How to walk (and sleep) in the woods

March 19, 2019 § Leave a comment

A couple of years ago I made peace with the fact that, while I loved being active outside, I didn’t enjoy pinning on a race number and all that came with it: the training, the nerves, the importance of a single day over all others; the self-importance of being a competitor. I pivoted my goals towards being more comfortable and more skilled in the great outdoors, on foot, agile, simple and self sufficient.

Now, I am still quite a beginner, but in the last two years I’ve done several distance hikes and overnight camps (many of these solo). My hikes include the Coastal Track, the Light to Light Walk (both in a single day) and the Six Foot Track. I’ve camped in much of Namadgi NP and at the south coast, but mostly with the comfort of a parked car nearby.

This summer I did two 30-35km overnight walks in Kosciuszko NP, which are often called “thru hikes” meaning you walk, camp, and REPEAT. Everything you have is on your back and there is no security blanket.


Above: Camping underneath Mt Townsend, Australia’s second highest and a more interesting and technical climb than Kosciuszko.

This is a summary of my gear and my tips, for anyone who is interested.

First, the absolute basic requirements for a one night trip into Kosciuszko NP, in good weather, in summer (you can add or subtract according to your own needs and preferences):

Camp gear
sleeping bag
sleeping mat
whatever you’re hiking in (shorts, shirt) plus:
long sleeve top
down jacket
long pants
spare socks and undies
sunnies, hat
Tech gear
gas and stove
cooking/eating equipment
water containers (3 litres capacity)
water purifier
insect repellent/sun block
toilet paper, wet wipes
medical/first aid
2 x lunch
1 x dinner
1 x breakfast
snacks for 2 days

One dry bag or gear sack for each of these categories works well and helps you grab the stuff you need quickly.

A word about footwear. I have done a fair amount of trail running, so I’m very comfortable in trail runners and that’s what I wear on hikes. I do own some 30-year-old leather boots but I can’t imagine using them again. My feet seem to be pretty indestructible and I like lightweight footwear that allow me to be agile. My reliable favourites are Salomon S-Labs and Inov-8 Trail Talons. I went hiking with someone who produced leather boots from the back of the garage and paid a high price in blisters; he would have been better off heading out in Nikes.


Above: A decent pair of trail shoes will get you anywhere as long as you have my feet.

I don’t have an expensive pack. The one I’m using now is close to 20 years old, a Macpac single compartment (plus lid) of about 45-50 litres with a too-tall harness that my dad bought and used. That is not a big pack but I need to keep things light and paired back.


Above: My old hand-me-down pack; note the Z-seat strapped to the outside.

I do have a relatively fancy tent – it’s a Marmot 1-person tent that only weighs about 1 kilogram. I could not carry my terrific, 25 year old Eureka 2-person tent because it’s about 3 kilograms so I stumped up some cash there. My sleeping bag and mat are nothing fancy: a compromise of warmth, bulk, weight and price. An inflatable pillow helps but I don’t sleep well outdoors and if you have any miracle tips I welcome them.


Above: Good morning, or: thank christ I can finally end this miserable sleep.

The Z-seat was bought on a whim but I now consider essential kit. It’s just a fancy square of foam that weighs NOTHING and concertinas into a small block. A dirt, cold and water proof pad that I sit on during the day and put under my hips at night for added cushioning.

It’s important (imho) to have some warm and dry clothes to put on when you set up camp. So a long sleeve merino top, my down jacket, and some long pants (leggings or hiking pants). Other accessories like headwear and gloves are a good idea even in summer, and pack a raincoat because You Never Know.

My headlamp is just some Petzl thing that performs well. My stove is the Optimus Crux (uses the green gas canister) that came with its own cook set and I love it. It’s really fast and seems really reliable. It’s light and compact and has outperformed more expensive alternatives like Jetboils and whatnot.


Above: My stove setup.

