I have always loved the Murrumbidgee River. In 2013 I spent 3 days paddling down the Murrumbidgee from Gundagai to Wagga Wagga (see previous post) and since then I have been wanting do that trip again solo. Not only that, I have also wanted to do some more of the river both upstream from Gundagai and downstream from Wagga Wagga.
This week I am on a week of holidays, so I thought I would start my progressive journey down the Murrumbidgee. At the end of next week, I will be finishing work and taking some time off (more about that in a later post), so I plan to do further trips down the river.
So for this first trip, the plan was to travel from the town of Jugiong and head down past Gundagai on a 3.5 day paddle.
Day 1 – Jugiong to Sandy Falls Reserve
I have to say that was one of the hardest days of paddling I have ever done. The Murrumbidgee below Burrinjuck Dam is really low at the moment because they don’t let much water at this time of the year. Not only is it hard because you have to spend a lot of time getting out of the boat and walking down the river (literally in the river) to save the boat from dragging on the bottom of the river bed, but also because when the water is shallow you get a lot of resistance from the wave under the boat bouncing off the river bed.
This leg was about 41 km and in all it took me about 9 hours in the end. My Mum, Dad and uncle (who all live about 30 minutes away from Jugiong) dropped me off at the Jugiong Showgrounds. Being that the river is so low, there was only one track you could use to get down to the river, which was nestled amongst the many caravans set up in the Showgrounds. I think every grey nomad in Australia had decided to pack their caravans and headed to Jugiong to avoid the Covid-19 pandemic.
After packing the boat with way too much gear, and a lovely farewell from the family, I started my journey. It was after just the second bend in the river that I was lucky to see my first platypus swimming around an old log. It was about 20 minutes later, when the river started getting shallower and shallower. However, it wasn’t until about an hour down the river when I had to get out of the boat to walk down my first pebbly rapid to save the bottom of the boat. Soon this became a more frequent occurrence, and at one point I had to wade (up to my waste) through a messy rapid that was covered in fallen trees. Many of these I could have probably negotiated in a white water kayak, but in my heavy laden sea kayak, which is nearly twice as long as a white water boat, it was not worth risking.
You know the water is really low when you can identify the really shallow sandbars by the trout swimming with half their bodies out of the water.
Despite all the frustration of scraping the bottom of my boat on the river rocks and getting stranded on sand bars, it was a very pleasant first day. There are an incredible number of birds on the river at this time of the year. Lots of pelicans, swans, ducks, sea eagles and a huge number of cockatoos.
The river winds its way through the farming areas around Jugiong and Coolac. There are plenty of cows and sheep along the banks who give you very curious looks as you float by. At one point I came across a feral sheep with a long coat and a long bushy tail. It was obviously lonely because she followed me down the river for a way, calling out to me.
After a long day of paddling and the beginnings of a sore wrist, I made it to my campsite at Sandy Falls Reserve at around 5pm. The reserve is a large sandy beach (especially at this time of the year), that is available for free camping. It is a nice quiet spot with plenty of birds flying around. There were a couple of bulls in the paddock on the other side of the river that decided to make a lot of noise just after I got into bed, but I was so exhausted that I quickly fell asleep.
Day 2 – Sandy Falls Reserve to Gundagai
I woke to a lovely sunrise and a very clear day. It seemed that the river had risen a small amount overnight. The fact that the water was a little higher and very brown, would suggest they had released some water over night. After multiple trips across the 100 metres of sand from the campsite to the river, I got all my gear in the boat and hit the water at around 9am. I had only 26 kilometres to cover and since the water seemed to be flowing faster, it didn’t look like it was going to be a hard day. I was just hoping the water would be deeper and I could stay in my boat more.
The river proved to be much deeper all day especially after I passed the junction of the Tumut River. I only had to get out of my boat once to get off a sandbar. The paddle was pretty uneventful compared to the day before and it was nice just to take my time, just drifting at times, to take in the scenery and watch the crazy number of birds flying around.
At about 2pm I rounded the final bend and saw the two bridges of Gundagai. My destination was the Gundagai River Camping & Caravan Park, which lies on the river between the two bridges. They provided me with a lovely campsite under a huge shady tree, which was ideal to spend the afternoon on the laptop playing around with my hundreds of photos and videos.
