Long-distance hiking will change you, whether you like it or not.
The date was October 10, and I had just completed my 58th day of hiking South Australia’s long-distance Heysen Trail. With my tent frantically flapping around me from Cobbler Hill’s fierce winds, I decided to spend my final night scribbling down my thoughts from the journey. My initial internal inquiry read: ‘have I changed?’
I pondered the gravity of the question. Does anybody truly change? And if they do, how can you tell? The sentiment seemed overly presumptuous; I ran a line through the text and moved on.
A month later, in desperate need of on-trail nostalgia, I relocated my notepad and began flicking through its crumpled pages. Before long, that disregarded question reappeared. After weeks of contemplation and a mild bout of Post Trail Depression, I realised that I had indeed changed, and in ways I could have never imagined.
I only left civilisation for 8 weeks, but that comparatively short period triggered the most profound transformation of my life. I developed more in those 8 weeks than the previous 800.
Life on a long-distance trail is a paradox
Walking 1,200 kilometres over 59 days was never meant to be easy, and the Heysen Trail certainly lived up to those expectations. While there were countless moments of heart-swelling inspiration, much of the journey required plonking one foot tiresomely in front of the other, stretching every aching muscle and eating mush. I learned very early on, a solo walker must be built for attrition.
The dynamic journey through South Australia’s regional bushland, sweeping pastoral land, mountainous ranges and pristine coastline threw up challenge after challenge for a first-time long-distance hiker. However, the first week was by far the worst. Constant stress on my hips, legs, butt, back and neck, plus the sense I was ‘venturing into the unknown’, were all exacerbated by an acute sense of isolation. Every morning, loud groans and muffled expletives would come muttering from my tent as my body discovered new aches from the day before. But soon, this distress oddly shifted to a type of comfort.
I grew accustomed to the early mornings, the long distances, the heavy pack, the bland meals, the regular aches and the mindless solitude. Each difficulty was a part of my journey; I carried them as much as they carried me. They were no longer inconveniences; they were indispensable assets to help me achieve my goal.
The inevitable post-trail struggle
As so often happens to hikers after completing a journey of this magnitude, I retreated into a post-trail-slump once I arrived back to ‘normality’. The ‘reverse culture shock’ I encountered following this perspective-shifting experience left me feeling oddly misplaced in my usual suburban surroundings.
The day after completing the trail, I found myself idling at home, walking back and forth to the fridge, gazing mindlessly at the tv guide and foraging through emails, as if nothing had changed. But, so much had changed—most notably, my view of the world. A long-distance hike is so far removed from society’s norms, that processing the whole experience, comparative to ‘everyday life’, is almost impossible; it was as though I’d seen too much. Ignorance was indeed bliss—but now, the filter was gone.
After spending two months noticing the simplicity in nature—morning dew on spider webs, features in mountainsides, different bird calls—I recognised similar, albeit much gloomier, patterns when I returned to civilisation. As a result, I questioned humanity’s place in the natural world. Why are certain groceries in the supermarket wrapped in plastic? Why do people continuously buy bottled water? Why does everyone on commercial radio shout? How is ‘Love Island’ an actual TV show (that one still confuses me)? And when did we get to the point that society accepts or even applauds mundanity and waste? I felt helpless and overwhelmed. What was going on?
And then there were the physical adjustments.
The lost sleep that I had yearned to recover, after stepping out the other side of Cape Jervis on Day 59, was not forthcoming. My body clock rang clamourously loud at 6 o’clock every morning, while my aching legs, which had grown accustomed to walking 20-odd kilometres each day, twitched restlessly without the regular extensive exercise.
Then, my immune system finally packed it in and brought on the worst head cold of my life. Two months of snot had congealed in my sinuses, and a thumping congestion-induced headache became my new routine.
It would be some weeks before my body and mind fully readjusted, and I could process the contrasting lifestyles.
Managing Post Trail Depression
Be aware, if you’re planning to tackle a long-distance trail, you may feel out of place when you return. At first, everything might seem the same, but as you try to settle back into your place in the world, you may find that your position has shifted.
Gone are the days of eating guiltless calories, peaceful solitude and bountiful hours to just think. Instead, you’re faced with society’s sedentary lifestyle, countless responsibilities and constant noise. You may feel a loss of purpose or interest, a decrease in motivation or unyielding nostalgia for the trail.
Whatever the case, know that you will come back changed, and it won’t be easy for your loved ones to understand. If you start to feel yourself slipping into a depressive state, seek guidance. It might not seem that anybody understands, but Post Trail Depression is common amongst long-distance hikers, and professional advice exists. If it’s urgent, call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.
On top of seeking help, there are several ways to move past Post Trail Depression and begin integrating back into society; these include connecting with fellow hikers, staying active, continuing to experience the wild and giving back to the trail that changed your life. But, most of all, it’s important to remember all of the positive aspects the trail taught you—trust me, there will be many.
