit but I knew Chickybabe would be better off walking, so we walked the sometimes slippery downhill. On one corner we spotted our second red-belly-black snake for the day disappearing into the grass. We were soon in the welcome shade of Alum Creek. The three crossings of Little River necessitated walking through the ankle deep water. It was so cool! The water made my poor tired and dusty feet feel alive again.

Chickybabe was moving a little better and enjoying the change in scenery. We had four kilometres of climbing to go. After passing through an open gate Peter and I decided to walk to the next shady tree. Carolyne walked with Chickybabe a little way behind. Our ‘shady tree’ was around a few left-hand corners. We waited for 10 minutes but there was no sign of the two ladies. Had they slipped off the edge of the track, or, worse still, been bitten by a red-bellied black snake? Peter suggested we go back so we jogged and walked back around a few bends. To my horror, Chickybabe and Carolyne were sitting on the side of the road. Carolyne walked over as we approached and told us the story of the demise of St Elmo’s breakfast.

It was then decided that Carolyne and Peter would continue to the Pluviometer and request assistance from the Wildthings while I sat with Chickybabe. She was not well. I gave her some water and after a while suggested we try walking slowly as the Pluviometer was at the end of a long straight around the next left-hand bend. I knew it was closer to two kilometres away but I dare not say that. We slowly continued. After the next bend we spotted two hikers far ahead with big packs. We were not gaining on them!

When Chickybabe asked “how far”, I replied “I was wrong, it must be around the next left-hand bend”. We kept walking. Finally, like a mirage in the desert, the Pajero appeared, being driven slowly by Mr WT down the rutted track. Wildthing jumped out with a cold water bottle: “There’s not far to go – you’re nearly there!” when I asked “How far to the Pluvi?” Chickybabe took some of the water but couldn’t bare the thought of eating anything. She decided to keep walking. This was a huge decision as a ride in the Pajero would have been tempting and entirely justified considering her fragile state.

Mr WT found somewhere to do a 3-point turn and then drove on ahead. After one more (final) left-hand bend we three walked up a straight section and saw the sight we had longed for – Carolyne and Peter standing at the Pluviometer waiting for our arrival. Chickybabe was helped into the back seat of the Pajero and tended to by Wildthing. I made two tomato sandwiches for a very subdued picnic. To my annoyance, the dreamed of bottle of Coke was missing from my Esky. I’d left the bloody thing in the fridge back at Katoomba! I made do with Gatorade to go with my sandwiches and tin of fruit. As I was finishing lunch and chatting to Peter, Chickybabe got out of the Pajero. During her rest she’d managed to eat some creamed rice provided by Wildthing and was now ready and obviously determined to finish her glorious quest.

Soon we were off on the ‘relatively flat’ section along the Black Range. We had about 9 kilometres to go before the Deviation turn-off. We were in good spirits along this section, buoyed by Chickybabe’s excellent progress and cheered by the company of Wildthing. Mr WT demonstrated the patience of Jobe by driving ahead to various spots and waiting our arrival. I would have been happy to walk the rest of the way but Wildthing insisted on a ‘run two minutes, walk one minute’ routine which kept us going at a good pace. After 7k or so we finally caught the hikers we’d followed up the Pluviometer. At this stop Wildthing provided a special treat – Salt and Vinegar chips! She then decided to ride with Mr WT before joining us for the final section from the Binda Flats to the finish.

The three novices were wondering “how far to the Deviation?” I replied with authority “It’s just after we come to an open section where the road turns left”. This provided great amusement for Carolyne as she debunked my expertise every time the road veered even slightly to the left! The open section and ninety degree left corner finally arrived and it was downhill to the Deviation intersection where the Pajero waited. The Wildthings were chatting to ‘Alan’, an orienteer who was holidaying at the Black Range camp ground. While the others were eating and talking I changed my socks. My blister was starting to hurt!

I was feeling good as we hiked along the Deviation. We only had about 9k to go and I was sure, barring accidents, we’d make it! Chickybabe was moving well and didn’t even blink when we arrived at the final nasty rock-strewn hill on the Deviation. “This is the last hill Carolyne!”, I said with confidence. When we reached the Jenolan Caves Road, the Pajero was waiting. We arranged to meet Wildthing at the Binda Flats so she could run with us to the finish. “It’s only about 3k to go from there” I said. In reality it was closer to 4 and a half kilometres!

The single-track to the Binda Flats was great fun and we were running on the easier sections. Carolyne would run ahead occasionally to take a photo with her mobile phone. “So, this is not a hill Ewen!” she counseled at every slight upturn of the topography. She will do well in the race I contemplated, as will Peter who was cruising along in total ease. Before we knew it the track finally did tilt down for the last time. Just two kilometres to go! Chickybabe, Peter and myself took great care on the loose, rocky surface. Meanwhile, Wildthing and Carolyne walked along as though on a city footpath, chatting the whole way and not seeming to notice our perilous descent.

After what seemed an eternity the track finally relented in its downward obsession. We stopped for a last ‘photo opportunity’ in front of a spectacular rock archway. Then it was on to the paved track and with Caves House in full view, the final metres to the finish. We rounded the last corner and Mr WT was waiting with camera ready. Photos of our ‘Slow Version’ group were taken in front of the ‘Six Foot Track’ sign. Then, we walked the final finish straight to complete our epic 45 kilometre journey. Mr WT announced the time was 7:22pm. We’d left at 8:18am, so we’d been out in the bush for a tick over 11 hours. Much of this was spent either stationary, playing, bent over or lying down as the ‘time in motion’ recorded by GPS was 8 hours and 13 minutes. It had been a long day!

We shared two cans of Coke purchased from the machine on the verandah of Caves House. Then, after one last photo, we piled in the Pajero for the long drive back to Katoomba. We were like excited children as we chatted about what we’d achieved as Mr WT concentrated on missing the fallen rocks on the zig-zag road out from the Caves. I know there were five of us in the car that were in awe of Chickybabe’s achievement. She is sweet sixteen and a number of score-years for goodness sake! She finished the Six Foot Track – Slow Version after using considerable willpower to overcome a looming ‘DNF’. If only that determination could be bottled and sold! Later during the drive we were treated to a show of lightening from a gathering storm and an amazing clear patch of sky amongst the dark clouds to the west.

Often I sit, looking back to a childhood,
Mixt with the sights and the sounds of the wildwood,
Longing for power and the sweetness to fashion,
Lyrics with beats like the heart-beats of passion -
Songs interwoven of lights and of laughters
Borrowed from bell-birds in far forest-rafters;
So I might keep in the city and alleys
The beauty and strength of the deep mountain valleys;
Charming to slumber the pain of my losses
With glimpses of creeks and a vision of mosses.


Blogger plu said...

It was worth the wait, great report Ewen.


11:29 pm  
Blogger allrounder said...

great post ewen...i've now read all three on what sounds like an eventful trip...awesome stuff...

2:03 pm  
Blogger Horrie said...

It was great joining you last Saturday Ewen. A very well written account of an unforgettable day. Thank you for organising the day. You have given us all a day we will never forget.

6:56 pm  
Blogger CJ said...

A great read Ewen - sounded like an amazing, and long, day.

10:49 pm  
Anonymous wannabecoach said...

Thanks Ewen

Great report. You and LL should have been journalists. You both have brilliant literary skills.

Like the City to Surf it is another run to add to my list of "never have, never will".

10:01 am  

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