Later that afternoon I ventured into town and was able to enjoy a couple of quiet Sunday afternoon beers at the Family Hotel and a Chinese dinner at the local takeaway.
Day 3 – Gundagai to Home
The plan had to paddle another day down the river to Limekilns Reserve (the first leg of the trip I did in 2013), however when I woke up my wrist was swollen. I decided that it wasn’t worth risking my future trips for the sake of doing another day. Plus in a couple of weeks I had planned to do the Gundagai to Limekilns leg again, so I wasn’t really going to miss out on anything. So I messaged my folks, who came down from Binalong with my car and after a quick breakfast in Gundagai, I headed back to Sydney.
It was a great couple of days. It was so good to just get away from all the stress and uncertainty that is going on in the world at the moment. Sometimes going back to basics and appreciating nature is the best way to deal with the hard times. What is even better is that I can go and do it again in less than 2 weeks.
Trip Distance: 65.2km
Water Level: 1.87m (Low)
Water Level details: http://www.waterwaysguide.org.au/map?nid=6339
A few months ago, out of the blue, Kath said that she would “quite like to do an overnight hike sometime”. After nearly 20 years of marriage and never managing to get her into a tent (let alone a hike), I jumped at the opportunity and started looking for a good “first hike”. After a bit of research, I decided that we had to do the iconic Main Range loop at Mt. Kosciuszko (Australia’s highest peak – 2,228m). Rated as an “experienced” grade of hike, it was going to be a pretty serious 2 day trek with packs, but we had done the loop before as a day walk (20 years ago), so I figured “why not”.
Sydney and pretty much all of New South Wales have been experiencing extreme heat and have also been engulfed in smoke due to the hundreds of bushfires burning around the state. So it was with great relief to find that when we got into the mountains that we were above the smoke and the weather was a perfect 22 degrees C. Even though it is summer, the previous week had seen -11 degrees in the area and there were reports of a lot of snow drifts on the Main Range track.
The Main Range track starts at Charlottes Pass, in the Kosciuszko National Park. Having spent the night in Cooma, it was about 9am by the time we got to the trailhead. The first section of the hike involves walking down and crossing the Snowy River. The water was pretty low, so crossing on the stepping stones was pretty straight forward. We then hiked up a long hill and experienced our first snow drift crossing. The snow was very icy and it was a bit of a surprise how tricky these traverses would end up being. We eventually got to the turnoff to Blue Lake, dropped our packs and headed down to the lake. By the time we got to a nice lookout over the lake, we decided it was a good place to enjoy an early lunch.
The next section of the trail was along a ridge line towards Carruthers Peak (Australia’s 9th highest peak – 2,145m). This section of the trail was covered in a lot of snow and was quite steep, making it slow progress. By the time we reached the top of Carruthers Peak, the wind was really howling and made it hard to walk a straight line.
The next section of the walk, which passes Club Lake and Albina Lake, is mostly along a metal boardwalk (to protect the grasslands). The NW wind was really screaming up the valley by now. Even walking on the boardwalk was difficult going. The plan had been to veer off the Main Range track and head up to the peak of Mt. Townsend (Australia’s 2nd highest peak – 2,209m) and camp in the saddle near the top. An interesting fact is that in the early days, Mt. Townsend was thought to be the highest peak in Australia and was called Mt. Kosciuszko. However when they realised it was 19m shorter than what is now Mt. Kosi, they changed the name to Mt. Townsend. This upset a few people, because Mt. Townsend is a much more impressive looking mountain (Kosi just looks like a hill), so they started piling up rocks on top to try and make it taller.
As we passed Albina Lake, we looked at the snow covered ridge line leading up to the top of Mt. Townsend and decided we would leave that peak for another day. The trail guide said the Mt. Townsend campsite was protected from Southerly winds, but there was no way there would be protection from the North Westerly gale we were experiencing. Plus we were pretty exhausted at this point, so we progressed another kilometre along the Main Range track and headed down into the Wilkinsons Creek valley which sits between Mt. Townsend and Mt. Kosciuszko. We found a perfect campsite of soft, flat grass amongst some big boulders that provided protection from the wind. There were also plenty of fresh snowdrifts around that we could use to boil water.