If long-distance hiking is such a pain, why do it?
Notwithstanding the on-trail and post-trail blues, hiking the Heysen Trail is the best thing I’ve ever done. Period.
I was asked several times immediately following the hike, whether I would ‘do it’ again? At the time, as I suffered through my slump, I dithered in response. Would I put myself through the pain of a long-distance trail again? Now, my answer is an unequivocal ‘yes, when are we leaving?‘
Every day I fought exhaustion, fatigue, hunger, isolation and monotony, and every day I won. Every day I was challenged in unforeseen ways, and every day I improved myself—that perpetual sense of accomplishment is euphoric. The hardships of the journey are a vehicle to this elation.
And let’s not underestimate the effects of 8-12 hours of daily exercise, unprecedented amounts of vitamin D and South Australia’s spectacular natural background will have on your well-being. It’s no surprise my endorphins were flowing, and my inspiration was high.
Epiphanies and life-lessons were endless.
Every single day on the trail, I learned something new about myself and expanded my view of the world. After all, much of the time, I didn’t have anything to do but think. I learned to take the positives out of everything, stay better in-tuned with my body, not sweat the small stuff and appreciate every little convenience (can I get an Amen for plumbing?). But, most of all, I exchanged my search for enjoyment for a desire for fulfilment.
For most of us, life is very accessible, and it’s easy to bypass long-lasting fulfilment in the search for short-term satisfaction. This life-lesson was never more exposed than on Day 51 when I ‘enjoyed’ a few quick slices of leftover trail angel-delivered pizza for breakfast, instead of diligently preparing my usual bland porridge. As a result, my body felt so depleted throughout the day that the seemingly short 15-kilometre stretch took me a gruelling 7 hours to complete; my concentration and momentum were drained. While I may have been sick to the gills of masticating mush each morning, the energy and nourishment it provided was the best thing for me. Lesson learned.
My journey felt far from a solo hike
I know my Heysen Trail adventure might have seemed like a ‘solo hike’, but this could not be further from the truth. Yes, days went by without seeing another soul, but I knew I had hundreds of supporters trumpeting my every step.
Throughout the trek, I savoured the encouragement of dear family, close mates and countless new friends who continually reinforced my mission by generously donating to Black Dog Institute. On top of this, there were my beautiful trail angels who contributed delicious meals, snug accommodation and sanity-saving conversations on the road. Each and every one of you has my eternal gratitude.
So, what did I actually achieve?
Other than growing a horrifyingly ginger beard, what did I actually accomplish? Immediately following the hike, it seemed like nothing of any great consequence. I withered myself thin, drank contaminated water, lost my rain jacket, ruined a bunch of technology, mangled my ankle, had my belongings stolen, carried an oafishly heavy bag for 1,200 kilometres and spent 59 days walking a trail that could have been driven in one.
And yet, as I looked deeper, my Heysen Trail experience was unquestionably the most rewarding of my life to date.
Over the 2-month adventure, I’d strengthened my resilience, bolstered my physical conditioning, straightened my white-collar posture, captured South Australia’s stunning natural beauty, reconnected with lost mates, organised a community event, created a strong relationship with the Friends of the Heysen Trail, opened lines of communication for people suffering from mental health issues and, the piezoresistance, raised an expectation-shattering $11,939.03 for the Black Dog Institute—an incredible accomplishment for everybody involved.
I achieved more for myself and others on this long-distance adventure than I ever dreamed possible. And while South Australia’s astonishing landscapes provided an unforgettable backdrop, it was the community’s incredible kindness and steadfast support that amplified this truly memorable experience.
September 30, 2019
As a solo long distance hiker myself, I am often asked why do I do it, and why would I want to do it again. This piece so neatly echoes my own experience, I will refer people to it in the future. I had been planning to start my own N-S through hike on the same day you started yours, but a persistent back problem put an end to my backpacking days a couple of months before I was due to go. After 18 months of disappointment at not doing the Heysen, I started walking with the Friends E2E14 group this year, and while it is a totally different experience to solo hiking, at least I get to see the Heysen in its entirety, and make new friends in the process!
However, I do miss that time to be with myself. Keep up your great work!
October 4, 2019
Alan! Thank you so much for your kind words. What a crazy coincidence you were planning the same N-S adventure on the exact same day – our paths could have been very different. And I hear you, back problems are the worst, and I fear they will too end my multi-day adventures, but I will keep trucking until I can’t truck anymore. Recently on my Camino adventures, I learned to appreciate time in other people’s heads as well as my own. I’m certain you will have the same experience with the Friends’ walking group over the coming months and years. Enjoy the Heysen and Happy Trails!