The Initiation Walk
While in Kakadu (Northern Territory), we had the privilege of being invited to a beautiful river festival where young boys were being initiated into their local dance traditions by the older men of their mob.
It led to a conversation between my husband and me about initiation and how important this ritual is for teenagers. That if their ‘elders’ do not create rites of passage for them they will create rites for themselves that may not be ideal.
When our son turned 12, my husband walked the Larapinta track with him – a 223 km hike through Alice Springs.
When my daughter Ella turned 12, she and I chose The Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia. The name comes from the Bibbulmun, or Noongar people, the Indigenous Australians from the Perth area.
To walk the track from end to end is 1000 km, but we would walk the first section from Kalamunda to Dwellingup. The plan was to walk 211 km over 14 days, we actually ended up walking 250 km (yes, there were some wrong turns).
From the very beginning, I wanted Ella to have ownership over her walk. Part of the initiation experience for a child is stepping out of childhood and moving towards a level of responsibility for oneself. Ella decided the distance we would cover every day. Although only 12 years old, Ella is a very experienced hiker and camper, and I fully trusted her to know how far she could walk and when her long-distance challenge day would be. Most days we walked an average of 15 km. She chose the last day as our longest day, when we would walk 20.7 km… towards pizza!
She also chose the meals and snacks that would fuel her; she needed minimal consultation from me. She would carry all her supplies, except for the tent.
I would like to say that we trained hard for our trip, but the truth is we did a couple of 10 km hikes, Ella had a few scout camps, and that was about it.
We flew to Perth from Melbourne and the night before the walk we stayed in accommodation. Our host, Carol, agreed to take us to the beginning of the trail the next morning.
There are always nerves the night before any adventure. The way I cope is to keep packing and unpacking my backpack; so that afternoon and into the evening there was a lot of packing and repacking, until we wore ourselves out and fell into bed.
Our first day of hiking would be 12.2 km. It was hot. It was a little tiring as we both had heavy packs: mine weighed in at 27 kg, Ella’s at 15 kg. If you are a member of the ‘pack weight police’, I am strong and so is my daughter. We love our books and journals, and we were happy to carry them. Each hiker has to work out what matters to them and then be glad to carry it. Every time I fell onto my comfortable sleeping mat, I never regretted the weight of it.
The beauty of walking in the bush is the silence, the smells, and the air. Although our packs were heavy, our hearts were light. We saw so much beauty that first day, we had rests as we needed them, and we enjoyed being ‘free’.
Hewitt’s Hill camp had a beautiful hut, and Ella wanted to be where the action was, which meant sleeping in the 3-sided hut with the other long weekend walkers. But as the afternoon went on and more people arrived, she agreed that setting up our tent in a quiet spot would give us a better night’s sleep.
As I like solitude and Ella loves company, we agreed to alternate nights for who got to decide if we’d sleep in the communal hut or in our own tent.
We met Rod on the first night, and as he arrived at camp he said, “I never thought carrying a pack this heavy would be so hard!” “How heavy is it?” Ella asked, “21 kg”, he gasped. “My mum’s is 27 kg!”, she responded with a grin.
As the sun was setting, we sat together on a fallen log, drawing plants and writing about the day.
The next few days were similar: flowers, beauty, heat, peace and snacks.
One of the joys of multi-day hikes is that all you have to do is walk, eat, sleep, repeat. A rhythm forms very quickly.
During the first few days, Ella would fall over within the first kilometer as it took a while for her feet to warm up in the mornings.
She always wanted to start the day with games and chatter; I wanted to start the day with forward momentum and silence. We learnt to compromise and work with both our personalities, and we created a nourishing rhythm over the two weeks.
Whoever woke first would make the herbal tea. We have learnt over the years that you do not leave the tent in the morning until your sleeping bag and mat are packed and you are dressed, so we would usually wake each other with the hiss of our sleeping mats going down.
It was roughly day three when we got lost for the first time; we realised we were walking in circles, and Ella fell into a bit of a slump. Part of me wanted us to figure it out, survival style, but survival includes asking strangers.
Day four was challenging. It was physically and emotionally hard. There were a lot of long ascents and never-ending descents on 4WD tracks. The temperature was around 32 degrees. A constant concern is keeping hydrated, but you can only carry a certain amount of water, so you don’t want to run out before you reach the next hut. But, when we reached Waalegh hut, it was breathtaking; hard work to get there, but worth it.
Watching my inner chatter was fascinating. On the first few nights when we could still hear the noises of the city, there were a lot of motorbikes and ‘doof doof’ music. I worried that the camp would be attacked by a drunk biker gang.
But up here, no sober or drunk person would try to get here in the dark. The environment was our protector. Our shield. Our comfort.
