“No man ever steps in the same river twice, because it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
I’ve always loved this little snippet of wisdom about the impermanence of things. There’s something tragically bittersweet about the fact that we can never, ever go back.
And so this was very much the mood of the week we arrived back at this hallowed red letterbox in Cullerin…
10 months ago, we arrived at this very TSR by horse truck in the dark, ready to begin our grand BNT adventure north. With two young donkeys recently trained to pack and an unwitting thoroughbred who had been trucked halfway across the country with no idea of what he was in for, we were a motley crew indeed.
We were terrified. Basil had just scalped his hindquarters in the truck by attempting to sneak back under the divider to Jasmine, and now we were in the unfortunate position of having an injury to deal with before we had even begun. Our gear was everywhere, ants were everywhere, water was nowhere to be found and the pitch black darkness was creeping Z out. What had I done?
“It will mean something one day”, I explained emphatically to a quizzical Z.
Despite the great fencing in the TSR paddock, I nervously put Fly’s bell on that night, wanting to hear his every movement to make sure things were okay (I have found one bell to be enough to give me the general vibe of what’s going on with the three of them, since they always stick together). He hadn’t had much to drink that day, and I was convinced a bout of colic would come along to further plague us. Not much sleep was had that night, and the next morning, we took our first few tentative steps north on the Bicentennial National Trail, headed 4400 kilometres for Cooktown.
Basil’s scalped hindquarters, a month later….( photo by V.B)
The plan was to be back here in 8 months, to complete the rest of the trail to the south. So it was only fitting that our very first photo of the BNT was of the red letterbox at the front gate, where it all began. “It will mean something one day”, I explained emphatically to a quizzical Z.
And for months after that, the red letterbox became a measure of the passage of time (“It’s been three months since we let the red letterbox”), a symbol of achievement (“Do you think we will ever make it to Cooktown and get back to the red letterbox?”), a tangible marker in space and time (“At this rate, we should be back at the red letterbox by September”).
Back when we had just completed our first 150 kilometres on the trail, we should have been elated, but no. It was disheartening. I felt like I had been through hell- rope burns, dry camps followed by torrential rain, sleepless nights, hoards of carnivorous mosquitoes, long, long days of trudging along. Now we only needed to repeat all that 35.53 times to achieve our goal of completing the National Trail. Hah! Probably not going to happen, I thought despondently.
Looking back now, I wish I could have given that anxious, poorly-equipped past version of myself a much-needed hug and some advice. Getting to Cooktown is gunna be even harder and scarier than you think, I would say, but you will all be okay. Things will get easier. Keep an eye on that mark on Fly’s withers- it’s not a bite mark like you think, but the beginnings of a rub. Don’t worry about the donkeys not drinking much- they never really do. Things won’t work out exactly as you’re planning, but learn to be flexible. If Fly starts neighing at night, go and check – something is probably wrong. And forget about high-lining at lunchtime.
And true to life, we got on with the job and the months passed. The kilometres gradually disappeared. We fumbled and fudged our way between here and Cooktown, and somehow made it back to the red letterbox alive. The legendary Kathryn and Preston also saved us three weeks of backtracking to reach our starting point by locating us all there. How awesome is that!
So back we were at the red letterbox, but we hardly recognised the place. Nothing felt the same. Gone were all traces of the yellow and brown hues which coloured the landscape last summer, replaced by lush green rolling hills and copious puddles of water. The land had been transformed, and well, wanky as it sounds, so had we. Unlike 10 months ago, we spent an uneventful and relaxing night at camp. With 900 or so kilometres of harsh, unforgiving country ahead, our journey was far from over, yet all five of us were older, wiser, fitter, and quietly confident.
Heading out the next morning in the opposite direction, we threw a last, fleeting glance at the red letterbox and I couldn’t help but smile. It stood like a beacon in the spring sunshine- a testament to how one can travel for miles without really going anywhere, and grow beyond measure whist still acknowledging the rocky road ahead.
I’ve heard of people getting commemorative tattoos to mark the end of a long hike or journey. Maybe an image of a footprint, or the exact distance of the trail in digits, an arrow perhaps, or a shell for the Camino. But I know what I’d get. A red letterbox…(Doing worry mum, just joking!)