I bought a water purifier for the first time this summer. It’s the Katadyn Be Free one and I’m very happy with it. Very streamlined system but it is small and light and it works. I take regular water bottles plus a 2-litre Platypus water bag with screw lid which is excellent. It’s tough but it rolls up when empty.

Pitch your tent, put your sleeping gear in it to inflate/loft and put your torch somewhere handy before it gets dark.


Above: Dinner prep in Wilkinson valley: note evening wear, Z-seat, gear bags, water bottles/purifier and Platypus.

I feel so much better if I have a “wash” which involves either a creek or wet wipes and clean undies and socks. Then it’s time to enjoy the going down of the sun while you prepare dinner.

I use one zip lock bag per meal. The breakfast bag contains a sachet or two of instant porridge, extra muesli, UHT milk, a coffee bag. The lunch bag contains snack bars, some form of bread (wraps or soft rolls), and toppings (for example cheese, hummus, peanut butter, honeycomb, boiled eggs). The dinner bag contains some dried supermarket meal (rice, pasta or potato base) plus extra ingredients like a sachet of tuna or salmon, cheese, a packet of olives, maybe some flavoured crackers or nuts, and powdered hot chocolate for dessert.


Above: Amazingly good accident containing instant mashed potato, boiled egg, olives and a sachet of chicken and vegetable soup.

I tend to bring a small amount of celebratory booze because it’s such a great signifier of the end of the day and probably helps with the relaxing and star gazing. Those little cans of wine are terrific but also something richer and stickier like a fortified wine is good fare, particularly if you have a camp fire (NB. no camp fires on Kosciuszko main range).

A hot breakfast is right up there I reckon, and helps to delay the inevitable which is packing up and getting your stiff body moving again. I try to put everything back in the reverse order of likely need – so camping gear at the bottom and food and expected clothing at the top. You will have to redo this about 32 times.

Maybe in a future post I will do some track notes but I will stick to gear and kit here. Happy to answer any questions and happy trails!


Above: Blue Lake, my $6 Ben Sherman shirt from Vinnies, Macpac shorts and a Nike singlet.






How to get worse

December 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

The world of self-improvement is full of advice about how to get better at sports. Increase your distance! Improve your aim! Go faster! Lift heavier things!

It’s time for some straight-talk about how to get worse at sport from ME, a person who is actively declining in performance.

Because, sooner or later, you are going to get worse and it will be less painful if you have planned ahead for it.

Here are my five tips for how to unimprove yourself and still enjoy doing what you do.

Play the long game

There is evidence that elite athletes start to record declining performances after age 26. If you’re over 30, accept that you are, in all likelihood, past your potential peak.

However, unless you are into ice-skating or pole vault, your performance is unlikely to drop off a cliff at that age. Many sports support a gradual exit where you can sustain your performance with regular training, good nutrition, adequate rest and a fair bit of luck.

This is especially true of endurance sports, where older people face relatively less disadvantage in competition. In fact, certain sports like long distance running actually favour the mature-aged.

There is another theory that any motivated athlete has about 20 years of hard training in them. But that leaves the start date open. Take up a serious sport in childhood and you burn out by age 30. Take it up at age 30 and you may still be rocking up to the start line in middle age.

My dad commenced road cycling in his twenties, raced into middle age, and is still riding a bike at 82. That’s a long game.

Photo 16-10-18, 15 14 41 copy_preview

Past the peak but not over the hill

Adopt a glass-half-full attitude

Visualise the bell curve that represents the rise and fall in your sporting performance over time, with peak fitness at the apex. Now appreciate that there is an equal amount of territory after the peak. This translates to years and years of competitive sport with a mostly agile body at your disposal.

Use it or lose it.

The Australian Sports Commission’s AusPlay report reveals a dramatic shift that occurs at around age 50, where ‘not enough time’ gives way to ‘poor health/injury’ as the leading barrier to participating in sport.

Find that balance between ‘too busy’ and ‘too busted’ before it’s…too late.