That evening we were treated to a wonderful sunset that cast beautiful light over the creek and boulders that littered the valley. Around this time the wind in the valley also dropped right off, so we had a very peaceful night.
Since sunrise was just after 5.30am, we woke early and after a quick breakfast, we packed up and were ready to hike around 7am. The first leg of the hike was to climb to the top of Mt. Kosciuszko. Once again a lot of the track was covered in snow and as it was pretty steep, it took us a while to plod up the hill.
As we were approaching what we thought was Mt. Kosi in the distance, we stumbled across a larger track heading in the opposite direction that we ignored and continued on. After walking another 100m or so, we realised the peak we were looking at was not actually Mt. Kosi and the track we had just found was the Mt. Kosi summit track. It just shows how uninspiring Mt. Kosi is, in that we were on it (just below the peak) and we didn’t even realise it. So we dropped our packs and strolled up to the summit. Being so early in the morning we were the only people on the summit, so we could enjoy the view in peace (well except for the gale force winds). The view was good, but since most of the state is covered in smoke, we could not see too far into the distance.
The final 9km of the walk from the top of Mt. Kosi to Charlottes Pass was pretty uneventful. This section of the track is a gravel road and apart from a nice bridge over the Snowy River, there was not much to see. At this point we were hot and pretty keen to get back to the car, ditch our packs and get our boots off. After a couple of hours we eventually got back to the car and promptly drove down to Jindabyne for a burger.
Overall the Main Range hike was excellent. It was a pretty ambitious hike for Kath’s first hike, but she was a trooper and enjoyed it. I would like to go back sometime and extend the hike to include more of the Kosciuszko National Park and work out a way to skip that last 9km, which was a pretty monotonous way to end what was otherwise a spectacular hike.
For track notes for this hike, visit Main Range Track – Loop from Charlotte Pass camping near Mt Townsend
I have just returned from what I can only describe as a life changing experience. A group of us from work have just spent a week in the jungles of Borneo, immersed in the world of orangutan and forest conservation.
About a month ago I was asked if I would be interested in joining a team from work to go to Borneo and to help the orangutans after someone pulled out last minute. Without hesitation (and a quick call to sell the idea to Kath) I said “absolutely yes”. Salesforce encourages all employees to participate in VTO (volunteering time off) each year and I had been trying to find something that I would be passionate about. I also wanted to make sure that what I was dedicating my time (and money) to something that I was passionate about and would actually make a difference. This was definitely something that fit that profile.
The initial stage of the process was for the team to raise $12,000 that would go directly to The Orangutan Project (TOP) to support their efforts in saving orangutans and their habitats. Through the wonders of social networks and very kind family and friends, we were able to raise the money. The purpose of the trip was to go to the frontline of orangutan conservation to learn about what is being done, see what our money was going towards and to discover what we can do to help even more in the future.
Leading up to the trip, I did a lot of reading about TOP and their founder, Leif Cocks, and I realised that what they are doing was pretty extraordinary. In their own words, they are…
“We a passionate group of people dedicated to saving the orangutan, led by an experienced set of wildlife experts that have been working for over 20 years to protect orangutans. Together our brand, staff, supporters, partners and the community are working to protect orangutans from extinction.”
We were very fortunate that have Leif come along on our week long trip to Borneo as our guide and teacher. His knowledge, experience and reputation in the conservation and rehabilitation of orangutans is truly amazing. We were so lucky to be able to spend a lot of time with him hearing about his experiences and learning about what we humans can do to help fix up what we have destroyed. I really like the quote below from Clare Campbell, Executive Director Wildlife Asia in Leif Cocks’ book Orangutans – My Cousins, My Friends
“As humans, each of us share 97% of our genetic make-up with orangutans, therefore we are literally 97% orangutan and 3% human. However this uniquely human 3% does not grant us superiority, but rather responsibility.”
Leif himself describes the orangutans as our “Orange Cousins”. You only have to look in the face of an orangutan to realise how human they are.
