Homecoming

Sunday August 16

And so there we have it. The end. I can see that random gravel clearing a hundred metres ahead of me, pine trees leading onward while a link road curves down the hill. I suddenly feel an unexpected pang of sadness, an emptiness rising from the depths of my stomach much in the same way as when parting from loved ones. Or newfound friends. Inching closer I feel a blur of emotions from loss to self-satisfaction to relief to pride to question marks over how I should celebrate as Alex decides to film the moment. I’m also tired and dreaming of a nap. Anyone would think I’d climbed Kilimanjaro.

I am at 35.22 degrees south, 149.07 degrees east; such coordinates are the only real descriptor I can provide since it really is an undistinctive spot, situated somewhere close to the southern border of Isaacs Ridge. To revisit Tour de France analogies from the past, it is hardly a finish along the Champs-Elysees. Neither has this last leg been a spectacular queen stage. The Col de Long Gully Road will not go down in folklore.

The final ten kilometres largely underwhelmed. Even lunch at Two Before Ten proved less satisfying than I was expecting. Crossing Lake Tuggeranong, the Centenary Trail predominantly followed the course of an impressive storm drain feeding into Isabella Pond. Fringed by parklands and nature strips, it wasn’t unpleasant, the going easy along a gently rising cycle path. Multiple branch lines and inlets fed into both path and drain, gathering the detritus of the south.

A timely transition occurred as the trail fringed Fadden Pines. This was one of those little surprises, another new area that I would not have known about if it wasn’t for this silly little endeavour of mine. It looks the kind of place for fresh forest walks and shady summer picnics sat on fir cones and pine needles. Small tracks disappear off into the trees, but the paved cycle lane persists. Eventually we cut north away from it, towards my end.

With no sense of irony and a little dose of nostalgia the Centenary Trail ploughs gradually upwards in a grassy zone between the back fences of Macarthur. I didn’t even realise there was a Macarthur but it exuded a certain understated homeliness that is much of Canberra, much of the Canberra Centenary Trail. In places wattles were exploding yellow while occasional limbs of blossom stretched out from the backyards. A cluster of grey and pink galahs chirruped around a water bath. The sound of garden machinery intermittently struck up into the air.

And then, finally, the fences give way and we reach the last nature reserve of my grand circle: Wanniassa Hills. What could offer expansive views along a ridge line, a final culmination, a col de spectacle is naturally eschewed for degraded grassland, sturdy power pylons and a view of the tip. The trail skirts around the eastern side of the hills to reach Long Gully Road. In front of me, distinctly, the lumpen prominence of Isaacs Ridge. It feels so close yet takes a good half an hour still.

We pass under Long Gully Road and pause for a milestone of sorts: this is where Alex started his attempt at playing catch up. Joining me for one leg, then another, he soon became equally as addicted. Alex still has a few chunks, a few gaps to fill. Those areas in which I marched on during quiet weekdays, taking advantage of sunny skies and greater freedom. I may yet join him on some of his more picturesque gap-filling, as a way to wean myself slowly off this ridiculous journey.  

Crossing into the Woden Valley and entering Isaacs Ridge, one of the things I am most pleased about is doing the trail in order, in the same direction. The one exception being the enforced COVID-clockwise circulation of Lake Burley Griffin back in April. It would have been a lot easier to do little bits here and there, scattered all over the place; indeed, I probably have done many parts of the trail this way before. But there is something about following a structure, doing things in order that seems to make it more of an accomplishment. I probably couldn’t have done it this way without Alex, and for that I mark my thanks.

Not that it will go down as much of an accomplishment really. Today, on stage 20, it really is just a reasonable amble to the finish. More often than not, the Centenary Trail is just a series of unadventurous ambles. Add them up and you reach 135 kilometres. You climb around 3,400 metres. You take about 250,000 steps along the trail with additional links and loops that build in another 50km. You walk for something like 45 hours. And cycle a few more. Or at least that’s what I did, on my trail.

As the trail embarks on a slow bend lined with pines, the finish point emerges quite abruptly. I feel confused, lost, unsure of how I am supposed to feel. I reach the gravel junction and find, for the first time, a Centenary Trail sign. I didn’t see this when I started this journey in April, questioning whether I was on the right path at all. But perhaps I see things better now.


Reflections

It’s funny, when I woke on that Sunday morning, I was excited about the prospect of finishing the Centenary Trail. Expecting that the last leg wouldn’t be its best, I was keen to tick it off, get it out of the way. It was almost a chore waiting to be done. I was thinking ahead to weekends where I could do other things, get back on the bike, take short drives into the country, make a triumphant return to archery. I still do look forward to those things, but one weekend after finishing I also feel unsure of what to do with myself. Having happily meandered for so much of my life, perhaps I have discovered the worthiness of clear goals and rigid structure!

It’s a modest achievement but it’s my achievement. I came up with this goal as something to do close to home during coronavirus restrictions and I stuck to it. I knew other people would invent life-saving medicines and learn six languages and complete ten seasons of The Walking Dead, indistinguishable at the end to the marauding characters feasting their way across Georgia. I just went for a walk. Sure, it took four months and twenty stages, but I kept on keeping on and did it anyway.