Being out in the bush with a savvy 12-year-old did make me reflect on all of the myths I learnt about the ‘scary outdoors’ growing up in England. I am so glad that Ella has a powerful relationship with the land and nature. One day she said to me, “I am more scared in the city than I am out here”. I was in awe of her confidence in the wild. I have had to reclaim my ‘wild’.
Although this was to be Ella’s initiation, it was also mine. Mother Earth threw some challenges our way.
A few days in, we were the only two people at the hut. We had arrived quite early in the day and were relaxing, reading and drawing. Suddenly I noticed that the sky was getting hazy. Then I smelt smoke. Ella said she could also smell smoke. I calmly told her, “We should go now,” and I started packing up. I was scared. Being English, fire as a way of life is not what I grew up with. I don’t think ‘controlled burning’, I think ‘death’.
Ella said to me, “Mum the first rule of scouts is not to panic.” She then harnessed her leadership qualities. She needed to; I was panicked. She instructed me to call the track office and check what was happening. It was confirmed that there were controlled burns to the west of us, but they were in hand.
Ella came in for a hug. “You looked so worried, Mum.” “You’re my baby”, I said crying. Once my heart had calmed down, Ella said, “Mum, did you think we were going to be able to run from a bushfire?”
When we were just over a week into the hike, we had to climb two very steep mountains, in strong wind and rain. We had been carrying our food in our dry bags, which had worked well up until now. We managed to mentally tackle the mountains, because we knew we could put dry clothes on at the other end. But when we got to the hut, everything was soaked. Jackets. Sleeping bags. Socks. Fleeces. That was a miserable afternoon being cold and trying to dry wet clothes in the rain.
As we were the only ones in the hut, we had decided to put the tent up in the hut for extra warmth and protection from the rain.
As we settled down for the night, I heard thunder. I heard it before Ella, so I prepared her, telling her that we were about to experience a storm. It was a brutal storm. It only lasted for about 15 minutes overhead, but it was terrifying. I lay there holding Ella tight, singing her songs I knew from when she was younger, trying to keep my voice as calm as possible. She was shaking in my arms, and my heart was beating out of my chest. The hut we were huddled in was the rebuilt version of the one that had been struck down by lightning a few years earlier. Our fear was real.
“I want to go home, mummy.”
“I know darling”, was all I could say, because right then at that moment, I really wanted to go home too.
Once the storm had passed, it took us a while to settle down, as we were both pumped with adrenaline. I hardly slept that night, just wanting the sun to come up. I was so relieved that we were okay, as I looked at Ella sleeping, I burst into tears.
And then there was the day I fell on gravel and had to bandage up my gashed arm with a sanitary pad.
And then there was the day we got lost, so we decided to walk to the next hut, and a planned 18 km day became a spontaneous 27 km day.
And then there was the day we picked up our food box at the local roadhouse and had hot chips and way too much sugar.
And there was the day when we had been warned of another storm coming. We had planned to stay in the old worker's cottage at the top of a mountain. We were half settled in when Ella said, “Mum, I don’t want to be up here all alone on the top of a mountain with a storm coming.”
We had already walked 17 km that day. To get to the next hut, we needed to walk another 15 km, 32 km altogether.
We had been using the sun as our clock, and I knew that it was around 3pm. We had about 3.5 hours of daylight left.
Ella was keen to know what I wanted to do, but I told her it was her walk, that she had to choose. She took a moment and then said: “Let’s do it!”
We practically flew down the mountain, a four kilometre descent in 20 minutes, and walked and walked. We had to get to the next hut before the dark and before the storm.
It was hard, but we kept moving forward. The dark came. Ella was up in front with the headtorch, I was following behind, letting her lead. Eventually, we reached the hut. We were exhausted. Ella had planned her long day to be 20 km; we had just walked 32 km. We high-fived.
There were only three people in the hut and everyone had gone to bed, but a dad and his 13-year-old daughter decided to get up and make us a fire and a hot drink, they were our track angels.
On the last day we had to walk 20.6 km, and although we had walked 32 km the day before, this final day seemed never to end.
I let Ella know how happy I was that we had made this happen. That if she wanted to complete the other sections during various stages in her life – when she finishes school, leaves uni, or needs a break from ‘life’ – no matter how old she is, all she has to do is tell me and I will walk with her until the very end.
There was no fanfare when we finished.
As we walked through the town, no one knew what we had just accomplished. That we had just walked 250 km in 13 days, mother and daughter leading each other. No one knew that we had been challenged by the elements and by our own minds. No one knew how far we had both come internally and externally.
But we knew. It was our little secret.
I asked Ella what one word summed up her initiation walk, “Pride Mum. I’m really proud of myself.”