So with the money raised and our vaccinations in order, we flew to Indonesia to start out adventure. On arrival in Jakarta we headed straight to an airport hotel for the night, where we had dinner with Leif and were briefed by Garry, from Orangutan Odysseys (who organised the tour), about the week’s activities. We then headed to bed ready for a very early start the next morning.
Day 1 – Palangkaraya
At 4am we headed to Jakarta airport and got on a flight to Palangkaraya, which is the main city of Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). This was where we met our BNF guide and our new friend, Yun Pratiwi. She was an absolute superstar and made our trip very comfortable and very informative.
After a quick breakfast in a local cafe we headed down to the Rungan River and climbed into some beautifully painted powered canoes. We sped up the river to visit a number of rehabilitation islands where they release and monitor orphaned orangutans. They are initially released on these islands to prepare them for their eventual release into the wild. We were lucky to see two 7 year old female orangutans on the beach, happily feasting on bananas and minding their own business.
We then headed to the nearby Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) centre, where they have created a school to help orphaned baby orangutans prepare for eventual release into the wild. The staff provided us with a presentation about what they do and how their program works. It was very distracting watching the presentation, because behind the windows on either side of the screen, baby orangutans were playing around. There is a TV series (on Stan in Australia) called The Orangutan School that shows how their rehabilitation programs work.
After a long day, we headed to our hotel for the night and Leif gave us the first of his daily talks, during which he shared his stories and taught us about all sorts of information about orangutans and their conservation. There were so many interesting facts about orangutans, but the thing that really hit home with me was how important it is to save them because they are essentially an umbrella species. So basically, if we focus on saving the habitat of the orangutan, we will also be saving the habitats of all the other species that are native to the forests of Borneo.
Day 2 – Sebangau National Park
Our first stop for the morning was to visit Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP) at the University of Palangka Raya. We were met by the director of the organisation and heard about some of the things they have been able to achieve with the money that they had been provided by TOP. Their main activities recently have been in the fighting of major fires that have been destroying the forests and peatlands. There is a massive problem in Borneo where forests and peatlands are being cleared to make way for agriculture, especially for palm oil plantations. This is not only destroying the majority of the habitats of orangutans and other species, but is also having a much broader impact on the global climate because these areas are essential for the maintaining of carbon balance in the environment.
One of the interesting ways they have been using the money from TOP is for the use of drones and thermal imaging to find fires. A big problem with fires in peatlands is that the fire essentially burns underground. The thermal imaging can help firefighters find these fires much easier and quicker before they get out of control.
After a few formalities (lots of hand shaking and photo ops) the meet and greet with CIMTROP was over and we started our journey to our jungle camp. We headed down to the river and jumped in some more powered canoes and made our way to the Sebangau National Park. Normally the canoes can make their way right up to the jungle, however because the area is currently in the middle of a severe drought, we landed at an old jetty attached to a crazy old trolley track. This old track and trolley is a remnant of the old logging days and was the only way to get to the camp. With its rickety wheels and ridiculously crooked track, it really was like something out of Indiana Jones.
The Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) were our hosts for the next 4 days and they operated an amazing (and very picturesque) research station and camp just inside the Sebangau National Park. This was the base for many different BNF staff, who carry out various research and forestry activities and is also the base for some university researchers. The accommodation was very basic but very comfortable and the resident cooks feed us very well over the 4 days.
Our first activity was to hike into the jungle along rickety boardwalks (planks of wood) to find some orangutans. We were led by the founder of BNF, Simon Hussan, who kindly timed his regular trip out from the UK to meet us. After half an hour of crashing through the bush, we saw our first orangutan in the wild. Unfortunately it is really hard to see and get photos of orangutans in the wild because they sit in nests in the top of the canopy. All you really can see are glimpses of orange hairy butts through the leaves. However it didn’t really matter, because there was something magical about standing under them, knowing they were there. You can hear them munching on their food and you get showered with the twigs and leaves they drop down from the nest.
It was really interesting chatting to one of the university researchers, Abby, who was spending 9 months in the jungle observing the behaviour of the orangutans. She would get up and head into the jungle every morning at around 4am with one of the BNF team (for safety). She would then sit there all day recording what the orangutans were doing every 5 minutes. Her data pretty much consisted of “eating, eating, eating, scratching, eating, sleeping, sleeping etc.”. You could tell she absolutely loved it, because it takes a lot of dedication to do that for such a long period.
