Travelogue: Hiking Jatbula

I forgot I had a body ‘til I hiked through the bush for five days. Maybe your days are also a blur of stimulate-brain-with-coffee, engage-brain-for-work, relax-brain-with-wine – all conducted, more or less, in a seated or horizontal position. If that’s you, might I recommend bush walking.

The Jatbula trail is a sixty-odd kilometre walk through Jawoyn country in Nitmiluk National Park. Due to the sacredness of the land and the small size of the campsites along the track, only fifteen people are permitted on the trail at a time. Usually, spots are filled by tour groups months before the weather gets good for hiking; this year, for obvious reasons, is different.

I hiked with Anna, a fellow teacher. There were eleven people booked in for the day we set out, making for an even more serene experience than hikers normally enjoy on this remote walk. For five days my awareness was centred on walking, shouldering the essentials in my pack, and not falling over. All else was irrelevant, and, because of this, I had a chance to come home to the body in which I live “this one wild and precious life”.*

Crystal Falls, where we camped on Night Two.

On the first day, I remembered that I have feet. My hiking shoes are well worn-in thanks to mountains climbed in Indonesia, but no footwear seems able to compensate for how my funny-shaped feet make contact with the ground. The aching in the balls of my feet stayed, but didn’t worsen, over the five days of walking. I am grateful for my feet – curly, nobbly toes and high arches, sinewy tops and calloused bottoms.

On the second day, I remembered (or did I realise for the first time?) that I have hips. Not in the Beyoncé or J-Lo sense of the word ‘hips’, but in the sense that I was forced to acknowledge the presence of my pelvis as I squirmed on the slippery surface of my camping mat in an effort to devise a sleeping position that didn’t feel like prodding a bruise. There was a little rush of something pleasant and victorious, like belonging, when I was able to join in with Anna’s lament about sore hip bones the next morning. ‘See,’ I snarked at my inner critic, ‘I might not look like much of one but I am a woman. I have hips.’

Biddlecombe Cascades. The beauty of hiking well into the national parks is that one gets this kind of spot to oneself! The more accessible gems are understandably much, much more crowded.

On the third day, I remembered that I have light brown skin. We chewed through the kilometres early to beat the worst of the heat, and had the afternoons to luxuriate in the sunshine beside idyllic cascades or in waterholes clear and clean enough to drink from with your hands. My torso, whose soft regions I’ve been hiding inside one-piece swimmers for months, collected colour quickly. When I noticed my brownness I felt young, healthy and strong. Which is what I am. And I am so very thankful.

On the fourth day, I remembered my legs. Yes, they’d come to my attention in the previous three days but on this day I really felt them, you know? We hiked 17km before lunch. Quads zinging, hammies pinching, glutes whinging, calves cross-hatched with scratches. And my ankles! My puny ankles, behaving like they always do, as easy to overcome as the rubber band around a bunch of limp broccolini. But they carried me, and they did not fail, and I am in awe of them, my legs.

After taking this photo one evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about that film Mrs Betts made us watch in Year 10, Rachel Perkins’ One Night The Moon. (I remember thinking, ‘One night the moon what?’). In it, the white man sings: ‘This land is mine / All the way to the old fence line’ and the Indigenous man sings: ‘This land is me / Rock, water, animal, tree’.

On the fifth day, I drained my two-litre water bladder twice before lunchtime trying to drown a headache I blame on heat, fatigue and the sudden change to an uncommonly healthy diet. Still, there was something really liberating about having nothing to worry about other than keeping my mind and body safe while I put one foot in front of the other (in the direction of a Maiden’s Lane double cheeseburger…).

I actually love the smell of a shirt damp with perspiration because it smells like being alive, and the salty taste of my skin when I wipe away the sweat trickling into eyes, nose and mouth because it reminds me I live in a body. And I love the endorphin rush, like a breeze breathed in, when I reach a high place and look around at the vastness I’ve already traversed. I recommend bush walking.

*This phrase, which is in my thoughts a lot, is borrowed from Glennon Doyle’s most recent memoir, Untamed.

1 thought on “Travelogue: Hiking Jatbula”

  1. Hi Steph!
    So excited for you (and a wee bit jealous) having an Outback adventure. Loved reading about your Jatbula hike and looking forward to hearing more about your NT teaching life.


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