Diversify your interests

Don’t put all your time and effort into a single endeavour. Instead, broaden your aims, dabble in other sports that catch your eye but for which you never found time. If all you ever do is ride a hundred kilometres you’ll never know what it’s like to walk thirty, paddle five, or swim two.

There are physical dividends, too. It’s well known that cross training allows your body to enjoy a variety of movements, work opposing muscles, and reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

Recognise that, by spreading yourself thinner, you will become a jack of many trades rather than a master of one.

Personally, I am at peace with this arrangement; I’d rather be mediocre at a few hobbies than an expert in one. Variety keeps things interesting.

The good news is that, when you take on a whole new challenge, the only way is up.

IMG_7975Sure, you can ride a bike. But can you ride one in the snow?

Lower the goal posts

Set enjoyable rather than gruelling goals, and lower your expectations about exceeding them.

If you have reached the point where a spot on the podium is no longer realistic, simply adjust your goals and carry on. Instead of destroying yourself in the pursuit of an elusive PB, aim to burn calories, get outside and de-stress, keep friends train company while they train, take part in an iconic event, or raise funds for a good cause. Volunteer.

Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to do all of these things at once.

Pick on someone your own size

When choosing whom to compare yourself to in any sporting endeavour, there’s no point squaring off against someone young enough to be your offspring. Instead, compare yourself to those of the same age, or gender, or preferably both. Fitness apps like Strava allow users to narrow the rankings according to these criteria.

But even at moderate fitness and activity levels, you might be surprised where you rank among the general population. Another AusPlay finding is that fewer than half of us engage in some physical activity four or more times per week. In fact, 30 per cent of Australian adults exercise less than twice a week.

If you do, you’re already ahead.

Those are my tips about how to get worse and still stay clear of the bunch. Enjoy the downhill slide – you don’t even have to work for it.





Beast, We Make The Thirst Fruitful

June 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

I finished Sarah Wilson’s book on anxiety, First, We Make The Beast Beautiful.

It’s warts-and-all honest about some genuinely messed-up stuff and freely dispenses doable self-help, which I appreciate.

I think she gets the ‘experience, not expertise’ perspective about right; she’s reminds us she’s not a medical professional, just someone with battle scars and wisdom and ideas.

I can’t not identify with her journey; we use the same tools of nourishment (solitude, hiking, yoga). Her food, waste and simplicity causes are terribly important. Therefore, I’m a fan. For years now I’ve I followed her around reading most of what she writes and daydreaming at her (selectively-curated) life.

I have not quit sugar, for the record. As I have said before, some people work harder at quitting their vices than others do at simply keeping them in check.

That said, I feel anxious like everybody else. In reading it, I hoped to learn a few things about my own fretfulness.

But this book is peppered with markers of privilege that glazed my eyes. Hers is a quest for sanity and meaning that only (ample) time and (disposable) cash indulges. They aren’t just first world problems, they’re the top one per cent of first world problems. Exhibit A:


When your spiritual counsellor wraps you in cashmere and sunlight, and rents harbour views to you by the hour, and lets you have a massive wank, everyone’s doing just fine.

She has accumulated a diagnostic manual of modern day illnesses and a world-wide colony of medics and mentors who dispense potions and aphorisms in equal measure.

Quit sugar. Take a tablet. Say yes. Grow angel wings. Get some sun. Live out of a suitcase. Sit on a cushion. Don’t return calls. Tape your lips together. Meditate.

That sort of advice comes at no cost, but in her case has been paid for over many hours with doctors, psychiatrists, endocrinologists, autoimmune specialists, spiritual gurus, Ayurvedic healers, meditation teachers and god knows who else.

Sarah Wilson traipses a #blessed path from Sydney’s eastern suburbs to its northern beaches, and their equivalents around the world, surrounded by like-minded souls. She is equally at home (or quietly losing her mind) in a national park, a restaurant or a library.

