Our first hike with just Mummy and Maddie
I imagined my first solo hike with my baby girl would be a leisurely affair. I would walk a comfortable pace along a beautiful trail, sharing my love of nature with my daughter. Little did I know our first expedition as just Mummy and Maddie would end up with me fighting to contain my panic as the situation turned sour.
Hiking has long been a favourite pastime of our little family, and one we continue to enjoy now we have our daughter Maddie. As a family we have explored Kalbarri, and the forests of SW Western Australia, as well as the South Downs Way in England. Although we hike regularly as a family, I hadn’t given much thought to taking Maddie out on my own. It just not really something I had considered as exploring the great outdoors had always been ‘our thing’. We adventure as #TeamJones, I always hike with Jed.
My first solo hike came about sort of coincidentally. Jed planned to walk three days, two nights southbound on the Bibbulmun Track to Dwellingup. Rather than meet him in town, we decided that I would park in Dwellingup and walk northbound a few kilometres up the track to meet him. I would start walking northbound at 11:30am and Jed would time it that we would cross paths after roughly one hour.
Setting out on our own for the first time
On the morning of our hike, Maddie and I drove to Dwellingup and parked up at the visitor information centre. I planned to get there early so Maddie could have a run around for an hour before we set off. The first challenge of solo hiking with a baby I found was that it’s not as easy to get the pack on without help. When the baby is in there you don’t want to swing it around as much so lifting the 14kg and manoeuvring my body in-between the many straps was a challenge. We started walking north at 11am, a little earlier than planned but I wanted to get a good workout so didn’t mind the extra kilometres.
Finding the start of the trail was not as easy as I had hoped. The waugal at the start is half overgrown by tree bark – not easy to see. I had the paper map of this part of the Bibbulmun track but decided to download the Guthooks app and install the map on my iPhone. With this app you can keep track of your location using your phone’s GPS even when you have no mobile signal. I walked 100m then checked the app to see that I was indeed on the right track.
The trail here follows the path of the Hotham Valley Railway and varies between dirt road, small single track and walking beside the rail line. Red-Tailed Cockatoos are abundant here and fly low between the jarrah trees, squawking in song to each other. I checked to see why Maddie wasn’t squawking along with them – mimicking their call. She was asleep already.
I walked along the beautifully green and refreshing trail, enjoying the serenity that comes with being alone with oneself in nature. Suddenly I understood why Jed loves going on his solo multi-day adventures. I felt confident and in high spirits. Since having a baby I have lost confidence in my own outdoor skills. Being responsible for our little girl in the comfort and safety of our home can be a demanding task. Being solely responsible out here suddenly seemed achievable.
Upon reflection I understand that I never thought to take Maddie out into the wild on my own because I would be both totally responsible, but relinquishing much control all at once. It always seemed so much safer to be with Jed. Now, with my sleeping baby on my back and only the trail in front of me, a whole new world of freedom and activity became apparent to me.
History along the track
The trail passes an old rail platform, now disused and covered in grasses. I wonder what stories have happened here; old timber mills, prisoner of war camps and devastating fires. The area is steeped in history. A little further along the track we pass the abandoned Holyoak townsite. Again, I ponder the transience of the historic settlements here in Western Australia, coming and going with the demand for material and labour.
I had expected to meet Jed around 2 or 3 kilometres into the hike, or sometime between noon and half past. However I covered ground faster than I expected and had walked about 5km by 12:30. Maddie woke up about this time and although she was quite content, I decided to stop for a bite to eat and let her stretch her legs at the next clearing. I found it odd that I hadn’t yet met up with Jed, but expected him to pop around the corner at any minute.
Somewhere around 4km north of Dwellingup the trail starts to cut through some fairly dense bush. We weave through grass trees, often having to duck under their plumage. (foliage?) The trail up until now had been fairly open so I thought I would continue just a bit further to find a suitable place to stop.