That night Simon took us back out into the jungle to look for night animals by the light of head torches. We didn’t see anything other than a lot of spider eyes reflecting in the torch light, but it was really peaceful spending some time sitting in the complete darkness listening to the night sounds of the jungle.
Day 3 – Sebangau National Park
Having been woken up very early due to jet lag, I got up around 3.30am and sat in the dark listening to the sounds of the jungle waking up. I have decided my new favourite sound is the sound of gibbons calling to each other across the jungle in the morning. Every morning we would sit in the camp, drinking cups of tea and listening to these beautiful apes. Here is some of the sound I recorded one morning.
We spent the morning back out in the jungle, sitting in the forest watching and listening to the orangutans in their nests. We had our first and only rain storm while we were sitting out in the jungle. The rain really didn’t bother us because the 100% humidity meant we were pretty much wet all the time anyway..
We also saw our first gibbons. The gibbons are much more active than the orangutans and come a lot closer to the camp. Everyday we were able to watch them swinging around in the trees. Again photos were very difficult to get because of the back lit sky, but they certainly put on a show for us.
In the afternoon we headed out with the BNF team to help set up a number of butterfly traps. They do a lot of studies of the butterfly species and their distribution, because the butterflies are good indicators of the health of the forest. This activity consisted of adding a mix of banana and fruity red wine (which we managed to get a bottle of for the evening) to a plate and then hoisting it up in a net into the canopy. These nets are then checked daily by the team.
Day 4 – Sebangau National Park
After waking up really early again, a couple of us (the early rises) heard some crashing noises in the trees. So we quickly ran down the rickety railroad in our pyjamas and found a large gibbon playing around in the trees and crying out to its mate. It was so surreal sitting in the middle of the jungle, in pyjamas with a cup of tea, watching this incredible animal swinging around. He must have thought we looked pretty strange.
Once the team were all awake, the BNF team took us to their plant nursery where we were loaded up with handwoven backpacks, each containing a number of tree saplings. We then proceeded to hike through the forest (in extreme heat and humidity) for about 1.5km to the site of the burn area. This is a huge expanse of land that had been cleared (read “destroyed”) for crazy political reasons. The BNF team and CIMTROP are slowly in the process of trying to reforest the area. To date they have planted over 7000 trees, which did not sound like a lot until we had spent an hour planting our 100 trees and we all were on the verge of passing out from heat exhaustion. Talking to Daniel, the leader of the revegetation program, he explained that it is really hard to get the locals to do the work because it is so exhausting and everything needs to be carried in by hand.
After a long rest from our hour of hard labour, Yun organised a special surprise for us. She had organised a sunset river cruise in powered canoes. It was lovely speeding down the river and having a breeze (which we had been missing) in our face. The sunset was amazing and a chance to get some nice photos.
Day 5 – Back to Palangkaraya
This was our last morning in the jungle camp. Rather than being treated to gibbons at dawn, we were lucky enough to see a Red Leaf Monkey jumping around near the camp. They are large monkeys of a similar orange colour to orangutans, but have a long tail and move very quickly through the trees.
After packing up our belongings, we piled back into the rickety trolley and headed back to the river. Yun had organised for us to go for a walk in a different part of the Sebangau National Park. After the hour long boat trip in the intense sun, we were all pretty exhausted, which thankfully she picked up on and proceeded to take us on a short cut to shorten the walk.
We then headed back to the luxury of the hotel to spend the afternoon sitting in the bar listening to our final daily talk by Leif and catching up on some much needed beer drinking. After an early dinner we headed to bed as we had an early flight in the morning back to Jakarta and a flight home that the following evening.
The trip was truly wonderful. The whole team got a huge amount out of it and are now all very keen to find ways that they can help more. Leif is looking to run another trip next year and if the same group go, he is looking at heading to another location. I am pretty sure that we will all put our hands up to go again.
Personally, it could not have come at a more perfect time. I have been looking for something new to be passionate about and some new projects to get involved in. This has really sparked a lot of ideas and has my mind is running at 100kmh.
If you want to learn more about everything we experienced, I highly recommend reading Leif’s books…
If you want to donate to The Orangutan Project, please go to their website below.
