First Steps

Once I stepped onto the trail at the sign, there was no turning back. I switched on my head torch. It's about ten years' old and the elastic headband has grown a little limp, like its owner. "Things just aren't as taut as they used to be," I thought. Still, I stepped with a certain jaunty bounce down the path to the first beach and onto firm sand. I turned off my head torch there and wondered if George and Derek above me had been gauging my progress.

I love walking at night. It has a dream-like quality in which time and space take on different forms to those in daylight. We did endless night operations in the Army and I've always enjoyed the sense of moving unseen while the rest of the world sleeps.

More by chance than design, I had started at around the turn of a low tide so I had more than enough time to walk the six kilometres or so to the next headland where the track crossed over to 90 Mile Beach.

It felt good to move and good to be on my way. I whistled the "Victory March" from Verdi's opera Aida under my breath as I strode along at a fine military clip. When my shoulders began to ache, I stopped for a breather, a gulp of water and a time check. 11.00 PM: all is well.

After about thirty minutes, I came across a stream pouring out of a salt water lake, rushing down to meet the incoming tide which was now beginning to lick around a forbidding line of blacks extending from a small headland. I took my shoes off and walked around the rocks. Hungry waves tugged at my calves and it was with relief that I found the next small beach and accessible high ground. I suddenly realised just how alone I felt on this remote stretch of coast.

I wasn't sure about the trail now. I took off my pack to reconnoitre a little way up the hillside. My torch revealed footprints, comforting in the darkness, so I returned for my pack and followed them up and over the first of several ridges, tufted with grass tussocks and shrubs.

To my right, the headland's mass loomed, all rock. Behind me, the lighthouse still flashed its warning light. To my left, the moonlight revealed lines of sand dunes stretching to the south, the hollows between in deep shadow. As I climbed, breathing hard, the sound of surf died away. Then came the sound of surf to my front, dim, distant and unmistakeable. 90 Mile Beach!

But how to get to it? The line of footprints had petered out and I cast about for the trail, growing tired and a little flustered, trying one way, and then another, each time retracing my steps. I sensed that the track would be higher up the flank of the headland but increasingly lacked the willpower and strength to find it.

A nippy little wind from the north-west had arisen and I was growing cold, a little disheartened. I'd had more than enough for one day. I fell to my knees, rolled out of my shoulder straps and lay panting on the sand.

After a while I stirred, rummaged in my rucksack and brought out water, stove and the food bag. "Tea!" I muttered to myself. "I need tea!"

While my Trangia stove flared and hissed in the gusty breeze, I scooped out a hollow in the sand behind my pack. Into this I put my thin mattress and then slid into the warmth of my "onesie". An excellent piece of kit, I thought. Having one's arms free in a sleeping bag made a real difference.

By moonlight and touch, I made a cup of tea, drank it, repacked my rucksack and lay down in the sheltering hollow.

Nearly 23 years before, my platoon and I had made a camp exactly like this in the Saudi Arabian desert on our second night after deploying on Operation Desert Storm. Then, it had been bitterly cold and an improbable shower of mixed sleet and rain had soaked us through and through in minutes. I had tucked a poncho around my wet sleeping bag and let the flapping cloth over my face lull me into a fitful sleep.  

Now, a few mosquitos whined half-heartedly around my exposed face but I didn't care. My eyelids drooped. Above me, Orion paced the skies, keeping watch. I thought of Rosa, far to the south.

I slept, cradled between earth and sky.