The worry starts to creep in
By now I was starting to worry a bit. Perhaps the adrenalin curbed my hunger and fuelled my muscles as I felt myself speeding up, not too concerned about stopping. “I have to find him soon” I thought, plodding on.
At maybe 6.5km the trail meets back up to a dirt road, again not a great place to stop as people drive these back roads pretty fast. By now it was 12:45 and I made the decision that I would walk until 1pm, and then have a break and a snack.
By chance, at 1pm I passed a small clearing at the base of the railway embankment where a small bridge crosses over a stream. A large puddle pooled across the road and I had to wade through the very edge, pushing through the bushes. I saw a footprint that I thought matched the tread of Jed’s shoes. A few weeks back Jed had told me some fact about the tread of his fancy new Altra hiking shoes and shown me the unusual pattern. I was straining to think back to exactly what they looked like. By now, I was definitely starting to panic. I tried to rationalise my fears as I took the pack off and set Maddie free. For half an hour she pottered about the clearing, watching the stream and the trees, but mostly unpacking important stuff from her pack. At one point I saw her run off with my keys! Can you imagine if she lost them out there?
I looked through the photos on my phone and scrolled back a whole year to the last time Jed walked this stretch of the Bibbulmun Track. I found the picture of him when we arrived in town – it was time stamped 12:38pm. There was no way he would still be over 7km from the finish line now. I had been tracking my progress through Guthooks and knew I hadn’t strayed from the trail. Where was he?
The previous three days had seen some pretty bad weather with heavy rain and strong winds. Jed had called late on his first day from atop a hill where he had signal. He told me he was planning to stay in the shelter at camp that night as he had passed a few fallen big branches. He was still going to sleep in his tent the second night as it was new and he wanted to try it out. Now, 3-4km further along the track than planned, and an hour after we were supposed to meet, it started to become a real possibility that something may have happened to Jed.
Managing my fear is something I have become accustomed to with Jed. From the very first days of our relationship risk has been present. Two of his friends were killed in an accident on his oilrig when we first met. If Jed had been on shift, it would have been him. There have been times when Jed’s chopper has taken off on time but landed hours late, and days when he loses all communications from his rig. I have a series of scenarios I go through and questions I ask myself to rationalise and keep calm.
What were the possibilities here? Jed could have been struck by a falling tree, maybe the shelter collapsed. The weather had been bad but it wasn’t cold enough for him to suffer from exposure I don’t think. I know he always carries plenty of water. What if a snake bit him? It was unlikely in the cold months but still; he had a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and would have activated it if he were unwell. The same goes for if he had fallen and was unable to walk. What if he got to town before we set off? Well, I got there an hour and a half early, he would have come to us if he were there. Did we pass each other on the track without knowing? I followed the waugals and Guthooks religiously. I didn’t see how that was possible.
Now, here I was, in this little clearing, with our precious little girl who is so much like her daddy, wondering if I should keep going or turn back.
My options were either keep going, hopefully find him and help him if he was injured, or head back to town and, if I didn’t find him, alert the authorities. I didn’t want to think about that yet.
I sat on the dirt and shared a KitKat Chunky with Maddie. She doesn’t usually have chocolate but I wanted to conserve the food we carried in case we were out for a long time. Between our two bottles we probably had about two litres of water. We would be ok with that if we had to overnight. Maddie had jumpers but I didn’t. I do know how to make a fire though. If it came to it, I think I could get us though the night.
The alternative was to walk back to town. I felt sick at the thought that Jed could be laying injured just a little further up the track and I walked away. What if the extra time it took to get help was enough to make a bad situation critical, or worse, fatal. I felt myself welling up with the responsibility of my decision.
Making a tough choice
Having Maddie with me made it an easy decision. I needed to get her back to town. Staying out in the elements without proper gear was putting both of us at risk.