I decided this week that I was going to start taking my drone filming and photography a lot more serious. So I just invested in a new DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone and have been out having some fun with it. The camera is excellent and by shooting in RAW format, I can now use Lightroom and Photoshop to really enhance the images. Here are just a few photos from this weekend.
The Hawkesbury River
Long Reef Headland
What was really exciting was that one of my photos was featured on the homepage og the SkyPixel website.
It has been a pretty “blah” couple of weeks at work and I was feeling like I was losing my mojo, so I decided I would take a Friday off and head up to the Myall Lakes for a couple of days of paddling. I was craving the solitude of the outdoors and this was going to be the cure.
The Myall Lakes National Park is about 200km North of Sydney. I have been there a number of times, but I have never done an overnight paddle there before. The plan was to paddle from the Mungo Brush Campground to the Shelly Beach Campground to the East. The distance was 20km there and 20km back.
It was the first time I have paddled on flat water (i.e. on a lake) with all the gear in the boat. I was very interested to see what sort of speed I was going to be able to maintain, especially since this was the biggest paddle I had done since injuring my elbow. I managed to average around 7kmh, however the final 6km on the first day was into a strong headwind, so I slowed down to 5kmh and it was tough going.
The paddle was very peaceful. There was a lot of bird life on the lake, including a lot of black swans, pelicans, cormorants and lots of musk ducks. Musk ducks (see image below that I pinched from the internet) look really strange from a distance, as the swim really low in the water and look like they have round heads. They actually look like otters that swim around in Canada.
Photo Credit: Denis Hawkins https://www.denishawkins.photography/
The campsite at Shelly Beach was amazing. It is only accessible via the water or a long hike in. Being that it was a Friday night, there was nobody else staying there, so it was great to have the solitude, swim in the warm water and enjoy the most amazing sunset.
I got up at sunrise on Saturday morning and was greeted by the most glassy lake you could ask for. So I ate a quick breakfast and packed up, wanting to take advantage of the perfect paddling conditions. I was able to enjoy the peace and quiet for an hour or so, and then the roar of the water-skiing boats and jet skis could be heard. The Myall Lakes are a popular spot for water-skiing and the other campsites were all filled with campervans and boat trailers.
Anyway, I have put together a short video of the trip and also included heaps of photos below. I highly recommend this paddle.
One of the most inspirational people I have ever met, worked with and become friends with, is Andrew Gilboy (aka AG). Even though we have only really spent time together a few times, they have been some of the most amazing experiences. Five or so years ago, AG was diagnosed with a very severe form of cancer – Double Hit Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. This typically has a very low survival rate, but AG fought through some horrific treatment and beat it. His very honest blog (https://andrewgilboy.com/) is truely amazing to read.
I met AG, through work, after he had returned from his horrific treatment and was on the mend. His incredible motivation and new lease on life was contagious. Unfortunately he recently got hit with another bout of cancer and is going through more treatment, but fortunately (as of his post today) things are looking hopeful.
Over the last couple of months, AG has been talking about his bucket list and the things he is going to do once he has beaten the cancer for the second time. This got me thinking about my bucket list or at least some of the things I want to do.
Being someone who loves listening to podcasts, I also recently found a new podcast called “Buckit with Phil Keoghan“. Phil Keoghan is the host of the TV show “The Amazing Race” and has also spend years reporting on and doing his own adventures. The Buckit podcast is really interesting as he interviews people that have basically done amazing things and not taken no for an answer.
One of the things that I suddenly realised, like AG, many of these people only started doing these things after a major incident or scare in the lives. This really got me thinking… Why wait until something terrible happens before doing what I want to do?
I also heard some interesting quotes while listening to the podcast. My favourite was…
Don’t let your memories be greater than your dreams – Doug Ivester
Now I have no idea who Doug Investor is (looks like he was CEO of Coke) but that doesn’t matter. That quote really resonated with me. It is pretty much the point of this blog. Don’t live in the memories. Do new interesting things.
I have been thinking about doing a gap year for a while. We are in the fortunate position that in a couple of years some of my investments will allow for me to take some time out from my career and do some interesting things. It also looks like this will be around the same time that James will be finishing his final year at school.