She can, and does, disappear on a whim, to open and then lick her wounds in boutique places of calm and focus. A one-person tent in the forest, bespoke luxury accommodation (frequently sponsored by the local tourism board), a yacht by a heat-stroked Greek island, a grungy Bondi café.

Seen through the lens of Instagram, these escapes look nothing but idyllic. The truth, as the book makes clear, is a hell of a lot more complicated. I think that’s the best thing I learned overall – her public life is just as much a charade as anyone else’s. She is…kind of a weirdo.

But most of us don’t have the luxury of irresponsibility that she has, or a handmade, artisanal safety net beneath us. She has good genes, manic productivity, a healthy bank balance, VIP status, professional connections and many, many, outstretched loving arms to fall back on.

I think if she had more ordinary problems she might have fewer extraordinary ones.

Mostly I’m troubled that this book is part of a modern movement in which it is increasingly important to be broken or damaged, get a diagnosis for what ails you, tell everyone who will listen, and have your world rearrange itself to accommodate.

The unending (and lucrative, if you’re selling it) quest for wellness first requires that you be sick. A generation ago, ordinary people didn’t have time for that, let alone money.

Now we do.


The kindness of strangers

June 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

1. A bus full of Hindus

On Sunday I finally ticked off the Coast Track in the Royal National Park south of Sydney, 31 glorious kilometres of cliffs, forest and beaches.

Because it’s an A to B trek, getting back to my car was an adventure in itself: a ferry, a taxi, two trains, a bus and then a further three kilometres on foot.

The second train took me as far as Helensburgh station, which is more or less where the train line goes, not where Helensburgh is. But there was an expectant bus waiting. I had no idea if it would get me closer to my goal but joined a stream of people and hopped on.

The driver said he could take me as far as the top of Otford Road, then point out the way. We trundled uphill to the village then followed a maze-like route around the streets. Finally he stopped the bus and jabbed a finger at the windscreen. This was the end of the line.

I looked behind me at all the remaining passengers who seemed content to stay on.

‘Where are they all going?’
There was a one word reply.


2. A Russian with an app

I started my trek down Otford Road, which turned into a roller-coaster descent ending in a swamped weir. Everything was flooded following several days of rain. I crab-stepped carefully through a swift-running creek for the tenth time that day, facing upstream and testing each foot fall against the current.


Safely on the other side I was at a loss again so I hailed an older man walking his dog and asked for directions.

‘I am Russian, I don’t speak English’ he said, in perfect English.

I started trying to mime waves and beach and cliff then (mercifully) he produced a cracked smart phone and offered it to me. There was a translation app on the screen. After a second I typed in ‘sea’. A word blinked up in the space below:


He peered at the screen and a light bulb went off. He began to escort me to the sea.


It was maddening. I was tired, hungry, wet, odorous and thus, I am ashamed to admit, impatient. The Russian resisted my attempts to get directions with a ‘calm now’ gesture, patting the air with a down facing palm. He topped out at snail’s pace, his little dog falling in alongside. The final half kilometre of my trek threatened to take as long as the preceding thirty.

Calm now.

When I finally recognised the way I thanked him profusely with prayer hands (would have been more appropriate at Temple) and bolted.

3. Three Colombians in a hot tub

At last, clean and dry for the first time since breakfast, I wanted to thank the people next door for letting me use their driveway all weekend. I grabbed a couple of beers and walked over to find they were seated not at a table but in an outdoor hot tub. It was fragrant and steamy; a bottle of whisky at arm’s reach with only a slug or two remaining.

There were two men and one woman in the tub, and two more women elsewhere. I learned they were Colombians. Like me, they had rented the place for the long weekend and their hot tub was a drop-in zone.

‘You should get in the tub.’
‘Feel how warm it is!’

I dipped my fingers in their tub and admired its appeal but confessed that I had done all the soaking I planned to do today.