I flattened out the KitKat wrapper and placed it in the middle of the track, knowing the shiny material would be easy to see. Jed knows they’re one of my favourites and he would have understood it was a signal from me. I scratched a short note into the dirt “gone 2 car, Suzy + M x”. I loaded Maddie onto my back and with much trepidation, took the first steps back towards town. I turned to look back up the track, feeling guilty for abandoning our search.
Before long we started to pass track I didn’t recognise. I checked Guthooks, and we appeared to be on track, or at least very close. I hadn’t seen any waugals directing us off the path we were on.
We continued another kilometre, constantly checking behind to make sure there wasn’t a hobbling Jed trying to catch us. I took out my phone again to check the app and saw four missed calls from Jed. With simultaneous relief and anxiety I tried to call. For the first time on the track I had signal, but it went to ‘SOS only’ in a second. I hopped on the spot for ten minutes, waving my phone in the air trying to get a message to send. No luck.
My new priority was to get to town so I could phone Jed. I knew now that it was likely that he was in town – but we had a new problem – I was out on the trail, hours after we were supposed to have met and Jed hadn’t seen me. I guessed that he probably thought I was lost and would be very worried himself. I wonder how long before he went to the police station in town.
I was still 5km from Dwellingup so quickened my pace, all the while holding my phone in the air trying to find signal. Maddie was starting to get very restless by this point so I sang Old MacDonald Has a farm the whole way. I paused my singing for a minute to catch my breath and at that moment heard a distant shout. I couldn’t make it out. Maybe my ears were playing tricks on me.
I walked a little further, in silence now, just listening. I heard the shout again. It was a very deep male voice. It didn’t sound like Jed.
A minute later there it was again but this time it was clear enough to hear “SUZY!”.
“YES” I shouted back, feeling slightly embarrassed as this was probably a search and rescue party and I was totally fine.
Maddie started to chant “daddy, daddy”. She recognised him before I did.
“SUZY” it shouted again, as loud as it could. This time I knew it was Jed. Sound can play tricks when it travels over long distances.
“JED!” I called, now moving as fast as I could whilst carrying Maddie.
“SUZY!” I heard again.
“I’M COMING!!!!” I yell back as Jed appears, running over the crest of a hill.
Maddie giggled when she saw Jed. I had been promising her the whole journey that we’ll see daddy soon.
Jed was enormously relieved to find us. “Where were you?” he asked as he hugged us in close. I told him that we had been on the trail and about where we had stopped. He said he’d passed that point much earlier in the day. We had both been tracking our route with Guthooks and couldn’t understand how we managed to pass each other. He told us how he got to our car around 12:30 and found us gone. Out of concern asked in the tourist information centre if they had seen us. He left his pack in the store and came running back up the trail to find us.
He told us how he planned to run for an hour calling for us, before turning back and going for help. He informed the lady in tourist information to call the police if we were not back by 5pm.
“The hour was up” he said. “That was the last time I was going to call before running back. I waited an extra ten minutes just in case. I’m so glad you heard me when you did.”
We walked quickly back to town to let people know we were safe. This part of the track winds between narrow bush paths and back to the dirt track. As we walked up the dirt track I noticed that we passed several areas where the Bibbulmun rejoins the dirt road, but we had missed each turn off. The signage isn’t very clear here. We deduced that we must have passed each other along this stretch where we are so close to the true track that it looks like you are on track on Guthooks, but it’s just far enough away that you wouldn’t hear the other person. With the dense scrub, noisy cockatoos and the wind in the trees, you could easily miss someone only 20m away.
We made it back to the car at about 3:30. I had walked 15km that afternoon, and Jed had walked 19km, then ran 10km. We were pretty darn tired by this point but the baby wasn’t. She had been carried all day. And she had all the energy from that KitKat. We stopped to have the most delicious burger I’ve ever eaten at the Blue Wren Café and let the baby run wild for a while.
I held my girl and my husband a little closer that night. Maddie must have sensed our mood as she was very cuddly and didn’t want to leave our side. Neither Jed nor I felt lost on our walk that day but we were lost to each other – and that’s not a good way to be.