(One minute read)
As a kid we roamed where there were no tracks. A ‘bush bash’ was the usual approach to a walk though that’s not to say we never used tracks. But in my later years for reasons I am hard pressed to understand I found myself limiting my planning to track only trips. Was it the ‘walk lightly’ philosophy of trekking that influenced this thinking? Perhaps it was the evolution of safety in our planning, something that was never really thought about a few decades ago. Not that you did unsafe things, but you never avoided a route because it just might be unsafe. If it proved to be so you made judgements on the spot, not beforehand. Is it the fact that so much of our walking is now in National Parks or gazetted wilderness areas, where the message about leaving pristine areas alone is overwhelming? Maybe it’s that childhood reprimand to us teens for our adventurous compass line walk across Wilsons Promontory? The ‘bash’ in ‘bush bash’ was held out to be a sin and we were chastised accordingly. (I will confess that as a teen my tread lightly approach was not as light as it is now).
I suspect it’s a mix of all these things but the end result is a constrained thinking about where we can and can’t walk. That is regrettable for a number of reasons which I list here. They are front of mind as we start putting the plan together for a 120km, off track walk.
- Pristine wilderness areas need to exist for their own sake. But they also need to be accessible for us to enjoy. Even if that accessibility is hard won via non tracked routes. I’m looking forward to walking in bush not marked by discarded sanitary wipes and plastic drink bottles.
- Map reading and compass skills. Following a track requires no deep map reading or navigation skills. I know my map and compass skills are very rusty and I’ve been embarrassed by basic map reading errors in the recent past. And not just map and compass skills but GPS plotting and tracking as well. Walking off track is a great way to keep those skills honed.
- Estimating distance and height. These skills can be handy in your planning but can be critical in contributing to safe walking too. I grew up in a rural community where everyone on the land was estimating distance. It was often in the old school measure of ‘chains’ – the length of a wicket pitch. But we were also fortunate to have experience with firearms so calculating distance with reasonable accuracy became second nature.
- Judging terrain. The whole concept of dead ground can be lost to people who walk on curated tracks only. Dead ground will extend your time to a destination if you are not paying attention. Judging terrain and its vegetation, together with map reading are essential bushwalking skills. That judgement extends to selecting suitable camping sites.
- Flora. What do you miss on a track when your head is down, and perhaps the flora have moved off because someone is on the track ahead of you? Moreover, a track tends to direct your view forward. You need to look about. Behind, as well as left and right. Walking off our climb of Ama Dablam back down the Khumbu Valley I was joined by other mountaineers who wanted to walk with me “because you see things” – perhaps one of the most satisfactory compliments I have ever received.
- Testing yourself. There is the sheer pleasure of being tested and tested hard and coming out the other side of it in one piece. We recently found ourselves seriously off track on Stewart Island, New Zealand. There was a track there forty years ago but it had long since mostly vanished. Rising creeks, heavy rain, wading through waist deep water, walking at night (resting up for an hours sleep under a fern at 0200) was a test of navigation, gear and heart. But finally walking onto our destination at first light was enormously satisfying.
Track? No track? What’s your preference? And if off track what are the rewards you derive from that?