The Overland Cough
So you think you have heard it all… Unless you were doing the popular Overland trail in Tasmania December 2003 you haven’t heard the last cough. The Overland Trail is an incredibly popular 80km+ hike through Tasmanian World Heritage mountains. The trail is well marked, there is almost no need for compass and map, and in many places a boardwalk is provided for environmentally sensitive areas. There are huts scattered on the way where the National Parks allows hikers to stay in bunks, provide minimal heating, rain water and compost toilets as well as designated tent-sites.
Wife Katherine (above) and I got dropped at Ronnies Creek near Cradle Mountain at 330pm. Task at hand was to hike the first leg of the Overland with our full backpacks to the first overnight hut – Waterfall Valley Hut. Within 10 minutes we found a wombat grazing along the track, totally unphased by us.
These first 4 hours are almost all uphill, past Crater Lake, up the steel wire assisted climb to Marions Lookout overlooking Dove Lake and on to Kitchen Hut (an emergency hut) near the Cradle Mountain summit. If you have CF (click for info) the uphill means you take a few steps cough and spit, take a few more steps, cough and spit some more, a few minutes of coughing on the spot and continue. This is a slow process! With all the spitting you will not get lost, can always retrace my steps! The ants love the phlegm and before you know it they got it.
A full backpack has enough food for 8 days in it, and weighs a tonne! My backpack was new and I had to continually stop to adjust it (just my excuse to stop!).
Between us we packed one tent, a cooker with lots of fuel (Shellite), a water filter, a first aid kit, a battery operated (Omron) ultrasonic nebuliser and a spitting cup for in the tent. Needless to say I had a LARGE hanky (CANTEEN bandana actually) hanging off my pack. The first leg is tough even without a pack, but right at the start the pack is also at it’s heaviest. We figured we’d stay on the trail till the food runs out. I resolved to eat as much as possible as quickly as possible! We had catered for 7+ days.
At the huts we choose to set up the tents as it gave me a little more privacy to cough my morning and night routines. It is also warmer in the tent then in the huts and the there is better air circulation. One night we did stay in a hut and found the tent was the winner. These huts are very popular; one (the New Pelion Hut) could accommodate something like 60 hikers! We sure did appreciate a sheltered and waterproof place to cook and eat in at the end of each wet and cold day.
I could not nebulise as much as I wanted to as batteries run out really quick. I had a digital camera requiring four AA-batteries, a headlight requiring three and the nebuliser needs four. I carried four spares to cover it all. Fifteen batteries is a lot to carry in a backpack!
Katherine also made me eat and drink as much as possible on the trip. Her backpack was often heavier than mine, so you see where she was coming from… We made sure I had my daily salt tablet, my daily vitamin tablet and an occasional Fluimicil (mucolytic) whenever I figured it would be good. There was also a daily glucosamine/chondroitin pill for us all.
We carried a two litre Camelbak each and drank additional filtered water at lunch. On arrival at each hut we made large hot drinks – stock cubes were a winner for me. Each morning we made hot porridge and drank as much as we could, including lots of hot instant coffee.
At the second hut we saw the first environmentally responsible tent platforms. Makes it so much easier to set up compared to uneven wet muddy spots! It rained every day except for the last two days of our hike, but the platforms, where available, made for comfortable and mud-free camping.
The Overland Track has plenty of side-tracks for the fit. We did a few of them. Going up Mount Ossa, the highest mountain in Tasmania was not possible as we had a blizzard on the Pelion Pass and going up would have been totally unsafe. Of course there were several attempts and a few success stories too! One success story was an Army Captain from Townsville who could not understand why people always thought army men were so fit.... The other soldiers we found en-route had also covered super-human distances!
Not being in a rush we casually left between 10am and 11am most mornings and sometimes even later. We’d cover 10-15 kilometers per day and generally got to our destination between 4pm and 6pm. Stops were always made for flora and fauna appreciation, of which there was plenty! An extra night was spend at Pelion hut where we had a rest day. That day I climbed a small mountain (Mount Oatleigh) with a very fit Englishman, Sunil. It was the first day I was convinced to wear gaitors on my legs as the track was allegedly very muddy. Indeed I ended up with mud up to the knees!
People we met on the trail ranged from Army Captains with infinite fitness and excellent gear to F-troop overseas tourists with runners and plastic bags for rain wear. We also had a surprise encounter with Paul Pritchard ,the well known mountaineer who survived a climbing accident and lives with a physical disability which does not stop him from his adventures! Paul was on a 'warm-up hike' with his wife, a mate and Paul's infant, only weeks prior to Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro.
The funniest was a Victorian mum and dad with young teen who were completely overloaded complete with camping stools and wine (which they shared with us. Their new gear was complete with labels and manuals hanging off them! They had struggled into our, their first, camp at 8pm totally exhausted. We were pleased to learn in the morning they decided not to do the trail, but just camp out and hike around a bit.
Other remarkable people included a molecular biology student who had studied the CF gene. Seeing me cough, spit and struggle provided some more insight for his theoretical studies. We also ran into a bunch of wallabies, pademelons, echidnas, a bunch of Tasmanian tiger snakes, a spotted qual, and many endemic kinds of trees and shrubs, ferns, lichens and mosses. Everything seemed to be in bloom as well!
When finally the sun started shining, for our last 2 days, we realised how smelly we could get without proper washing! Washing was done sparingly as it was too cold for me! We had one brave ‘dip’ below a waterfall once, but mostly relied on ‘wet-ones’ for a refresh in the tent. As for CF on the trail, my lung function did not improve overall, nor did I stop coughing, I did not get sick, but was pretty buggered by the end! One almost blister on a toe and feeling a million dollars.
Luxuries I need to mention included a pee-bottle in the tent, Dutch double salted liquorice a spit cup and the huge hanky! We ate all our food, and also helped the molecular biologist eat his polenta and protein powder (yes! Perfect for me!) as well, finishing the hike with not one muesli bar to spare after 8 days and 7 nights in the wilderness.
This was not the last cough...
Note on CF
For those not familiar with me or my health, I have Cystic Fibrosis. This is a conditions that gives me lousy lungs amongst other things. I take medication with every bite I eat, and need to cough my lungs clean twice a day using a nebuliser. Deskjobs are out of the question for me, I need to be doing daily exercise to keep my lungs clean.
The biggest danger with Cystic Fibrosis is that the continual pneumonia gets out of hand. The reason the lung infections cannot be stopped is because for some reason CF lungs are susceptible to bacteria that other people's lungs will not host (I understand this is because of thicker phlegm and a particularly hight salt level of my 'CF' body). The various bacteria that CF lungs are prone to catching are typically anti-biotic resistant. The overuse of antibiotics eventually causes the infection not to respond to treatment and we die... Some patients get lung transplants, often accompanied with other organs (like the heart/liver) which are all strained because of the huge strain of pumping low oxygenated blood around the body through congested lungs. Hence many CF patients die of congestive heart failure too...