The Gathering of Moss and Other Thoughts on the Heysen Trail --

The majority of our time on the Heysen Trail sees us staying at the Rossiters Hut somewhere between Mt. Crawford, our starting point, and Tanunda, our intended destination. It’s a free shelter for walkers to use overnight (or two nights if your blisters call for it) that was restored from a neglected state by the “Friends of the Heysen Trail and Other Walking Trails Inc.” in June of 1997. I’m told all of this by a faded newspaper article and picture hanging to the left of the fireplace. It has been almost twenty years since the grand opening ceremony, the picture reveals that there were forty or so hiking enthusiasts in attendance, and we cannot be more grateful nor more comfortable in our refuge. We are eternally indebted to those sun weathered faces. After some mechanical work on The Falcon in Adelaide, we have been staying in Greenock, a lovely township in the outskirts of the Barossa Valley. The free (read: by donation) camp around the football oval has been our basecamp while we waited for the day the van was to be painted by G+J Auto out of Williamstown - a scenic thirty-minute drive from Greenock. In that time, we have visited several Cellar Doors in the Barossa Valley, walked to several others within Greenock, imbibed at the local pub and the brewery, and met the resident hippies, Ian and Robyn, who are so incredibly kind to us — I think we remind them of their youth. 

We, and by that I mean Kathryn, planned a week long thru-hike along the Mt. Crawford reserve portion of the 1200 km long Heysen Trail. Being that this is our first true thru-hike, we are in trial by fire mode. We really have to look into eating on thru-hikes because while I think our meals are delicious — they might not be the most viable option for sustenance on longer hikes. The first day of the trek was Wednesday, the 21st, and we truly got started after Jen, the second half of G+J Auto, drove us out to Mt. Crawford Forest Info Center once we had dropped off our home in their care. Not sure what condition we would have completed the trail in if we had walked from their shop to our starting point, as we had originally intended. On the ride into the information center, I thought that they seemed like truly genuine people and I hoped that remained their measure once we picked up the vehicle. 

When first we met, we presented our vision for the van’s transformation — the tiffany blue spray-paint job by the previous owners, while done with a certain degree of skill, drew way too much attention to itself. We were looking for a subdued earth tone, it should be dark so as to camouflage in the wild at night, and peculiar enough so as to have city folk find difficulty in their attempts to identify it. "Was that hunk of junk forest green or dark celadon green?" they'll ponder as we judder by. Those with romantic inclination will declare it, "midnight green;" others will only see black. While Kathryn and I occasionally disagree with an article of clothing being black or dark blue, primarily my J. Wakefield Brewery work tees, we usually get close to a color’s scientific name. She’s way better at it than me; it is my private shame. With all the beautiful words in our lexicon to describe the hues of our existence, not knowing more than a handful of colors must be amongst the foulest atrocities against the English language. When we returned to drop off the van, they presented us with the color options. Kathryn and I had narrowed it down to two different versions of dark green and in the end, the one I was championing, was chosen. I don’t think Kathryn was sold on my color over hers until the decision had been made and the name revealed itself to us — verde moss.  

Hiking permits were paid for via honesty box, $10.00 per person for the week, at the MCFIC. We took their free map and snapped pictures of the larger map outside their locked center doors. Both the maps and our compasses would prove themselves useful. The Heysen Trail runs through a plethora of different property lines so often that there are designated areas indicated by a stile and a red stripe along the metal pole used to jump from one side of the fence to the other. After one such fence crossing, we continued straight on the dirt road instead of making an immediate right in order to follow the fence, as the Red Arrow / Heysen Trail markers are want to tell you from time to time. 

Learning this lesson cost us about two hours off track before correcting our course (thanks compass and map) and heading towards the Old School House. A facility for hire that we imagined would be locked but the exterior walls might provide us with some shelter, one way or another. Finding the door locked and with no access code to be found online, we set up our tent in the outdoor kitchen area. Despite the recent rains, we started a fire. I dedicated way more time than needed to keep it aflame for a bit, but the wood was just not dry enough. 