We talked about weekend plans, sport, the weather and eventually citizenship and visas. Their female companion, lolling in a white bikini, was facing an uncertain future. Her occupation was not on the list recently released by the government and her 457 visa was stuck in limbo. One of the men, an engineer, had become an Australian citizen. The other was torn:

‘I have been here for five years. I love Australia…but Colombia is my home,’ he said with a shrug of the shoulders. I nodded; it was like that line from the song Anthem in the musical Chess:

My land’s only borders lie around my heart.

The next morning I drove back up the escarpment, bound for my own inland home. It’s always a bittersweet feeling turning your back on the sea.

At least now I can write it in Russian.









April 2, 2017 § 5 Comments

Like many others, I spent the second half of March ‘dot watching’ – as a virtual spectator of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. I have to confess my involvement began in a pretty skeptical way:

But, as the days wore on and riders stacked up incomprehensible daily distances, I found myself checking the (most excellent) race tracker with increasing frequency. Once a day, twice a day, several times a day, hourly, setting it as a home page…

Eventually I had to eat my words:

By the time Kristof Allegaert entered Canberra on Thursday 30 March I was out on my bike to cheer him on and join the little peloton that rolled through town. At Australia’s Parliament House, with 5,000km in his legs, he still had the energy to wave at me. I could not have been more fascinated by this freakish creature had it come from the Moon instead of Fremantle.

So when I woke up on Friday my first thought was ‘Where’s Mike?’

I checked his position and started to estimate his arrival time, and that’s when I saw this:

And a horrible possibility started to form.

Being here, it was painful reading the thoughts of people who had no idea how lonely that stretch of road is, or how dark it is at 6.20am, at this latitude and longitude, on the day before daylight savings ends. ‘The sunrise may have been a factor.’ It was pitch black. ‘It is probably some other cyclist.’ It’s a country road. ‘His tracker is still on. That’s a good sign.’ That’s a bad sign.

So, with a couple of friends who joined the dots and came up with the same awful picture, we waited for the world to catch up.

It’s a devastating way for any person’s life to end. It also killed a superhuman suffer fest that captivated an obscure but enthusiastic community of onlookers. Your dedication and your wit were a wonderful accompaniment to the race, dot watchers.

I think the race organisers did the right thing in cancelling the event forthwith, but I also admire any riders who intend to battle on, and I’ll be there for them too.

It is unacceptable that, in a race with just 70 entrants, one was killed by a car and another seriously injured. If the IPWR is run again, I predict it will only do so with different rules in place.

One will place a maximum limit on daily moving time, a limit that can be easily monitored using the spot tracker. It won’t reduce the tactical mastery involved, the choices about when and where to stop and refuel, but it will enforce daily rest.

There are two ways that one rider can get in front of another: ride faster or ride for longer. In the IPWR, it was the latter that made this event stand apart from others. In a sense, it was a race against the effects of sleep deprivation, to see who can go without the most. Some manage that better than others.

I found the day 13 video of the Kristof vs Mike showdown very hard to take, largely because of the following quotes:


I realised I can’t see in the dark.

I was all over the road…can’t see…after it got dark.

I can’t see properly at night to ride fast enough.

I think the adrenaline will keep me going.


What Mike was doing was just impossible.

He pulled over because he was so tired.

Tomorrow, the day after, I have to ask Mike how he is now.

Kristof never got that chance to catch up with Mike.

Another rule will require riders to wear high visibility clothing between dusk and dawn. This is already a standard race rule for some ultra distance running events like UTA100.

A High Visibility Safety Vest that complies with Australian Standard AS / NZS 4602:1999 –D/N Class for day and night time wear must be worn over the top of your torso and back pack at the times and locations as specified in the Competitor Briefing document.

Basically after 4.45pm on any road section of the course.

No, it won’t save riders from motor vehicles. No, cyclists should not have to wear high visibility clothing simply in order to take their place on a road. But it could make a difference, not the least to getting a race permit.

