A return to Colinton (Brisbane Valley, Australia)

The Queensland Rogaining Association put out a call for volunteers to collect checkpoints from last weekend’s 24 hour Queensland Rogaining Championship event. It seemed to me like a good excuse to get back out on the course to explore the beautiful landscape and also get in some extra navigation practice. So I put up my hand.

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The checkpoint collection was starting from the opposite side of the course from were the hash house had been located. So I had the pleasure of a beautiful motorbike ride down narrow country roads and gravel farm tracks. The more I ride my motorbike the more I miss motorbike touring. I think I will need to rectify that in 2016.

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There were about six of us volunteering to tidy up the checkpoints. We split into teams to tackle different areas. I teamed up with Ryan and together we set off on our adventure. It started with an almost two hour 4WD rumble along rattling farm tracks. While this might have been a breeze in a big 4WD, we only had a little AWD with relatively low clearance. It handled the task well though and I enjoyed being passenger as we bounced along crossing rocky creek beds, following gravel tracks and zipping across golden fields.

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After a scarily steep drive to the top of a hill we parked the car and set off on foot. We each had separate loops of about 12km (8 miles) to collect four checkpoints each. Armed with our respective topographic maps, compasses and two-way radios we parted ways. The bush was so peaceful. The only sound was the breeze through the leaves, the crunch of my feet on the ground, the swish of spear grass against my legs, the twitter of birds and the occasional moo of distant cattle.

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I felt a tad nervous to be heading off into untracked bushland on my own with no one to turn to for backup. What if I couldn’t find the checkpoints? What if my navigation during races was plain good luck? What if it was really my sister who is the navigation brains behind our team? I knew there was no risk of me getting lost because I knew exactly where I was on the map and would be able to get a good visual on the hill again. But what if I came all this way to help collect checkpoints but couldn’t find them? That would be embarrassing.

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I came across a slightly more pressing problem though as I descended the high point into the valley below. Ahead of me and to my right were two herds of cattle. The herd to my right were not too worrying but ahead of me was a big bull mounting a cow. They were directly in my path and he did not look terribly happy with my presence. He dropped down as the rest of his herd thundered away across the spear grass. Instead of following them, he who I had interrupted gave me the kind of death stare I would give someone who interrupted me in similar position. But I’m not a couple of hundred kilograms of meat and muscle. The bull was about 100m away from me and started walking in my general direction, sizing me up. I don’t know whether he would have become aggressive or was just posturing. But I was not going to wait around to see. There was a creek bed to my right with a steep entry. It would probably be too steep for the bull to run down so I ducked into it and moved along close to some trees that shielded me from Mr Bull. He kept an eye on me for a while, took a few more steps in my direction and then watched until I was well clear of his patch.

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Awake and alert now I continued on my mission to find my first checkpoint. I needn’t have feared incompetence because the checkpoint was exactly where the map said it would be. Sure, I took a wrong turn because I didn’t trust myself (this always seems to happen to me on the first checkpoint of any adventure race or rogain – you think I’ learn). But once I stopped, looked around and trusted myself I marched cross country directly to the checkpoint, which was over the next spur.

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Confidence restored I could settle into enjoying the landscape. My third checkpoint took me up a long steep spur to the top of a hill. The climb was calf busting but the views absolutely amazing. From the spur I could look back over the landscape through which my sister and I raced last weekend, and the places where I had just walked to collect the first and second checkpoints. The first checkpoint was behind the long spur in the middle of the picture and the second was in a saddle near the top of the incline that is just visible to the left of the picture. Last weekend, my sister and I crossed the mountains at the back of the photo and came back from our adventure in the dark across the creek further off in the distance.

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I am so glad I put up my hand to collect the checkpoints because it meant I could trek through this beautiful private property. The sky turned moody about half way through my adventure, accentuating the stunning structural beauty of the naked trees along the ridges.

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My final checkpoint took me through this stunning rocky creek bed with waterholes that must be amazing for cooling off in summer. I can just see generations of farmers’ children riding motorbikes and horses out here to chill out.

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They would have to navigate the many fences around the property but being locals they probably know where the gates are. Me, I was on foot so just crawled under these lovely rustic structures that scream “cattle property”.