On Thursday, the 22nd, we set out towards the Rossiter Hut — a plastic Silva Compass I found the previous day at the crest of the final incline before the school house hangs around my neck. We deliberately break off the Heysen Trail and take the shorter Wirra Wirra Road Trail to an intersection of the Heysen further north. The detour on day one and the two blisters I developed (due to twin bone spurs where the Achilles tendon attaches to the calcaneus bone) force us onto the shorter route and soon enough we are back on the trail. We walk through valleys of shit — literal shit. Sheep, cow, and kangaroo droppings adorn the threading of our boots; the figurative river of shit leads us to walk through trails that are actually little rivers and even smaller streams. The inclines are rough and the descents are populated by valleys of rocks, casually embedded into the soil, that usually usher a miniature waterway through them. 

Having foolishly declined to buy a proper trail map while we planned the trip, the only maps we have with us are the pictures snapped at the information center. I estimated the first two days to have been 15 kilometer days which puts us just under the 12-miles-a-day goal for future thru-hikes. Having started early, we arrive at the Rossiter Hut with plenty of daylight. There should be a handle with a code-activated lock but where it once protected the hut from those without a walker’s mindset you will find about a dozen screw-sized holes right by the recently installed thumb latch handle. My mitten-clad thumb lifts the latch on the other side of the door and, as we step through the threshold, we are pleasantly surprised at our hiker accommodations. It’s a curious thing, how easily a night in a tent changes perspective — I wonder how long it takes to completely disconnect from the constructs indoctrinated into us by, both modern and antiquated, expectations. 

Across from the door stands a three-tier bunk bed, cornered in a manner that allows for six sleepers. To the right of that, a fireplace; the two tables that bookend it are adorned with a motley crew of chairs to choose from. We were elated to see firewood, particularly because it was dry firewood and we got a fire to burn nicely into the night until we ran out of fuel. Our midnight movements are muffled by our sleeping bags and the light moans (echoes of what was well earned on the trail) pair melodically with the crackling of the dying embers as we each drift off into darkness, followed, in time, by the fire. 

Before falling asleep we decide that the following day would see Kathryn in charge of starting and tending the fire. And so, we spend some time after brekky collecting firewood. We spend most of the morning doing this until we estimate we have enough to keep the fire burning as we sleep. After a terrible night in the cold, Kathryn took a giant swig of the wine from the moss green Murray Street wine bottle and proceeded to take the most epic of hour(s) long naps inside my considerably warmer Cat’s Meow sleeping bag. She had not complained until this morning, but her sleeping bag is a minimalist ultralight bag and two nights in it have been enough to have her finally voice her discomfort. Kathryn, much like the sleeping bag she carries, is not made for the cold — regardless of the hut’s protection

The day goes by slowly when you are stationary and have no need to be anywhere besides where you are, so I read and I write while Kathryn enters deeper and deeper into the comforting warmth of her sleep. I have blisters to mend, I cannot imagine how she must feel with a fairly aggressive period and all related ailments. We decided very early on, during our initial arrival to the hut, that we would be taking full advantage of the opportunity for rest that its walls provided us. As the hours pass, my companions are the giant windows adjacent to the wooden door and the several flies that have snuck in — the latter create a buzz that at certain times will drive you absolutely insane, but then like most things, you grow accustomed to it and carry on. While we do spend some time out in the sun while collecting firewood, it’s rewarding to watch the course of the sun all day through the plexiglass — the ever passing moments of our life shown by the shadow slowly making its way across the table as I write. 

At some point in the day, a vibration brings us back to the modern world; it tells us that The Falcon will be ready tomorrow afternoon, so we have the following morning to make the trek to Tanunda. We go to bed knowing that we have no true map for that, but we have an idea, three compasses, and each other.

When the number of compasses outnumbers the members of your party, you are in good company indeed. 

I woke up to the devastating sound of rain on the steel panel roof of the Rossiter Hut on the morning of the 24th. Having spent the night in Kathryn’s minimalist sleeping bag, which zips up as far as my shoulders, I had no interest in emerging from my pseudo-cacoon to check the time. As a result, I pulled my buff beanie over my eyes and hoped it was four or five in the morning — giving us a couple of hours for the rain to stop before having to rise. Unknown is the time that passed between that moment and the sun starting to peak through the thinness of my veil — obliterating my it’s-not-raining delusion. Kathryn asked how I spent the night before offering the warmth of her body and my Cat’s Meow. Staying within the sleeping bag, she wormed her way to me, an adorable creepy crawler, and parked her warmth at the bend of my body.