One of the things playing on my mind since I started the walk is the expectation that somehow you will discover yourself or a new part of yourself or develop some profound reflection on life. It’s the kind of thing that conveniently happens in all good travelogues, rising indistinctly like the headwaters of a mountain spring before gathering momentum with every tributary to form an irresistible river of self-satisfaction. Take the simile a step further and it frequently turns into a muddy estuary with sinking sands and aluminium smelters, but they never go that far. Nor storm drains.

Superficially, I feel like I have discovered how much I like winter sunshine and have come up with the revolutionary suggestion that there should be more opportunities for tea and cake along the trail. In reality I think my experience has confirmed or validated much – my opinion of Canberra, my outlook on life, the value of the outdoors. Occasionally, if I pause and allow myself to open up, some potentially deeper reflections or revelations may emerge. Like a pristine mountain spring.

Of course, this walk has taken place in a unique – dare I say unprecedented – context, one that cannot be ignored. Indeed, as countless stable geniuses have found to their detriment, ignore coronavirus at your peril. This has been the COVID Centenary Trail as much as anything, triggered by a microscopic virus which would have been a hell of a lot better if all it had done was make middle-aged white men go for a long walk. I started the trail very much not knowing what future months would look like, but hoping, like so many, that it may just become under control and I’d be in Europe right about now. I end it still not knowing what future months will look like and thinking of a different kind of long haul.

Looking back on the trail, I can almost trace individual stages by the progression of the virus. It has – to date – never been severe in Canberra and for that I count my blessings. But you could detect along the walk the initial novelty, the diligent wariness, the growing indifference and relaxation and now a more introspective form of guardedness. On that first day at Isaacs Ridge in early April, efforts to pass other walkers were made with extravagant distance and a friendly smile. A month later at Mount Majura, smaller groups were reuniting again for an autumn afternoon walk, unsure whether they should touch or not. In June, I sat at a café for the first time in Hall, a place exemplifying the value of having more stops for tea and cake alongside spaced-out tables and insulation tape crosses littering the floor. In latter days it feels like people have been out and about on parts of the trail making the most of things. For you never know when they could change.

Other, more normal happenings have taken place over this period too. Most obviously, the seasons have slowly shifted from autumn to winter and now – maybe just in delicate hints and through tricks of the senses – the prologue to spring. Autumn has always been glorious here in Canberra, officially peaking in a kaleidoscope of colour around Number 6 Page Street, Campbell on April 21st. But winter is growing on me. As winters go, it’s not that bad, especially when you can pick and choose the days to walk. Contrasted with the ardour of a summer furnace, I am really glad the timing of my Centenary Trail adventure encompassed the winter. 

As I write this today, spring has disappeared again, and snow caps the mountain ranges to our west. As much as Black Mountain has acted as a beacon, an omnipresent hub for the Centenary Trail, it is the landscape to the west that has so often beguiled. I never used to be that impressed with our mountains, lacking the dramatic ridges and rocky pyramids of more renowned ranges. Perhaps I feel more tender towards them because of all that they suffered over summer. Typically glowing under sharp winter sunshine, they have drawn and captivated so many times along my walk. Appearing to stretch into infinity, they are endless and they are beautiful.

As for Canberra, it is hard to think of a luckier little city. Yes, you can feel miffed when the trail goes alongside a fence line or tours the empty shops of Tuggeranong Town Centre or misses out a hilltop summit. But this is Canberra and such blips are frequently countered by tracts of empty bushland, panoramic views, leafy streets, and colourful wildlife. From discovering a hidden valley close to home in Mount Mugga Mugga to better appreciating the pioneering work to recover lost landscapes in Mulligans Flat, our many nature reserves really are a jewel in the crown. The bush in the bush capital.

When I first moved to Canberra from London – a move many would find alarming – the contrast of open space, airiness, even emptiness shifted from initial bemusement to enchantment. How lucky a little city to have such charms. These spaces, these oases of nature, these earthy eucalyptus trails so good for the heart and the soul. As many more have discovered or rediscovered during 2020, these simple pleasures that we can so often take for granted.

The value in walking, in being outdoors, in discovering a new scene every metre, every minute is one of the wonders of our world, an ever changing shot in the arm to our existence. I haven’t always felt at my best along the trail or in between. Physical ailments, the disconcerting rise in body aches that appear in your forties, concerns and worries that are such the rage in 2020 all hustle. Sore throats make you wonder. Fatigue seems to come and go like thyroid hormone. Some days I have not really felt in the best shape to go for a long walk and doubted whether I should. And then I did anyway. To feel better.

Better. Like walking steadily through a wide valley in Goorooyarroo, seemingly the only person on Earth. The sun feeding ambient warmth onto my face and exposed arms, reflecting off the stark white trunks of stoic gum trees scattered among the grasslands. The chirps of small birds tinkling away, always unseen. Hiding from a wedge-tailed eagle who glides gracefully high in the sky, occasionally passing across the silhouette of that distant needle atop Black Mountain. Suburbs and roads have disappeared, and a denser patch of forest lays ahead, dappling the afternoon sunlight. I was indifferent this morning but now there isn’t a worry in the world. Just me and the Canberra Centenary Trail.  


The LAST LEG

Trail Section: Lake Tuggeranong to Isaacs Ridge

Trail length walked: 10.5km

Total length walked: 10.8km

Total steps: 13,000

Altitude gain: 174m

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