We started our walk at Standley Chasm, an easily accessible tourist spot 60-odd kilometres west of Alice. I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow description of each day of our walk, but will pick up the story when we reached Hugh Gorge junction. That was at around midday, by which time it had already been raining for around 20 hours. The walk continued on through the gorge, and the track notes advised us of having to wade through short stretches of very cold water. Given the weather conditions we thought it might be wiser to camp there for the night, and continue on in the morning, making up time later on.
Now, it wasn’t just the rain, but the cold too. Central Australia can be bitterly cold in the winter, and not just overnight. We’d been walking in constant rain for some hours, and I was pretty much wet through. The seals on my Goretex had finally given up the ghost (I bought it 8 years ago at an op-shop for $12, and it has certainly served me well!). Also was our discovery that morning that the tent was not 100% waterproof. It turns out that the attachment points need to be treated for it to be 100% sealed. Great!
Given all this, I wanted nothing more than to get into some dry clothes and climb into my sleeping bag. While we were pitching the tent two couples walked past us, having just walked through the gorge. Their advice was that the water was around mid-thigh at the deepest, and that we’d certainly be getting our feet wet during the 2.5km walk. Oh, and they also brought the unhappy tidings that the weather was forecast to continue raining for the next 3 days. Apparently 40mm were predicted to fall on Wednesday alone. It was now Monday.
Though with this update we really should have commenced to pack up our tent and set off straight away into the gorge, I simply could not face it. Besides, setting off into cold water, which we’d have to be wading through for some hours, did not seem sensible after we’d already gotten so cold and wet. I thought it best to stay put, and make an attempt to get out the next day.
The next day was Tuesday, and the rain had continued unabated overnight. The creek we’d crossed to get to our campsite was only slightly higher than it had been the day before, though the water was certainly more forceful. We packed everything up, from the inside out, to try and keep it all as dry as possible. I was wearing my thermal long johns (up until then just for sleeping), and my fleece under my damp Goretex. It seemed important to stay as warm as possible.
We hadn’t walked more than 100 metres when we got to the first section of wading, a narrow channel between two sheer cliffs. The opposite bank seemed around 30 metres away, and the water was a turbulent murky brown, with no way of gauging its depth. We stepped in, and it rose to the tops of our legs within metres. My boots filled. It was horrible. We stood in the rain, poking about with a stick to try and find a shallow point, but there was none.
Eventually we withdrew from the pool, and Clinton bravely stripped off to just his swimming trunks to try and find a way through. He had teevas (a kind of hiking sandal), you see, and so was not faced with the problem of wet feet in wet boots. But as he tried to find a path across he slipped into the water and was totally submerged. My heart went into my mouth – it was really fricking cold. When he got back to me he was shaking uncontrollably, and I started thinking of stories of hikers who’d died of hypothermia or exposure in the wilderness. Any thought of continuing seemed ridiculous; we had to turn back and get warm and dry as soon as possible.
We pitched the tent again, in the exact same spot as before. While trying to set up the little fly over the tent my fingers were so cold they were useless. I gripped the string with my teeth to make the knots. My feet were numb, and had been for some time. I can only imagine how cold Clinton must have been. Finally the tent was up, and the sleeping bags zipped together. My warm dry clothes were sadly now wet and cold clothes, but luckily I still had my sleeping socks, a thermal top and a second pair of hiking pants to wear. The dampness of my fleece was a blow, though.
So now we were at least dry, and beginning to warm up. The question became one of, “What do we do now?” It was Tuesday; we were meant to be arriving at our food cache on Wednesday, but it was still two days walk away. So we had 1 dinner, two breakfasts and two lunches. These would now have to be rationed. I could make the dinner stretch for 3 nights at a pinch. That meant that if the rain continued until Wednesday as forecast, we would have to leave on Thursday in order to get to Ellery Creek and our food by the Friday night. It was lucky that we still carried plenty of snacks – in fact, though the meals might have to be meagre, the snacks would be enough to contain any serious hunger pangs. We certainly weren’t going to die of hunger, anyway. And another problem we didn’t have to face was water, as there was plenty of that everywhere! The silt in it was enough to clog up my water filter several times, and made filtering enough drinking water for us a much longer process than ever before, as it had to be cleaned out regularly.
But still, we knew at least that our basic needs were accounted for. All we had to hope was that the campsite did not flood. This became of more and more concern as the day wore on, with no end to the rain. The little creek was transformed to a raging torrent while we watched, and I anxiously kept checking the high water line. The flood marks were something I had considered when we decided to stay at the gorge junction. I knew there was a rockpool further upstream by the track notes, and I’d tried to look at high water debris to get an idea of how in danger we were of flooding. My fear was that the rain would continue and the rockpool might overflow its banks, and we’d be washed away.
That might sound slightly irrational, but when I tell you that the rain did not cease for of 52 hours, and I watched a small creek quadruple in size over a period of hours, you might in some way understand where I was coming from.
Clinton assured me that at least the catchment area upstream from where we were was quite small, and, having agreed that we’d set off our Personal Locator Beacon only if our camp was flooded, there was nothing to do but sit in our sleeping bags and play cards while the rain continued outside.
This didn’t stop us from second-guessing ourselves, either. Had we made the right choice? Would we be safe? Should we have just turned back straight away? Because really, if the water level did not subside significantly by Thursday, we would be forced to retrace our steps to Birthday Waterhole, where there was a 4WD track. But the problem was that this also was a (hard) 2 day walk away, and there was no guarantee that there would be anyone to help us at the 4WD track. My preference by far was to continue on through the gorge, because not only was our food in that direction, but it was much easier walking, and would not disrupt our schedule too much.
When the rain finally ceased, in the early hours of Wednesday, it seemed too much to hope that it had stopped for good. We kept an ear out for the faintest hint of sprinkling from above, but the day dawned without a drop, and we were able – or rather, Clinton was able, as I was wallowing in the tent in hopelessness at that point – to start a fire. Thank you, firelighters! By slowly drying out kindling and then larger pieces of wood we had a wonderful fire that lasted us the whole day. We dried everything imaginable. Steam rose from socks, pants, boots. I eagerly checked the waterline at regular intervals, and it did indeed appear to be dropping fast. But still we held our breaths. If it did not rain again we knew we were out of the woods. But if it did...
On Thursday morning we woke up early, and we could see the moon and the stars. The sky was clear! As the sky to the east grew lighter our optimism grew and grew, until finally like a flaming beacon of hope the sun lit up the walls of the gorge all around us. It was like we were the first people ever to witness a sunrise. I will always remember that morning, and that feeling, because it was as close to transcendental as I have ever experienced.
So we made our way through Hugh Gorge, a walk that according to the track notes should take 2.5 hours, and took us five and a half. We clambered up cliffs and pushed through bush, and also of course waded through water. I kept my newly-dried boots dry, with a lot of assistance from Clinton, who made multiple trips across every watercourse, first to find a path, then to carry his pack, then my pack, back and forth, while I toddled through the icy water barefoot, clutching my boots and little else. He built me small stepping-stones so I could rock-hop across shallow streams without having to take my boots off, and even piggy-backed me across one short crossing. But though it took us ages, and the path was often arduous, we could not wipe the smiles from our faces, and upon finally emerging from the melaleuca thickets at the gorge mouth we knew we were saved!
The rest, as they say, is history. The tale of having to hike 31km in a day and a half, and the blisters from drying my boots too fast, and being reported missing.... well, they are stories for another time.