Eventually, we rise. A cellphone and a strategically placed mug filled the hut with music as we approach the steadily increasing realization of making the hike in 10-degree celsius rainy mist. We packed out, made sure to tidy up the hut, even collected firewood in the rain. The final action in hopes that it would be dry for the 21st visiting party to the hut — the logbook informed us that we were the 20th (entry at least) of 2016. I wonder how often the Heysen Trail is completed end-to-end. 

As the final Fleet Fox verses were overwhelmed by the sound of the rain, we put packs to back and walk out of the hut to the bittersweet discovery that the rain had actually stopped but the forceful and harsh wind persisted. The first two days on the trail had us hiking over the Wirra Wirra peaks where the trail itself was often the creek lines as we descended and farm tracks through a mix of pine tree farms and reserves with open big gum grazing — primarily done by sheep. This final day took us through the native bushland of the Kaiser Stuhl Conservation Park and its starkly different fauna. 

The combination of plant life and unusual weathered rock features evoke a sense of primordial foreboding that insisted I stay on the path or I’d doom the world to a future where an apparently fascist candidate wins an election, to the dismay of many concerned. While the rain was a mere mist at the time, the sound of thunder echoed harshly, and truthfully, with each one of my path-bound steps. 

We came across half-shorn sheep and wondered why so many had those patchwork shave jobs. Seems rather cruel to have a creature go through that ordeal but then not finish the job or maybe leaving them with some wool, instead of no wool, is somehow a kindness considering the cold. I rarely have the answers to the question my mind poses. While most of the animals on the trail avoided us, including full fields of sheep (talking about hundreds here) that would bleat incessantly as they moved away from us, the rain helped mask our human clanking and stomping about and we got very close to several kangaroos before either party noticed the other. These were very close encounters and often left us in awe of the skittish roos as they quickly hopped away.

Having just passed Thiele Road, wet down to our thermals, we happened upon a home with a sign declaring that we stood in front of Equinox Cottage. Kind eyes looked upon us as Kathryn and I engaged in that awkward should-I-or-should-you back and forth that couples fall into when neither one of them wants to approach a stranger — but our need was greater than my social anxiety. Stepping towards the stranger, I asked if we could simply use the edge of his patio to take shelter from the constant rain and change our socks. Keith was happy to help, even bringing us towels, leaving us to our task, then returning to offer a ride into town (we declined, wanting to finish what we started) and finally reappearing with the inquiry of whom amongst us was the strongest while holding a bottle of wine. Perhaps a prize for our sticktoitiveness or, more likely, we just looked that desperate for a fucking drink. 

Our Equinox Cottage encounter scratches at me for much longer than the final steps of our trek.

We go out into the wild to escape from our modern selves, the selves that we’ve created through the social constructs that we’ve formed, either directly, or for most of us, indirectly through inaction against said norms that we openly criticize yet continue to fuel. We go out to eat food whose origin is completely foreign to us and we are distraught when the people around us are attached to their phones instead of engaged with the fleshy miracle of evolutionary mistakes in front of them. As if, that absent person or the mass of faceless followers not with you in the moment are what’s paramount. The excitement elicited by the uncertainty of the possible reality that is not occurring will always have the greater draw, it is no wonder that we are a species lost in the longing — and so, we eat our meals (we may even photograph and share), and we sit and critique those afflicted around us, all with the weight of our phones in our own hands. 

Our insecurities born of the reaction, or lack thereof, to our most recent post, preoccupy our thoughts as the lips in front of us ramble about some modern inconsequence or another. We attempt a disconnect. We go out into the wild, even if just for four days, and even then we check our phones from time to time to see when our van will be ready. A text that calls us away from the home of the now. 

Our first interaction with others as we return to civilization reminds us that while we should be wary of the ever approaching thunder, there will always be like-minded fellow travelers to offer you respite. Having found a compass while on the trail reminds me that often you'll have to start the journey before finding direction. 

The rest of the walk took about an hour before we were on the familiar streets of Tanunda, making our way towards a hefty and well-earned breakfast at Nosh Cafe. We, as we’ve grown accustomed to doing at any establishment we visit, took over one of the small rooms and feasted (hard) before calling a taxi to deliver us to our moss gathering home. 

The Rossiters Hut -- it is a luxury while on the Heysen Trail to have such lodgings; its spartan practicality reminds its transient inhabitants about living simply.  

The Rossiters Hut -- it is a luxury while on the Heysen Trail to have such lodgings; its spartan practicality reminds its transient inhabitants about living simply.