The Beauty of Vulnerability
I love to hike and to be outdoors, and a few months ago this led me to take on the Jatbula Trail; a 63 km, 5-day hike located not far from Katherine, in the Northern Territory. It’s a traditional walking trail between Katherine Gorge and Edith Falls, used by the Aboriginal people of the area, and one of the most well known tracks in the region. I feel more at home in the wild places than in the cities, and for those that know me, I also value quiet times to reflect, to sit, to just be. After a busy time at work, I was ready for a bit of time in the bush. So I decided that a hike along the Jatbula Trail would be the perfect opportunity for me to gain some clarity.
It took some convincing for the rangers to let me do this walk. I had to show them that I was experienced and prepared for the hike, and that I actually knew what I was doing. As I sold them on my hiking abilities, doubt started to grow in my mind. I hadn’t done this track before, the weather was still very hot, and I was sure it had been many months since the last hiker had gone through. In addition, the rangers warned me that signs were down, that the grass would be above my head in some areas, and that the track might be hard to follow/non existent. To be honest though, a part of me became more and more excited in the midst of these warnings. This was an opportunity not to be missed, and I was determined. It was going to take a resounding ‘no’ to dissuade me.
It was the solo part of this journey that excited me most. It was a chance to really test myself and to see what I was capable of; a chance to reflect and think, and perhaps most of all, a chance to have an adventure. So off I went on a 63 km track, with myself alone for company, and I was incredibly excited.
Three days later, and the hike had been hard, much harder than I expected. Countless times I’d become lost, missing signs everywhere, literally walking through a sea of grass with no real idea as to the right direction. And the heat; the heat was almost unbearable. It was everywhere; in the ground, in the rocks; in the air. It was heavy and unrelenting.
The nights were the hardest part though, because even though I was exhausted, it felt impossible to sleep. It only cooled down to a bearable temperature around midnight, which meant a lack of sleep from the first night onwards. By the third day the heat and exhaustion were starting to have a real impact. I was stopping numerous times for 10-15 minute breaks and then struggling to get back up.
I remember a screaming match I had with myself, urging myself to keep going because the camp mustn’t be too far way. I would have given the world for a cool Gatorade or an ice block. Up until this point, the thought was always at the back of my mind, that it’s not too late to turn back. Now, this thought was at the forefront of my mind, and I was giving this option serious consideration
So what did I do? I did the only thing any self-respecting, independent outback adventurer would do... I called my mum. Yep, a 26-year-old man/boy (that’s me), out in the bush on a solo mission with a Bear Grylls knife, decided to call his mom. It took a little while for my Satellite Phone to connect, but when I heard her voice (and my brother’s for that matter), I broke down. Just hearing those voices triggered something in me that is still really hard to explain. The phone call only went for 3-4 minutes, but it gave me courage and hope to keep going, to press on. It didn’t change my situation at all, but it had a significant affect on me, which is very hard to quantify.
About an hour after I got off the phone, I got these sudden, powerful, and overwhelming thoughts that I had just ruined this entire trip. I could have gone five days without talking to a single person, testing myself to the extreme, finding out about myself and how far I could go. My whole purpose was to go on a solo adventure, but in a moment of weakness, all my good work was now illegitimate. I had failed the test. I felt like I had cheated, and this adventure was now null and void.
But as I kept going, the more I thought about it, the more I began to disagree with this notion. The moment I called my mum, I don’t think I had ever felt so vulnerable. I was exhausted, my feet were covered in blisters, I was mentally stuffed because the whole time I was walking I was constantly looking for the next marker (which often wasn’t there), and I was incredibly worried about the day ahead.
And it occurred to me then how safe we are, all the time. I’m not saying that I was close to death or ever remotely close to death (after all, I had a satellite phone and could get helicoptered out within the hour if I was really desperate), but my main concern was to survive. It was no longer about fun, or taking some awesome videos or photos, and it wasn’t about trying to be this macho guy who could survive anything with no help or worries. No, my main concern was to complete this hike, and survive. And for me to survive, I made the decision to call my mum.
I’ve come to appreciate the times of being really vulnerable. We’ve all been vulnerable at some point, but we have so many safety nets that often we bounce straight back without falling, or we distract ourselves so we don’t let ourselves feel what’s really going on. It’s a place where not many people get to, because ultimately, it’s about losing control, and this goes against our very nature. It might not be a quest for survival against the elements; it might be a relationship break-up, the death of someone close, or the stack of bills and the losing of a job.
These times are formative, and a chance to discover something new. These times are also immensely difficult. I don’t think people should search for it, and often it will come in the least likely of places. I certainly didn’t start my hike with the aim of simply surviving. If I had known the state of the track, the weather and the wild buffalo (another story), I simply would not have gone. But I wouldn’t change what happened for a second, because those moments don’t come easily, and they don’t come without pain, and it’s for these reasons that they are so rewarding and so impacting. You actually have to work for them, struggle for them, feel that you might not actually make it, that you might fail in your task. Comfort is one of our greatest enemies.
The last two days of the hike were tough. I made it, but I was in a bad way when I arrived. In fact, with 1.5 km to go I sat down on the side of the track and waited for someone (anyone) to walk past to give me a hand. When I made it out, there was a tense discussion about whether or not I should go to hospital or not. It was decided that a couple litres of Gatorade and home observations for the rest of the day would be a good start. It was a few weeks after that I felt 100% again.
I’ve been asked numerous times whether I look back and see it as a fun little adventure. I wish I could answer in the positive, but I’d be lying. My time was not fun, and I did not enjoy it; at least not in the way that people mean. In the midst of stunning beauty and the appearance of an unexpected lunar eclipse, my goal was to finish the trail, and that was my only focus. But I must admit, this was fun, all be it in a slightly different way.
It was a far richer experience that I could ever has asked for planned for. The physical and mental struggle I went through, and the vulnerability that presented itself in a way I have never felt, made this five day journey a highlight that I will never forget. And for that, I am thankful.
Josh filmed a video of his adventure along the Jatbula Trail. You can watch it here.
This article was originally posted on SITE Magazine.