I’m so, so sorry Mike Hall died alone, in the dark, on a cool and blustery morning, but I’m so glad he lived his best life. Kudos, chapeau, and respect, to him and to everyone who shared his journey, at least for a little while.



The day I met Martin

January 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

At the end of my second year at Mallalieu I marched up and down Sherwood Road knocking on doors for a summer job. I needed an excuse to stay in the city over summer and leave the country behind. I wanted to call Brisbane home for good, and this was my poorly-aimed shot.  I pressed my resume into a neat folder, dressed in my best guess at office attire and rehearsed a polite, earnest offer of work.

Which failed. After numerous rejections I slumped in the corridor on the first floor of an office building and considered my options. Tramp down the hill defeated and leave town yet again, or try something crazy.  I walked into the very next place of business, took in a towering, horse-faced receptionist called Philippa and the words “Body Corporate Services” stuck to the wall behind her.

In an airbag-like burst of entrepreneurial vim I demanded to see the manager. Lucky for me she was curious enough to fetch him.

“I’ve just finished my second year of a Law degree and I could make a BIG difference to your business this summer!” Without the slightest idea what that business was. I regurgitated this offer right on their floor mat like an optimistic pet.

The boss, Martin, blinked at me with bemusement and said “Oh, you would, would you?” and gave me a job on the spot. I was almost 19 and had never seen a payslip.

I spent that summer preparing and lodging by-laws for apartment buildings.  No parking, no noise, no sub-letting. The job gave me my first overnight business trip, an assignment that I could not possibly have taken more seriously if I had been sent to the UN to broker world peace. Actually it just meant that I took a bus (two buses; I had to change) to Noosa to sort out their by-laws. No pets, no garbage, no swimming. My travel allowance paid for a three-star motel and a meal at the Reef Hotel and I kept every receipt. I like to think that my colleagues in the Noosa office admired my calm dignity and big city smarts while I attacked their by-laws, but I was probably an enormous sore.

Fill in the census (eventually)

August 9, 2016 § 1 Comment

I regret having to break this news, but your individual census data is just not that interesting. I’m sorry. It just isn’t.

The ability to link that data, in an aggregated way, across data sets held by different government agencies, or even the same data sets but over time, is what is interesting.

The government doesn’t care about your individual characteristics. It’s interested in people sort of like you. People who share some of your characteristics like age, income or ethnicity.

If you were a policy maker, or a funding body, a minister, public servant, or journalist, wouldn’t you want to know if (other things being equal):

  • Wealthy people are more likely to access mental health services than the poor? Or c-sections? Or student loans?
  • Home owners are more likely to be recipients of certain types of welfare payments than renters?
  • People who walk to work have fewer knee replacements? Or more skin cancer?
  • Youth in remote areas aren’t better educated than they were five years ago? Or they are, but only if they moved to a capital city?

I just made those up, but the point is: If you were responsible, wouldn’t you want to know if people’s lives improve over time, if payments and services go to those who need them, and if policy settings actually help people? We spend billions every year on things that are meant to help people, and we don’t really know who’s getting what, in which combination, or if it’s achieving anything.

You can get some of this information from surveys, but only from a small sample of the population, and only based on self-reported information rather than what products and services are actually being consumed.

You can get some of it from separate data sets held by government agencies, but not the kind of analysis that linked up data offers.

Say 5 per cent of 20-year-olds have a medical condition. We know how many because they have been treated for it by medical practitioners via the MBS. Say there’s an expensive drug prescribed to treat this condition. The drug is on the PBS.

Five years down the track, 5 per cent of 25-year-olds have this medical condition. Are they the same people? We don’t know! They might be. Without data linkage, we’ll never know. If the same people aren’t better after five years of government-subsidised treatment, isn’t this a problem? What if the first medical condition is gone but now they all have a different one? Surely that tells us something about this condition and those treatments and these patients.

Wouldn’t you want to know?