I am only just starting to think about what I would want to do with this time, but I do know I want to do some pretty spectacular things. I will be 46 and I think it will be the perfect way to do some great stuff before I turn 50. Not that age is a barrier for anything.
This gap year will also allow me to stop and think about what I want to do when I grow up. I have pretty much been jumping from job to job as new opportunities have come along. I have not had a plan for my career. The fact that I did half a cartography degree and a full ecotourism degree, but have now ended up working for a massive company selling software pretty much highlights that. I will always be able to go back to this world after the gap year, but I really want to take some time to stop and really work out what I want to do next in life.
My latest idea of something big to do, which I am really keen on, is to paddle the length of the Murray River from the source (in the Snowy Mountains in NSW) to the sea (at Gawler in SA). This is about 2500km and would probably take 2 or so months to complete.
So what does the next 2 years look like. Well, my plan is to do lots of little (weekend) adventures to start getting ready (and fit) for my gap year. I am using 2021 as the goal (which may shift as things get closer to reality). Last year I had a few injuries (back, elbow etc.) and also got a bit chubbier than I would like. So currently it is a case of getting myself back in shape.
I have just started kayaking again after a 5 month break (mostly due to my elbow injury). The elbow is weak and gets a bit achy, but doesn’t hurt, so this is really encouraging. I am going to slowly just build up strength.
So there you have it. I have no fixed plans, but I have a goal… I am going to do things before it is too late. No more waiting and my dreams are going to be bigger than my memories.
It has been a couple of weeks since we returned from the World Championships in Austria, and I have finally had some time to stop and reflect on the amazing competition that it was. We came back from the event completely exhausted but elated with the success we had.
The 23rd FAI World Hot Air Balloon Championships was held in Groß-Siegharts, Austria. Groß-Siegharts is a pretty little town about 100km NW of Vienna, sitting amongst beautiful rolling hills, corn fields and pretty forests. More importantly it is also a fantastic place for competition ballooning. There are plenty of roads (most of them pretty small), lots of places to land and the locals are really friendly (especially when your balloon has a 20m smiley face on it).
This year the Australian Balloon Team consisted of 4 pilots (Nicola Scaife, Matt Scaife, Sean Kavanagh and myself) and a support team of 12 core competition crew plus tribe of others helping look after the Scaife and Kavanagh offspring.
We all arrived in Groß-Siegharts about 4 days before the competition started, allowing for plenty of time to get over jet lag and some time to get some practice flights in. The forecast for the following competition week looked like it was going to allow for a lot of flying, so we decided to only fly mornings and not tire ourselves out before the actual comp started.
For someone who doesn’t normally do a lot of flying, I had done a fair bit of practice in the months leading up to the event. So during the practice flights it was reassuring that I actually remembered how to fly. Also, it was only the second comp I had flown my new Kav EX60 (Balloony McBalloonface), but as I had found in Canowindra in April, it was such a dream to fly. I was able to put it exactly where I wanted. So I felt really good going into the competition.
Being the end of Summer in Austria, it was really hot. This took a lot to get used to. By the time we were landing in the mornings, it was already getting into the mid 20s. In the evenings, we were often taking off in the high 20s. Not only did this make it sweaty work for the team, but fuel management soon became something to really think about. On a couple of occasions we were trying to squeeze as much fuel out of our tanks as we could and had to really plan our tasks so that we would not run out of fuel. I can see why many people in the Northern Hemisphere fly larger envelopes, so they can carry more fuel.
The other big impact that flying at this time of year had was the length of the days. Morning briefings were at 5am and evening briefings were at 5pm. So most days were managing about 3-4 hours sleep at night and maybe 2 during the day (if we were lucky). By the 5th day of the competition we had flown every morning and evening slot, so everyone became zombies. Life became pretty simple at that point… fly, refuel, eat, sleep, repeat.
The actual competition ran for 7 days. There were 10 competition flights that consisted of 31 tasks. Director, Claude Weber, set some challenging tasks throughout the week. There were a lot of the classics (Judge and Pilot Declared Goals and Hesitation Waltzs). However after the first couple of flights, the targets (with gravity marker drops) were ending up with piles of markers on the crosses. So Claude started mixing up the tasks and started adding extra complexities to the traditional tasks, such as time restrictions for when the scoring areas would be open.