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First four checkpoints collected I trekked back to the car. Ryan arrived within about 30 seconds of me and together we drove back down the track to do some ‘out-and-back’ checkpoint collection. A few hours later, as the sun started to sink low in the sky, we were done. All that was left was the long cold motorbike ride home, which again made me long for a good old motorbike tour. Or at the very least, an Australian road trip. Good thing Paul and I have a road trip planned for the first week of August 🙂

On volunteering and inspiration

Darkness shrouds Bellbird Grove. A parking marshall in a bright orange vest with yellow reflective stripes waves a glowing red wand, indicating that we should park further down the road. He is smiling despite the time. The sun won’t rise for another two hours but the oval is brightly lit by the warm orange-yellow light of a generator-driven set of flood lights. I make a bee-line towards the large white marquee under which I see a small huddle of people wearing bright green vests. Welcome to the Oxfam Trailwalker Brisbane weekend: volunteer perspective.

Oxfam Trailwalker Brisbane is an annual even in it’s fourth edition. This inspirational experience draws thousands of dedicated people who each play their part in raising money to help Oxfam Australia alleviate poverty around the world.
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First there are approximately 900 walkers. These extraodinary people who live ordinary lives form up into teams of four to raise almost a million dollars for Oxfam Australia. Not only do they fundraise but they train for and walk either 55km or 100km through the bush as a team with a 24 hour and 48 hour time limit respectively.
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Second come the support crews, numbering somewhere between 500 – 1,000 people. These are the family and friends who usually have no idea what they have been talked into doing. Perhaps they’ve been told, “Oh, just bring some food to some checkpoints; it’ll be easy”. But easy their task isn’t. They will be awake most of the weekend driving to each checkpoint, carting heavy boxes and bags filled with food and clothing, cooking meals on camp stoves, filling drink bottles and encouraging their weary (and sometimes cranky) teams to continue to the finish no matter how sore or tired the walkers feel. And, at the end, these generous souls don’t even get a finisher’s certificate and often don’t realise how integral they are to their team’s success because they say, “Oh, we haven’t done anything; they did all the walking.
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Third there are between 350 – 500 volunteers who each give up between four to twenty-four hours of their weekends plus driving time to help Oxfam’s fabulous staff put the event on. It’s not glamorous work but when it comes to volunteer experiences, it is one of the most rewarding. Oxfams’s staff, the walkers and their support crews are always gracious to the volunteers and perhaps that, along with the knowledge that we are contributing to something bigger, keeps us coming back for more.
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My personal experience volunteering at Oxfam Trailwalker Brisbane 2014 was absolutely amazing. I camped at Checkpoint 5 for most of the event, filled three separate volunteer roles and even had time to catch up with friends between my shifts. It all started with that early morning shift at Registration where I filed emergency contact and medical forms to the soundtrack of nervous and excited walkers’ voices as they made their way through the registration process. The five hours flew by and 9am came around so quickly I barely noticed the sun having risen three hours earlier. I filled the hours between 9am and my next shift at 10pm by sleeping, going out to lunch and laughing as I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. At 10pm I reported to the Event Control Centre. This shift was a quiet one in which my only real task was to drive someone out to Checkpoint 3. But the hour long drive was delightful as I got to know my passenger and then I bumped into some people I knew at the checkpoint so had a yarn before driving back. While it was a quiet shift, I got to see how the event is coordinated and the absolutely tireless work the Oxfam staff, rangers and emergency services put into event safety. Their dedication made me feel rather embarrassed about falling asleep in my chair at 6am just before my shift was due to end.
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After getting plenty of rest during the day, I was refreshed and ready for action at Checkpoint 6 at 10pm that night. Only thirteen of the 275 teams were left to be checked in and the volunteer team I worked with worked hard to keep them motivated so close to the finish. With a volunteer dressed as a penguin (complete with full black face paint because penguins have black faces) and an old stray dog for company (we later learned the dog was 18 years old), we cheered teams in, filled their water bottles when they or their support crews were too tired to walk to the taps, bolstered the confidence of walkers who needed to retire so close to the finish so they knew they had achieved something amazing in getting this far and were kept busy with all the little jobs that allow these courageous walkers to complete their journeys.

For me, this is why I come back every year. Having walked the course in 2011, I know how tough it is to stay motivated when your body and mind are screaming to stop. Having crewed in 2013, I know how challenging it is to stay alert and put your team’s needs first when all you want to do is curl up asleep in a warm bed. Those who finish the course on the first day are phenomenal athletes and I admire their dedication to their training. But it’s those who struggle all the way to the end who have captured my heart and for whom I hope to don the green vollie’s vest again for many years to come. These ordinary women and men had the courage to say, “I don’t know whether we can make it because we’ve never done anything like this before but let’s just give it a go”. For some it’s their first foray into hiking. For others it’s even the first time they’ve decided to get serious about exercise. And yet they sign up. To those who didn’t finish: you are phenomenally courageous for even having started. There is no failure at Trailwalker because you gave so much of yourselves so that others less fortunate may benefit. And that’s truly inspiring. And for those who did: congratulations on an epic effort.