At times, the flying around targets was pretty intense. You only have to look at some of the photos and videos on Facebook to see what I mean by this. At most targets you would expect to have 10-20 balloons around you and a lot of bouncing off other each other. I had markers landing on top of my envelope and on one occasion even had one land in one of my tanks. The congestion caused a lot of issues with pilots not being able to get as good results at targets as they hoped. Early on in the week, I made the conscious decision to launch about 5 minutes behind the leading pack and was able to get to targets with relatively less traffic than those who were eager to launch at the start of the launch periods. This seemed to have paid off.
The scorers were also running the new dangerous flying software, which calculates balloon vertical speed when in close proximity to other balloons. As a result, you will see in the scores that a lot of penalties and warnings were given throughout the week.
It is no secret that Australia did really well overall. Our number one aim was to get all 4 pilots into the top 30, which we achieved. This is no mean feat, considering we only really have one or two competitions in Australia each year. Many of our competitors flew more than this in the weeks leading up to the Worlds. Getting more pilots into the top 30 increases the number of slots we will get at the next Worlds. Nicola flew amazingly well during the competition, coming 9th overall (after a stint of being in the top 3). Matt Scaife ended up in 15th place and Sean Kavanagh finished in 28th place. I personally went into the event with what I thought was a lofty dream of getting a top 30 spot, so coming 23rd was awesome.
The Australian Team worked incredibly well. In fact, Australia received a FAI Competition Diploma for having the 3rd best country average (after Russia and Belgium). We proved at this event that the only way to do well in modern competitions is to have a well coordinated team, which pulls everyone up the rankings. If you look at the results, it was the countries working as teams that did well (both as a team and also for the individuals). The Swiss, French, Brits, Russians and Australia were all running well coordinated teams and they did a lot better than most. Countries such as the US and Japan, who normally do very well at these competitions, were not working in teams and their results reflected this. There were a lot of people commenting on how well the Aussies were operating and were jealous of our organisation.
I thought it would be worth covering some of the things we did right as a team:
- After every briefing, the pilots discussed a rough plan before leaving the briefing hall and always arranged to meet somewhere to do pibals and to plan the flight.
- During the flight we had a common radio channel between the balloons. This allowed us to give each other information, discuss tactics, provide clearance calls and give each other moral support.
- The secret is out that the Australian Team (for a few years now) have been using very advanced team tracking functions within OziTarget. This allowed the pilots to track each other and see exactly what directions and speeds each other had at any time. Plus allowed us to see each other’s tracks at targets giving us a huge advantage.
- Having a Team Manager (Adam Barrow) in the briefings and on the ground to coordinate where each of the crews were going to be was invaluable. Also having Adam as a free agent meant he could be at the first goal before we launched. This meant as soon as we were in the air, we had information about lines of approach to the target.
- Having a dedicated Windsond Team (Alex Aiken and Helmut) allowed us to have 2-3 windsonds sent off during each flight. They did a great job getting us the data and finding the sonds.
- Having experienced competition crew on each of the balloon crews was essential. It did not matter which crew got to a target first, because everyone on the ground was able to talk the pilots into targets.
- Not trying to get every crew to every target is essential. By sending the different crews to different targets meant we had coverage at all targets and they were able to avoid traffic congestion.
- Most importantly, everyone got on really well. During such an intense week, the Aussie (and New Zealand) sense of humour was so helpful to keep everyone relaxed.
The next Worlds will be in 2020 in Slovenia. Depending on how many entrants they allow at the event, Australia should have 5 or 6 spots. With a bigger team, it will be essential that the 2020 team look thoroughly at what worked this year and what could be improved to make our team even more successful.
I could write a book about all the learnings and adventures we had during the week. However, I really want to give a big shout out to my awesome crew of Kath Robertson and Lauren Allen. People were concerned that having such a small crew was going to be a problem for us, but these two did an amazing job and we had a lot of fun. Also thank you to the broader Aussie Team who really should be proud of what they achieved. Finally, thanks to everyone at home and around the world that was supporting us leading up to and during the competition.